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Use of the term 'yogi' in Burmese meditation tradition

Hi,

The first time I visited a Mahasi retreat center, I was quite surprised to hear attendees referred to as ‘yogis’. In the decades since, I’ve found this term in widespread use within Burmese meditation circles.

I’ve had a cursory glance at the suttas, but don’t find yogin- attested there. This is supported by the PTS dictionary (s.v. yogin-) which suggests in its earliest usage it is ‘nearly synonymous with muni-’.

Can anyone shed light on when and possibly why this term gained traction in the Burmese meditation tradition? Is it similarly used in, say, the Thai forest tradition?

Thanks for reading.

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Can’t tell you why that word is so common in Burma. But I can answer your second question: it’s uncommon elsewhere like the Thai forest tradition. In fact, I’ve never come across it outside of Burmese buddhist institutions. And yoga.

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Like many confusing things, the reason for this is the British.

Here’s some things I (think I) know:

  • Since medieval times, Tibetan trantric practitioners have used the word “yogi” to describe themselves
  • Early European encounters with Buddhism were often with Tibetan Buddhism
  • During the colonial period, after realizing that the religions of Sri Lanka, Burma and Tibet were all “Buddhism” of Indic origin
  • The British then started to conflate terms and ideas across these (and other Indian) traditions.
  • During the fight for independence, Indian, Burmese and Sri Lankan activists (both natives and not) needed to adopt (and adapt) the language of the British in order to convince them of their standing

So, it is out of this general milieu that the term came to be transported to Burma (and not to Thailand, which was not a British colony).

The specific details of this process (who used the term first, when and why) would require more time and archival access than I currently have. But I look forward to reading the paper when someone eventually picks up this nice little research question :slightly_smiling_face:

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Lovely stuff! Thank you very much jjakobson77 and Ven. Khemarato for your illuminating replies :slight_smile:

In my translation of the Vimuttimagga the term yogi is constantly used to refer to the questioner. [Looked it up and the term does not appear as the questioner, but in the answers where it denotes the practitioner I assume.] Of course the Pali is lost, but I would start looking there.

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It might be because of the great importance the Burmese traditionally assigned to the Milindapañha. I’m told that in the Burmese saṅgha this text was traditionally required reading for novices and junior monks in times when they found themselves afflicted with doubt.

In the Milindapañha the word yogī is of very frequent occurence. For example, the intrumental phrase yoginā yogāvacarena (“the yogin, the earnest student of yoga” – I.B. Horner) occurs 181 times in the text.

In Thailand I’ve only ever heard yogī used in meditation centres where Burmese systems were being practised.

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Thank you very much Florian and Ven. Dhammanando for your further insights.

I suppose the next step for me will be to check some 19th cent. works (e.g. those of Ven. Ledi Sayadaw) to see if/how the term is used there, and then move forwards or backwards accordingly.

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That’s a very insightful point venerable! Tks :anjal:

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