Vipassana Meditation the Mahasi Method Explained
Why people quit & tips on how to makes your a success
This is a discussion given during Sunday Jade Buddha Temple, English Dharma Group, so you are welcome to ask questions any time or leave a comment I this case. Also, in an hour we can cover one aspect of Insight Meditation so by no means an exhaustive discussion. Most of it are based my personal study and experiences of the past 20 years. I have been very lucky to find like minded practitioners supporting my journey. Without, this community, I might have stopped years ago. The other is that, is partly due to my self determination and effort, I have managed to participat in many retreats from 1-day up to 20 days. During these period, I have gone to at least one long retreats every year.
In this talk you will hear statement, like 'Insight Meditation requires mindfulness, alertness and ardency'. The statement is simple and direct but loaded with meaning. Or may be you have your own experience after reading a book on meditation and still have difficulties meditating. In here we are trying another approach to go through the steps of insight meditation and hopefully that can help to add a few more tools for your tool box.
So, what kind of meditation should I be practicing with. I hope by the end of this you will get a some idea about Vipassana Meditation. Whichever technique that you choose to embark on, give yourself time, commit to it for at least six months. Find a good teachers, good community, good resources and best of luck. Most of it enjoy the journey with many fruitful results.
There will be a few Pali (Sanskrit) terms. I did it for 2 reasons is to let you get used to them, if you didn't get it in this talk, no worries. The more you hear and discuss them then it will get better. Second, many times there are just no direct and even a appropriate word to represent meaning in the sutta, therefore it is good to know some them.
This is how the discussion will go. They are arranged in progressive stages. The first 2 sections are definition of terms and basic knowledge. If you know them you can skip these sections. The last two section is a practical look at different modern day insight meditations and step by step description of Mahasi practice. There are references throughout the article and at the end, you may find them helpful since they have been sources of inspirations and in a way “teachers” on my path.
Definitions/Terms (tool kits and how they work)
Buddhist Meditation Overview (understanding & misunderstanding)
Step by step Mahasi Vipassana Meditation Techniques
Helpful Tips to improve your Practice
Meditation appeared in the sutta are often associated with words like Bhavana, Jhāna, Dhyāna/禪那, Ch'an/Zen禪… Bhavana means cultivation or development. Jhāna (Pali) or Dhyāna (Sanskrit) means the cultivation of stages of absorption concentration of the mind. Dhyāna was translated by the Chinese as 禪那 by the pronunciation of the Sanskrit word. And later it was abbreviated to 禪 or Ch'an. When it reached Japan and Korea, it became Zen.
Vipassana/Insight Meditation- has 2 components Mindfulness (sati) & Momentary Concentration (Samatha). Insight Meditation uses 'meditation objects' in developing the mind in order to gain direct knowledge of reality. The yogi are trained to perfect key mental components in order to cut through our delusions into our true nature.
Mindfulness (Sati)- is when you first become aware of something before you objectify it. (mipe) Characteristic of mindfulness is mirror like; non-judgmental; impartial watchfulness; bare attention; present time awareness; non-egoistic alertness; goal-less awareness; awareness of change; pre-symbolic function remembrance; meant to keep in mind (tb)
Alertness- “means being clearly aware of what's happening in the present” (tb)
Ardent- Ardency means being intent on what you're doing, trying your best to do it skillfully (tb)
intensely devoted, eager, or enthusiastic; zealous (dictionary)
“refers to the effort you put into the practice, trying to abandon unskillful states of mind and develop skillful ones in their stead, all the while trying to discern the difference between the two.” (tb)
Jhāna/Samadhi/Samatha (concentration, serenity) this is sometimes described as a different kind of meditation. This meditation when developed allows the yogis to reach stages of meditation called Jhanna (8 stages). The yogis uses a a single object to develop single mindedness. Some of these practices are: Metta (Loving Kindness); 32 body parts; 4 elements; charnel ground; and so on.
Meditation Object- wholesome object that the mind uses to develop insight.
Defilements (kilesa, or 3 poisons, cankers)- unwholesome mental states, they greed, hatred and ignorance
Hindrances- five key factors that hinders your progress in meditation:
Sensory desire: the particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.
Ill-will: all kinds of thought related to wanting to reject, feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.
Sloth-torpor: heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression.
Restlessness-worry: the inability to calm the mind.
Doubt: lack of conviction or trust.
