Sayagyi Minthuwun’s Own Tribute to His Mentors and Sayas

  • By Dr. Myint Zan
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Artist Myint Maung Kyaw

Sayagyi (‘revered’/’beloved teacher’) Minthuwun’s (10 February 1909-15 August 2004) 110th birthday is (as one writes) scheduled to be celebrated at Yangon on 10 February 2019.
There would also be a book launch of a book of tributes သူတို႔ျမင္တဲ့ မင္းသုဝဏ္ (‘Minthuwun as seen by them’) of the national poet Minthuwun by various writers.
This tribute is not to substantively add to the appreciations indeed homage paid by many literati to this gentle and mellifluous Burmese poet.
Minthuwun’s poetic and literary products spanned over seventy years and covered most of the 20th century. Indeed Sayagyi’s literary outputs can be seen well into in the early 21st century before he passed away in August 2004. This writer has seen a poem in Sayagyi‘s handwriting and composed by him in the year 2000 when he was over 90 years old.

Homage and Obeisance to the ‘Great Sage’ Shakespeare
The first homage given by Minthuwun (to a personage) was composed in the year 1937. The person Sayagyi paid homage is none other than the great William Shakespeare (26 April 1564- 23 April 1616) also known as the Bard. During his sojourn studying in Britain in the late 1930s and probably after visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon Sayagyi composed this poem:

မုဆိုး အေက်ာ္
ေကာ္ေရာ္ ၊ ႐ိုက်ိဳး
ငါ ရိွခိုးသည္
မိုးသို႔ ငါ့ဉာဏ္က်ယ္ေစေသာ္ ။
(၁၉၃၇ ခုႏွစ္)

The Renown Sage
By Minthuwun
Translated by Myint Zan
In great humbleness
and reverence
I prostrate myself
and bow in obeisance to the
deer stealer
and famed hunter
the great sage:
may my mind be as wide
as the sky
(By Minthuwun in 1937)
Shakespeare’s name is not mentioned in the poem but the identifying characteristics makes it clear that it was the ‘Bard’, the Sage that Minthuwun respectfully (virtually literally) bowing down to if not in ‘worship’ then in obeisance, in great reverence and veneration. I have ‘loosely’, proximately and generally translated the three Burmese verbs ေကာ္ေရာ္ ၊ ႐ိုက်ိဳး ငါရိွခိုးသည္ as ‘in great humbleness and reverence and in obeisance I prostrate myself and bow [before Shakespeare]’.
I have had the chance when I met Sayagyi Minthuwun for the first and last time on 12 December 2003 to ask him whether the phrase မုဆိုး အေက်ာ္ was the phrase actually used when he composed his homage poem to Shakespeare. Sayagyi (or) Aba (which I would use alternatively or in combination hence forth) confirmed that it was မုဆိုး (‘hunter’) rather than လူဆိုး (‘scoundrel’) which was alternatively and incorrectly used in some reproductions or versions of the ‘Renown Sage’ poem.
When I met Aba I mentioned about Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University in the United States who proudly give himself the appellation ‘Bardolator’. ‘Bardolator’ is a spin on the word ‘idolator’ (worshipper of idols/‘graven images’). Harold Bloom unabashedly indeed proudly deemed and declared himself to be a ‘Bardolator’ (worshipper of William Shakespeare). I also told Aba that Bloom has written that the coming centuries (Bloom did write centuries) would not again see a literary personage like William Shakespeare.
It can be stated here that from 1973 to 1984 Aba Sayagyi Minthuwun spent intermittently about 10 years, to translate into Burmese William Shakespeare’s great play King Lear. Minthuwun’s translation လီယာမင္းႀကီး won the national literature prize (translation category) for the year 1984. Minthuwun wrote in the Preface of his superb translation of one of the great works of the ‘Renown Sage’ that he spent most of the night pondering on how to translate the phrase ‘Nothing my Lord’ said by Cordelia before settling on the Pali derived phrase ”နတၳိပါအရွင္”.
I would add a brief observation and comment on Sayagyi’s translation of the youngest sister Cordelia’s pointed critique of her two elder sisters Goneril and Regan in King Lear. If they loved their father King Lear that much said Cordelia (almost mocking the saccharine, obsequious, hypocritical indeed lying pretence of love her sisters professed for their father Lear who was in obvious dotage) Cordelia said ‘Why do they take husbands?’. Sayagyi translated that phrase as ဘာေၾကာင့္လင္ေနၾကပါသနည္း. I respectfully conjecture that William Shakespeare perhaps deliberately eschewed the more polite phrase ‘why do they marry?’ and use the more pointed and ‘biting’ sentence ‘Why do they take husbands?’. Sayagyi Minthuwun’s translation pellucidly ‘captures’ the biting, pointed, mocking and somewhat derogatory sense in which Shakespeare used that phrase.
Incidentally and to the best of my knowledge (and subject to correction) only two plays of Shakespeare has been translated into Burmese in full. They are Mann Tin’s translation of Julius Caesar which won the national literature prize (translation category) in 1965 and Minthuwun’s translation of King Lear which won the national literature prize in 1984. It would be good if literati well-versed in the Burmese and English languages and Shakespearean usages to attempt perhaps to translate if necessary jointly (but perhaps no more than two joint translators) a few of the great plays of Shakespeare. These would include but would not be limited to Macbeth, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and perhaps even Hamlet which may perhaps be the most difficult play to translate. The task of translating any of these plays would have been difficult but they could still be attempted.
On the occasion of my first and last meeting with Aba I read my translation and commentary of three poems of Aba that I had the privilege indeed the honour to translate into English with brief commentaries. The poems that I translated together with my commentaries ‘Three Poems of Minthuwun’ was published in December 1998 issue of Deakin Law News (news letter of the Deakin Law School) in Australia
About five years later beside the bed of Sayagyi I read my translation and comments to him. The poems that I translated and commented were က၀ိေမာ္ ‘The Renown Sage’ above (composed in 1937). ေဒါင္းမိခင္၏ စကားသုံးခြန္း (‘The Three Exhortations of Mother Peacock’) composed around 1956 and ေနာင္တသံသရာ ‘The Cyclical Continuity of Regrets’ composed in November 1961.
After I had read my translation of the poems and commentary Sayagyi very graciously stated in Burmese that ‘it is not that easy to penetrate and overcome the language and conceptual barriers inherent in a foreign language’ into English. Sayagyi told me that he was ‘very surprised, very glad and very much appreciative’ of my efforts. ကၽြန္ေတာ္က သိပ္လဲအံ့ၾသ (‘very surprised’), သိပ္လဲ၀မ္းသာ (‘very glad’) and သိပ္လဲေက်းဇူးတင္တယ္ (‘much grateful’). I am touched and honoured by Sayagyi’s kind words and would like to record my gratitude to him for his graciousness and generosity.

