The following account of Sayagyi U Ba Khin's teacher is partially based on a translation of the book "Saya Thetgyi" by Dhammacariya U Htay Hlaing, Myanmar.
Saya Thetgyi (pronounced "Sa ya ta ji" in Burmese) was born in the farming village of Pyawbwegyi, eight miles south of Rangoon, on the opposite side of the Rangoon river, on June 27, 1873. He was given the name Maung Po Thet. His father died when Po Thet was about 10, leaving his mother alone to care for the four children: him, his two brothers and a sister.
She supported the family by selling vegetable fritters in the village. The little boy was made to go around selling leftover fritters, but often came home without having sold any because he was too shy to advertise his wares by calling out. So his mother dispatched two children: Po Thet to carry the fritters on a tray on his head, and his younger sister to proclaim their wares.
Because he was needed to help support the family, his formal education was minimal -only about six years. His parents did not own any land or rice fields, and so used to collect the stalks of rice which remained after harvesting in the fields of others. One day on the way home from the fields, Po Thet found some small fish in a pond that was drying up. He caught them and brought them home so that he could release them into the village pond. His mother saw the fish and was about to chastise her son for catching them, but when he explained his intentions to her, she instead exclaimed, "Sadhu! Sadhu! (well-said! well-done!)." She was a kind-hearted woman who never nagged or scolded, but did not tolerate any akusala (immoral) deed.
When he was 14 years old, Maung Po Thet started working as a bullock-cart driver transporting rice, giving his daily wages to his mother. He was so small at the time that he had to take a box along to help him get in and out of the cart.
Po Thet's next job was as a sampan oarsman. The village of Pyawbwegyi is on a flat cultivated plain, fed by many tributaries which flow into the Rangoon river. When the rice fields are flooded navigation is a problem, and one of the common means of travel is by these long, flat-bottomed boats.
The owner of a local rice mill observed the small boy working diligently carrying loads of rice, and decided to hire him as a tally-man in the mill at a wage of six rupees per month. Po Thet lived by himself in the mill and ate simple meals of split pea fritters and rice.
At first he bought rice from the Indian watchman and other laborers. They told him he could help himself to the sweepings of milled rice which were kept for pig and chicken feed. Po Thet refused, saying that he did not want to take the rice without the mill owner's knowledge. The owner found out, however, and gave his permission. As it happened, Maung Po Thet did not have to eat the rice debris for long. Soon the sampan and cart owners began to give him rice because he was such a helpful and willing worker. Still, Po Thet continued to collect the sweepings, giving them to poor villagers who could not afford to buy rice.
After one year his salary was increased to 10 rupees, and after two years, to 15. The mill owner offered him money to buy good quality rice and allowed him free milling of 100 baskets per month. His monthly salary increased to 25 rupees, which supported him and his mother quite adequately.
Maung Po Thet married Ma Hmyin when he was about 16 years old, as was customary. His wife was the youngest of three daughters of a well-to-do landowner and rice merchant. The couple had two children, a daughter and a son. Following the Burmese custom, they lived in a joint family with Ma Hmyin's parents and sisters. Ma Yin, the younger sister, remained single and managed a successful small business. She was later instrumental in supporting U Po Thet in practicing and teaching meditation.
Ma Hmyin's eldest sister, Ma Khin, married Ko Kaye and had a son, Maung Nyunt. Ko Kaye managed the family rice fields and business. Maung Po Thet, now called U Po Thet or U Thet (Mr. Thet), also prospered in the buying and selling of rice.
As a child, U Thet had not had the opportunity to ordain as a novice monk, which is an important and common practice in Burma. It was only when his nephew Maung Nyunt became a novice at 12 years of age that U Thet himself became a novice. Later, for a time, he also ordained as a bhikkhu (monk).
When he was about 23, he learned Anapana meditation from a lay teacher, Saya Nyunt, and continued to practice for seven years.
U Thet and his wife had many friends and relatives living nearby in the village. With numerous uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws, they led an idyllic life of contentment in the warmth and harmony of family and friends.
This rustic peace and happiness was shattered when a cholera epidemic struck the village in 1903. Many villagers died, some within a few days. They included U Thet's son and young teenage daughter who, it is said, died in his arms. His brother-in-law, Ko Kaye, and his wife also perished from the disease, as well as U Thet's niece who was his daughter's playmate.
This calamity affected U Thet deeply, and he could not find refuge anywhere. Desperately wanting to find a way out of this misery, he asked permission from his wife and sister-in-law, Ma Yin, and other relatives to leave the village in search of "the deathless."
Accompanied in his wanderings by a devoted companion and follower, U Nyo, U Thet wandered all over Burma in a fervent search, visiting mountain retreats and forest monasteries, studying with different teachers, both monks and laymen. Finally he followed the suggestion of his first teacher, Saya Nyunt, to go north to Monywa to practice with the Venerable Ledi Sayadaw.
