Buddhist Meditation in Burma
A paper read by Dr. Elizabeth K. Nottingham at Harvard to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in November 1958.
Published by International Meditation Centre, 31A, Inya Myaing, Rangoon. January 1960.
Buddhist Meditation in Burma
“Through worldly round of many births I ran my course unceasingly, Seeking the maker of the house: Painful is birth again and again, House-builder I behold thee now, Again a house thou shalt not build; A11 thy rafters are broken now The ridge-pole also is destroyed; My mind, its elements dissolved, The end of craving has attained”
“Buddhist Meditation in Burma” is a paper read by Dr. Elizabeth K. Nottingham at Harvard to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in November 1958. The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion which is composed of eminent Professors of Religion in the United States, has as its President, Dr. James L. Adams, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge 38, Massachusetts, United States of America. Dr. Nottingham, Professor of Sociology, who was in Burma from June 1957 to February 1958 as a Fulbright Lecturer on Sociology at the Rangoon University took a course of meditation for ten days at the International Meditation Centre, Inya Myaing, during the month of August 1957. The paper is an exposition of her own experiences during the course of meditation at the Centre. Dr. Nottingham recently received a grant from the American Philosophical Society to help in the preparation of a manuscript on “Trends of Change in Burmese Buddhism.” The International Meditation Centre which was founded in 1952 is growing from strength to strength and its success may be judged from the appreciation of the foreigners of various walks of life. The list of some men of standing, both local and foreign, who have undergone courses at the Centre may be seen on page (II). The Centre is open to all foreigners who speak English and any one interested in the work of the Centre may contact Thray Sithu U Ba Khin, the President, at the Centre on Sundays between the hours of 8 to 11 in the mornings and 2 to 6 in the evenings.
Ba Pho Secretary,
International Meditation Centre,
31A, Inya Myaing, Rangoon.
Rangoon, January 1960.
On a little knoll, in the heart of Rangoon’s Golden Valley district, the one-time residential center of British colonial officialdom, stands a small modern pagoda. Its golden spire and umbrella - hti sparkling in the sunlight, while at night its electric lights twinkle against the darkened sky. Unlike most Burmese pagodas, this is not a solid structure; its central chamber is a shrine room, while eight smaller pie-shaped rooms, each topped with its own little hti, surround this central shrine. These small separate rooms or “caves” are for the practice of Buddhist meditation. Over the archway which gives entrance to the property a sign reads: “International Meditation Center, founded 1952”, while inside there stands a notice board with the further information that this Center is the property of the Vipassana Association whose headquarters are in the Office of the Accountant General. To an American the idea of a center for religious meditation being the property of a voluntary association with its central focus in a government department may perhaps seem surprising. Even to Burma, the fact that the Teacher, or saya, of this Center is a prominent government official rather than a monk, is regarded as somewhat unusual.
U Ba Khin, the saya or, if one prefers the Indian term, the guru of the international Meditation Center is indeed an unusual person. In addition to his purely voluntary and quite time-consuming activities as teacher of meditation at the Center, he is also a highly responsible government official. As Chairman of Burma’s State Agricultural Marketing Board, which handles the rice crop, the export and sale of which is crucial to the country’s economic existence, U Ba Khin’s responsibility to the government is outstanding and his competence and absolute integrity a matter of public concern. In his former capacity as Accountant General, as well as in his present office as Chairman of the S.A.M.B., he has good reason to know how vital are the honesty and efficiency of Burma’s civil servants if she is to consolidate and maintain her existence as an independent state.
The Center sponsors each month meditation courses of ten days duration under the personal direction of the saya. The courses are geared to the needs and the capacities of the individual, whether he be from the east or from the west. They are engaged in by a wide variety of people, ranging from an ex-president of the Burmese Republic to an attendant at a gas station. Senior and junior officials of the government services, mainly from the offices of the Accountant General and the S.A.M.B., furnish the majority of the candidates with a sprinkling of university professors, foreign visitors including one member of the American Foreign Service and other Burmese householders and housewives.
