Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Fellow at Panditarama...(part 2)

(continued from last week…)
    After the disillusionment I experienced at Panditarama, more than halfway through the two-month retreat, I was in a state of quiet despair. I felt like nothing was working, and that I was destined to have no wise guidance other than what I could manage for myself. I had, though, often felt intuitively that I do have teachers or guides not actually on the "physical plane," like spirit guides maybe, so with weak faith I tested them: I decided that if someone came up to me and said the word "sign" within three days, it would be a sign that my guides were real, probably, and that I still had someone I could count on. This was really a challenge, since few people were speaking to me at the meditation center, since people aren't supposed to talk much at such places.
     The very next day, though, a monk friend of mine and a lay supporter unexpectedly came to Panditarama to see me. The layman was helping me to get a Burmese ID card, and needed me to sign the card and put my thumbprint on it before he had it laminated with plastic. He spoke in Burmese, though, so the word "sign" wasn't actually spoken. However, he then told me that with the Burmese ID I wouldn't need to bother with visas anymore, at which my friend said "Ma hsain bhoo," which means, "It has nothing to do with that." But the word hsain is pronounced like "sign," which was my sign. That helped me to feel better. (Monks aren't supposed to pay heed to omens, but I do anyway sometimes.)
     One other memorable occasion while I was staying there was that a Vipassana retreat mainly for Westerners was to be held in central Burma, with at least one of the (Western) teachers of it having been a disciple of U Pandita; so he and some of the meditators of the retreat stopped at Panditarama for a night or two before continuing on to the upcountry. It struck me as odd, and still does to this day, that so-called "elite Buddhists" are willing to fly halfway around the world, bringing their own teachers with them, to sit in cabins and meditate, when they could much more easily do the same back in America. Anyway, once I overheard one of the meditators cheerfully informing a Burmese Buddhist that in the West people don't have much respect for monks because they associate the robes, shaven heads, etc., with cults; instead, Westerners have more respect for teachers who remain in the world and live worldly lives, managing to integrate Dharma with worldliness. After a few days of these alien beings gliding around the center with peaceful smiles on their face, or marching around quietly with self-absorbed looks, they disappeared, and the place became more Burmese again.
     I have always had a partiality to females; but during this retreat, while I was practicing as strictly and dedicatedly as I could manage, I began having strange associations when I would encounter young women. Strong associations of blood and raw meat would arise when I would see their form before me. When I reported this to Sayadaw during an interview, it seemed to make more of an impression on him than anything else I had told him. 
     One interesting thing I learned at Panditarama was that although noting verbal thoughts causes them to disappear, noting mental music doesn't have the same effect. Near the meditation center was a large clock that played a musical jingle every hour as a chime—I remember one of the tunes was the theme of "Popeye the Sailor Man." Sometimes the music would stick in my head and not go away, no matter how much I noted it. Sometimes I could just drown it out by repeatedly noting "music music music music…" but otherwise the tune would have to run its own course through my mind until I was simply sick of it. I scientifically hypothesize that noting and thinking utilize the same area of the brain, so that one can't do both at the same time, but that noting and playing music utilize different areas; hence noting doesn't make music go away like it does with thinking. 
     Something else I picked up at Panditarama was that I learned to appreciate walking meditation. Formerly I hadn't liked it much, and had lived in places where it wasn't convenient anyway; but with all-day-long, non-stop meditation it is easy to see the value of it. Walking meditation helps to keep the momentum of mindfulness going when we're not sitting cross-legged. Ever since then I've done walking meditation rather a lot, if I have some convenient place to do it.
     But by far the biggest benefit I derived from my stay at Panditarama was that I accidentally learned contemplation there, which has become by far my most valued meditation method. The way I learned it is as follows. 
     As many of you may know, the mind may rebel against meditation in an intensive retreat setting. My mind was doing this, and would not settle down no matter how hard I tried. Meditation was somewhat like riding a wildly bucking bronco, with me trying with all my might just to stay in the saddle. Finally, in mild desperation, I decided just to clear my mind, and whatever happened to arise, I'd note it. So, I cleared my mind and watched for whatever arose next…and nothing arose...and still nothing arose...and still nothing arose. The watchful expectation seemed to inhibit thought. So I sat there conceptually empty, not thinking anything, until I eventually started getting excited, after maybe twenty seconds of it, which of course wrecked it, and I started thinking again. I'd never experienced anything like it before. It was magnificent, just sitting there with the mind silent, expanded, wide awake, and clear like glass. I continued practicing it (and continue to this day), although of course it seemed inadvisable to report this to Sayadaw. After all, it wasn't the method that he had prescribed.
     I consider just five minutes of this kind of meditation to be of more value and benefit than an hour of noting and labeling. And when it started deepening, so that I could sit essentially empty for short periods, it seemed that just five minutes of it easily compensated for an entire lifetime of struggling and floundering. I consider my first several times of practicing more or less skillful contemplation to be probably the most profoundly blessed moments of my life. But that happened after I left U Pandita's center.
     Incidentally, one other result of my time at Panditarama was that I was inspired to compose this epic limerick:

