Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Experience with the Tant Kyi Taung Method

     When I was a junior monk, before ever going to Burma, I happened to meet venerable Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw while he was in America. He seemed like a wise person; and when I arrived in Asia in the winter of '92-'93, I had included him on a very short list of monks that I knew of who might have high spiritual attainments. The only other two on the list, incidentally, were Sayadaw U Jotika (known in Burma as Mahamyaing U Zawtika), who was ordained in the same tradition as me, and Sayadaw U Pandita, of the Mahasi tradition.
     Some time later, in December of '93, after I had been in Burma for almost a year, I moved to a huge scholastic monastery called Mahagandhayone, in the city of Amarapura, near Mandalay. Soon after my arrival one of my teachers asked if I'd like to attend a ten-day meditation retreat under Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw, in the ancient city of Bagan, the capital of Burma a thousand years ago. I still had Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw on the aforementioned list, and I'd been wanting to go see the temples of Bagan, so I readily agreed.
     It turned out that the retreat facilities were completely full; but since I was a Western monk the administrators cleared out a room to make space for me. They were happy to take the trouble, as Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw's new retreat center, Ithi Pyinnya Dewa Guru Kyaung ("Rishi Wisdom God Guru Monastery"), just outside the old city wall of Bagan, had been established with one of its primary goals being the spreading of the Tant Kyi Taung method to Western disciples, and I was the first Westerner to sign up. The teacher who invited me also attended the retreat, as did several other monks from Mahagandhayone. My teacher and I were attended by Po Nandana, a "Pothudaw," a semi-monastic little boy dressed in white robes, who kept only eight precepts and handled money for the trip. 
     For some reason venerable Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw, or maybe the retreat organizers, especially targeted beginners for the retreat. Most or all of the monks were invited from school monasteries, and most of them had little experience with meditation. The laypeople also were either complete beginners or else veterans of the Tant Kyi Taung method. Having practiced lots of meditation over the few years that I had been ordained, I was possibly one of the most experienced meditators attending the retreat.
     The Sayadaw gave his lectures and instructions in Burmese, and I was just starting to learn the language, so I was provided with two interpreters. Another key player in this drama was a wealthy Burmese man, a hydraulic engineer who had done some important projects for the government, who was a dedicated follower of the Sayadaw's method, who had donated the retreat center on this choice plot of land between the old city wall and the Irrawaddy River, who spoke fluent English, and who, like many wealthy Burmese people, was a very proud man. I being the first Westerner at the new retreat center, they all had high hopes for me.
     One peculiarity of the Tant Kyi Taung method is its inclusion of meditation in a standing posture. Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw swore by it, claiming that practicing it produces a multitude of health benefits. Aside from this, his method was in most respects similar to the much more well-known Mahasi method. Two other notable differences were 1) walking meditation was done at normal walking speed, the Sayadaw considering slow-motion walking to be of questionable benefit, and 2) he instructed the meditators to breathe a little faster than usual. This latter was ostensibly because if one is making a special effort to breathe differently than usual it helps to keep one's attention on the breath. This seemed reasonable.    
     But this latter point had some strange consequences. Many of the meditators, including veterans of the method, ignored the qualifier "a little," and breathed, apparently, as hard and as fast as they could. Even to imitate the speed at which some of the meditators were breathing causes me to become dizzy within a few seconds. The meditation hall sounded like a textile mill with all the heavy breathing going on. I secretly named one person sitting in front of me Vlad the Inhaler.
     On the very second day of the retreat, around midday, a monk who sat about six feet from me began wailing at the top of his lungs in a piercing, high-pitched voice. I opened my eyes and looked around. One of my interpreters, who was sitting next to me, was sobbing quietly. A senior monk up front was giggling uncontrollably. A young woman somewhere behind me was panting and moaning in a very distracting manner. And several others appeared ready to "pop" at any moment. The situation struck me as rather insane, and I decided I didn't wish to participate—so I got up and walked out of the meditation hall. On my way out I noticed a woman in the back who had flopped over onto her back and was beating herself in the head with both fists.
     But all was not lost: I was in the ancient city of Bagan, which I think may have still been spelled with a "P" in those days. This was also before the military government ill-advisedly renovated almost all of the old temples, presumably expecting foreigners to be more willing to come and spend money to see fixed-up new temples than to see ancient ruins. (I've heard that UNESCO is still fuming over that one.) Also, people were still allowed to climb up on the biggest temples. So I walked around for the rest of the day checking out old temples, and meditated way up on the Sulamani Pagoda, one of the prettiest ones in the area. Some of my favorites, though, were the smaller ones that stood more or less abandoned in the middle of farmers' fields; inside the Buddha image would have its midsection torn away by looters long ago looking for enshrined treasure. The disemboweled Buddha, however, sat in undisturbed bliss, completely accepting the impermanence of form.

Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Burma

     When I returned to Ithi Pyinnya Dewa Guru Kyaung late in the afternoon I was informed that Sayadaw wished to speak with me. He asked if there was a problem; and, being a young, uncouth Western barbarian, I told him point blank that I didn't consider his method to be legitimate Dhamma. I pointed out that in the texts it says that one should meditate calming the breath, not panting like a steam engine. The Sayadaw replied that calming of the breath occurs only when one is approaching jhāna. Then I shared my opinion that the meditators were hyperventilating, and that the strange symptoms they were exhibiting was the result of being drunk on too much oxygen. Venerable Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw grinned with amusement at that one, apparently thinking something like, "Oh, the crazy ideas these foreigners get!" He informed me that the meditators were experiencing piti.
     (When I told Sayadaw of the woman lying on her back pounding her head with both fists, he replied that she had a headache. Even if she didn't have one when she started pounding, it was easy to understand how a headache was very likely in her case.)
     I was told afterwards that in his talks the Sayadaw actually praised those who laughed or cried or howled or whatever, saying that this was a manifestation of piti, which might be translated into English as "exhilaration," and which is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga)—if one doesn't experience such states, one won't become enlightened. Anyway, the Sayadaw assured me that after the first few days, such symptoms as howling would very likely cease, or at least become much reduced.
     I also tried to explain my hyperventilation theory to one of my interpreters, who was a retired professor of Physiology. He informed me that hyperventilation is practically impossible, as there are internal regulatory systems which prevent it. But it seemed to me that if it were impossible, then there would be no need for the word "hyperventilation" to have been invented in the first place. Besides, I've hyperventilated before. I felt that it was very possible, even likely in this particular case.
     Part of the trouble was that I was the high hope of the organizers of the retreat, being their first Westerner. In a retreat situation in the West, if someone drops out, well, it's not a big deal. First you see them, and then you don't. But people were getting upset when I tried to drop out, as though it were a personal affront. When I tried out the hyperventilation theory on the proud donor of the meditation center (who had also wanted to talk to me after my return from the temples), the more I spoke, the more his chest inflated, coming more and more between the two of us; and when I finished my harangue he replied, in a voice as cold as ice, "They are experiencing piti."
     People were so keen on my not dropping out that I considered, well, if I stay in this I'll likely experience some unpleasantness for another eight days, but if I drop out quite a few people will be unhappy about it, so I may as well take the hit. Besides, there was no convenient way back to Mahagandhayone until after the retreat. 
     So, the retreat continued, and episodes of laughing and crying became fewer. Strange behavior did continue to some degree, however, and I noticed that when it did the hydraulic engineer would rush over and video them, apparently collecting evidence of the dramatic effects of the method. This further impeded my practice, though: not only did I not have much faith in the method, but I was a little worried that I might wind up on the six o'clock national news howling like a dog if I wasn't careful. 
     At one point I asked the monk who had been howling near me what he had been feeling when it happened. He said, in English, "Very pleasure."
     Once during a group meditation a woman towards the back began making strange, snorting sounds in the back of her throat. The Sayadaw, hearing this unsettling noise, immediately went to her and brought her out of it. Later I was informed that she had regressed into a past life as a dragon.
     On the eighth day of the retreat the same monk as before began wailing again. It was just too much for me at the time, and I walked out again. The Sayadaw met me at the door, and bowed his head and waved me out, giving me permission to do what I would have done regardless. I spent the remaining two days minding my own business. I even stopped eating the food at the center, and took my bowl out for alms round in the morning. The hydraulic engineer wouldn't look at me after that. I wouldn't say he ignored me, as he was making such an obvious point of not looking at me.
     Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw also had his own brand of herbal medicines, which were sold at the meditation center and elsewhere. I read some of his guidelines for health, which were printed in a booklet someone gave to me. It included such information as, "For the teeth, white things are best, but the best white thing for teeth is salt," and "For general health, bitter things are best, but the best bitter things for health are neem leaves and fruits." It seemed to me like it was a combination of folk tradition and just plain guessing. This sort of thing is rather common in Burma: a Sayadaw is treated like a king and an infallible authority figure for so long that he starts believing in it himself, like the baseball umpire who says, "They ain't nothing till I call them."
     Less than a year after that incomplete retreat, my barbarous judgements were vindicated when I was told that the Sangha Mahanayaka Sayadaw, the highest-ranking monk in the Burmese ecclesiastical hierarchy, had formally reprimanded Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw, forbidding him to continue teaching his method, on the grounds that it was not correct Dhamma. The Burmese are pretty easygoing with regard to such matters, however, and Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw continues teaching his method to this day, although perhaps with some modification. And some people insist that it's an excellent method, even life-changing.
     The Sayadaw had further problems. Around the same time that he allegedly received the ecclesiastical reprimand, some young monk wrote and published a book with a title (in Burmese) like Dhamma Battlefield, the purpose of which being to denounce Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw publicly. I never read it, and never heard if hyperventilation is mentioned at all. Mainly the book accuses him of practicing black magic and necromancy. Whether he really is a sorcerer and necromancer I certainly don't know.
     I'm pretty sure that the Tant Kyi Taung method really is largely based on hyperventilation, but it may still be that the method works for some people. Hyperventilation is, after all, used in what is called "holotropic breathwork" in the West, which has been effective as a technique for exploring the mind. It does seem to me, though, that the Burmese in general are not very sophisticated with regard to discerning good methods from bad, unless they use the Pali texts as a guiding dogma. At least the Tant Kyi Daung method involves some real mindfulness practice—some Burmese meditation techniques, as far as I can tell, are little more than self-hypnosis. I heard there is a meditation center not far from my monastery in northwest Burma where  meditators are guaranteed that during a short retreat they will be able to sit without moving for several hours at a stretch, and during that time they will psychically travel to heaven realms and hell realms, and meet the denizens in each. That sounds like hypnosis to me.
     As far as I can tell, venerable Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw is an honest man and not a deliberate fraud. If his method does deviate somewhat from orthodox Dhamma, I assume that it is not intentional. He seems to have been dazzled, or otherwise inspired, by the dramatic effects of his breathing method.
     This all goes to show that one should be very careful in choosing a teacher, and a technique. Good luck to all of you in doing that.
~     ~     ~
     This post is somewhat like a comedy sketch on the old American TV show "Saturday Night Live": A movie was being filmed in which an actor is about to beat and kick a puppy, when the director suddenly shouts, "Cut! Bring in the stunt puppy!" Then the first puppy is replaced by a specially trained stunt animal who rolls with the punches and skillfully takes the beating. (They were both stuffed dogs, so nobody actually got beaten.) On a later episode of "Saturday Night Live" there was a very similar sketch with a specially trained baby—"Bring in the stunt baby!" I hypothesized that the first version, with the puppy, was testing the waters, so to speak, before trying the baby (which of course had the potential to be just too outrageously off-color). This post, similarly, is testing the waters in a way, as I also had an equally disillusioning experience with a version of the much more well-known and respected Mahasi method. The latter method is much more orthodox, I think, and has famous disciples, but still….


  1. Posts such as these are invaluable, as I don't think there are many (if any) Westerners with your experience in Burma that are vocal about them. It's absolutely fascinating to read.

    Looking forward to the Mahasi critique.

  2. Nothing more to add to Mark. Love it as well and think more of this stuff needs to come out and written about. Of course, I practice Tibetan Buddhism and am used to controversy. :-)