Homage and Obeisance to Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin
Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin (24 April 1888-22 March 1973) was among, many others, the teacher of Saya Minthuwun, Saya Zawgyi ( U Thein Han) (12 April 1907- 26 September 1990) and Theikpan Maung Wa (U Sein Tin) (5 June 1899 – 6 June 1942). Under the guidance and encouragement of Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin these three and other writers, starting from the early 1930s, pioneered and launched the ေခတ္စမ္း (‘testing the Age’) literary movement. The poems, essays and short stories the ေခတ္စမ္း writers wrote moved away from the generally florid writings and traditional themes of Burmese literature and ‘tested the age’ with new themes and writing styles.
Among many other sterling achievements Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin translated from the original Pali what is in Burmanized Pali known as ၀ိသုဒၡိမဂၢ of the Buddhist monk Shin Maha Buddhagosa as The Path of Purity being a translation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (first publication 1922, Oxford University Press).
Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin was only 34 years old when his English translation from the Pali language of The Path of Purity was published. In the year 1922 his future students Theikpan Maung Wa, Zawgyi and Minthuwun were 23, 15 and 13 years old respectively. It was perhaps about another seven to ten years, in the late 1920s to the early 1930s that Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin inspired and encouraged his students Maung Sein Tin, Maung Thein Han and Maung Wun (as they would then have been known to Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin) as well as others to pave a new ေခတ္စမ္း literary movement.
When Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin passed away in March 1973 Saya Minthuwun wrote a tribute to his own Sayagyi which I recall reading at that time. Since Saya Minthuwun’s tribute or homage to his Sayagyi was published a long time ago and since at the moment the writer has no access to Saya Minthuwun’s article of 1973 it is only from his vague memory that the writer reproduces what he recalls. It would certainly be imprecise but one trusts that the reproduced sentence below reflects Saya Minthuwun’s homage and reverence for his own Sayagyi. From my recollection in the Burmese language it reads:
မိမိ၏ မိခင္ဘာသာစကားမဟုတ္ ေသာ ပါဠိဘာသာမွမိမိ၏ မိခင္ဘာသာ စကားမဟုတ္ေသာ အဂၤလိပ္ဘာသာသို႔ ဘာသာျပန္ဆိုႏိုင္ေသာ ဆရာႀကီး [ဦးေဖ ေမာင္တင္] ၏ အဓိဌာနပါရမီ ၊ ၀ီရိယပါရမီႏွင့္ပညာပါရမီတို႔ကို ႐ိုေသစြာ ဂါရ၀ ျပဳပါသည္။
Saya Minthuwun wrote that he respectfully gave homage (from the Burmese phrases used I would add in great admiration, reverence and awe) at the determination, persistence and knowledge as well as the literary skills of his own Sayagyi in translating The Path of Purity from ‘a language [Pali] which is not his mother tongue to a language [English] which is not his mother tongue’.

