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ESSENTIAL THEMES OF BUDDHISTS LECTURES
Venerable Sayadaw Ashin U Thittila
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF THE AUTHOR
(Written By Mrs. Claudine W. Iggleden in 1985)
The Venerable Sayadaw U Thittila, Aggamahapandita, author of the following talks on the Buddhist Teaching, was born in 1896 in the town of Pyawbwe, central Burma, the centre of a rice growing district.
His father died when he was only three years old. When he was nine his elder and only brother died, and when he was fourteen his elder and only sister also died. His mother married again, a physician, but his stepfather, too, died later. However, at the young age of seven or eight years he was even then regularly frequenting the local monastery, the Padigon Vihara, almost daily. where he and a friend were taught certain scriptures by the much respected and learned incumbent there, Sayadaw U Kavinda. By the age of ten he was learning to recite certain suttas, and by the age of fifteen when he was ordained a samanera he already knew by heart the primer to Abhidhamma studies, the Abhidhammatthasangaha, also the Mahasatipatthana Sutta and Kaccayana's Pali Grammar. It was, though, at the age of twelve when his teacher, the Ven. U Kavinda, took him to Mandalay to hear a sermon on Abhidhamma that he made the decision to become a bhikkhu. His full ordination at the age of twenty eventually took place much further south in lower Burma, at Moulmein in 1916, on which occasion Sayadaw U Okkantha was his preceptor. Prior to that, when he was still fifteen, he and three other young samaneras went with their same first teacher to live in the forest for the practice of meditation. They spent eight months there, and lived amongst wild creatures of many kinds including large snakes.
It was not long after that he entered the Masoyein Monastery College at Mandalay. There, after intensive studies under the tuition of his second teacher and hard task master, Sayadaw U Adiccavamsa, he was selected from among an entry of five thousand candidates as the Pathamakyaw Scholar of all Burma in 1918. This success merely aroused in him the resolve to train and study for a further exceedingly strenuous long period in order to enter for the highest of all monastic examinations, th Panyattisasanahita (Mandalay). In 1923, of the one hundred and fifty entrants for that examination only four passed, of which he was one. Over the years since then the questions set for that examination have gradually been modified so that the possibility of attaining a pass is slightly greater than in those earlier days, and there are fewer and fewer now who know of the extremely high qualifications required in order to have been successful in those previous times. As a result of his studies for that achievement he could memorize stanzas by hearing them read once, and he had of necessity to memorize a total of fifteen volumes from theTipitaka to enable entry for the oral section alone. His success accorded him the right to appointment as the head of a monastery of three hundred bhikkhus, even at that relatively young age, as the result of which he became head of the education department and school at a monastery specially founded in Rangoon for his teacher, the Ven. Adiccavarnsa. and himself.
Some few years later, in 1933, he went to India where he spent a year at Santiniketan studying English and Sanskrit, following which period he journeyed to Ceylon with the aim of studying English. Unfortunately, however, due to ill health because of wrong feeding, coupled with the failure of his plans to come to fruit, he had to reconsider this original idea and in due course returned to India to stay atAdyar. It was at Adyar that he eventually had the opportunity to learn English from English people, and at the same time acquire a basic knowledge of some of the manners and customs with which he was not acquainted.
During his time in India he was elected president of the South India Buddhist Associations, and he also undertook the management of the Buddhist Free Elementary School at Perambur. In an appreciation by members of the South India Buddhist Associations, dated 7th May 1938 at Madras, it records that since the founding of the Society in South India in 1903 many bhikkhus and missionaries had visited them, ' ... but no one has evinced such selfless and untiring interest in the cause of the revival of Buddhism in South India as you have done in your short stay of four years.' The appreciation continues by saying that he was well known to Buddhists of Bangalore, Kolar, Wallajah, Wanniveda, Chakkra mallar, Konjeevaram, etc.
To further improve his knowledge of English, and in particular to study English educational methods and family upbringing and training of English children, he left Adyar for England in the summer of 1938. Having all his life lived under British colonial rule he was interested to learn at first-hand how the English lived and behaved in their own land, and to observe whether any of the educational methods and training of children might be of benefit to Burmese children at home. His knowledge of English by the time of his arrival was fairly good, if limited, but sufficient for him to accept an invitation by the then secretary of the Buddhist Society in London to give a general talk on the Dhamma. This very first talk in England was also the very first time he had ever addressed an English audience. His second talk, however, entitled 'World Fellowship Through Buddhism'. was given in France at the invitation of Sir Francis Younghusband, president and founder of the World Congress of Faiths, and took place at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Following those two talks he decided that before accepting any further invitation to speak in public he should improve his English, and so he took steps to attend a course at the London Polytechnic until March 1939.
