The Venerable Sayadaw U Paṉḍitābhivaṃsa is one of the most renowned teachers in the tradition of the Mahāsi Sayadaw. U Pandita continues to act as guiding teacher of the Panditārāma meditation center in Burma, and offers students from around the world the wisdom he has gained over seven decades of integrating in-depth theoretical study with intensive practical application of the Buddha’s teachings
We are very grateful, Sayadaw, that you have agreed to talk with us today. Your remarks will be shared with a number of people who have a sincere interest in the Dhamma and in your understanding of it.
Asking things you want to know concerning the Buddha-sāsana [the Buddhist tradition] is good, for in doing so one’s knowledge increases. It also shows an interest in and a desire for the Dhamma, which is a cause for development and success. I will answer the questions to the best of my knowledge.
What sort of training did you receive in the early part of your life?
I became a sāmaṇera [novice] at the age of twelve, and a monk at the age of twenty. After finishing the primary levels of training, I went on to study Pali grammar [the language of the earliest Buddhist texts] and a number of Abhidhamma meditation manuals. Even before I became a novice, I had been studying some of the suttas [discourses] for guiding the lay life, such as the Maṅgala Sutta, the Sīgālovāda Sutta, and so forth.
What motivated you to become a monk in the first place?
I saw the suffering of lay life all around me and understood that if I stayed in the lay life I too would suffer.
I also entered the sangha [monastic community] with the intention of studying the texts for myself and of doing meditation. When I was young I was not as interested in vipassanā [insight] meditation as in studying the texts. I was especially interested in studying the Pali texts and the Abhidhamma.
What difficulties did you come across?
In my life as a monk I did not come across a great many difficulties, such as lay people do. There were, of course, difficulties when the Japanese came during the Second World War—having to flee from one place to another, for example. But this was really all; not such great difficulties. I had very good teachers who guided me with particular care, and because I was following the rules of study and guidance they laid down, I stayed out of trouble.
Many people in lay life in this country consider it to be very difficult to ordain into the monastic community (see how few there are!). Why do you think Americans might think it to be a more challenging path?
In Burma there are many monks already and many monasteries in every town and area. Since America was originally a Christian country, the Buddhist tradition does not yet have a strong foundation. That’s why it’s more difficult. Also, in this country there are lots of sensual pleasures freely available. People are pulled down by the gravity of sensual pleasures. Once they can resist the pull of this gravity, there can be many more monks.
I think some of us experience this gravity more than others.
Indeed. When people let their actions run freely, their mouth run freely, their minds run freely, it doesn’t take much pull for them to fall in. Even with a slight gravitational pull, they dive into sensual pleasures. Isn’t that true? So it’s not so easy to be a monk in this country [chuckling].
Please speak about the conditions in Burma for the practice of Dhamma.
Relative to other countries and to the rest of the world, one would have to say that Burma has many people who follow the Dhamma. Of a population of fifty million, there are ten million non-Buddhists; the rest of the forty million consider Buddhism to be their religion. However, of those maybe three or four million, through having good teachers and mentors, have come to practice the Dhamma seriously. Of the other thirty-six million, those with a strong religious spirit are not few, though they may not yet really have maturity of practice.
This is the state of things in Burma today. When I was young, there were many people who just studied the texts. These days, there are many people who study and also many people who practice deeply.
Why do you think an American would become interested in the practice of meditation?
There may be many conditions behind a person coming to practice. Perhaps one reads a book about the benefits of Dhamma, or hears from someone that the Dhamma is good, or hears a Dhamma-talk, or discusses Dhamma with a friend. Or, a person might come across a lot of suffering in life, and not finding a solution with worldly means, comes to the Dhamma for the answer. At first it might sound exotic, and then when someone gets a taste of the Dhamma for themselves they come over. There can be any number of reasons.
One yogi [Daniel Goleman] once told me that this country is very successful in terms of scientific and industrial development; new products are always arising and then becoming outdated, one after another. There is a very high standard of living. But because after a while these things get old, people here suffer from many kinds of problems: tension, depression, stress.
… “Like being in an air-conditioned room with their hearts on fire,” he said. From the outside it looks like they are well-off, but inside they are burning. So some might come to the Dhamma to cool these fires.