At the beginning of every course, each trainee takes a vow of loyalty to the Buddha and his teaching—a vow which is modified in the case of non-Buddhists—and promises not to leave the Center during the training period and in other ways to be obedient to the direction of the Teacher. He also promises to obey eight of the ten Buddhist Precepts, three more than the usual five precepts that are considered to be binding on all devout Buddhist laity. The Five Precepts require that the individual refrain from taking the life of a sentient being, from taking what is not given, from fornication, from speaking falsely and from intoxicating liquor. Those who abide by eight precepts are also required, as are all monks, to refrain from eating after twelve
noon each day. Trainees at the Center, are also required to hold a strict vegetarian diet for the period of the course. During the training period they are provided with sleeping quarters, as well as all meals, free of charge.
The routine may seem exacting to those unacquainted with the schedule of meditation hours that are common in the East. The hours allotted to relaxation and sleep are more generous at the International Center than at some other meditation centers in Burma. U Ba Khin believes that a prerequisite for all successful practice in meditation is good health. Trainees get up each morning a little after four, and are in meditation from 4.30 to 6.00 A.M. Breakfast at 6.00 A.M. is followed by a second period of meditation from 7.30 to 10.30 A.M. after which lunch, the last meat of the day, is taken.
12.30 to 5.00 is the afternoon meditation period, and at 5.00 P.M. there is a period for rest and relaxation, followed by an informal talk from the Teacher from 6.00 to 7.00 P.M. The evening meditation period, from 7.00 to 9.00 P.M. ends the day and most of the trainees are ready to take to their beds - or rather their mats - at 9.00 P.M.
The training the student undergoes is thought essentially a process of purification or refinement of the moral, mental and spiritual perceptions. The Buddha admonished his followers, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, purify the mind.” The training at the Center is directed towards the fulfillment of this injunction. In line with the classic Buddhist tradition the requirements for such training fall into three parts, Sila, Samadhi and Panna. These three Pali words might be regarded as the watchwords of the Center. Sila signifies morality, the purification of conduct; hence at least formal or temporary adherence to the Five Precepts are a minimum essential for all who would proceed to further mental and spiritual training. Samadhi is concentration, a mental discipline that has much in common with yoga. Though training in samadhi may take place in Buddhist context, it is not in itself necessarily Buddhistic. It is merely a means though an exacting and essential one, whereby the student learns, in the words of the Teacher, to “put a ring through the nose of the bull of consciousness”, and so harness that wayward will o’ the wisp, the faculty of attention. Panna, wisdom or insight, is the product of Vipassana, or Buddhist meditation properly so called.
Sila, Samadhi and Panna are thus stages in the achievement of spiritual proficiency and according to Buddhists, in the process of detachment from the craving that binds all living things to the wheel of existence and rebirth. They constitute a grouping into three parts of the eight requirements of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path for the realization of the Cessation of Suffering.
About the practices of Sila, little needs here to be said. It is taken for granted as a basic requirement for all trainees. The westerner may have to exercise conscious control in refraining from swatting mosquitoes, but he soon learns to regulate his hunger and otherwise fairly readily adapts himself to the routine. Samadhi, however the practice of concentration demands patience and persistent endurance, just how much only those who have attempted to practice it can know. There are a number of
techniques used by Buddhists in the practice of concentration. The beginner at the Center is taught to concentrate on the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. In doing this he must be tireless in excluding all other thoughts and at the same time learn to relax his body and gradually to narrow the focus of his attention until he is eventually aware only of a tiny “spot” at the base of the nose. Little by little all conscious awareness of breathing stops and he is mindful only of a minute point of light and warmth. It may take four or five days of practice to achieve this result, though some students succeed within a much shorter period. Other systems of Buddhist concentration may adopt slightly different means—some begin the practice by concentration on an external object, such, for example, as a neutral coloured disc. But no matter what the precise means employed the aim is the same, namely the attainment of one-pointedness the power to gather up the attention into a single powerful lens and to focus it at will upon any object, material or ideational. Samadhi, then, is a technique that can be practiced by members of any—or of no—religious faith. A developed power of concentration is, needless to say, of inestimable value in the ordinary, everyday business of life. It may well make the difference between an efficient or an inefficient public servant or professional worker. Of this fact the saya is well aware. Samadhi, however, is essential for the practice of meditation, and without a strong “lens” of concentration the student can never hope to attain panna, that is wisdom or insight.
