Find out more about Steve’s course at BCBS this September 23 – 28, 2016, Mindfulness, Insight, and Nibbāna: In this Very Life.
Find out more about Steve’s online course starting September 27, 2016, Introduction to the Manual of Insight.
Insight Journal: Can you tell us about Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw?
Steve Armstrong: Kamala Masters, a team of translators, and myself have been working on this for fifteen years. Manual of Insight, recently published by Wisdom Publications, contains the philosophical and practical instructions for how to practice insight meditation, detailing the stages of insight up to and including full enlightenment.
In the online course this fall that’s being offered by Wisdom Publications in conjunction with BCBS, I want to try to present the essence of the book. This is also what I’ll be doing at my course at BCBS this fall. Most teachers don’t teach these stages of insight, and those that do teach them don’t provide the level of detail that’s in this book.
The online course will introduce each of the chapters over the course of eight weeks, offering guided meditations to go with each chapter, as well as short readings from the book that are pertinent to each week’s topic.
IJ: Many mindfulness practitioners might not know that a great deal of their practice comes directly from Burma, and specifically from Mahasi Sayadaw.
SA: Mahasi Sayadaw is considered one of the grandfathers of the insight and mindfulness practices that have become so popular here in the West. He was one of the originators of the retreat model for lay people to practice intensively for short periods of time. Mahasi Sayadaw’s methods and practical instructions were taught to Munindra, who taught Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Dipa Ma, and many others who brought insight meditation to the West.
IJ: You were a monk for five years under Sayadaw U Pandita, who many senior Western vipassanā teachers practiced under and looked to as their teacher. Could you share any stories from your time with him?
SA: Sayadaw U Pandita is not your favorite uncle. He’s a teacher. The first story that comes to mind happened with Kamala Masters. She saw him coming down the stairs before a retreat, and she said to him, “I’m so happy to see you, Sayadaw.” And he said, “I’m not here to make you happy. I’m here to make you mindful.”
Even though they had known each other for a decade or more, there’s something about the quality of his presence that is just right here, right now – almost like he’s always meeting you for the first time. There’s something refreshing about that, though it’s also a bit disarming.
When I was with him in Burma, especially in the beginning, there were many times when I would go to report, and when I stopped talking, he would say, “Is that all?” And I’d say, “Yes. That’s it.” And he would say, “Well, have you been experiencing this?” And I’d say, “Yeah. I was experiencing that.” And he’d say, “In this practice, you have to be willing and able to share everything with your teacher – everything. So you have to report that, too.”
He really knew the terrain of the mind. He might not have known your particular thoughts, but he knew how the mind behaves and misbehaves. So when certain things were happening, he knew that other things must also be happening – because they condition each other. I realized that if he knows the mind better than I do, what do I have to hide? I couldn’t hide anything. Sometimes things arise that are painful or shameful or that make you feel upset or judgmental. He knew and was willing to acknowledge all of them.
It was a tremendous relief to really feel like there was nothing to hide. I could just let it hang out. That allowed me to acknowledge to myself exactly what I was experiencing, even if it was painful or shameful or unexpected. It just was what it was. I was basically invited to share his quality of mind – open and able to acknowledge whatever happened. That’s the big lesson that I got from him.
IJ: Does it feel in some ways that Sayadaw U Pandita’s passing marks the end of an era? He was a very strict, very demanding teacher. Is his approach something that Western Dharma has moved on from?
SA: It’s true that many people being introduced to mindfulness need a lot of support to look at their stuff. It was the same for me. It took me eight years of doing retreats before I went to Burma to practice intensively with Sayadaw U Pandita.
In those first eight years of practice, there was a lot of repair work – emotional repair work, family of origin stuff, cleaning up my sila, and getting ready to really step into continuity of awareness, where you have to be willing to acknowledge everything. Different people come to the practice for different reasons, and they’re not all ready for that kind of practice. But if it’s available, they might find it useful somewhere down the road.
IJ: It feels like there are waves of various styles and various teachers. There was the Mahasi Sayadaw wave, and the Sayadaw U Pandita wave. Now, a lot of senior vipassanā teachers have begun studying with Sayadaw U Tejaniya, and also teaching in his style. Are shifts in the popularity of different styles just part of a natural process, or do different styles and teachers address shifting demands of the practitioners?
SA: Well, both Munindra and Sayadaw U Pandita studied under Mahasi Sayadaw. But the two of them had very different styles of teaching because they had different approaches and personalities. Still, they’re all headed in the direction of continuity of mindfulness – recognizing what the object or experience is and recognizing the three characteristics.