Two Important Sutta (Dhamma Discourses) on Meditation by the Buddha
Satipatthana (Foundation of Mindfulness)- sati ("to remember"), paṭṭhāna ("setting forth," "starting point," "foundation," underscoring the object used to gain mindfulness). Four domains: Body (Kaya); Feelings (Vedana); Mind (Citta); Mental Objects (Dhamma)
Anapanasati (Mindfulness of Breath)- āna + apāna + sati
What is meditation and what is
Meditation is not to ask you to “contemplate your navel or to chant secret syllables. You are not conquering demons or harnessing invisible energies.” Following are misconceptions on meditation mentioned in BhanteG'a book- Mindfulness in Plain English (mipe): “just a relaxation; means going into a trance; a mysterious practice which cannot be understood; become a psychic superman; dangerous to be avoided by a prudent person; for saints and holy men; running away from reality; a great way to get high; selfish; sit around thinking lofty thoughts; couple of weeks of meditation and all my problems will go away.”
Other popular forms of Meditation
Two other popular forms of Buddhist meditation quoting from BhanteG's book, “Mindfulness in Plain English”. (mipe)
Zen: “student is given a unsolvable riddle (koan) … and by placing him in a horrendous training situation. Since he cannot flee from the pain of the situation, he must flee into a pure experience of the moment. There is nowhere else to go. Zen is tough. It is effective for many people, but it is really tough.”
Tantric: “mental images which are artificially pasted to the flowing process of pure awareness. Tantra seeks to obtain pure awareness by destroying this ego image. This is accomplished by a process of visualization … not exactly a game of patty cake”
Does that mean Vipassana is any easier? Judge for yourself. When the Buddha taught about Vipassanna Meditation, it is based on 2 aspects- Sati (mindfulness) and Samatha (concentration). This is not two different meditation, they actually go hand in hand and are both essential.
Samadhi/Samatha: Concentration, Tranquility, One Pointedness
Mindfulness, In the Moment
Sam Harris an American author, a philosopher and neuroscientist and a critique of organized religion. Harris is one of the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism," alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. They, especially the late Christopher Hitchens, are interesting thinkers of our times.
Sam Harris “recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali, “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course—and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe ... Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.
The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is generally referred to as “mindfulness” … its psychological benefits. Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self awareness …
“mindfulness-based stress reduction” (MBSR), pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, have brought this practice into hospitals and other clinical settings …
The Inner Kids Foundation … teaches mindfulness in schools. Even the Department of Defense has begun experimenting with meditation in this form … The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy ... requires special talent and a lifetime of practice.” (ttps://www.samharrish.org/blog/item/how-to-meditate)
Popular Vipassana Meditations Methods are Mahasi, Goenka (www.dhamma.org); Pa-Auk; Ajhan Chah; Sayadaw U Tejaniya (http://ashintejaniya.org/books-dont-look-down-on-the-defilements)
Mahasi Meditation Techniques Explained
This method was started by Mahāsi Sayādaw in Burma, also sometimes known as the forest tradition. He and his center has trained more then 700,000 students all over the world especially from the West. Some of his students are Sayādaw U Paṇḍita (Panditārāma), Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. This method is taught by focusing on the rising and falling of the stomach. The idea is that it is more prominent as a meditation object comparing to the breath. The teaching is to ask the yogi to note each an every mental object that are present in the mind. Always using the the rising and falling of the stomach as an anchor.
Goenka Meditation Techniques Explained
Sometimes described as a boot camp, going through a regiment of 10 days total silent meditation. Boot camp in the context that everything from the meditation instructions, Dhamma talks, staffing to managing the retreat are run according to a standard operating procedure (sop). The whole “operation” are highly structured and some commentators used the term rigid. Everything are well formulated and directed, almost feel like a “McDonald” franchaise operation. I do mean this is the best sense of the word, this approach is highly successful and as a proof there are 167 world centers and 129 non-centers. (https://www.dhamma.org/en/locations/directory)
The Vipassana meditation approach that the center teaches is by observing the bodily sensations that arise from the 6 senses, a yogis see directly first hand the reality of human experiences. The first 3 days are spend on anapana, and then the fourth day switched to mindfulness meditation. Each day the students wake up at 4:30a and finish at 10p. There is an hour of video taped Dhamma talk, a recording of Goenka, at 9pm. There is no walking meditation scheduled in this retreat.
