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Random musings from a chat with a monk

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18/07/12

I had the good fortune of having a chat with Ajahn Sujato over the weekend. He is a practicing monk and a textual pali scholar. .These are a few of the points that stick in my mind. I present them randomly and without the context they were talked in, so please forgive me. As an aside this is his blog - http://sujato.wordpress.com/

- “vipassana as taught by mahasi sayadaw is not an insight practice. It’s more of a concentration practice..... Vipassana is seeing things as they are”. This statement really surprised me. At the time it did not occur to to ask, “what is seeing things as they are and how do you do that”.

I said that I am following a noticing practice similar to the Mahasi technique but not neccesarily noting, more noticing. I then asked about the validity of the Mahasi theory particularly about the Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga on which a lot of it is based. Ajahn Sujato replied largely that:

“Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga were used as manuals for teaching” - this was the primary purpose. Although the stages are accurate it was not meant as a do it yourself guide (although obviously it can be used in that manner). It was a guide for teachers to use to help with determining where their students practice is at and how to help them.
It is useful in knowing that unusual events can happen and not to be fazed by this. However what I perceive to be the biggest failing of MTCToTB (I’m a fan btw) is the leap that many can make in waiting for, expecting results instead of actually practicing, actually paying attention. This is not helpful, and which is my biggest failing. There is an art to paying attention, and for me getting this art wrong yielded (and continues to yeild) a lot of frustration, which compounds when expecting certain things to happen as described in MTCToTB.

“Vipassana as now taught now as a method was a due to a reaction of different countries”. - This is in reference to the fact that the different Theravada countries combated colonialism and a loss of their religion by different means. Thailand, which was not colonised had no reactions so to speak of but had an evolution of it own, that was influenced only by internal factors. Sri Lanka which at the time, this around the turn of the century had the highest literacy rate of the three countries. As a result to spread the teachings it was a deliberate tactic that the sangha at the time printed leaflets and books at a high rate. As a result most of the learning was done about teachings and theory. I can bear this out as my background is Sri Lankan and the knowledgeability of the teachings is high, practice on the other hand sadly is much lower in comparison. The Burmese sangha faced with a population that was not as literate turned to technique that were easily teachable and would bear results. Hence the large amount of meditation centres in Burma (for the Burmese) and in particular the development of the Mahasi technique as a means of spreading the teachings.

- “meditation methods are a 19th invention”. In the past, pre 19th century and onwards, although monks and nuns indeed were knowledgeable, you learnt from your teacher or master. It was that simple. Sometimes you may have learnt from different masters at different points in time. But that was it. You were helped along the way, and not with a guide like the MTCToTB, but it was practice orientated and you may have had a weekly or monthly interview with your master. In the rainy season when the monks are in retreat this may have been every day.

Further I asked about the Ajahn Chah tradition and whether meditation techniques are involved. To which Ven. Sujato responded the Ajahn Chah tradition although it obviously employs some meditation methods is more about lifestyle (of a monk). In particular how to live and practice.

I wished I had recorded the chat as it was a small crowd with only me, my wife and another lady. There are some other recorded dhamma talks with Ajahn Sujato on the web. Like here - http://santifm.org/santi/downloads/

Aswini

RE: Random musings from a chat with a monk
Answer
7/18/12 6:36 PM as a reply to A man Not there yet.
It would appear that it all boils down to mindset. If the mindset is not in place to be able to 'practice' as the venerable exhorts, then it doesn't matter what situation one finds themselves in, living with a teacher close, living far from a teacher with only MCTB as a guide, if one does not put things into action 24/7, and cultivates the momentum needed in practicing vipassana i.e. seeing things clearly as they are (noting is meant to be about noting things as they arise, no looking for anything special to note, at least that is how i practiced, choicelssly). Though i will put forth that practicing noting may be conditioning specific results compared to a more sutta like approach of seeing things as they are within jhana and letting go of fashioning/fabricating. Noting will bring results and brain changes if the mindset is conducive to actually practicing with a growing momentum. Other approaches will also bring results and brain changes. Some changes may differ slightly though....maybe.

Mindset. If the venerable monk's advice triggers a mindset that feels like it has a solid base to practice from, use it!

Nick

RE: Random musings from a chat with a monk
Answer
7/18/12 6:56 PM as a reply to Nikolai ..
hey nick,

I know you have had some experience with the brain scan stuff, does there seem to be evidence that neuroplasticity has something to do with mental behaviors (sankharas)? I know that there is evidence that it has something to do with concentration, as shown in the yale study, but perhaps fabricating/not fabricating is something not picked up, as that is a change in mental behavior not necessarily structure of the brain.

