Burmese Bhante, Venerable Sayadaw U Nyaneinda, Abbot of the Burmese Monastery, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India died at 7.26 am on Wednesday 6 October 2021, aged 86 in Myanmar.
Last year, he returned to Myanmar for eye surgery. Owing to the lockdown, he could not return to his beloved Bodh Gaya. He contracted Covid in Myanmar and although he appeared to recover, the virus weakened his lungs. Burmese Bhante quietly faded from this world.
Monks, nuns and laypeople gathered this week in the Burmese Vihara to pay tribute to Burmese Bhante, the Visionary of Bodh Gaya. Bhante means the Venerable One, a term of respect used for Buddhist monks.
Burmese Buddhist authorities appointed Burmese Bhante the Abbot of the Burmese monastery in the village in 1976 at the age of 41. U. Dhammetsara had the role of Abbot from 1936-1943 followed by U. Otiama until 1966. From 1966 to 1976, U Tilaka took over responsibility.
Burmese Vihara is the first monastery you pass on the original road from Gaya to Bodh Gaya. Ven. Nyaneinda welcomed and hosted small groups of Burmese pilgrims until the military coup in Burma reduced numbers of Burmese pilgrims.
Thousands upon thousands of Buddhists worldwide make a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, mostly in the cool months between October and March, to witness the spot where Gautama the Buddha realised the truths of human existence and liberation from the suffering involved in it.
Few of the pilgrims from Myanmar, Thailand, Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Korea etc, many Western countries and countries elsewhere will know of the immense contribution of Burmese Bhante – his popular name endured year after year long after the Burmese government changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1992.
During the 1970s, Burmese Bhante set about expanding the use of his monastery enabling Westerners, mostly spiritual seekers, travellers and hippies, to stay in the monastery to practice meditation. They stayed in run down huts squashed together along the foot of the walls of the monastery. Thousands practiced in his monastery between the early 1970s stretching for more than 30 years.
Burmese Vipassana teacher, Munindra-ji offered guidance in Vipassana meditation. Between 1966 and 1969, he was probably the only English speaking Vipassana (Insight Meditation) teacher in India in this period. Burmese born, S.N. Goenka of Indian origin, gave 10-day Vipassana courses for around 80 participants, mostly Westerners, on the roof of the Burmese Vihara (Monastery) inside a multi-coloured marquee.
In 1979, Burmese Bhante accepted the request of the Antioch Programme from the USA to provide accommodation in the monastery to around 30-40 students, aged mostly from 18-22, to engage in the practices and study of the Buddhist tradition. Under the guidance of Robert Prior and assistant teachers, the students stayed in Bodh Gaya from September until December learning and practising in the Theravada, Tibetan Mahayana and Zen tradition. The annual programme continued year after year running into decades.
The students made the shift in this period from the study of Buddhist philosophy and theory in university to an experiential approach in Bodh Gaya. Many experienced a change in their lives in values and priorities after four months in Bodh Gaya.
Arthur McKeown, current director of the Buddhist Studies in India Program, wrote a precious tribute this week to Burmese Bhante.
Burmese Bhante familiarised himself with every aspect of Bodh Gaya including knowledge of the land and landlords. Buddhist patrons and monks consulted Burmese Bhante on the purchase of land, prices and deeds of sale. His quiet influence contributed to establishing many monasteries during his 50 years in Bodh Gaya. His advice enabled Burmese institutions to develop in the area for students, pilgrims and monastics.
Landowners, the local Indian community and internationals trusted Burmese Bhante knowing his honesty and integrity. He lived the most modest of lives as befitting such a monk.
Monasteries as well as our school invited him to attend functions as guest of honour. Graciously, he came preferring to sit quietly rather than give a public talk.
In many respects, he was the Visionary of Bodh Gaya, as well as being the senior Abbot in the village, a home to dozens of Buddhist monasteries. He developed friendships with the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee (BGTMC), business community, monastics and pilgrims.
Bhikkhu Bodhipala, 52, a respected scholar, served as the head monk of the BGTMC for years, as well as a member of our Prajna Vihar School committee. A revered Indian monk Bhikkhu Bodhipala, 52, died from Covid on 27 July 2020, He dedicated his life to serving the needy and the poor. Both monks shared a similar vision of service.
The knowledge and expertise of Burmese Bhante enabled the Buddhist tradition to develop in Bodh Gaya. Without his presence, Bodh Gaya ran the risk of rampant corruption in major land and building projects.
A Pioneer of Bhikkhuni Ordination
As with other major world religions, Buddhism developed into a patriarchy despite the Buddha establishing full ordination and nomadic way of life for women. His radical initiative gave equal rights to women inspiring their upliftment in society. The ordained Sangha of Women (Bhikkhunis) faded away seven centuries ago due to political/social factors at the time.
Senior abbots in the Theravada tradition said the bhikkhuni tradition could not be revived as there were no senior nuns (10 years of ordination) to ordain women. I recalled our meetings and correspondence in Bodh Gaya, Sri Lanka and the West in 1997 and 1998 to see what steps to take including fund raising to support a nunnery in Sri Lanka when lay Buddhists there offered land for the newly ordained.
