“Meditation is the cool water that quenches the fire of suffering” – Buddhistdoor Global
A reserved and quiet monastic from Myanmar, Sayadaw Ashin Nanujjotabhivamsa is more comfortable talking about Dhamma principles and practice than discussing people, even his teacher Sayadaw U Pandita (b. 29 July 1921), also born in Myanmar . However, it is difficult to avoid the subject given the latter’s fame as one of the most eminent teachers of vipassana meditation. He is the pupil and successor of Mahasi Sayadaw U Sobhana (1904-1982), who founded the Mahasi tradition of vipassana meditation (variously called the “Mahasi method” or “New Burmese method”). Mahasi Sayadaw taught various pioneers of Western Buddhism, such as Alan Clements, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Along with other teachers of his generation, such as SN Goenka, Mahasi Sayadaw was a crucial force in reviving the popularity of mindfulness meditation and thus contributing to one of the defining characteristics of Western Buddhism.
Sayadaw Nanujjotabhivamsa gives teachings at the Panditarama Meditation Center in Yangon, which was established in October 1990. The center offers meditators (or “yogis”, as it refers to practitioners) rigorous 60-day retreats (called special retreats) which are popular among Burmese and foreign practitioners. Every year, from December 1 to January 31, about 100 yogis practice 14 hours of sitting and walking meditation in Noble Silence every day. The usually reluctant U Pandita takes center stage at this unique retreat, giving daily talks.
Born in 1955, Sayadaw Nanujjotabhivamsa’s first novitiate took place when he was only 10 years old. He was ordained a monk at the age of 20. After three years of monastic life, he became interested in the philosophy and practice of the Mahasi method and became an accomplished practitioner under the supervision of U Pandita. Sayadaw Nanujjotabhivamsa spoke movingly of U Pandita’s style of teaching: “Sayadaw-ji [a respectful honorific used to address senior masters] is very strict on the rules. He always checks yogis on two levels: the meditators and the teachers of those meditators. He will approach the teachers if the meditators who study with them are having difficulty, or to encourage them if the meditators are doing particularly well. He will test them in terms of theory and practice and will always try to learn what improvements they need to make or adjust.
Sayadaw Nanujjotabhivamsa imitates U Pandita’s teaching method when teaching his own students. Reflecting on how the master shaped and influenced his own outlook and teaching, he said, “Sayadaw-ji’s purpose is only one: to enable people to taste the Dhamma. He is fully focused on this goal.
He believes that the virtues of the Mahasi path are sufficiently evident to attract practitioners from all over the world to learn this tradition. “Inhaling and exhaling is an essential feature of vipassana meditation,” says Sayadaw Nanujjotabhivamsa. “But Mahasi vipassana chooses to focus on the raising and lowering of the abdomen. This physical movement is more obvious to the practitioner than the breathing movements in and out of the nostrils. This object of the stomach rising and falling is clearer Everyone can feel their abs going up and down, but not everyone remembers their breath coming and going.
Despite the relative notoriety of the Mahasi method among Western practitioners thanks to the many personalities who have practiced it, the objective of Mahasi meditation is technical and simple: to correctly understand the nature of the psycho-physical phenomena occurring in the body. Mahasi Sayadaw described the technique of viewing the abdomen in a comprehensive Dhamma talk on tathagatha.org:
“It is the material quality known as vayodhatus (the element of movement). One should begin by noting this movement, which can be done by the mind carefully observing the abdomen. You will find that the abdomen rises when you inhale and lowers when you exhale. The rise should be noted mentally as “rise” and the fall as “fall”. If the movement is not obvious by noting it mentally, continue to touch the abdomen with the palm of your hand. Don’t change the way you breathe. Neither slow it down nor make it faster. Don’t breathe too vigorously either. You will tire if you change the way you breathe. Breathe steadily as usual and note the rise and fall of the abdomen as it occurs. Write it down mentally, not verbally.
“In vipassana meditation, it doesn’t matter what you name or say. What really matters is knowing or perceiving. While noting the lifting of the abdomen, do it from the beginning to the end of the movement as if you were seeing it with your eyes. Do the same with the falling movement. Notice the upward movement in such a way that your awareness of it is concurrent with the movement itself. The movement and mental awareness of it must coincide in the same way that a thrown stone hits the target.
Although the Mahasi method is not an ancient style, it maintains the traditional Theravada idea that mindfulness is inseparable from ethical and moral conduct. The reason for focusing on the element of movement is to hone an acute awareness of one’s own composite phenomena and to extend this awareness to the “external” world. Sayadaw Nanujjotabhivamsa believes that meditation is the primary means of disciplining the mind so that a person can act lucidly and make ethical choices amid the deluge of sensory distractions and desires. Mastering the mind naturally means mastering ethical behavior: “Once you are aware of body and speech, you will not break the precepts.”
Sayadaw Nanujjotabhivamsa seems to possess a slightly skeptical temper. “Human beings mostly love to enjoy sensual pleasures and distractions. Modern technology and conveniences have amplified exposure and widened access to these pleasures, thereby intensifying our desire for them,” he told me. “People want to be happy but chase bad things to get that happiness. But they fall into despair because they don’t find happiness in these things. They get tired of all that pleasure that doesn’t bring true happiness. Meditation and the insight it brings, he insists, is the only way out of this futile cycle.
“Sayadaw-ji once said that the current situation of human beings is that their hearts are burning in an air-conditioned room. In the contemporary world, we have so many technological comforts, but these cannot solve our basic problem. He also said that we are like ants: we love honey, but we get stuck and die in honey. People seek sensual pleasures but die in sensual pleasures. Sayadaw Nanujjotabhivamsa’s pensive and serious face lit up as he spoke words such as concentration, clarity and peace. “These are so important because once you achieve stillness, you have the equanimity and non-attachment to make the right decisions and eliminate stress.”
His final thoughts invoked images of water and fire, elemental metaphors which, unlike the puns and misdeeds of the Mahayana shunyata The (empty) tradition (which deconstructs opposites such as liberation and ignorance or samsara and nirvana), insists on the binary division between ignorance and liberation. “To put out the suffering fire, the cool water of meditation is needed. The temple is like a fire station that you can go to to put out your fire. But prevention is better than having to put out the fire! also put out your fire,” he said with a smile at the end of our conversation. I can only imagine how long he would have to stay with me to put out this conflagration.