A seventy-day meditation retreat was recently organised at Paṇḍitārāma Tenth-Mile Forest Meditation Centre, attended by about 90 foreign meditators. During the retreat, it became apparent that there are several common misconceptions regarding the nature of vipassanā. U Hla Myint, one of the interpreters during the retreat, has consequently written two short articles which attempt to clarify the several topics that tend to puzzle meditators. U Hla Myint has had twenty-two years monastic training, 10 years as a novice and 12 years as a monk, during which time he gained the Lankara, Dhammācariya, and Bhivamsa degrees which are conferred within the Saṅgha. While still a monk (as U Vannitābhivamsa), U Hla Myint was a disciple of the Mahāsi Sayādaw and Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw, and spent several years as an assistant meditation teacher at the Mahāsi Meditation Centre in Rangoon. This monastic training has given U Hla Myint extensive knowing of the Buddha’s teachings and valuable insights into the teaching and practice of vipassanā meditation. Since leaving the monkhood, U Hla Myint has remained a close disciple of the Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw, and has acted as interpreter at meditation retreats in Malaysia, Singapore, England and the United States of America.
Translated by U Hla Maung
Panditarama, Rangoon, 1999
“The Mahāsi Sayādaw’s instructions that in vipassanā, the meditator must note all the material and mental phenomena relating only to the present is not in accordance with the Buddhist Canon.”
This remark was heard from a Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw. A Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw is a Sayādaw who has shown himself, through a series of very rigorous verbal and written examinations, to be a complete master of the Tipiṭaka, or the “Three Baskets” of the Buddhist Canon. The examinations for the Tipiṭakadhara degree are of such a high and unrelenting standard that in the past fifty years, only six Sayādaws have been deemed worthy of the Tipiṭakadhara degree.
As a long-time disciple of the Mahāsi Sayādaw, I had studied diligently the publications of the Mahāsi Sayādaw, and I was at a loss as to what to make of the above remark. The Burmese saying came to mind: “A lawyer who never errs, a doctor who never dies.”
With two leading Sayādaws from Rangoon’s Paṇḍitārāma Golden Hill Meditation Centre, I had gone to make a supplication to a Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw to grace with his presence the opening ceremony of a special meditation retreat at Paṇḍitārāma Tenth-Mile Forest Meditation Centre, 10 miles south of Bago (Pegu). The two leading Sayādaws of Paṇḍitārāma Golden Hill Meditation Centre and the Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw knew one another well, and the conversation had turned to the missionary work of Mahāsi Sayādaw, especially in bringing the benefits of vipassanā meditation to thousands of meditators both in Burma and abroad.
The Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw then repeated critical remarks that had been made by one of the presiding Sayādaws at the Sixth Great Buddhist Synod which had been convened in 1956.
“Mahāsi Sayādaw had initially attained only the degree of Dhammācariya and had not distinguished himself as a scholar. Later, during the Sixth Synod, Mahāsi Sayādaw was given the responsibility of Principal Questioner, and only after this opportunity to study and learn the scriptures further, Mahāsi Sayādaw became well versed in the Buddhist Canon.”
Because Mahāsi Sayādaw had never been awarded the Tipiṭakadhara degree, it was difficult to argue the truth of the above remarks.
The Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw continued:
“The other day, at an invitation lunch, the conversation had turned to the above points. A leading Sayādaw of the Mahāsi organisation had overheard, and immediately offered a rebuttal. “No,” he had stated firmly, “Mahāsi Sayādaw did not become a learned scholar only after the Sixth Buddhist Synod. The Sayādaw’s treatise on vipassanā meditation was written and published before this great Synod. It is a treatise deservedly respected by all scholars, and a close study of it reveals not only the Mahāsi Sayādaw’s mastery of pariyatti, or learning of the Buddhist scriptures, but it also reveals the Sayādaw's mastery and experience of paṭipatti, the actual meditation practices of the Buddha's teachings.”
As I listened, I breathed a sigh of relief that at least some one had come to the Mahāsi Sayādaw's defence.
The Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw continued:
“In this present day and age, no one dares to say anything critical of the Mahāsi Sayādaw. In the fields of both learning (pariyatti) and actual practice (paṭipatti), the Sayādaw is honoured and respected, and acknowledged to be a great master.”
Previously, this was about as much as I knew about the Sayādaw, but not so long ago, I happened to look through the Mahāsi Sayādaw’s treatise on vipassanā. Oh … Only then did I realise for myself just how learned the Mahāsi Sayādaw really and truly was.
