Very Venerable Taungpulu Tawya Kaba-Aye Sayadaw
A Brief Biography
Taungpulu Sayadaw, a forest monk (bhikkhu) residing in Upper Burma, lived a solitary life for many years practicing the age-old meditation methods that lead to the spiritual realizations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. He would have practiced this way contentedly his entire lifetime were it not for the public recognition of his spiritual accomplishment that began with the visit of a young army doctor, Albert Sircar, stationed in the area where Taungpulu was living. Dr. Sircar had been called to attend the Sayadaw who had become very ill. When Dr. Sircar attempted to give him an injection, the Sayadaw pointed to a plant in the corner of the room and told him to give the medicine to the plant, which he did. The Sayadaw then recovered, and Dr. Sircar invited the Sayadaw to visit his family in Rangoon. This was the beginning of a thirty-year friendship between Taungpulu Sayadaw and the Sircar family, and the beginning of the Sayadaw's public ministry.
In 1978, at the age of eighty, Taungpulu Sayadaw left his native Burma for the first time and traveled to the United States on the first of four visits at the invitation of his senior student, Rina Sircar (Dr. Albert Sircar's sister), professor of Buddhist Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. During these visits to the U.S., the Sayadaw gave discourses, performed ordinations, established a forest monastery-the Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California-and oversaw the building of the Boulder Creek Shwe Thein Daw World Peace Pagoda, the first pagoda in the Burmese style constructed in North America.In 1990, four years after the Sayadaw's passing, a relic from his body was enshrined in the Kaba-Thukha Aye Zedi Memorial Stupa, also built at the Boulder Creek monastery.
The Sayadaw was born in Tezu, a large village in the Township of Wundwin, Mandalay Division; his parents named him Maung Paw Lar. When he was seven years old his parents entrusted him for education to the Sayadaw of the Yewun Monastery of the village. He was taught the rudiments of reading and writing Burmese and Pali. U Lakkhana, a resident monk of the monastery, was responsible for his knowledge of Pali grammar and Thingyo, the fundamentals of the Abhidhamma.
At the age of fourteen, Maung Paw Lar ordained as a novice monk and was given the name Shin Nandiya. Seven years later he received higher ordination from his preceptor U Teja, and he became U Nandiya. At this time U Nandiya started teaching students at the Yelai Monastery of Thazi which he accepted at the request of U Nandobhasa.
After remaining at the monastery for twenty years U Nandiya felt satisfied that he now had the theoretical knowledge to proceed to the stage of solitary practice. He renounced the monastery at Thazi and went to Thaton where the then famous Mingun Zetawun Sayadaw had founded a meditation center. He learned the Mingun Sayadaw's method of meditation and stayed there for two years. He spent another two years at the village of Dhaywin six miles from Moulmein where at the request of his teacher he took charge of the meditation training.
It was after this two-year period that he began the dhutanga life of a wandering ascetic who observed silence, had only three robes, begged for his one meal a day, and stayed outside or in a cave, and never lying down. He was sometimes at Kyauksin, sometimes at Thayetchaung, and at other times at a place called Taungpulu near Meiktila. At that time a dam was being built at Taungpulu where his alms-round took him on certain days. Those who offered alms-food were the laborers. More often than not he made a makeshift residence at the foot of a tree, near a bush or close to a boulder. He was, however, never seen lying on his back, one of the dhutanga practices that he kept till his demise.
One day the officials of the dam construction who had been watching him and were struck by his rigorous asceticism, built a small bamboo hut and offered it to him. The hut formed the seed which in due course developed into the present estate of buildings-the Taungpulu Monastery-and which gave U Nandiya the name Taungpulu Sayadaw. His laying of the foundation stone of the Kaba-Aye Pagoda built by the officials and laborers probably to mark the completion of the dam construction on the nearby hillock earned him the extended appellation "Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Sayadaw."
In the footsteps of the Buddha and Mahatheras (Great Elders) of old, the Sayadaw travelled all over the country on missionary tours. In 1954, when U Nandiya heard that his teacher Jetavana Mingon Sayadaw had died, he walked many miles to pay his last respects to the body, which was guarded by a snake. It is said that only upon the arrival of U Nandiya did the snake depart.