The conditions for any bhikkhu in the West in those days were exceptionally hard, bhikkhu-life being unheard of and unknown to the inhabitants of that part of the world. With the outbreak of war in that year, apart from two most generous friends with whom he first became acquainted in Adyar, Ven. U Thittila was left unsupported in any way and quite penniless; he was in almost unheard of circumstances for any member of the Sangha. Still undeterred, however, he did everything he possibly could for the individuals suffering under wartime conditions, eventually finding support for himself in various ways which included broadcasting on the Burma Service of the B.B.C. and joining the Burmese / English Dictionary committee of which Dr. Stewart was the founder. During those war years, when the giving of public talks was impossible and his quest for information regarding educational methods and family training of children was at a standstill, he was friend and helper to very many, but few indeed ever knew of the sometimes acute privations he had on occasions to endure.
As the war drew to a close he was gradually able to resume giving talks again under various different auspices, including two separate series of seventeen talks each to members of the Workers' Educational Association. He visited people in hospital, inmates in prison, and through some helpful contacts he was able to have at last the opportunity to visit certain schools, at some of which he was invited to give talks. His wish to observe how English children were brought up and trained by their parents was then also made possible by the readiness of a few different families, who upon introduction invited him to stay in their homes for that purpose. Of the children with whom he was associated he was able to study in depth their school life and home influence, and as he stayed with the families of differing religious backgrounds he was able to augment his knowledge of not only the Western way of life but the conditions to which many young people were subjected from a very early age.
So far as the Dhamma is concerned, perhaps the most outstanding feature was his introduction of the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the psycho-ethical analysis of things in their ultimate sense as against their conceptual form) to the West by way of commencing to teach the small manual, Abhidhammatthasangaha, to a class of students interested in the Buddhist Teaching and who had specifically requested him to deal with that section. For the very first time in the West, the primer to the third Pitaka was systematically taught for a consecutive period of over four years, and this instruction became the bedrock and yardstick for those who sought to learn something of the fundamental teaching of the Buddha. His patience and skill, also his great care of his students in helping them to overcome their difficulties between the Western way of considering religious and philosophical matters in comparison with the Buddhist presentation of things, was evidence of the difference between a real teacher and an academic instructor. He helped them, too, in any facet of their lives, being frequently requested to give his advice which he never failed in offering.
In March 1949, the "Sasana Kari Vihara" in London was founded by a group of nine Burmese kappiyas for the purpose of supporting the work of Ven. U Thittila in England; thus for the first time since his arrival in the West he experienced something nearer to the Eastern traditional support of the Sangha, and became no longer dependent merely upon his own efforts for survival. His personal achievement in teaching continued unabated, and in the two years from March 1949 to March 1951 records show that he carried out in excess of two hundred and fifty teaching engagements, quite apart from fulfilling all the other types of duties which normally fall to a bhikkhu in the ordinary course of events. Being then the only resident bhikkhu in England, those other duties absorbed a very considerable proportion of his time.
Unfortunately, because of the unavoidable floating nature of the Burmese community in England, constant support for the Sasana Kari Vihara was never certain, and in 1952 when Ven. U Thittila was invited to lecture on Abhidhamma at Rangoon University to M.A. and B.A. students he decided to accept at a time when funds for the vihara had become virtually insufficient to maintain even one bhikkhu. Thus his departure for Rangoon, after fourteen years in what must almost at times have seemed like wilderness conditions, left an irreplaceable gap in the lives of many of his English students. However, they continued his Abhidhamma classes, studying on a revisionary basis all that he had taught them since the commencement.
Although originally he accepted the university appointment for one year only, his work there continued in the end for eight successive years. His very great learning and undoubted skills in teaching were acknowledged during this period when, in 1956, he received the highest government award in that field by the conferring upon him of the title Agga Maha Pandita. It was an honour which originally carried with it some small annual material benefits for the receiver.
In 1959 he accepted an invitation from the Association for Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, U.S.A., to lecture in America. Travelling all over the U.S.A., unattended by any dayaka or helper, encountering climates ranging from extreme cold with deep snow to blazing sun with extreme heat, he spent nearly six months delivering well over a total of one hundred and sixty lectures at various universities and arranged meetings. This was the planned programme, but as a result of his talks he found himself constantly the guest of many of the hospitable American people who heard him speak, and the additional inquiries and personal questions arising from this extra dimension greatly extended what was already a very demanding schedule. His itinerary included a flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii, where at Honolulu University he was requested particularly to give twelve talks, ten of them on Abhidhamma. And it was while still in the American continent that he visited Toronto in Canada.
Over the years he has accepted three invitations at different times to go to Australia, during which visits the practice of meditation and study of the text of Dhammapada ranked high in interest. He has journeyed to Japan where he had the opportunity to observe and discuss with Japanese Zen masters their methods and training of Zen meditation students, and has also visited both Singapore and Hongkong. On other occasions he has travelled for specific purposes to Indonesia, Cambodia, Nepal, and more than once to Thailand, quite apart from passing through that country many times in the course of other longer travels.
In Europe, prior to 1960, he had also upon invitation given talks in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Holland. Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and yet again in France many years after his original first pre-war talk in 1938.
