Thai & Burmese Theravada Traditions of Mindfulness

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The Thai Theravada System of Four Close Placements of Mindfulness

Many people nowadays practice so-called “mindfulness meditation.” Mindfulness meditation is one adaptation of the Theravada practice of the four close placements of mindfulness. The Pali term for the close placement of mindfulness is “satipatthana.” That is often referred to as “vipassana” in Pali, because the actual state of mind that you need to do that practice in its full form is a state of vipassana – “vipassana” is Pali for the Sanskrit word “vipashyana.” In other words, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind and, for that, to be definitional, it needs to be held by shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind.

The Burmese and Thai Theravada traditions don’t emphasize shamatha so much and say that you can just do vipassana practice by itself. The Sri Lankans object to that and say that it has to be done with the perfect concentration of shamatha first. Tibetans in the Mahayana tradition agree with the Sri Lankans on that point, that a state of vipashyana is actually a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana.

Although the main discussion that we will have here is of the Mahayana practice of these four and that is quite different from the Theravada versions, it may be helpful to outline briefly some of the more widespread Theravada practices.

[See: The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness in Theravada]

There are several ways of presenting the four close placements of mindfulness in Theravada. As in everything in Buddhism, there are many different methods. The better-known ones are the Thai and Burmese traditions. In Thailand, you have the system of the great 20th century master, Buddhadasa Bhikku. “Bhikku” means monk. His approach is a more mentally active approach. The other one is a more passive observing type of approach that you have in some of the Burmese systems, particularly of Mahasi Sayadaw. “Sayadaw” is like a great teacher.

Thai Theravada Practice of Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Body

Let me explain the Buddhadasa system in Thai Theravada, which is the one that I’ve looked into a little bit more. Buddhadasa was a great Thai meditation master of the twentieth century. For close placement of mindfulness on the body, what you focus on is the breath. You focus on the sensation of the breath going in and out. There are a lot of different ways of focusing on the breath and you try to do that with some understanding. What is the understanding? The understanding is that the breath affects the body: if you could control the breath and get that to be calm and regular, it will affect the body. For instance, calming your breath affects your experience of the physical sensation of pain. Knowing that, you’re able to manage pain more easily. It will be less of a problem.

So, the close placement of mindfulness on the body in this system entails focusing on the breath with the understanding that it affects the body. It’s an active way of understanding the breath and working with it.

Thai Theravada Practice of Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Feelings

Then we focus on the feelings. Feeling means feelings of happiness and unhappiness. That’s the exclusive meaning of the word “feeling.” Happiness and unhappiness are mental states. We’re not talking about the physical sensations of pleasure and pain. We’re talking about a mental state of happy and unhappy, which for many of us is quite difficult to distinguish from the physical sensations of pleasure and pain. We’re talking about the mental state that could accompany the pleasure or pain. Somebody might enjoy or be happy about feeling pain, like for instance when you do a very strong physical workout and your muscles ache, you’re happy because of the “no pain, no gain” type of thing. You’ve accomplished something even though it hurts; otherwise, for example, you are not satisfied that the workout was strong enough. The correlation doesn’t necessarily follow of pain with unhappiness and pleasure with happiness.

The close placement of mindfulness on the feelings, then is to focus on them with the understanding that they affect the mind. If you are able to deal with the up and down feelings of happiness and unhappiness in a healthier, more realistic way, it will affect the clarity of your mind and the way you understand things, and so on. Obviously if you are completely unhappy and depressed, you don’t understand anything, so the feelings do affect your state of mind. So, that’s how you focus on the feelings.

Thai Theravada Practice of Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Mind

Then, for the mind, you focus on the different thoughts that arise with the recognition and understanding that the thoughts are under the control of disturbing emotions. Are you thinking of something that really annoys you, or something that you have great attachment for, or somebody that you dislike or like, or are you just thinking something loving toward someone, or are you just thinking total nonsense and garbage, which is what is going through our heads a lot of the time? Also, you notice when you are distracted, restless, or not distracted. You learn to control the mind by controlling the thoughts. If you could somehow deal with all these various thoughts that come up and not come under the influence of disturbing emotions or distraction or anything like that, then your mind would become calm.

So, we’re not just talking about the body becoming a little bit calm by focusing on the breath. We’re talking about the mind becoming calm in terms of the thoughts going through your head. This is leading, with the close placement of mindfulness on the mind, toward gaining absorbed concentration, which is one of the aspects of shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind.

Thai Theravada Practice of Close Placement of Mindfulness on Phenomena

The fourth one is focusing on phenomena with absorbed concentration, since you now have good concentration from this third one. Now you focus on the nature of the first three objects, the nature of the breath and the nature of this feeling of freshness, happiness and contentment that you get from this absorbed state of mind. You recognize and understand that bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts constantly change. You recognize impermanence, nonstaticness, and that each of them affect each other; they affect other things and are affected by other things. The physical sensations, the breath, the feelings, and the state of mind change all the time. Then, you understand from that nonstaticness that none of these stay still: they’re changing from moment to moment and that is their suffering nature, the suffering of change.

From there the meditation goes on to understanding that there is a lack of an impossible soul controlling these. This means that you can’t really control and stop things from changing from moment to moment. That leads to an understanding of voidness in this Theravada sense, that there’s no “me” that could control things and can prevent anything from changing from moment to moment, and that nothing is “mine” because you can’t hold onto to anything. That leads to understanding what is called the accordant nature, meaning that things are just like that. So, you accept that this is the way that things are; and then, you understand the conditionality, that they dependently arise through the twelve links of dependent arising.