The practice of vipassana, the heart of meditation, the means by which panna or insight is attained, is something to be experienced rather than described. A non- Buddhist, and a non-adept, can say but little and should perhaps be content to say nothing at all. Nevertheless, an attempt will be made to describe its underlying principles.
Vipassana is grounded in the Four Noble Truths, the outstanding contribution of the Buddha to the world’s religious thought. The First Noble Truth, that suffering is basic to all existence, is not regarded as requiring merely a cool intellectual assent from the devotee. The reality of this First Noble Truth must be faced and experienced subjectively before the other Truths, which locate the cause and point out the method of release from suffering, can be realized. Suffering, in the Buddhist sense, is not simply something to be “accepted” as a preferably—temporary condition of one’s own being or as a more permanent state for the world’s unfortunates. Rather it is to be viewed as an integral part of matter and mind (Rupa and Nama) the very stuff of existence itself. The Pali words Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta, which may be translated as Impermanence, Suffering and the Non-Self or perhaps as the illusion of the separate self—are the key themes in this meditation. These themes are to be experienced introspectively, in accordance with his capacity—by the meditator as on-going processes of his own organism. He must endeavour to become aware of his mental and bodily components in the process of change, to experience impermanence as suffering, and to perceive with his inward eye the illusory nature of the separate self.
Only when suffering is thus faced and realised can the way to release be opened. In meditation the student should develop a sharpened consciousness of the imperious
nature of his desires and of his attachment to them. This is what the Buddha meant by tanha, or craving, which he saw as the cause of all suffering, and so enunciated in his Second Noble Truth. If the trainee longs with an intense desire for release from this condition of craving and for the calm of Nirvana, or the Great Peace, he may then gain some insight into the Third of the Noble Truths, namely, that to free oneself from craving is the way to be released from suffering. In so far as his desire to detach himself from craving is sincere and deep he will act upon the Fourth Noble Truth and follow more closely in the Eightfold Noble Path. By so doing he should experience, even in his present life, some measure of the great Peace.
It is a challenging experience for a westerner to undergo a course in meditation at the International Meditation Center. He not only may explore new realms of consciousness, but he can scarcely avoid the attempt to re-phrase his experiences, where possible, in terms of his traditional religious beliefs. Furthermore, certain incidents, certain expressions in both the Old and the New Testaments spring to life, so to say, and take on new and vivid meaning. For instance, the Biblical verse “If thine eye be single thy whole body will be full of light” may be experienced subjectively as almost literal truth by one who in practicing Samadhi is able to approach one-pointedness in his concentration. Indeed, many biblical phrases that to a westerner may have seemed vague or merely allegorical take on specific meaning, thus recalling the fact that Judeo-Christianity is a faith of eastern rather than western origin.
Even a westerner who does not accept the major premises of the Buddhist faith will, if he follows instructions given at the Center faithfully, experience a deep and invigorating calm, a calm possibly deeper than anything he has previously known. He may or may not enter into the more rarified forms of consciousness Jhanic states, in Buddhist terms for individuals vary very much both in their capacity and in their willingness to do this. Nevertheless he will almost certainly learn to tighten his control of his mental processes to experience a feeling of cleansing, strengthening and relaxed peace. He may also learn something of the technique for inducing such peaceful states at will, an accomplishment not to be despised in these days of hurry and of strain. To do so, as it seems to the writer, what is required is not a willingness to renounce one’s traditional religious faith or even one’s agnosticism but an open minded determination to experience something new. There is no compulsion exercised at the Center to make Buddhists out of Christians or Jews. The saya invites his students freely to take and use what appears to them to be good and, should they so wish, to leave the rest. The atmosphere of tolerance and of active loving-kindness that surrounds the western visitor to the Center does much to strengthen the appeal of the mental and spiritual discipline.