In 1964, at the instigation of two of his English Abhidhamma students, he accepted an invitation to visit England again to continue teaching Abhidhamma. The form of teaching on that occasion, however, took on a dual purpose, and in the two years that followed, as well as teaching the subject he translated into English from the Pali, for the very first time that it had ever been done, the second of the seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, Vibhanga. It was published by the Pali Text Society in 1969 under the title of 'The Book of Analysis.'
Upon his return to Burma in 1966 he did not again leave for abroad until his two recent visits to England, one in 1982 and again in 1983. At the very considerable age of eighty-seven years, he yet again upon invitation conducted a course of weekly classes during the summer months of 1983, dealing with the application of Abhidhamma knowledge to ordinary everyday life.
During the years from 1966-1982 in Burma, due to his knowledge, evident practice, practical experience and inevitable seniority in age, he became invited and accepted the position of Ovadacariya (spiritual adviser or instructor) to the central council of the Sangha Mahanayaka of the whole country, Burma; to the trustees of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, Kaba Aye Pagoda and to most other well known pagodas in Rangoon. He is also examiner for the well known Abhidhamma Propagation Society in Rangoon.
The sparse information given in this extremely brief sketch of some of the main events in the Sayadaw's life, confirms a remark made one day by an astrologer in Mandalay who once happened to see the Sayadaw there when he was a young samanera. The astrologer commented that only one tenth of anything that that particular young bhikkhu did would ever become known.
The difficulty in collecting information is compounded by the fact that the Sayadaw very seldom speaks of himself, or mentions his endless achievements in the vast field of his experiences. Beneath his quiet and retiring bearing lies a profound depth of knowledge of the Buddhist Teaching, and to spread this knowledge has been his great endeavour throughout his life. He has striven, often in the face of surprising opposition, to carry out his aim. Even his original idea to learn English and go to the West, met with an opposition that made his initial departure a very difficult thing.
Over the years since the war he has taught and helped countless Western-born people, although of his English pupils from the actual war years and just after, so many are now no more. However, by those who still remember him during his fourteen years presence in England, from 1938-1952, and who on subsequent visits have continued to receive teaching and guidance from him, he is deeply regarded and with much gratitude.
As a skilled teacher, in accordance with the order of pariyatti, patipatti and pativedha (learning, practice and realization), he has always been at pains to deal with first things first. He has always realized that strangers, newcomers to the word Buddhism, having been brought up and educated from childhood in a totally different religious environment, would have absolutely no concept at all of the Buddhist Teaching. His method, therefore, has been first to explain very simply and gradually exactly what and who a Buddha is. Once such people have become acquainted with some knowledge and a correct idea of the nature of a Buddha, he later, still in very simple terms, gains the further interest of his listeners by the very reasonableness and logic of what he has to say in connection with right living in ordinary everyday life, and what in accordance with Buddhist teaching is required if one is to improve oneself morally, intellectually and spiritually. He always speaks to people at their level of appreciation and interest, feeding them slowly with information that will build their confidence. Like a wise farmer, he tills the soil before sowing the seed. He prepares the ground; then, selecting suitable seed for the varying soils he plants carefully at the proper season, realizing that to use the same seed in all the differing soils would be unsuitable and unproductive.
On recognizing some people's almost total ignorance of the Dhamma, the Sayadaw has never been dismayed; he has never ever considered abandoning any mission on encountering such utter lack of comprehension, but actually striven all the harder to offer to those individuals something which could act as a next step for them, something which could serve as an aid to movement in the right direction. Knowing that morality is the soil in which development and understanding grow, he has sought, always, to introduce, maintain and increase people's knowledge of, and tendency to practise, at least the basic five precepts in their ordinary life.
And so, dealing with first things first, he will speak to the uninformed of right thought, right speech and right action in their ordinary everyday life. As he says, 'How we think, speak, behave and react when we have come away from meditation centres and returned to everyday life, is the clue as to how far, if at all, we have actually improved or advanced morally and mentally. Is our annoyance at things, our anger, less; are we more kindly, better behaved, more considerate towards others? Is our greed for the things we like and try to get hold of in everyday existence, is that greed really less?'
Approaching his ninetieth year the Sayadaw is still active and teaching, at the same time making available to others his great knowledge and vast experience of practice under conditions which none but the most highly disciplined and principled could have ever emerged unscathed morally or mentally. The inflexibility of his determination as a very young person to learn every aspect of the Buddhist Teaching absolutely thoroughly, and his inflexibility to live always appealing to the highest within himself, has enabled the spreading of the true Dhamma to reach large numbers in the world who otherwise may never have heard of it, nor had the chance to meet one of its most genuinely humble, compassionate and dedicated exemplars, one of its most profoundly learned exponents.
C. W. Iggleden
P.S.: The Most Venerable Sayadaw passed away in Myanmar (Burma), on January the 3rd , 1997, at the age of 100.
We are most grateful to Mrs. Claudine W. Iggleden for allowing us to re-publish the Sayadaw's book, which is a collection of expanded notes prepared for talks on Buddhism given in the West over the period 1938-1983.
Source: Nibbana.com, https://www.nibbana.com
See also: Vietnamese translation, by Bhikkhu Dhammavidu (Phap-Thong)
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