So, now you fully understand impermanence or nonstaticness and that leads to non-attachment, not being attached to things; and when you’re not attached to them that leads to being even-minded and equanimity. There is no “me” to be attached to anything; there is nothing that I can be really attached to because everything changes from moment to moment. So, I just leave it and that leads to a true stopping and then you let go of samsaric existence. This is the path that leads to nirvana, liberation, according to this Buddhadasa version of Theravada.

You can see that it is a very full practice and it deals with the four noble truths:

  • true suffering is the suffering of change, impermanence
  • its true cause is believing in an impossible “me” that is inside the body and mind and could control this constant change
  • its true stopping is the absence of the disturbing emotions and compulsive karmic behavior that come from believing in such an impossible “me”
  • the true pathway mind is the discriminating awareness that there is no such thing as such an impossible “me.”

So only the first step is the focus on the breath. You have to understand what you are doing when you are focusing on the breath. It’s not just to calm down. You focus on the breath to calm down as the preliminary to generating a positive state of mind. To focus on the breath with understanding, of course you need to calm down, but the focus is that the breath affects the body. If you are breathing in a fast, horrible way, the body is all tight and it affects the energy and so on. So, that’s what we have in this one system.

[See: The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness in Theravada]

The Burmese Approach to Vipassana with the Four Close Placements of Mindfulness

In the Burmese tradition, the most common practice of the four close placements of mindfulness comes from Mahasi Sayadaw. “Sayadaw” means a great teacher. This is a more observational approach to the practice, rather than an active understanding of these four: body and so on. It’s more noticing and observing what’s going on. The idea here is that you observe the physical sensations and the feelings of happiness and unhappiness and the thoughts and phenomena and what’s going through your mind and consciousness, all these sorts of things, and what you observe is that it’s going so quickly, changing from moment to moment, that you can’t grasp at anything. Because you can’t grasp at anything and hold onto anything, you get disenchanted from it. There is no attachment because you learn that you can’t be attached to any of this because it’s passing and changing all the time. Then you get equanimity toward them, which means that there is no reaction to the arising and falling of these thoughts, physical sensations and so on. That leads to renunciation, that you’re not interested in them any more.

If you get that renunciation, then eventually you stop grasping and that’s the state of nirvana. This is the Mahasi way of practicing and it’s effective.

Verbalizing While Practicing Theravada Close Placement of Mindfulness

There are also two different styles regarding verbalizing what’s happening while practicing the Theravada forms of close placement of mindfulness. The Mahasi method is to verbalize in your mind what is happening. So, for example, “breath coming in, breath going out” or “feeling happy, feeling unhappy” and so on. The Thai Buddhadasa way of practicing is without labeling or saying what you’re observing. Some people add walking meditation, in which you notice the movement of your feet and so on, as in “Now I’m walking; now I’m lifting my foot,” and so on. Goenka’s form of vipassana doesn’t have that walking meditation. Goenka was a Burmese Indian lay practitioner who reintroduced this practice to India. What is mostly taught in the West as vipassana comes from the Goenka form of the Burmese style.

In short, there are many different styles of doing this type of meditation, but they are all within the context of focusing on the body, the feelings, the mind, and phenomena. The main thing that is discussed in terms of Theravada is to understand or observe that all of them are impermanent; they are changing continuously. That’s a big emphasis in Theravada. Because of the impermanence of things, nothing is ever satisfying, so there is suffering, and there is no separate “me” that is experiencing this suffering or that can control this impermanence. Nonstatic, suffering and no separate “me” (no atman) are the three general characteristics that are involved with the Theravada understanding of the four noble truths.

But, the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths is a much fuller system and when you go more deeply into the Hinayana systems like Theravada, at least according to the Mahayana presentation of them, they also practice seeing all these details of the sixteen. Whether it is the way that it’s actually taught now, I really don’t know.

Current Western Mixtures

The so-called “mindfulness meditations” that people do in the West are basically an adaptation of the very first stages of these Theravada practices and, especially as practiced in the West, usually divorced from all the other aspects of Theravada, such as vows, rituals and sutra recitation. Often, mindfulness meditation combines this practice with other systems. So, this is sort of a Western mixed package, in which you take little things from different traditions, like New Age or dzogchen. You quiet down and just be in the present, here and now, but that’s not even the practice in the Theravada systems. This “be here now” was Baba Ram Das’s idea and that’s something else, not even Buddhism.

Usually Western mindfulness meditation for dealing with pain, stress and so on is not practiced for attaining liberation or enlightenment. There’s no question that they’re very helpful for pain and stress management, but they are not going to bring you liberation and enlightenment unless you are aiming for liberation and enlightenment. So long as that is clear about what you are aiming for and why, it’s perfectly fine. The problem is if you reduce Buddhism to being just calming down and managing stress and pain, then that is being unfair to Buddhism, because Buddhism is much more than just that. So long as everything is clear, then this Western mindfulness meditation is beneficial. And if you practice calming down and dealing with your stress as a preliminary for being able to attain liberation and enlightenment, realizing of course that that is not enough for attaining liberation and enlightenment, then it becomes part of the path. Then, it’s even better.