They are well run operations and recommended for anyone who wanted to get the experience of a long retreat. Examples of the thoroughness of the center operation like in staffing and food. THere are both male and female assistant teachers, who are volunteers that has been trained. They manage the sitting meditation sessions and play the recorded instructions at the appointed schedule and also help answeared questions from students. There are male and female student managers who help monitor the students and the meditation room. They would even look for students that are absent from their meditation cushions.
Food are an important part of the retreat and they are well planned and documented from portion controls to suggested list of varieties of dishes. It is run by the kitchen manager, and a group of volunteers. As a mtter of fact the retreat center are run off of mostly donations and volunteers.
Pa-Auk Meditation Explained
It is highly structured approach based on Theravada Sutta and the Visuddhimagga (Path to Purification). The following is a direct quote:(https://www.reddit.com/r/Buddhism/comments/39gvyc/how_meditation_is_taught_by_the_venerable_pa_auk/)
“The meditation taught at Pa-Auk Tawya is based on the instructions by The Buddha as found in the Tipiṭaka (the Pāli Canon) and its commentaries.
In brief, the main practice is to begin with Samatha (tranquility) meditation, which is to develop absorption concentration, also called jhāna. A yogi (meditator) is free to choose any of the forty Samatha subjects as taught by The Buddha. In Pa-Auk Tawya, most yogis develop jhāna with mindfulness-of-breathing (ānāpānassati). Having developed Samatha, the yogi may proceed to practise Vipassanā (insight) meditation.
As an alternative, the yogi may omit the development of jhāna. He/she (“he”) will be taught instead to develop the less powerful access concentration with the Samatha subject of Four-Elements meditation, prior to the practice of Vipassanā meditation. In either case, the concentration attained by the yogi produces the 'light of wisdom'.
Having completed the development of his/her (“his”) Samatha meditation, the yogi is then taught to protect his practice with the Four Protective Meditations of Mettā (Loving Kindness), Buddhānussati (Recollection of The Buddha), Asubha (Repulsiveness of the Body), and Maranānussati (Recollection of Death).
Following that, the yogi will be taught to prepare the way for Vipassanā meditation, which is to use the ‘light of wisdom’ to discern ultimate materiality and mentality. The yogi will also be taught to discern the workings of Dependent Origination (paṭṭiccasamuppāda). This means he will discern a number of past and future lives, and to discern the causes for certain rebirths.
Only upon having discerned ultimate materiality and mentality and their causes (Dependent Origination), does the yogi have the necessary objects for Vipassanā meditation. The practice of Vipassanā meditation is to discern the three characteristics of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anatta) in ultimate materiality and mentality – of past, present, and future, internal and external, gross and subtle, inferior and superior, far and near.
In accordance with the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), the yogi will be taught a series of detailed practices by which to develop and strengthen his Vipassanā knowledge of materiality and mentality of past, present and future. In this way, the yogi may progress through the different insight knowledges, preliminary to the attainment of Nibbāna.
What is Mahasi Meditation (Explained step by step)
Cooking for a full course meal is in many ways similar to meditation. You have the four different kind dishes, appetizer/standing, soup or salad/walking, main course/sitting and desert/lying down. Each are important as to compliment the other and each has their own ingredients and the cooking instructions. You can read as many recipe book as you like but you know that it is very much different when you actually step into the kitchen and try to cook. Meditation is not too much different and yet so much more complicated.
The central to Mahasi meditation is noting, that is noting the meditation object. To begin the yogi is ask to use the rising and falling of the stomach area as the primary meditation object during sitting meditation.
When the mind wonder away from the primary object, the yogi is to gently note the distraction. Let me emphasis on gently. For example if the distraction happen to be hearing sound from the outside and the mind started either liking or disliking. The moment the yogi noticed that the mind is not on the primary object. The first thing to do is gently note 'sound, sound, sound' and then go back to rising and falling.
There are wholesome skills deployed here. First mindfulness has to be present. Wholesome mental state that stay with what is going on at the present moment. That is to say, clearly noting the sound before mental interpretation that of what was said or who is talking. Also the mind is heedful, in another word non forgetfulness and remember to stay with your meditation object. Then if the yogi catches the mind wonders into reacting to the sound for 'moments' later then when it noted that it was heedlessness. It has to 'accept' and gently brings the mind back to the meditation object.