     A fellow at Panditarama
     Tried to note all his rūpa and nāma;
          He moved in slow motion
          And noted each notion
     Till he died of hysterical trauma.

     Anyway, I was determined to last the full two months at the place, even though U Pandita occasionally hinted that maybe it would be best if I gave up on the method and went somewhere else. During the second month I often had little or nothing to report, as nothing new was happening (except maybe for the contemplation I didn't want to tell him about), which caused Sayadaw to be more inclined to kick me out.
     Finally, my two months were almost complete, and I came for my final meditation interview. Sayadaw was preparing for a trip to Nepal, so his favorite interpreter, the sharp-tongued one, was taking time off to arrange his affairs before going abroad with Sayadaw; and so he was replaced at Panditarama with a very mild-mannered and polite young Burmese man. When Sayadaw would chew someone out about this or that the new interpreter would grin in embarrassment, very unwilling to scold monks, or probably anyone else. When I told U Pandita I would be leaving soon he said, "Kaun byi. Myan thwah," which means "Good. Go quickly." The nice interpreter was too embarrassed to translate and sat there in confused silence, but I knew what it meant. As I left the room, I remember one of the more successful meditators, a Korean Mahayana monk (an excellent fellow by the way) who had ordained as a Theravadin bhikkhu without first disrobing from his Mahayana order (pretty common at Burmese meditation centers), reporting his surreal, rather psychedelic meditative experiences. "I am floating in the sky, lighter than air…."
     As I have said before, I tend to have bad luck (=bad karma) with spiritual teachers; and I'm sure people like Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Steven Armstrong had much more positive experiences with U Pandita than I did. Mine is just one of an infinite number of points of view.
     Even so, I do think that the Mahasi method has certain shortcomings which practitioners should be aware of. For example, the sequence of Vipassana insight knowledges which practically forms the backbone of the theory (in addition, of course, to traditional satipaṭṭhāna teachings), is listed nowhere in the Pali texts, and is an artifact of the commentarial tradition. If it were so essentially important, one would presume that the Buddha would have emphasized it, and that it would be found in a sutta or two. And hinting that practitioners ought to experience this sequence of experiences—sometimes even instructing them in advance so that they have an idea what to try for—sometimes, no doubt, gives them a model for their concentrated imagination to replicate artificially. True Dhamma, which is alive, is converted into a kind of dogmatic, cookbook system. 
     There are some logical inconsistencies also. For example, on the one hand the Mahasi interpretation of mindfulness emphasizes noting, which, they say, involves aim plus effort. When one mindfully notes a phenomenon it should be like repeatedly beating an object with a stick. On the other hand, the Mahasi method (like just about every other method, although all of them seem to fail in the attempt) endorses the instructions in the Bāhiya Sutta of the Udāna: In the seen there should be only the seen, in the heard only the heard, etc. In other words, there should be pure experience with no deliberate reaction to that experience. According to Mahasi we should have both of these hands, but this appears to be self-contradictory and impossible. Seeing plus noting is no longer just the seen. Mahasi's "effortless noting" seems to be simply habitual effort.
     And besides, one size does not fit all. To teach the same system to everybody and scold them if they don't improve is rather like being a doctor who prescribes the same medicine to every patient, and if they don't improve he scolds them for not being sick properly.
     Once, many years ago, I asked a wise senior bhikkhu named U Jotika what he thought about the Mahasi method. He said, "You can get benefit from practicing it, but it is a limited method." I'm inclined to agree with that evaluation. The Mahasi method is excellent for beginners, and may continue to be excellent up through an intermediate level of mindfulness; but once one becomes advanced enough to experience"Vipassana insight knowledges" it would be good to switch to a subtler method, maybe even a non-method, of meditation.
