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Book review - Vimalaramsi method
Answer
8/22/19 10:13 PM
Just finished reading The Path to Nibbana by David Johnson, a long-time student of Bhante Vimalaramsi (B.V.) who also extensively practiced the Mahasi method before. 

I have found helpful in the past V.'s emphasis on relaxing muscles during meditation. Otherwise I have stayed away from V. in the past because of his "my method is the right one and others are wrong" aspect. 

But I nevertheless found this book very pragmatic and practical. One thing I found fascinating is that although V. claims to have abandoned the Mahasi approach and the 16-nanas model after having mastering them but finding them inadequate, the method he proposes to replace it seems to re-invent the wheel in some way. He proposes the 8 jhanas ( as defined by him which he claims is the true meaing of sutta jhanas) instead. But looking at the last 3 formless jhanas as he describes them, one can almost word for word see descriptions given here (DhO, MTCB, nana chart) of formless aspects of Equanimity nana. 

He uses metta to enter jhanas. In each jhana one can be aware of phenomena arising and passing. If hindrances come, one is to not only observe them but to relax the physical tension accompanying them before returning to the main field of attention. 

In 4th jhana, one will begin radianting metta in all directions to get to 5th jhana. At this point the metta naturally turns into the next Brahmavihara, compassion.

In 6th Jhana, this is where things became fascinating to me, both in terms of thinking theoretically about the map and recognizing some of my own experiences. In 6th as described by B.V., one sees individual moments of movements of consciousness. These mind movements are seen effortlessly and with immediacy. All is just a series of consciousness. At this point he says the compassion of the previous jhana is turned into sympathetic joy, and this is a part I don't understand (how he matches various brahmaviharas to specific jhanas). Anyways, this is not the main thing that caught my interest in this book/method.

In jhana 7, one's mind inclines toward the blanks between each arising consciousness, the space of "nothing" in between them. It feels as if the whole world of phenomena, including mind, arise and pass within this "nothing". One may get moments of prolonged "nothing" in between each arising consciousness. He equates this jhana with the equanimity brahmavihara.

Jhana 8 is beyond equanimity (but to me seems like High Equanimity in our map here). 8th feels dreamy yet one is very aware. But what one is aware of isn't clear. Whatever arises has no momentum or time to develop into an identifyable "thing". I'm thinking: Formations in MCTB map? The mind is in pure dispassion in 8th, losing interest for any mind movements or vibrations. 

Another thing mentioned often in the last 3 immaterial jhanas is tiny vibrations of mind. 

After 8th comes cessation. Immediately after cessation is described a very pure mind state, like a chalk board upon which everything was just erased so that any first new writing on it is seen very clearly. What one sees according to B.V., after a cessation, is the links of dependent origination. After the mind went blank, the first mind-movement is the one re-creating the world, which is the formation link. Then consciousness, and so forth down the link of dependent origination. Curiously, V. doesn't see cessation as nibbana, but rather the moments after cessation where DO links are seen, as being nibbana. He also says that not everyone is aware of seeing the links of DO, but yet they are seen and all meditators will understand DO intuitively at least after stream-entry. 

Another curious thing in his approach is his understanding of path and fruition. The first cessation is path. And one can be a stream-entry pather but can lose this attainment if fruition is not attained. Fruition is when cessation is obtained a second time, which locks in the attainment of stream-entry. Same thing for the higher paths and fruits. 

There are some sutta supports for this. The notion that path and fruit succeed each other at high, mind-moment speed is a commentarial understanding. The suttas talk of offering donations of food to monks who are on the path of SE and to those who obatained fruition. If path is a mind-moment, it is hardly possible to offer food to someone while being in a state that lasts a mili-second. The Buddha also talks of 8 noble individuals: Those at path of SE, those at fruit of SE, and so on for the other stages. 

In any case, what fascinated me is how he rejected the Mahasi style and 16 nanas, yet the same territory is described almost exactly the same in his 8 jhana + cessation model. 

Overall I find the book very practical. Many are attaining paths and fruits, it seems, using this model. But I struggled a bit with the overt critique of Mahasi dry insight. 

Personal reflections in relation to my practice: 

I tried his method in the last few days. Memories of my practice years ago came back. There was a time in the early 2000s where many sits were a settling into bliss. I had completely forgot this but the book's practices brought back that memory somehow. The bliss and concentration I experienced seem, in retrospect, to match 1st and/or 2nd jhana. Then at some point I experienced a calmer state in which parts of my body felt completely gone, disappeared. B.V. described 3rd jhana like this. I'm thinking also, dissolution nana, which of course is in 3rd jhana territory.

Then later in my practice came bouts of anxiety and depression. I always atributed them to personal past trauma with clear triggers but now wonder, dukkha nana? Both could be mingled. Those came hard the first time when I was on a retreat, after all... If that was dukkha nana, then I must now realize that for very long years I was a dark night yogi.