Like his teacher, and his teacher's teacher, U Nandiya had spent years living and practicing in caves or in the open, alone, without speaking. Even when he sometimes became weak or ill, he refused to lessen his effort. It has been said that during a period of complete dedication to the dhutanga practice, U Nandiya would rest while standing and holding onto a rope tied to a tree. His diligence brought him renown and drew many people who wished to pay their respects. It became increasingly difficult for him to practice without interruption, so he made the decision to leave the area where he was then staying to go to an even more remote and secluded forest. One night as he was preparing to leave, a heavenly deva appeared and pleaded with him to stay. He replied, "One day I will return, but for now I am moving to Tha Bye Chang forest."
The years spent on the arid plains of central Burma, where summer temperatures rise to 105 degrees, did not leave the Sayadaw austere or aloof. Taungpulu Sayadaw was always willing to teach his audience, day or night, and he taught according to the oral tradition of his ancestors through stories, recitation, and repetition of chants and prayers. Just seeing him was a powerful teaching in the spiritual benefits of living a simple, strenuous life of renunciation.
Sayadaw honored his home village of Tezu with the building of the Myanyinzu Pagoda, which was completed in 1981. This labor of love, shared with over 50,000 volunteers from all parts of the country, had historical significance as well because the pagoda was constructed over the site of a previous pagoda that had long been in ruin. The new pagoda was modeled after the great Shwedagon Pagoda of Rangoon, and is the third highest pagoda in the country. During the construction, devotees donated jewelry, gems, and religious objects for enshrinement within the Pagoda.
The time has passed for seeing and hearing this master teacher, but Taungpulu lives on in memory. What will the people who knew him remember best of his many wonderful qualities? His bearing, his kindness, his smile-called hasituppada-the smile of the arahat-his patience, the sound of his voice, his creative way of teaching, the miracles attributed to him, his complete freedom within a daily routine of great physical discipline, his love of nature? During his lifetime he was referred to as "the one complete in the three sikhas-virtue, concentration, and wisdom. Within the austere routine of his daily life, and in his one-pointed effort to teach the importance of practicing mindfulness meditation, the Sayadaw transcended tradition and place. The broadminded and kindly nature for which he was beloved by all was beyond doctrine and culture. The years of attentive meditation stripped away conventional social and psychological limits, leaving the Sayadaw with a boundary-less quality. He lived in a state of freedom which often gave his face a look of surprise, as though he was encountering the world for the first time. The Sayadaw never referred to himself in the first person; he was always pongyi-"this monk."
Taungpulu Sayadaw's teaching was rooted in the scriptures of the Theravada tradition and the triadic discipline of philosophy, psychology, and ethics. The salient points of these three interwoven paths are summed up in this verse from the Dhammapada:
Not to do any evil,
To cultivate good,
To purify one's mind,
This is the advice of the Buddhas.
Taungpulu Sayadaw often illustrated his simple, clear presentation of complex topics with rhymes, stories, and laughter. But the moral of every lesson was always the same: meditate and you will see the world in that extraordinary way which awakens the mind. The Sayadaw taught that each station in life holds the possibility for high spiritual attainment; he did not preach that everyone should become monks and nuns and undertake ascetic practices in order to attain arahatship and enter nibbana. Of greater significance to him was one' approach to meditation, the attitude with which to take up the practice. Within the pendulum movement of concentrated attention and flexibility, of striving and patience, lie the key to progress.
He often advised practitioners to take up the Eight or Ten Precepts from time to time, and to take up ordination for a while. These periods of focused practice have immense benefit. In quiet surroundings away from distractions you can calm yourself and see things differently. Hardly anyone wants to live in a monastery for life, but even the layperson who keeps precepts and practices meditation is a kind of monk, he said, for in one way bhikkhu means destroying the defilements (such as greed, hatred, and delusion) which keep us in a state of suffering.
What took place during his long years of solitary practice can only be known by the few who have attempted it, but the results were visible to everyone who ever met Taungpulu Sayadaw. His life will be remembered as an extraordinary event that confirmed the written word of the Buddha-Dhamma through its living example.