“I realised then that to say that Mahāsi Sayādaw was not a scholar because he had never been awarded the Tipiṭakadhara degree was the same as saying that Einstein was not a brilliant scientist because he had never been awarded a doctorate degree from a university.”
Then the Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw continued with the following points which puzzled and troubled me further.
“A recently published book contends that many of Mahāsi Sayādaw’s instructions for vipassanā meditation are not in accord with the Buddha’s teaching as expressed in the Tipiṭaka, the Buddhist Canon. The book, by a well known Sayādaw, was no less than an attempt to set a new direction and a new agenda for vipassanā meditation in Burma. Some of the points made in the new book were that the Buddha-to-be had attained Buddhahood through ānāpānassati, or meditation on the in-breaths and out-breaths, and that ānāpānassati was a practice advocated by the Buddha as a method to be followed by his noble disciples, while the meditation on the rising and falling abdomen was a method only introduced by Mahāsi Sayādaw, and not in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.”
Another topic that the book raised (The Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw continued), was the Mahāsi Sayādaw’s instruction for moment-to-moment awareness of all the material-mental phenomena occurring within one’s material body, as they occur in the present. All sights, sounds, smells, tastes, contacts, thoughts must be noted as they occur, and vipassanā or insight wisdom arises as the meditator realises the impermanence of all phenomena, that they rise and then pass away. The book however maintains that meditators must realise the facts of impermanence, suffering and no-self not only within oneself in the present, but also within the material bodies of others, and in the past, present and future. The book gave many references from the Buddhist Canon in support of this, including the relatively well known Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta.
Hearing all this from a Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw, mind and body became agitated as if watching a thrilling boxing match. The Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw ended his remarks, however, and one was able to let out a sigh of relief. “But when I checked and studied all the references given in the book carefully, I discovered that the Mahāsi Sayādaw, far from being wrong, was in the right, and that his meditation instructions were totally in accord with the Buddhist scriptures.”
We paid our respects to the Tipiṭakadhara Sayādaw and took our leave. His remarks nevertheless lingered in my somewhat unsettled mind. About a week later, I took the opportunity to inquire of the Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw about meditators noting only the material-mental phenomena within oneself and in the present only, as opposed to noting the phenomena in others and also in the past and future. As a long-time chief disciple, successor, and confidant of the Mahāsi Sayādaw, Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw was acquainted with the Mahāsi Sayādaw’s teachings as no one else was, or could be. Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw replied first of all, that in his many years of teaching meditation, his experience had always been that detractors of the Mahāsi Sayādaw had always been proved wrong, and Mahāsi Sayādaw was invariably and finally proved right. Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw then explained as follows.
“In vipassanā meditation, one’s own corporeal body gives disciples of the Buddha’s teachings direct, personal and actual experience of the material-mental phenomena that constitute all existence. It is not possible to experience directly the material-mental phenomena of another’s body, but one is forced to presume, compare, and decide based on one’s experience and knowledge. This is clearly stated in the commentaries to the Uparipaṇṇāsa Anupada Sutta. Thus, in vipassanā, meditators should note and get direct personal realisation of the material and mental phenomena taking place in one’s own body.
“Furthermore, regarding the future that has not yet arrived, it is clearly not possible to foretell exactly what phenomena will take place. One can only make assumptions about what events are likely to happen. Therefore, it is equally impossible to directly, personally, and actually and correctly experience assumed, future phenomena. Equally clear is the fact that one must also make assumptions regarding phenomena pertaining to one’s past lives. One can never directly, personally, actually and correctly experience them in the present.
“Even in this present life, regarding phenomena that took place some years, or some months, or some weeks ago, meditators are unlikely to be able to recall and understand correctly. Even for phenomena of just a few hours ago, immediately following a sense impression, such as seeing, hearing, touching, the meditator’s impression is clouded by the conventional views that there is an “I”, or “mine”, or there is “man”, “woman”, and so on, and so the normal meditator will find it difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate through to the realisation of the ultimate truths behind material-mental phenomena.
“This is why in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta, it is stated “paccuppannañca yaṃ dhammaṃ tathā tathā vipassati”; that one must note the material-mental phenomena relating to the present, as they occur, moment-by-moment, seeing, hearing, etc. In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta also, the disciple is admonished to note all material-mental phenomena as they occur in the present whether he be walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, thus, “gacchanto va gacchāmī’ti…”; that is, when walking, know that one is walking, and so on. Noting diligently and without break, the meditator realises that existence is suffering impermanent, and non self, and realising this for himself, he knows intuitively that it is true for past and future too as it is true for the present, and being true for himself, he realises it is true for others too. The meditator must not become confused about the method to be followed merely because the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta opens with these profound truths.”
