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Vipassana - Thai vs Burmese styles

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Vipassana - Thai vs Burmese styles
Answer
12/21/19 9:49 PM
Hi All

As Ajahn Tong sadly passed away recently I'd like to discuss how he taught vipassana and compare it to the Pandita type.  

I practiced Ajahn Tong's style under his senior student Khun Thanath at his centre in Chomtong, Thailand for a number of years. I must have spent a good three months on retreat there in total. Last year, I took my first Panditarama retreat in Nepal for 20 days. Before all this I practiced Goenka-style for a few years and my main teacher teaches Mahasi via Gil Fronsdale. So I have a mix of influences but Ajahn Tong's style is a big one. 

Ajahn Tong (AT) was one of a handful of Thai monks sent to learn vipassana from Mahasi in the 1950s. He has been teaching it ever since with a few modifications which his Thai devotees regard as improvements. 

The biggest change he made is the use of "touching points" (TP). Mahasi mentions TP as something to do if meditation gets "boring or monotonous" or when excessively tired (https://mahasivipassana.com/docs/mahasi-qa/). However AT has made it a central feature adding 20 more touching points to Mahasi's orginal list of six or seven. Also, AT has meditators use the TPs in every sitting period not just when rising/falling falls away or you feel tired. 

On a retreat teachers add extra TPs on a regular basis building meditators up slowly as their concentration increases. So by the last few days of retreat you note like this:

Rising
Falling
Touching (the mind reaches out and contacts first of the series of TPs)
Rising 
Falling
Touching (mind contacts the next TP) ... and so on until all 26 points all over the body have been contacted. Then you start again. If a large object arises you note as normal and then return to the above exercise starting from the beginning of the series of TPs. So you have to be very concentrated (i.e. with no hinderances) to complete all 26 TPs with no interruptions. 

My experience with Panditarama is much more limited (only one 20-day retreat) but I was taught to zero-in on the breath and predominant objects. To penetrate them, know them deeply and understand their nature. So, in practice, as the hinderances weakened and fell away, I spent much longer on an object then in AT's system where the mind is constantly moving. This seemed to develop a much deeper kind of samadhi, and factors like tranquility and piti were experienced more often. 

The reasons behind the techniques reveal a big difference in approach. Khun Thanath explained that people have "too much concentration and not enough mindfulness" and so most meditators need to move their attention around to avoid becoming too absorbed in an object and either stalling in absorption or getting attached to an object. 

The teachers at Panditarama said that actually people didin't have enough concentration and encouraged me to build up as much samadhi as possible while using insight techniques to break up phenomena. The focus on the three characteristics did prevent absorption, but as I said, the longer time spent with objects did lead to tranquility factors building up (whether these were factors leading to jhana, or enlightenment factors, or five factulties I am not skilled enough to say). 

Walking meditation was pretty much the same except AT taught the six-step method to advanced retreatents because there are "more points of mindfulness" occuring. The Panditarama teachers said the maximum should be three-step walking and any more then that was too complex and interefered with insight. Another difference was Panditarama was fine with long sitting periods of 90 minutes or two hours while AT alternates hourly periods of walking and sitting. 

There is another major difference but I'll leave that for later because I want to look at what I see as the main difference which is the idea of how samadhi is built and used. Naturally what follows is my own experience report so take it all as a work in progress and with a massive pinch of salt, chilli flakes and whatever other seasoning you enjoy. 

AT has people move their attention so they only develop "momentary concentration" and completely avoid stronger samadhi states. In my experience this seems to lead to a much rockier ride as the factors of tranquility and piti remain nascent and so when things get difficult there is not much of a buffer. However progress seemed to be much quicker then at Panditarama where the stronger samadhi made for a more comfortable experience but slower progress then I experienced at Chomtong. 

If I was to hypothosise  it might be that AT's method might be quicker at "breaking apart" experience as the quick movement of attention allows little time to stabalize or rest in anything other then the light momentary concentration produced. However AT's speed could produce perhaps superficial progress because there is no time to deeply penetrate and know an object before moving on. I must allow for the possibility that the deeper and more precise method at Panditarama might produce a deeper process. 

Now the secondary aspect. AT has "determination days" where the last two or three days of the retreat are spent in continuous meditation without sleeping or showering. Food can only be eaten in seculsion in your room. You only stop for interviews. They achieve continuous wakefulness by doing a shitload of walking meditation. So the schedule for the first determination day has the same hour-long walking periods but alternating sitting periods deminish in length from one hour down to just 15 minutes. The second day is more lenient and you go back to hourly sessions of both. If you happen to fall asleep no one scolds you. 

Determination was complete hell the first few times. One time I forced myself to hard and experienced some really bad negative side effects like derealization. Luckily my regular teacher was around to pick up the pieces. However, when I was strong enough to actually do this practice it really revved things up for me and I felt like I saw more deeply into the nature of phenomena then any other time. 

The Panditarama teachers did not approve of all-night practice and called it "unbalanced." They recommended 6 hours sleep a night give or take. 

Interestingly, I interviewed Gil Fronsdale for my new podcast (out next year follow on instgram @escsamara) and asked him about this kind of practice and he said it was suitable in some situations as a way to look at our attachments to comfort. And of course Shinzen Young talks about similar determination practices as a "fast track to enlightenment."

Very keen to hear your thoughts!

I would like to end by paying respect and homage to Ajahn Tong who left the world recently - he was a brilliant monk and meditator. 

(crossposted to r/streamentry)

RE: Vipassana - Thai vs Burmese styles
Answer
12/22/19 7:01 AM as a reply to Rumblebuffen.
Thankyou for an interesting read! I'm not as experienced as you, so take what I say with a massive pinch of salt as well. I think it is really good to know the assumptions behind a certain approach to practice, like you described, because people are different. I also think that it isn't always the best choice to work more on your weaknesses. Sometimes it is more beneficial to build on your strengths first, and then when those are strong enough, it is time to work on your weaknesses. As for the rocky ride, it is possible to develop a taste for it, within reason. I believe in getting to know one's personal conditions and develop an intuition as to what works and what doesn't and to one's needs for balance. I would want my teachers to adjust instructions to what works for me (or of they lack the resources for that, to at least allow me to make adjustements when there is an urgent need for it). Good to hear that your teacher could help you through a difficult time when you had been encouraged to force yourself too hard. 

RE: Vipassana - Thai vs Burmese styles
Answer
12/22/19 8:19 AM as a reply to Rumblebuffen.
Thanks for sharing this. It made me reflect when I first started experimenting with Kenneth Folk's more free-style noting (without primary object) after years of using a primary object (breath), it made me experience obvious A&P territory quickly. There seems to be something about moving attention from object to object that can initiate the A&P quickly.

This being said, after the A&P is where the development of more samatha skills (collectedness, tranquility, etc) becomes more important. Does AT change his instructions at some point in the students' progress?

I think even Goenka changed his instructions after student reached bhanga (dissolution) where the student stops scanning and simply stays aware of the whole body (which is induces more stillness/samatha).