An Interview With Sayadaw

Meditation at Pa-Auk Tawya Meditation Centre

– A conversation with the Pa-Auk Tawya Sayadaw, abbot and master of Pa-Auk Tawya Meditation Centre.

by Jeffrey Po of “For You” Magazine

Pa-Auk view (Dec, 2005) JPEG

The Most Venerable Pa-Auk Tawya Sayadaw, abbot and master of Pa-Auk Tawya Meditation Centre, was in town last December to give Dhamma talks at the Pa-Auk Meditation Centre (Singapore). Jeffrey finds out more about the Sayadaw’s monastery and what he teaches.

JPo:             Good morning, Sayadaw, and welcome to Singapore. Can the Sayadaw perhaps tell the readers about the Sayadaw’s meditation centre in Myanmar?

The Sayadaw: Pa-Auk Meditation Centre comprises three monasteries near the village of Pa-Auk, outside Mawlamyine (Moulmein), the capital of the Mon State, southwest of Yangon. I am the third abbot since Pa-Auk Tawya Meditation Centre was established about 100 years ago. It occupies about 400-500 acres, and there are about 300 single dwellings, 3 dormitories, 5 meditation halls, an almsgiving hall, refectory, infirmary, library, etc. There is a standing population of about 800 yogis. During school holidays or festivals, the population increases up to even 1500 yogis. The majority of yogis are Myanmarese monks, with a good number of Myanmarese nuns and laywomen. There are about 150 foreign yogis, most of whom have ordained at Pa-Auk Tawya. Almost all of them are from South-East Asia and East Asia, with a few Westerners. There are also a number of Mahāyāna monks and nuns.

JPo:             What is taught at the Sayadaw’s meditation centre?

The Sayadaw: We teach according to the Pali Texts of Buddhism, and the purpose of our teaching is for the yogi to attain Nibbāna. That requires full and direct personal knowledge of ultimate mentality and materiality (nāma-rūpa), which is vipassanā meditation. Such full knowledge requires that one has developed deep and profound concentration (samādhi), which is samatha meditation. To develop samatha, one needs first of all to train in morality (sīla). At our centre this means one needs first to undertake either the nine precepts of a layperson, the ten precepts of a nun or novice, or the Pātimokkha precepts of a fully ordained Buddhist monk. Well established in good morality, one then begins with samatha meditation. If one is successful, one will attain what The Buddha calls the light of wisdom (paññ-āloka). With further development, one reaches the jhānas, and then the light of wisdom is very strong, very bright. One then uses that light of wisdom to practise vipassanā.

JPo:             Could the Sayadaw please explain this light of wisdom further?

The Sayadaw: The light of wisdom is a natural concomitant of deep and profound one-pointedness of mind (citt-ek-aggatā). It is necessary to develop this light, in order that one may penetrate to ultimate reality. Unless one penetrates to ultimate reality, one cannot practise vipassanā meditation. With the light of wisdom one will with four-elements meditation be able to see that one’s body and other materiality is made up of sub-atomic particles, which arise and perish with great speed. They are called rūpa-kalāpas. They cannot be seen unless one has developed the light of wisdom ― it is impossible. But they are not ultimate materiality yet. One needs then to penetrate the rūpa-kalāpas in order to see the individual types of materiality of each type of rūpa-kalāpa. They make up the rūpa-kalāpas, and they are ultimate materiality. Then one needs to analyse the various types of materiality, in order fully to know with direct knowledge which is which, and in order to see that each type of materiality is without any permanent substance. One needs then to follow the same procedure in order fully to know with one’s own direct knowledge the various types of ultimate mentality, and to see that mind too is without any permanent substance. One needs then to follow this same process with regard to materiality and mentality of the past, future, internally and externally, etc. Only then is one able fully to understand with one’s own full knowledge that the world and oneself is made of nothing but mentality and materiality (nāma-rūpa), with no permanent substance. This is vipassanā as taught by The Buddha. But many do not accept our teaching. Many Asians and Westerners complain, and say the rūpa-kalāpas are not mentioned in the suttas. This is correct. In the suttas, The Buddha does not give such practical details, only general guidelines. But if one knows the practical meaning of the suttas, one will understand that when in the ‘Mahā-Rāhul-Ovāda’ sutta, The Buddha tells his son to discern and analyse the space element, He is referring to practical discernment of the rūpa-kalāpas.

JPo:             Could the Sayadaw please elaborate on the ākāsa-dhātu (space element)?