An analogy is that if someone lifted lots of weights you could clearly tell by looking at their body, but it would be way harder to see that they were good at piano.

just a random thought

RE: Random musings from a chat with a monk
Answer
7/18/12 8:50 PM as a reply to Adam . ..
Adam . .:
hey nick,

I know you have had some experience with the brain scan stuff, does there seem to be evidence that neuroplasticity has something to do with mental behaviors (sankharas)? I know that there is evidence that it has something to do with concentration, as shown in the yale study, but perhaps fabricating/not fabricating is something not picked up, as that is a change in mental behavior not necessarily structure of the brain.

An analogy is that if someone lifted lots of weights you could clearly tell by looking at their body, but it would be way harder to see that they were good at piano.

just a random thought


Disclaimer: This is my own experience.


While in the machine I saw in real time with feedback when awareness moved to just the seen and just the heard. In hindsight, I saw that I did perhaps recognize the absence of mental movements to fabricate 'objects' of consciousness. I had become more aware of the absence of such tendencies from past (what I considered full blown) PCE experiences and had begun to refer to such experiences as just seen in the seen, heard in the heard. So I was familiar with that absence.

The fmri machine was quite loud and I was with eyes open so when all intention to manipulate awareness and overlay it with a mental representation dropped, heard in the heard and just seen in the seen was the experience. The realtime feedback the research team gave (via computer screen) showed when awareness was like so versus when it flipped back to a movement of mind which was not 'seen in the seen' which gave off the what I called the 'shadow-being' experience and all the mental proliferation and vedana arising that accompanied it. In other words what I now term 'fabrications' of mind; aspects of experience overlayed and given 'shape' by the fashioning mind and its created 'mental overlays' i.e. 'objects' and a subjective reaction to said objects.

The feedback was delayed a few seconds but enough for me to be able to quickly shift back and forth from what I was calling 'seen in the seen' versus the unsatisfactory mental movement (which was related to the self narratives). This shifting back and forth and the real time feedback showing this back and forth shed light on exactly what I could do to train the mind to relinquish that which i saw as unsatisfactory (the mental movements and mental proliferation). In hindsight, what I now term 'sankhara' or fabrications (compounded phenomena giving rise to the self-narratives) was seen to be represented in the realtime feedback I received. This had a very profound effect on my practice afterwards as I simply kept doing what I did in the machine in daily life. The feedback was enough to confirm what I was doing originally was actually changing the way the brain operated. And it has since gone through further changes due to the angle and approach gained form my experience there.

Disclaimer: this is my own take on my own experience. No absolutes.

RE: Random musings from a chat with a monk
Answer
7/18/12 8:46 PM as a reply to Nikolai ..
2 disclaimers!
I will be sure not to take this as absolute ;)

RE: Random musings from a chat with a monk
Answer
7/19/12 5:44 AM as a reply to Nikolai ..
Hi Nick,

Thanks for the advice and direction. By "It would appear that it all boils down to mindset" that you refer to this means "put things into action 24/7" in order to cultivate momentum. If you would like to expand on this I would appreciate this very much. I think you have written about this on the hamilton blog, just wondering if there was anything else or is what I have quoted of your reply above a succinct enough summary.

BTW, you are spot on in regards to me and mindset. This is something I have thought about all today and attempted to experiment with. I find trying to just see what I am doing at the present moment is key to staying with phenomena, even though my attention will swayed by many different desire and wants at one time. Particularly the want to get so many "things" all the time, and these things begin and end and another starts again almost instantaneously.

For me with noting, I have found I am playing a catch up game. This is in comparison to your technique of "riding the wave", where I can observe the arising and passing of phenomena much more clearly. With this technique combined with perceiving perception in kasina practice has enabled me to see non-self more than I have ever before. I use noting when I am trying to find a rhythm, but otherwise I find I get stuck in the loop of looking for phenomena rather than choicelessly observing. Perhaps I am not doing noting properly, but the "riding the wave" technique hits the target better for me.

The musings I remember above just struck me as things I remember most in the conversation and prodded my curiosity. Some things I agree with, other things I just find interesting.

Another random thing I remember from the conversation was "You can have 20 people in a retreat, and all 20 will be doing the meditation technique differently. Every single one of them. They will all think they are doing the technique as instructed. They are trying to apply what they think the method is" - this was in reference to how for each individual, practice is different with respect to their own weaknesses and strengths, how varied each person's encounter can be even when they are trying to master the same technique.

Aswini