Q&A with Mahasi Sayadaw

Questions and Answers with Mahasi Sayadaw

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e-book version: 1.9 - 2019-03-06

The following questions and answers are from the booklet “An Interview with Mahasi Sayadaw,” prepared (in Burmese) by Thamanaykyaw and translated by U Hla Myint.

Q1. Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, did you have full faith in Satipatthana Vipassana practice when you started it?

No, frankly I didn’t. I did not initially have full faith in it. So I don’t blame anybody for not having faith in practice before they start it. It is only because they have little or no experience with it. In 1939 when i was only eight Vassa(monastic years in term of seniority), much to my curiosity and confusion, a meditation master called Mingon Zetawin Sayadawji teaching. Note going when going; Note standing when standing; Note sitting when sitting; Note lying when lying; Note bending when bending; Note stretching when stretching; Note eating when eating. I got confused by the fact that there was no object to observe in ultimate sense, such as mind and body, and their impermanence, suffering and egolessness. But I gave it some consideration and thought: ‘How strange the Sayadawji teaches. I am sure he is highly learned, and is teaching from his own experience. It maybe it is too early for me to decide whether good or bad before I myself practise it’. Thus, I started to practise with him.

Q2. Venerable Sir, could you explain the meaning of Satipatthana?

Satipatthana means mindfulness or remembering constantly. What one is supposed to remember without fail are all physical, sensational, mental or general phenomena, the moment they occur to him or her.

Q3. Venerable Sir, I believe you made very fast progress in your practice arousing one insight knowledge after another. Didn’t you?

No, I didn’t. I could not appreciate the practice 3-4 weeks after I had started because I did not yet exercise enough effort. Some of the yogis here, however, even though the practice is new to them, develop enough concentration and mindfulness after a week or so, to see impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality to some extent. For me, I could not make any remarkable progress in the practice even after a month or so, let alone 4 or 5 days. I was then still at zero progress in my practice. This is because my faith in the practice was not strong enough. I did not make enough effort. At this point, sceptical doubt or Viccikiccha, usually hinders the insight knowledge and Magga Phala from taking place. So it is very important to do away with such doubt. But I was wasting my time by mistaking the sceptical doubt for productive analysis.

I thought it was only a conventional or conceptual way of practice and not in the ultimate sense that one observes objects such as going, bending, stretching, etc. The Venerable Sayadawji taught me that way as a basic training. Perhaps, later would teach me how to distinguish between mind and body, etc. Later on, while continuing this practice, I spontaneously realised. ‘Wow! This is not just a basic training, but noting physical and mental behaviours, like going, bending, stretching, etc. are also intermediate advanced instructions, too. These are all I need to observe. Nothing else’.

Q4. Venerable Sir, what do we have to note when we start our practice? When going for example, are we supposed to note the mind and body involved?

‘Yatha pakathan….vipassana-bhiniveso’ ‘Vipassana stays with any obvious object’ it is said in the subcommentary on the Visuddhimagga. So, one is instructed to start his or her Vipassana by noting any obvious object, i.e. an object easy to note. You should not start with subtle or difficult objects thinking that you will be accomplishing the practice sooner than later. For example, when a student begins schooling, he should begin with easy lessons. He could not be given difficult ones. In the same way, you should start with the easiest observations. The Buddha teaches the easy way; ‘ when going’ for example, note ‘going’. That’s it.

Q5. Venerable Sir, is it possible to experience phenomena in an ultimate sense by merely observing ‘going’ for example, as going in a conceptual way?

There are 3 kinds of ‘I’. The first is the ‘I’ mistaken for a person or ego in terms of wrong view (ditthi). The ‘I’ taken as someone important in a sense of pride (māna), is the second one. And the last one is the ‘I’ used in a conversational sense. When we note going as going, the ‘I’ involved is the third kind, which was used even by the Buddha and Arahats, as it has nothing to do with ditthi and mana. So I instruct yogis to note in everyday language, every step they take as ’going.’