Then came my contact with Pragmatic Dharma. My teacher helped my get into 4th jhana/equanimty territory, in which I'm hanging into to this day. Each sit gets there quickly (about 10 minutes, sometimes less, sometimes immediately).

Infinite space of 5th is not familiar to me, unless a sense of expansion of 2 feet around me can count as it. What B.V. describes in jhanas 6, 7 and 8 feel very familiar to me in many of my sits in the last 2 years or so. I would say they are formless aspects of 11th nana (11.4.6, 7 and 8) rather than pure formless levels.

As I try his method, the physical piti which is the hallmark of 1st jhana is getting stronger, but with a background anxiety. I then said to myself (advised by Shargrol in another thread of mine) that "these feelings are noble and healing for myself and others..." to counter any guilt that may be lurking in the background. But it seems there may be someting else now in this anxiety: I have felt with Mahasi noting a quick settling into equanimity territory in the last 2 years. But in applying his technique, it feels like I'm forcing myself into an earlier phase of my practice some 15 years ago. So the anxiety seems to be saying: "why are you forcing yourself into regression??" You can go quickly to 4th with noting as usual!!"

After a few days of this I am giving thought to the idea that I should trust that the noting technique of Mahasi does get one through the same territory that B.V. describes, despite his rejection and criticism of the so-called dry-insight model. So perhaps I should just continue what I'm normally doing.

This may seem like I'm re-inventing the wheel here, vipassana jhana being well described here. But this has just been my experience since reading the book.

I apologize for any misenterpretations I may have here, either of B.V.'s model or anything else.

RE: Book review - Vimalaramsi method
Answer
8/23/19 8:42 AM as a reply to Ben V..
Ben V.:

One thing I found fascinating is that although V. claims to have abandoned the Mahasi approach and the 16-nanas model after having mastering them but finding them inadequate, the method he proposes to replace it seems to re-invent the wheel in some way. 


This caught my eye. Not claiming mastery of the 16 nanas; It just seemed like the cycling was going nowhere and the heavy investigation I was putting into them was just dragging me through rough seas unnecessarily. Moving more into jhana practice / model and investigating from a place of joy (as B.V. does with metta) there has been much more fruitful allowing for cultivating well being and peace in daily life. 
Another curious thing in his approach is his understanding of path and fruition. The first cessation is path. And one can be a stream-entry pather but can lose this attainment if fruition is not attained. Fruition is when cessation is obtained a second time, which locks in the attainment of stream-entry. Same thing for the higher paths and fruits. 

There are some sutta supports for this. The notion that path and fruit succeed each other at high, mind-moment speed is a commentarial understanding. The suttas talk of offering donations of food to monks who are on the path of SE and to those who obatained fruition. If path is a mind-moment, it is hardly possible to offer food to someone while being in a state that lasts a mili-second. The Buddha also talks of 8 noble individuals: Those at path of SE, those at fruit of SE, and so on for the other stages. 

Here's a theory and I'd love to hear other's take on this as this was a discrepancy that caused me confusion for some time. I don't think the Buddha was pointing to paths, fruits or even attainments as "moments" (except possibly with sudden awakenings). The 16 nana model (or in this case the 8 jhana model), with it's cyclic pattern and progression and a moment of "cessation" at the end was phenomenon later explored, discovered and written about centuries later in the commentaries.

From a sutta point of view, to see whether someone has the "path" and "fruit" of sotapanna (or higher stages), as I've been discussing recently with my teacher, is more analogous to distingushing a great violin player from a virtuoso. There's a time where a violin player is skilled beyond making horrible scratching noises on the strings and can play certain pieces with ease. They become satisfied and confident in playing the violin and this gives them the enthusiasm to practice more on their "path" to becoming a virtuoso (akin to dropping the fetter of doubt). Years later, they become more and more skilled but there is no "moment" when they attain "virtuosoship" (the fruit of sotapanna). One day, they land that first viloin chair in the big orchestra as they gain more attention. Over time, they are more widely regarded as a virtuoso (or having the fruit of sotapanna) as they wow audiences.

This can also explain why the fetter model does not at all map cleanly onto the technical paths. The fetter model points to what fetters are dropped in mindfulness of the "here now". The practitioner aims to be free of all fetters during life and practice, but only as an immeditate goal in this present moment (Not applicable to cycles over time and cessation "moments"). She makes the Right Effort to hold the Right Attitude to practice Right Sati to discern between suffering and not suffering (Right View). When the violin player is performing, do they display the qualities of a virtuoso?

The path and fruit of the suttas can not be equated to the path, fruit, cessation (as moments) of the 16 knowledges (commentaries) model. Again, would love to hear thoughts on this.            

