The Venerable Ledi Sayadaw* was born in 1846 in Saing-pyin village, Dipeyin township, in the Shwebo district (currently Monywa district) of Northern Burma. His childhood name was Maung Tet Khaung. (Maung is the Burmese title for boys and young men, equivalent to master, Tet means climbing upward and Khaung means roof or summit.) It proved to be an appropriate name, since young Maung Tet Khaung, indeed, climbed to the summit in all his endeavors.
In his village he attended the traditional monastery school where the bhikkhus (monks) taught children to read and write in Burmese as well as recite Pali text. Because of these ubiquitous monastery schools, Burma has traditionally maintained a very high rate of literacy.
At the age of eight he began to study with his first teacher, U Nanda-dhaja Sayadaw, and he ordained as a samanera (novice) under the same Sayadaw at the age of fifteen. He was given the name Nana-dhaja (the banner of knowledge). His monastic education included Pali grammar and various texts from the Pali canon with a specialty in Abhidhammattha-sangaha, a commentary which serves as a guide to the Abhidhamma** section of the canon.
Later in life he wrote a somewhat controversial commentary on Abhidhammattha-sangaha, called Paramattha-dipani (Manual of Ultimate Truth) in which he corrected certain mistakes he had found in the earlier and, at that time, accepted commentary on that work. His corrections were eventually accepted by the bhikkhus and his work became the standard reference.
During his days as a samanera, in the middle part of the nineteenth century, before modern lighting, he would routinely study the written texts during the day and join the bhikkhus and other samaneras in recitation from memory after dark. Working in this way he mastered the Abhidhamma texts.
When he was 18, Samanera Nana-dhaja briefly left the robes and returned to his life as a layman. He had become dissatisfied with his education, feeling it was too narrowly restricted to the Tipitaka+. After about six months his first teacher and another influential teacher, Myinhtin Sayadaw, sent for him and tried to persuade him to return to the monastic life; but he refused.
Myinhtin Sayadaw suggested that he should at least continue with his education. The young Maung Tet Khaung was very bright and eager to learn, so he readily agreed to this suggestion.
"Would you be interested in learning the Vedas, the ancient sacred writings of Hinduism?" asked Myinhtin Sayadaw.
"Yes, venerable sir," answered Maung Tet Khaung.
"Well, then you must become a samanera," the Sayadaw replied, "otherwise Sayadaw U Gandhama of Yeu village will not take you as his student."
"I will become a samanera," he agreed.
In this way he returned to the life of a novice, never to leave the robes of a monk again. Later on, he confided to one of his disciples, "At first I was hoping to earn a living with the knowledge of the Vedas by telling peoples' fortunes. But I was more fortunate in that I became a samanera again. My teachers were very wise; with their boundless love and compassion, they saved me."
The brilliant Samanera Nana-dhaja, under the care of Gandhama Sayadaw, mastered the Vedas in eight months and continued his study of the Tipitaka. At the age of 20, on April 20, 1866, he took the higher ordination to become a bhikkhu under his old teacher U Nanda-dhaja Sayadaw, who became his preceptor (one who gives the precepts).
In 1867, just prior to the monsoon retreat, Bhikkhu Nana-dhaja left his preceptor and the Monywa district where he had grown up, in order to continue his studies in Mandalay.
At that time, during the reign of King Min Don Min who ruled from 1853-1878, Mandalay was the royal capital of Burma and the most important center of learning in the country. He studied under several of the leading Sayadaws and learned lay scholars as well. He resided primarily in the Maha-Jotikarama Monastery and studied with Ven. San-Kyaung Sayadaw, a teacher who is famous in Burma for translating the Visuddhimagga Path of Purification into Burmese.
During this time, the Ven. San-Kyaung Sayadaw gave an examination of 20 questions for 2000 students. Bhikkhu Nana-dhaja was the only one who was able to answer all the questions satisfactorily. These answers were later published in 1880, under the title Parami-dipani (Manual of Perfections), the first of many books written in Pali and Burmese by the Ven. Ledi Sayadaw.
During the time of his studies in Mandalay King Min Don Min sponsored the Fifth Council, calling bhikkhus from far and wide to recite and purify the Tipitika. The council was held in Mandalay in 1871 and the authenticated texts were carved into 729 marble slabs that stand today, each slab housed under a small pagoda surrounding the golden Kuthodaw Pagoda at the foot of Mandalay Hill. At this council, Bhikkhu Nana-dhaja helped in the editing and translating of the Abhidhamma texts.
After eight years as a bhikkhu, having passed all his examinations, the Ven. Nana-dhaja was qualified as a teacher of introductory Pali at the Maha-Jotikarama Monastery where he had been studying.
For eight more years he remained there, teaching and continuing his own scholastic endeavors, until 1882 when he moved to Monywa. He was now 36 years old. At that time Monywa was a small district center on the east bank of the Chindwin River, which was renowned as a place where the teaching method included the entire Tipitika, rather than selected portions only.