Different people are drawn to different styles of teaching. The initial practice taught by both Sayadaw U Pandita and Mahasi Sayadaw is kāyānupassanā, or mindfulness of body. Sayadaw U Tejaniya, on the other hand, starts students with mindfulness of mind – cittānupassanā – which is more an awareness practice than an object-oriented practice. There’s a different emphasis in the initial instruction, but they’re all headed in the same direction.
There are benefits and limitations to each style of practice. If you learn how to practice in each style, you can use whichever techniques or tools are most suitable at any given time.
IJ: How important was it for you to spend such close time with Sayadaw U Pandita for those years?
SA: My relationship with Sayadaw U Pandita was the most important relationship of my life. I have so much gratitude for his willingness to guide this obstinate, arrogant, stuck mind through the thickets. Which isn’t to say that it was always fun.
For the first few years, I would see him every day for ten to fifteen minutes. I would walk in, give my report, which would be translated into Burmese. Then Sayadaw would say something back to guide, instruct, or question, which would be translated into English. The interview would end with an encouragement to continue.
That short ten-minute report doesn’t allow much opportunity for embellishing your experience with stories, opinions, liking or disliking, and that’s the whole point. He just wanted to know how you were observing what was arising. The way I was trained to report to him was almost formulaic, but it helped me to train the mind to view experience in a way that ultimately proved to be very liberating.
Sayadaw U Pandita knew that if I continued to practice in a certain way, I would discover certain areas of suffering. And that through further practice I would learn to let go of those areas of suffering. In that way, even though you might say his guidance could be stern, demanding, strict, requiring a tremendous amount of energy – it was also very compassionate. Because ultimately it leads to recognizing and letting go of suffering, and to finding the end of suffering. And that’s what compassion is all about.
After a couple years and a lot of insight practice, he asked if I wanted to practice the brahmavihāras – loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity – to develop both wholesomeness and jhānas (absorptions). Then when I would go to see him, he was so easeful and pleasant and enjoyable to be with. So he could be demanding, and he could also be very playful.
IJ: In Manual of Insight, Mahasi Sayadaw repeats various forms of, “Find an experienced teacher. Work closely with that teacher.” You’ve done that with Sayadaw U Pandita, and most senior Western vipassanā teachers have done that in one form or another. These days the majority of people that come on retreat and practice daily would say they really don’t have a teacher, and that they’ve put a practice together over the years in one way or another. I wonder if we’ll find successful models other than the one-on-one teacher-to-student. Or if that just needs to be there for real progress.
SA: I think the expansion of online courses is going to have a big effect. Some of the conditions that are being put into play we aren’t going to see the effects of for some time. All the talks on Dharma Seed go all over the world. There are people listening to those talks that we will never meet, and they’re having their own Dharma experiences, progressing in their own ways, having their own successes and challenges.
It’s fantastic in that you no longer have to have a one-to-one. It’s now one-to-one thousand. It’s exciting to get that level of knowledge and encouragement out there, but I think the one-on-one is important at some point.
IJ: At one point in Manual of Insight, Mahasi Sayadaw says, “Some meditators even find that there are three things arising and passing away in sequence: a sense object, their awareness of it, and their knowledge of that very awareness. But it is sufficient to observe that objects and the mind that notes them disappear in pairs.” (285) But Sayadaw U Tejaniya would probably say that you should continue being aware of that awareness, and being aware of the awareness of that awareness, and so on. How do you make a decision in that moment whether to follow Mahasi Sayadaw or whether to follow Sayadaw U Tejaniya?
SA: Personally, I find the two styles to be complementary, not contradictory. At first, I had to learn U Tejaniya’s style as something separate from what my formal practice had been up until that point, but now the two styles fit together quite seamlessly. If I were guiding someone, it would be quite easy to say whether that person needs a little more of the noting and precision and object-oriented awareness that Mahasi Sayadaw emphasizes. If their practice is a little too tight or too constricted or too expectant or too striving, I would suggest that they emphasize relaxation and awareness – that what you are aware of is not the point, but rather the fact that you are aware and how you’re being aware is what matters – the kind of instruction you get from U Tejaniya.
After you’ve had some experience, you can learn to monitor practice for yourself. If you’re too tight or too object-oriented, then it might be time to relax, open up, check the quality of awareness. If you get too spacey, or you’re just sitting there daydreaming without really noticing the quality of the awareness or the quality of thoughts, then it might be time to get a little more precise and try to recognize the objects.
So I would put these two styles on a continuum – a very complementary continuum – so that depending on what’s happening in your practice, you can bring in a little more of this or a little more of that.