During these years of spiritual searching, U Thet's wife and sister-in-law remained in Pyawbwegyi and managed the rice fields. In the first few years he returned occasionally to see that all was well. Finding that the family was prospering, he began to meditate more continuously. He stayed with Ledi Sayadaw seven years in all, during which time his wife and sister-in-law supported him by sending money each year from the harvest on the family farm.
With U Nyo, he finally went back to his village, but did not return to his former householder's life. Ledi Sayadaw had advised him at the time of his departure to work diligently to develop his samadhi (concentration) and panna (purifying wisdom), so that eventually he could begin to teach meditation.
Accordingly, when U Thet and U Nyo reached Pyawbwegyi, they went straight to the sala (rest-house) at the edge of the family farm, which they began to use as a Dhamma hall. Here they meditated continuously. They arranged for a woman who lived nearby to cook two meals a day while they kept up their retreat.
U Thet persevered in this way for one year, making rapid progress in his meditation. At the end of the period he felt the need for advice from his teacher, and although he could not speak to Ledi Sayadaw in person, he knew that his teacher's books were in a cupboard at his home. So he went there to consult the manuals.
His wife and her sister, in the meantime, had become quite angry with him for not returning to the house after such a long absence. His wife had even decided to divorce him. When the sisters saw U Po Thet approaching, they agreed neither to greet nor welcome him. But as soon as he came in the door, they found themselves welcoming him profusely. They talked awhile and U Thet asked for their forgiveness, which they readily granted.
They served him tea and a meal and he procured his books. He explained to his wife that he was now living on eight precepts and would not be returning to the usual householder's life; from now on they would be as brother and sister.
His wife and sister-in-law invited him to come to the house every day for his morning meal and happily agreed to continue supporting him. He was extremely grateful for their generosity and told them that the only way he could repay them was to give them Dhamma.
Other relatives, including his wife's cousin, U Ba Soe, came to see and talk with him. After about two weeks, U Thet said that he was spending too much time coming and going for lunch, so Ma Hmyin and Ma Yin offered to send the noon meal to the sala.
Misinterpreting U Thet's zeal, people in the village were at first reluctant to come to him for instruction. They thought that due perhaps to grief over his losses, and his absence from the village, he had lost his senses. But slowly they realized from his speech and actions that he was indeed a transformed person, one who was living in accordance with Dhamma.
Soon some of U Thet's relatives and friends began to request that he teach them meditation. U Ba Soe offered to take charge of the fields and the household affairs and U Thet's sister and a niece took responsibility for preparing the meals. U Thet started teaching Anapana to a group of about 15 people in 1914, when he was 41 years old. The students all stayed at the sala, some of them going home from time to time. He gave discourses to his meditation students, as well as to interested people who were not practicing meditation. His listeners found his talks so learned that they refused to believe that U Thet had very little theoretical knowledge of Dhamma.
Due to his wife's and sister-in-law's generous financial support and the help of other family members, all the food and other necessities were provided for the meditators who came to U Thet's Dhamma hall, even to the extent, on one occasion, of compensating workers for wages lost while they took a Vipassana course.
In about 1915, after teaching for a year, U Thet took his wife and her sister and a few other family members to Monywa to pay respects to Ledi Sayadaw who was then about 70 years old. When U Thet told his teacher about his meditation experiences and the courses he had been offering, Ledi Sayadaw was very pleased.
It was during this visit that Ledi Sayadaw gave his walking staff to U Thet, saying: "Here my great pupil, take my staff and forward. Keep it well. I do not give this to you to make you live long, but as a reward, so that there will be no mishaps in your life. You have been successful. From today onwards you must teach the Dhamma of rupa and nama (mind and matter) to 6,000 people. The Dhamma known by you is inexhaustible, so propagate the sasana (era of the Buddha's teaching). Pay homage to the sasana in my stead."
The next day Ledi Sayadaw summoned all the monks of his monastery. He requested U Thet to stay on for 10 or 15 days to instruct them. The Sayadaw then told the gathering bhikkhus: "Take note, all of you. This layman is my great pupil U Po Thet, from lower Burma. He is capable of teaching meditation like me. Those of you who wish to practice meditation, follow him. Learn the technique from him and practice. You, Dayaka Thet (a lay supporter of a monk who undertakes to supply his needs such as food, robes, medicine, etc.), hoist the victory banner of Dhamma in place of me, starting at my monastery."
U Thet then taught Vipassana meditation to about 25 monks learned in the scriptures. It was at this time that he became known as Saya Thetgyyi (saya means "teacher"; gyi is a suffix denoting respect).
Ledi Sayadaw encouraged Saya Thetgyi to teach the Dhamma on his behalf. Saya Thetgyi knew many of Ledi Sayadaw's prolific writings by heart, and was able to expound on the Dhamma with references to the scriptures in such a way that most learned Sayadaws (monk teachers) could not find fault. Ledi Sayadaw's exhortation to him to teach Vipassana in his stead was a solemn responsibility, but Saya Thetgyi was apprehensive due to his lack of theoretical knowledge. Bowing to his teacher in deep respect, he said: "Among your pupils, I am the least learned in the scriptures. To dispense the sasana by teaching Vipassana as decreed by you is a highly subtle, yet heavy duty to perform, sir. That is why I request that, if at any time I need to ask for clarification, you will give me your help and guidance. Please be my support, and please admonish me whenever necessary."
