The Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in the Land of the Free
Jake Davis grew up just a few miles from IMS. He first became involved in insight meditation through the young adults ’ retreat there. He went on to spend more than a year as a Theravada monk in Burma, learning the language, studying texts and practicing meditation. The Dhamma Dana Publications project, hosted by BCBS, is in the process of publishing Jake’s book Strong Roots for free distribution, with the ongoing support of generous donors. The book grew out of his undergraduate thesis at Marlboro College, and this article introduces its primary theme.
Where did the mindfulness practice taught at IMS come from?
How has this teaching been transmitted from Burma to Barre?
What direction can we take to ensure an authentic and powerful rendition for generations to come?
The Mahāsi Sayadaw (1904-1982), an influential Theravada Buddhist monk born in Burma at the turn of the last century, was responsible for gaining one particular form of mindfulness practice worldwide popularity. Through their guidance of young Americans in the 1960s and 70s, teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma helped establish the Mahasi technique as the primary method of mindfulness practice taught at IMS. One of the Mahasi Sayadaw’s leading teaching disciples, the Venerable Sayadaw U Panditabhivamsa (1921 -), has played a major role in cultivating the seeds of this tradition in American soil. Many of the senior teachers from North America as well as Europe and Australia trained under U Pandita in Burma and at a series of three-month-long meditation retreats that U Pandita taught in the 1980s at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.
It was Sayadaw U Pandita who proposed and then supervised my own term of fifteen months as a monk, immersed in the language and culture of Burma, studying Theravadin theory and the language of the Pali texts, and engaging in intensive, long-term mindfulness practice. This world was opened up for me in the first place by two of the American teachers who studied with U Pandita, Steven Smith and Michele McDonald. My teachers and I share a strong sense of gratitude and respect for the practices we have inherited and the lineage of teachers who have tr ansmitted them.
“One suffers if dwelling without reverence or deference,” the Buddha observes in the Gārava Sutta (S 6:2). In a recent interview, Steven expressed his deep thanks to Sayadaw U Pandita for twenty years of guidance and mentorship; Sayadaw directed this gratitude towards his own teacher, the Mahasi Sayadaw, and in turn to the Mingun Jetawun Sayadaw, the Ale-Tawya Sayadaw, the The-Lon Sayadaw, and so on back to the Buddha. U Pandita cited a discourse from the Pali (A 2:119) on the two types of people that are “Hard to Find”: those who give freely, without expecting anything return, and those who are grateful for such gifts and recognize the responsibility to repay their debt. As long as there are people acting in these two ways, Sayadaw said, the transmission of the teachings for awakening will be carried out in accord with the teachings themselves, and thus be triumphantly successful in generation after generation.
In Strong Roots I advocate a contemporary transmission of the mindfulness practice that is firmly rooted in its source.
The central aim of Strong Roots is to demonstrate theoretically and practically the importance of operating from a coherent teaching lineage and continually returning to it to frame new interpretations. At first glance, such an attitude may appear incompatible with the values of independence and self-reliance that many Americans hold dear. People in the West have been eclectic in choosing elements from various spiritual traditions, and are often reluctant to engage in serious scholarship of any one. To elucidate the vital role of tradition, I employ a theory about the process of interpretation put forward by a critic in the Western humanist tradition, George Steiner. Steiner illustrates how a kind of reciprocal relationship with the source renders a translation or a transmission authentic. I extend this approach to suggest that continuity of practices between different cultural contexts is made possible by an ongoing cycle of return to the tradition’s framework of understanding. Therefore, even while celebrating the pioneering spirit that planted the seeds of mindfulness practice in the West, I advocate a contemporary transmission of the mindfulness practice that is firmly rooted in its source. In particular, I am asking for explicit and pervasive acknowledgment of the teachers who developed and transmitted the various practices employed today, and for a return to the principles that have framed the Theravadin teachings for centuries.
Transmission: the process of interpretation and its authentic completion
How does a human practice change, and how can it possibly stay the same in the process of transmission between very different cultures? As a Theravada Buddhist method of mindfulness meditation is imported from Burma to the United States, for instance, how is the practice reborn and how are the Americans transformed? If people arrive at certain experiences through mindfulness, how are their understandings presented through, and shaped by, different languages?