Apart from any possible meaning that the meditation Center might have for Westerners is the question of its actual present meaning for those Burmans who make up the bulk of its membership. Most of those who come to receive training, or who, having received it, frequent the Center are, broadly speaking, middle class people in active middle and young adult life. Almost without exception they are old enough to remember the war years and the Japanese occupation, the tragic murder
of General Aung San and the stormy years of the birth or the new republic. They remember, too, the period of post- independence insurrection, when at the height of the Karen rebellion the government was in effective control only of Rangoon. If it is true that stress and suffering are generating forces in religious revival there is no doubt that Burma’s responsible middle classes have had their fill of both. Few Americans appreciate the suffering and destruction that the war and postwar periods have witnessed in Burma, or the amount of dislocation of communications and of economic life that still prevail. The heading members of the International Meditation Center, therefore, have been led by many vicissitudes of fortune to learn how to live in good times and in bad, in safety and in peril. In the quest for that calm of spirit that would enable them not merely to exist with the unawareness of mere animals, but to turn their experiences to positive account, some have been discovering anew the ancient truths of their Buddhist faith.
Furthermore, most of those who attend the Center are occupied in business and in the professions, and the program at the Center is geared to their needs. It is a fellowship of laity, under lay leadership, and Buddhist meditation is presented to them not as something that may be practiced only in the seclusion of the monastery but rather as an activity for Buddhist “householders” those who are immersed in family cares and public responsibilities. For these people the Center affords a Fellowship of the like minded. For Buddhists are not organized in congregations as are most western religious groups—indeed, the need for such organized gatherings is hardly felt in the country districts where a whole village may, in effect, compose the community of faithful laity which supports and frequents a particular monastery. In a big city, however, where territorial bonds are less strong, there would seem to be a growing need for voluntary religious associations with some congregational features. Each Sunday, for instance, the Center is open from seven in the morning until late in the afternoon to all who wish to take advantage of a quiet time for meditation, of informal instruction and advice from the Teacher, of a communal lunch and the companionship of friends. The degree of devotion which the Center in turn, inspires in some of its supporters may be judged from the number of volunteer workers always on hand to supervise the kitchen and the housekeeping, to initiate new students and take care of foreign visitors and to keep watch over the premises during the night. The increasing numbers of those who came for instruction, and the spontaneous manner in which funds are supplied for new building, seem to show that the Center fulfils a growing need.
To what extent are such meditation Centers typical developments in the Buddhist practice of Burma today? Granted that the individualistic tendencies within Buddhism are very strong, so that in important respects the International Meditation Center must be considered as unique, nevertheless, there seems to be a definite tendency in the contemporary emphasis on Buddhism in Burma to place especial stress on the practice of meditation. Meditation occupies a central place in orthodox Buddhist practice, and, though in popular Buddhist observance it has at times played a minor role, it has always been a main activity of those monks who do not specialize in scholarly pursuits. Today, however, the government, acting through the intermediary
of the Buddha Sasana Council a body drawn from monks and laymen which is responsible for the well-being of Buddhism in Burma and its extension both within the Union and also in foreign lands—claims, in a report issued on the Situation of Buddhism in Burma since 1955, that there exist at present some 216 meditation centers within the Union as of November 1956. Of these centers, some under monastic and others under lay leadership, a total of 142 were recognized by the Sasana Council and received government subsidies. Other Centers, like the International depend entirely on voluntary support. The Council also sponsors a central meditation center in Rangoon, where those who wish to undergo training as teachers of meditation, and who are approved by the Council will receive a small monthly stipend to defray their maintenance expenses while receiving such training in Rangoon. In addition, a certain number of students from overseas, who have expressed a wish to receive training in meditation in Burma, have also been subsidized by the Council. During the period covered by the report eleven foreigners from nine different countries received such subsidies.
Though the numbers of those actually practicing meditation systematically in Burma today may well be small indeed in proportion to its total population of Buddhists, nevertheless meditation enjoys the prestige of government support and more particularly the interested support of Prime Minister U Nu himself—so that to a degree it has become almost fashionable. Shrines for meditation are sometimes to be found in government offices, and official leave may be granted for the practice of Vipassana.
