Vipassana as taught by The Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma

by Bhante Bodhidhamma

Observing the Breath at the Abdomen

Buddha Rupa Cambodia Photo: ©  Janet NovakWe observe the breath, or rather the sensations caused by breathing, in order to bring a moment-to-moment concentration. This calms the heart-mind because it is a neutral object. There are various places where people feel the sensations of breathing more acutely—at the nostrils or upper lip, at the rising and falling of the chest, and in the abdomen. All of these places are valid in terms of vipassana meditation. The Mahasi, however, favoured the abdomen as a place of observation.

Observing the abdomen is related to slow walking. Just as we observe and experience the foot rising and falling, so we experience the abdomen rising and falling. This means that for the better part of the day, a meditator is aware of the characteristic of transience in a very obvious way. Transience or impermanence (anicca) is one of the ways in which the Buddha asks us to investigate ourselves. Is there anything we experience which is permanent? Two other avenues of investigation are unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not-self (anatta). Insights into these Three Characteristics of Existence lead to liberation from all suffering.

The Mahasi did not teach the method of placing one’s attention on the breath at the nostrils because by this means there is a tendency, by way of concentration, to lose contact with the body. That is why observing the breath at the nostrils is a popular and effective way of achieving those higher states of concentration known as the Absorptions (jhana). When concentration becomes locked into one-pointedness on a single object, the effect is to suppress everything else, and this stops the process of purifying the heart, our emotional life. This is not to say that concentration practice cannot go hand in hand with vipassana. Indeed, it is well supported in the discourses. Rather, the Mahasi espoused the direct path of vipassana only (ekayano maggo) as it is taught in the Discourse on How to Establish Mindfulness (satipatthanasutta MN 10). Nor does this mean that observing the breath at the nostrils is not a valid technique in vipassana meditation. Indeed, although the Mahasi preferred the abdomen as a place of primary observation, he did not ban anyone from observing sensations at the nostrils.

However, when we centre on the abdomen or the chest (when the breath is shallow), we remain very much in contact with body. This allows any turbulence in the body caused by our states of mind to manifest and burn off. This is the psychotherapeutic effect of vipassana. Our emotions, moods and mental states express themselves through the body often as blocks, aches and pains and so on, and sometimes as raw emotion. All this mental turbulence has to be allowed to express itself within consciousness, and it all has to be borne patiently.


Sky line over Angkor Wat  Photo: ©  Janet NovakThe second technique, which is specific to the Mahasi method, is noting. Paradoxically this is to take a meditator beyond thinking. It is not an end in itself. The Mahasi was a highly respected scholar. As a young man he had passed Dhammacariya (Teacher of the Dhamma) examination with distinction. At the Sixth Buddhist Council in 1945, when all the texts where reviewed and for the first time all the commentarial literature was edited, the Mahasi Sayadaw was given the task of Pucchaka (Questioner) and Osana (Final Editor) of the texts. Although a scholar, he was not one to confuse intellectual understanding with true experiential insight. Indeed, he put that intellect to the service of the Dhamma. He wrote many books on Dhamma and the best introduction to his system still remains his opening talk to beginners—satipatthana vipassana, Discourse on the Basic Practice of the Application of Mindfulness. A more detailed description will be found in his book, Practical Insight Meditation.

According to the Buddha’s teaching, there are two stages of concentrated thought before full concentration is established. The first is a simple noting or naming of the object. This simple labelling, naming, noting—whereby attention is pointed at the object—is known as vitakka and is likened to a bee flying towards a flower. It is a word which encapsulates the whole experience. In a child this is very obvious and simplistic. When two-year-olds begin to speak they rejoice at being able to name an object: Car! Car! For that mind the word ‘car’ simply points at the object. There is not much thought around it since language itself, which allows us to think about an object, is not developed enough for this to happen. For us, the word ‘car’ conjures up a host of memories and desires.

This is thinking about an object. This mentation is known as proliferation (papanca). The purpose of thinking and daydreaming is to keep us off the present object and to distract the mind. The Buddha likened this to a monkey jumping from branch to branch. This is exactly what we have to bring to a stop. Shrinking thought down to a single word is the preliminary effort. But at this stage the meditator has to constantly pull the attention out of wandering and into observing. Indeed, this is what training through a technique is all about—reconditioning consciousness to be present, to be attentive to what is happening now.

