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The Venerable U Sobhana Mahæthera, better known as Mahæsø Sayædaw, was born on 29 July 1904 to the peasant proprietors, U Kan Htaw and Daw Shwe Ok at Seikkhun Village, which is abut seven miles to the west of the town of Shwebo in Upper Myanmar, once the capital of the founder of the last Myanmar dynasty.
At the age of six he began his studies at a monastic school in his village, and at the age of twelve he was ordained a Sæmanera, (Novice) receiving the name of Sobhana. On reaching the age of twenty, he was ordained a Bhikkhu on 26 November 1923. He passed the Government Pæ¹i Examinations in all the three classes (lower, middle and highest) in the following three successive years.
In the fourth year of his Bhikkhu Ordination, he proceeded to Mandalay, noted for its pre-eminence in Buddhist studies, where he continued his further education under various monks of high scholastic fame. In the fifth year he went to Mawlamyaing where he took up the work of teaching the Buddhist scriptures at a monastery known as "Taung-waing-galay Taik Kyaung".
In the eighth year after his Bhikkhu ordination, he and another monk left Mawlamyaing equipped with the bare necessities of a Bhikkhu (i.e. alms bowl, a set of three robes, etc.), and went in search of a clear and effective method in the practice of mediation. At Thaton he met the well-known Mediation Teacher, the Venerable U Nærada, who is also known as 'Mingun Jetawun Sayædaw the First'. He then placed himself under the guidance of the Sayædaw and at once proceeded with an intensive course of mediation.
He had progressed so well in his practice that he was able to teach the method effectively to his first three disciples in Seikkhun while he was on a visit there the example of these three, gradually as many as fifty villagers joined the courses of intensive practice.
The Venerable Mahæsø Sayædaw could not stay with the Venerable Mingun Sayædaw as long as he wanted as he was urgently asked to return to the Mawlamyaing monastery. Its aged head monk was gravely ill and passed away not longer after the Venerable Mahæsø Sayædaw's return. The Venerable Mahæsø Sayædaw was then asked to take charge of the monastery and to resume teaching the resident monks. During this time he sat for the Pæ¹i Lectureship Examination on its first introduction on the first attempt, in 1941 he was awarded the title of "Sasanadhaja Sri Pavara Dhammacariya".
On the event of the Japanese invasion, the authorities gave an evacuation order to those living near Mawlamyaing at the Taung -waing-galay Monastery and its neighborhood. These places were close to an airfield and hence exposed to air attacked. For the Sayædaw this was a welcome opportunity to return to his native Seikkhun and to devote himself whole-heartedly to his own practice of Vipassanæ mediation and to the teaching of it to others.
He took residence at a monastery known as Mahæ-Si Kyaung, which was thus called because a drum (Myanmar si) of an unusually large (mahæ) size was housed there. From that monastery, the Sayædaw's popular name, Mahæsø Sayædaw, is derived.
It was during this period, in 1945, that the Sayædaw wrote his great work, Manual of Vipassanæ Mediation, a comprehensive and authoritative treatise expounding both the doctrinal and the practical aspects of the Satipa¥¥hæna method of mediation. This work of two volumes, comprising 858 pages in print, was written by him in just seven months, while the neighboring town of Shwebo was at times subjected to almost daily air attacks. So far, only one chapter of this work, the fifth, has been translated into English and is published under the title "Practical Insight Mediation: Basic and Progressive Stages" (Buddhist Publication Society).
It did not take long before the reputation of Mahæsø-Sayædaw as an able teacher of Insight Mediation (vipassanæ) had spread throughout the Shwebo-Sagaing region and attracted the attention of a prominent and very devout Buddhist layman, Sir U Thwin, who was regarded as Myanmar's "Elder Statesman". It was his wish to promote the inner strength of Buddhism in Myanmar by setting up a mediation centre to be guided by a mediation teacher of proven virtue and ability. After meeting Mahæsø Sayædaw and listening to a discourse given by him and to the mediation instructions given to nuns in Sagaing, Sir U Thwin was in no doubt that he had found the ideal person he was looking for.