To teach Pali to the bhikkhus and samaneras at Monywa, he came into town during the day, but in the evening he would cross to the west bank of the Chindwin River and spend the nights in meditation in a small vihara (monastery) on the side of Lak-pan-taung Mountain. Although we do not have any definitive information, it seems likely that this was the period when he began practicing Vipassana in the traditional Burmese way: with attention to Anapana (respiration) and vedana (sensation).
The British conquered upper Burma in 1885 and sent the last king, Thibaw, who ruled from 1878-1885, into exile. The next year, 1886, Ven.Nana-dhaja went into retreat in Ledi Forest, just to the north of Monywa. After a while, many bhikkhus started coming to him there, requesting that he teach them. A monastery was built to house them and named Ledi-tawya Monastery. From this monastery he took the name by which he is best known: Ledi Sayadaw. It is said that one of the main reasons Monywa grew to be a large town, as it is today, was that so many people were attracted to Ledi Sayadaw's monastery. While he taught many aspiring students at Ledi-tawya, he continued his practice of retiring to his small cottage vihara across the river for his own meditation.
When he had been in the Ledi Forest Monastery for over ten years, his main scholastic works began to be published. The first was Paramattha-dipani (Manual of Ultimate Truth) mentioned above, published in 1897. His second book of this period was Nirutta-dipani, a book on Pali grammar. Because of these books he gained a reputation as one of the most learned bhikkhus in Burma.
Though Ledi Sayadaw was based at the Ledi-tawya monastery, at times he traveled throughout Burma, teaching both meditation and scripture. He is, indeed, a rare example of a bhikkhu who was able to excel in pariyatti (the theory of Dhamma) as well as patipatti (the practice of Dhamma). It was during these trips throughout Burma that many of his published works were written. For example, he wrote the Paticca-samuppada-dipani in two days while traveling by boat from Mandalay to Prome. He had with him no reference books, but, because he had a thorough knowledge of the Tipiitaka, he needed none. In the Manuals of Buddhism there are 76 manuals, commentaries, essays, and so on, listed under his authorship, but even this is an incomplete list of his works.
Later, he also wrote many books on Dhamma in Burmese. He said he wanted to write in such a way that even a simple farmer could understand. Before his time, it was unusual to write on Dhamma subjects so that lay people would have access to them. Even while teaching orally, the bhikkhus would commonly recite long passages in Pali and then translate them literally, which was very hard for ordinary people to understand. It must have been the strength of Ledi Sayadaw’s practical understanding and the resultant metta (loving-kindness) that overflowed in his desire to spread Dhamma to all levels of society. His Paramattha-sankhepa, a book of 2,000 Burmese verses which translates the Abhidhammattha-sangaha, was written for young people and is still very popular today. His followers started many associations which promoted the learning of Abhidhamma by using this book.
In his travels around Burma, Ledi Sayadaw also discouraged the consumption of cow meat. He wrote a book called Go-mamsa-matika which urged people not to kill cows for food and encouraged a vegetarian diet.
It was during this period, just after the turn of the century, that the Ven. Ledi Sayadaw was first visited by U Po Thet who learned Vipassana from him and subsequently became one of the most well-known lay meditation teachers in Burma, and the teacher of Sayagi U Ba Khin, Goenkaji's teacher.
By 1911 his reputation both as a scholar and meditation master had grown to such an extent that the British government of India, which also ruled Burma, conferred on him the title of Aggamaha-pandita (foremost great scholar). He was also awarded a Doctorate of Literature from the University of Rangoon. During the years 1913-1917 he had a correspondence with Mrs. Rhys-Davids of the Pali Text Society in London, and translations of several of his discussions on points of Abhidhamma were published in the Journal of the Pali Text Society.
In the last years of his life the Ven. Ledi Sayadaw's eyesight began to fail him because of the years he had spent reading, studying and writing, often with poor illumination. At the age of 73 he became blind and devoted the remaining years of his life exclusively to meditating and teaching meditation. He died in 1923 at the age of 77 at Pyinmana, between Mandalay and Rangoon, in one of the many monasteries that had been founded in his name as a result of his travels and teaching all over Burma.
The Venerable Ledi Sayadaw was perhaps the most outstanding Buddhist figure of his age. All who have come in contact with the path of Dhamma in recent years owe a great debt of gratitude to this scholarly, saintly monk who was instrumental in reviving the traditional practice of Vipassana, making it more available for renunciates and lay people alike. In addition to this most important aspect of his teaching, his concise, clear and extensive scholarly work served to clarify the experiential aspect of Dhamma.
*The title Sayadaw, meaning venerable teacher, was originally given to important elder monks (Theras) who instructed the king in Dhamma. Later, it became a title for highly respected monks in general.
**Abhidhamma is the third section of the Pali canon in which the Buddha gave profound, detailed and technical descriptions of the reality of mind and matter.
+Tipitaka is the Pali name for the entire canon. It means three baskets, i.e., the basket of the Vinaya (rules for the monks); the basket of the Suttas (discourses); and the basket of the Abhidhamma (see footnote 2, above).