Although conventional language is used a yogi is bound to experience phenomena in an ultimate sense beyond the concepts when his concentration gets strong enough. When going, for example, at some point, he or she is bound to experience the intention to take a step, the stiffness, tension or motion involved, and the constant changes. He or she will not find solid form or shape, but the phenomena arising and passing away on their own accord. In due course of time, he or she will not only see objects to observe, but also the concurrent noting mind arising and passing away immediately. If you don’t believe it, just try it. I ensure you that if you follow my instructions, you will indeed experience it for yourself.

Q6. Venerable Sir, did you initiate the observation of ‘rising-falling’ of the abdomen when breathing?

No, I am not the one who initiated the observation of rising-falling. Actually it was the Buddha who did it, because he taught to observe vayo-dhatu, the air-element included in the 5 aggregates. The rising and falling is constituted of the air-element. Initially, some people questioned the observation of the rising and falling of the abdomen. However, encouraged by friends they tried later on, they appreciated so much that they even criticised the former nitpickers. I’m sure everyone who tries it, will appreciate it from his or her own experience, just like the taste of sugar which one can appreciate directly from one’s own experience.

Q7. Venerable Sir, in Vipassana practice is it necessary to label or name an object such as ‘rising–falling’ etc.?

Names, whether they are in technical term or in ordinary language, are all conceptual and not that important. What matters most is to be aware of the phenomena involved in an object like ‘rising-falling of the abdomen when breathing’. In reality, just being aware of an object without labelling at all, will serve the purpose.

Without labelling, however, it maybe difficult to be fully aware of an object precisely and accurately. Also it will not be easy for the yogi to report his or her experience to the teacher, or for the teacher to give advice to the yogi. That is the reason the yogi is instructed to label the object when he notes it. Even then it would be difficult to use technical terms for all objects a yogi encounters. That is why I instruct the yogi to use ordinary language like ‘rising, falling’ when he or she practises.

Q8. Venerable Sir, do you always encourage us to label an object?

No, not always. There are times when you find objects occurring to you so fast that you have no time to label them each. Then you will have to keep up with them by being merely aware of them moment to moment, without labelling. It is also possible to be aware of 4 or 5 or ten objects spontaneously, although you are able to label only one. Don’t worry about that. It also serves your purpose. If you try to label all the objects occurring, you are likely to get exhausted. The point is to be scrupulously aware of objects, i.e. in terms of their characteristics. In this case, you can also note objects through the six senses, moment to moment instead of noting routinely.

Q9. Venerable Sir, is there any disadvantage by not labeling a meditation object, like rising, falling, sitting, standing, doing, lying and so on?

Yes, of course, there is some disadvantage in not labeling an object: inaccurate concurrence of mind and meditative object, superficial awareness, energy reduction, and so on.

Q10. Venerable Sir, if noting ‘sitting, sitting’ when one is sitting, serves one’s purpose, why is one instructed to note ‘rising-falling’ when one is sitting?

Of course, it serves one’s purpose to note ‘sitting, sitting’ when one is sitting. But if one observes a single object for long, it would become so easy that he may lose balance from little energy and too much concentration. This would result in sloth and torpor and shallow and weak awareness. That is why one is instructed to observe ‘rising and falling’ as a main object when one is sitting.

Q11. Venerable Sir, how does a yogi keep the balance between concentration and energy by noting ‘rising and falling’?

Noting rising and falling demands neither too much concentration as it is not a monotonous kind of object, nor excessive enthusiasm as it is only two types of object to note. Thus the balance can be kept between concentration and energy.

Q12. Venerable Sir, what is the purpose of rotation of one hour sitting and one-hour walking in practice?

Too much walking tends to arouse more energy but less concentration. So one is scheduled to sit and walk alternately for an hour each. Thus, the balance is kept.

Q13. Venerable Sir, if one notes rising and falling will one be expected to be solely aware of the abdomen rising and falling?