To be effective, this noting has to be done with precise effort. It has to be an acknowledgement of what the body, heart or mind are doing. For instance, when one wakes from a fantasy, there is the first noting—arguing, planning, lusting—and then the second and consequent noting which is an acknowledgement of what is obsessing the mind. In the same way, if a sensation or feeling arises in the body, the first thing to be noted is the recognition that this is taking place, and the second and all consequent noting is the acknowledgement: ‘This is what is really happening now.’ Although there is careful noting, however, the attention is never placed on the word, only on the experience—the feeling of a sensation, the feeling of an emotion, the knowing of a thought. It is as though the intuitive intelligence sees through the word and experiences the presenting object directly. In this way the intellectual faculty is brought into the service of that intuitive intelligence rather than intuitive intelligence being fogged by conceptual thinking.

Thought itself can be split into two categories—conceptual and image making. As we note the breath, for instance, there will be a concept of rising and falling and also a mental image of the abdomen. We do not try to destroy them or in any way obliterate them. We just keep pointing the attention at the feeling of movement, the sensations. This attention, as it grows in strength, will eventually take all the energy out of thinking to the point where there is just the noting word. The meditator is still noting, but the attention becomes stuck, as it were, onto the object instead of wanting to wander off. This is likened to a bee landing and sucking on a flower. It is the second stage of developing right concentration and is called vicara. If the meditator continues to note, placing the attention more and more on the object—really feeling those sensations, really experiencing them as they arise and pass away—all the energy will be drawn out of the thinking mind. It will stop!

Thinking is always about something. It is an attempt to categorise. What we experience is seen in the light of past experience. What we have experienced in the past is filtered through the way we look at things, our dispositions (sankhara). That is why thought will not allow us to see things anew. If we want to experience things as they really are, then thought about those things must come to an end. When thinking stops, we must be right there with what is happening. It is at that point that true vipassana consciousness arises, right awareness (samma sati), and our intuitive intelligence (panna)—free of the distortion of thought and image—can finally begin to understand and see the way things really are (nanadassana-yatha-bhutam).

So we don’t have to worry about when to stop noting. It will stop once we have arrived at a high enough level of awareness and concentration. Such moments of pure vipassana are usually of very short duration, but they have great potential for insight. These moments are known as khanika samadhi, momentary concentration which lengthen into a moment-to-moment concentrated awareness. This sort of concentration does not depend on a single object as does absorption concentration (arambana samadhi). It takes anything that arises within the mind—sensation, emotion, or thought—as its object, but for the purpose of seeing the Three Characteristics of Existence (lakkhana samadhi). In other words, the concentration in vipassana is only there to support awareness (sati) and intuitive intelligence (panna). It is that steady gaze and exploration of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self that leads to liberation.

For some meditators noting comes with its difficulties. For instance, the word is very loud and dominates the meditation. This is simply showing the meditator how blocked they are by conceptual thinking. By patiently pointing the attention at feelings, intelligence will extricate itself from the conceptual mind. It is often quite a discovery to find that there is another way of experiencing the world. Another difficulty is the attempt to find the right word. One starts to look for a word as a poet might. But the simplest word is enough. A general term, such as ‘feeling’ will do.

This kind of noting is not limited to the sitting posture. Indeed, it has to become continuous from the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep. The Mahasi was fond of saying, ‘The continuity of awareness is the secret of success. ‘It is therefore important to note the most ‘insignificant’ actions of the day, such as opening a door. We have to abandon all hierarchy, believing that sitting is more important than walking which is more important than eating, and so on.

It is not only sensations, emotions, the wandering mind, and actions, that have to be noted, the category of thought which we experience as intentions also needs to be acknowledged. An intention is thought laced with desire, and not all desires are unskilful. In fact, we are trying to empower those intentions that are skilful such as the desire to meditate. The reason we note intention is because all actions of body, speech and thought have intentions as their instigators. To note an intention gives us the time to recognise it as either wholesome or unwholesome. We can then let go of the intentions we discern will lead us to dissatisfaction, and empower those which will lead us to contentment.

Doorway Cambodia Photo: ©  Janet NovakThis is the understanding of kamma. It is the will (cetana) that the Buddha calls kamma. Will is that power that takes something out of the potential into the actual. We have to empower an intention for it to be realised. If we take the standing position and note the intention to walk—we can do so for a long time—suddenly the foot will move. The power that has translated intention into an action is will and, in so doing, has committed an act of kamma. These actions, when repeated, create our habits, and a compendium of habits is our personality. It is this personality that is driving us to our destiny. So, noting intentions becomes an essential part of the progress towards liberation.

Noting, then, is a technique, a contrivance, whereby we can begin to train the attention to remain still on the presenting object and, more importantly, trick the intellect into coming to a full stop. It is all that conceptual thinking that distorts the way ‘knowing’ sees; it knows only by way of categories, memory and concepts. By halting that process of conceiving, and by keeping perception in its simplest form at the point of contact, this intuitive intelligence sees everything again as a child—but not with a child’s understanding. That intelligence is primed to observe the Three Characteristics which is how it liberates itself from the delusion of a mistaken identity and the possession of the psychophysical organism. This body, this heart, this mind is not me, not mine, and do not in themselves constitute a self.