RE: Book review - Vimalaramsi method
Answer
8/24/19 2:17 PM as a reply to Nick O.
The emphasis on relaxation as he teaches has definitely improved my practice as well. But I wonder if the samatha aspect he brings in could be used without abandoning noting; he felt compeled to give it up entirely. Did you too? I like to deeply relax the body and from that place do noting. I also often do metta for 10 minutes, which generates what seems to be piti (physically pleasant sensations such as warmth in hands, and other physical sensations), and then move into noting.

Concerning gradual development vs moments, I think both are real. DhO is full of testaments to how moments, usually involving cessation, have brought on sudden and important changes. From a sutta perspective, there is support for maps at least in the form of the 8 jhanas, and for cessation.

I think there's also many cases of people that have not noticed events or key moments in their practice and yet deep transformation has occured over time, as you describe.

RE: Book review - Vimalaramsi method
Answer
8/25/19 10:08 AM as a reply to Ben V..
Ben V.:
The emphasis on relaxation as he teaches has definitely improved my practice as well. But I wonder if the samatha aspect he brings in could be used without abandoning noting; he felt compeled to give it up entirely. Did you too? I like to deeply relax the body and from that place do noting. I also often do metta for 10 minutes, which generates what seems to be piti (physically pleasant sensations such as warmth in hands, and other physical sensations), and then move into noting.

Concerning gradual development vs moments, I think both are real. DhO is full of testaments to how moments, usually involving cessation, have brought on sudden and important changes. From a sutta perspective, there is support for maps at least in the form of the 8 jhanas, and for cessation.

I think there's also many cases of people that have not noticed events or key moments in their practice and yet deep transformation has occured over time, as you describe.
Yes, I've pretty much abandoned noting. Occasionally, while in jhana, I'll lean slightly towards investigation , "noticing" or "knowing" phenomena in the field of awareness.

In my experience, eventually the heavier investigation techniques just took me round and round in unpleasant cycles. What has been much more fruitful is the cultivation of joy as right sati, clearing out suffering moment by moment, always returning to being here now, relaxed and content. Insights into no self, no doer, no seeer, no agent are deepening still, with less effort, but with the goal of attaining wisdom shifting towards the goal of peace. 

Moments of change in perspective and gradual development are both very much real, as you say, but the "cessation" of suffering can and does happen in any moment; we just have to check back again and again and again to see to it that it has ceased. 

RE: Book review - Vimalaramsi method
Answer
11/15/19 11:29 AM as a reply to Ben V..
Ben V,  I have found your summary to be most helpful as I have done nearly the same analysis of bhante Vs system with the same kinds of conclusions. I would only add that it seems like BV was just super burnt out by the mahasi style and needed some balance so he's really fanatical about people taking the soft and joyful way.

I like it, it's less of a macho approach and has all sorts of hidden benefits (like it makes you want to practice more because it feels good). But I also find the noting practice to be helpful too. I find it a little weird that BV is so adamant about going EXACTLY his way. It's off-putting for sure. 

I have found that using Shinzen Young's modular meditation system, I could derive the gist of BVs technique and fold it in with the rest of the noting practice.

I also could not make sense of how the Divine abodes correspond successively with the jhanas but l still currently looking into it. Assuming you're still investigating  it, let me know if you are able to make any sense of that.

RE: Book review - Vimalaramsi method
Answer
11/15/19 12:55 PM as a reply to Chloe Parker.
Makes a lot of sense to me when you mention his method as a reaction to being burned out with the Mahasi style. This makes me thingk of another teacher close to Mahasi. There is another teacher, the late Shwee Oo Min Sayadaw, who used to be a top student of Mahasi, who broke away and founded his own approach. His approach is also a response to the hard core dry noting of Mahasi. His approach is gentle. He emphasized relaxation of the body and constatntly focusing on what the mind is doing.

It was even said that his center was once like a "hospital" for meditators recovering from Mahasi retreats because they were so tense.

I still think the Mahasi approach is awesome and it remains the core of my own practice, but with an added emphasis on deep relaxation.

BV's insistence on doing EXACTLY his way seems the only element he faithfully kept from the Mahasi lineage, as some teachers in this lineage have this mentality as well, though not all. Mahasi himself seemed to have been flexible and even allowed students to experiment with other vipassana styles. 

I continue to do more metta in some of my sits and it really gets the physical responses he describes in 1st jhana going. The noting gets me quickly to what seems 4th.

I have begun a while ago to look into Shinzen stuff. I'm not super familiar with it but found what I read very practical and inspiring.

I have not made much sense either of how he matches the divine abodes with the jhanas.

One more thing, I found in his description of one of the immaterial jhana, the 7th I think, mention of moments of fear that can come up. I wrote down "ah ha! dukkha nana!" when I read that. Again giving some credence to my hunch that the same territory is covered in his approach.