Yes indeed, at first one is plainly aware of the rising and falling of abd itself. There is no problem in that. Enlightenment of ‘magga phala’ is not expected in the beginning. Even Nama-rupa-pariccheda-ñana (the first and foremost insight distinguishing between mind and body) cannot be gained. In the beginning of practice, one has to work to keep the hindrances (wandering thoughts) away by noting them closely. Only when the hindrances are kept away for quite a long time (Vikkhambhana) and the mind is free of them will a yogi start to feel the true phenomenon in the rising and falling of the abdomen, such as stiffness, vibration and so on, beyond the plain abdomen.

Q14. Venerable Sir, what is the yogi expected to be aware of when standing?

When standing just note continuously ‘standing, standing’. If it becomes monotonous just because it is a single object, then a prominent touching point should be added to it. Note as standing, touching, standing, touching, or note rising and falling of the abdomen instead.

Q15. Venerable Sir, what is the temperature element, or unpleasant sensation (dukkha) when a yogi is aware of cold or heat?

When a yogi is simply aware of the heat, that is the experience of temperature element. If he or she finds the heat uneasy or uncomfortable, that is experience of Dukkha. Similarly with cold wind or water, it can be temperature, or unpleasant sensation accordingly.

Q16. Venerable sir how does a yogi experience apo-dhātu, the water element?

Actually, the water element is untouchable, but a yogi can experience as wetness being connected with other elements. So when one feels tears, phlegm, saliva, sweat flowing down, the apo-dhātu, water element can be experienced as liquidity or wetness in any part of the body.

Q17. Venerable Sir, what does a yogi need to do to see the phenomena clearly?

At night, one cannot see things clearly. But if one uses a torchlight, things can be seen clearly in the spotlight. Similarly, concentration can be compared as the spotlight, through which one can see phenomena clearly: the manner of rising and falling tightness, movements, etc.

Q18. Venerable Sir, why do you instruct yogis to start their practice with noting ‘rising and falling’?

It will take time to develop concentration if you note an object too varied, or too subtle, while it can be aroused faster if you observe an obvious and limited object. That is why we instruct yogis to start their practice with watching the abdomen characterised by stiffness, pressure, vibration which are identical with vayo-dhatu, the air-element.

Q19. Venerable Sir, are there only two objects to note, ‘rising and falling?

Yes, one is instructed to note initially only two objects, ‘rising and falling’. He is however instructed to note thoughts also if they occur, and then to go back to the main object. Similarly with pain. He should go back to the main object when the pain fades away or after a moderate amount of time even if the pain persists. The same is true with bending and stretching of limbs, or changing postures.

He should note each and every activity or behaviour involved in it, and then go back to the main object. If one sees or hears something predominant, one must note it as it is, that is as seeing, as hearing and so on. After noting them 3 or 4 times, one must go back to the main object with full energy.

Q20. Venerable Sir, is it possible to bring about insight knowledge by observing the objects like going or ‘right step, left step’ which are known in common sense to everybody?

You know the Ana-panna, the observation of in and out breath. The object inhalation and exhalation seems not to be observed as it’s known by common sense to all. But no one dares to criticize like that. In the same way, it makes no sense if you criticize that mindfulness, concentration and insight knowledge cannot be developed by noting ‘right, left’ which is compared with military training. Military training is taken for the purpose of sport or health while the noting is used to develop mindfulness, concentration and insight knowledge. If you reject this part of the practice, that will mean you are rejecting the teaching of the Buddha.

Q21. Venerable Sir, what does it mean by the word ‘noting’?

The word ‘noting’ means to pay attention to a meditative object with the purpose to be aware of phenomena that are really happening from moment to moment.

Q22. Venerable Sir, for what purpose do you instruct us to act very slowly?

It is only when you act slowly that your concentration, mindfulness and insight knowledge can keep up with the objects. That is the reason why you have to start the practice by doing everything slowly and mindfully. Indeed in the beginning, if you do things fast, your mindfulness or awareness cannot follow.

Q23. Venerable Sir, is there any kind of pain or discomfort which belongs to the practice itself? If so how do we have to deal with it?

