The Chain of Teachers



The following article has been excerpted from The Sayagyi U Ba Khin Journal by Vipassana Research Institute.

Sayagyi U Ba Khin was born in Rangoon, the capital of Burma, on March 6, 1899. He was the younger of two children in a family of modest means living in a working class district. In school he proved a gifted student, with a remarkable ability to commit his lessons to memory, learning his English grammar book by heart from cover to cover. In 1917, he passed the final high school examination, winning a gold medal as well as a college scholarship. However, family pressures forced him to discontinue his formal education to start earning money. His first job was with a Burmese newspaper called The Sun, but after some time he began working as an accounts clerk in the office of the Accountant General of Burma. In 1937, when Burma was separated from India, he was appointed the first Special Office Superintendent.

It was on January 1, 1937, that Sayagyi tried meditation for the first time. A student of Saya Thetgyi-a wealthy farmer and meditation master-was visiting U Ba Khin and explained ana pana meditation to him. When Sayagyi tried it, he experienced good concentration, which impressed him so much that he determined to complete a full course. A week later, he applied for a ten-day leave of absence and set out for Saya Thetgyi's teaching centre. That same night, U Ba Khin and another Burmese student, who was a disciple of Ledi Sayadaw, received ana pana instructions from Saya Thetgyi. The two students advanced rapidly, and were given Vipassana the next day. Sayagyi progressed well during this first ten-day course, and continued his work during frequent visits to his teacher's center and meetings with Saya Thetgyi whenever he came to Rangoon.

Sayagyi's government service continued for another twenty-six years. He became Accountant General on January 4, 1948, the day Burma gained independence. For the next two decades, he was employed in various capacities in the government, most of the time holding two or more posts, each equivalent to the head of a department. At one time he served as head of three separate departments simultaneously for three years and, on another occasion, head of four departments for about one year. When he was appointed as the chairman of the State Agricultural Marketing Board in 1956, the Burmese government conferred on him the title of Thray Sithu, a high honorary title. Only the last four years of Sayagyi's life were devoted exclusively to teaching meditation. The rest of the time he combined his skill in meditation with his devotion to government service.

In 1950 he founded the Vipassana Association of the Accountant General's Office where lay people, mainly employees of that office, could learn Vipassana. In 1952, the International Meditation Centre (I.M.C.) was opened in Rangoon, two miles north of the famous Shwedagon pagoda. Here many Burmese and foreign students had the good fortune to receive instruction in the Dhamma from Sayagyi.

Sayagyi was active in the planning for the sixth Buddhist council known as Chattha Sangayana (sixth recitation) which was held in 1954-56 in Rangoon. Sayagyi was a founding member, in 1950, of two organizations which were later merged to become the Union of Burma Buddha Sasana Council (U.B.S.C.), the main planning body for the great council. U Ba Khin served as an executive member of the U.B.S.C. and as chairman of the committee for patipatti (practice of meditation) and as honorary auditor of the council. There was an extensive building program spread over 170 acres to provide housing, dining areas and kitchen, a hospital, library, museum, four hostels, and administrative buildings. The focal point of the entire enterprise was the Maha Pasanaguha (great cave), a massive hall where approximately five thousand monks from Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Cambodia and Laos gathered to recite, purify, and edit and publish the Tipitaka (Buddhist scriptures). The monks, working in groups, prepared the Pali texts for publication, comparing the Burmese, Sri Lankan, Thai, and Cambodian editions and the Roman-script edition of the Pali Text Society in London. The corrected and approved texts were recited in the Great Cave. Ten to fifteen thousand lay men and women came to listen to the recitations of the monks. Sayagyi remained active with the UBSC in various capacities until 1967. In this way he combined his responsibilities and talents as a layman and government official with his strong Dhamma volition to spread the teaching of Buddha. In addition to the prominent public service he gave to that cause, he continued to teach Vipassana regularly at his center. Sayagyi finally retired from his outstanding career in government service in 1967. From that time, until his death in January, 1971, he stayed at I.M.C., teaching Vipassana.

Because of his highly demanding government duties, Sayagyi was only able to teach a small number of students. Many of his Burmese students were connected with his government work. Many Indian students were introduced by Goenkaji. Some of the Westerners who came to the sixth council were referred to Sayagyi for instruction in meditation since at that time there was no other teacher of Vipassana who was fluent in English. Sayagyi's students from abroad were small in number but diverse, including leading Western Buddhists, academicians, and members of the diplomatic community in Rangoon. From time to time, Sayagyi was invited to address foreign audiences in Burma on the subject of Dhamma. These lectures were published in booklet form and included What Buddhism Is and The Real Values of True Buddhist Meditation.

Goenkaji was in India conducting a course when news of his teacher's death reached him. He sent a telegram back to I.M.C. which contained the famous Pali verse:

Aniccā vata saṅkhārā,
Uppajjitva nirujjhanti,
tesam vupasamo sukho.

The English translation of this verse is:

Impermanent truly are compounded things,
by nature arising and passing away.
If they arise and are extinguished,
their eradication brings happiness.

One year later, in a tribute to his teacher, Goenkaji wrote: "Even after his passing away one year ago, observing the continued success of the courses, I get more and more convinced that it is his mettā which is giving me all the inspiration and strength to serve so many people.... Obviously the force of Dhamma is immeasurable. Sayagyi's aspirations are being accomplished. The Buddha's teachings, carefully preserved all these centuries, are still being practiced, bringing results here and now."

Additional information on Sayagyi U Ba Khin is available from Pariyatti