The Sayadaw: The ākāsa-dhātu (space element) forms the boundaries between the rūpa-kalāpas. And only when the yogi is able to discern those boundaries is the yogi able to discern the rūpa-kalāpas. And only when the yogi has discerned the rūpa-kalāpas is the yogi able to penetrate to ultimate materiality, and analyse the various elements that make up the rūpa-kalāpa ― for example, the earth-, water-, fire-, and wind element, colour, odour, and flavour. Without such direct knowledge, one cannot understand materiality, in which case, one cannot develop proper vipassanā, in which case one cannot attain Nibbāna. That is why one needs to develop proper concentration (sam­ādhi). By concentration, The Buddha means nearly always jhāna concentration and proper mastery of each jhāna ― first the four fine-material jhānas and then the four immaterial jhānas. At Pa-Auk, we usually teach the yogi to develop the jhānas with ānāpānassati (mindfulness of breathing) and then we teach them to use their ānāpānassati jhāna to develop all the other samatha subjects taught by The Buddha ― for example, the four sublime abidings such as loving-kindness and compassion.

JPo:             How does a yogi know that she or he has achieved a certain level of proficiency in concentration? A certain level of jhāna?

The Sayadaw: This is what we mean by proper mastery of the jhānas. It requires systematic practice under a qualified teacher. For example, to practise mindfulness of breathing, the yogi needs to concentrate on the in-and-out breath as it touches on the upper lip or around the nostrils. The yogi then needs to know whether the breath is long or short. Then the yogi needs to know the beginning, middle and end of the breath. That is all, nothing else. Once the yogi is able to know the in-and-out breath in this way, and no other object, over a long time, there may arise a nimitta, which means sign. It is a mental image that arises because of one’s concentration, because of one’s perception of the breath. With further development, eventually the breath object and the nimitta will become one. There is no difference. Then, once the yogi can sit for two or three or four hours continuously over many days without adverting to any other object, we may say that the yogi has attained the first jhāna. Then, according to The Buddha’s instructions, the yogi needs to learn how to discern what are called the jhāna factors of the concentrated mind. And the yogi needs to learn how to predetermine the duration of the jhāna attainment, how to enter jhāna and how to emerge from jhāna, and how to discern the jhāna factors. The yogi needs to learn how to do this with ease, and this is what is called mastery of the jhāna. Then the yogi learns how to develop the second jhāna and the masteries of that jhāna, and so on up to the fourth immaterial jhāna. Here again, many Asians and Westerners complain, and say The Buddha does not teach the nimitta in the suttas. Again, this is true. The Buddha does not teach such details in the suttas. But He mentions the radiant light of the concentrated mind in many suttas ― when He explains the practice preliminary to vipassanā.

JPo:             How important is it to be able to ‘see’ this nimitta?

The Sayadaw: If you want to go to Pa-Auk, you need a visa. Without a visa, the authorities will not allow you to enter Myanmar. In the same way, the nimitta is the visa to deep concentration, the jhānas. Without such deep concentration, one cannot come fully to know ultimate mentality and materiality with one’s own direct knowledge, which means one cannot attain any vipassanā knowledge, which means one cannot attain Nibbāna. Then you may decide for yourself how important it is to be able to see a nimitta.

JPo:             How long does a beginner need to stay in the meditation centre for preliminary instructions and practice?

The Sayadaw: That depends on the individual yogi. Some stay only for a short time, some stay for a longer time, and some stay for many years. Some only want to try a little bit, some want to try more, and some want to attain Nibbāna. How quickly one succeeds depends on one’s pāramī ―the practice of morality, concentration and wisdom that one did in past lives ― and the quality of one’s present practice. How far one wants to go, depends also on one’s pāramī. It is because of their pāramī that some foreign yogis ordain as a nun or monk, and stay for many years. Our foreign yogis usually get a meditation visa from a Myanmarese embassy either in their home country or somewhere else. They can get that visa extended. We have volunteers who do all the paperwork.

JPo:             One final question ― are there any sort of fees or charges involved?

The Sayadaw: The Myanmarese government demands US dollars for a meditation visa, and for the one-year extension of one’s meditation visa. There are no other charges. There are no charges for staying at the monastery. Some visitors make a donation, but that is their own wish. Food, dwelling, and meditation instructions, etc., are given free of charge ― that is The Buddha’s way. For the welfare and happiness of all beings.

JPo:             Thank you, Sayadaw.

–      Interviewed by Jeffrey Po of “For You” Magazine at Pa-Auk Meditation Centre (Singapore) in December 2009

Interview PAS 1

Interview PAS 2