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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.