While a number of Westerners would probably admit that the extension of relaxation and mental control perhaps even of meditation itself might furnish a needed corrective to the frenetic activity and hypertension attendant on living in their own countries, what shall be said as to the social value of today’s emphasis on the practice of meditation in a country such as Burma? Does this overt attempt to foster it by governmental and other agencies, merely accentuate an existing overstrong tendency to withdraw from social responsibilities either for religious reasons or out of downright idleness? Or, on the other hand, may it not possibly help to create a reservoir of calm and balanced energy to be used for the building of a “welfare state” and as a bulwark against corruption in public life? Such questions are far easier to ask than to answer. Both possible alternatives would appear to exist, and any accurate assessment must necessarily depend on the situation—or even the individual under consideration. Undoubtedly U Nu and U Ba Khin combine the practice of meditation with the exercise of exacting public responsibilities. If it is actually true that meditation “keeps them going,” then the promotion of the means whereby other such individuals may be produced could be important for Burma’s national existence.
Can meditation, then, be viewed not only as a means of self-development—a development that must be regarded by Buddhists not in terms of one short lifetime but against the almost timeless background of thousands of rebirths but also as this worldly social task? Do there exist elements in the broad tradition of Buddhism itself, which, if now emphasized, might furnish the moral motive power that Burma needs? Perhaps there is this much that may be said; if one of the effects of meditation on its practitioners is to strengthen and deepen their adherence to the Five Precepts here and now, both public and private life would be benefited. And there is also the positive example of the Buddha Himself. Who for forty-five years after His Enlightenment, instead of withdrawing from the world to enjoy in peace and solitude the liberation He had won, laboured on as a Teacher of a struggling humanity.
Dr. Nottingham was quite modest when she wrote in the Guest Book that she had learnt from the Centre how to find a deep pool of quiet in the midst of the activities of a busy life, although she might not have been able to learn very deeply about the Dhamma. It was an agreeable surprise when I read her paper on “Buddhist Meditation in Burma” to find that she understands Buddhism very deeply indeed.
Her expressions (1) of one-pointedness of Mind with a minute point of light and warmth at the base of the nose (Citta Visuddhi) (2) of the awareness of mental and bodily components in the process of change (Anicca) (3) of the experiencing of impermanence as suffering (Dukkha) and (4) of perceiving with inward eye the illusory nature of the separate self (Anatta) are really very commendable.
I congratulate Dr. Nottingham very warmly for the paper which deserves worldwide attention and interest.
BA KHIN, President
International Meditation Centre, Inya-Myaing, Rangoon.
Foreigners, irrespective of their religious beliefs, who have come to the centre for a course of training have found no difficulty in developing the following three stages.
- To abstain from killing any living being
- To abstain from stealing
- To abstain from fornication
- Telling lies
- Taking intoxicating drinks.
To develop the power of concentration to one-pointedness. This is developed by focusing one’s attention to a spot on the upper lip just beneath the nose synchronizing the inward and outward motion of respiration with (a) the silent sound of “Amen” in the case of Christians, (b) “Aum” in the case of Hindus, (c) “Alm” in the case of Mohamedans and (d) “Sat-Nam” in the case of Sikhs. This is done till the wavelength of respiration becomes finer and finer and the Mind gets settled down to a point and the candidate secures what may be called the one-pointedness of the Mind.
With the power of mind so developed, the candidate is trained to become sensitive to the atomic reactions which are ever taking place in himself. It is a practical demonstration of the theory of atomic reactions in Man which are vividly described by Dr. Isaac Asimov, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine, in his book “Inside the Atom”. (See extracts from the Book enclosed)
This study of nature in Man, as it really is, will pave the way for greater experiences ahead.
The results which follow this course are definite and the candidate realizes on his own that a change for the better is taking place in him slowly but surely.
Extract from ‘Inside the Atom’ by Isaac Asimov
CHAPTER 1 ATOMIC CONTENTS
What all things are made of
There are so many things in the world that are so completely different from one another that the variety is bewildering. We can’t look about us anywhere without realizing that.
For instance, here I sit at a desk made out of wood. I am using a typewriter made out of steel and other metals. The typewriter ribbon is of silk and is coated with carbon. I am typing on a sheet of paper made of wood pulp and am wearing clothes made of cotton, wool, leather, and other materials. I myself am made up of skin, muscle, blood, bone, and other living tissues, each different from the others.
Through a glass window I can see sidewalks made of crushed stone and roads made of a tarry substance called asphalt. It is raining, so there are puddles of water in sight. The wind is blowing, so I know there is an invisible something called air all about us.