We. women and men, monks and householders, needed the support of a highly respected Abbot of a major monastery in the Theravada tradition to put his weight behind bhikkhuni ordination. The Abbot would have to handle the backlash from the conservative influences in Buddhism.
Burmese Bhante stepped in as the Archariya (spiritual teacher/spiritual consultant) for the 1998 Bhikkhuni ordination in Bodh Gaya with its historical significance in the history of Buddhism. Two years later, a further major ordination took place for women from India, Nepal, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia. Some bhikkhunis faced pressure upon return to their home country.
In 2008, Burmese Bhante supported Buddha Vision Bhikkhuni Training in Bodh Gaya and subsequent gatherings of ordained nuns in Bodh Gaya.
In a tribute to Burmese Bhante, Ven. Tathaloka Theri from Washington DC, USA, a senior bhikkhuni and consultant on bhikkhuni ordination, wrote this week of her gratitude to Ven. Nyaneinda:
“I deeply commend Sayadaw U Nyaneinda’s life and work, especially but not only for bhikkhunis–for all of Buddhism–in so many ways. He was a shining example of humility and patient, kind presence in such an extremely difficult and challenging situation (bhikkhuni ordination). It is almost impossible to imagine how what he did was possible. “
Burmese Bhante and Prajna Vihar School
Before the start of our school, I gave a single morning class, via a translator, for 20 days to around 50 poor children who came every morning to the Thai Monastery. With the kind assistance of an Indian monk resident in the Thai Monastery, Rick from USA found a teacher and classroom in a monastery for 20 of the children for the rest of the year. This led to two bamboo huts on a plot of land until we raised the donations (dana) to purchase a piece of land owned by a Tibetan, a few minutes’ walk from the Bodhi Tree,
Burmese Bhante spoke little at our school meetings. When we invited him to comment on an upcoming project, he spoke quietly. All of us leaned our body in his direction to catch every word he said. He spoke from experience and knowledge of every feature of Bodh Gaya.
As the school slowly expanded, we increased classrooms. From the early days, Bhante acted as the overseer for many of our projects including the land, buildings and the surrounding wall. He ensured the wise use of donations to order machinery, sand, cement, wood, windows, floors etc. He would sit in front of the workers making notes of every bucket of cement, every brick, etc. Bhante took personal responsibility for appropriate payment for wages and goods ensuring the school received the receipts for our expenses.
Our head teacher would consult Burmese Bhante on matters of the school and the village to ensure harmony and mutual understanding. He knew more about life in Bodh Gaya than the rest of us on the school committee put together.
Prajna Vihar School committee and trustees supported the school year after year. Kerstin from Brisbane, Australia brought college students in their teens to Bodh Gaya to learn and share with our pupils and experience the religious/cultural tradition of Bodh Gaya.
Along with Burmese Bhante, Bhikkhu Bodhipala, a Catholic nun as head teacher and our other Indian trustees/committee members ensured our vision of an inter-religious school. The Bandharis, both senior citizens, would take the 16-hour train journey from New Delhi to Gaya to attend the AGM (Annual General Meeting) of the school every January or February and offer supportive advice.
The school earned the deep respect of the village for its capacity to educate thousands of children from the poorest homes in Bodh Gaya. Today around 600 children attend the school.
Burmese Bhante played a key role as our unofficial ambassador throughout the year so locals, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and secular understood our inter-religious vision of education. The school holds a unique place in such inter-faith diversity of teachers and approach.
A Meeting with a Teenager in the Burmese Vihara
I gave 20 days of teachings every year from 1975 to around 2016 in the Thai Monastery for around 100–130 practitioners. During this time, I would make the walk once every year in the late afternoon to the Burmese Vihara to sit in the grounds and talk with Burmese Bhante.
I recall a couple of decades ago the two of us sitting outside around a fire to keep warm as the temperature in early January had dropped to a few degrees. Burmese Bhante called over a young temple boy to ask him to fetch us a couple of chais. I asked the boy, aged around 14, if he could speak English. Modestly, he said “a little.”
He responded in English to all my questions. After several minutes, I asked him what school he attended. He replied: “Prajna Vihar School.” Phew. I did not anticipate his answer. It brought a tear to my eye.
Our free school accepted children from the poorest families who could never send their children to school. Before their education, such children often begged the pilgrims from around the world for food and money on the streets while living in huts no different from the Middle Ages.
After listening to the youngster, I wanted to go and hug every teacher in our school. Some Prajna Vihar graduates attend university and engage in prestigious jobs in India and overseas. The children have uplifted the families, their sense of dignity and their economic circumstances.
Burmese Bhante kept a mindful eye on the school day after day, year after year, so it stayed steady in its development.
As the boy walked away, Burmese Bhante and I looked across to each other and smiled.
Thank you, Bhante. A life truly well-lived.
Photo shows Burmese Bhante
Buddhism and the Global Bazaar in Bodh Gaya
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY. Anthropology
THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA (Vancouver).
The 252 pages thesis contains an accurate account in detail of religious/cultural/social life of Bodh Gaya, including arrival of Westerners between the 1960s and 2003.