Dec 012018

Today is the birthday (1846) of Ledi Sayadaw U Ñaṇadhaja (လယ်တီဆရာတော် ဦးဉာဏဓဇ), usually called simply Ledi Sayadaw, one of the foremost Burmese Buddhist figures of his age. He was instrumental in reviving the traditional practice of Vipassana, making it more available for renunciates and lay people alike. Many of his works are still available, including in English through the Buddhist Publication Society.

Ledi Sayadaw began his studies at age 20 in Mandalay at Thanjaun. While there he was considered to be a bright and ambitious young monk but his work was scholarly and there is no evidence that he engaged in any serious meditation practice during his years in Mandalay. After a great fire in 1883 caused the loss of his home and his written work up to that time, he left Mandalay and returned to the village of his youth.

Soon, Ledi Sayadaw founded a forest monastery in the Ledi forest and began practicing and teaching intensive meditation. It was from this monastery that he took his name, Ledi Sayadaw, meaning “respected teacher of the Ledi forest.” In 1885, Ledi Sayadaw wrote the Nwa-myitta-sa (နွားမေတ္တာစာ), a poetic prose letter that argued that Burmese Buddhists should not kill cattle and eat beef, since Burmese farmers depended on them as beasts of burden to maintain their livelihoods, that the marketing of beef for human consumption threatened the extinction of buffalo and cattle, and that the practice was ecologically unsound. He subsequently led successful beef boycotts during the colonial era, despite the presence of beef eating among locals, and influenced a generation of Burmese nationalists in adopting this stance. In 1900, Ledi Sayadaw gave up control of the monastery and pursued more focused meditation in the mountain caves near the banks of the Chindwin River. At other times he traveled throughout Burma. Because of his knowledge of pariyatti (theory), he was able to write a number of books on Dhamma in both Pali and Burmese languages such as, Paramattha-dipani (Manual of Ultimate Truth), Nirutta-dipani, a book on Pali grammar and The Manuals of Dhamma. At the same time he kept alive the pure tradition of patipatti (practice) by teaching the technique of Vipassana to a few people.

Among Ledi’s disciples, Theik-cha-daung Sayadaw(1871-1931) and Mohnyin Sayadaw(1872-1964) are well-known. Theik-cha-daung Sayadaw taught an illiterate farmer and layman Saya Thet Gyi, who went on to receive training from Ledi himself. Thetgyi’s lineage continues to the present, the most prominent being U Wunnathiri and U Ba Khin and his disciples, others include S.N. Goenka.

Burmese fermented tea leaf salad, or lahpet thoke, is extremely popular in Myanmar. You can get lahpet in any number of places, and when I lived in Mandalay, friends in other countries often asked me to send some to them. I frequently had lahpet rice for breakfast. There is an old Burmese saying: “Of all the fruits, mango is the best; of all the meats, pork is the best; of all the leaves, laphet is the best.” Lahpet has a very long history in Myanmar. In ancient times, fermented tea leaves were used as a peace symbol or as a peace offering between kingdoms at war. Now, a lahpet tray is the traditional expression of hospitality offered to house guests.

A typical lahpet thoke consists of fried legumes such as broad beans or yellow split peas, toasted sesame seeds, fried garlic, roasted peanuts, dried shrimp, chili, sliced tomatoes, shredded cabbage and oil, along with the fermented tea leaves. You can then add fresh lime juice. When served as a snack on a tray, pickled tea leaf is called ahlu laphet (ahlu means “donation ceremony”), and all the ingredients are served separately. This presentation is traditionally served after a meal, at ceremonies such as engagements, weddings, and funeral ceremonies.

Lahpet is so important to Burmese culture that when tea leaves are harvested, the best of the crop is set aside for fermenting and eating, while the rest is dried and processed for tea and drinking. The freshly harvested tea leaves are briefly steamed, then packed into bamboo vats and set in pits, pressed by heavy weights to encourage fermentation.

