Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Discussion of Satipatthana bhavanā and Vipassana bhavana.

Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Alexei » Wed Jan 19, 2011 10:37 am

Hello,

Rod Bucknell describe his experience:

The vipassana centre in Bangkok where I began my meditative training claimed to teach the system of practice developed by Mahasi Sayadaw of Myanma, often called Burmese satipatthana.

[...]

At the end of three weeks I was able to maintain uninterrupted mental one-pointedness for prolonged periods. During such periods nothing was present in consciousness but the meditation object, the sensations in the abdomen. The rest of the body, and the world outside it, had ceased to exist. I identified completely with the sensations: I was the sensations. Increasingly I experienced synaesthetic effects. For example, I often "saw" the pattern of sensations in the abdomen in various forms -- usually as an oscillating system of levers, or as a pulsating globe of light. On my teacher's advice I took this mental image as my new object of concentration. (The sitting practice had, by this stage, become the principal component of the meditative regime; mindful walking was now of secondary importance.) Then one day, as I was concentrating on my pulsating image, it suddenly disappeared, plunging me into a pitch-back emptiness. My teacher regarded this strange experience as an important meditative attainment, and told me to cultivate and prolong it. I followed his instruction for a time -- until I learned that the objective was to prolong the state of emptiness to twenty-four hours. The achievement of that feat would constitute successful completion of the meditation course.

At that point I decided it was time to leave the vipassana centre. I had begun to doubt the value of this state of mental emptiness, and of some of my other hard-won meditative skills as well. Thanking my teacher, I left Bangkok and moved to Chiangmai in the north of the country.

In Chiangmai I entered another vipassana centre, to find out if their methods were significantly different. There were differences in detail, but they amounted simply to different ways of inducing the same concentrated state.


It seems to be quite pointless state.

Is it really aim / way of practise of Mahasi Sayadaw technique or widespread distortion of his teaching?
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby rowyourboat » Wed Jan 19, 2011 10:38 pm

Ah the wonders of brilliant white blissful samadhi, or feelings of being connected with all beings!!!

"I teach one thing and one only: suffering and the end of suffering."

Those people who practice to gain something are going to be disappointed (nor have they understood suffering or the escape from it).

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby mikenz66 » Thu Jan 20, 2011 12:15 am

Hi Aliexi,
Alexei wrote:It seems to be quite pointless state.

Is it really aim / way of practise of Mahasi Sayadaw technique or widespread distortion of his teaching?

I don't really know what he's talking about. It sounds very strange. Perhaps he had some rather strange teachers or he was confused about their instructions. Or he was projecting his own interpretations onto the whole thing.

:anjali:
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Alexei » Thu Jan 20, 2011 11:39 am

Thank you for reply Image

rowyourboat, do you have opinion what this state is (in Pali terms)?
I doubt that it's real end of suffering, there was not any transformation in his life after that experience. Except of appearing vicikicchā :)

It looks like state that Ajahn Fuang called asaññi-bhava:

The second state was one I happened to hit one night when my concentration was extremely one-pointed, and so refined that it refused settle on or label even the most fleeting mental objects. I dropped into a state in which I lost all sense of the body, of any internal/external sounds, or of any thoughts or perceptions at all — although there was just enough tiny awareness to let me know, when I emerged, that I hadn't been asleep. I found that I could stay there for many hours, and yet time would pass very quickly. Two hours would seem like two minutes. I could also "program" myself to come out at a particular time.

After hitting this state several nights in a row, I told Ajaan Fuang about it, and his first question was, "Do you like it?" My answer was "No," because I felt a little groggy the first time I came out. "Good," he said. "As long as you don't like it, you're safe. Some people really like it and think it's nibbana or cessation. Actually, it's the state of non-perception (asaññi-bhava). It's not even right concentration, because there's no way you can investigate anything in there to gain any sort of discernment. But it does have other uses." He then told me of the time he had undergone kidney surgery and, not trusting the anesthesiologist, had put himself in that state for the duration of the operation.
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Alexei » Thu Jan 20, 2011 12:14 pm

Jack Kornfield's reflections:

In Mahasi’s model, enlightenment—or at least stream-entry, the first taste of nirvana—comes in the form of a cessation of experience, arising out of the deepest state of concentration and attention, when the body and mind are dissolved, the experience of the ordinary senses ceases, and we rest in perfect equanimity. We open into that which is unconditioned, timeless, and liberating: nirvana. Like Zen satori, this moment brings a whole new way of knowing. But there are a lot of questions around this kind of moment. Sometimes it seems to have enormously transformative effects on people. Other times people have this moment of experience and aren’t really changed by it at all. Sometimes they’re not even sure what happened.
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Sambodhi in Oz » Thu Jan 20, 2011 6:51 pm

This is Jhana alright but what about Vipassana ? and if people dont change it certainly is not stream entry.

