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The Middle Paths (2nd and 3rd)

The great Pan Asian spiritual quest Vol. II 2nd path in Lumbini [LONG]

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Hello my dear brothers and sisters in Dharma.
 
A year has passed since my last report of stream-entry in Thailand, and a lot has happened since then, so it is about the time to write an update on my Pan Asian spiritual quest, in hope it will inspire some, and offer some interesting information and data-points for others.
 
So, right after the release of stream entry last year, the motivation for practicing has gone down a bit for a while, but after half a year or so, this too worn off and I was on the ride again. The remaining suffering reared its ugly head and I really had no choice but to fly off to Asia again, and make some progress, ideally land a new path, and things would be ok again for a while.
 
So, last December I set off to Panditarama Lumbini, to practice for a couple of months and see what the fuss is all about, and I am glad I did so. A lot has been written about Lumbini and how awesome that place is for doing some serious long-term intensive practice, so I won’t go into that, except to confirm it is all true, and Panditarama Lumbini is indeed one of the best, if not the best place in the world for dedicated Mahasi-style vipassana practice. Sayadaw Vivekananda and Sayalay Bhaddamanika are awesome, kind, highly experienced and very skilled insight teachers, and I cannot praise them enough. The same goes for the center itself, which is run professionally and is very conducive to serious insight work. Majority of yogis are sincere practitioners, and the ones who aren’t are soon weeded out by the process of natural selection. Food is awesome, lodgings are comfortable, so there is really nothing to complain about, but just practice, practice, practice.
 
And so I did. After SE honeymoon period ended, I was all jacked up about making progress, so I started the retreat full on, noting like a madman, sitting longer and longer sits, and in general practicing obsessively, as if my toupee is on fire. My discipline and dedication was strong, so much so that my roommate in the dorm assumed that I was a German. I took that as a compliment.
 
The hard work and the dedication quickly paid off. After a few days I again started going though the nanas and soon I was neck deep in A&P of the new path, lights all over the place, raptures, bliss, etc. Towards the end of the A&P my body started jolting and twitching uncontrollably in a way that it never has before, so I was quite happy about the progress being made, even if that meant the incessant and somewhat awkward jolting.
 
 
 I duly noted all these phenomena with as much equanimity as possible, and soon things started shifting into darker territory, until one day, a week or so in retreat, pretty serious DN kicked in, and the amount of irritation, misery, fear and disgust skyrocketed frighteningly fast. I’ve been through Dark nights before, but this one in particular was pretty nasty, it even got me worried for a bit, and I just hoped it won’t last for too long.
 
 In order to make that happen I noted extra carefully all the sensations making up this emotional rollercoaster, at the same time trying not to get too caught up with all that. Easier said than done, but it worked, and already the next day I felt less horrible, and in two days I was as good as new, while slowly but surely the vast vistas of equanimity started opening ahead. Phew.
 
After the dread of DN, a few weeks of low-mid equanimity followed, where it was much easier to practice, the length of sits slowly increasing and things looking up. After two weeks or so, equanimity started to increase noticeably, while at the same time interesting energetic phenomena started happening in my back.
 
It felt as if there was a cool numb rock in the middle left of my back, and that energy is somehow trying to course through, but cannot. It was a bit irritating, ticklish, and almost maddening, but the trick was to just stay with it, and it eventually opened up, and in couple of days disappeared altogether.
 
I had the similar phenomenon before SE, so I was in a way glad about making (painful) progress. In the next few days, equanimity started to increase even more so now I was soaring in high-equanimity and things were almost happening effortlessly, everything running smoothly on its own. The reality started to shine in full-hd resolution, I could effortlessly sit for hours on end, feeling very chilled out and pleased about the whole thing, while the retreat started to seem more like an extended chillout weekend, and less like drudgery and hard work.
 
I knew things are going to happen soon, so most of my thoughts now were about mapping and progress, and related expectations. I realized this too needs to be noted and let go of, and so I did. After a couple of days of that I have reached an all-time high in equanimity, ease and effortlessness, so one day after lunch, one hour or so in my meditation, the reality just blinked out of existence, the constant ringing in my ears(nada sound) just went silent for a moment or two and then reappeared.
 