Tribute to ‘Saya Zaw’
In pioneering the Khitsan (‘New Age’) literary movement Saya Minthuwn and Saya Zawgyi were (almost) contemporaries. Saya Zawgyi is about 2 years and 10 months older than Saya Minthuwun and Saya Zawgyi has apparently taught (tutored) Saya Minthuwun. I have read that at least some if not most or all of the time since their University days as students from the early 1930s and for more than 50 years the two great poets and scholars address each other (by Minthuwn to Zawgyi) as ‘Saya Zaw’ and Zawgyi addressed Minthuwun as ‘Maung Wun’.
In August 1992, about two years after Sayagyi Zawgyi passed away in September 1990 Sayagyi Minthuwun composed the following poem in homage to his ‘Saya Zaw’

ဆရာဂ်ီ ေဇာ္တစ္ေဖ့ကိုျဖင့္
သူလဲေလ ေလာကီသားေပမို႔
သႀကၤန္ခါ ရႊင္ေပ်ာ္ပါးခ်င္လိမ့္
သနားဖြယ္ – ပိေတာက္ဦးကိုျဖင့္
ခူးပါႏွင့္ကြာ” .. တဲ့ ..။

ဖ်ာပံု ရန္ကုန္လမ္းဆီက
ဒီစုန္ဆန္ လတာလမ္းမွာျဖင့္
လွမ္းေနၾက … ကိုေဗဒါ
ျမင္ေလေတာ့ စိတ္၀င္စား။
“ကမာၻေပၚ ေဗဒါပန္းလိုကြဲ႕
အားတက္ကာ တူယွဥ္လွမ္းလွ်င္ျဖင့္
လြတ္လမ္းမၾကာရမည္” ဟု

၂၁ – ၈ – ၉၂

The writer’s ‘free’ translation:

Saya Zaw
By Minthuwun
Translated by Myint Zan

In order to inaugurate
a new literary age
the [literary] wizard Zaw
the personage
[has initiated the khitsan ‘New Age’
[I] do recall and miss him
many a time

from page-9

[Saya Zaw wrote ]
[in a pioneering Burmese poem published around 1928
the Padauk flowers*
since they are also worldlings
in times of Thingyan
the budding Padauk flowers, in unison, also would like to
be merry and frolic themselves:
have ‘pity’ on them:
do not pluck the Padauk flowers

From [Zawgyi’s hometown] of
Pyapon to Yangon
on the tidal creek
by the river
are the hyacinths**
they are indeed
fearless heroes
[Saya Zaw’s poetic mind]
becomes evocative:
‘ in this wide world
inspired by and like
the hyacinths
if joint efforts are made
and march [towards the goal]
the path of liberation
can be reached’
so Saya Zaw
guides and coaches us:
his was indeed a noble mind
(Composed in Burmese by Minthuwun on 21 August 1992)

*Saya Zawgyi composed the Padauk flowers ပိေတာက္ပန္း poem around 1927 when he was about 20 years old. The poet pleaded with the readers not to pluck the Padauk flowers since like ordinary worldlings (ေလာကီသား) သူလဲေလ ေလာကီသားေပမို႔ the Padauks would also, during the Thingyan Burmese New Year era want to ‘frolic’ သႀကၤန္ခါ ရႊင္ေပ်ာ္ပါးခ်င္လိမ့္ by displaying themselves on the trees and they would not have liked being plucked by human hands.
** Starting from around 1960 if not earlier Saya Zawgyi composed a series of poems on the theme of the hyacinth (Beda flowers) and the gracious determination of the hyacinth in overcoming the waves, the sludge and other vicissitudes they have had to face in their journey to and fro in the tidal creek. Saya Minthuwun in his tribute praised his ‘Saya Zaw’ for using the Beida flowers as similes and metaphors and poetic sources. The aim of Saya Zaw, Saya Minthuwun states is that the readers of Zawgyi’s ‘Hyancinth’s way’ (ေဗဒါလမ္း) poems may take inspiration from the grit and grace of the Beda flowers.
Shakespeare to whom Sayagyi Minthuwun has paid homage did not (and needless to say) actually taught him ( i.e. Shakespeare did not, in a class room taught Minthuwun and was not a thin hsaya as such of him).
Unlike William Shakespeare Sayagyi U Pe Maung Tin and Sayagyi Zawgyi taught Minthuwun. They were the ၾကားဆရာ, ျမင္ဆရာ, သင္ဆရာ(teachers from whom their pupils learned through seeing, hearing [from their teachers] and through actual teaching) of then student Maung Wun.
Sayagyi Minthuwun’s appreciation and homage towards his own mentors and teachers are indeed exemplars of eloquence and generosity.
Only in his homage poem to William Shakespeare in Burmese composed in the year 1937 did Aba Sayagyi Minthuwun ended his homage with a wish or prayer, if you will. As a result of paying homage to the renown sage, wrote the self-effacing, gentle Burmese poet his wish was that his ‘mind be as wide as the sky’.
As this writer has written in his own tribute ‘Minthuwun: As wide as the sky’ published in The Dawn newspaper in Pakistan on 12 September 2004 Aba Sayagyi Minthuwun’s wish has been fulfilled quite some time before Sayagyi passed away. All Burmese literati recognise Minthuwun’s ‘wide’ and significant contributions to Burmese literature as well as his gentle and endearing personality. Minthuwun’s 110th birth anniversary is yet another occasion to reiterate our tributes and for us –again- to honour him.


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