Ledi Sayadaw reassured him by replying, "I will not forsake you, even at the time of my passing away."
Saya Thetgyi and his relatives returned to their village in southern Burma and discussed with other family members plans for carrying out the task given by Ledi Sayadaw. Saya Thetgyi considered traveling around Burma, thinking that he would have more contact with people that way. But his sister-in-law said, "You have a Dhamma hall here, and we can support you in your work by preparing food for the students. Why not stay and give courses? There are many who will come here to learn Vipassana." He agreed, and began holding regular courses at his sala in Pyawbwegyi.
As his sister-in-law had predicted, many people started coming, and Saya Thetgyi's reputation as a meditation teacher spread. He taught simple farmers and laborers, as well as those who were well-versed in the Pali texts. The village was not far from Rangoon, the capital of Burma under the British, so government employees and city dwellers like U Ba Khin, also came.
As more and more people came to learn meditation, Saya Thetgyi appointed as assistant teachers some of the older, experienced meditators like U Nyo, U Ba Soe, and U Aung Nyunt.
The center progressed year by year until there were up to 200 students, including monks and nuns, in the courses. There was not enough room in the Dhamma hall, so the more experienced students practiced meditation in their homes and came to the sala only for the discourses.
From the time he returned from Ledi Sayadaw's center, Saya Thetgyi lived by himself and ate only one meal a day, in solitude and silence. Like the bhikkhus, he never discussed his meditation attainments. If questioned, he would never say what stage of meditation he or any other student had achieved, although it was widely believed in Burma that he was an Anagami (person having achieved the last stage before final liberation), and he was known as Anagam Saya Thetgyi.
Since lay teachers of Vipassana were rare at that time, Saya Thetgyi faced certain difficulties that monk teachers did not. For example, he was opposed by some because he was not so learned in the scriptures. Saya Thetgyi simply ignored these criticisms and allowed the results of the practice to speak for themselves.
For 30 years he taught meditation to all who came to him, guided by his own experience and using Ledi Sayadaw's manuals as a reference. By 1945, when he was 72, he had fulfilled his mission of teaching thousands. His wife had died, his sister-in-law had become paralyzed, and his own health was failing. So he distributed all his property to his nieces and nephews, setting aside 50 acres of rice fields for the maintenance of his Dhamma hall.
He had 20 water buffaloes that had tilled his fields for years. He distributed them among people who he knew would treat them kindly, and sent them off with the invocation, "You have been my benefactors. Thanks to you, the rice has been grown. Now you are free from your work. May you be released from this kind of life for a better existence."
Saya Thetgyi moved to Rangoon, both for medical treatment and to see his students there. He told some of them that he would die in Rangoon and that his body would be cremated in a place where no cremation had taken place before. He also said that his ashes should not be kept in holy places because he was not entirely free from defilements, that is, he was not an arahant (fully enlightened being).
One of his students had established a meditation center at Arzanigone, on the northern slope of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Nearby was a bomb shelter that had been built during the Second World War. Saya Thetgyi used this shelter as his meditation cave. At night he stayed with one of his assistant teachers. His students from Rangoon, including the Accountant General, U Ba Khin, and Commissioner of Income Tax, U San Thein, visited him as much as time permitted.
He instructed all who came to see him to be diligent in their practice, to treat the monks and nuns who came to practice meditation with respect, to be well-disciplined in body, speech and mind, and to pay respects to the Buddha in everything they did.
Saya Thetgyi was accustomed to go to the Shwedagon Pagoda every evening, but after about a week he caught a cold and fever from sitting in the dug-out shelter. Despite being treated by physicians, his condition deteriorated. As his state worsened, his nieces and nephews came from Pyawbwegyi to Rangoon. Every night his students, numbering about 50, sat in meditation together. During these group meditations Saya Thetgyi himself did not say anything, but silently meditated.
One night at about 10 pm, Saya Thetgyi was with a number of his students (U Ba Khin was unable to be present). He was lying on his back, and his breathing became loud and prolonged. Two of the students were watching intently, while the rest meditated silently. At exactly 11:00 p.m., his breathing became deeper. It seemed as if each inhalation and expiration took about five minutes. After three breaths of this kind the breathing stopped altogether, and Saya Thetgyi passed away.
His body was cremated on the northern slope of the Shwedagon Pagoda and Sayagyi U Ba Khin and his disciples later built a small pagoda on the spot. But perhaps the most fitting and enduring memorial to this singular teacher is the fact that the task given him by Ledi Sayadaw of spreading the Dhamma in all strata of society still continues.