It was barely noticeable, almost felt like a computer re-booting, so I was wondering if that was it? And if so, I wanted my money back, because it definitely could not be compared with mind-blowing, earth-shattering cessation of stream entry, euphoria, bliss and release thereafter. This cessation/fruition was very low key compared to SE.
 
Yet everything did seem a bit different, more peaceful and just different. I went to do a bit of walking meditation, and then the very next meditation session there were lights all over the place, complete with occasional bliss, raptures and other weirdness of A&P. So, I guess I have just landed 2nd path, yey!
 
I duly reported all this to Sayadaw and Sayalay, to which they customarily replied to just keep practicing, which I did, and was in fact the best advice at that moment. I tried (clandestinely) calling up fruitions, and after a couple of attempts I succeeded, and these new fruitions were not like the ones I had after stream entry, they were different in a way that it is impossible to describe. Because fruition is always a good thing, and definitely leaves one feeling peaceful and content, I practiced them a couple of times more before returning to grunt work of completing more new cycles of insight.
 
Another thing I noticed is that path moment usually arrives only when you completely forget and let go of the notions of progress, paths, nanas, the meditator, the Holy Final Goal, the whole deal. Just forget about it, drop it, abandon all hope even. Counter-intuitive, I know, but somehow it seems to be the case.
 
To summarize, after arriving to Lumbini it took me a little less than a month to complete a cycle of insight and attain to 2nd path. Because I was still on a roll, and didn’t want do to anything else but meditate, I got permission from Sayalay to stick around and practice for the next 2 months, until my visa expired, and I jumped at this chance and continued to practice as hard as I could.
 
So then I started a new cycle of insight, rinse, repeat, and completed that one, and two more in the following month and a half or so, averaging around two weeks per cycle. It is remarkable how clear and easily discernible the nanas are in retreat conditions, when concentration is strong, and meditation phenomena can be very powerful.
 
In the period that followed I have experienced almost all the textbook meditation phenomena to a varying intensities; surfacing of subconscious material buried deep within and long forgotten, symbols/archetypal energies, dreams from childhood, strong visions, bright lights, insane raptures, energy/nadi openings, electrical currents, jolting, twitching, dissolving into fine particles, vibrations, etc, too numerous to mention.
 
Most notable of these was strong bodily purification/opening that immediately afterwards left me extremely sick, bed-ridden, and almost immobile for two whole days, just to disappear and evaporate without a trace the third day, leaving me thoroughly puzzled but healthy (thankfully). Later I found out from Sayalay that it is not unusual for these things to happen to long-term yogis. Anyways, vipassana can sometimes really take you for a spin and show you the far end of things in addition to delivering much needed insight.
 
Along with all these weird (mostly A&P, but some happened in hi-eq) phenomena, there were again days of soul-crushing, sucky darknight, weltschmerz meltdowns, sinking feeling in the chest, hopelessness, meaningless, existential dread, misery, fear, disgust, re-ob and other dark night “goodstuff”, but somehow as I got more intimate with nanas, I could no longer be thoroughly fooled by them anymore (although they still suck mind you).
 
And finally there were many days of most brilliant equanimity, ease, peace, contentedness, and bliss, accompanied with long sits and pleasant feeling in the chest and all over the body, all duly noted. These days would alas end too soon, and I would again be in wacky A&P territory, starting yet another cycle. And so round and round and round it goes, where it stops no one knows.
 
So after wonderful two and a half months in Lumbini, the time was to continue on bravely with the Pan Asian spiritual quest, and explore new territories, so onward to Thailand I went, to do some meditation and obligatory beach-time decompression. After a quick visit to Doi-in-cee where I caught up with Yilun and Jevan (Hi guys! emoticon I’ve concluded that I’ve reached meditation burn-out point and it was high time for some rest and relaxation. All dry insight and no Samadhi makes Jack a dull boy.
 