In considering these questions, each part of Strong Roots addresses some aspect of interpretation. I focus on oral and written discourses, referring to these collectively as ‘texts’. Human beings interpret particular patterns of sound, marks on a page, or bodily motions, I argue, based on past and present context: their cultural heritage, their individual history, and the particular situation in which they find themselves. ‘Freedom’, for example, has a very different meaning in the context of the Buddha’s teachings than it does when singers of the “Star Spangled Banner” extol the “Land of the free/ and the home of the brave.” Meditation teachers must use social and linguistic mechanisms to communicate with students, to offer guidance and inspiration. Thus, in analyzing the transmission of mindfulness practice from Burma to the United States, we are examining the process of rendering various texts in the terms of different social contexts.
Such understanding and interpretation is a ubiquitous part of human activity. Scholars use the term ‘hermeneutics’ to refer to the ways of understanding various people employ, and to our methods of interpretation generally. If each individual occupies a different “world of experience,” if each of us has slightly different associations with words, then every intepretation involves motion and change. Steiner puts it well, “All communication ‘interprets’ between privacies.” To determine how their message gets across, meditation masters make conscious and unconscious choices in rendering, and in leaving unsaid, aspects of the tradition they have inherited. If so, teaching of mindfulness practice must involve hermeneutics—what Steiner calls the “disciplined understanding of understanding”—be it implicit or explicit.
How do people go about interpreting between human contexts? Steiner describes four stages in the process of interpretation. Drawing on the European tradition of translation studies, Steiner illustrates the first three parts of what he calls the “hermeneutic motion.” An interpreter begins by advancing towards the undeciphered text, presuming some value there. Next is the “invasive and exhaustive” appropriation of meaning from the source, which dispels the mystique of the unknown and leaves the text exposed to examination. The interpreter then brings the meaning home, assimilating foreign symbols and ideas into the native culture and language. Calling something a translation assumes these three: approach, decipherment, and rendering in a new tongue. This much may be somewhat obvious.
Steiner’s great contribution lies in his recognition of the fourth and final part of the ‘hermeneutic motion’. It is through a return to the source, through fulfilling unfulfilled potential as well as through revealing and demonstrating the original’s own strengths, that a rendering becomes authentic. The act of appropriation creates an imbalance; equilibrium must be restored by giving the audience’s attention to the source, by crediting its virtues and respecting its principles. Thus the new rendition remains rooted in the original.
A retreat center attempts to create the conditions for students to engage in skillful conduct as well as learning and discussion of the practice, in order to develop tranquility and insight. In each of these areas, we can observe a cycle of understanding: only if people find some resonance between the presentation of the teachings and their own experience do they become interested and make a tentative approach, perhaps coming to hear a talk or participate in a retreat. As they listen, discuss, and apply the teachings, they appropriate certain understandings and practices from the tradition and assimilate them into their own lives, or not.
Steiner sees a return to the source as the means by which an interpretation becomes authentic. The Theravadin practice of mindulness meditation is guided and framed by the philosophical principles of the Pali. In order to do justice to the source, to reveal its full power and applicability to modern America, we must integrate theoretical study and practical application of the teachings. Presenting the establishment of mindfulness, satipaṭṭhāna, in its native framework enables modem people to achieve full benefits of the practice as described by the Buddha in the Pali; such is what I have called authentic deep transmission. This definition illustrates how there can be a continuity of transmission between Burma and Barre, how the mindfulness practice can be substantially similar across human contexts. The success of a teaching tradition thus rests upon its ability to foster each part of the ongoing hermeneutic cycle, from initiative trust through a full engagement of the source tradition.
From Burma to Barre
The Mahāsi Sayadaw propagated his version of mindfulness practice in a time of rapid social change, and his was part of a larger movement of Theravadins towards meditation. The Buddha’s discourses in the Pali frequently prescribe personal development through concentration and insight. Later in the Theravadin tradition, however, meditation seems to have been much less valued than Pali scholarship and social rituals. Beginning around the first century CE in Sri Lanka, there is evidence of a debate over the relative merits of textual scholarship and mindfulness practice. With royal and popular support, those dismissing meditation practice seem to have gained the upper hand by the fifth century CE. There may have been episodes in which regional lineages of the Theravada returned to an emphasis on meditation; nonetheless, at the time of the British invasion in the nineteenth century, the Theravadin establishment in Burma was focused on textual scholarship and social functions, almost to the exclusion of mindfulness practice.
