Issue 18;

A World of Wonder

Book Review

In This Very Life’ - The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha

By Sayadaw U Pandita

Sayadaw U Pandita is one of the foremost living masters of Vipassana meditation. He trained in the Theravada tradition and is a successor to the late Mahasi Sayadaw. During his long teaching career (he is 92) he has taught many of the Western teachers and students of the Mahāsi Burmese style of Vipassana meditation. He is the abbot of Panditārāma Meditation Center in Yangon, Myanmar.

U Pandita is known for teaching a rigorous and precise method of self-examination. He teaches Satipatthāna or Vipassana meditation, emphasizing sīla or moral discipline as a requisite foundation.

An extract from the instructions for participants during retreats at U Pandita’s Monastery Panditarama in Myanmar  hint at the rigour of the practice:

  1. There is only one task to be done by the meditators, i.e. to practice with:
    • respect and sincerity
    • diligence
    • heroic effort
    • perseverance
    • patience
    • sustained, continuous, moment-to- moment mindfulness from the time of waking up in the morning to the time of falling asleep at night.
  2. Meditators should do 14 hours of formal sitting and walking meditation per day.
  3. Meditators should keep alone and observe silence. Socializing is not encouraged at all.
  4. Meditators must refrain from talking.
  5. Meditators must keep reading and writing to an absolute minimum.
  6. Lay meditators must carefully observe the eight precepts. Smoking is not allowed. Monks and nuns must strictly observe their respective monastic discipline.
  7. Sleep should be limited to 4-6 hrs per 24 hours.

And I thought Zen could be tough!

U Pandita became well-known in the West after conducting a retreat in the spring of 1984 at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts in the United States. Many of the senior Western meditation teachers in the Mahāsi tradition practiced with U Pandita at that and subsequent retreats. The talks he gave in 1984 at IMS were compiled as the book under review "In This Very Life."

I have been studying this with a Swedish friend in a weekly series of SKYPE conversations and I would recommend this method to anyone who wishes to inquire deeply into a book or sutra. It is fun, enlightening and sociable!

The style of ‘In This Very Life,’ is lucid (the translator The Venerable U Aggacitta) is to be congratulated) humorous in places and spiced with metaphors and analogies that clarify with simplicity and power.

When speaking of the effort and concentration required in lifting the foot in walking meditation:

‘As we get closer and closer to this lifting (of the foot) process, we will see that it is like a line of ants crossing the road. From afar the line may appear static, but from close up it begins to shimmer and vibrate. From even closer the line breaks up into individual ants, and we see that our notion of a line was just an illusion. We now accurately perceive the line of ants as one ant after another ant. Exactly like this, when we look accurately at the lifting process (of the foot) from beginning to end, the mental factor or quality of consciousness called “insight” comes nearer the object of concentration.’ 

Another example of U Pandita’s ability to clarify what can often appear to be complex concepts occurred in a meeting with a cousin of the king of Thailand when she asked him,

"If you were to give the most concise, the clearest explanation of the nature of vipassanâ possible, how would you do it?"

Sayadaw had her open her palm and then make a fist. "What do you perceive?" he asked.

"I perceive tension and hardness, Bhante," she answered.

Sayadaw had her spread her hand, "What do you perceive?" he asked again.

"I perceive loosening and movement, Bhante," she answered.

Sayadaw told her to slowly, minutely and mindfully make a fist and open it. "What do you perceive?" he asked again. She answered, "Other than coming to perceive even more the tension and hardness, looseness and movement, I came to perceive hardness and softness, warmth and coolness."

"That kind of looking to perceive the natures which are, as they are, is the work of vipassanā," Sayadaw said. When he said that, she understood well the nature of vipassanâ. She was extremely pleased with Sayadaw's ability to give such an immediate and experiential explanation. Most people think that vipassanā is extremely difficult work. It seemed that the Thai king's cousin had thought that way too. Apparently, she concluded that though she had thought it difficult work before, now that Sayadaw had explained it, it was quite easy.

Yet another vivid analogy is given when speaking of the care and attention that is required when meditating:

A meditator can also be compared to a person carrying a bowl that is brimful with oil. You can imagine the degree of care that is required not to spill it. This same degree of mindfulness should be present in your practice.”

‘In This Very Life’ is wide ranging, covering many topics from Sila, Basic Morality, to ‘Potential Unwholesome States’ in the chapter on ‘The Ten Armies of Mara,’ to the ‘The Seven factors of Enlightenment’. “One does not become enlightened by merely gazing at the sky.”

Whilst recognising that this book is teaching a very different tradition to our Soto Zen practice I have discovered In U Pandita’s wisdom much to reflect on as well as gaining some insight to the Burmese Vipassana tradition. I feel certain I will return to these wise teachings again and again.

Review by Michael Elsmere

Kogan Muju

Wisdom Books 1991

ISBN 0-86171-311-7

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