The Setting of the Discourses of Webu Sayadaw

The Setting

Most of these discourses were given before large audiences during Ven. Webu Sayadaw’s travels in lower Burma. The person or persons answering Ven. Webu Sayadaw are lay-people sitting up front and close to him.

Some of the discourses are translated from a collection of dis­courses collected and introduced by U Hte Hlain and published by the Ministry of Religious Affairs of Burma. Others have been transcribed from tape by the translator and then rendered in English.

Because they were delivered extemporaneously, the discourses are repetitive and were edited slightly so that they lend themselves better to reading. Care was taken, however, to edit only obvious repetitions and only when they had merely rhetorical value. The reader may still find the discourses repetitive, but with some patience and “mindfulness” he will discover in them many insights into practical Buddhism.

Ven. Webu Sayadaw’s discourses are not meant for the person who prefers the study of Buddhist philosophy to the practice. His refreshing simplicity, his patience, his lovely sense of humour, and his humility —are revealed in the dialogues with his audience. Moreover, the statements of the people in the audience offer us a glimpse of how Buddhism is practised in Burma today.

Pāḷi Terms Used in the Discourses

To understand the discourses, the reader should be familiar with some basic teachings of Buddhism. Neither the explanations given nor the points selected for explanation attempt to give a complete picture of the teachings of the Buddha, but they should enable the reader to under­stand the discourses included in this collection.

The Theravāda Buddhist scriptures can be divided into “Three (ti) Baskets (piṭaka)” and are therefore called the Tipiṭaka in Pāḷi, the language in which they were originally written down.

The three baskets are:

(1) Vinaya-piṭaka: The books of monastic discipline.
(2) Suttanta-piṭaka: The books of discourses of the Buddha and his major disciples.
(3) Abhidhamma-piṭaka: the books of ultimate truths; an ana­lysis of physical and mental phenomena into their ultimate components.

Scholarly training (pariyatti) in Theravāda Buddhism consists of the study of these scriptures. Practical training (paṭipatti), with which these discourses mainly deal, is concerned with the practice of sīla (morality), samādhi (concentration) and paññā (insight) and culminates in the attaining of the four stages of Nibbāna (paṭivedha).

The word Dhamma can have many different meanings, but in the context of these discourses it is always used to mean the teachings of the Buddha.


For the monks, the training in morality consists of the observance of 227 rules. The collection of these rules is called the Pātimokkha and is part of the Vinaya.

Lay-people have to observe five or eight rules of training: the five sīlas (pañca-sīla), or the eight sīlas (Uposatha-sīla).


(1) to abstain from killing any living being;
(2) to abstain from taking what is not given;
(3) to abstain from sexual misconduct;
(4) to abstain from telling untruths;
(5) to abstain from intoxicating drink and drugs.


(1) to (5) as above;
(6) to abstain from eating solid food after midday;
(7) to abstain from dancing, singing, music, and watching unseemly shows; from the use of garlands, perfumes, and unguents; and from things that tend to beautify and adorn;
(8) to abstain from high and luxurious seats and beds.

The field of sīla is, of course, much wider. These precepts are but the absolute basics of Right Conduct (caraṇa) a Buddhist lay-person is expected to observe. The purpose of sīla or caraṇa is to bring physical and verbal action under control.


Tranquil concentration of the mind and control over the mind. The Buddha taught forty techniques to achieve samādhi, of which Ānāpāna is one. The Buddha taught that sīla is a prerequisite for samādhi.


Paññā, the understanding through personal experience of the characteristics which the Buddha said were in the nature of all condi­tioned things, i.e.anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anattā (absence of a permanent personal entity such as an ego, self or soul), is achieved through Vipassanā meditation. In Vipassanā meditation the mind is set to a perfect state of balance, and then the mind’s attention is projected to the changing nature (anicca), or the unsatisfactory nature (dukkha), or the impersonal nature (anattā) of all physical and mental phenomena encountered.

Sīlasamādhi, and paññā are called the three sikkhās, the threefold training. In addition to this threefold division, we often also find a two­fold one: (1) caraṇa: right conduct (sīla) and (2) bhāvanā: mental development (samādhi and paññā). Another method of enumeration is (1) dāna(generosity, otherwise included in sīla); (2) sīla, and (3) bhāvanā.