There is therefore no foundation to the allegations that Mahāsi Sayādaw’s instruction to note material-mental phenomena of the present moment only is not according to the Buddhist Canon. For more details, the reader is referred to the published discourse by Mahāsi Sayādaw on the » Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta.
“It is quite wonderful that so many foreign meditators are meditating here.
Are they developing ānāpānassati or mindfulness of in-breaths and out-breaths?”
This remark was made by a visitor to the Dhamma-hall at Paṇḍitārāma Tenth-Mile Hill Forest Meditation Centre, where there were nearly 90 foreign meditators in an intensive meditation retreat. The Paṇḍitārāma Forest Meditation Centre is located in a bamboo forest about ten miles south of Pegu. It was founded in 1993 by the Venerable Sayādaw U Paṇḍitābhivaṃsa of Paṇḍitārāma Golden Hill Meditation Centre in Rangoon. To celebrate the successful completion of residential cottages for meditators, Dhamma-hall, dining hall, kitchen and catering facilities, the intensive meditation retreat had been organized with about 90 foreign meditators participating. The retreat was opened on November 15, 1998 and will continue for 70 days until January 25, 1999.
Visitors to the retreat are both surprised and delighted to find so many foreigners committed to the practice of the Buddha’s teaching. Many become interested in finding out more about the practice of vipassanā meditation. Questions that are commonly asked are “Is not mindfulness of the in- and out-breath (ānāpānassati) — the same as vipassanā meditation, and therefore able to lead to realisation of the path, its fruition, and nibbāna?” “Is not mindfulness of in- and out-breath the same in essence as mindfulness of the rising and falling of the abdomen?”
These questions reminded me of another occasion about six months ago. I was at that time in Malaysia, at a meditation retreat in Kuala Lumpur, where Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw had given me the responsibility of interpreter. Mary Shimoda, a Japanese disciple of Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw, phoned me from Tokyo with some questions regarding meditation practice. In an earlier retreat in Rangoon where I had also acted as interpreter, Mary Shimoda had been a participating meditator, and we had become good friends
Mary Shimoda had said: “Ko Hla Myint, a friend has phoned me from Rangoon, and said that the Buddha-to-be became the Buddha, or was enlightened, through ānāpānassati, or mindfulness of the in-and out-breaths. Is this not true?” The question took me by surprise and my heart began to beat a little faster. Yes, according to my knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures, Miss Mary Shimoda’s friend was right. On the night immediately prior to his Supreme Enlightenment, the Buddha-to-be had developed deeper and deeper levels of concentration through ānāpāna. In the first watch of the night, he attained pubbenivāsanussati-abhiññā, the Knowledge of Former States of Being, in the middle watch, he attained dibbacakkhu abhiññā, the Divine Eye of Omniscient Vision, and in the third watch of the night, he realised comprehensively the truth of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), being the Conditionality of all physical and mental phenomena.
“Yes,” I replied, "the Buddha became enlightened and realised bodhiñāṇa through ānāpāna.”
Mary Shimoda then had two other questions which kept my heart beating quicker than normal. "If that is so, Ko Hla Myint, why does the Mahāsi Sayādaw ignore ānāpānassati and teach instead mindfulness of the rising and falling abdomen. And another thing, rising-falling meditation method was introduced by Mahāsi Sayādaw, and never taught by the Buddha. Only ānāpānassati was explicitly taught by the Buddha. Is this not true?"
I realised quickly I was inadequate to answer these questions to her satisfaction. I took an easy way out. I replied, “Sayādawgyi will come to Malaysia in April. I will ask the Sayādaw to explain, and I will contact you later.”
Regarding the last point, Mary Shimoda and her friend were quite right. The Buddha had on many occasions taught ānāpānassati. In the Pārājika, Mahāvagga, and Paṭisambhidāmagga, for example, the Buddha had expounded the method and its benefits. The Buddha had never directly referred to the rising and falling of the abdomen. For these reasons, Mary Shimoda’s phoned queries were of a nature to agitate the heart and exercise the mind.
