U Pandita’s last 60-day retreat

The last six Winters I participated in the annual 60-day Special Retreats for foreigners, until 2016 conducted by Sayadaw U Pandita in Hse Mine Gon Forest Center in Bago, about 45 miles from Yangon. There were always about 120 participants, three quarters of which were Asians. I witnessed a remarkable growth in the number of Chinese practitioners: in the long run good news for Tibetan people, I suppose.

One of the yogi’s I met there was American journalist and performer Alan Clements. He has known U Pandita since 1979. After the 2015-16 Special Retreat, in February, he spoke with him for ten hours about Burma’s future. The talks have been filmed and a book has been released in 2019. Here Alan Clements expresses what Sayadaw U Pandita means to him.

Although the news of Sayadaw U Pandita’s passing away was heartbreaking to me, I am even more grateful and happy for having chosen to witness his last four Special Retreats. Below I offer a concise report of the impact of my very last retreat with Sayadawgyi.

Back to the roots

I practice Dhamma since 1980. As I experienced immediately there-and-then the good results of the method my first teachers taught me, this particular method – Vipassana according to Mahasi Sayadaw – has always been the one and only for me. However, my practice has suffered from stagnation for many years. That was not caused by the method, but by the way I dealt with social factors: my teachers did not have too much scruples with elementary morality, and thereby created a culture of fear among their yogi’s. In such an atmosphere I hanged my head too much to other people. That is a risk we run in a country like the Netherlands – in spite of today’s globalization an outlying district, where the Buddha’s Dhamma is finding soil only 25 centuries after its first proclamation. In such relative isolation we easily tend to think that our teacher is a genius and that all of us together already know all about it. However, only when I had enough courage to follow elementary inclinations and a strong wish to go back to the roots, in 2007, I could bring a new development in my practice.

The right attitude to practice

It is sometimes thought that Sayadaw U Pandita proclaimed excessive ambition or even violence (towards thoughts, emotions or hindrances) in meditation. A big misunderstanding. What are the facts?

We need more than ordinary awareness, more than looking in a common way. U Pandita: ‘We need a way of looking with ardent effort (viriya) and accurate aiming (vitakka). Therefore we need a desire to practice. And such a desire will be only there if there is confidence that this practice will make us a better human being.’ U Pandita emphatically did not ask for confidence in the Buddha or in him, or in other teachers as people, but for confidence in the instructions, a confidence which can be based on a theoretically accepting of impermanence. ‘Effort and aiming at the moment of arising, that’s the yogi’s only job.’ (See: Sharpening The Dull Mind)

In my first retreat, 2012-13, during a few weeks I was in a kind of shock because of this instruction. Wasn’t this totally different from what I had learned before? There were feelings of alienation. However, once I came to experience some results, it became clear that I was actually going for something and not against.

‘Energy (viriya) and aiming (vitakka) to the object, whether physical basic object or predominant other object, make the mind warm, fresh, alert, soft, malleable and workable, instead of shrunken, contracted, cold, unmanagable, not pliable, dull, sleepy or slack.’

Sometimes instead of aiming U Pandita used the word pushing, with a simile from football. ‘When a team has lost the ball, what do the players have to do? Pressing, as it is called today.’ Of course this has nothing to do with violence, which only makes you lose your own focus. Pressing is in a clever way going there where you give your opponent a problem to keep ball possession, in order to get the ball again yourself. Or, another example: look how young children are learning to sit or stand. What an effort they have, what a perseverance!

Sincerity (suju) is also important. U Pandita: ‘Nowadays there are many who pretend to be without any faults, or to have qualities they actually don’t have. Dare to admit to your individual teacher that you are not able to do something. Can we have effort? Or not? Can we label? And if so, how do we label? Or aren’t we able to do so? Can we observe? Or not? Do we see something? Yes? What do we see? Form, position or specific nature? Concept or reality? Or don’t we see anything?’

There are three levels of continuous effort to be with the arising object. There is preliminary effort, thanks to which – among other things – we have left our family and work and have undertaken the long journey to a meditation teacher. At some point boredom arises, that is quite common. Or laziness – that is also normal, because it is the biggest hindrance to the beginner yogi. These are natural phenomena. Then a stronger effort is needed, called liberating effort, as well as respect and meticulous care. This brings sati, this brings samadhi. And that brings persistent energy, effortless effort. A marathon runner recognises this. Every serious sports(wo)man recognises this. Every supporter of a serious sports(wo)man recognises this. It simply cannot be denied.

Before knowledge arises, there will be clarity. Let the mind fall upon, rub against the object (vicara). Then it is pure. Rapture, calmness and happiness arise. Then there is no longer need for external motivation. This is the first Vipassana jhana. ‘Then you are called a true yogi.’