What are normally called beings, i.e., Devas, Brahmās, humans, animals, etc., are seen in Buddhism as nothing but a combination and continuous arising and dissolution of mental and physical phenomena. “Mind” in Pāḷi is nāma and “matter”, rūpa.

Mind and matter (nāma and rūpa) are both impermanent or unstable. “But in expounding the theory of anicca, the Buddha started with the behaviour that makes matter, and matter as known to the Buddha is very much smaller than the atom that science of today has discovered. The Buddha made it known to his disciples that everything that exists, be it animate or inanimate, is composed of kalāpas (very much smaller than atoms), each dying out simultaneously as it becomes. Each kalāpa is a mass formed of the eight nature elements, namely, solidity, liquidity, heat, motion, colour, odour, taste, and nutriment. The first four are called material qualities which are predominant in a kalāpa. The other four are merely subsidiaries that are dependent upon and born out of the former. A kalāpa is the minutest particle in the physical plane — still beyond the range of science today.

“It is only when the eight nature elements (which have merely the characteristic of behaviour) are together that the entity of a kalāpa is formed. In other words, the co-existence for a moment of these eight nature elements of behaviour makes a mass, just for a moment, which in Buddhism is known as a kalāpa.” A being is also defined as the coming together of the five aggregates (pañca khandha). In this case, one aggregate is rūpa or matter, while nāma or mind is divided into four aggregates: (1) viññāna, consciousness, (2) saññā, perception or recognition, (3) vedanā, sensation, feeling, (4) saṅkhāra, force of past action. (It can be seen from this that the term nāma is wider than the English term “mind.”)

Saṅkhāra (or kamma in popular terminology) is the force left behind by actions in the past, the “past” meaning here billions and billions of lives in saṃsāra, the cycle of births and deaths. Saṅkhāra is a cause for the experience of sense impressions.

There are three possible ways of reacting to a sensory contact or sense impression: kusala (skilful reaction), akusala (unskilful reaction), and avyakata (neutral reaction). Practically speaking, neutral reaction is possible only for an Arahat, i.e., for someone who experiences no wanting (lobha) or dislike (dosa) and whose mind is not clouded by any form of delusion (moha) about the Four Noble Truths as taught by the Buddha. Every intelligent ordinary being, however, is capable of kusala rather than akusala reactions. In order to be able to react skilfully, one has to have control not only over one’s physical and verbal actions, but also over one’s mind. Every physical and verbal action begins in the mind, and the action that results in saṅkhāra or kamma is the mental volition accompanying this physical and verbal action.

Initially, Ānāpāna meditation is but a tool to concentrate and calm the mind. At this stage no attention is given to sensations, thoughts, emotions, and similar mental phenomena. The attention of the mind is meant to stay with the simple awareness of the physical touch of air brushing over the skin below the nose, above the upper lip. In this case the three unwholesome roots, i.e.lobha (greed), dosa (anger, aversion), and moha(delusion), are held in abeyance, and what is left are the Three Wholesome Roots: alobha (non-greed), adosa (non-anger), and amoha (knowledge, understanding). This momentary concentration of the mind on physical phenomena results in a temporary mental purity which in Buddhism is called samādhi.

To come to a lasting purity of mind, according to Buddhism, matter and mental aggregates have to be observed in the light of their constant change (anicca), their unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and the absence of an “I”, a lasting personality or soul (anattā). By experienc­ing these characteristics, or indeed, any one characteristic, a person can attain freedom from all attachment, and thus reach the end of suffering.

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths so often referred to in the discourses are the following:

(1) The Truth of Suffering (dukkha),
(2) The Truth of the Origin of Suffering (samudaya),
(3) The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (nirodha)
(4) The Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering (magga).

The term dukkha is traditionally translated as “suffering” (and is the same term we rendered as “unsatisfactoriness” above). The Noble Truth of Suffering states that all conditioned states are unsatisfactory or connected with suffering. The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering declares the origin of suffering as being craving (lobha). The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering teaches that suffering ceases as soon as all craving ceases. The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering gives us the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of eight limbs arranged in three groups: sīlasamādhi, and paññā.


sammā-vācā – Right speech
sammā-kammanta – Right action
sammā-ajīva – Right livelihood


sammā-vāyāma – Right effort
sammā-sati – Right attentiveness
sammā-samādhi – Right concentration


sammā-diṭṭhi – Right view
sammā-saṅkappa – Right thinking

The Thirty-one Planes of Existence

The Buddha taught that the universe is composed of innumerable world systems and each world system in turn is composed of thirty-one planes of existence.

