Retreat Report--April, 2018
Retreat Report—April, 2018 at ABC
By Oliver Chang
This report relates to a ten day retreat from April 13th to April 24th, 2018 at the American Bodhi Center in Hempstead, Texas, under the guidance of Bhante Gavesi from Malaysia. Bhante Gavesi is a student of renowned teachers Bhante Sujiva, and the late Sayadaw U. Pandita. Bhante Gavesi’s approach to teaching meditation, as well as his Dharma talks—are simple and down to the earth, using plain English. His style of teaching greatly benefits both beginning and experienced yogis.
When talking about the practice of meditation, there are two key phrases that we have often heard: relax the body and soften the mind. If we examine these phrases deeply, within the terms of Vipassana meditation, a relaxed body simply means a body that is free from the physical stresses and pressures that often block the free flow energy throughout the body. A softened mind denotes the wholesome mental state of the Noting mind that is free of mental tension. To quote a well known saying from the Dharmapanda Sutra, “…the mind is a forerunner to the body, in terms of the three deeds in action, speech and thought, or volition in mental formations…”. Basically, this means that a yogi, in an unwholesome mental state, will suffer from mental tension, experience hindrances to Insight, have physical stress & pressure, and fear physical pain during practice. Normally, these experiences occur in sequential order.
Object—In practice, while observing the flow of sensation as the primary object, whatever I am aware of is the secondary object of meditation. More often, this mental activity that is the secondary object reflects the mental state of the Noting Mind. The domain of the primary object, within a certain range, will change and expand along with practice. Initially, the change
takes place in a specific local area, then it expands into a flow in a partial region of the body, and eventually matures into a process of conditioning for the entire body.
Noting Mind—When the Noting Mind becomes an object itself, the practice of Vipassana will advance into Citanaupasi—to the foundation of mindfulness on the mind from the foundation of mindfulness on the body. Whatever the mind presents to the yogi manifests as the object of meditation. Along this path of progression, yogis will learn how to note/observe the movement of the mind, the mental state of the Noting Mind, and Consciousness as the root of all things.
There are two venues of the Noting/Observing invisible mental phenomena (Nama): The Knowing of Awareness—Knowing from the act of Consciousness detects all mental activity. Seeing by the Minds Eye—The Mind’s Eye is a function of the mind door (life continuum Consciousness or sub-consciousness)— seeing all the mental activities as mental images on a mirrorlike screen. It is a very effective tool to monitor the change of mental states during practice.
Skill of Mental Exercise—Vipassana is a form of meditation that nurtures the skill of mental training from the practice of Mindfulness and Concentration. Once the level of mental training becomes skillful, the hindrances of unwholesome mental states will be overcome and replaced by the developed wholesome mental states of the Noting Mind (Consciousness to be exact). When the hindrances standing in the way of insight diminish, the practical Insight of Knowledge will naturally arise, going beyond concepts to the acts of nature.
Wholesome Mental States
The five mental faculties of Consciousness are the wholesome mental states: Faith, Energy (effort), Mindfulness, Concentration, and Wisdom.
Fundamentally, mindfulness is defined as being totally in the present, with clear awareness, and with the power of observation. When you are aware that you are not being mindful, this awareness is actually mindfulness itself. When you become aware of any mental activities, just note the object of awareness mindfully, and the noted mental activities (whether it be hindrances of defilements), will disappear immediately. This is the true power of observation that develops from practicing mindfulness to overcome sorrow and lamentations.
In cases where the power of mindfulness is not strong enough, the noted mental activities will not go away immediately. Just let it be, and let it go, for the Noting mind will not be carried away by the object of awareness. Otherwise, you will add fuel to the fire of defilements. This is the right mental attitude of Meditation in practicing the skill of mindfulness.
The above skill of mental training for Mindfulness can be summarized as: ‘Treat all objects as equal’—otherwise known as the Four No Ground Rules of practice:
Unwholesome Mental States
Simply stated, unwholesome mental states are the unwholesome consciousness states associated with craving, aversion, and delusions. What are these? They are craving for the 5 bodily senses of desire, aversions, agitated mind, sloth and torpor, and skepticism of the Dharma. These five unwholesome mental states stand in the way of Insight, and are also called the Five Hindrances.
Sloth and Torpor— Most often, this unwholesome state is experienced during the first few days of a retreat. Sloth involves a lazy Noting Mind, unwilling to move. It is cured by an arising of the energy faculty, opening the eyes to let light refresh the Noting Mind. Torpor is more hazy, like an unfocused lens that doesn’t clearly observe the object. Applying mindfulness to note this hazy state gradually clears the screen, allowing clarity to emerge.
Agitated Mind— This state describes a mind not at peace, stirring from some inner disturbance or external distraction. On the job or running a business, we are always thinking—planning for the future, or remembering the past, but never staying in the present moment. This kind of constant thinking is an inherited mental habit from years of accumulated agitation. It is very tough to break this kind of mental habit, due to years of faulty conditioning.
