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Jul 7, 2012

Sayagyi U Ba Khin and Emperor Asoka

(July 15 marks the 2,601st anniversary of  the Buddha's first discourse, the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta. From Principal Vipassana Teacher Sayagyi U Goenka's article in Vipassana newsletter dated August 2011)

Two centuries after the Buddha breathed his last, Asoka became Emperor of Magadha. Driven by overweening ambition, he established a vast empire covering much of India and neighbouring countries. But one kingdom had not been brought under his sway: Kalinga, the modern-day Indian state of Orissa.

Furious at its resistance to him, Asoka attacked Kalinga and subjugated it in a bloody war. Then, after the fighting was over, he saw how many innocent people had been killed and how terrible was the suffering of this once-prosperous land. Heartsick at his own actions, he resolved to abjure the sword.

It was at this time that Asoka came to know about the teachings of the Buddha and was instantly attracted. He began by studying the words of the Enlightened One. Then someone told him that knowledge of the texts was not enough to give an understanding of the real meaning of the teachings; that can come only through the development of insight, that is, vipassanā-bhāvanā, or Vipassana meditation.

The best place then to learn Vipassana was at Bairath in the state of Rajasthan, where a bhikkhu named Upagupta taught. Handing over power to his subordinates, Asoka set out for Rajasthan. After 300 days he returned to his capital, a changed man. Now his volition was to share the teachings of the Buddha throughout his empire; he had been inspired by ehi passiko, the wholesome wish that others may come and see the Dhamma.

Printing then was unknown but Asoka was determined to spread the Buddha’s teachings among his subjects. He gave orders to inscribe the core teachings in stone, where everyone could see. This happened little more than two centuries after the Buddha, before his original words had been altered in any way. That is why we see the pure teachings of the Buddha in Asoka’s rock inscriptions.

Emperor Ashoka, (304-232 BC)
More than mere study of the texts or theory (pariyatti), the Buddha gave importance to practice (paṭipatti). That is why the Asoka inscriptions often mention the practice of Vipassana.

The Buddha took no account of religious differences, giving his teaching to all. In many cases, people who started as his staunch opponents became his most fervent supporters once they learned what he taught.

In ancient India there were two communities, the samaṇas and the brāhmaṇas. The Buddha tried to unite people of all sects in the practice of Dhamma. Similarly, Asoka made no distinction between samaṇas and brāhmaṇas. He gave donations to both and encouraged others to do the same.

In fact, with the practice of Vipassana, differences between the two communities began to fade and they lived together in harmony. Asoka’s reign saw no communal tension or fighting.

Asoka tried to interest all communities in Vipassana. Far from being the monopoly of any one group, he showed that Vipassana belongs to all. It is universal.

The Buddha sent forth his disciples, telling each to go in a different direction and offer his pure, non-sectarian teaching. The result was that the Dhamma began to spread far and wide through northern India, bringing happiness to many. People from every major system of belief came in contact with the Buddha’s teachings and changed for the better.

To bring people of all religious backgrounds to a righteous way of living, Asoka urged them to learn and develop in Vipassana. He appointed male and female teachers, both members of the Sangha and laypeople. All began to teach Vipassana throughout India. In modern times as well, my revered teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin taught Vipassana to followers of the Buddha in Myanmar and also to other people of many different backgrounds.

Asoka decided to establish cetiyas, or memorials to the Buddha, the length and breadth of his empire. Afterwards bhikkhus came to reside at these calm and inspiring sites, which were ideal places for the teaching of the Dhamma.

Out of compassion, Asoka saw that Vipassana was taught to prison inmates so that they might be transformed. In modern times as well, prison inmates in India, Myanmar, the United States and other countries have the opportunity to change their lives through Vipassana.

Asoka was instrumental in spreading the pure teachings of the Buddha as far afield as Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Europe, although in those countries the memory of the Dhamma faded. The story was different in some Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos: there the Dhamma took root with Asoka’s help and flourishes still today.

Asoka had the military strength to conquer neighbouring countries and extend the frontiers of his empire. Instead he chose to expand the kingdom of Dhamma, so that people would live a good life. In doing so, he won the hearts of all.

With the passage of centuries, in some countries the teachings of the Buddha did not remain in the original, authentic form as sent by Asoka. But in Myanmar, people preserved the words of the Buddha and the technique of Vipassana meditation in their pristine purity from generation to generation. At least among a few, the theory and practice were handed on from teacher to pupil in their pure form as sent by Asoka.

In modern times the Venerable Ledi Sayadaw decided to revive the ancient tradition of lay teachers of the Dhamma. There was a common belief that 2,500 years after the time of the Buddha, there would be a resurgence of the Dhamma for another 2,500 years. The time was approaching for that resurgence, when the Buddha’s teachings could be expected to spread rapidly and widely. To prepare for this moment, Ledi Sayadaw trained Saya Thet Gyi and appointed him the first lay teacher of Dhamma. Saya Thet Gyi in turn taught Vipassana to lay people as well as some bhikkhus.

After Saya Thet Gyi, the next link in the chain of teachers was my own teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. In him we have a glimpse of both the Buddha and Asoka. In his discourses he spoke at length about pariyatti. But in his courses, the focus was on the practice of Vipassana from morning to evening.

Global Pagoda, Mumbai, India -  built as a mark of infinite gratitude to Sayagyi U Ba Khin

As a teacher, Sayagyi made no distinction between people whatever their background. He never spoke critically of any religious group. Instead he tried to understand the teaching of each group from the view point of Dhamma and to interpret it in light of the words of the Buddha.

Once a well-known writer from the United States, a Christian priest, joined a course with Sayagyi. As usual, the first step was to take refuge in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. The American resisted doing this, saying that he was willing instead to take refuge in Jesus.

Sayagyi smiled and said, “Very well, do that. After all, the Buddha is not sitting in the heavens, waiting to fulfil the wishes of those who take refuge in him. The refuge is really in his qualities. Jesus also had many wonderful qualities. Take inspiration from his example and try to emulate him in your life. If you take refuge in Jesus, take refuge in his qualities, not in Jesus as a person.”

This man agreed and began to work. When the course ended, he came to Sayagyi and begged forgiveness for his initial resistance. He had realized that the pure Dhamma transcends all distinctions between religions.

An important principle of this tradition is that no price can be put on the Dhamma because in fact it is priceless. To earn money by teaching the Dhamma is unethical and completely forbidden. If someone wants to earn money, there are endless business opportunities. But the Dhamma is not a commercial commodity, not something for sale. A businessman makes money by his work and becomes rich; but a teacher of the Dhamma must never amass wealth by charging fees for the teaching. Instead, this tradition strictly follows the Buddha’s injunction,

Dhammena na vanaṃ care
Do not make a business of Dhamma.

Anyone who ignores this injunction teaches not Dhamma but its opposite.

During Asoka’s reign, the Dhamma remained in its purest form. But a small number of priests of other traditions suffered financial losses as the Dhamma spread, and so they were motivated to introduce changes that would contaminate the teaching. As a consequence, the Dhamma lost its pristine purity 2,000 years ago. In truth it was only a small number who were responsible for this decline, and it would be totally wrong to blame an entire community. In every community there are people of pure heart.

My revered teacher fully lived the ideals of Dhamma. He was a senior member of the civil service, where it was commonplace to amass fortunes through fraudulent practices. But Sayagyi was ripened in Dhamma. He worked in this corrupt environment and emerged without any stain on his character.