Yes, you may experience several kinds of unpleasant sensations like itchiness, heat, pain, ache, heaviness, stiffness and so on when your concentration becomes strong. They tend to disappear once you stop practice. But they may reappear if you resume your practice. Then that is surely not a disease or illness, but just unpleasant sensation which belongs to the practice. Don’t worry if you keep on noting, eventually it will fade away.

Q24. Venerable Sir, what are we supposed to note when the ‘rising and falling’ fades away?

When the rising and falling fades away, you are supposed to note ‘sitting, touching’, ‘lying, touching’. You can change touching points. For example, you note, ‘sitting, touching’ paying attention to the touch point on the right foot, and noting ‘sitting, touching’, focusing on the touching point on the left foot. Thus you can shift your attention from one touch point to another. Or you can shift your attention to four, five or six touch points alternately.

Q25. Venerable Sir, which touching point should we note among others?

Any touching point is possible to note. If you note a touching on one buttock as ‘touching, touching’ that is correct: note it on one’s knees as ‘touching touching’ that is correct; note it on one’s hand as ‘touching touching’ that is correct; note it on one’s head as ‘touching, touching’, that is correct; note in-and-out breath as ‘touching, touching’ that is correct; note it in one’s intestine or liver as ‘touching, touching’ that is correct; note it on one’s abdomen as ‘touching, touching’ that is correct.

Q26. Venerable Sir, should we rather observe stiffness, motion or movement when walking if we are supposed to be aware of the characteristics?

The Buddha said ‘be aware of going when going’. When we walk, the air-element prevails which is experience as pressure or stiffness in terms of its function. The Buddha, however did not instruct us to note it as ‘pressure’, ‘stiffness’, ‘movement’, ‘motion’ and ‘pushing’.

The Buddha’s actual instruction is ‘Be aware of going, when going’. That’s all. The reason is he wanted to give the easy and understandable way. Noting in conventional language is quite familiar to everyone, of course.

Q27. Venerable Sir, would it not be harmful to one’s health if one practised too intensively?

It is said in the pali texts: “kaye ca jivite ca anapekkhatam upatthapeti = with no regards to one’s life and limbs.” This encourages one to practice with heroic effort, even to sacrifice one’s life and limbs. One may think how horrible the practice is! In fact, no one has died from intensive practice and it is not harmful to one’s health. Actually there are many testimonies that some people have been cured of chronic diseases by practising meditation.

Q28. Venerable Sir, can you mention suitable postures of sitting?

There are 3 postures of crossed legged sitting: the first is the sitting with both soles facing up like the Buddha statue does; The other is with one’s calves kept parallel or on each other; and the third is the way Myanmar women do, with their knee folded underneath which is called addha-palanka (half crossed leg sitting). Any posture is suitable. For women they can sit the way they like, unless in public. The point is to be able to sit for a long time, so that concentration will get a chance to take place, develop eventually, resulting in insight knowledge.

Q29. Venerable Sir, do you advise yogis not to speak at all during the practice?

No, I don’t. It is not advisable to do so. It would be wise however not to speak of anything frivolous or unnecessary. One should speak of things necessary, beneficial or doctrinal and in moderation. Thus, both worldly and spiritual progress can be made.

Q30. Venerable Sir, is it possible to note an object a moment after it takes place?

No, of course not. Even though you can buy something on credit and pay for it later, no credit is given in the case of Vipassana. So you must note an object the moment it takes place, lest you become attached to it.

Q31. Venerable Sir, what is a yogi expected to be aware of when sitting or lying?

When sitting, just note ‘sitting, sitting’ continuously. If it is boring and monotonous, since it is a single object, then a prominent touching point should be added to it, noting ‘sitting, touching, sitting, touching’. Or you can note ‘rising and falling’ of the abdomen instead focusing on the sensation of the air-element characterized by stiffness, movement. Similarly with lying down.

Q32. Venerable Sir, what should a yogi do, if or when he or she finds the observation of rising and falling too easy or a gap noticeable between them?