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Nyana » Thu Jan 20, 2011 11:46 pm

Ajahn Amaro:

    I’ve known people, particularly those who have practiced in the Theravāda tradition, who have been taught and trained that the idea of meditation is to get to a place of cessation. We might get to a place where we don’t feel or see anything; there is awareness but everything is gone. An absence of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, the body—it all vanishes. And then these students are told, “This is the greatest thing. That’s what there is to look forward to.” The teacher encourages them to put tremendous hours and diligence into their meditation. When one of these students told her teacher that she had arrived at that kind of state, he got really excited. He then asked her, “So what did it feel like?” and she said, “It was like drinking a glass of cold water but without the water and without the glass.” On another occasion she said, “It was like being shut inside a refrigerator.”

    This is not the only way of understanding cessation.... When we stop creating sense objects as absolute realities and stop seeing thoughts and feelings as solid things, there is cessation. To see that the world is within our minds is one way of working with these principles. The whole universe is embraced when we realize that it’s happening within our minds. And in that moment when we recognize that it all happens here, it ceases. Its thingness ceases. Its otherness ceases. Its substantiality ceases.

    This is just one way of talking and thinking about it. But I find this brings us much closer to the truth, because in that respect, it’s held in check. It’s known. But there’s also the quality of its emptiness. Its insubstantiality is known. We’re not imputing solidity to it, a reality that it doesn’t possess. We’re just looking directly at the world, knowing it fully and completely.

    So, what happens when the world ceases? I remember one time Ajahn Sumedho was giving a talk about this same subject. He said, “Now I’m going to make the world completely disappear. I’m going to make the world come to an end.” He just sat there and said: “Okay, are you ready?... The world just ended.... Do you want me to bring it back into being again? Okay...welcome back.”

    Nothing was apparent from the outside. It all happens internally. When we stop creating the world, we stop creating each other. We stop imputing the sense of solidity that creates a sense of separation. Yet we do not shut off the senses in any way. Actually, we shed the veneer, the films of confusion, of opinion, of judgment, of our conditioning, so that we can see the way things really are. At that moment, dukkha ceases.

All the best,

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Alexei » Fri Jan 21, 2011 9:12 am

parth wrote:This is Jhana alright but what about Vipassana ?

It's certainly not a jhana. There aren't even jhana factors.

Thans, Ñāṇa. Helpful quote.

So, it seems that some traditions differ with their opinion on the goal of practise.
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby rowyourboat » Fri Jan 21, 2011 3:37 pm

Hi Alexi

It is a very complex area of the dhamma.

Firstly- to a mind which grasps onto everything as sukha and delights in things (ie -delights in 'arising'), absence and cessation seems like a unproductive, horrible, useless thing. So the nature of nibbana is not something to be discussed with just everyone. It can be discussed with someone who has an initial understanding of dukkha (that is that every moment which arises is dukkha)- a discussion on how that dukkha comes to a cessation. Remember the Buddha said Dukkha is 'to be known', and that people do not know dukkha- here he was talking about a level of dukkha deeper than mental suffering.

Next- the person you mentioned seems to see this as a negative result- suggesting to me that he didnt go through the successive vipassana nana which culminates in such an experience, or perhaps very rarely, simply did not have the time to get his thinking organized around the insights that he had. If he could see the suffering or arising (and passing away) which he would have done if he went the whole hog, he would have seen the delights of complete cessation. It can also happen that some people do not fully integrate the experience they have with the insight conceptually- this happens during the hot-house conditions of intense vipassana retreats, when practice rather than conceptualization is stressed. So their formulation of what happened is based on the level of understanding they had before they went on retreat. You might wonder how this happens- vipssana occurs on a very deep level (sub/unconscious)- it would be correct to say the vipassana 'does you' rather than the other way around (and really no one can stake personal claim on the insights that arise in the process- even enlightenment 'just' happens- you do not do it).