I’m always interested in finding ways to express the essence of mindfulness practice: how it works and transforms people. How would you express the benefits of satipaṭṭhāna [the foundations of mindfulness]?
It enables one to control oneself, to prevent oneself from going wrong. That’s the heart of it. If one controls oneself so as not to do wrong, one doesn’t lose one’s integrity, and one doesn’t harm others. For example, in driving a car, if you can’t control your driving you get in an accident; you harm yourself and harm others. If you can control your driving, you stay out of accidents; you protect yourself and others.
When people practice fully, they gain happiness and peace of mind. With this comes a sense of moral caring about not doing wrong, as well as caring not to do any harm in the future. Also, one’s courage to avoid unwholesome actions becomes strong, and one gains the courage to do good things. Essentially, the practice cultivates the courage to avoid harmful actions and the courage to do good.
Most people don’t have enough courage to avoid going wrong, and therefore meet with many unhappy consequences. The courage to do what’s right is also weak in most people, in which case they don’t get the benefits of such action. If one practices mindfulness well, many dangers don’t arise and even more benefits are gained.
And these dangers and benefits extend to other realms of existence as well, don’t they?
In ancient times there were some people who wanted to enter the happy realms of the devas [heavenly beings], to experience these kind of luxurious rebirths with many sense pleasures. This was not fear of bad rebirths, but rather the desire for luxurious existences.
There were also those who realized that even such luxurious existences are not free of the dangers of aging, pain, and death, and thus practiced to gain freedom from all of that. They realized that sense pleasures give a fatal happiness, and practiced to gain the faultless happiness.
The burning fires must be extinguished as fast as possible. That is how urgent it is.
Do you have any particular advice for the lay person in this country who has practiced diligently a long time, in their homes and during meditation retreats, etc.? Should they just continue with as much meditation as they can manage, or do you have any additional advice?
In practice, it is best if one can have the goal of reaching at least the first path and fruition, sotāpatti [stream-entry]. Only with that attainment will one have made the best of being born as a human being and coming into contact with the Dhamma and the Vinaya [the Buddha’s doctrine and discipline]. By doing so, one is established firmly on the path to awakening and is assured of not ending up in an unhappy state. But the Buddha’s intention was that people practice for full liberation. He encouraged practitioners to become arahants [fully-awakened beings].
Liberating the mind of its defilements is much like curing a severe and highly contagious disease.
The Venerable Sāriputta [the Buddha’s follower foremost in wisdom] encouraged people to achieve stream- entry in order to be free of the realms of woe; after that point he didn’t care very much if people continued to practice. But the Venerable Mogallāna [the Buddha’s follower foremost in meditation] encouraged those people whom Ven. Sāriputta had led to stream-entry to keep going. So practitioners will be differentiated on the basis of whom they have studied with.
It is quite important to not rest before the point of becoming a stream-enterer. But this is not likely to happen by just practicing for ten days at a time with long intervals in between. When one is back at home, one is caught by the gravity of sensual pleasures and falls down easily.
Most of the people who practice in this country have respect for the tradition and want to fulfill it but have many other responsibilities. Is it not enough to practice whenever possible but rest contentedly trying to be a good person?
To be true to the teachings, one would have to say that the important thing is to practice to become a stream-enterer. In the texts [M.63] it is said that for someone pierced by an arrow in the chest, getting the arrow out of the chest is the most important thing. Likewise [A.10.51], for someone with his turban on fire, putting out the fire takes precedence. The kilesas [mental defilements] are piercing you—they need to be removed. The burning fires must be extinguished as fast as possible. That is how urgent it is. By comparison, worldly concerns are not so urgent.
One way of thinking about this is asking the question: Which is more important, a year’s worth of work that will feed a family for a year, or a year’s worth of work that will provide support for a lifetime? Isn’t there a difference in the value? Satipaṭṭhāna practice is like work that with a year’s worth of effort will provide food for a lifetime.
And is the practice of mettā [lovingkindness] meditation of similar value?
At the time of the Buddha there were people who were experts at practicing jhāna [absorption in concentration], but they were not free of mental defilements. They came to the Buddha to learn the method of cutting off the defilements. Concentration practices (including mettā) do not cut off the latent potential for the defilements; only satipaṭṭhāna [mindfulness] does that. However, most people can practice mettā while not everyone can practice satipaṭṭhāna, so those who can’t yet practice the foundations of mindfulness should practice the development of loving-kindness.