In that light I first hit the beaches for a couple of weeks, after which I have decided to visit much famed Wat Suan Mokh, nearby, and work on my concentration, as they seem to follow buddhadasas (anapasati sutta) approach which is wet vipassana, a much welcomed change for a dry insight worker like me.
 
Unfortunately, the famous Wat Suan Mokh was a huge disappointment. Their program is tailored for beginners, so it entails around 7-8 mandatory hours or dhamma talks/lectures etc, an hour or chores, and just a couple 30-45 minute anapana sits, totaling to cca. 2 hours of meditation per day. You are not allowed to sit in your room and practice on your own, but must attend mandatory lectures and talks.
 
Not really my cup of tea, so if you are looking for a serious vipassana retreat, Wat Suan Mokh is not a place to be. On the other hand, if you want a soft-core introduction to Buddhism, or to do a bit of detox and feel good and spiritual for a while, then this is the place to be.
 
The place is quite Spartan, by that I mean, no toilet paper, no showers, no sinks, faucets and mirrors, just couple of pools of filthy looking water for washing yourself. An added bonus is sleeping on a thin straw mattress on a cement bed, with a wooden block for a pillow. Add to that ungodly levels of mosquito infestation and this place quickly becomes every renunciates wet dream.
 
After realizing that Wat Suan Mokh is not a place to be, I reluctantly packed my bags the next day and left looking for greener pastures. I didn’t have to search too long, because I quickly remembered trusty old MBMC in Penang Malaysia. Because I was there before, I knew it offered excellent conditions for practice, the food is amazing, and the place is very comfortable and conducive to practice.
 
And indeed it was so. When I arrived to MBMC, I was very happy to see that nothing has changed, and now they even have a resident Sayadaw in place, Sayadaw Pannananda, a very kind, helpful  and chilled out Sayadaw, offering valuable, if somewhat rote vipassana instructions. There are only a couple of western yogis at any one time, food is excellent, dorm accommodation decent, and all the conditions were in place for unobstructed practice so I got to it.
 
From many various sources I’ve read(MCTB included) I have realized that in order to complete 3rd path one has to fulfill the parami of concentration(as mahasi put it in his manual of insight), or just plainly dwell in jhanas as much as humanly possible, especially the formless realms, and 3rd path should pop. So, because last time I visited MBMC there was no Sayadaw, I was secretly hoping that I will be able to practice on my own and do jhanas, but alas, in the meanwhile the Sayadaw appeared, so I had to change plan and return to dry insight.
 
This was also ok because I’ve noticed that completing an insight cycle has subtle benefits - nondual gets stronger, suffering decreases ever so slightly and it gets one a step closer to The Holy Final Goal. Good old dry insight work is always very valuable, and I can take a lot of it.
 
So for the first week of my month-long retreat, I went through the usual rigmarole of all kinds of phenomena, random cessations during after-lunch nap, A&P stuff, then very light, almost unnoticeable DN, and then nice and smooth equanimity lasting for a week, then another, and another. This was a bit unsettling, because normally I would stick around in high equanimity for a few days, almost to the point of boredom, vigorously note any remaining attachment to pleasant bliss and equanimity, and then usually the thing would pop, reset, and a new A&P phase would quickly follow.
 
But this time it’s different. I have been dwelling for weeks in very high equanimity, sometimes easily sitting around 3-4 hours sits with no fuss, everything happening effortlessly, even seeing in real-time that this existence of ours is just an impersonal drama of cause and effect. Yet the thing is not popping, so I believe I have reached a brick wall with the dry insight approach, and it is time to switch to wet insight, and increase the bandwidth with some nice absorption work.
 
With this realization, after a month of intense practice I kindly thanked the nice people in MBMC, ended this year’s meditation quest, and left for home, where I am retooling and regrouping for my next attempt at jhanic conquests of the 3rd path.
 