     All of this might seem to be of very limited interest outside of Burma, much like my critique of the Tant Kyi Taung method in a recent post. But the thing is, most Vipassana methods outside of Burma, with one notable exception being the Goenka system, are at least partly based on the Mahasi method. The Mahasi method is possibly the most influential technique of mindfulness practice in the world. And venerable U Pandita is one of the most senior and influential teachers of it. 
     It is true, though, that Western versions tend to mutate, for example by switching back to the more traditionally orthodox ānāpāna practice of noting the touch of air at the nostrils, and by placing much less emphasis on the Abhidhamma philosophy as an intellectual frame of reference. The Western variations tend to be more flexible than their Burmese progenitor, with negative as well as positive consequences. Not only do Western variants of the tradition become less explicitly Mahasi, they become less explicitly Theravadin, even less explicitly Buddhist, with much of the slack taken up by Western consumer culture, Scientism, emphasis on emotional comfort and political correctness, etc. etc. So instead of a rigid and perhaps limited system, one has a more floppy one that ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime. This is neither good or bad, but a salad-like mixture of both.
     The Mahasi tradition in Burma also seems to be somewhat in a state of decline. U Pandita himself is more than ninety years old now, with less and less energy to lead, and all the other senior disciples of the original Mahasi Sayadaw are also very old or else already dead. And it appears that the second generation of disciple-sayadaws of the Mahasi tradition are not as strong as their predecessors. (One or two of them may not even be real monks any more, despite the fact that they continue to wear robes. But I'd rather not dwell on that subject.)
     This is a common phenomenon in Buddhist meditative traditions and much else besides: A strong, inspired, charismatic leader founds a new system, perhaps attracting a few disciples worthy of continuing the tradition, and perhaps not. Usually by the third generation the system is led by well-intentioned but not particularly outstanding or inspired leaders, the tradition coasts on its reputation for awhile, and then it fades out, to be replaced by some new tradition with a new charismatic leader. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It's infinitely better for a teacher to teach from his own experience, and not simply parrot what his master's master said. That is, if said teacher has his own experiences to draw from. 
     Possibly the most popular Burmese variant of Mahasi in America nowadays is the Shwe Oo Min system, founded by venerable Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, a senior disciple of Mahasi Sayadaw who allegedly turned down the position of abbot at the main Mahasi monastery, thus replacing the late Mahasi Sayadaw himself, preferring to follow and teach his own interpretation. His method is popular in America largely because it is less rigid, less structured, and also less disciplined than other variations; also, the current leader of the method, venerable U Tejaniya, happened to get his foot in the door by being endorsed by some big names in American Vipassana circles. Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw was greatly venerated in Burma, considered by many to be the most advanced famous sayadaw in the country and more highly advanced than Mahasi Sayadaw himself; but his successor U Tejaniya has less of a reputation in Burma than in the US, not being considered much of a scholar or a meditation master. Still, U Tejaniya, as well as U Pandita, have deeply impressed many senior practitioners in the West and elsewhere, and I'm sure neither of them is without wisdom, inspiration, and the ability to teach certain types of people.
     Also, all in all, the Mahasi tradition compares well with other Burmese meditation traditions. Lately its main rival in Burma has been the Pah Auk method, which has the advantages of greater orthodoxy, greater discipline (at least greater monastic discipline), and in many cases, more obviously saintly disciples, some of whom allegedly have psychic powers. Still, all in all, I consider the Mahasi method to be the preferable tradition for meditators. I don't consider unorthodoxy to be necessarily a strike against it, and it seems to rely less on hypnotic states, and more on moment to moment mindfulness (sati-sampajañña), even when one is not sitting cross-legged. That's just my opinion though. 