Some American mindfulness practitioners are aware that lay people in Burma rarely engaged in intensive meditation until figures like the Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) and the Mahasi Sayadaw advocated lay practice. Less well known is the fact that the Theravadin establishment at that time did not strongly encourage mindfulness practice even for ordained monks and nuns. Most were primarily scholars, though some did engage in intensive concentration practices. According to Sayadaw U Pandita, when he was young, more people in Burma “just studied the texts… These days, there are many people who study and many people who practice deeply” (see interview p.5).
Apparently a number of nineteenth century monks were inspired by the meditation techniques collected from the Pāli discourses in one seminal text, Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga. Scholar-practitioners such as the The-Lon Sayadaw and the Ledi Sayadaw are said to have put this textual guidance into practice without personal teachers to guide them in mindfulness practice. The Buddha and the classical commentators who collated his teachings were themselves human practitioners; nonetheless, it is remarkable that these modern scholar-practitioners were able, solely with guidance meditated through the texts, to found lineages that have led many thousands of twentieth-century practitioners to achieve—according to their own reports—significant levels of liberation from suffering.
The Mingun Jetawun Sayadaw U Nārada (1868-1955) was one monk who became interested in applying his theoretical knowledge from the Pali, but mindfulness practice was apparently so rare in nineteenth century Burma that he had to travel to the wilderness of the Sagaing Hills for guidance. There he found a recluse who had practiced with the same The-Lon Sayadaw mentioned above, namely the Aletawya Sayadaw. U Narada inquired of this reclusive monk how to achieve the goal of the teachings he had studied so extensively. The Aletawya Sayadaw reportedly asked U Narada in return, “Why are you looking outside the sense fields?”
The mindfulness practice taught by the Mingun Jetawun Sayadaw to the Mahāsi Sayadaw and others did not require extensive tranquility preparation previous to insight practice. Some have suggested that this system gained popularity because lay people did not have the time to devote themselves to the scholastic and absorption practices traditionally engaged in by ordained renunciates. In any case, the recent emphasis on lay practice in Burma and Sri Lanka coincided with the imposition of British colonialism and European ideals, most notably Protestantism, with its ethic of unmediated personal religion.
Intriguingly, similar conditions seem to have been present when the Pāli discourses were composed, with their emphasis on the cultivation of direct knowing. Strong Roots makes note of many similarities between the social context that the Buddha taught in and that of IMS. A few conditions stand out: Like modern America with its global connections and social ‘melting pot’, northern India around 500 BCE was the meeting place of a number of radically different world-views, as waves of Aryan settlers gradually integrated into areas previously occupied by hunter-gatherer societies and other republican communities. This period also saw the rise of a class of merchants and small landowners and of urban communities; recent centuries have featured similar trends in Western societies. Many of the Buddha’s followers were drawn from the newly arisen middle class; practitioners of the Eightfold Noble Path constituted a small part of society, and not a very insular one. Likewise, American practitioners of insight meditation have the majority of their social interactions with people who have no allegiance to this particular vocabulary and value system. ‘Theravada’ or ‘Buddhism’ for these practitioners is not a national or ethnic identity, as it has been for certain Southeast Asians.
Based on this evidence, we might make some interesting speculations. Perhaps an emphasis on meditative experience arises in times of rapid social change predicated in part by ‘multi-culturalism’. In contrast, relatively homogenous and isolated societies where religious establishments such as the Theravada become a crucial part of national identity tend to emphasize institutionalized scholarship and social ritual.
The Tree of Awakening in the Land of the Free
The tradition of mindfulness practice that the Mahāsi Sayadaw transmitted has begun to take root in the soil of the United States. When the seeds of confidence were sown in the 1960s and 70s, nothing much substantial moved from Burma to Barre: no great migrations of people, no massive importation of texts or images or robes. Rather, much as the genes encoded in a Ficus seed interact with environmental conditions, using the energy of the sun to transform soil and water into an entirely new Ficus tree, so too Theravadin principles of understanding have employed the light of Dhamma to transform American practitioners and American society.
This particular tree of awakening is young and vulnerable but also vibrant. Senior American practitioners have brought forth leaves of wisdom in the form of numerous books, articles, and various programs in schools, hospitals, and corporations. As this new manifestation of the tradition develops, its roots extend further and further into the native literature, economy, and politics, seeking fertile pockets in the society. Extending the potential of the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali benefits many people, for the tree of awakening is a “nitrogen-fixer” to boot. As more and more individuals cultivate purity of conduct, skillful attitudes, and deep understanding, the overall health of the society and its complex web of inter-cultural interactions is enhanced. These developments, in turn, create the conditions for further growth, both at home and abroad.