This winter I am planning on spending couple of months somewhere in Sri Lanka (Na Uyana seems inviting) honing my absorption skills, and then continue on with couple of months of insight work (this time along with my mom, yeah!). So hopefully in a year will be able to report more success, or at least interesting lessons learned, for the benefit of all my Dharmic brothers and sisters.
 
In conclusion, this year’s Pan Asian spiritual quest definitely paid off huge dividends, because completing 2nd path as well as finishing  couple of further cycles of insight eradicated a lot of suffering, removed or weakened more of those pesky selfing processes, ignorance, fabrications, and artificial dualities in a subtle sense, making everything kind of “lighter”. A reduction in sensory craving is also noticeable, making life that much better in every respect.
 
Yes, life is definitely better at 2nd path, and Hamilton’s one liner “suffering less, noticing it more” sums it up perfectly. Due to lot less selfing processes, less thoughts and ruminations in general, life has became easier, lighter, more effortless and harmonious.
 
There is now a natural tendency towards solitude and dwelling in nature, especially forests, as this ineffable no-thing, emptiness, agencyless, luminosity, whatever-ya-callit is most easily perceived and enjoyed in a natural setting.
 
Terms and practices like “just sitting”, “choiceless awareness”, “formless shamata” make much more sense now.
 
Since starting on the dharma path my life has changed a lot in a way that stuff that was important before, has lost much of its appeal, and other simple things are now most interesting and important. Getting a path and then another is definitely the best and most sane thing I have ever done in my life, and looking forward to more good stuff ahead. “Highly recommended. Cant tell you why” emoticon  
 
Ram Dass famously said: “if you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your parents”. I did just that, spent some time with my parents, and now my mom wants to join me on my next vipassana retreat in Asia, and even dad has started meditating sporadically and taking interest.
 
Mom was not difficult to convince because she was a seeker herself for a long time, and has been introduced to Buddhism through wonderful teachings of Father Anthony De Mello who was also fond of samatha and vipassana, among many other things, so that one was easy.
 
My father being a bit tougher nut to crack I took a different approach. As kids we used to go to the forest hunting for mushrooms, so we went again after a long time. There I slowly introduced him to the walking meditation, left, right, left, right, and after a while we sat down on tree stumps in the middle of the forest to do a bit of sitting practice. I just told him to pay attention to the forest, the sounds, sensations, wind in the trees, sun, birds chirping, etc and just listen, and just let the forest do the talking.. he got to it like fish to water, and now he wants to go to the forest every other day if the weather is nice. Hehe.
 
In addition to my “enlightened family” project, my daily practice has now moved mostly to concentration work, as well as introducing bodywork practices into the mix (props to Chuck Kasmire for his thoroughly awesome posts and wiki content on this topic). Specifically, I have been exploring the microcosmic orbit (very beneficial, tends to bring up lotsa “stuff”), as well as the Reggie Ray’s bodywork protocols, and find these a wonderful complement to the sitting practice. The bodywork practices do tend to bring out states of deep somatic relaxation, which then taken into sitting practice can be very pleasant, interesting to explore, and very conducive to absorptions.
 
Other good stuff I’ve come across is Loch Kelly “shift into freedom” audio guided exercises, which are basic dzogchen/mahamudra excercises for dummies. Very very helpful this.
 
Another gem is Rob Burbea’s “seeing that frees”. One review online aptly described this book as a pound of mushrooms disguised as text, and I couldn’t agree more. This is one of the best dharma books I’ve read in a long time, and I’ve done a lot of reading. This one goes very very deep, reaching almost taboo levels at times. One of those books I will read and re-read many times, it’s a treasure trove. Highly recommended.
 
Well that would be it for this year’s report, I hope you enjoyed it and sorry for long and somewhat rambling approach, but I just don’t know otherwise.
 
“The gift of the Dhamma excels all gifts; the taste of the Dhamma excels all tastes; delight in the Dhamma excels all delights” Dhp v. 354.
 
May all of you/me/we/us be well and happy!
 
FranKo
 
 
 
 
 

Thanks for sharing. Sounds really cool. Can't say I'm not jealous of the opportunity =P