The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism and the Burmese
Monk Ledi Sayadaw. By Eric Braun. Chicago and London. University
of Chicago Press, 2013. ISBN: 97802266000800
Erik Braun’s book is about how a remarkable man’s leadership came to the rescue
of Burmese Buddhist identity and how a very modern Buddhism was born.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, colonial power was devastating Burmese
institutions of state and religion. The Dharma itself was under threat and the reality
of change demanded adaptation.
An ambitious Burmese Monk, Ledi Sayadaw, born in 1846 of humble origins,
applied his considerable intelligence to a career within the corridors of the
Sangha’s power. This required excellence in study combined with political judgment.
His character was forged and a leader was made.
When the time came and millenarian fears justified decisive action, Ledi Sayadaw
could see that democratisation of power through making Buddhist learning accessible
to the laity was the means to preserving the Dharma and renewing hope
in a broken Burma. This task required simplification of theory and practice. As a
result he created the blueprint for a new expression of Buddhism that could travel
to the West.
Of course, nothing exists in isolation and everything depends heavily on its
context. This seems obvious, but perhaps we should remember the Buddha’s advice
to Ananda when he exclaimed:
”It’s amazing, lord, it’s astounding, how deep this dependent co-arising is, and
how deep its appearance, and yet to me it seems as clear as clear can be.”
[The Buddha responded:] ”Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Deep is
this dependent co-arising, and deep its appearance. It’s because of not understanding
and not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation is like a tangled
skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds, and does not go beyond
transmigration, beyond the planes of deprivation, woe, and bad destinations.”
(DN51, Online Translation, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997.)
So let me explain a little about the context in which this review is written: A
mixture of surprise and pride came over me when Richard asked me to review
this book. I have little by way of the academic credentials that one might expect
of someone asked to write such a review for an academic journal, but Richard
assured me that I was the person he wanted to do the job.
Not being an academic, I cannot treat Braun’s book as an academic object
whose merit stands outside the context of its comprehensibility and usefulness to
I apply what I understand of the Buddhist tradition in my life and work. I
am looking for credible sources or evidence which provide the foundation for
clearly explained ideas. Ideas which interest me are ideas that make sense of the
world in which I live and give me a rationale for action. The quality and clarity
of writing, well researched source material and the ideas he expresses have made
Braun’s book a pleasure for me to read.
I teach mindfulness, and what I teach draws on an evidence-based understanding
of how “Buddhist insight meditation” can prevent depression. What I
teach in my workplace applies a cognitive behaviourist theory of how an “active
ingredient” of “insight meditation” prevents recurrent depression to general stress
and work related performance. In the therapeutic context the “active ingredient”
is delivered in an eight-week teaching programme, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive
Therapy (MBCT). MBCT is a secularized, reproducible intervention that has
provided opportunities for experimental testing. It was found it to be effective at
reducing the rate of relapse of depression by 40-50%.
MBCT represents a bridge between an epistemology with Buddhist roots and
scientific epistemology. In the scientific context, causes become independent
variables, conditions are controlled and effects are dependent variables. All the
elements of the processes of a phenomenon under scientific study need to be defined
and measurable or controllable. The subject of scientific study becomes an
object, which exists independently of the context in which it is studied; hypothesis
becomes theory and theory becomes fact.
When it comes to the scientific study of therapy, subjective experience is taken
as objective data. On the other hand, Buddhist knowledge is based entirely on
examining subjective experience subjectively. Here, it could be argued that Buddhist
knowledge is more about the nature of experience of things than about the
nature of things that exist independently of experience.