A yogi, adding to the posture to the rising and falling’ should note three objects; ‘rising, falling, sitting; rising, falling, sitting’. He or she must be aware of the sitting in the same manner as ‘rising and falling’. Even then if a gap is found in between, note four objects by adding a prominent touching point to it, ‘ rising , falling, sitting, touching’. When lying down note in similar way, ‘ rising , falling, lying, touching’ or ‘ rising , lying, falling, lying’

Q33. Venerable Sir, does age make a difference in one’s practice?

Yes, there is some differences between the old and the young. In order to reach a certain level of insight knowledge, one man, for example at the age of 20 or 30 may take about a month. Another in his 60s or 70s may take about 2 or 3 months. It is because the young are physically healthier, mentally active and less worried than the old. Of course the older they get, the sicklier they become. The old have weaker memory and understanding and stronger ‘family’ commitment and worries.

As for a monk it would be great if he could practise soon after his ordination. Because as a newly ordained monk he is still young and has strong faith the practice, and his moral conduct is still flawless. So in my opinion, however important his study is, a monk should practise soon after his ordination, for 3 months at least. There are some monks who unfortunately passed away before they could practise. What a pity!

Q34. Venerable Sir, does our concentration and awareness make a difference in our experience of pain?

When your concentration and awareness are not that strong you will find the pain increasing while noting pain, stiffness or heat. But you should keep on noting it with patience and persistence. They often fade away when concentration and awareness are strong enough. Sometimes, when you are noting it, you may find it disappears on the spot. Such type of pain may no longer come back.

Q35. Venerable Sir, does one’s gender make a difference in making faster progress in practice?

I often find that women work harder along with strong faith in their teacher and his guidance. As a result they develop concentration sooner rather than later. This in turn arouses insight knowledge faster. Thus, I often find women make faster progress in practice than men do. I also found some women who wasted their time with their wandering thoughts and made no progress. There are several reasons why they make little or no progress, such as laziness, old age, poor health and so on. Of course there are also men and monks who make fast progress in their practice when following the instruction strictly.

Q36. Venerable Sir, is it true that for learned persons, their knowledge forms an obstacle to the progress in their practice?

No it is not suitable to say so. It is impossible that one’s knowledge is an obstacle to the practice. As you may know, a highly learned monk called Potthila became an Arahat sooner rather than later by practising under the guidance of a young novice. In view of this, it is clear that one’s knowledge cannot be an obstruction to the progress in the practice.

As a matter of fact, the real obstacles are pride in one’s education or knowledge, little or no faith in the practice, sceptical doubt, failure to follow strictly the guidance of the teacher, lack of heroic effort and so on. All these are real obstacles to the development of concentration and insight knowledge.

Q37. Venerable Sir, is there any difference between meditator and non-meditator when they face with a painful illness?

Yes, of course. Non-Meditator can only remember to take precepts, to listen to the Paritta chanting, to donate robes or food and so on. What a pity, they can only perform charity and morality. As for meditators they can perform high-level practice until they become enlightened by noting closely their discomfort itself moment to moment.

Q38. Venerable Sir, should we insist on practice without spiritual aptitude (parami) strong enough for Magga, Phala enlightenment?

If you do not practise, your spiritual aptitude (parami) can, by no means, be formed. In other words even if your parami is fully accumulated, you cannot be enlightened without practice. On the other hand, if you practise, your parami will be formed, which will help you experience Nibbana sooner. If your parami is fully developed you will be enlightened in this very life. Or it will serve at least, as a seed for enlightenment in the future.

Q39. Venerable Sir, is it realization of impermanence when we see, for example, a pot break down or of suffering when we have a pain caused by a thorn in our flesh?

Sometimes you discern impermanence when you find a pot break down, or suffering when you have a pain caused by a thorn in your flesh. That is actually conventional knowledge of impermanence, which cannot help you to realise egolessness in an ultimate sense.

On the other hand, real realisation of impermanence takes place when you see present phenomena arising and passing away, and that of suffering when you see them torture by the flux. Only then, can you realise the egolessness in an ultimate sense.

