The Birth of Insight
Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw
University of Chicago Press 2013
New Books in Buddhist StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books in Southeast Asian StudiesNew Books Network January 8, 2015 Luke Thompson
Erik Braun‘s recent book, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (University of Chicago Press, 2013), examines the spread of Burmese Buddhist meditation practices during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the social, political, and intellectual historical contexts that gave rise to this development. Braun accomplishes this by focusing on the role that the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) played in this movement, drawing primarily on Ledi Sayadaw’s own writings, three biographies, polemical responses to Ledi Sayadaw’s writings, and contemporaneous periodicals.
Central to the book is the importance of the Abhidhamma (Buddhist metaphysics or psychology) in Burmese Buddhist monasticism and, more specifically, the way in which Ledi Sayadaw spread the study of the Abhidhamma among the laity and used it as the foundation for insight meditation. In contrast to many recent proponents of insight meditation (both Asian and not), who emphasize technique at the expense of study and theory, Ledi Sayadaw saw insight meditation and study of the Abhidhamma as an inseparable pair, with the latter serving as a basis for the former. Braun places Ledi Sayadaw’s approach in the larger context of Buddhist and Burmese theories about meditation, exploring the different views on the relationships among samatha (concentration meditation), the jhanas (stages of meditative absorption), insight meditation as direct awareness of sensory and mental experience, and insight meditation as discursive thinking informed by Abhidhammic categories.
Exploring the cultural milieu of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Burma, Braun demonstrates that Ledi Sayadaw exhibits characteristics that we would regard as traditional (e.g., the importance he grants to literary competence, his belief in Buddhist cosmology) as well as those we might think of as modern (e.g., his charismatic style of preaching, his focus on the laity). In addition, as opposed to Buddhist reformers who argued that Buddhism was in fact applicable to and accorded with modernity (being synonymous with the West, in most such cases), Ledi Sayadaw flipped this relationship on its head by asserting that modernity (e.g., Western science) was in agreement with Buddhism. In so doing he avoided the usual contradictions between Buddhism and modernity but without apparently compromising the Buddhist worldview in the process. Braun places Ledi Sayadaw’s thoughts on these matters in the larger historical context of colonialism: Burma was annexed by the British (in three stages: 1826, 1852, 1886) and many Burmese believed that Buddhism’s final days were nigh. Ledi Sayadaw’s theories, then, were in part a response to a new environment in which Buddhist monks were losing their traditional position as educators, and in which the age-old relationship between the sa