American interpreters of mindfulness meditation have excelled at finding new applications and new potential, fulfilling one aspect of the authentic completion advocated by Steiner. On the whole, however, we have yet to really fulfill Steiner’s second prescription, to make “the autonomous virtues of the original more precisely visible,” to direct American inquiry past the interpreters’ own capabilities into the depths of the tradition. Such a movement would bring out the holistic approach of the Pali, emphasizing the first five factors of the Eightfold Noble Path—right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, and right livelihood—as well as the last three: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Western renditions have so focused on meditation that other vital aspects of the teaching have been neglected, and the full benefit of the tradition has not been realized. Gil Fronsdal’s comments are revealing.
“As the number of people participating in the mindfulness practices of Insight Meditation has increased, a loose-knit lay Buddhist movement, uniquely Western, that is sometimes known as the “vipassana movement,” has evolved. With minimal remaining connection to Theravada Buddhism, the movement speaks of “vipassana students and teachers,” vipassana centers and communities,” and even a national “vipassana journal.” As a result, many more Americans of European descent refer to themselves as vipassana students than as students of Theravada Buddhism.”
In this eclectic environment, lineage seems to be given much less importance than in the Burmese Theravada, the Tibetan Vajrayāna, or the Japanese Zen schools, which have all emphasized the importance of transmission from teacher to student beginning with the Buddha. Though the practice being taught by the senior teachers at IMS is basically that propagated by the Mahāsi Sayadaw, and despite the fact that anyone teaching in this tradition is at most three or four generations removed from him, I have found that many practitioners and even staff in Barre do not know the Mahāsi Sayadaw’s name. In contrast, almost everyone who comes to IMS is familiar with the name and face of the Dalai Lama. This is due in part to the Dalai Lama’s popularity in the mass media, but the articles and interviews featured in the IMS community magazine over the past six years apparently mentioned this Tibetan teacher more often than they brought attention to the Burmese monk who made the mindfulness practice taught at IMS accessible to the world.
Rooting the mindfulness tradition in contemporary American society may result in more people getting started, but in order to be fully effective the teachings must also be firmly rooted in the coherent framework offered by a particular living tradition. For it is the instructions contained in a seed that enable it to develop into a sapling and then a tree; it is due to these same strings of amino acids that various nutrients become organized into leaves and flowers; it is the tree’s genetic inheritance that ensures that its fruit contain the fertile seeds of a new generation.
The liberation teachings of mindfulness meditation are gaining popularity in the United States, but this tradition is still young and vulnerable.
The transmission of this tradition of awakening to the West resembles the sowing of a seed more than the transplantation of a cutting: very little of the Asian cultural context is included in the package. Burmese and Americans share many biological and linguistic structures, but our interpretive frameworks have also been shaped by very different cultural and personal histories. The Dhamma-Vinaya, ‘the Doctrine and Discipline,’ is defined by such human contexts, I have argued; different people understand the practice very differently. If so, specific meanings are not inherent in the particular vocabulary and ideas transmitted from Burma to Barre; the same texts can be, and have been, interpreted very differently in various philosophical contexts. In order to effectively communicate the intention and genius of the Theravadin teachings, then, to be responsive to the audience and responsible to the source, new interpretations must present ideas in their traditional hermeneutic framework.
The liberation teachings of mindfulness meditation are gaining popularity in the United States, but this mindfulness tradition is still young and vulnerable. I have discussed how the Theravadin tradition has been influenced by ancient Indic conceptions of existence as well as by modem Western understandings of ‘Buddhism’; these instances demonstrate how practitioners’ and scholars’ understandings of a tradition shape and define it. If so, those of us who interpret the Doctrine and Discipline for ourselves or for others have an important responsibility. As caretakers of the Sāsana at this crucial point in history, we need to be humble. We must take care not to assume that we can engineer a better tree, not to dismiss the Theravadin principles nor to dismiss new mutations that are consistent and coherent with the tradition. My studies of the Mahāsi Sayadaw’s teachings and the discourses of the Pali, as well as my experiences practicing and interpreting at meditation retreats, have given me great confidence in the ability of the traditional philosophical principles to direct our investigations of contemporary questions. To whatever degree Americans continue to return to the source while we fulfill its potential, this transmission of the mindfulness tradition will be, in a word, authentic.
References for works cited can be found in the published version of Strong Roots.