I had been a disciple of Mahāsi Sayādaw. I had read and studied his books and lectures, and believe sincerely and deeply in the efficacy of the Sayādaw’s meditation teachings. By keeping the rising and falling abdomen as the main object of mindfulness, but being mindful or aware of sights, sounds, smells tastes, touch, and thoughts as and when they became dominant, with continuity of mindfulness or bare awareness, unbroken and untainted by thinking or fantasy, one could realise for oneself the dual nature of existence as mind and matter, the fact of cause and affect, and higher levels of vipassanā or insight wisdom. I myself had meditated intensively using this method.
Thousands of other meditators, both in Myanmar and abroad had also meditated using the rising and falling abdomen as the main object of mindfulness or bare attention, and many had personally realised high levels of vipassanā wisdom. Even now, nearly ninety foreign meditators were gathered in an intensive 70-day retreat based on the Mahāsi Sayādaw’s method. Clearly, all successful vipassanā meditation methods had, ultimately, to be grounded in the Buddha’s teachings. No method, however modified or introduced and taught by individual meditation teachers, unless so grounded in the Buddha’s teaching, can succeed in helping meditators realise high levels of vipassanā insight.
For over forty years, Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw had been the chief disciple and successor to Mahāsi Sayādaw, and had been teaching vipassanā meditation based on the Mahāsi method.
Now, Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw has become perhaps the foremost and most successful among many Myanmar Sayādaws teaching vipassanā who have won world-wide renown. When Sayādaw came to the Kuala Lumpur monastery where I was, I took the opportunity to put Mary Shimoda’s questions to Sayādaw. Firstly, “Did the Buddha not attain Buddhahood through ānāpānassati?”
“Ko Hla Myint,” the Sayādaw replied, “You have not studied the scriptures with the necessary attention to detail. It is true that the Buddha-to-be attained Knowledge of Former States of Being (dibbacakkhu abhiññā) and the Divine Eye of Omniscient Vision (dibbacakkhu abhiññā) in the first and second watches of the night through ānāpānassati. However, in the third and last watch of the night, the Buddha-to-be was no longer absorbed in ānāpānassati, but had turned his great intellect to the doctrine of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). ‘Through ignorance are conditioned rebirth producing volitions or kamma-formations (saṅkhārā), and so on.’ Then, just before the break of day, while meditating on the five aggregates, the physical and mental phenomena of existence, the Buddha-to-be attained the path and fruition of Arahantship, and the Omniscience of a Supremely Enlightened Buddha. Thus, Buddhahood was won not through ānāpānassati, but through mindfulness on the physical and mental phenomena of the five aggregates.”
Mary Shimoda’s second question (“If the Buddha became enlightened through ānāpānassati, why did Mahāsi Sayādaw ignore ānāpānassati and teach the rising-falling method?”) had been partially answered by Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw. However, Sayādaw’s answer disconcerted me somewhat because I had incorrectly told Mary Shimoda that ānāpānassati had resulted in the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Moreover, I remained puzzled as to the correct answers for the questions:
“Why did Mahāsi Sayādaw ignore ānāpānassati, which was directly taught by the Buddha, but introduced the rising-falling method?”
“Is ānāpānassati the same in essence as vipassanā and meditating on rising and falling, and able to lead to magga-phala and nibbāna?”
In answering these questions, Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw explained the teachings of the Mahāsi Sayādaw as follows.
Ānāpānassati can take two directions. If the meditator strives to be mindful of the form or manner of the in-breath and the out-breath, then it is samatha meditation and leads to one-pointedness of mind. On the other hand, if the meditator notes the sensation of the in-breath and out-breath as it moves and touches, then it is vipassanā meditation. The element of wind or motion (vāyo-dhātu) is matter (rūpa), while the awareness or consciousness of the sensation is mind (nāma). Therefore, ānāpānassati can be considered as vipassanā, and can lead to high levels of insight wisdom. However, in the Visuddhimagga, in the section on mindfulness of the body (kāyānupassana), fourteen objects of meditation are discussed, and further subdivided into objects for tranquillity (samatha) and insight (vipassanā) meditation. In the Visuddhimagga, ānāpānassati is presented as an object of tranquillity meditation. Consequently, if we are to instruct meditators to develop ānāpānassati as part of insight meditation, we will be inviting much unwanted and unwarranted criticism and controversy. And neither Mahāsi Sayādaw or myself would want to argue here that the Visuddhimagga, the rightly venerated classic, is at fault here.
It has been said that by noting the rising and falling of the abdomen, meditators are distancing themselves from the teachings of the Buddha. The answer to this is a firm and definite “no.” Quite apart from the success that meditators have achieved by noting rising-falling, there is much solid evidence in the Buddhist scriptures, such as the Saḷāyatana Vagga Saṃyutta, to show that the method is very much a part of the Buddha’s teachings regarding mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of the elements (dhātu), and mindfulness of the five aggregates (khandha).