Q40. Venerable Sir, can you describe how we are supposed to realise egolessness in an ultimate sense?

Some believe that realisation of egolessness takes place if or when you lose your sense of body shape or form by visualising physical body as particles. Actually it is not the realisation of egolessness that you merely lose the sense of solidity or form of the body by practising whatever way. It is because you are clearly experiencing the knowing mind and identifying with ‘I’ or ego. This is similar to the celestial beings called arupa-brahma who have no physical body but still mistake their mind for ‘I ‘ or ego. So the mere loss of sense of solid form cannot mean realization of egolessness.

Q41. Venerable Sir, is it true that by realising impermanence one is supposed to spontaneously appreciate suffering and egolessness?

Yes indeed. Whatever is impermanent is regarded as suffering and, at the same time, egolessneess. Actually, they are in an ultimate sense the 5 aggregates constituted of mental and physical phenomena although they have different names.

Q42. Venerable Sir, is it not too soon for one to describe his or her progress of vipassana within a month or so?

No it is not too soon because the Buddha claimed that his method is excellent enough to help one to become anagami or arahat even within a week. So if someone states that it is impossible to bring about enlightenment within a month, no matter how intensively a yogi practises, then he is blemishing the Buddha’s teaching and hindering people from practice.

Q43. Venerable Sir, what types of difficulties have you encountered in your teaching of vipassana?

In 1939 I started teaching Satipathana vipassana in my native place, Mahasi monastery, Seikkhun village, Shwebo township. At that time, the abbot from the adjacent monastery was not happy with my teaching. But he dared not condemn it openly because he knew I was highly learned. So he did it in my absence only. There were some monks and lay people who supported him. However I never acted in response but kept on teaching as usual, whatever condemnation they made, nothing could shake or waver me because I was teaching through my own experience. Later more and more people began to prove my teaching to be true from their own direct experience.

Later the monk who had condemn my teaching, had an affair with a woman and was disrobed within a few years. He passed away 4 or 5 years later.

Again, when I started teaching in Yangon, one of the newspapers kept on condemning my teaching for some time. But I never acted in response. And then a book entitled ‘The ladder to pure land’ apishly criticised my teaching. Moreover, there was a journal that continually expressed articles condemning my teachings. I did nothing to respond to them considering that the dhamma doctrine was Buddha’s, not mine. So those who appreciate my teaching would come to me. Otherwise they went to other teachers. Again, I kept on teaching as usual, found no failures but only success in my spiritual career year after year.

I opened this Yangon Meditation centre with 25 yogis in the year 1950. Now, in the summer time there are about one thousand yogis practising here in this centre. Even in the winter, when usually fewer yogis practise, there are some two hundred yogis practising in the centre. Indeed,that indicates no failure but success.

Q44. Venerable Sir, how much time should we spend at the dining table?

If or when you have your meal alone, and can note precisely and accurately you may have fifty or sixty moments of noting within a single morsel. Thus it would take about an hour or so to finish your meal. But when you are eating in a group, it is impossible to note in that matter. You should determine to note as much as possible.

Q45. Venerable Sir, how much long is it likely to take a yogi to reach the certain level of insight called Udaya-bhaya-ñana (the insight into arising and passing away of phenomena)?

Most people, if they work hard may take a week or so to attain this insight knowledge. However, a few exceptional people, may be one or two in a hundred, can accomplish it within three or four days. But there are some people who have to take ten to fifteen days to reach this insight because of insufficient effort or weak mental faculty. Also there are some people who cannot reach to even after a month or so because of some deficiency. Anyway, a yogi is normally expected to accomplish this insight within a week or so if he or she works diligently.

Q46. Venerable Sir, is it necessary to accept nothing but practical experience?

It is not practical for you to accept only practical experience. In other words, there is no reason not to believe in non-empirical reality. Although you cannot see something with your naked eyes, it maybe seen through a microscope or telescope. Although you have never been to some parts of the world, it is reasonable for you to believe in what is said of it by those who have been there. Of course, we have to accept the discoveries of astronauts although we have never been to outer space.

