49. The First MBMC Retreat
Finally, the internal pressure took over, and I had to go on retreat again, so I went to Malaysia and sat at the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre with Sayadaw U Rajinda for two weeks, and that is when, from my point of view, I really learned to practice. It was about a decade after the first time I had crossed the A&P, and I was about to learn what the Arising and Passing Away actually was, which seems a bit late, but that’s the ignorant, meditationally primitive Western world we live in.
This was the first time I was introduced to noting and the maps, as it was my first Mahasi-style course. I had done more freestyle, Thai-style vipassana with Christopher Titmuss and crew and this had built some meditation skills, but I didn’t learn noting until this retreat. Initially, I was bad at noting, wanting to intellectualize everything, trying to note a decent amount, but not enough to get into any interesting territory or notice much about what was going on. About five days into the course, if I remember correctly, I was sitting outside the Sayadaw’s room and could hear a young Malaysian woman giving a simple, clear report of her ability to see thought as thought, intentions as intentions, mental images as mental images, and to see the physical sensations that were interspersed with these and how each led to the other.
I came into the room, all jacked up on my intellect and basically talking out of my head about some philosophical bullshit that I can’t now remember specifically, and the Sayadaw just smiled and said, “That woman—did you hear her? She sees Cause and Effect!” The message was very clear in that instant: “Shut up, quit thinking, and practice!” or at least that was what I took him to be saying. It was very humbling, as I was basically an arrogant brat (still am, some would argue), but I had been totally schooled by this retreatant who hadn’t even been there quite as long as I had. I decided to really buckle down and note like crazy, and that is when the interesting stuff started to happen. Was this the competitive urge being used skillfully? Was I just too cocky to be outdone? Did I just suddenly learn something valuable from that practitioner and apply it? Was it all of those? Probably. Regardless, it worked.
About two days later, my breath began to move with the noting. I would note “rising” or “falling” and the breath would rise or fall in nearly perfect synchrony with the duration of the note and then stop; so each stuttering breath became like rapid sniffing and took many notes, otherwise the breath would just stop. This was Cause and Effect (though I didn’t know it at the time). The same thing happened when I walked—the feet would move exactly with the notes, with rapid movement of the feet causing rapid noting, and rapid noting causing rapid, jerky movements of the feet.
During sitting sessions things started to get wild, all just from noting everything that was going on. The rapidity of everything in the body jerking in conjunction with the noting got faster and more powerful, so that I shook, sniffed, sweated, and noted for days, and between bouts I would plunge down with the breath as it went down and down and down into a realm of extremely slowed perception and time, like reality was moving through thick, narcotic syrup, and then the energy would come back, and the rapid noting, sniffing, and the now powerful vibratory energy would return. It would cycle like this again and again. The whole thing was freaking me out a bit, so I went to Sayadaw U Rajinda and told him what was going on, and that I was concerned, and he simply said, “Not dangerous. Keep noting,” and smiled.
I was sitting for two to three hours at a time with ramrod straight posture, which was very unlike me then and generally still is, was barely sleeping two hours a night, and sitting in a small, relatively private, air-conditioned room off to the side of the second-floor walking hall, as otherwise the sweating would totally drench my clothes. I was afraid that my violent periods of shaking and rapid-fire sniffing would scare people. After about three days of this, the whole thing finally died down. There was no specific event that stood out at that time as a specific A&P Event, no blow-up of consciousness, nothing interesting in dreams, no big zap-through, and no bright lights or visuals at all. When it finally wound down after a few days, I was hungry for sex and chocolate, felt exhausted and sluggish, and within a day I could barely sit for five minutes, and my mind felt like a hive of angry bees. I saw a brief but very clear vision of a field of diagonally-arranged emerald skulls on a pale green background.
That night, and at the peak of my frustration, Sayadaw U Rajinda played an old, scratchy tape of a Burmese monk describing the stages of insight, and suddenly everything was clear, or at least a lot clearer. I learned from that tape what had happened, knew where I was, and knew what to do about it. That tape changed my life, my practice, and my conception of practice. Lightbulb after lightbulb of understanding flashed on in my head, as that tape described in detail the experiences I had gone through, and it was just too freakishly accurate. That recording of a monk calmly reciting details, in order, of experiences that I had been sure were just weird, possibly unique, irrelevant quirks of my own strange practice, revealed that they were entirely stock, standard, and expected results of simply noting or even of just paying careful attention. That tape blew my mind. Sayadaw U Rajinda’s playing it at that moment was about the most kind, timely, and empowering blessing anyone could have done for me practice-wise.
With a very high level of faith in the technique and despite the extremely irritating restlessness and powerful visceral aversion to practice that arose the moment I sat down, I resolved to sit on the cushion until I had passed Re-observation. It was horrible. It was like my mind and body were cracking open while being crushed and warped in sickening ways. I noted like crazy anyway. If you attempt to model your practice after this story, consider that this might not be an optimal strategy for you, and reread the section on Re-observation, which discusses various other options.
Luckily, even though it was horrible, it did work for me. Within five minutes the horror broke, everything opened, the weight lifted, and very shortly thereafter everything got profound, abstract, and weird but in a totally cool way. So, whereas before there had been a body and a meditator and the usual stuff, now everything changed dramatically, or so it seemed to me, as I was meditating. Suddenly “meditator” was nearly gone except for a very vague background process. Body was entirely gone, the sounds in the room were gone, and what was left seemed to be two basic swirling, shifting, fluxing elements that I will approximate by calling very dark grey and blackest black that I would later describe as “suchness” and “awareness”, though at that point to say there was “color” is really pushing it.