Jan 162018

Today is the birthday (1516) of Bayinnaung Kyawhtin Nawrahta (ဘုရင့်နောင် ကျော်ထင်နော်ရထာ) king of the Toungoo Dynasty of Burma (Myanmar) from 1550 to 1581. During his 31-year reign, which has been called the “greatest explosion of human energy ever seen in Burma,” Bayinnaung assembled what was probably the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia, which included much of modern-day Myanmar, the Chinese Shan states, Lan Na, Lan Xang, Manipur and Thailand. Bayinnaung was born Ye Htut to Mingyi Swe and Shin Myo Myat. His exact ancestry is unclear. No extant contemporary records, including Hanthawaddy Hsinbyushin Ayedawbon, the extensive chronicle of the king’s reign written two years before his death, mention his ancestry. In 1724, almost a century and a half after his death, Maha Yazawin, the official chronicle of the Toungoo Dynasty, first proclaimed his genealogy. According to Maha Yazawin, he was born to a noble family in Toungoo (Taungoo), then a former vassal state of the Ava Kingdom. Despite the official version of royal descent, oral traditions speak of a less grandiose genealogy, saying that his parents were commoners from Ngathayauk in Pagan district or Htihlaing village in Toungoo district, and that his father was a toddy palm tree climber, then one of the lowest professions in Burmese society. The commoner origin narrative first gained prominence in the early 20th century during the British colonial period as nationalist writers, such as Po Kya, promoted it as proof that even a son of a toddy tree climber could rise to become the great emperor in Burmese society. All history serves the purposes of the historian.

Although he is best remembered for his empire building, Bayinnaung’s greatest legacy was his integration of the Shan states into the Irrawaddy-valley-based kingdoms. After the conquest of the Shan states in 1557–1563, Bayinnaung put in an administrative system that reduced the power of hereditary Shan saophas (hereditary rulers), and brought Shan customs in line with lowland norms. It eliminated the threat of Shan raids into Upper Burma, a longstanding concern to Upper Burma since the late 13th century. His Shan policy was followed by Burmese kings right up to the final fall of the kingdom to the British in 1885. The Shan are still one of the major ethnic groups in Myanmar with their own language and distinctive culture.

Bayinnaung is considered one of the three greatest kings of Burma, along with Anawrahta and Alaungpaya. Some of the most prominent places in modern Myanmar are named after him. He is also well known in Thailand as Phra Chao Chana Sip Thit (พระเจ้าชนะสิบทิศ, “Victor of the Ten Directions”). His empire was a loose collection of former sovereign kingdoms, whose kings were loyal to him as the Cakkavatti (Universal Ruler), and not to the kingdom of Toungoo. Ava and Siam revolted two years after his death, and by 1599, all the vassal states had revolted, and the Toungoo Empire completely collapsed.

Bayinnaung, who began his reign as a “king without a kingdom,” ended his reign as an “emperor without an empire.” According to Than Tun, Bayinnaung conquered territories not to colonize them but to gain the loyalty of their rulers. He kept conquered kings and lords in their own positions as long as they remained loyal to him. Tun Aung Chain adds that “the extensive polity was held together not so much by formal institutions as personal relationships” based on the concepts of thissa (သစ္စာ, ‘allegiance’) and kyezu (ကျေးဇူး, ‘obligation’).” This was nothing new. Bayinnaung was simply following the then prevailing Southeast Asian administrative model of solar polities in which the high king ruled the core while semi-independent tributaries, autonomous viceroys, and governors actually controlled day-to-day administration and labor. As such, the “King of Kings” governed only Pegu and the Mon country himself, leaving the rest of the realm to vassal kings in Ava, Prome, Lan Na, Lan Xang, Martaban, Siam, and Toungoo. He regarded Lan Na as the most important of all the vassal states, and spent most of his time there in peacetime.

Bayinnaung administered Lower Burma with the help of ministers, the vast majority of whom were of ethnic Mon background. His chief minister was Binnya Dala, known for his military and administrative abilities, and literary talents. He introduced administrative reforms only at the margins. By and large, he simply grafted the prevailing decentralized administration system, which barely worked for petty states like his native Toungoo, to the largest polity ever in the region. It did not work for mid-size kingdoms like Ava, Hanthawaddy, Lan Na, and Siam. He, perhaps inadvertently, did introduce a key reform, which turned out to be the most important and most enduring of his legacies. It was his policy to administer the Shan states, which had constantly raided Upper Burma since the late 13th century. The king permitted the saophas of the states to retain their royal regalia and ceremonies, and feudal rights over their subjects. The office of the saopha remained hereditary. But the incumbent saopha could now be removed by the king for gross misconduct although the king’s choice of successor was limited to members of the saopha’s own family. The key innovation was that he required sons of his vassal rulers to reside in his palace as pages, who served a dual purpose: they were hostages for good conduct of their fathers and they received valuable training in Burmese court life. His Shan policy was followed by all Burmese kings right up to the final fall of the kingdom to the British in 1885.

