Vipassanā (IV). Venerated Saints
Almost all modern vipassanā groups were founded by schismatic monks, and although there is no recorded case where one of them declared himself enlightened, being prohibited by the monastic code, many were considered by his disciples, and by the general public, like they had reached arahantado or almost.
The modern hagiographies that have grown up around these meditation masters often inform not simply in their piety, but also in their supernatural powers: flying through the air, appearing in two places at once, predicting the future, etc.
Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), for example, whose vipassanā organization is the largest and most influential organization in Burma, was believed by many to be an anāgāmī. These claims are quite common in Burma. It is reported, for example, that the meditation teacher Thabeik Aing Sayadaw (1893-1968) could be seen collecting alms in one place while simultaneously appearing in a different one.
It would be a mistake to suppose that the hagiographies of the supposed saints of the modern vipassana movement are mainly occupied by the miraculous or by the charisma of their saints themselves, on the contrary, the main focus of these stories is on the Buddhist doctrine and the method of meditation taught by these teachers.
They are usually presented in the form of dialogues between master and disciple, closely adhering to the doctrinal norms established in the Pāli scriptures and the comments interpreted by the Theravada Burmese establishment.
This emphasis on textual authority is, in part, a consequence of the fact that most prominent vipassanā masters were themselves scholars. Around each prominent teacher arose a wipathana yeiktha or ‘vipassanā Hermitage’. This was a completely new institution in the history of Burmese Buddhism dedicated exclusively to the practice
Max Weber theorized that nascent (and political and military) religious movements routinize and institutionalize the charism of their founders as a necessary stage in their evolution towards long-term stability.Movements that fail to do this usually do not survive the demise of their founders. This sociological dictation is illustrated in the meditation hermitage of Mahasi Sayadaw, the Thathana Yeiktha, and in the pilgrimage center of Thamanya Sayadaw.
The emphasis on meditation technique and institutional discipline allowed Thathana Yeiktha to flourish after Mahasi’s death in 1982, while the center of Thamanya Sayadaw diminished rapidly after its demise in 2003 because it focused exclusively on devotion to Sayadaw himself . The inability to transition to new leadership after the demise of charismatic founders is characteristic of weikza-lam in general and explains the ephemeral nature of most weikza-lam associations.
The teachings and methods of the founding meditation master became the signature of each of these wipathana yeiktha and remained constant each time children centers were established. Since the exposition of the doctrine of all the masters was practically the same, it was the method of meditation, the shu-ni, which became the only criterion by which the vipassanā groups distinguish one from the other, and discuss what constitutes correct practice.
The vipassanā movement during the first half of the twentieth century dealt mainly with the urban middle class that emerged during the British period. Now, after a century of development, the movement has spread among all social classes with wipathana yeiktha in almost every city and town, and even village monasteries are hosts of vipassanā retreats.
Many charismatic monks competed nationally in their fitness in Buddhist meditation and erudition. This cult of charisma was an integral part of the optimistic fanfare surrounding the newly gained national independence in 1948, and the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha parinibbana in 1956. While the wipathana yeiktha was a new institution of their religion, the activity It was modeled after the traditional practice for laymen of observing the biweekly «Buddhist Sabbath» (uposatha). On full and new moons, put the people who wish to do so gather in monasteries or pagodas to pray and temporarily take on themselves additional precepts (sīla) beyond the normal five. These additional precepts, such as not eating after noon, not using perfumes and refraining from sexual activity or surrendering their lives, do so for the duration of the Sabbath, similar to those of the novice monks. Typically they also impose the same Sabbath-uposatha precepts to the meditators during the duration of the retreats.
It was believed by many Burmese Buddhists at that time that the world had entered into a new ‘age of enlightenment’, and that just in the midst of the Sāsana decline there was a sudden resurgence in the ability of individuals to achieve liberation, and that all this was the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.
How else to explain this? An overabundance of arahants on earth?
The archetypes of the modern Burman arahant are, first and foremost, the Savaka disciples of the Buddha described in the Tipiṭāka Pāli and commentaries, and of no less important, the native saints whose legends are recorded in the Burmese chronicles. Chief among all of them is Shin Arahant, the saint of the Mon, who converted the Burmese king, Anawrahta, to Buddhism in the eleventh century and became the kingdom’s first Buddhist patriarch.
Among the best-known meditation masters who are supposed to be arahants during this period were Sunlun Sayadaw (1877-1952), Thaton Zetawun Sayadaw (1868-1954), Mogok Sayadaw (1899-1962), Mohnyin Sayadaw (1874-1964), Webu Sayadaw (1895-1977) and Taungpulu Sayadaw (1896-1986).
This belief in the importance of the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s parinibbāna played an important role in weikza-lam circles as good, where it often took millennial connotations. Some believed, for example, that the acclaimed contemporary weikza-do, Bo Min Gaung (deceased around 1952), was prophesied to assume the role of a dhammarājā at this time.
The notion that the world was destined to enter into an «age of enlightenment» «halfway through the life of Sāsana» is not attested in the Pāli scriptures or in their commentaries, so it was by no means universally accepted .
The idea was taken into consideration by the Sixth Buddhist Council (1954-1956), which rejected it as contradictory and lacking in support in the Texts.
Subsequent publications of the Ministry of Religious Affairs that discusses the life of Sāsana omits reference to the theory. It is perhaps for this reason that today only a small group of vipassanā advocates this point of view, especially the followers of the teachings of SN Goenka.
Equally prominent are Soṇa and Uttara, native children according to the legend Mon. They were missionaries in Lower Burma in the third century BC. Through the judicious use of their supernormal powers, they propagated the faith that introduced the Sāsana of the Buddha and inaugurated a valid line of ordination there. Having completed their tasks in the service of religion, they died in silence in Nibbāna.
There are other more wonderful paradigms of arahantado available in the Burmese legend and folklore from which the vipassanā movement might have been inspired, such as the immortal spider Hant,
Shin Upagutta is a Buddhist arahant commonly revered by Buddhists in Burma, as it is believed to protect the faithful from danger, including floods and storms. It is also venerated in northern Thailand and Laos, where it is known as Upakhut. He is commonly depicted sitting cross-legged, dressed in monk robes and with one hand bowed in a bowl of alms called Thabeik, and is associated with nāgas, water snakes. It is believed that it is Moggaliputta-Tissa, a Buddhist monk who presided over the Third Council.
In Burma it is believed that Shin Upagutta still lives, in a floating bronze palace in the southern ocean, and that it can be invoked through a special Pali spell, and that his mere invisible presence will prevent storms and floods.
But it is the least exuberant of the aforementioned models, revered not so much for their powers but for what they founded are those that hitherto the saints preferred by modern vipassanā proponents.