Yet all these substances, different as they seem, have one thing in common. All of them wood, metal, silk, glass, flesh and blood, all of them are made up of small, separate particles. The earth itself, the moon, the sun, and all the stars are made up of small particles.
To be sure, you can’t see these particles. In fact, if you look at a piece of paper or at some wooden or metallic object, it doesn’t seem to be made of particles at all. It seems to be one solid piece.
But suppose you were to look at an empty beach from an airplane. The beach would seem like a solid, yellowish stretch of ground. It would seem to be all one piece. It is only when you get down on your hands and knees on that beach and look closely that you see it is really made up of small separate grains of sand.
Now the particles that make up everything about us are much smaller than grains of sand. They are so small, in fact, that the strongest microscope ever invented could not make them large enough to see, or anywhere near large enough. The particles are so small that there are more of them in a grain of sand than there are grains of sand on a large beach. There are more of them in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in all the oceans of the world. A hundred million of them laid down side by side would make a line only half an inch long.
These tiny particles that all things are made of are called atoms.
Extract from Page 159 of ‘Inside the Atom’ by Isaac Asimov
“For one thing. chemists now have a new tool with which to explore the chemistry of living tissue. (This branch of the science is called biochemistry.) In any living creature, such as a human being, thousands upon thousands of chemical reactions are all going on at the same time in all parts of the body. Naturally, chemists would like to know what these reactions are. If they knew and understood them all, a great many of the problems of health and disease, of life, aging, and death, might be on the way to solution. But how are all those reactions to be unraveled? Not only are they all going on at the same time, but there are different reactions in different parts of the body and different reactions at different times in the same part of the body.
It is like trying to watch a million television sets all at once, each one tuned to a different channel, and all the programs changing constantly.”
- The initial course will be for a period of 10 days which may be extended according to individual needs.
- Individual development depends on one’s own Paramita and his capability to fulfil the five Elements of Effort (Padhaniyanga), viz, Faith, Health, Sincerity, Energy and Wisdom.
- In practical work, every candidate will be required to follow strictly and diligently the three indisputable steps of Sila, Samadhi and Panna of the Eightfold Noble Path or the seven stages of Purity (Satta Visuddhi).
- It is the responsibility of the candidate to restrain himself properly to ensure that the eight Precepts (Uposatha Sila) are duly observed. With a view to promoting Sila, he should further restrain the sense-centres (Indria Samvara) by keeping himself alone, as far as practicable, in a cave or a secluded spot.
- The Guru will arrange for the development of his power of concentration to one-pointedness (Citta Ekaggata). For this purpose, the training to be given will be in accordance with the principles enunciated in the Anapana Sati Sutta or the Visuddhi Magga Athakatha as may be found suitable to the candidate.
In this respect, the Guru is merely a Guide. The success in the development of the power of concentration to perfection (Samma Samadhi) depends entirely on the right exertion (Samma Vayama) and the right mindfulness (Samma sati) of the candidate concerned. The achievement of Appana Samadhi (Attainment-Concentration) or Upacara Samadhi (Neighbourhood-Concentration) is a reward which goes only to highly developed candidates).
- When the candidates have developed sufficiently well in the power of concentration, they will be acquainted with the fundamental principles of Buddha- Dhamma closely connected with the practical lessons in Vipassana which are to follow.
- The course of training will then be changed to Vipassana or Insight. This involves an examination of the inherent tendencies of all that exist within one’s own self. The candidate learns in course of time by personal experience, the nature of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta as taught by the Buddha. Maybe, following a realisation of the Four Noble Truths, he breaks through to a state beyond Suffering (Dukkha- Nirodha), enters the first stream of Sotapanna, and enjoys the fruit (Phala) of his endeavours in the ‘Nibbanic Peace Within.”
- He, who can enjoy this Nibbanic Peace Within, is an Ariya. He may enjoy it as and when he may like to do so. When in that state of Peace Within called “Phala,” but for the supermundane consciousness in relation to the Peace of Nibbana, no feeling can be aroused through any of the sense-centres. At the same time, his body posture becomes tightened. In other words, he is in a state of perfect physical and mental calm, as in the case referred to by the Buddha in His dialogue with Pukkusa of Malla while halting at a place on His way to Kusinara for the Maha-Parinibbana.
Thray Sithu U Ba Khin