It is also possible that the teacher misjudged his level of progress. This sometimes happens due to the teacher's lack of experience and also the meditators inability to appreciate and put into words what he/she is experiencing. So I believe it is very important to have a good conceptual framework of dukkha and its cessation before anyone attemptoms serious vipassana. Discussing and understanding (as much as possible) the Nibbana sermons by Ven Katukurunde Nananda is a good way to achieve this in my opinion. The Buddha mentions that Right View, discussion and learning, samatha and vipassana all play a part in final liberation.

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby kirk5a » Fri Jan 21, 2011 3:52 pm

I read the rest of Rod Bucknell's observations at the link posted with great interest. It seemed the insight developed when he started observing how thinking mind actually functions, and examining the nature of "self." Very interesting.
"When one thing is practiced & pursued, ignorance is abandoned, clear knowing arises, the conceit 'I am' is abandoned, latent tendencies are uprooted, fetters are abandoned. Which one thing? Mindfulness immersed in the body." -AN 1.230
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby IanAnd » Fri Jan 21, 2011 5:09 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:Ajahn Amaro:

    I’ve known people, particularly those who have practiced in the Theravāda tradition, who have been taught and trained that the idea of meditation is to get to a place of cessation. We might get to a place where we don’t feel or see anything; there is awareness but everything is gone. An absence of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, the body—it all vanishes. And then these students are told, “This is the greatest thing. That’s what there is to look forward to.” The teacher encourages them to put tremendous hours and diligence into their meditation. When one of these students told her teacher that she had arrived at that kind of state, he got really excited. He then asked her, “So what did it feel like?” and she said, “It was like drinking a glass of cold water but without the water and without the glass.” On another occasion she said, “It was like being shut inside a refrigerator.”

    This is not the only way of understanding cessation.... When we stop creating sense objects as absolute realities and stop seeing thoughts and feelings as solid things, there is cessation. To see that the world is within our minds is one way of working with these principles. The whole universe is embraced when we realize that it’s happening within our minds. And in that moment when we recognize that it all happens here, it ceases. Its thingness ceases. Its otherness ceases. Its substantiality ceases.

    This is just one way of talking and thinking about it. But I find this brings us much closer to the truth, because in that respect, it’s held in check. It’s known. But there’s also the quality of its emptiness. Its insubstantiality is known. We’re not imputing solidity to it, a reality that it doesn’t possess. We’re just looking directly at the world, knowing it fully and completely.

    Nothing was apparent from the outside. It all happens internally. When we stop creating the world, we stop creating each other. We stop imputing the sense of solidity that creates a sense of separation. Yet we do not shut off the senses in any way. Actually, we shed the veneer, the films of confusion, of opinion, of judgment, of our conditioning, so that we can see the way things really are. At that moment, dukkha ceases.


All the best,

Geoff

Excellent quote and description and answer to the OPs question.

By the way, Geoff, might you have a link to this quote to share with us?
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Sambodhi in Oz » Fri Jan 21, 2011 6:40 pm

RYB Wrote :

You might wonder how this happens- vipssana occurs on a very deep level (sub/unconscious)- it would be correct to say the vipassana 'does you' rather than the other way around (and really no one can stake personal claim on the insights that arise in the process- even enlightenment 'just' happens- you do not do it).


Really a nice post and definately a good quote, probably this is how it really is "Vipassana does you, rather than u do Vipassana".

Only thing am not sure how could one practise Vipassana and not observe the arising and passing away.

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Nyana » Fri Jan 21, 2011 9:08 pm

IanAnd wrote:By the way, Geoff, might you have a link to this quote to share with us?

It's from Ven. Amaro's Small Boat, Great Mountain.

All the best,

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Nyana » Fri Jan 21, 2011 9:32 pm

Alexei wrote:So, it seems that some traditions differ with their opinion on the goal of practise.