As Sayadaw Mahasi put it, sensation and thinking are the two objects that stay with us all of the time, everywhere we go.
Whenever I am aware of thinking, I instantly note the thinking mindfully. When mindfulness is strong, this thinking goes away immediately once it is noted. Please note that thinking is a successive mental activity, in a chain of events. It would be much better to arrest the chain of events of thinking in its early stages, before the power of thinking becomes too strong. The tactic of applying noting awareness is called upon to ‘nip this in the bud’, before it has a chance to flower. Occasionally, I am even able to catch the INTENTION of thought before the thinking event occurs. This is the skill of mental exercise that is relied upon to sharpen awareness through deepened concentration.
Vipassana concentration is also a tool used to overcome thinking. Focus on the chosen object, close the eyes in a ‘do nothing mode’, and just let the awareness do the work. Feel the sensation of falling into sleep, hold the mind steady there, and don’t let the mind get carried away by the object of awareness.
It is taboo to use the Dharma to interpret experiences from practice, for that is a mental habit of attachment. Just let go of the attachment. Detach. From this detachment will come a higher level of mental training in mindfulness.
Skepticism of the Dharma
Skeptical doubt is similar to confusion at a crossroads—we don’t know which way to turn. Confusion leads to agitated thinking and frustration. One may even complain that the method of practice is ‘not working’, or that the teacher is ‘not good enough’. Actually, the problem lies within but it is often common to blame others. The answer to this dilemma lies in the faith or confidence faculty. Not blind faith. In meditation practice, the word ‘faith’ means ‘confidence’—confidence in the
Buddha’s teaching, in advice from intelligent Dharma friends, in the meditation teacher, or from direct personal experience.
Craving and Aversion
Craving of the five body senses results in the desire for always wanting more. This state is like a magnetic attraction that is difficult to get away from. Aversion is the rejection of reality, and refusal to accept what is really happening. Its unpleasant feeling manifests a fuming, burning state. In reality, craving and aversion both belong to the mental habit of attachment. Letting go of attachments—or detachment—is a higher skill of mindfulness practice, as opposed to these two unwholesome mental states of craving and aversion.
Dynamic and incessant change all the time are the nature of observed objects in the practice of Vipassana. Consequently, momentary concentration becomes a salient feature of Vipassana Concentration. The power of momentary concentration can be practiced and progressed in the following sequential order (Jhana Factors.)
Vittaka, Initial Application— The Noting Mind pays attention to the object of meditation. When it is discovered that the Noting Mind has wandered from the object, there is a thought to pull
the Noting Mind back to the object of Meditation. This is the initial application for the Noting Mind paying attention to the object.
Vicara, Sustained Application—The Noting mind is repeatedly able to touch the object, but slips off from the object right away. It is just like a hummingbird hovering near a flower, repeatedly wavering up and down as it tries to feed. This is the power of sustained application, capable of making the object flow, and flow in a particular direction, and finally narrowing down to one pointed concentration.
Once the yogi is skillful enough in the two above Jhana factors, the mindful concentration is capable of secluding the five hindrances of unwholesome mental sates, which in turn holds defilements at bay.
One Pointed Concentration— At this level of momentary concentration, the Noting Mind penetrates into the object of observation, just like a diver jumps into the water and witnesses the scenery there. At this point, the Noting Mind is no longer chasing the object, but instead becomes a natural focal point of the Noting Mind. The one pointed object of observation diffuses out into a new dimension of the observed object, like lifting a curtain in a stage show to reveal the next scene.
The difference between this one pointed concentration and sleeping is very thinly separated. It is just like the the transition that takes place from moving from the conscious state into falling asleep.
The practice of Vipassana not only develops each of the five mental faculties of Consciousness into wholesome mental sates, but also balances the five mental faculties. This balancing skill
is normally divided into two different groups. First, to balance the concentration faculty with the energy faculty, mindfulness stays at the center to check out the balance. Afterwards, the second balancing act between Wisdom (Awareness), and Faith faculties will automatically follow.
In the walking posture, the energy faculty predominates, and the concentration faculty enriches the sitting posture. That is the reason why the Mahasi method of meditation emphasizes walking meditation first before sitting meditation, alternating between the two postures every hour. The enriched energy faculty from walking meditation makes the object of meditation change and flow dynamically. In contrast, the enhanced concentration in the sitting posture makes the flow of the object settle into stillness. Once the pair of energy and concentration are in balance, the flow of the Noting Mind becomes turbulent, and penetrates into the flow of the object, and the observation of this now unified flow becomes evident. The skill of balancing mental faculties is very dynamic, and it takes the experience of trial and error to fine tune this skill.