For more details regarding the above points, the interested person is referred to a discourse by Mahāsi Sayādaw on the Mālukyaputta Sutta, which has been published as a booklet. The Sayādaw wrote voluminously on the subject of meditation, and meditators are invited to make a study of the publications available.
The correct answers were summarised and faxed to Mary Shimoda in Tokyo, and within an hour, a return fax was received, asking me to thank the Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw on her behalf for clearing up the points that had been troubling her. I too was much relieved and happy that Mary Shimoda had finally got the right answers; and hoped and trusted that she would pass them to her friend.
It is certainly a case for rejoicing that there are presently about 90 foreign meditators participating in an intense retreat at Paṇḍitārāma Ten-Mile Hill Forest Meditation Centre. Here, meditators are noting the rising and falling abdomen as the main object of meditation, and assuredly, guided by the vast experience and wisdom of Paṇḍitārāma Sayādaw, many are achieving high levels of insight wisdom.
May all these meditators take home with them the wisdom, peace of mind and contentment that they have attained here, and may they spread the teachings of the Buddha throughout the world for the welfare of all beings.
There are many fake lights of wisdom practice spreading actively in the world and this is a cause for concern. The following information was gathered from a Burmese meditation teacher.
Some time ago in a certain town in Burma, there was a prominent monk who taught his personal method of practice. He also wrote books criticising Ledi Sayādaw and Mahāsi Sayādaw. Shortly after these efforts, he had a fall. Paṇḍitārāma Shwe Taung Gon Sāsana Yeikthā’s chief abbot, Sayādaw U Paṇḍitābhivaṃsa is of the opinion that such retributive effects can befall detractors and critics of Mahāsi Sayādaw.
He states the following:
Mahāsi Sayādaw faced numerous challenges when he first arrived in Sri Lanka to propagate the Dhamma. Many monks and the laity wrote articles in the press denouncing his method. Subsequent to these acts, they each suffered a fall. Later, the Mahāsi method became more prominent against that of his detractors which slid into obscurity. Today, his critics are forgotten.
In response to his critics, one of Mahāsi Sayādaw’s disciples published a book in Burmese entitled Mahāggharatana (The Great Precious Jewel) which sought to clarify and explain things.
Most learned Burmese monks have a very high esteem and respect for Mahāsi Sayādaw. The better learned one is, the higher will be his or her regard for the Sayādaw as he was very well versed in both practice (pariyatti) and learning (paṭipatti). So skilful and learned was he!
A well known meditation teacher of Burma urged one of the most learned monks to read his book. When Sayādaw U Sumaṅgala finished reading, he commented that the Mahāsi method is the right method. He compared the quotations of the Tipiṭaka featured in Pa Auk Sayādaw’s book against the original Tipiṭaka and discovered discrepancies in interpretation. Having scrutinised Mahāsi Sayādaw’s writings and teachings intensely, he came to understand fully Mahāsi Sayādaw’s doctrine and affirmed them to be correct and pure.
Some very thick books of Pa Auk Sayādaw in English which were sent to Burma from Taiwan have been banned and prohibited from distribution by the Mahānāyaka Sayādaws of the Burmese Religious Affairs Department in Kaba Aye, Rangoon.
In response to an attack on the Mahāsi method by one Pa Auk disciple, Sayādaw U Paṇḍitābhivaṃsa remarked, “One should not immerse poison into pure, clean water which is very useful. After being contaminated it will become useless. So don’t put poison into pure, clean water.”
Recently, Pa Auk Sayādaw went to Paṇḍitārāma to pay respects to his teacher, Sayādaw U Paṇḍitābhivaṃsa. The Sayādaw greeted him with loving-kindness (mettā) and compassion (karuṇā). He placidly advised his disciple thus, “One should drive minding one’s own car in traffic and be in his own lane without disturbing others. When approaching a traffic light, to move only in green, to slow down and be ready to halt in amber and to stop in red. Transgressing these traffic rules will surely cause an accident.”
“To reach the desired destination, one must be in the right lane, be aware of the traffic regulations and be driving at an appropriate speed. Exceeding the speed limit may result in a ticket or an accident. Being out of one’s lane, one may bump into other vehicles. Even if one is right and the other is wrong, one may also get into trouble. We must be careful about that.”