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Vipassana in the Tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin as Taught by U Ko Lay Oct 6, 2018

Vipassana in the Tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin as Taught by U Ko Lay

Location: Naung Yan Damaryon Meditation Center, Yangon, Myanmar

It wasn't just SN Goenka
Usually, when the Vipassana tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin is mentioned, SN Goenka is equated to be the teacher. I had a startling surprise when Tin, a Vipassana meditator, said he was going to sit in the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin, but taught by U Ko Lay. That's when it hit me. I am in Myanmar where Goenka learned from U Ba Khin together with everyone else who attended the course. It wasn't just Goenka! He had other peers who hold the same ranking as him as an authorized Vipassana teacher. In Burma alone, there are Mother Sayama Gyi (aka Mya Thwin), U Chit Tin, U Tint Yee, U Ba Pho and U Boon Shain. There were even Westerners who were authorized by U Ba Khin to teach Vipassana.

I asked Tin if I could come with him, and he said yes.

Sayagi U Ko Lay
(Sayagi U is an honorific name and not part of the official name) Sayagi U Ko Lay is learned in the best educational institutions of the time - Yangon University, London University, Cornell University and Columbia University, USA. After founding the Myanmar University, he became its first vice-chancellor. After retiring, he devoted his life in the practice of Vipassana. His major work is the translation of the Tipitaka Pali canon into English. This is only one amongst many translations.

There is a Burmese tradition that one should become a monk at least once in the lifetime. Sayagi U Ba Khin and U Ko Lay (one of U Ba Khin's closest disciples), went to Sayadaw's (acknowledged by many to be an arahan) center and became monks for 10 days.

Naung Yan Damaryon Meditation Center
The sit was 8:30am at the Naung Yan Damaryon Meditation Center. When we arrived, some people were already sitting - they were all old people. Hmmm...kinda like me! Unlike Goenka's style, this center had the statue of Buddha and the portrait of the U Ko Lay. I got a sense that the practice is steeped in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. In contrast, Goenka's Vipassana is non-sectarian and is not under the Buddhism umbrella - even though it references Buddha in the practice. U Ko Lay wasn't there. He is now 87 and sick. In his place to moderate the sit was his assistant teacher. But being a Saturday, first-timers to the center have to go through an orientation by the assistant teacher - me included.

The Orientation
Having done nine 10-day courses with SN Goenka, I didn't feel like I needed an orientation, but they had their own policy in place. The assistant teacher together with Tin and another elder took turns in giving me the orientation. They were all very pleasant and exuded positive energy, but somehow, the orientation took an impasse. In my recollection, it went like this:

Assistant Teacher: Why do you meditate?
Me: Many clear the clutter of the activate the parasympathetic nervous system to heal the body...for the Aha Moments when sought-for solutions pop into my mind to answer pressing questions.
Assistant Teacher: Your existence is suffering. You continue to age until you die...that is suffering. You get sick...that is suffering. Those are Buddha's words.
Me: I'm sorry. With all due respect, I disagree with Buddha. Existence is a process that is neither joy nor suffering. Suffering is a choice people make. Existence is not suffering.
Assistant Teacher: Bad things happen. That is suffering.
Me: Again, I disagree. Yes, bad things happen, but they are not necessarily suffering. In my experience, bad things happen because they are part of the karmic process to manifest bigger things. So I don't consider bad things as suffering. Like existence, they are part of a process.
(at this point, I sensed their growing discomfort)
Assistant Teacher: You go through a cycle of rebirth..that is suffering
Me: I don't really care about the rebirth. That exists in the future. I am only concerned with the this conversation is taking place. I have no problem about being reborn. I have no problem with existence. I don't see it as suffering. I see suffering as nature's way to call your attention to something that is wrong. It's like pain calling your body's attention to address something wrong. The body doesn't default into pain and existence should not default into suffering. I live a happy is humanly possible to have a happy existence by default.
Assistant Teacher: Why are you debating us? We cannot help you to meditate if you do not accept your suffering.
Me: Huh? Oh sorry. I wasn't debating you. I was simply answering your questions as honestly as I can. If you want me to come here as an empty vessel to learn what you have to teach, then I empty my vessel. I have no problem with that. I just didn't know that that is what you wanted.