Bayinnaung introduced a measure of legal uniformity by summoning learned monks and officials from all over his dominions to prescribe an official collection of law books. The scholars compiled Dhammathat Kyaw and Kosaungchok, based on King Wareru’s dhammathat. The decisions given in his court were collected in Hanthawaddy Hsinbyumyashin Hpyat-hton. He promoted the new law throughout the empire so far as it was compatible with customs and practices of local society. The adoption of Burmese customary law and the Burmese calendar in Siam began in his reign. He also standardized the weights and measurements such as the cubit, tical, and basket throughout the realm.

Another enduring legacy of Bayinnaung was his introduction of a more orthodox Theravada Buddhism to Upper Burma and the Shan states. He propagated the religious reforms begun by King Dhammazedi in the late 1470s. He viewed himself as the model Buddhist king and distributed copies of Buddhist scriptures, fed monks, and built pagodas at every new conquered state from Upper Burma and the Shan states to Lan Na and Siam. Some of the pagodas are still intact. Following in the footsteps of Dhammazedi, he supervised mass ordinations at the Kalyani Thein at Pegu in his orthodox Theravada Buddhism in the name of purifying the religion. He prohibited all human and animal sacrifices throughout the kingdom. In particular, he forbade the Shan practice of killing the slaves and animals belonging to a saopha at his funeral. His attempts to eliminate animist nat (spirit) worship from Buddhism, however, failed.

Bayinnaung donated jewels to adorn the crowns of many pagodas, including the Shwedagon, the Shwemawdaw, the Kyaiktiyo, and many less famous ones. He added a new spire to the Shwedagon in 1564 after the death of his beloved queen Yaza Dewi. His main temple was the Mahazedi Pagoda at Pegu, which he built in 1561. He tried but failed to secure the release of the Tooth of Kandy from the Portuguese in 1560. He later interfered with the internal affairs of Ceylon in the 1570s, ostensibly to protect the religion there.

His kingdom was mainly an agrarian state with a few wealthy maritime trading ports. The main ports were Syriam (Thanlyin), Dala, and Martaban. The kingdom exported commodities such as rice and jewels. At Pegu, overseas trade was in the hands of eight brokers appointed by the king. Their honesty and business-like methods won the esteem of European merchants. The capital was so fabulous that contemporary Europeans were said to “never tire of describing Pegu—the long moat full of crocodiles, the walls, the watch-towers, the gorgeous palace, the great processions with elephants and palanquins and grandees in shining robes, the shrines filled with images of massy gold and gems, the unending hosts of armed men, and the apparition of the great king himself.” The king appointed officials to supervise merchant shipping and sent out ships to undertake commercial voyages. The prosperous life at the capital, however, was probably not replicated at the countryside. Annual mobilizations of men greatly reduced the manpower necessary to cultivate the rice fields. Harvests at times fell perilously low, causing severe rice shortages, such as in 1567.

Bayinnaung’s empire was built on what is sometimes called “breathtaking” military conquests, but his success was more than just Portuguese firearms, foreign mercenaries, and massive forces. There was also a strong element of personal charisma. Certainly, he benefitted from the arrival of Portuguese cannon and matchlocks in large quantities. Portuguese weaponry proved superior in accuracy, safety, ballistic weight, and rapidity of fire to Asian-made firearms. Finally, Bayinnaung was able to marshal more manpower than any ruler in the region. He required every new conquered state to provide conscripts for his next campaign. Using both larger forces and superior firearms, he had no trouble reducing Manipur and the entire Shan world to tributary status. His larger forces and their greater fighting experience proved to make the difference against Siam, which too was a wealthy coastal power with a powerful well-equipped military.

It turned out however that Siam was not his greatest adversary. It was the remote mountainous states like Lan Xang, Mohnyin and Mogaung whose guerrilla warfare gave him constant trouble. Many of his men died from starvation and disease while fruitlessly searching for elusive bands of rebels, year after year. (The death toll must have been significant since it is mentioned in the chronicles.) He was fortunate that the charismatic guerrilla leader Setthathirath died. In the end, his military might alone could not bring lasting peace. He needed competent local rulers, who commanded the respect of the local populace, to rule the lands on his behalf.

These individual ingredients alone cannot explain Bayinnaung’s success. The same ingredients were available to his successors. Yet no one (in Burma or elsewhere in the successor states of his empire) could put them together. One historian notes: “From his teens until his death, he was constantly in the field, leading every major campaign in person. The failure of other kings who attempted the same conquests is the measure of his ability.” Bayinnaung died on 10 October 1581 after a long illness. His eldest son and heir-apparent Nanda took over the throne without incident. But the empire, which Bayinnaung had built on military conquests and maintained by both military power and personal relationships with the vassal rulers, crumbled shortly after.