Suchness was basically almost completely formless, except that it seemed to swirl and synchronize with what seemed to be awareness, except that, wait a second, awareness was also just some other swirling, ultra-abstract, extremely hard-to-comprehend thing that was trying to sync with suchness. So, there was this shifting, swirling, nearly incomprehensible, totally stripped-down dark fluxing space dance that was going on; and there was the tension between the seemingly two things that, the more the practice went on, seemed to be nearly just one thing, and it is that nearly part that is crucial.
I couldn’t land it. They didn’t synchronize on that last sit. I knew for certain that if those two things either became the same thing or synchronized and collapsed into each other, then that would be stream entry. I had no idea how long that might take. It turns out I was right, but I couldn’t make it happen at that time, as I couldn’t just forget about it and let it happen. It was too new, too fascinating, and too exciting, which is the lesson that it takes some people a bit to learn. [A stage I would later label something like ñ11.j7.j2, namely the second subsubjhana (exciting, amazing, too new) part of the Nothingness subjhana part of the eleventh ñana, in case anyone is asking.] I had only an hour during that sit, which wasn’t enough time for me to learn how to just let it happen. The next thing I had to do was to leave and get on the Butterworth Express (great train, by the way) back to Bangkok. Coincidentally, Sayadaw U Rajinda had to go back to Singapore that same afternoon. I left MBMC. My concentration plummeted. My next attempt at sitting the following day was as ordinary as any of my previous daily-life sits, and then the hard stuff began.
Such a precipitous drop in concentration and insight ability when leaving retreat is common. For most people it takes dedicated, repeated, daily-life practice of various skills to facilitate accessing those abilities when the daily dose of practice drops that far down again. There are some exceptions to this post-stream entry, but the basic point remains.
I did have the luck to stop by the MBMC bookstore before I got on that train, and I picked up a copy of Practical Insight Meditation, by Mahasi Sayadaw, Agga Maha Pandita (which means arahant, incidentally), as well as In This Very Life, by Sayadaw U Pandita (another arahant, but one whose book doesn’t have that title on the cover). I found Practical Insight Meditation to be everything I was looking for. Here were the method and the maps. It was outrageously simple and straightforward, like the best practical how-to high school electronics or chemistry texts from the 1950s (geek, anyone?). I read it again and again, basically memorizing most of it. I give great thanks to that mighty monk in dark hipster glasses, as that book and the noting technique in it became my gateway to many amazing insights.
Mahasi Sayadaw’s approach, and the resulting book Practical Insight Meditation, published in English in 1971, represented a massive foundational shift in the world of meditation. Its plain language, simplicity without sacrificing technical sophistication, directness, and emphasis on lived (not theoretical) phenomenology, along with clear, reproducible landmarks in practice, were paradigmatically groundbreaking. Unlike many previous authors who simply didn’t seem to trust their eyes and ears or their own practices as much as they deferred to the ancient texts for orthodoxy, Mahasi Sayadaw broke many taboos and dharma literature protocols and precedents when he wrote down simple, original, accurate, and helpful criteria for discerning various stages along the path based on clear observations of what happened when thousands of people practiced his technique at high doses. It is hard to explain to an audience who is now likely used to that sort of openness and phenomenology how this simple book and the paradigms in it raised the level of practical dharma discourse across cultures. My own practice and the world of meditation in general owe so much to that remarkable, revolutionary, yet—perhaps significantly—extremely traditional Buddhist monk.
Speaking of traditionalists, Mahasi Sayadaw’s works received some serious blowback from some members of the establishment when they first appeared. Some of this persists today. However, for those who love the suttas and the Buddha’s core instructions, pick up Practical Insight Meditation and a copy of DN 22, the Mahasatipatthana Sutta or “Great Discourse on Mindfulness”, routinely pointed to as one of the clearest expositions of how to practice insight in the whole of the Pali canon, and read them side by side, comparing exactly how they say to meditate. Then pick up MN 111, the Anupada Sutta, “One by One as They Occurred”, and read that alongside it, and see if there is really any difference of consequence at all. Regardless of these academic discussions to appease those who haven’t done the experiment of trying noting for themselves, the techniques work.
I reached stream entry on my fourth retreat six months later, and then became convinced that, on that last day of previous MBMC retreat, within a few hours more of practice there, I could have landed it and could have been spared all sorts of complexity. That is not what happened, as those were a few hours I didn’t have. However, the experience of sitting right on the edge of stream entry came in handy, as right then I knew for certain that awakening was possible. It was my third retreat, and somehow I had gone from really fumbling to doing very high-level insight practice way up at the high end of the formless realms and nearly getting my first taste of awakening. That, let me emphasize, is the difference that noting made for me.
It may be worth mentioning here that most people are not going to launch that high suddenly into the formless realms and do vipassana there, particularly in such a brief span of time, and it is also not necessary, just damn interesting if it happens to you. I have no idea why I suddenly launched that high on that retreat. It would take me a long time (sometime in late 1996, about a year and a half later) to get back to anything like that level of formless vipassana practice, and by that time I would be somewhere about two paths further along (if we’re counting paths, which I was at the time). I reached stream entry on much less concentration than that, and not in the formless realms, just FYI.
On a darker note, on that last day of that third retreat at MBMC, I did not know these maps well at all. I didn’t really appreciate what was happening, how close I was to a real breakthrough, and the possible implications of that unknowing. I fell back, back into the Dark Night, and it began to really screw up my life. I won’t go into too many details, but I will say that I wish I had had access to a friend with a solid understanding of these maps to help me maintain some perspective in relation to what I was going through. As it was, I was largely blindsided.