Wisdom or Awareness
What is awareness? It has taken me almost ten years of practice just to begin to understand the answer to this question. In reality, Awareness is the knowing function of the Noting Mind from the act of Consciousness. Whenever it is needed, this knowing awareness always seems to appear from out of nowhere!
To quote a well known Dharma talk by the late Sayadaw Show Oo Min:
“The object is no longer important. The Noting Mind is working in the background, for that Noting Mind is working to be aware. In other words, that Noting Mind is more important for its function equivalent to observing mind. If the observing is done with the right attitude, i.e., mindfully, the observed object will be the right object.”
The above Dharma talk was a wake up call, flashing like lightening in my head, helping me to realize that Awareness is the end result of the practice of Mindfulness. In terms of Paccaya for the relationship of conditionality, mindfulness is the cause and awareness is the result. Yogis should practice mindfulness relentlessly, to the point of when opportunity ripens, awareness will come along naturally, according to the universal law of conditioning.
In this retreat, I usually woke up naturally around 2:30 – 3:00 a.m., to begin my daily practice in the lying down posture. Waking up this early in the morning is attributed to the sharpened awareness of sleeping with the back side of the body in contact with the bed. This contact initiated a flow of sensation around the entire body, and the awareness of knowing that flow of sensation woke me up naturally. This was my habit and pattern of practicing mindfulness from 3 a.m. to 10 pm for 19 continuous hours during the course of the day.
Direct Experience from Practice
In an intensive retreat, the first three days are usually the most difficult because of the effort needed to release from the hardships of daily living. Thanks to my disciplined, daily, regular practice at home, I was well prepared for the first few days of the retreat, and I was able to transition from the initial hardship
phase without any struggle. This is the first time I’ve had such an experience in 20 years. At the end of only the second day, I began to experience a clear awareness of emotions in change — from pleasant and unpleasant feelings, skeptical fears—and these began to dissipate rapidly.
During the fourth day of sitting, I witnessed, through Vipassana concentration, a tidal wave of flowing mind movement in darkness, to the flow of transparent particles. During walking meditation, the slow, snail pace took place without any effort. This walking became a surging wave with each tiny step of foot motion. Each phase of the walking motion became easily recognizable, each step broken down into discrete segments— stepping, lifting from moment to moment.
On the 6th day, the process of conditioning of the six body sensors reached a mature stage, and stress was broken up by the flowing of rupa particles and energy. There was a centralized spiral flow of sensations along the spine, the facial organs, the heart, and the entire head, from inside out. Every inch of the body revealed a pulsing wave along with my breathing, just as an octopus’ breathing expands and contracts.
From the process of conditioning the six sensors, if the resulting one pointed concentration falls on the eye door, meditation practice leads to the foundation of Mindfulness on the Mind. If the one pointed Concentration falls on the heart organ, the practice will lead to the foundation of Mindfulness on the Dharma.
Experience of Insight Knowledge
It has been described in the above paragraphs that observing the five hindrances with the five developed and balanced mental
faculties of Consciousness, will lead to overcoming sorrow and lamentations. According to the Sutra—Seven Stages of Vehicles in VM commentary, a yogi will attain Mind Purification at the second stage of Vehicles from the seclusion of the Five Hindrances. This is followed up in the third stage of Vehicles with developing 16 Insight Knowledges, in which the practical insight goes beyond words and concepts.
Dissolution at 6th Insight Knowledge—The Rupa of physical phenomena of body, matter, sensations and Rupa Kampala (fine particles) are all dissolved, obliterated into darkness, and transformed into energy. From here arises the Nama of mental phenomena, to advance meditation practice from Mindfulness foundation on the body, to Mindfulness foundation of the Noting Mind.
Distinguished Nama from Rupa at 1st Insight Knowledge—Flow to flow, like streams of oil and water flow separately, for the stream of the Noting Mind flows along with the flow of rupa particles. Upon deepened concentration, the two separate streams of flow are unified into a flow with the flow, like milk merging into water and then flowing together.
Conditionality at 2nd Insight Knowledge—This is an empirical direct experience of the relationship of the Noting Mind to the observed object. The perception/experience from perceiving the observed object is dictated by the mental state of the Noting Mind. This vividly reveals the relationship between the subject as the observer and the object of observation. Another good example; Intention and action in pairs occurs from moment to moment, and process to process—just like a spark occurs just before flames appear. In slow walking, a few repeated thoughts of a desire to walk occur right before each tiny step of leg motion.
Ten days of an intensive retreat falls somewhat short in regards to the amount of time needed to develop deepened Insight Knowledge. After ten days, momentum builds up to achieve this deepened state, but more retreat time is needed to take advantage of this built up momentum.
Personally, the author appreciates the opportunity to write this retreat report. Hopefully, this writing will help to ‘bridge the gap’ between the direct experience of Dharma practice, listening to Bhante’s Dharma talks, and reading the knowledge of Dharma teachings.
OKC May 2018