Vassa, the rainy season retreat has begun. It is a time for offering robes to monks and for making special efforts toward gaining a better understanding of Buddhist values. In Burma, we look upon members of the sangha (the Buddhist religious order) as teachers who will lead us along the noble eightfold path. Good teachers not merely give scholarly sermons, they show us how we should conduct our daily lives in accordance with right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Not long ago before my house arrest in 1989, I was granted an audience with the venerable U Pandita, an exceptional teacher in the best tradition of great spiritual mentors whose words act constantly as an aid to a better existence. Sayadaw (holy teacher) U Pandita, spoke of the importance of samma-vaca or right speech. Not only should one speak only the truth, one’s speech should lead to harmony among beings, it should be kind and pleasant and it should be beneficial. One should follow the example of the Lord Buddha who only spoke words that were trustful and beneficial, even if at times such speech was not always pleasing to the listener.
The Sayadaw also urged me to cultivate sati, mindfulness. Of the five spiritual faculties saddha (faith), viriya (energy), samadhi (concentration) and panna (wisdom), it is only sati that can never be in excess. Excessive faith without sufficient wisdom leads to blind faith, while excessive wisdom without sufficient energy leads to undesirable cunning. Too much energy combined with weak concentration leads to indolence. But as for sati, one can never have too much of it, it is ‘never in excess, but always in deficiency’. The truth and value of this Buddhist concept that Sayadaw U Pandita took such pains to impress on me became evident during my years of house arrest. Like many of my Buddhist colleagues, I decided to put my time under detention to good use by practicing meditation. It was not an easy process. I did not have a teacher and my early attempts were more than a little frustrating. There were days when I found my failure to discipline my mind in accordance with prescribed meditation practices so infuriating I felt I was doing myself more harm than good. I think I would have given up but for the advice of a famous Buddhist teacher, that whether or not one wanted to practice meditation, one should do so for one’s own good.
So, I gritted my teeth and kept at it, often rather glumly. Then my husband gave me a copy of Sayadaw U Pandita’s book, “In this Very Life, the Liberation Teachings of the Buddha.” By studying this book carefully, I learned how to overcome difficulties of meditation and to realize its benefits. I learned how practicing meditation led to increased mindfulness in every day life and again and again. I recalled the Sayadaw’s words on the importance of mindfulness with appreciation and gratitude.
In my political work, I have been helped and strengthened by the teachings of members of the sangha. During my very first campaign trip across Burma, I received invaluable advice from monks in different parts of the country. In Prome, a Sayadaw told me to keep in mind the hermit Sumedha, who sacrificed the possibility of early liberation for himself alone and underwent many lives of striving that he might save others from suffering. So must you be prepared to strive for as long as might be necessary to achieve good and justice, exhorted the venerable Sayadaw.
In a monastery at Pakokku, the advice that an abbot gave to my father when he went to that town more than 40 years ago was repeated to me: “Do not be frightened every time there is an attempt to frighten you, but do not be entirely without fear. Do not become elated every time you are praised, but do not be entirely lacking in elation.” In other words, while maintaining courage and humility, one should not abandon caution and healthy self-respect.
When I visited Natmauk, my father’s home town, I went to the monastery where he studied as a boy. There the abbot gave a sermon on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which had been lost; omission to repair that which had been damaged; disregard of the need for reasonable economy; and the elevation to leadership of those without morality and learning. The abbot went on to explain how these traditional Buddhist views should be interpreted to help us build a just and prosperous society in the modern age.
Of the words of wisdom I gathered during that journey across central Burma, those of a 91-year-old Sayadaw of Sagaing are particularly memorable. He sketched out for me how it would be to work for democracy in Burma. “You will be attacked and reviled for engaging in honest politics,” pronounced the Sayadaw, “But you must persevere. Lay down an investment in dukkha (suffering) and you will gain sukha (bliss).”
From Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma, Originally published in the Bangkok Post, September 1996.