This is how the yogi should start practicing. With diligence and regular training there are at least two outcomes. The mind can settle and stay with the primary object and the alertness in catching distractions improves. This is building a good foundation for mindfulness. The yogi is encouraged to take this to daily activities like when waiting in checkout line, you can practicing rising and falling and noting when the mind wonder to another object.
To make progress, you are encouraged to practice daily especially going for retreat. This allow the yogi to reach a sharp level of mindfulness. Whereas the yogi can then go deeper into the meditation object. When at this stage, this meditation object can be any phenomena that arises during once meditation. For example, when the yogi hear a conversation outside of the meditation hall and begin to wonder why these people are so in considerate. Why can they talk some place else. May be I should go out and tell them to stop so we can have quite space to meditate. The mind can go on and on and on and on. When the alert mind can catch this train of think, then the the first thing to do is gently note 'anger, anger, anger'. Then brings it back to the 'rising and falling', that is what it mean by the anchoring mental object.
If when the mind is sharper and can note the distraction sooner like, the minute the yogi hear the sound and note 'sound, sound, sound' and then back to rising and falling. Sometimes the distraction remains, the people are still talking outside and seemed even louder. And if the yogi's mindfulness is sharp, he can switch his mindfulness on to noting the prominent objects. In this case may be the angry feelings that arises out of the distraction. The yogi is to look at the bare feeling or may be even sensations that arise due to the anger. The sensations then becomes the object of meditation. Seeing it with objective observation or sometimes called without the “I”.
The same principle applies to walking, standing and laying down meditation. In walking meditation the primary object is to use the movement walking. To be more specify the either the lifting pushing and touching (movement) or the sensation of the feet during walking. In standing meditation the primary object can be the standing or the sensation from the body, whichever is the most prominent object to use.
Dealing with hindrances?
Now let look at how to deal with one of the hindrances. As you know by now there are five. The description below in principle can also be applied to all of them. In here, we will look at sloth and torpor or more specifically sleepiness.
Before we get into how, let's understand a few words that we will be using. Wholesome and unwholesome mental states. Mindfulness, alertness and ardent of the present moment are wholesome mental states. Unwholesome mental states are, for example, distractions, anger and laziness, which retard the progress of insight and keep us in deluded states. In another words, any phenomena which arises during meditation that prevent the presence mindfulness. These unwholesome mental states are related to the concept of I, mine or myself. That is how we operates everyday since we come to be. And we frequently hold on to the wishful thinking that thing do not change. We are fall into the the cycle of likes and dislikes which defile the mind.
So before we go any further. Ask yourself, is sleepiness wholesome or unwholesome? And is PAIN a defilement?
To handle sleepiness, you first need the presence of awareness, then with the quality of acceptance and with much re-training of the mind eventually overcoming it. So some of you might noticed, it is easier said then done. That is true but at least in here you acquire the skill of developing wholesome mental state that are beneficial. Comparing to our usual approach of using unwholesome reactions to as either a distraction or replacement of one. Simple example is that while sitting in meditation, and pain arises, we either react with dislike and move our posture or some other might grid the teeth and bare through the pain. The first reaction is to react with disdain and cover up the pain. Most of us has try this in our yard to rid of grass by covering it up. Is this is permanent solution?
The other approach, treat pain with rejection and might have read or heard somewhere that if when one can reach the end of this, they will find great release of bliss. Please consider the story of the Buddha in what he had done, going through even much harsher extreme of self-mortification and concluded that this is not the way. Not accepting pain as part of living with this human body in and of itself is unwholesome reactions to a natural phenomena. Tightening the body thus the mind to sit through the process only strengthen the defilement and counter productive to the Buddha's teaching.
In the same token, some yogi meditate in order to aiming for a peaceful and pleasurable state of mind thus strengthening also defilement and preventing the progress of the Buddhist meditation which is aim to complete;y eradication of the defilement.
Now going back to sleepiness. In this case, when you can deploy awareness to pay attention to what is going on in the present moment, being alert to the arising of the sleepiness mental state, this is mindfulness. And reaction like, “what am I doing!” See everyone in the room is sitting straight and practicing well and there I am drooping and falling asleep. I better straighten up so none sees me as a bad meditator. Or may be you exert more energy in propping the body straight and grit your teeth to stay awake. Some other cases, you just stand up, put on your jogging shoes and started jogging around the temple to gain more energy in order to fight the sleepiness. Or worst case lay down and sleep. All of these are unwholesome mental states because you did not not accept the mental state of sleepiness. By reject it and tightening up, reinforces the ego and create more stress which in and of itself counter productive to the idea of meditation.
