Date: Fri, Sept. 16, 2005
Subject: Zen and Vipassana
Having just finished two ten day courses at a Goenka retreat center in Thailand, I had some thoughts to share. It is interesting how, after years of practice, memories of the past resonate.
Maybe the Buddha was right about building up merit, or maybe just karma or whatever, but I was transported back to my days at the Zen Center and Tassajara.
Having been in Thailand for over a year now, I have been exposed to several different schools of Vipassana practice, and of course have also practiced Zen.
One of the biggest questions is whether there is a difference between Mahayana Zen and Theravada Buddhism. While there are differences, I think there are also many similarities.
One thing for sure though for me is that my having taken time to concentrate on practice has helped alot. One can ask why I didn’t just go back to a monastery, like Tassajara, and then things get a little more complicated. Basically, it’s easier for me to practise in Asia.
In the teaching of Suzuki Roshi, several of his main ideas came back to me
First, seeing things as they “is”
Second, Nothing Special
Third, No attainment.
At the Goenka retreat, in his video talks, (he usually doesn’t attend the “short” ten day retreats, instead leading 20 day or longer retreats) he often referred to “things as they are, not as we would like them to be.” So there is a great parallel there.
He told a humorous story about a very smart businessman in Burma who attended a retreat with his teacher, U Ba Khin, years ago.
At the U Ba Khin Center, which I visited for 8 days, there are individual meditation cells. The basic practice in a nutshell, is bare attention to one’s actual bodily sensation experience. So this fellow is sitting in the cell, and U Ba Khin pays a visit. So was the student experiencing anything?
As a Hindu, he had ingrained in his mind visions of Vishnu or bright lights or whatever. Instead, he was down to his underclothes because it was so hot and stuffy (and those cells ARE hot and stuffy!)
No, he didn’t experience anything. So U Ba Khin said, but look at you, aren’t you hot?
Hot? Hot? You call that an experience? What kind of fool am I to think of that as an “experience”?
“When it’s hot, die of heat, when cold, die of cold”
Nothing special what you see before you is IT. It’s just hot.
In terms of the practice, for the first three days, the course emphasizes close attention first to the air movement in nostrils, then to the air passing over the upper lip, then just to the bare sensation of the upper lip itself.
This method eschews breath counting or use of any thought form to focus the mind.
In the following days, the practice shifts to mindfulness of body sensations.
Many of you Zen Center students may remember Dick Baker’s story about the 4th day of Sesshin, where Suzuki Roshi would “forget”: to ring the bell, and leave him and Graham Petchy to suffer for two or more hours.
Well, in the Goenka course, on the fourth day, Vipassana Day, he shifts from mindfulness of breathing, Anapanasati, to a guided tour of the body where the student is coached to start at the top of the head and and feel whatever sensation occurs, down to the tips of the toes.
The whole “tour” takes two hours. So there I was, sitting cross legged for two hours on the fourth day of a retreat that starts at 4 AM and ends at 9PM.
With my old worn out knees, there really is not much that can prepare you for that Direct Experience of reality. But at the end of the session, Goenka makes the remark, “This is Reality” I think those are the same exact words Richard Baker quoted Suzuki Roshi saying during his 4th day ordeal.
But it sure brought back memories of those times past.
Baker Roshi once told me to breathe through my arms and legs, and in a follow up Dokusan, I told him I gave up because I couldn’t. He got exasperated–and justifiably so. So pass my apology on to him.
Where the Goenka/ U Ba Khin method differs dramatically from my Zen Center days, is that he is often starting off the hour or more long periods (OK to move except for three one hour periods during the day), with the instructions repeated.
I remember how much I wiggled and writhed in my sesshins. So there you have it. My attainment–30 years of practice and painful legs–but I don’t wiggle and wriggle anymore–as long as it isn’t more than an hour or so.
I think Soto Zen really misses the boat, though, by not constantly reiterating the basic instructions, and then providing Dokusan so little. Suzuki Roshi was right when he said you could waste years sitting on your black cushion. But without constant reminders, it is easy to get lost.
One of the other similarities between that technique and Soto Shikantaza is the active awareness of the body. Shikantaza, just sitting with wholeheartedness, seems like total body awareness. As Linchi put it:
“In the lump of red flesh, there is the true man of no rank, S/he is constantly going in and out through the gates of your senses.
Those who have not witnessed this, Look, Look!”
In the retreat, Goenka was constantly reminding the students in the taped instructions, “observe, Just Observe”. He also tells people that that they will start experiencing certain body sensations, and to observe them with equanimity, which he says is the way to develop wisdom–Prajna, or in Pali, Panya.
