Two monks were sharing a cabin. One of them was an avid practitioner of sitting meditation, and sat regularly. One time the other monk asked him, “What are you doing?”
“I’m sitting in meditation.”
“Why?” the second monk asked.
“Because I want to become a Buddha,” was the answer.
So the second monk went outside, and a few minutes later returned with a brick, and he sat down and began polishing it.
“What are you doing?” the meditator monk asked him.
“I’m polishing this brick.”
“Because I want to make a mirror.”
The meditator was puzzled. “How are you going to make a mirror by polishing a brick?”
“Well, how are you going to become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?”
—old Zen story
Before attending the one-month vipassana retreat at Tathagata Meditation Center I hadn’t attempted to practice the Mahasi method of meditation since I was at Panditarama 19 years ago. I was much more accustomed to noting the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, and also of meditating with no primary object at all; so noting the rising and falling of the abdomen as I breathed took some getting used to. Just as I do not like noting “breathing in, breathing out” when doing anapana, but prefer just observing the feeling of air at the nostrils (without going so far as to identify it as “the feeling of air at the nostrils”), I avoided noting “rising, falling” and simply observed the sensations involved in the process. I consider this to take a meditator closer to reality, since “rising and falling” are merely concepts. When I told the sayadaws of this, they didn’t tell me not to do it, so I continued with it.
Another slight challenge, especially at first, was that I have developed a years-long habit of repeating “aum” inwardly, mainly as a kind of samatha practice, especially when I am walking. So I was continually noting spontaneous aums and stopping them. I’m pretty sure the sayadaws would not have approved of me continuing with a Hindu samatha practice at the retreat.
The Mahasi method emphasizes the importance of walking meditation, with Sayadaw going so far as to assert that walking for a full hour is more important that sitting for a full hour. Mahasi walking is generally in ultra slow motion, so that if one glances at a meditator for only a few moments it often looks as though they are simply standing there balancing on one leg. Like most meditators, I like sitting better than walking, appreciating the opportunity to stretch one's legs without totally losing momentum, but nevertheless frequently using walking meditation hour as a convenient time to fill water bottles, use the bathroom, and maybe have a cup of coffee.
One element of the retreat that, if not a challenge, was at least an inconvenience, was the standardized method of mettā meditation. The guided mettā meditations that we did every evening were really not my bag of tea, for various reasons: First, I was simply repeating somebody else’s words, so the mettā was not spontaneous but was essentially an echo of somebody else’s good will (or so it felt at the time). Second, the formula consisted of making many long-winded, grandiose, and totally unrealistic wishes toward all beings in this area, this county, this state, this world, this universe etc., toward all living things, all breathing creatures, all beings endowed with personality, all females, all males, all devas, all humans, all inhabitants of the lower realms, etc. etc. To wish that all beings in the universe be free of suffering, trouble, harm, and so on seems to wish for an utter impossibility. Even the first Noble Truth denies its possibility. Third, the recitation was carried out in slow motion, at a speed that is maybe half the rate at which I normally speak, which made the generation of mettā feel even more artificial and unnatural. Also sometimes I would reflect on the idea that this method was possibly developed by U Paṇḍita himself, a man who I consider to be nowhere near an adept at loving kindness. I seemed to get the most benefit from using the recitation as a practice in observing the movements of my mouth and throat, plus other associated feelings. I like mettā, but the method seemed too contrived and artificial to me, like plastic mettā. Some of the Asian women seemed to really get into it though, as could be heard in their enthusiasm as they recited.