In 1947 the Buddha Sæsana Nuggaha Organization was founded in Yangon with Sir U Thwin as its first President and with its object the furthering of the study (pariyatti) and practice (patipatti) of Buddhism. In 1948 Sir U Thwin donated five acres of land at Kokkine, Rangoon, to the organization for the erection of a meditation centre. It is on this site that the present Thathana (or Sæsana) Yeiktha, i.e. "Buddhist Retreat", is situated, which now, however, covers an area of twenty acres, with a large number of buildings.
In 1949, the then Prime Minister of Myanmar, U Nu and Sir U Thwin requested that the Venerable Mahæsø Sayædaw come to Yangon and give training in meditation practice. On 4 December 1949, the Sayædaw introduced the first group of 25 meditators into the methodical practice of Vipassanæ mediation. Within a few years of the Sayædaw's arrival in Yangon, similar mediation centres sprang up all over Myanmar, until they numbered over one hundred. In neighboring Theravada countries like Thailand and Sir Lanka, such centres were also established in which the same method was taught and practiced. According to a 1972 census, the total number of mediators trained at all these centres (both in Myanmar and abroad) had passed the figure of seven hundred thousand: In the East and in several Western countries as well, Vipassanæ courses continue to conducted.
At the historic Sixth Buddhist Council (Cha¥¥ha Sangæyanæ) held at Yangon for two years, culminating in the year 2500 Buddhist Era (1956), the Venerable Mahæsø Sayædaw had an important role. He was one of the Final Editors of the canonical texts, which were recited and thereby approved, in the sessions of the Council. Further, he was the Questioner (Pucchaka), that is, he had to ask the questions concerning the respective canonical texts that were to be recited. They were then answered by an erudite monk with a phenomenal power of memory, by the name of Venerable Vicittasæræbhivamsa. To appreciate fully the importance of these roles, it may be mentioned that at the First Council held one hundred days after the passing away of the Buddha, it was the Venerable Mahæ Kassapa who put forth those introductory questions which were then answered by the Venerable Upæli and the Venerable Ænada.
After the recital of that canonical scriptures, the Tipitaka, had been completed at the Sixth Council, it was decided to continue with a rehearsal of the ancient commentaries and sub commentaries, preceded by critical editing and scrutiny. In the large task, too, the Mahæsø Sayædaw took a prominent part.
In the midst of all of these tasks, he was also a prolific and scholarly writer. He authored more than 70 writings and translations, mostly in Myanmar, with a few in the Pæli language. One of these deserves to be singled out: his Myanmar translation of the Commentary to the Visuddhi Magga (Visuddhimagga Mahæ-Tøkæ), which in two large volumes of the Pælø original, is even more voluminous than the work commented upon, and presents many difficulties, linguistically and in its contents. In 1957 Mahæsø Sayædaw was awarded the title of "Agga-Mahæ-Pandita".
Yet even all of this did not exhaust the Mahæsø Sayædaw's remarkable capacity for work in the cause of the Buddha-Dhamma. He undertook several travels abroad. The first two of his tours were in preparation for the Sixth Council, but were likewise used for preaching and teaching.
Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam (1952)
India and Sri Lanka (1953, 1959)
America, Hawaii, England, Continental Europe (1979)
England, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand (1980)
Nepal, India (1981)
In the midst of all these manifold and strenuous activities, he never neglected his own meditative life which had to give wise guidance to those instructed by him. His outstanding vigor of body and mind and his deep dedication to the Dhamma sustained him trough a life of 78 years.
On 14 August 1982, the Venerable Mahæsø Sayædaw succumbed to a sudden and severe heart attack which he had suffered the night before. Yet on the evening of the 13th, he had still given an introductory explanation to a group of new meditators.
The Venerable Mahæsø Sayædaw was one of the very rare personalities in whom there was a balanced and high development of both profound erudition linked with a keen intellect, and deep and advanced meditative experience. He was also able to teach effectively both Buddhist thought and Buddhist practice.
His long carrier of teaching through the spoken and printed word had a beneficial impact on many hundreds of thousands in the East and the West. His personal stature and his life's work rank him among the great figures of contemporary Buddhism.