This is a departure from my own experience in Zen which is much less specific about what one might experience, especially on a physical basis. Also, there is much more emphasis on attention to body sensation, advising the student to over look or turn the attention back to the body. This turned out to be very valuable advice for me.
One other thing that came out of the retreat is the emphasis on equanimous observation.
I think in Zen there is a struggle between the Soto “non attainment” side, which can lead to spaced out “dead wood” sitting, or the Rinzai “attainment” way that tries to punch through to Kensho. While in later years, I know that the Diamond Sangha warned people not to fall into that trap, it was an element in years past. And I remember one student in John Tarrants group talking of “drilling into Mu”.
Which is not to say that the bare attention of the U Ba Khin/Goenka style does not entail more and more detailed and subtle attention to the physical sensations. The whole point is to become more sensitive to subtle sensation.
One of the noteworthy phenomena in Thailand is that there is a fair degree of sectarian rivalry. You can talk with lots of people who assure you that their method is “really the best” and “just the way the Buddha taught it”
The Mahasi Sayadaw style, entails the mental verbal noting of phenomena. The rising and falling of the midsection of the body during breathing has many strong advocates. One nice thing about it is that there are long walking periods, so the body can recover from the 1 hour long sittings. It also instructs the student to identify the phenomena as they arise with a word, else the mind wanders. Whereas the U Ba Khin method says just the opposite, go back to focussing on the physical sensation.
I once asked a monk about this point, saying that you can’t really experience something if you are naming it, since the thought and the phenomenon are actually two different things.
But the reason as I understand it is that by naming a particular condition, one kind of stops it from its unconscious habit pattern. The whole point of practice, whether Theravada or Zen is to identify the conditions and break their hold on the mind/body.
As Chao Chou says, to “Cut off the Mind Road”. Whatever works, even if the method differs.
My observation is that the absolutely best method is the one that works–for the individual. But that may take a lot of experimentation and, unfortunately, floundering.
Well. as my teacher Nelson Foster says, it’s a 10,000 year project.
In addition to the Mahasi Sayadaw and Goenka/U Ba Khin way practiced in Thailand, a very common, popular form of practice is that of mentally noting “Bhuu” on the in-breath, and “tho”, on the out breath. This while noting the air going into the nasal passage and out again.
This uses the sensation of air as well as the mental noting (Bhutto is the pronunciation of Buddha in Thailand) to concentrate the mind. However, once a student gains some experience in this, the next step is some form of body scanning similar, I think to that of the U Ba Khin/Goenka method. In fact, several Vipassana schools use similar techniques, and Theravada texts like the Visuddhi Magga refer to the meditation on the 32 part of the body.
While a discussion of how all this relates to Zen and Koans will have to wait for a later time, I observed that a number of Koans came up for me especially in the recent retreat.
“Ordinary Mind is the Way”
“The real way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing”
This seems to refer to the pure observation without evaluation of body /mind phenomena.
And one of my favorites, the True Man of No rank, mentioned earlier, point towards a confluence of understanding. Only my opinion, but Nirvana, Satori and Nibbana are probably the same. I will confirm that point later in this life or in a future incarnation.
In any case, I found the Goenka course quite useful; however, as it is sometimes said, “There is always something (wrong).” I wanted to stay for a longer time. I have spent as much as a month in one temple or another during my stay, kind of like doing solo sesshin.
Finding the right combination of conditions has been an issue all along, though, and why I came to Asia in the first place. Since the Goenka organization discourages anything beyond the 10 day retreats, unless one shows a list of “qualifications”, I had decided to go to stay at U Ba Khin’s place in Myanmar. They have similar tendencies, but I was given permission to do a self retreat for up to 20 days at a time. A very adequate approach. And since I am practicing as a layperson, not wearing my Zen priest clothes, it might well do.
But since it is in Rangoon which is rather noisy, when I heard of a forest temple in Myanmar, that uses the same method, I decided to give that a try. They allow longer stays. My current plan is to go for three months and see how it goes. That will be from early October to early January.
I hope that this shop talk is interesting if not useful.
In closing, I wish all the people of New Orleans may be free from their difficulties, and likewise, I wish that America and the world be free of war and calamity, that all beings be liberated from both internal and external oppression.
“A friend of mine asked me, where has he been, where is he now. I said he’d been set free, he said he’d just let go, shares a little joke with the world” – Jefferson Airplane, Bodhisattvas
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” – Bob Marley, Bodhisattva
“Life and Death is a grave matter, all things pass quickly away, each of you must be completely alert, never neglectful, never indulgent.” Buddha’s last words
First published at www.cuke.com