"What's So Special About the Sagaing Hills?"
Regarding the recent news about U Sarana undertaking an intensive research trip in the Sagaing Hills, some readers who have not been to Myanmar have asked, "what's so special about this area, anyway?"
This is a fair question, and one that would require a book to answer-- or, perhaps, the upcoming Shwe Lan Ga Lay.
One cannot find the words to adequately describe such an unusual gem as these Hills. It is noteworthy that it has played critical roles in the genesis of the two major Burmese Buddhist practices that have been exported from Burma: Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayagyi U Goenka. It was in Sagaing, at Thameikdawdaya Nunnery just after World War II, in 1947, where Sir U Thwin beheld Mahasi Sayadaw speaking for the first time. He was transfixed listening to the sermon, and later remarked that “[Mahasi Sayadaw] was teaching with utmost dignity in a tranquil state of mind without any distraction….This eminent teacher is the savior I have been searching for.” Conferring with Prime Minister U Nu, Sir U Thwin invited Mahasi Sayadaw to the newly opened Sasana Yeiktha in Rangoon, asking him to be the lead teacher here. It was from this this center where the Mahasi movement swept not only Burma but the entire Southeast Asian region in unprecedented ways, an unparalleled Dhammic movement that had its origins in a humble Sagaing nunnery.
Similarly, U Goenka has suggested that Ledi Sayadaw learned Vipassana meditation deep in the Sagaing Hills from an unknown master. Although there are questions about this speculation, it is extremely significant that this region would be chosen as the origin of Ledi's Vipassana practice, for it is a region especially known for patipatti-minded monks. Ledi would be asked on two separate occasions to return to the Sagaing Hills to drive away plague epidemics, and was successful both times, according to one monk biographer. He also spent the last couple years of his life in a monastery near the Ayeyarwaddy River (although passed away in Pyinmina), where pilgrims can still today go and meditate just beyond the peaceful flowing river. It was also here where he was given the highest award by British colonials. (by this time, however, Ledi was legally blind, having exhausted his eyesight from his continual reading and writing) Also, perhaps U Goenka's greatest contemporary Dhamma friend in Myanmar was Sitagu Sayadaw, who played a critical role for the spread of U Goenka's teachings within Myanmar. And Sitagu Sayadaw, of course, established his famed Sitagu Academy just at the foot of the Hills-- and is now building a massive Vipassana Center much deeper into the Hills in the model of Borobudur in Indonesia.
Until just a generation ago, tigers roamed the dense forestation of the Sagaing Hills, and some monks even today bear tiger scars upon their bodies from attacks that occurred during alms rounds-- talk about unwholesome kamma for the great beasts! Countless arahants have been produced from these Hills, and the surviving stories of their challenges and ultimate successes make some of the most inspiring reading available to meditators today-- it is histories and stories such as these that U Sarana hopes to further track down.