With that, they continued explaining how suffering is woven into our very existence. I nodded without any rebuttal or disagreement.

Vipassana in the Tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin as Taught by U Ko Lay
meditators at Naung Yan Damaryon Meditation Center

After the orientation, I finally got to meditate. But the verbal back-and-forth somehow tired me out. I didn't go deep. I never do anyway. It's enough that with Anapana (breath focus), I could already bring myself calmly into stillness.

Derivatives and Arithmetic
The following day, Tin and I bumped into each other again at the hotel. He explained to me what I was going through. I somehow sensed his frustration that "I wasn't getting it" and unlikely to progress on my journey. I just explained that Buddha's words are like Mathematical Derivatives...advance Math. And I just learned Arithmetic and going through my Algebra. That perhaps at some point, I'll be in a position to understand Derivatives - just not now.

Ending Thoughts
Obviously, we couldn't come to terms with our sense of Dhamma (truth). And that's ok. I never expect anyone to see things my way and I'm aware that my tenets of dos-and-donts will change with experience and time. I just happen to be on this page at the present moment. But one thing clear to me about this encounter is that the people at the center have their hearts in the right place. They are well-meaning and only want to share Dhamma through the words of Buddha.

--- TheLoneRider
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Works of U Ko Lay

  1. Guide to Tipitaka
  2. Manual of Vipassana Meditation

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Reader Comments:

Kerrie WongKerrie Wong
(Oct 9, 2018) Oooooo I won't argue. As Long as it's the same teaching frm Buddha? This is very insightful thank you for sharing!

(Oct 9, 2018) Kerrie, they were quoting Buddha every step of the way! It's good to learn from other teachers who come from the same tradition.

Rosemarie GendiveRosemarie Canada
(Oct 9, 2018) Do I know anyone else who would argue what Buddha said with a monk? hahaha. (I do, it was me)

(Oct 9, 2018) Not surprised. PM me what the argument was all about . Curious 🙂

Leave a comment?

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Yangon (city), Myanmar

important places in Ho Chi Minh City IMPORTANT PLACES
Yangon International Airport Yangon International Airport

hotels in Yangon HOTEL
  • Beautyland Hotel II Beautyland Hotel II - central location, backpacker friendly, affordable, breakfast & laundry included
restaurants in Yangon RESTAURANT condos in Yangon CONDO RENTAL-SALE


How to Get to Downtown Yangon from the Yangon International Airport (RGN)
  1. take the shuttle bus from Airport to Downtown Yangon, it costs MMK 500. It passes through the main artery of Yangon.
Yangon Travel Tips
  1. useful site: Wiki Travel Yangon


(as of Jan 2020)
Myanmar FYI / Travel Tips
  1. accommodation - not all destinations in Myanmar can accommodate foreign travelers. Walk-in hotel guests could be refused. Better make an online booking, or make sure the hotel you wish to stay, at is listed in the online booking sites (Agoda,, etc.)
  2. local time - adjust time 30 mins behind from Thailand (if arriving from Thailand)
  3. Burmese people - Burmese people are new to what's happening to Myanmar - being opened-up to the rest of the world. They remain friendly, helpful and curious. Tourism being new, the culture is not yet corrupted by it.
General Travel Tips
  1. arrive early - in case there is a snag (visa snag, documentation snag, transport ticket snag, etc.), you will have ample time to troubleshoot the problem if you arrive early (to the airport, to the bus terminal, etc.)
  2. put detailed itinerary on the Calendar apps of your smart-phone according to timelines - this is where you do all your thinking and planning. Once written down, you don't have to think anymore while you are on the just follow the steps. This frees your mind for something else that might happen while you are already en route
  3. avoiding scams - as a general rule, I ignore the touts or anyone I don't know who call out to me. The calling comes in many forms - "Hi! Where are you from?", "Excuse me! Excuse me!", "Where are you going?". I don't look them in the eye and I remain non-verbal with them. If you reply to them, you just gave them an 'in' to hound you. In order not to look rude, I smile and wave the 'not interested' hand to them, without looking at them.
  4. power bank - hand-carry your power bank. Do not check it in. You can be called in when you are already inside the plane to go all the way to the loading dock so you can personally remove the power bank...and chances are, you'll have to surrender it to them. And you might delay the plane departure!
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