Even if one takes medicine to relieve the symptoms of a bacterial infection, if the bacteria are not eradicated throughout the body, the infection can recur. If all the bacteria are killed off, with none left, then the disease is cured. In the same way, samatha [concentration meditation] does not eradicate the defilements bug, though it can relieve the symptoms.
How exactly does the practice of mindfulness eliminate defilements?
One can use the metaphor of someone suffering from a malarial disease. First of all, the person has a very high fever, say 104 or 105 degrees F. The first stage is to lower the fever by using ice cubes or wet towels. That brings down the fever and initiates the second stage, in which a cyclic fever pattern develops, with fever attacks every other day. In the third stage, one takes medicine to eradicate the malaria parasites. If one has completed the course of medicine to eradicate the parasites, the malaria does not recur.
Liberating the mind of its defilements is thus much like the curing of a severe and highly contagious disease. There are several stages: first comes prevention, then reduction or suppression, and finally eradication and cure. Sīla [virtue]—not harming oneself and others through bodily action and speech—is most important as prevention. With the defilements that occur only in the mind, on the other hand, one has to not only protect against them occurring, but also cure them if and when they do occur. The defilements of greed, hatred and delusion occur because the latent tendency for them is still present, even when they do not show their symptoms. So one has to suppress and then eradicate this latent tendency. When insight knowledge arises, the defilements are suppressed; when the noble path and fruition consciousness occur, they eradicate the latent tendencies once and for all.
Liberating the mind of its defilements is much like curing a severe and highly contagious disease.
So just as there are three kinds of defilements, there are three respective methods by which one cures them: transgressive defilements are treated by moral restraint (Sīla), obsessive defilements are calmed by concentration (samādhi); and latent defilements are cured by wisdom (paññā).
And how would you summarize the basic meditation instruction?
The practice taught by the Buddha is simply to be mindful of whatever is arising in the present. This means every seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching… even every thought. Every rising and falling of the breath… be aware of it, he said. Protect the mind from the defilements by being mindful of all these experiences. That is the instruction given in the texts.
For example, try clenching your hand. If we aren’t mindful, we don’t notice the hand or the clenching, we don’t know what is involved at all. When one does pay attention and clenches the hand the mind arrives at the form of the hand and doesn’t run off. Even just this much is quite good. If the attention stays on the clenching motion, it doesn’t run off anywhere. When one does this a lot, the energy to gather the mind becomes strong, and going beyond the shape and mode of the hand, one comes to know the sensations of tension and tightness in the moment of clenching. That is where the attention penetrates.
When it penetrates in this way, do craving or aversion arise? No. Are there any other defilements? No. The mind becomes clear and still because it is under control, and the tightening is known immediately as it arises. This is insight knowledge. This is knowing what is really true. When you hold the fist clenched for a while, what do you notice? Stiffness, soreness, it becomes uncomfortable. The mind starts searching for an escape. It wants to be comfortable, understanding that if there is release, it will get comfortable. The mind is agitated. Then go ahead and release. There’s relaxation, and comfort comes. Throughout this process, these phenomena are precisely experienced.
It is only when mindfulness is strong that phenomena come to be known clearly.
Through being aware of experience just as it is arising, such mind moments of awareness are nurtured from just a few into many. Though at first weak, the mindfulness become quite strong. This giving strength to the mindfulness is called bhāvanā [the development of meditation]. It is only when mindfulness is strong that phenomena come to be known clearly. When insight arises, the mind becomes mature and develops the stamina to withstand the vicissitudes of life.
Essentially we’re doing self research, looking into what is happening in oneself, controlling the mind, and uncovering the truth to be known. That’s all. As one understands the benefits of controlling the mind, one comes to value it and to gain conviction in the nobility of this work. Thus the desire to practice becomes even stronger, and one takes even more care; then even more mindfulness happens, and even more stillness and concentration of mind comes. With aiming and effort to bring the attention to the presently arising experience, its true nature is known. That is because this power comes in: the power to protect against defilements, destroy them when they do occur.
Gradually the gravitational force of mental defilements is lessened. When a physical body is free of the earth’s gravitational force, it becomes very light and floats around in space. Similarly, when one is free from the gravitational force of the mental defilements, one’s life feels like that.