There is no need for mindfulness to be deliberately developed. It will come as a result. It protects the mind against defilements and brings security. A mind arises which is free from suppression by greed and hatred and which is peaceful. Then concentration arises as a result, no need to be developed specially. No more worrying, no mind flying everywhere. This is the purity then acquired. Starting with object after object. This preliminary work is necessary and essential.

Hindrances are killers. Can you see them in their specific nature? They are natural phenomena, no persons, but killing, destructing forces. Do not look upon them, do not hug them, but develop energy to be able to see not only their arising, but also their passing away. That is their general nature. Thoughts are not the enemy.

With or without a teacher?

Do I need a teacher, some people ask themselves. This is not strange when one had some frustrating experiences before. Or when one’s frame of reference with regard to teachers is limited. But one can find out for oneself if this doubt is unbiased or has a root cause within oneself. (Already in 1996 U Pandita made some very interesting remarks about how to recognise a good teacher.)

I myself had a long period without a teacher. In my heart I had taken leave from one of my teachers for a long time, but for years I didn’t have the guts to quit the yogi community and instead to go to Burma for some longer retreat. It took a long time before I found a teacher again. I compare meditation with sport. I do not know anyone in sports, no matter talent or ambition, who works without a trainer.

Some people claim to have developed an own method, after meeting one or two or three or ten other ones. In the past Special Retreat after about three weeks U Pandita told that a yogi had quitted because now he knew the method. ‘What a pity. Then it just begins!’

The Buddha-to-be always went all the way with one single method. Only when he found out there should be more, he started another practice. U Pandita claimed very strongly that this Mahasi method can lead to the first stage of holiness In This Very Life.

I was struck that U Pandita literally presented himself in the opening ceremony as a relative, and not as a teacher at distance. I found him warmer and more basic than ever before.

More peace in the world

1. Morality

‘We do not practice meditation to gain admiration from anyone. Rather, we practice to contribute to peace in the world.’ This is the opening sentence in ‘In This Very Life ’ (1992). And still the world is not going well, said U Pandita. Again he was very inspiring about it.
Morality is the foundation of our practice. In U Pandita’s vision morality is not a number of precepts given by the Buddha. Morality transcends the Buddha’s teaching and is a general, basic sense of humanity: don’t treat others in ways you wouldn’t like to be treated yourself. This principle can be found in Jewish Thora, in the Christian maxim ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself’, and in Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative, the foundation of liberty-equality-fraternity of the French Revolution, which is a Western ideal until today.

U Pandita says that today only 25% of world population are living according to this morality. ‘Imagine how much more peaceful the world would be when this would be 50%.’ Without speaking about meditation in this regard. In his motherland Burma (Myanmar), where Nobel Peace Prize winner and de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi was one of his students, he sees the same. Partly because of fifty years of misgovernment nowadays only 25% of Burma’s Buddhists are living with the five training rules. ‘When we will not be able to change this, Buddhism will fully disappear from Burma within 50 to 100 years.’

2. More focus on EQ, less on IQ

Sayadaw U Pandita lays a strong responsibility with parents in regard to their children. According to him during the last decades parents focused too much on IQ (intelligence quotient) instead of EQ (emotional intelligence), as one of his students, American psychologist Daniel Goleman calls it. U Pandita prefers to use the term SQ, spiritual intelligence. He said to have discussed this with Goleman, who could agree with it.

Parents also have the task to teach their children to set a goal for themselves, a good, wholesome goal in life. And considering every now and then whether an act to be done is in conformity with that goal or not. This ability to analyse and reflect in daily life is an aspect of wisdom (sampajañña).

3. A better kind of happiness. To become a true human being

‘Aimez la vie, aimez profondément la vie’, French president Hollande recommended after terrorist attacks in Paris last year. According to him these are western values we should not be deprived of.

U Pandita seems to say something different: ‘Sometimes, when we experience illness, aging or problems, we look at life as our enemy, we might even better be dead. It is useful for yogi’s to look that way.’ Then we can start practicing, ‘to become a true human being, to be better than animals’. ‘An animal also has a pleasant feeling it wants to continue. But there is a happiness better than that.’ ‘Most people aren’t able to control themselves. How can we make our life valuable?’

With the landing of the Buddha’s teaching in the West, Western people tend to keep at bay aspects of it as ‘Asian culture’, ‘Buddhist culture’, ‘religion’ or ‘fairy tale’. That seems to me a relic of our colonial past. Concepts like ‘surrender’ and ‘refuge’ are highly praised in the West as ‘passion’, except in the context of letting go of the opinions our stubborn minds are steeped in.

Sayadaw U Pandita: ‘These instructions are not for thinkers, but for soldiers.’ And – after an impressive teaching about metta (goodwill or loving kindness): ‘Metta is the best glue between two partners’.