A Brief Introduction to the Mahasi Method
Unless you can note the wandering thought you do not have a hope of concentrating the mind. If your mind is still wandering it just means that you still do not note energetically enough. This ability is indispensable. —Venerable Chanmyay Sayadaw (a senior disciple of Mahasi Sayadaw)
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw is probably the best known, the most famous, and one of the most influential Buddhist monks in Burma/Myanmar, arguably the most devoutly Buddhist nation on earth. He is relatively well-known also among western practitioners of “Vipassana.” Like most other very famous and revered monks in Burma, Mahasi Sayadaw was a combination of brilliant scholar and meditation master.
His scholarship qualified him for the position of questioner at the sixth great council in Rangoon in 1956, taking the role of venerable Maha Kassapa at the first council. (As an aside I would observe that the real purpose of the sixth council, aside from simply commemorating the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment, was to earn merit for the extremely religious prime minister of Burma at the time, U Nu, plus maybe earn some merit for the troubled country as a whole. Almost nothing was accomplished by the actual proceedings of the council other than changing a few words and punctuation marks in the Tipitaka, which changes the Thais, Sri Lankans, and Cambodians largely ignored.) His skill at teaching meditation earned him, among other things, many famous disciples, including Shway Oo Min Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Pandita, Chanmyay Sayadaw, Saddhamaramsi Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Silananda, and a multitude of western Vipassana teachers including Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. Mahasi Sayadaw became one of the two main influencers on the western Vipassana (or Insight Meditation) “movement,” along with S. N. Goenka. He has also profoundly influenced Theravada Buddhist meditation in other countries, including Thailand and Cambodia; and meditation centers have been set up in his tradition around the world. (The best meditation center I know of in the USA is the Tathagata Meditation Center, established by Vietnamese practitioners of the Mahasi method in San Jose, California. But I am no authority on American meditation centers, and there may be better ones.)
Mahasi Sayadaw, or Ashin Sobhana (1904-1982), was born in a village in upper Burma and was ordained as a child novice, making him one of the very many Burmese monks who have known no other vocation in life other than Buddhist monasticism. He attended some of the many Burmese monastic schools and became a renowned scholar, early in his career as a monk becoming an academic teacher at a Buddhist school monastery in the south, and culminating, as I have said, in his role as questioner at the sixth council. He became known as Mahasi Sayadaw because one of the school monasteries he taught at was called Mahasi (“Great Drum”) Monastery, named after a huge drum there which was used like a tocsin or gong. He eventually left his “job” as a monastic school teacher to study and practice meditation, a course strongly endorsed in the Buddhist texts themselves. One of his teachers was Mingun Jetawun Sayadaw, also known as Sayadaw U Narada, who was instrumental in reviving mindfulness meditation or Satipatthana in Theravada Buddhism. Before his time Theravada Buddhist meditation had largely degenerated into little more than mantra, self-hypnosis, and magic, with a little genuine jhana practiced by a very few. I may as well add that venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw, the founder of the tradition in which I was ordained for thirty years, had also been a student of this same Mingun Jetawun Sayadaw, which no doubt helps to explain why the Mahasi method and the Taungpulu method are as similar as they are with regard to mindfulness meditation.
By the late 1940s Mahasi Sayadaw was teaching doctrine and his interpretation of Satipatthana meditation in upper Burma. A wealthy Burmese Buddhist named U Thwin found him there and was so impressed by his teaching and his demeanor that he bought several acres of land in the then capital city of Rangoon, still by far the largest city in Burma, and set it up as a meditation center for him. Then, with the invitation of the extremely religious prime minister U Nu, he came to Rangoon and started up the Mahasi Thathana Yeiktha, or “Great Drum Retreat Center of Buddhism,” where he was famous as a meditation master long before people in the west had ever heard of him.
Originally, or so I have heard many times, the senior (monastic) disciple who Mahasi wanted for his successor at the Yeiktha was Shway Oo Min Sayadaw, possibly the most highly advanced monk I’ve ever met. But Shway Oo Min Sayadaw opted out of the Mahasi method and started his own tradition, which is rather prestigious and fashionable in the west lately under the leadership of his (not very highly advanced, methinks) student U Tejaniya. Mahasi Sayadaw then began grooming (or at least favoring) another senior monk, I think maybe Chanmyay Sayadaw, allegedly causing another senior disciple, Mahasi U Pandita, to leave the place in frustration or disgust and start up his own center, still in the Mahasi tradition, Panditarama. Chanmyay Sayadaw also eventually left and started his own yeiktha; and although the original Mahasi Center still exists in Rangoon/Yangon I do not know who the abbot is, and I assume that most Burmese Buddhists in Yangon don’t know either. All things are impermanent, and the spiritual center of gravity has shifted.