One evening, shortly after I had been reflecting on my lack of resonation with the mettā practice, the sayadaws did not show up for the last meditation session of the evening. I sat there thinking that when the bell rang for mettā chanting, without the sayadaws there to lead, someone else would probably have to do it, and I appeared to be the logical choice. I was senior monk there, and senior yogi, sitting up front and going first in line at lunch, etc., so despite my lack of rapport with the chanting, it looked like I should initiate it that evening. When the bell rang, everyone sat there in silence, waiting for a leader to start. I looked over at the ancient bhikkhuni, but she obviously had no intention of starting anything. I opened the chanting book…and because I had just opened my eyes, it was dark, reading books by candlelight in caves had somewhat wrecked my vision already, and I did not have my glasses handy, the contents of the book appeared as an illegible blur. I remembered that the recitation began with something like ahaṁ avero homi (“May I be without enmity”), but my mouth wasn’t used to saying it; on the other hand, it was very used to saying ahaṁ āvuso sabbā āpattiyo āvikaromi (“Friend, I make plain all offenses,” which is the first thing said when making confession to a junior monk). So, with some uncertainty about the whole situation, I opened my mouth and said out loud in the silent meditation hall, so that everyone could hear, “ahaṁ āvu…” But I knew that āvuso wasn’t right, so I stopped. Then I tried again, announcing, “…āvu…” Nope, still not right. Then, mercifully, some Asian women started reciting, correctly, and within a few seconds everyone else had joined in, preventing me from making a total and complete idiot of myself. I usually just whispered the Pali, but considering that I was the leader this time, sort of, I actually vocalized the whole thing, which came easier after the ice was broken and my eyes adjusted well enough to read. I don’t know if any of us succeeded in beaming mettā to all beings in all universes, but I enjoyed the feeling of community, of togetherness, as we chanted, and the time passed with less drag. Nevertheless, the very next night, with the sayadaws once again at the front, I reverted to lip-syncing it.
Many years of meditation and mindfulness practice gave me a certain head start at the retreat, although all meditators begin treated as beginners, and are given more advanced practices only when the sayadaw discerns at an interview that the meditator is ready for it. But despite my head start, still I encountered certain complications which resulted in efforts on my part to “tweak” the Mahasi method. I was willing to follow the sayadaws’ instructions, but took the liberty to make adjustments that I felt were plausibly within the limitations of the method—the Mahasi method is actually pretty flexible, with various ways of going about it, since no two meditators are exactly alike. I always informed the sayadaws of my adjustments, however.
One trouble I was having from the beginning, in addition to the transition from nose to belly as the primary object of attention, was the narrow observation of the object that the method seems to favor. We were to examine the object carefully, seeing it as completely and in as much detail as possible, which seemed to me that we must look at it very closely. But when my attention is narrowed to examine a single object, it is as though the thinking mind is off to the side, or behind me, “off camera,” and I can start thinking without realizing it at first, since I am attending to something else. I’d be watching the abdomen and then I’d eventually realize that I’d been thinking for the past thirty seconds. At an interview U Paññāsāmi advised me that, when my concentration deepens, the breath slows, and there is a rest between out breath and following in breath, I should note sitting and touching as additional primary objects; so I tweaked this into an allowance to use mindfulness of the sitting posture as a way of widening my attention to include everything that was going on inside “me”—thereby allowing me at the end of each breath to run a “systems check” and see if I had started to think intellectually. It also allowed me to check in on other possible objects, like hearing or hurting. I gradually managed a really nice system in which I would focus on the movement of the abdomen during the breath, although with the whole body as a kind of backdrop, which I would then observe widely when the breath temporarily ceased. Often there would be a kind of image or feeling of a pyramid or pagoda shape (my body in meditative posture, rendered more pagoda-like by being wrapped in a blanket) composed of various sensations—buzzing in my hands and feet, pains in my back and shoulder, itches, the pressure in my ear, etc.—with a kind of pulsating abdominal sphere in the center of all of it. I acquired a new appreciation for the belly as the center of attention, as it is right in the center of the body pyramid. I disobeyed orders slightly by noting rising, falling, sitting, without paying much attention to touching as a primary object. When I would describe this at interviews the sayadaws didn’t tell me to stop; although that may have been partly because they didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.
Another complication became manifest about three weeks into the retreat. I was describing at an interview my careful examination of my own mind and my intention to “catch” the thought as quickly as it arose, sometimes noting that intention to catch (noting the intention to note) also, when ven. U Paññobhāsa gave me some of the best advice I was to receive from him: “Don’t wait. Don’t watch. Don’t search for something to note.” Then the next day at the Dhamma talk U Paññāsāmi said, “Do not examine purposefully. Do not investigate purposefully.” This caused a considerable change in my practice, since that’s exactly what I had been doing from the beginning. It seemed essentially what we were instructed to do, until we were finally instructed to do the opposite. The thing is, though, that my mind does not naturally, spontaneously tend toward effortless examination of objects, especially when I’m meditating. Rather than beginning to analyze an object into its constituent elements, as a Burmese Abhidhamma scholar might do, as my mindfulness gets deeper the attention holds the object more and more loosely, until finally it simply lets go, and I sit there not noting anything, in the manner of a mirror. Everything is there; I see it clearly; but I don’t investigate it or analyze it, and thus I don’t have much fine detail to report at interviews. My mind seems naturally inclined to move away from the progression of discernment on which the Mahasi method is based. The only way I could examine an object deeply was to do it purposefully, and we were expressly instructed not to do that. The sayadaws didn’t say much about this dilemma, maybe not knowing what to say. Or maybe it was already nearing the end of the retreat, so they just let me be. I don’t know.