One of the Most Famous Pictures of 
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma



  1. Very good once again. I must say, as I have before, that the personal stories/insights really do the most for me. Probably because I can relate to some level on how teachers aren't always what they seem. Anyway, the way you describe your self-discovered/current meditation practice sounds very much like how we are taught in the Tibetan tradition. Ever heard of Dzogchen?

    1. I've heard of Dzogchen, but have never come across a detailed account of it. I suspect that what I call contemplation is also essentially the same as what the Zen Buddhists call Shikantaza. In the Theravada tradition I'm not sure what it would be called, although it is described. For example there is the story of the enlightened boy novice who teaches a monk the technique of closing off five of the six holes in a termite mound, and then watching the sixth hole very intently to catch a lizard when it tries to escape—a metaphor for observing the mind. I call it "contemplation" because that's what the Roman Catholics call it. It seems to be known to all contemplative traditions, but I had to learn it by accident.

      I call the method of watching the mind "third gear"; it still involves deliberate effort though. Fourth gear is when the deliberate effort stops, and one simply sits there empty.

  2. Thank you, I found your account of Panditarama when searching for first hand reports. I wanted to have a taste of it before signing away two months. Glad I came across your post, I know the kind of abbot and dogmatic system, it won't be a total waste of time, I am sure, but perhaps there are other places for me.

    Re: certificates of stream entry: laugh.

    I'm careful like Shantideva, in the belief that all it takes is one moment of carelessness. It's better to be careful, and consider oneself unenlightened, than to imagine certain acts are beyond one now and forever, and drop all guard. Shantideva's humility in his Bodhisattvacharyavitara is illuminating and humbling - for all his attainment, the palpable caution he exercises is remarkable, because he knows all it takes is one slip of his mind to damn him. Zen mind, beginner's mind indeed. One is never enlightened, for one is never unenlightened. One is ever arriving in the present, and finding Buddha nature in it.

    1. Still and all, Panditarama may still be one of the best of the major meditation centers in Myanmar. The basics of the system are practical and beneficial, and the discipline there is better than at most places.

    2. Thank you. Would you be able to compare it to The Mahasi Sasana Yeikthā, in Rangoon? That's the other place I had in mind if I was going to spend time in Burma.

      I am not set on meditating only in Burma, I could spend time in Thailand too, if there are better centers there.

      In terms of mechanics of getting/staying there, Thailand is easier, but I've never been to Burma, but then again I've not been to Thailand enough :)

      I live in India, so getting to either place isn't a big hop. I've heard Indians aren't so welcome in Burma from a friend who was there as a tourist. I don't mind casual racism, as long as it doesn't interfere too much with my instructions and practice.

    3. It is my understanding, based upon what I have heard, that Panditarama has more "vitality" to the tradition, with the Mahasi Center of Rangoon/Yangon having somewhat less inspired teachers, and maybe a bit less discipline. Inside a meditation center you probably would not meet with any significant racial discrimination.

      You also might consider the international meditation center in Malaysia, affiliated with Panditarama. I have heard a lot of good about the place, although I don't remember its name.

  3. Thanks, I believe I know the center in Malaysia you refer to, I've heard good things about it too. Perhaps because they practice in a Muslim country, the Malaysian meditators I've met all tend to be very earnest.

    I've also flirted with the idea of going to Pa Auk, since strengthening my grasp on jhanas would be good for me. I do wonder if jhanas aren't the better way to practice, since the Buddha is always talking up the jhanas and never khanika-samadhi style Vipassana, and I am a bit tired of every Vipassana group criticizing the other - Mahasi style is not real Vipassana etc. Two things though - I was shocked to find the rather luxurious kutis that some monks have in Pa Auk, and the sole monk I know from Pa Auk didn't impress me much, still, maybe that's neither here nor there.

    I'm sure this is just some hidden agenda of my mind, but I find samatha heavy monks tend to be more arrogant or cocky, perhaps because the powers get to them?

    Anyway, I can only do one of these this year, so you are probably noticing the "kid in the candy store" effect.

    1. Oh! As it turns out, in a couple of weeks I'll be discussing jhana, and also Pah Auk. I'm not sure what it's like now, but back in the days when Pah Auk Sayadaw was there it had the strictest Vinaya discipline of any of the big Burmese meditation centers, and many very serious monks. But as you will see if you read the upcoming article, I have some serious doubts about the Pah Auk method.

      Incidentally, it's my understanding that it's actually illegal for a Malay person in Malaysia to practice Buddhist meditation. It's illegal to teach any spiritual system other than Islam to an ethnic Malaysian in Malaysia. So the Buddhists there tend to be of Chinese ancestry.

  4. :( Yeah, I've heard rumbles like that, and there are some videos on youtube where some monks are pretty critical of Pa Auk.

    Since it's all very depressing to hear of the decline and fall of things (anicca,annica,annica), I'll add that I was very lucky to meditate with Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, and while I had no idea of his reputation before I went to the retreat, I found he transmits energy in ways I can't have imagined. I also heard from several people returning for their second or third retreat that this experience is pretty common. Elsewhere you have a list of enlightened people; well in my opinion Thay is certainly up there.

    @Malaysia: Hah, that explains why all the Malaysian meditators I've met are of Chinese ancestry.