Going Slowly

Going slowly, doing things slowly, refers to all those areas of activity the Buddha talks of in the Discourse on How to Establish Mindfulness, in the section on doing things mindfully (sampajana-kari hoti), whether looking, dressing, attending to one’s toiletry, eating, and so on. When we perform actions very slowly and deliberately, it sharpens our attentiveness and makes ‘the way things are’ easier to perceive. This is much the same as slowing down a film. A film shown in slow motion allows us to see more—the flick of a frog’s tongue as it catches a fly, for example. We would not usually see such a thing, but with special film techniques, the whole process can be discerned. In the same way, the more we slow down our own movements, the more easily do we perceive how the body, heart and mind inter-react.

Progress of Insight

Such is the power of this technique that it is possible to guide a meditator through the classic stages of the Insight Knowledges (vipassana nana). These are the insights that lead to the direct experience of nibbana, the first time known as Stream-entry (sotapanna); the whole process being repeated three times leading to the attainment of the Path and Fruit of the Once-returner (sakadagami), the Non-returner (anagami), and the Arahat, the enlightened being. The Mahasi explains all this in clear detail in his book, The Progress of Insight.

The Mahasi has completed tours in Southeast Asia, USA and Europe. In Britain he came to lead courses at the Oakenhalt centre near Oxford owned by the Burmese Saw family. Later came his chief disciples, Sayadaw U Janaka and Sayadaw U Pandita. Unfortunately, the Saw family had to sell Oakenhalt on the sad passing of Mr Saw and the impetus faded. However, now there are city viharas in London and Manchester where Mahasi monks dwell and teach this system. It is also hoped that the Satipanya Trust will raise enough interest to establish a Mahasi meditation centre and carry on the work of one of the most eminent vipassana teachers of the last century, the Mahasi Sayadaw.

More articles by Bodhidhamma Bhikkhu here

The Mahasi Sayadaw

Mahasi SayadawIt has been over two and half thousand years since the Buddha first expounded the teachings (the Dhamma). As time passed, these teachings became dulled. There have, however, been reformation movements throughout the history of Buddhism—some large and some small. The Mahasi Sayadaw must be credi­ted as being one of the key teachers in revitalising the practice of vipassana in Theravada Buddhist countries.

U Sobhana Mahathera became known as the Mahasi Sayadaw after the name of the temple in which he resided, the Big Drum. In Burma/Myanmar, monks are often referred to by the place name where they were born or in which they dwell. The Mahasi had been teaching in the north of Myanmar when some high ranking people—including the then prime minister, U Nu—went looking for a teacher to start a meditation centre in Rangoon/Yangon. The centre was not to be just a monastery, but a place where lay ­people would be able to practise vipassana. This, it seems, was a little revolution. Up until then it was generally presumed that only mon­astics could gain anything from meditation. This aspect has indeed become a special feature of the Mahasi centres in that there are lay teachers and lay practitioners, and many of the centres are within the city boundaries, easily accessible to lay people.

It was at this centre in Yangon that the Mahasi Sayadaw, U Sobhana Thera, began to teach a technique which he had developed through his own renowned teacher, U Narada, known as the Mingun Jetawun Sayadaw in Upper Myanmar. It has three main characteristics—observing the breath at the abdomen, noting, and moving very slowly.

First published in the November 2003 Buddhism Now.

Categories: Bhante Bodhidhamma, Biography, Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, History, Theravada

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7 replies

  1. Such bodhisattvas take a lot of trouble for the ultimate good of ordinary beings like us. thank you for the article.

  2. A wonderful article on observing the breath in practice.

  3. Thank you for this direct explanation. I have been meditating for many years using Sunlun Sayadaw’s concentration on the touch of the nostril breath. This article makes me deliberate on whether i should change to the abdomen precisely because I believe the elimination of negative emotions and Karma is necessary to move to absorptive meditation. Thank for inspiring me to pause.

  4. It is truly amazing how Mahasi Sayadaw explained the course of meditation, and how to truly master this meditation practice.
    Thank You for such great article.

  5. Great description of Vipassana tradition. The discussion reinforces my ongoing practice and reminds me to pay greater attention to the three awareness in manifesting liberation from suffering: dissatisfaction, no self and impermanence.

  6. Does anyone know where i can i do vipassana retreat whilst still maintaining my daily buddhist commitments. Both centres near where i live in West Australia wont allow me.

    Thank you for any advice.

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