Christmas day: The food served at the retreat was very healthy; I have no doubt of that; but it was also chewy and flavorless, which, I suppose, is very suitable for a meditation retreat. So before Christmas I had occasionally observed twinges of hope that something with actual flavor would be served on the big holiday. The meal turned out to be pretty much the same as always, although as I was sitting at my table a Burmese lady came around with a box of little pastries and gave me four of them. They looked delicious, almost sinful. One was a little chocolate-covered eclair. Just as she was serving them to me, the Mahayana monk sat down beside me; but the Burmese lady didn’t give him any of the pastries. This sort of situation made me a little uncomfortable at times: Burmese people would come almost every day to offer food to the sayadaws, and sometimes would offer a little food to the two American bhikkhu meditators, but they never gave food to the Mahayana monk. Partly this was because he often came later than they offered the food, and it was just as well in most cases, since the Burmese offer lots of animal flesh, which Mahayana monks, I’m pretty sure, don’t eat. But it seemed like he should have got some pastry too. I sat there wrestling with greed for all four pastries, and the desire to share with the Mahayana monk. I looked at the bland, fiber-laden health food in my bowl, then at the glorious chocolate-covered ambrosia, and occasionally felt a twinge of desire that the Vietnamese monk would finish and leave the table before I was finished with my bowl and ready to attend to the dessert. But, he finished at the same time I did, and sat there drinking his tea, or hot water, or whatever. I had to do it. I picked up the little bowl of pastries and offered them to him. He noticed what I was doing, suddenly flashed a very bright, childlike smile, and then politely refused to take any. It turned out to be a win-win-win situation for me: the Mahayana monk was happy, and had been treated with consideration by the Hinayana monk, I had scored a victory over my own selfishness and greed, and I got to eat all four pastries besides. (Two of them were chocolate things filled with delicious sweet goo.) Even if he had grossly betrayed me by taking all four for himself, I still would have felt better and cleaner than if I hadn’t made the offer. There was a fifth pastry that the Burmese lady had inadvertently dropped upside down onto the table, and had then just left it there, which I also wanted to eat. I reasoned that I was touching the table when the little cake landed on it, which meant, plausibly, that it was properly offered. I restrained myself and refrained, however, picking it up off the table, cleaning the slight mess, and I threw it away, feeling that it was such a waste to throw away a still perfectly good piece of cake.
One phenomenon that I noticed, which I also have noticed at other places, is that Sayadaw in his Dhamma talks would often give hints as to what the meditators ought to experience. Sometimes he would just flat-out tell them. In one or two of his talks, for example, he said that when one’s mindfulness deepens one may discern several stages in the process of rising of the abdomen, and several stages in the process of falling: seeing the beginning, middle, and end, and then seeing transition states between beginning and middle and middle and end, etc. In a later talk he mentioned that some of the meditators were now reporting that they saw many stages in the rising and falling process, but at the same interview they would also say that their mind kept wandering away with thoughts. He added, “That is not possible.” It seems pretty likely to me that many meditators, guided by hints, get into a more or less hypnotic state in which they see what they think they ought to see. It may even be that the effortless investigation of objects previously referred to would be a case of this, as I do not know how it would happen otherwise, unless most people are very different from me in their thinking and really do tend spontaneously toward analysis of phenomena into smaller parts. Then again, I must admit that I have not completed the Mahasi method; I’ve never finished the course, as they say, so I can’t say from experience where it leads. All I can say is that successful meditators believe that they experience the so-called insight knowledges in the correct, complete sequence, known in Burmese as nyan-zin, and that they thereby become sotāpannas, having glimpsed Nibbāna and become Buddhist saints. So I guess I should discuss Mahasi ariyas, since after all they are the final end-products of the system.
