Venerable Sayadaw U Thila Wunta was born June 28, 1912 in Wekalaung, Mon State, Burma to the Ngyein family. His parents named him Botaya “one who loves the dhamma.” He began his training at the Wekalaung village monastery school in 1919 and at the age of 15 he took the vows of a samanera or novice monk, and was given the name Thila Wunta “Great Sila.”
In May 1932 he received full ordination as a bhikkhu under the preceptorship of Kyaw Sayadaw and spent his first three-month retreat at Htan-bin Monastery near Wekalaung. Between the years 1933 and 1938 he practiced in Mandalay under the supervision of Sayadaw U Narada of Payagyi Monastery, Sayadaw U Ariya of Ahlei Taik Monastery, and Sayadaw U Pyin Nyein Da of Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery all renowned scholars and meditators. Venerable U Thila Wunta then dwelt for three years near the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, one of the great holy sites that the Burmese believe are especially conducive to meditation practice. During this period he constructed his first pagoda (stupa), the Su-taung-pye Kat-Kyaw Pagoda, on the She Dagon’s second level.
In 1941, ahead of the advancing Japanese invaders, Sayadaw left Rangoon for his native Mon State, where he remained in retreat at Phaouk Monastery in Moulmein until after the end of hostilities. In early 1946 he returned to Rangoon, where he took up residence in a bamboo hut, again not far from the great Shwe Dagon Pagoda. In May of 1947 he was given another small meditation hut by some devout lay people living in Kapili Kwathi on the west side of the Shwe Dagon, and there he spent the rainy season practicing meditation with eight fellow monks. At the end of 1947 he set out for Mandalay to pursue further meditation practice at Mahatmya-muni Pagoda. There he met and discussed meditation with a disciple of Bodaw Aung Min Gaung, one of the most venerated practitioners of the Weizzar forest tradition (from the Pali vijja: wise ones. The weizzars of Burma are considered to be accomplished masters similar to tantric yogis and siddhas). During their conversations the Sayadaw learned that this student had travelled the distance between Popa and Mandalay, normally a two-day journey, in just three hours.
Inspired by what he had heard about Bodaw Aung Min Gaung, Sayadaw traveled to Popa to meet the great master in person. This meeting brought about a radical change in his understanding. He began an intensive retreat, asking the Bodaw to explain the nimittas (signs) that had arisen in his meditation. At this time the Bodaw promised to henceforth help in all the works of the Sayadaw, strengthening the Buddha Sasana in Burma and abroad.
Upon Sayadaw’s eventual return to Rangoon, a devout layman named U Pho Nweh requested that he accept five acres of land and restore an ancient, ruined pagoda on the site. At the conclusion of a meditation retreat, during which he considered the request, Sayadaw journeyed to Popa to ask the advice of Bodaw Aung Min Gaung. On the Bodaw’s recommendation, he accepted the land and began construction of the Dat Pon Zon Aung Min Gaung Pagoda on January 13, 1949. That was the start of a project that has continued up to the present. Today, surrounding the reconstructed central pagoda, there are some 174 smaller pagodas, along with a number of buildings for monks and lay meditators. The original five bare acres has been transformed into a thriving monastic complex, known as Dat Pon Zon Aung Min Gaung Monastery.
For five years, from the time of his initial residence on the property in early 1948 until the construction of the first monastery buildings in 1953, Sayadaw dwelt under a large tree, refusing any permanent lodging. When local devotees brought him offerings they would often find him seated in motionless meditation, the ants having incorporated his body into their network of paths. To this day he is known to many Burmese as the “Ant Sayadaw.”
In 1952 Venerable Sayadaw U Thila Wanta went on pilgrimage to Bodhgaya and other Buddhist sites in India. At Mihintali he meditated where Prince Mahendra (Mahinda), the son of Emperor Asoka, is said to have attained enlightenment. He also went to Savatti, to Rajgriha, the Vulture’s Peak, site of many of the Buddha’s discourses, to Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first teaching, and to Kusinara, where the Buddha entered into parinibbana. In Sri Lanka he visited the great monastery of Anuradhapura.
In 1955 Sayadaw began a period of wide-ranging travel and pagoda construction. He visited Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and once again India, where he completed an intensive forty-nine-day meditation retreat at Bodhgaya. In 1958 he travelled by ship to England and then to the United States, where he built the American Shwe Dagon Pagoda on land donated by Mr. Gus Ruggieri near Allegany, New York.
While in London, Sayadaw met the young Canadian Leslie Dawson, who was interested in becoming a monk and had already studied the Vinaya and other aspects of the Dhamma. Sayadaw advised Mr. Dawson to meet him in India and then to return with him to Burma, and on October 28, 1958, Leslie Dawson was ordained as a novice monk in Bodhgaya, taking the name Ananda Bodhi. He received full bhikkhu ordination at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon on December 21, and then began an extended period of intensive meditation practice, during which he studied for periods in Sri Lanka and at Wat Paknam and Wat Mahadat (with Chao Khun Phra Rajasiddhimuni) in Thailand, as well as with Sayadaw U Thila Wunta and Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw in Rangoon. He was ultimately given the title Samattha-Vipassana-Kammatthana-Acariya (master of both tranquility and insight meditation) in recognition of his attainments.
Between 1958 and 1981 Sayadaw built and restored numerous pagodas throughout Burma. He also gained a reputation as a great healer and his monastery became a centre for monks from his native Mon State wishing to do concentrated meditation practice in Rangoon. In 1981 and 1982 two American students of Ven Ananda Bodhi (by then known as Namgyal Rinpoche) came to Sayadaw to request ordination as U Pannananda and U Bodhi Nanda (aka Karma Sonam Senge). Subsequently they initiated and helped to support Ven Sayadaw U Thila Wunta’s second visit to the West.
In April 1982 Sayadaw left for North America, where he constructed pagodas and taught at centres near Boise and Kinmount and on Galiano Island. Additionally, he rebuilt the American Shwe Dagon Pagoda in New York and gave teachings in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Nelson, Edmonton and Calgary. In November, at the invitation of students of Namgyal Rinpoche, Sayadaw continued on to New Zealand, where he taught in Aukland, Wellington and Christchurch before travelling to the Wangapeka Retreat Centre to construct another pagoda. From New Zealand Sayadaw flew to Australia, where he supervised the building of a pagoda in Adelaide and visited the Origins Centre near Perth.
Between 1988 and 2000 Sayadaw made three more extensive journeys outside Burma. Students of Namgyal Rinpoche helped to organize a visit to England, where Sayadaw constructed a pagoda in Warwick in 1988. In 1990 he travelled to California and British Columbia, teaching in Los Angeles and Vancouver and building a spacious platform around the World Peace Pagoda on Galiano Island. In 2000 Sayadaw journeyed again to North America, constructing a pagoda in Winnipeg and a large Buddharupa at the Dharma Centre in Kinmount. Then he went on to build a pagoda in Barrydale, South Africa before returning to Burma. Though health problems prevented his direct participation, in 2006 students of the Ven Sayadaw constructed a pagoda in Sao Paulo, Brazil, fulfilling his wish that pagodas be built on all six continents.
The Ven Sayadaw, truly a living embodiment of the power of the Teaching, spoke of himself as a fisherman casting the golden net of Buddha Dhamma in many far-off seas. He passed away in Rangoon on March 18, 2011.
Venerable Sayadaw U Thila Wunta’s biography is written by John de Jardin, visit www.muditabc.org for meditation classes with John in Vancouver, Canada and www.walkingshadow.net for more information and photography by John De Jardin