The law of dhamma is very subtle and delicate. The reason one may not experience it is probably because of deficiency in spiritual talent and effort or obstructions like Kamma, Kilesa, Vipaka, Vittikama and Ariyupavada. Most often, however, insight knowledge is not realised due to a weakness in one’s effort and concentration. So if you don’t practise as seriously as others do, you cannot expect to realise something special as others do.

Q47. Venerable Sir, do some people become enlightened while merely listening to a dhamma talk?

No, it was not by listening to the dhamma talk that some were enlightened. In order to attain magga phala enlightenments, awareness of body, feeling, mind or general phenomena is essential.

Q48. Venerable Sir, why could Jhanna-achievers not discover mind and body to be impermanent etc. despite their attainment of Jhanna?

Because they do not observe mental and physical phenomena which really prevail every moment they go, stand, sit see, hear, and so on, they cannot discover mind and body to be impermanent etc.

Q49. Venerable Sir, is it true that Magga phala cannot be realised in this day and age however hard we work?

Those who have such opinion will fail to practise for sure, let alone the attainment of Magga and Phala. That view is simply an obstruction to the holy path.

Q50. Venerable Sir, is it possible for us to attain Magga, Phala in these days?

Why not? Suppose you have a formula for a drug, then you can make medicine and take it to get a cure for your disease. In the same way, the teaching of the Buddha, like a formula is present and you also have spiritual aptitude, so all you need to do it put it into practice. You will sure attain Magga and Phala. Keep it in your mind. Moreover no Pali canon says it is impossible to be enlightened nowadays. In fact they even say that one can become an Arahat with Triple Occult(Te-Vijja) in these days. Even the commentary on Vinaya says, to a minimum extent, that one can become Anagami, the third noble one.

The best reference to cite here is ‘Ime ca subhadda bhikku sama vihareyyum, asunno loko arahentehi assa’. ’Oh, Subhadda,’ said the Buddha, ‘as long as there are monks who practise properly, this world will never be empty of arahats’. We can find in these days too, those who practise in a proper way under good guidance. So I am sure the world is not empty, even now, of noble persons including arahats.

Q51. Venerable Sir, what do we have to do to realise the impermanence of mind and body?

If you watch mind and body moment to moment, you are bound to experience the true characteristics of phenomena, and to see them arise and then vanish immediately.

Q52. Venerable Sir, what is the maximum amount of “Puñña” or merit that can be accumulated by practising Vipassana meditation?

One moment of noting is available in each second. Thus 60 moments in a minute, 3600 in an hour, 72000 in a day except for the four hours of sleeping. That is a huge pile of merit.

Q53. Venerable sir, how long does it take a yogi to accomplish his or her progress of Vipassana insights?

It depends. Only a few people can describe their accomplishment of insight knowledge within a week or so, while most people usually mention their complete set of insight knowledge after one and a half months or two. There are however, some people who may take three to four months to accomplish it. If however, one practises seriously as instructed, he or she is likely to describe his or her achievement within a month or so. That’s why a yogi is typically encouraged here to practise for at least a month.

Q54. Venerable Sir, can you describe what one’s experience if magga-phala enlightenment is like?

One’s mental state changes remarkably and abruptly when he or she realizes magga-phala enlightenment. He or she will feel as if he or she were newly born, his or her faith and confidence distinctly flourish resulting in strong rapture, ecstasy and great happiness. Sometimes these mental states prevailed so much that he or she cannot penetrate objects like before, even though he or she focus attention on them. Hours or days later however, such mental states tend to be mild and he or she can do well in the practice again. For some people, they may feel relaxed, or apparently unwilling to practise or seemingly satisfied with what they have just achieved probably because they might not intend to achieve higher.

Q55. Venerable Sir, can you describe someone, who you believe, achieved Nibbana?