I mentioned above the main intended purposes of the 6th council, but in actual effects one of its main purposes was to spread the Mahasi tradition beyond the borders of Burma and around the world. One of the early signs of this was a fierce controversy that arose between Burmese monk followers of the Mahasi tradition and more traditional or “orthodox” monks in Sri Lanka, the latter of whom insisted that jhana, or at least upacara samadhi (“access concentration”) is necessary for liberating insight to arise. They very much disapproved of the new-fangled (partly because before Mingun Jetawun Sayadaw Satipatthana practice had almost died out) “Burmese belly meditation” which was viewed as a kind of spurious shortcut to enlightenment. In the controversy and afterwards the votaries of Mahasi have relied on an obscure passage or two in the sub-commentarial literature claiming that momentary concentration, or concentration moving from one object to the next in relatively rapid succession, is sufficient for liberating insight to occur. So the Mahasi method, regardless of its results, is at least slightly unorthodox.
(I fail to resist the urge to include another digression here. I have found that many Burmese monks are absolutely brilliant scholars, phenomenal by western standards, but only of a certain stereotypically Asian type. They are dogmatists. They memorize and master the thoughts and systems of someone else, and do so brilliantly, but they are not so good at independent thought. So when they deviate from orthodox tradition, or try to use their own mental resources to make sense of something in the texts without relying slavishly on commentarial explanations, they often fail spectacularly, or simply wander away from what they are trying to adhere to, generally without realizing it. This may account for Mahasi Sayadaw deviating from orthodoxy with regard to his method. But as I say, I digress.)
The method itself famously focuses on the belly as the primary object for most meditators. This in itself is odd, but technically not unorthodox, because the Satipatthana Suttas claim that a meditator may be mindful of just about anything, including all bodily movements. The rising and falling of the abdomen in the process of breathing has replaced the touch of breath at the nostrils, for reasons that have always been obscure to me—presumably it’s somehow more notable, or else the venerable Sayadaw wanted to distance himself from people using the breath at the nostrils for the more samadhi-oriented samatha meditations.
Those of you who have practiced the Mahasi method in its pristine Burmese purity know that it strongly emphasizes noting. That is, one combines aim and effort to clearly perceive the object, with the noting mind, as U Pandita used to say, beating the object as though with a stick. So one sits on the mat, eyes closed, legs crossed, back straight, noting the rising and falling of the abdomen as one breathes: “rising…falling…rising…falling….” Eventually the verbal labels may be dispensed with, but the stick-hitting noting mind continues to perceive the object with aim and effort. Usually there is one hour of walking followed by one hour of sitting, continued throughout the day, aside from eating and other necessary activities. One is supposed to move in slow motion to make noting the movements of the body easier, and meditators are sometimes admonished to move around as though they were sick, slowly and gingerly. Walking meditation usually follows the movements of the feet. But because it is mindfulness practice and not the cultivation of jhana, one notes whatever is most apparent, for example distractions due to loud sounds, boredom, agitation, itches, pains, or whatever. Back in the old days, before wimpy complaining westerners were very common at Burmese retreat centers, the Mahasi tradition emphasized “heroic effort”: even if the pain in your legs becomes so intensely agonizing that you feel like you may die, you are not to change position until the full hour is up. “Pain is the friend of the meditator.” “Pain is the key that unlocks the door to Nibbana.”
This practice, if followed consistently and ardently, is supposed to result in the list of vipassana insight knowledges, which are not listed as such in the Pali Suttas, arising in the proper order, eventually leading to Stream Entry, the first stage of Buddhist “sainthood,” in which one gains one’s first momentary glimpse of Nibbana. Back around the 1970s the Rangoon Mahasi Center, the main one, notoriously used to hand out certificates to those who had experienced their nyanzin (the list of vipassana insight knowledges) correctly according to the commentaries, being in effect a kind of Ariya diploma, or certified proof of sainthood. Although many Burmese people consider the most prestigious Mahasi Centers to be practically Ariya factories cranking out Stream Enterers, Mahasi Sayadaw himself is not generally considered to have been fully enlightened, and the method, if followed successfully, generally is considered to lead only to the lower levels of Ariya-hood. (As yet another digression I will say that venerable Pah Auk Sayadaw, founder of one of the main traditions rivaling the Mahasi tradition in recent decades, used to repeatedly insist, orthodox dogmatist that he was, that nobody could possibly become an Ariya by following the Mahasi method. He reportedly was declared an Ariya himself as a junior monk after completing the course under venerable U Pandita, but he somehow had enough sense to observe that he really had not become an Ariya.)