These are

(I) Four arūpa planes of Brahmās (these planes, where mind but no matter exists, are attained through the highest absorption states, jhāna).
(II) Sixteen Fine-material planes of Brahmās (attained through absorption states).
(III) Six Deva planes (attained through the practice of sīla and of generosity).
(IV) The human plane (attained through the practice of sīla and of generosity).
(V) Four Lower planes: Animals, Ghosts, Demons, Hell (attained through bad deeds).

The thirty-one planes of existence are divided into three spheres (loka) the arūpa-loka, which consists of the four highest Brahmā planes; the rūpa-loka, which consists of the remaining sixteen Brahmā planes; and the kāma-loka, which is the sphere of sensual desires (kāma) and includes the four lower planes, the human plane and the six Deva planes.

Beings are reborn in the different planes according to the mental action or kamma created at the moment of death (cuti). A good, pure mental action gives rise to a being in the human or Deva planes. The practice of the absorption states (jhāna) leads to rebirth in the Brahmā planes. If, at the moment of death, the mind is impure, i.e., inclined towards anger, greed, delusion, the force produced by this impure mind will result in rebirth in one of the four lower planes of existence.

In Buddhism the training of the mind is deemed of paramount importance: if a person has achieved control over the mind, he can keep the mind focused and calm even if unpleasant states of mind arise and can thus approach death with confidence.

The Four Stages of Nibbāna

To attain the pure state of Nibbāna, the end of all suffering, an individual has to free himself of the ten fetters that tie him to conditioned existence. This process of liberation comes about in a sequence of four stages.

The ten fetters are: (1) belief in the existence of a permanent ego, self or soul, (2) doubts about the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Noble Truths, (3) attachment to rites and rituals, (4) sensual desire, (5) anger and aversion, (6) craving for fine material existence, (7) craving for non-material existence, (8) pride, (9) agitation, and (10) incomplete understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

The four stages are:

(I) Sotāpatti (stream-entry): An individual is freed of the first three of the ten fetters that tie beings to the round of birth and death: (1) belief in the existence of a permanent ego [self or soul], (2) doubts about the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Noble Truths, and (3) attachment to rites and rituals.

(II) Sakadagāmī (once-returner): An individual attenuates the fetters of (4) sensual desire and (5) anger.

(III) Anāgāmī (non-returner): An individual is freed completely from (4) sensual desire and (5) anger and ill-will.

(IV) Arahat: An individual is freed completely of the remaining fetters of, (6) craving for fine-material existence, (7) craving for non-material existence, (8) pride, (9) agitation, and (10) in­complete understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Each one of the four stages is attained through a Path Stage (magga) and a Fruition Stage (phala). These are technical terms, but are popularly used in Burma as synonyms for Nibbāna. Persons who have attained to one of these four stages are known as Ariyas, Noble Ones. These stages can only be attained through Vipassanā (insight) meditation.

The Ten Pāramīs

The ten pāramīs are a set of ten qualities in which an individual has to perfect himself in order to be able to attain Nibbāna.

The ten pāramīs are:

(1) Charity (dāna)
(2) Morality (sīla)
(3) Renunciation (nekkhamma)
(4) Understanding (paññā)
(5) Effort – (viriya)
(6) Patience (khanti)
(7) Truthfulness (sacca)
(8) Determination (adhiṭṭhāna)
(9) Loving Kindness (mettā)
(10) Equanimity (upekkhā)

With the help of the introduction, it should not be difficult to under–stand the discourses. Special care was taken not to use Pāḷi terms except those that are used so often that it seemed wiser if the reader integrated them into his vocabulary; I mean terms such as sīlasamādhi, etc. At the end of the book the reader will find an index of Pāḷi words to refresh his memory. The Pāḷi terms that are commonly used in Burma and generally not translated into the Burmese vernacular are given and explained in footnotes for the interested reader.

I would like to add that there is no necessity for the reader to under­stand the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism before reading these discourses; he should rather try to keep his mind open to the profound simplicity and sincerity that are the characteristics of the speaker and his words.

Many of the explanations in this introduction are drawn from the booklet Dhamma Texts by Sayagyi U Ba Khin (Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, U.K., Dhamma Texts Series 1, 1985; revised ed., 1991).

Roger Bischoff