Ledi Sayadaw U Ñanadhaja ( 1 December 1846 – 27 June 1923) was an influential Theravada Buddhist monk. He was recognized from a young age as being developed in both the theory and practice of Buddhism and so was revered as being both scholarly and saintly.
He wrote many books on Dhamma in Burmese and these were accessible even to a serious lay person, hence he was responsible for spreading Dhamma to all levels of society and reviving the traditional practice of vipassana meditation, making it more available for renunciates and lay people alike.
Ledi Sayadaw learned the technique of Vipassana which had remained being taught in the caves of the Sagaing Hills, which was honeycombed with meditation caves and dotted with forest monasteries.
For how long we do not know.
Verbal accounts state that two monks brought the practice of Vipassana to this area at the time of the Buddha. It is just as likely that prior to the eighteenth century in Burma, as elsewhere in the Theravāda world, it was generally believed that it was no longer possible to attain enlightenment and hence nibbāna through vipassanā or any other means during the present age.
The earliest known challenger to this assumption is that of a monk from the Sagaing Hills in Upper Burma named Waya-zawta whose movement ﬂourished during the reign of Maha-damma-yaza-dipati (r. 1733–1752). A young scholar-monk named Medawi (1728–1816) began writing vipassanā manuals in the vernacular.
Couched in the language of abhidhamma, these are the very earliest ‘how-to’ vipassanā books we possess from Burma. Medawi’s earliest manual was completed in 1754.
Ledi’s lineage comes from this line, whereby his main teacher was King Mindon’s royal minister U Hpo Hlaing (1830–1883), who was notable for his avid interest in western science and eﬀorts to reconcile this new perspective with abhidhamma. This synthetic approach was passed on to his protégé, the scholar-monk, U Nyana, who later became famous as Ledi Sayadaw, arguably the most signiﬁcant promoter of vipassanā in the modern period.
After mastering the Vipassana technique, he began to teach it to others. His vihara (monastery) was in Ledi village near the town of Monywa. There he meditated most of the time and taught the other bhikkhus. Among Ledi’s disciples, Theik-cha-daung Sayadaw(1871-1931) and Mohnyin Sayadaw(1872-1964) are well-known.
Theik-cha-daung Sayadaw taught the layman Saya Thetgyi, who would go on to receive training from Ledi himself. Thetgyi’s lineage continues to the present, the most prominent being U Wunnathiri and Ba Khin and his disciple’s, others include [SN Goenka], [John Coleman], and [Mother Sayamagyi Daw Mya Thwin].
In 1885, Ledi Sayadaw wrote the Nwa-myitta-sa , a poetic prose letter that argued that Burmese Buddhists should not kill cattle and eat beef, since Burmese farmers depended on them as beasts of burden to maintain their livelihoods, that the marketing of beef for human consumption threatened the extinction of buffalo and cattle and that the practice and was ecologically unsound.
He subsequently led successful beef boycotts during the colonial era, despite the presence of beef eating among locals and influenced a generation of Burmese nationalists in adopting this stance.
At other times he travelled throughout Myanmar. Because of his knowledge of pariyatti (theory), he was able to write many books on Dhamma in both Pali and Burmese languages such as, Paramattha-dipani (Manual of Ultimate Truth), Nirutta-dipani, a book on Pali grammar and The Manuals of Dhamma.
At the same time he kept alive the pure tradition of patipatti (practice) by teaching the technique of Vipassana to a few people.
Ledi Sayadaw was perhaps the most outstanding Buddhist figure of his age. He was instrumental in reviving the traditional practice of Vipassana, making it more available for renunciates and lay people alike.
In addition to this most important aspect of his teaching, his concise, clear and extensive scholarly work served to clarify the experiential aspect of Dhamma. Many of his works are still available, including in English through the Buddhist Publication Society.