Just before Taungpulu Sayadaw's cremation, a news reporter from Bangkok took a picture of his body in the glass coffin. When the film was developed, the image revealed Sayadaw's upraised hand in what many feel is a gesture of blessing.
Those who knew him can testify to Taungpulu's one-pointed effort, his dedication to tireless practice, his gaze, and the no-nonsense approach. But there was also a profound spaciousness, an expanded, indeed illimitable, human heart in a state of quiet exaltation. The extraordinary balance of this mahapurisa (great being) offers the two ideals an entente cordiale.
Taungpulu Sayadaw had fully developed the all-knowing mind, the mind which has the power of infinite range. He was known to heal simply by giving a small glass of blessed water, or even by a glance. People reported being protected by him in life-threatening situations. He would give you advice if you asked, but mostly he remained silent. Outwardly his life appeared monotonous, yet miraculous incidents surrounded him. He was seen walking on water, flying through the air; he released the dead from the in-between states, snakes protected him, animals of all kinds would greet him when he appeared, and even deer came out of the forest to pay their respects.
The teachings and practices of Buddhism are taking strong root in the West. Practitioners, seek expressions appropriate for our time while struggling to protect the essence of teachings and traditions that are thousands of years old. Such concerns are not necessarily shared by the messengers who offer the teachings.
The Venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw encouraged the establishment of a monastic sangha in America; he especially emphasized the quality of patience necessary to bring it about. As the Sayadaw said during his last visit to the United States:
The sasana is only in its beginning stages here in America. Only if there are at least five monks here will it be possible to conduct ordinations. If it is not possible to ordain new monks, the sasana will not have a chance to grow. Therefore, please be patient and try to support the monks who are staying here. In order for the sasana to be established in America, the Americans who have the desire to become monks should do so. They should study and practice the Dhamma so that they can later teach others. Thus will the continuity of the sasana be established. Therefore the lay community should support these American monks with the proper requisites and should encourage them to stay here. You should encourage them to study and to practice the Dhamma, and later on to teach the Dhamma. Then only will America be like Burma someday, with many monasteries where even little children can come to study and learn about the Buddha's teachings.
Taungpulu Sayadaw emphasized and exemplified the benefits of monastic life, encouraging even short-term ordination as an avenue of spiritual benefit. But he also encouraged householders to observe the Five Precepts as a path of spiritual initiation and as an act of great charity. His creative and sympathetic personality endeared him to every person he met, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, age, or culture. He trusted, respected, and relied upon women, and elevated their status as much as possible within a religious hierarchy dominated by men. He encouraged Rina Sircar to pursue higher education, nicknaming her "College," and made sure she took the exams along with the monks. When Rina worked to establish the monastery in Boulder Creek, Sayadaw changed her nickname to "Visakha"-chief benefactoress of the Buddha and his Sangha. Rina traveled with Sayadaw as his translator, and helped him lead retreats. He would instruct the monks to sit with her, thus making a clear statement that women have an equal place in the teaching of Dhamma.
Regarding spiritual qualities, Taungpulu Sayadaw believed that patience is the noblest attitude, and that there is no practice more excellent than the perfection of patience. Without it, there can be no prosperity, no growth, and no positive development.
The teachings given by Taungpulu Sayadaw are not new; all can be found in the earliest Buddhist texts. But they reflect his straightforward way: practice mindfulness and clear comprehension. In every situation, he often said, there is an opportunity to practice; even if only for the duration of ten snaps of the fingers, practice mindfulness. Spiritual practice strengthens the powers of higher understanding and contributes to the well-being of a culture. From the Buddhist perspective, this higher understanding is possible through the experience of vipassana: the most discriminating kind of seeing.
The Venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw taught the mindfulness method of meditation in conjunction with observance of the Five Precepts as a means of achieving vipassana. The precepts purify and protect the mind and body, promoting receptivity so that calm, concentration, and mindfulness can arise. The cognitive exercises which are a salient feature of early Buddhist psychology increase insight-knowledge, a "seeing" which has transformative power. Insight-knowledge leads to acceptance, the fundamental component for healing of any kind, and which is in itself a prerequisite for the experience of true freedom.
May all beings be happy,
May all beings be peaceful,
May all beings be liberated.