Indeed. If the jhāna factors are not present then it isn't supramundane path or fruition attainment either. This blackout emptiness notion is the inevitable consequence entailed by a realist view of dhamma, wherein all conditioned dhammas are considered to be "truly existing things," and therefore path cognitions and fruition cognitions of each of the four paths and fruits must occur within an utterly void vacuum state cessation, which is considered to be the ultimately existent "unconditioned." This notion of path and fruition cognitions is not supported by the Pāli canon. It's largely based on an unsustainable interpretation of the first chapter of the Paṭisambhidāmagga. Also, there is nothing specifically Buddhist about utterly void vacuum state cessations. In fact, precisely this type of stopping the mind is the goal of some non-Buddhist yogic traditions. Therefore, this contentless absorption cannot be equated with Buddhist nibbāna. Moreover, there are now a number of people who've had such experiences sanctioned by "insight meditation" teachers, and who have gone on to proclaim to the world that arahants can still experience lust and the other defiled mental phenomena. Taking all of this into account there is no good reason whatsoever to accept this interpretation of path and fruition cognitions. Void vacuum state cessations are not an adequate nor reliable indication of stream entry or any of the other paths and fruitions.

All the best,

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby rowyourboat » Sat Jan 22, 2011 10:21 am

parth wrote:RYB Wrote :

You might wonder how this happens- vipssana occurs on a very deep level (sub/unconscious)- it would be correct to say the vipassana 'does you' rather than the other way around (and really no one can stake personal claim on the insights that arise in the process- even enlightenment 'just' happens- you do not do it).


Really a nice post and definately a good quote, probably this is how it really is "Vipassana does you, rather than u do Vipassana".

Only thing am not sure how could one practise Vipassana and not observe the arising and passing away.

Regards

Parth


Hi Parth,

Nibbana/cessation is not something you can do - it is 'not caused'. It can only be revealed suddenly- without your specific intervention. All 'we' can do is to watch arising and passing away, with a mind of equanimity and samadhi. Having understanding into and have thought/contemplated what you are watching definitely helps in the process of attaining progressively deeper insight, through the meditation itself.

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Alexei » Tue Jan 25, 2011 6:42 pm

Alexei wrote:Rod Bucknell describe his experience:

Ven. Pa-Auk Sayadaw calls a similar state as "falling into bhavanga":
You should determine to keep your mind calmly concentrated on the white uggaha-nimitta for one, two, three hours, or more. If you can keep your mind fixed on the uggaha-nimitta for one or two hours, it should become clear, bright, and brilliant. This is then the pañibhàga-nimitta (counterpart sign).
[...]
Both types of concentration have the pañibhàga-nimitta as their object. The only difference between them is that in access concentration the jhàna factors are not fully developed. For this reason bhavanga mind states still occur, and one can fall into bhavanga (life-continuum consciousness). The meditator will say that everything stopped, and may even think it is Nibbàna. In reality the mind has not stopped, but the meditator is just not sufficiently skilled to discern this, because the bhavanga mind states are very subtle.
[...]
The meditator will say that everything stopped, or may think it is Nibbàna, and say: ‘I knew nothing then.’ If he practises in this way, he can eventually stay in bhavanga for a long time. In any kind of practice, be it good or bad, one will achieve one’s aim, if one tries again and again. ‘Practice makes perfect.’ In this case too, if he tries again and again, in the same way, he may fall into bhavanga for a long time.
[...]
If a meditator thinks it is Nibbàna, this idea is a very big ‘rock’ blocking the way to Nibbàna. If he does not remove this big ‘rock’, he cannot attain Nibbàna. Why does this idea occur? Many meditators think that a disciple (sàvaka) cannot know mentality-materiality as taught by the Buddha. So they do not think it is necessary to develop sufficiently deep concentration in order to discern mentality-materiality, and their causes, as taught by the Buddha. Thus their concentration is only weak, and bhavanga mind states still occur, because the jhàna factors too are weak. The concentration cannot be maintained for a long time. If one purposely practises to fall into bhavanga, one will achieve one’s aim, but it is not Nibbàna.


By the way, nimitta as a concentration object is not necessarily an image (according to the early texts).
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby rowyourboat » Wed Jan 26, 2011 10:47 am

Hi Alexei,

Thank you for that quote. Yes, the blackness does not denote anything in particular.. It is possible to be mislead by it. It can arise during samatha or vipassana. This is why it is important to do vipassana under a teacher who can guide you and knows the vipassana nanas well enough to know where you are on the path.