My own personal experience with the Mahasi method is somewhat limited. I practiced it intensively for two months at Panditarama, after which both U Pandita and I were in agreement that it was time for me to go; plus short stays at Chanmyay Yeiktha, the Chanmyay “forest monastery” a few miles up the road, the Mahasi Center in the town of Kalay (totally infested with bedbugs), and the main Mahasi Center in the city of Monywa—called San Mya Theeta, with an abbot like a genial, jovial used car salesman. (I used to think that if he had been born in America he would indeed have been selling cars.) Also of course I have met with LOTS of monks who practiced the Mahasi method and had plenty to say about it, both positive and negative. Based on all this, plus a few books by Mahasi Sayadaw that I have read, I can say that the Mahasi method is a reasonably sound method for beginners, maybe even for intermediate practitioners, but when one starts to get into the more advanced practice it is better to move on to a different method, before being sidetracked with the (non-canonical) list of vipassana insight knowledges and so forth. Once a person is declared an Ariya they are usually lost, past the point of no return. At a place like Panditarama it is fairly easy to identify the “Ariyas”: they’re the ones NOT moving in slow motion, not showing up at the meditation halls for meditation, talking and laughing loudly, and acting in an apparently unmindful manner. It’s as though once you become a saint you don’t have to practice anymore; but I think a genuine saint would have more intensive practice after his realization, due to his increased wisdom and saintliness—it would just come more easily and naturally, and reflect his wisdom and virtue. A true sage does not differentiate between spiritual practice and everyday life. I heard of one infamous case at the Rangoon Mahasi Center from a doctor turned monk who was there at the time. One of the relatively senior teachers, who due to his position of authority pretty obviously had to be a Mahasi Ariya, one fine day went into the office, stole all the money he could find there, and then ran off with one of the female yogis.
The Mahasi method is relatively easy as Theravada Buddhist meditation traditions go, and for certain reasons laypeople, even beginners, often do as well as, or better than, most veteran monks. Rather than cast doubt on the validity of the method, this has caused laypeople to receive relatively high status in relation to monks at Burmese Mahasi Centers, and meditating monks and laypeople are often housed together in the same dormitory buildings (especially at Panditarama). This is seen as no big deal at all by most westerners, but in a monk-revering culture like Buddhist Burma, in which monks are considered to be literally superhuman, it is very odd. This may be one contributing factor of many resulting in the popularity of the method among secular westerners who don’t see much value in monasticism or renunciation.
I consider the Mahasi tradition as it exists in Burmese culture to be possibly a case of dogmatism sidetracking genuine Dhamma to some degree. Mahasi U Pandita, for example, clearly considered himself to be a saint, and occasionally hinted as much in his talks…yet he was an angry and genuinely hostile person—nevertheless, he would sit like a statue in meditation, like an absolute rock, so that the “vibe” of the whole room would perceptibly change. I could be wrong, and maybe true Buddhist saints can act less saintly than non-saints or common people, but still, “saints” making dishonest confessions on a regular basis (“Yes sir, very good sir, I will restrain myself in future”), let alone hostility and, eh, stealing money and running off with a female yogi, seem to bely the common reputation of the meditation centers and retreats being a kind of saint factory cranking out one Ariya after another.
One last “niggle” before I’m done. There appears to be a logical inconsistency in the philosophy of the method: On the one hand the method requires noting, which is aim plus effort, volitional perception, allegedly equaling mindfulness. On the other hand the teachers of the method endorse the admonishment given in the Bahiya Sutta of the Udana: in the seen there will be only the seen, in the heard only the heard, and so forth. They claim, as pretty much all meditation teachers in Burma claim, that their method is the way to follow these instructions given by the Buddha to the wanderer Bahiya. But if there is the seen PLUS NOTING of the seen there is NOT “only the seen.” Mahasi’s “effortless noting” appears to be simply habitual effort.
Anyway, in conclusion…Once I met with a relatively advanced monk named U Jotika, one of the wisest monks I knew, and I asked him what he thought of the Mahasi method. He said, “You can get benefit from practicing it, but it is a limited method.” I agree with that. It’s really not a bad method if you can find a good and sincere teacher of it, one who practices it sincerely and knows from experience, and doesn’t just say what his teacher said. All in all the tradition has much worse monastic discipline than the rival Pah Auk method, but I consider the meditation itself to be better than Pah Auk, and also better than the Goenka method for most meditators. But again, it is a limited method. U Jotika’s method is much better, but maybe more about that some other time.
|entrance to the Dhamma hall at San Mya Theeta Thathana Yeiktha,|
the Mahasi Center in the city of Monywa,
one of hundreds if not thousands of the Mahasi Centers in Myanmar