When one accept sleepiness and use skillful means to use sleepiness and work with it then you gain the understanding of these natural phenomena. Some skills you can use, depending on conditions that you learned from your practices, are: deploy strategy to gently arouse the mind; penetrate it and use it as your meditation object. There are progressive approaches to handing sleepiness and teachers would suggest that we handle what we can and gradually make progress to overcome sleepiness.
Understanding the conditions of arising and disappearing of sleepiness strengthen mindfulness. Strong mindfulness when developed to its maturity will lead you into deep insight of the true nature of reality.
Following is a summary of some of the key ideas we just covered:
Mind in the present, is the mind on the meditation object or not? Keeping the mind in the present moment, is easy said then done. So you have to re-train the mind. Be patient.
clear knowing; heighten awareness: having a clear mind that is not muddle, not like algae in water. Keep in mind that it is like cleaning an old copper cup, you get to rub it again and again, then it becomes clear.
non-heedlessness- attentive to your meditation object, get better only with a trained mind
quality of acceptances- be gentle and accept hindrances as part of the nature of the mind that you are using to improve your meditation
confronting the object- that is no conceptualization, guarding the senses
Meditation isn’t always easy or even peaceful. But it has truly amazing benefits, and you can start today, and continue for the rest of your life. Let's be clear, everyone has these problems (defilements), even the Buddha and Arahants before they reach nibanna. You have to keep reminding yourself that the problems you are having is not unique. This is important to keep in mind ALL THE TIME. Many people give up just because of not understanding these problems and think that the meditation does not work or they failed. It will help you when you are able to take note of the tips that we have discussed in the section before this and following.
Keep in mind that each of us will have different levels of these problems and some are more prominent then the other. Each problems or hindrances have both a gross (obvious) and subtle form. The stronger form of hindrance, it will be obvious and the will arise often time when we are making progress. As you might be able to get the idea that meditation progress is not a straight line and will always have rough and difficult spots (guaranteed). NO PAIN NO GAIN.
With meditation you will have good days and you will have bad days, that does not matter. What matter is that you do it and with persistent of the development of better skills with good guidance, you will realize great immediate and ultimate benefits.
What are some of the tips that help me with my practice?
Habits: Whether if you have meditate for awhile or plan to start. It is best to develop a strong habit. Dedicate and decide a minimum time that you will meditate and when. Especially at the beginning of your practice, give yourself at least six months time and reevaluate. Also even try and stop and bring the mind your the 'rising and falling' or your breath whenever you remember during the day. If anything else just for a few second, breath and relax. You can do it anywhere and anytime, slow down just a bit and be aware of the any body movements or sensation. Note it briefly or as long as you have the time then go back to your daily activities. Good habit of mindfulness with pay dividend when you sit or go to a retreat.
Group practices: Group practice gives you support that it might be lacking when you are doing it at home by yourself. It give disciple and most of all you get to learn and exchange ideas with liked minded practitioners. Retreat is when you get to drop all of your responsibilities and a chance to learn to understand yourself better and develop your meditation. So do determine to make plan for them.
Resources & Teacher(s): There are plenty of books on meditation and many online websites, audios and videos that can be helpful. They can helpful and inspirational. As for teacher, an very important component, especially a good one is that one who has the experiences and can help you the most.
Get involved & Volunteer: If you have done volunteer work before, you appreciate the benefit and the return of this. For me, if I believe, it is a strong determining factor of why people stop meditating. So do it and do it today.
TRANSFERENCE Of MERITS
May this mental cultivation be a condition for the realization of nibanna.
We share this merit with our departed ones, with all beings and all the devas.
May all beings be happy, and may they rejoice in this merit.
Sadu! Sadu! Sadu!
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Reference & Resources
Access To Insight- http://www.accesstoinsight.org/
Buddha Net- http://buddhanet.net/
Bhavana Society- Bhante Gunaratana: http://bhavanasociety.org/resources/
- Mindfulness In Plain English (mipe)
Metta Forest Monastery- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (TB): http://www.dhammatalks.org/
- Mindfulness Defines (tb)
Bhante Gavesi Dhamma talks during long retreats- http://gavesi.blogspot.com/
Sayadaw U Tejaniya
Don't look down on the Defilements - sayadaw U Tejaniya
Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Tawy