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Nyana » Thu Jan 27, 2011 1:52 pm

Alexei wrote:
parth wrote:This is Jhana alright but what about Vipassana ?

It's certainly not a jhana. There aren't even jhana factors.

So, it seems that some traditions differ with their opinion on the goal of practise.

Just to add: Such blackout states are neither form sphere jhāna, nor vipassanā, nor supramundane jhāna accompanied by gnosis (ñāṇa) which arises when one enters the noble path. This supramundane gnosis is the understanding that all phenomena are signless, desireless, and empty. It arises from contemplating the signlessness of all phenomena. The Paṭisambhidāmagga states:

    Gnosis of contemplation of the signlessness of form... feeling... recognition... fabrications... consciousness... etc., is signless deliverance because it liberates from all signs.

Thus, this gnosis is the result of the correct contemplation of the signlessness (animittānupassanā) of all phenomena, and not the result of falling into any sort of blackout. The Dhammasaṅgaṇī clearly states that supramundane jhāna is accompanied by the jhāna factors. And the arising of supramundane jhāna is necessary for entering the noble paths and fruitions. A blackout state isn't. The non-arising (anuppāda) and non-continuance (appavatta), etc., which happens at the time of change of lineage (gotrabhu), i.e. when one enters the noble paths, is the non-arising and non-continuance of the fetters and mental outflows specifically abandoned on each noble path, and not the non-arising and non-continuance of the the supramundane jhāna factors themselves. If there are no supramundane jhāna factors and no concomitant gnosis, there is no noble path and no possibility of liberation from fetters and mental outflows.

Also, it's worth mentioning that there is no canonical support for the notion that the noble path consists of two or three mind moments. For a good survey of the relevant passages from the Pāli Tipiṭaka, see Path, Fruit, and Nibbāna (PDF) by Ven. Kheminda.

All the best,

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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby kirk5a » Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:28 pm

I'm remaining open minded to all input, but the idea that stream-entry, at least, requires a meditative cessation of all experience - I just don't see how that fits in with accounts of stream-enterers in the suttas. Some of whom are just listening to the Buddha speak, and clearly have no meditative skills, in an advanced concentration sense, at all. Take Anathapindika the householder. He attained stream entry after hearing the Buddha for the first time. Then many years later, near the very end of Anathapindika's life, Sariputta gives him instructions that are more in the realm of meditation practice per se, and Anathapindika remarks that he has never heard such instruction before. So... I just don't see how it can be said, in cases like that, there must have been meditative cessation of all experience.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html

For the higher levels past stream-entry... maybe a stronger case could be made.

EDIT: Further detail on what the Buddha said to Anathapindika at their first meeting.
http://www.sravastiabbey.org/about/sravastistory.html

Then the Blessed One, leading Anathapindika step by step, spoke to him of giving, of virtue, of the heavens, of the perils, vanity, and defiling nature of sensual pleasures, of the benefits of renunciation. When he saw that Anathapindika was ready in heart and mind—pliable, unobstructed, uplifted and serene—he explained to him the teaching that is unique to the Enlightened Ones: the Four Noble Truths of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path.

With that, the dust-free, stainless eye of truth (Dharmacakkhu) opened for Anathapindika: “Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of cessation.” Anathapindika had understood the truth of the Dharma, had overcome all doubts, and was without any wavering; certain in his mind, he was now self-dependent in the Master's Dispensation. He had realized the path and fruit of stream-entry (sotapatti).
Last edited by kirk5a on Thu Jan 27, 2011 4:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"When one thing is practiced & pursued, ignorance is abandoned, clear knowing arises, the conceit 'I am' is abandoned, latent tendencies are uprooted, fetters are abandoned. Which one thing? Mindfulness immersed in the body." -AN 1.230
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Re: Pitch-black emptiness and Mahasi Sayadaw technique

Postby Nyana » Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:35 pm

kirk5a wrote:I'm remaining open minded to all input, but the idea that stream-entry, at least, requires a meditative cessation of all experience - I just don't see how that fits in with accounts of stream-enterers in the suttas.

Well, it doesn't fit with the Paṭisambhidāmagga or the Dhammasaṅgaṇī either. And both of these texts have developed the path structure beyond what is given in the suttas.

All the best,

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