The Mahasi system itself appears to be specifically designed to churn out sotāpannas. Thus it is a rather goal-oriented system which, in its pure Burmese form, considers awareness of the present moment to be a kind of means to an end, rather than its own reward. Western teachers influenced by the Mahasi method often de-emphasize this goal orientation, which I consider to indicate a strength of the Western point of view. The route of progress is along the aforementioned nyan-zin, which is not listed in any sutta, but is derived from the medieval commentarial tradition. Maybe even the definition of a sotāpanna as a low level saint who has glimpsed Nibbāna is a doctrinal artifact not originating with the Buddha himself.
I have met two Burmese monks who, after finishing the course and being declared an ariya by U Paṇḍita himself, realized sooner or later that they weren’t really ariyas. And considering the behavior of some of the ones who don’t realize, I’d guess that many, possibly all, are not really what they consider themselves to be. Besides, I doubt that a true ariya would believe “I am this” or “I am that,” since they would no longer believe in a self to be anything. So I considered the future orientation, for example the daily aspiration that our practice was to culminate in path and fruition knowledge, to be somewhat of a drawback in the practice.
Christmas day: I was walking down the corridor in the men’s dormitory when I heard the sound of a screaming pig. I thought it was peculiar that someone would choose a screaming pig for the sound of their cell phone alarm. But when I went outside I continued hearing the pig. I realized that the sound was coming from next door, which was some kind of compound inhabited by Mexican people which sometimes served as a party venue. They had outdoor cookouts there sometimes. The screaming continued for several minutes, until I heard the grunt of a human male exerting himself, accompanied simultaneously by a thud, and the pig fell silent. It was only stunned, however, as it began screaming again shortly thereafter. But eventually the screaming stopped. I considered our daily wishes for all beings to be well and happy, and also considered the bit of pork sausage given to me recently by a Burmese donor, which sausage I willingly ate. The next evening, wafting over the fence from the party venue was the delicious, savory aroma of roast pork. It was like incense it was so aromatic. It smelled really good. I considered that the source of that delicious smell had been a screaming, tormented being just the day before, and that almost all meat that we eat has a similar source. It still smelled really good.
The Burmese Buddhist emphasis on theory is something that I have almost always tended to avoid whenever possible, to the extent of avoiding big sayadaws also. To give just one more example, in the suttas meditation on the breath is compared to tethering a wild animal to a post. The purpose of this is to prevent the animal from roaming at will, and eventually to help tame it—not for the purpose of encouraging the animal to analyze the post into its constituent elements. Especially not if the constituent elements are derived from ancient Indian philosophy (earth element, water element, fire element, air element) which is difficult to swallow by a modern Westerner with a scientific background.
Well, two more examples. Two principles that the venerable sayadaw sited as genuine knowledge to be derived from vipassana practice, in addition to awareness of the four elements, are 1) the clear distinction of mind and matter, and 2) the clear discernment of cause and effect. Now, I am philosophical enough to know that physical matter cannot really be known directly. We infer its existence, but can’t see it directly because what we actually see are mental states, non-physical sensory data. What the Burmese consider to be distinction of matter and mind seems more precisely to be a distinction of feeling and perception. And ever since reading the philosophy of David Hume I have been able to appreciate that causation also cannot be actually seen. Causality also is based on inference, on an educated guess. U Paññāsāmi’s example of a clear knowledge of causation was not convincing: he said that we see that the rising and falling of the abdomen is caused by the movement of air in and out of it. Assuming for the sake of argument that physical matter exists, it would seem to be more accurate to say the the exact reverse is true—it’s the movement of the abdomen that causes the air to move in and out.
But one advantage of the Mahasi method is that one can sidestep most of the extraneous theory relatively easily, much more easily than with, say, the Pah Auk method. I was just there to meditate, to do a month of intensive practice. I am grateful for that opportunity, and realize that the two sayadaws who were my teachers sincerely were trying to help me become enlightened.
Besides, everybody says things I don’t believe. You say things I don’t believe. I say plenty of things you don’t believe. There’s no escape from that.
Long ago, after my severe trial at Panditarama, I asked the wise sayadaw U Jotika what he thought of the Mahasi method. He said, “You can get benefit from practicing it, but it is a limited method.” I agree with that assessment, although, as I say, I’ve never finished the course, so I can’t say from personal experience exactly where the method leads. There is real profundity to be found in intensive mindfulness practice; and different philosophical points of view will come up with different theories to account for it, although perhaps none of them can really do it justice. I suspect that orthodox Theravada as defined by the commentarial tradition, and the Mahasi version of same, doesn’t do it justice. The underlying profundity is still there, though.