Nowadays Myanmar cooking is divided into homestyle cooking and royal cooking. It’s hard enough for me to describe homestyle cooking, let alone royal style. Hop a plane. The difference between home and royal cooking is more one of quantity than quality. Rice is the staple, and various main dishes and side dishes accompany the rice. Royal meals involve many more dishes than home meals, but the general cooking methods and ingredients are the same (although royal dishes can involve more meat). Indigenous vegetables predominate.  Here are two videos. The first is quite detailed and shows cooking in the Shan style from Inle lake.

The second shows a rather festive dish, and indicates, if the first doesn’t sufficiently, how obscure some of the ingredients are for Westerners.

Jul 192016


Today is the 8th full moon of the lunar year. As such it is celebrated as Asalha Puja in the Theravada Buddhist  tradition. Asalha Puja is one of Theravada Buddhism’s most important festivals, celebrating the Buddha’s first sermon in which he set out to his five former associates the doctrine that had come to him following his enlightenment. This first pivotal sermon, often referred to as “setting into motion the wheel of dharma,” is the teaching which is encapsulated for Buddhists in the four noble truths:

there is suffering (dukkha)

suffering is caused by craving (tanha)

there is a state (nirvana) beyond suffering and craving

the way to nirvana is via the eightfold path.


All the various schools and traditions of Buddhism revolve around the central doctrine of the four noble truths. In scriptures ascribed to the Buddha the eightfold path is described as follows:

Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.

(Nagara Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya ii.124)

This first sermon is not only the first structured discourse given by the Buddha after his enlightenment, it also contains the essence of all his subsequent teaching. At the end of the talk, one of the five participants recounted his understanding of what had been said and asked to be received as a disciple, a request the Buddha granted, thus establishing the first order of monks.

The day is observed by donating offerings to temples and listening to sermons. The following day begins the period known as Vassa, the Rains Retreat. Vassa lasts for three lunar months


For the duration of Vassa, monastics remain in one place, typically a monastery or temple grounds. In some monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation. Some Buddhist lay people choose to observe Vassa by adopting more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol, or smoking, hence it is sometimes casually called “Buddhist Lent,” although the analogy with Christian Lent is not really appropriate. Commonly, the number of years a monk has spent in monastic life is expressed by counting the number of Vassas he has observed. In some SE Asian countries, notably Myanmar, young men may become ordained monks during Vassa, but afterwards return to a secular life.

Most Mahayana Buddhists do not observe Vassa but it is normal in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and SE Asia. Vassa ends on Pavarana, when all monastics atone for any offense committed during Vassa. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha. It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics in India not to travel during the rainy season as they might unintentionally harm crops, insects or even themselves during their travels. Many Buddhist ascetics live in regions which lack a rainy season. Consequently, there are places where Vassa may not be typically observed.

Most of the dishes considered to be uniquely Buddhist are vegetarian, but opinions and restrictions on the eating of meat, and whether it should be prohibited, vary among sects. When monks and nuns who follow the Theravadan way feed themselves by alms, they must eat leftover foods which are given to them, including meat. The exception to this alms rule is that when monks and nuns have seen, heard or known that animal(s) have been specifically killed to feed the alms-seeker, consumption of such meat is considered karmically negative and should be refused. The Pali Sutras where this rule is set forth tell of the Buddha refuting a suggestion by his student Devadatta to include vegetarianism in the monastic precepts. In fact one tradition asserts that the Buddha died from eating tainted pork.

Some Theravada Buddhist sects follow a cuisine for monks and nuns that prohibits the killing of plants. Therefore, strictly speaking, root vegetables (including potatoes, carrots or onion and garlic) are not to be used because their use results in the death of the plant. There is also a prohibition on eating mango based on an old tradition.


Today I’ve prepared a dish of lentils, pasta, and fresh porcini mushrooms for my meals, not because I follow either a vegan or a Buddhist regime, but because that’s what my body wants today. For several years I’ve been very careful to eat only foods that appeal when I first begin the cooking process, and not rely on whim or convenience. If nothing I have on hand appeals, I go out to the market or I don’t eat. I am never driven by hunger or appetite. I found the porcini mushrooms in the market and they instantly appealed to me.