When you practice, you can see this for yourself.
To give an example, sending a rocket into space requires a first, a second, and a third stage. First the rocket has to be launched, it has to take off. Gradually the rocket travels through the atmosphere, with the second stage. By the third stage, the rocket is free of the earth’s gravity. In the same way, one has to propel one’s mind out of the gravity of the mental defilements.
At first, one has to work hard to propel the attention to reach what is happening in oneself. When the attention is on these objects a lot, this mindfulness gains strength. The mind no longer runs off elsewhere, it is under control. When the energy is strong and mindfulness becomes firmly established, the nature of phenomena becomes known. When you practice, you can see this for yourself.
How important is it to read and study the textual tradition?
The texts are very important. They give the method for avoiding the mental defilements, which is beneficial indeed. To take the analogy of medicine: when you take medicine it is important to read the instructions on the bottle, rather than just saying, ‘Hey, it’s medicine, that’s good enough’ and taking it. You have to read the directions or consult a physician to make sure you are using it properly. Only then can one take the medicine with assurance of its intended effect.
For people who want just to practice for themselves, it’s enough to know the method. But for those who want to broaden their intellectual knowledge, or for people who are going to teach, explain the practice, or encourage others, it is important that they study the texts. Then they can balance both theory and practical application, and explain the teachings so that others can understand them. Moreover, continuing to preserve the study of the texts in this way effectively keeps the Dhamma that the Buddha taught alive. So there are many benefits.
In your opinion, is the Dhamma taught well in the West?
If the original Pali texts and their translations are used as a foundation, then there is good potential for the future development of the Buddhist tradition in the West. If, on the other hand, it’s ‘some of this, some of that,’ then it is not very likely. The sāsana, the Buddha’s culture, will last only as long as there are people who practice by integrating theory and first-hand experience… in accordance with the method. In that case, it will indeed have good potential.
If people’s practice of morality in their actions declines, or if there is a big gap between the study and the practice of what the Buddha has taught, then not only the tradition but beings also will suffer and decline. There are those here who take the lead, and there are people here who practice. If teachers teach, and practitioners practice, it will continue to last. However, doing it in the original way is important.
It is fine to use practical scientific examples to get young people interested in coming to practice. If, however, one inserts modern methods, from the physical sciences, for example, the teachings will get diluted. If the modern approaches that prioritize materialism are thrown in, it will collapse.
One must not try to make profit for one’s own benefit off the Buddha’s teaching.
The method of mindfulness practice is really very simple—just being mindful of whatever arises. But with this simple practice one will come across truly amazing things. There is no need to insert any other methods. What I mean to say is that using drugs or machines to help gain insight will not work. One yogi at this current retreat said, ‘It would be great if there were a pill to make insight arise.’ There is nothing like that that will work.
What would it take for the Dhamma to eventually flourish here in the West?
With the diligent application of this mindfulness meditation, intellectual understanding gets filled out and the mind becomes clean. Insight really opens up, and that is greatly encouraging. Only by practicing can ‘the burning hearts in the air-conditioned room’ be cooled.
Thus, if an individual or a group wants to spread this truly practical Buddhist culture, there must be alertness and vigilance. There must also be honesty, one must be straight-up, meaning not trying to make profit for one’s own benefit off the Buddha’s teaching. And finally, it takes hard work. With effort, the teaching will flourish and bear seeds.
I have heard some people say that only now, after practicing mindfulness, do they feel like they have become clearly human. Some put it simply, saying it’s only now that they can walk, only now can they sit or eat, only now can they sleep or drink, only now can they talk. They had been doing these things without mindfulness; now they do them with mindfulness. Being mindful, they now know they are on fire, so they immediately take the path to cool and extinguish the mental defilements.
People who have only knowledge and lack compassion will be wronging others, harming others. Worse still is when there’s not even wisdom. With knowledge, one knows what is beneficial and what is harmful. With compassion, one is guarded against causing harm. If there come to be many such people, the practice of the noble ones will shine here in America. It will really flourish.
If there come to be many people [with wisdom and compassion], the practice of the noble ones will shine here in America.
May there be many people with wisdom in this country, and may there be many compassionate people. And also may these people, knowing what is beneficial and what is unbeneficial, be able to do their best to help those engaged in unbeneficial activity.
Sādhu, sādhu, sādhu.