On the second-to-last day of the retreat I was at the table in the refectory, head down, eating as mindfully as I could manage from my alms bowl, but occasionally indulging in some critical thoughts about the Mahasi method. Someone approached and started to put some boiled greens into the bowl. At first I assumed it was another Burmese lay supporter bringing something from the sayadaws’ table, but then I noticed the person was wearing brown monastic robes. I quickly glanced up to see Sayadaw U Paññāsāmi himself, standing there offering me food. Then he went back to his table. It was a totally gratuitous act of mettā and good will. Unless maybe he could sense my thoughts, and wanted gently to nudge me away from them. Either way, I ate more mindfully after that.
There was one question that I wanted to ask Sayadaw: In the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta it is said that with any of the five aggregates of which we are composed, we cannot say “Let it be this way, let it not be that way,” and be sure that it will happen. In other words, we do not have real control over any of the five aggregates, including the aggregate of kamma formations, which is volition. If we had control over them, then we could call them a “self,” but there is no true self, and thus no complete control. So how does this relate to the repeated exhortations for us to tame our mind? There must be a limit to how far we can tame something over which we lack control. Can we know where to draw the line in our meditation practice? That is the question. But by the time it occurred to me to ask, I was having interviews with U Paññobhāsa, and didn’t have any more with Sayadaw U Paññāsāmi. I did ask U Paññobhāsa; and although he gave a nice, poetic kind of answer, I don’t think that it really answered the question. He compared meditation practice to climbing a mountain: Sometimes we pass through areas that are barren and rocky, so it is unsuitable for us to stop there. Other places are beautiful valleys, very nice places…but we shouldn’t stop there either, because we must push on to the mountain’s peak. As I say, it doesn’t seem to answer the question. Maybe the no-self/self-control paradox is just a mystery, with no clear answer. Maybe he was implying that one shouldn’t bother with figuring it out, but should keep pushing on till one has reached the summit. I don’t know. I am reminded of the statement of Ramana Maharshi, that the only free will we really have is the choice whether or not to be mindful.
Walking away from the retreat, I feel that one of the biggest insights I experienced, although not included on the schedule of nyan-zin, occurred with regard to sleepiness. Sleepiness or “torpor” is a common experience at an intensive retreat, and Sayadaw instructed me to note it, and see it clearly. I saw that there are various kinds of sleepiness: the dreamy, comfortable sleepiness of the very first sit of the morning; the surreal, energized sleepiness after the meal; and the low-energy, intractable, almost headachy sleepiness of late at night. The insight consists of realizing that sleepiness is not a reduction of consciousness, but rather a sleepy, monopolizing mental state which covers over the consciousness; and that, under certain conditions, all of those forms of torpor can be penetrated, and on the other side there is clear consciousness, pure awakeness. It’s always there. This applies to more than just sleepiness too.
In conclusion, I would say that the Mahasi method is generally a good method of practice, conducive to profound experience and real benefit, despite some questionable aspects of its theoretical side; and the retreat was a genuine blessing for me. Tathagata Meditation Center is like a miracle, and a blessing for anyone who practices there. It does my heart good to see such a place in America. The setup and the routine are similar to centers in the Mahasi tradition in Myanmar; so those of you in America who have considered going to Asia to do some intensive practice might consider trying a retreat in San Jose first, since it gives a good taste of what a Burmese place is like, and is probably cheaper, all in all, considering air fare from the USA. It’s much cheaper than a place like Spirit Rock (with $750 being hardly enough for a weekend workshop at some of the higher-end luxury retreat centers of the Vipassana Elite), with an approach that is more traditional and closer to the ancient way, and with instructors who for the most part are much better trained. It turned out in my case that after the retreat the organizer tried to refund the full entry fee for my stay, and various people associated with the retreat offered an additional $340 on my behalf. I turned down the refund, requesting that they allow someone else, who maybe can’t afford $25 a day, to do the next one-month retreat for free, so long as they agree to two conditions: 1) they meditate diligently, and 2) they practice for the full month. Ideally, Dhamma and meditation practice are priceless.
The web address for TMC is tathagata.org.
some early Western attempts at walking meditation