IJ: Especially while on retreat, when the mind becomes sensitive and things start to come up, it becomes more difficult to make decisions like that for oneself.
SA: That’s why you have a teacher. If you’re practicing sincerely, you’re going to meet challenges. And when you do, you might really need some guidance. You can read the books, but a teacher can offer you more nuance and can sometimes recognize where you are better than you can.
The path of practice up to first stage of enlightenment is mostly about learning what the practice is. We try all kinds of things out of interest or ambition, and we get stuck in places because of doubt. Because of doubt, we falter, we hesitate, we have trouble making decisions. We sometimes even abandon effective practice because we’re lost in doubt. And you can’t think your way out of doubt. You can only practice your way out of doubt.
Mahasi Sayadaw identifies that really clearly in his book when he says, “Doubt masquerades as rational, logical thinking, and you can get lost in that when you’re thinking about your practice.” So how do we recognize doubt as a mental state? Sayadaw U Tejaniya would say, “Okay, doubt’s there. What can you learn about doubt? Let’s look at this.” It’s not so much the object as how doubt or any other object feels in the mind.
IJ: Here in the West where we revere rational, logical thinking, doubt is often the greatest hindrance that people face. I can believe that I’m really thinking something through analytically and logically and getting somewhere, but beneath that it’s all just doubt working its magic. Are there one or two specific ways of recognizing and working with doubt?
SA: When people are caught in doubt and they’re speculating and wondering and expecting and rationalizing – and sometimes just plain stuck – I ask them to recognize that state of mind. If you were to express the state of mind on your face, what would it look like?
When you see your own facial expression, you realize, “That’s doubt. That’s all that’s going on.” The content of the doubting thoughts isn’t so important. Recognizing that this is what doubt does, this is what doubt feels like, this is how doubt acts in the mind, this is what doubt causes the mind to do – that’s what’s important.
You don’t have to get rid of doubt. You have to learn about the nature of doubt. Once you know doubt clearly from your own experience, you won’t get caught in it anymore. It’s not that doubt no longer arises. It does. But you can observe doubt as just another object being known.
Doubt about the path – about the way of practice and the path of practice and your own ability to progress on the path – only lasts up to the first stage of enlightenment. Still, it can be a long path of uprooting doubt – seeing all the manifestations of doubt and not getting caught in them. But it’s possible.
IJ: Is the most important thing to just keep going?
SA: Only if you’re going in the right direction.
IJ: How do you know? Let’s say you don’t have a teacher that knows you well.
SA: You can get stuck. You can get caught. You’ve got to have a lot of trust, you’ve got to have a lot of faith, and you’ve got to be humble. You have to be willing to be teachable – to be docile. I always thought docile meant being like a cow – just standing in the pasture chewing your cud. But actually it means to be trainable – to be teachable – and to be willing to be taught.
There are people that come to courses that don’t really want to be taught. They want to do what they want to do. As a teacher, you have to wait until they realize that they need some help. Then maybe they’ll be willing to be taught.
IJ: It seems like the Abhidhamma hasn’t come into Western Buddhism in a big way. Maybe it’s just too inaccessible. Most people don’t have the ability to see objects at that level of detail. Will the Abhidhamma continue to exist on the fringe, or is there a way people can use the Abhidhamma to support or even bring their practice to places it hasn’t been before?
SA: Well, if you want to take a cross-country journey, you have to fill the car up with gas, turn the key, shift gears, and work the brake and gas pedals. That’s enough to know, unless the car breaks down. Then you need to get under the hood and see what’s wrong. What’s missing? What needs to be fixed? What’s not working? And then you need to know how to fix it before you can continue.
The Abhidhamma is like the mechanic’s handbook. If you’ve got a teacher, mostly they can guide you. But if you’re on your own – as most of us are at one time or another – it’s good to know the mechanics of the mind. The Abhidhamma is something like the map of the mind – how things fit together, how things work. I’ve found it to be a useful way of understanding my practice, both in the large picture, as well as in the micro-moments of how things unfold.
It’s not for everyone. It’s a more academic way of understanding practice – very unemotional, very dry. But it’s useful for some people, and even Dharma talks on basic mindfulness use a fair amount of information from the Abhidhamma.
There’s a lot of detail in the Abhidhamma that we won’t be able to confirm with our own practice. Still, even if you can’t realize it through your own experience, just knowing about it can help guide your practice. So, is it going to be around? Yes, it’s going to be around. It might be somewhat underground, but it’ll always be there somewhere influencing the teachings and the practice. Is it going to be popular? Probably not.