Yes, I can. Among those who first practised under my guidance, my cousin called U Phochon was impressive. When he reached the stage of bhanga-ñāna, he started to find trees or people fluxing. He thought something was wrong with his view because he had learned from a teacher that things like tree, log, post, stone, human body etc. last for a due period, while physical phenomena caused by one’s kamma or mind passed away immediately after they arose. On the contrary, he saw at that time, things flux.

So he came and asked me what was wrong with his view. I encouraged him saying that nothing was wrong with his view but it was bhanga-ñāna, which helped him to see things passing away immediately. After a few days he described his experience of Nibbana, the cessation of mind and body.

Q56. Venerable Sir, what are the descriptions of Nibbāna made by those who, you believe, have attained it?

Some descriptions of Nibbāna made by those who, I believed realised it, are as follows:

  • I found objects and noting mind cease abruptly.
  • I discovered that objects and noting mind were cut off like a creeper chopped down.
  • I saw objects and noting mind fall down immediately like a heavy burden unloaded.
  • I perceived objects and noting mind drop down as if I lost my hold on them
  • I felt as if I escaped from objects and noting mind.
  • I found out that objects and noting mind ceased abruptly like a candle light blown out.
  • I felt as if I got out of the objects and noting mind, like coming into the light out of darkness.
  • I felt that I escaped the objects and noting mind, as if I got into clarity from obscurity.
  • I found both objects and noting mind submerged as if they were to sink into the water.
  • I discovered that both objects and noting mind stopped suddenly like a sprinter who was pushed back from the front.
  • I found both objects and noting mind disappeared suddenly.

Q57. Venerable sir, by allowing a yogi to listen to the talk on the progress of insights, are you confirming that he or she is a Sothapana (who has reached the first stage of enlightenment)?

No, not at all. We never make judgements of one’s spiritual status. When we are sure, however, that a yogi is good enough at practice, we allow him or her to listen to the talk given by one of the meditation teachers, expounding on how the insight knowledge advances up to the enlightenment of magga and phala. The purpose is to help a yogi to be able to decide his or her spiritual level, by checking his or her own experience with the talk given. Moreover, this will offer him or her a chance to enjoy his or her achievement and give encouragement to work harder for further development. It is not for us to decide what level of enlightenment he or she has attained. So it is a misunderstanding that we confirm that a yogi is Sotāpanna by allowing him or her to listen to that talk.

Q58. Venerable sir, some say it is unreasonable that a meditation teacher is unable to confirm that so and so yogi, among his students becomes Sotāpanna, is that true?

Yes, it may seem unreasonable from their point of view, but it is very appropriate to Sāsana tradition that a meditation teacher is not able to confirm that so and so, among his yogis become Sotapanna. The Buddha is the only one in this position to confirm someone’s enlightenment such as sotāpanna, sakadāgāmi, anā-gami or arahat.. Even Venerable Sariputra never did it that way. So we never do this way either. This is the appropriate way in the Sāsana tradition.

Q59. Venerable Sir, how many people do you believe to be enlightened under your guidance?

I believe there are thousands of people who have reached within a week, the insight knowledge distinguishing between mind and body from one’s own experience by practising strictly as instructed and arousing strong concentration. And there are also thousands of those who experienced mind and body interacting and constantly changing; ie. cause and effect, and impermanence, suffering and egolessness of the phenomena. And also there are thousands of people who are believed to accomplish magga and phala enlightenment after they have developed mature insight knowledge by observing mind and body moment to moment.

Q60. Venerable Sir, what is a yogi expected to be aware of, when he or she is walking, noting ‘right foot, left foot,’ or ‘lifting, pushing, and dropping?’

The sensation in the foot or body of a yogi is what he or she is to be aware of. In technical terms, vayo-dhatu, the air-element characterised by stiffness, pressure, motion or vibration; tejo-dhatu, the fire element characterised by temperature; cold, warm or hot; pathavi-dhatu, the earth element characterised by hardness, softness or smoothness. But, especially vayo-dhatu is prominent to observe most of the time.


Source: Fundamentals of Vipassana Meditation by Mahasi Sayadaw (Edited by Sayadaw U Silananda)