Postby katavedi » Mon Aug 08, 2016 9:04 am
Thanks for detailing what you've been exposed to in shaping your understanding of these things. Interesting the degree of conditioning of ideas according to what one has been exposed to.
Somehow I was fortunate to study with a teacher (Shaila Catherine) who was enthusiastic about teaching jhana
practice, and the value of learning it – before I came across the surprisingly common skeptical, pessimistic views as to how hard it may be to learn, and also how it's really not necessary, even dangerous. I can imagine how that kind of (mis-)information, as first impression, could influence others, even inhibit their ability to learn.
It wasn't easy, but not more difficult that other skills I've grappled with over the years. Granted I had a grounding in (khanika
) concentration from decades of experience with music, especially performance; and am relatively free of serious psychological "hang-ups". It's also s/w surprisingly that (it seems) a lot of people attracted to Buddhism around here ARE seeking relief from various neuroses, which can, apparently, be obstacles to the kind of mental relaxation necessary for absorption concentration.
katavedi wrote: 30% of the monks and nuns at the monastery are able to access the jhanas in the way that he [Pa Auk Sayadaw] teaches.
That's a pretty good success ratio (relative to 1 in a million or billion), actually, given his very high standards. Shaila Catherine, who worked with the Pa Auk Sayadaw for a couple of multi-month stints, was definitely in that 30%, could do jhana-s
for hours, days, and was trained further into the "7 purifications" (she wrote a book – "Wisdom Wide and Deep
" --, with the support of the Sayadaw, about the whole vism
. path; and her 1st book – "Focused and Fearless
" – was dedicated to just training jhana
). I believe that he holds to those high standards to preserve a purified standard for the tradition. In this day and age, things tend to get watered-down quite quickly when standards like that are not at least held up by some. Several years ago, Shaila took a group of us (devotees) to hear Pa Auk Sayadaw give a 2-hour talk when he was in town (SF Bay area). When he said things like try to hold the nimitta
for ½ hour or more, or practice to hold 1st jhana
for an hour –"two hours would be better" I heard him say – etc. my sense was that he was not saying that something less than that degree of mastery means total failure at getting basic jhana
experience. I, for one, fall in the group outside of that 30%, but still am certain of knowing essential "hard" jhana (as distinct from the various "jhana
-lites"), and, with further development, may get closer to that 30% (but that's not really the main goal).
I'm familiar with the one-in-a-million (or billion…) interpretations of jhana in the vism
. passage. (Similar to another puzzling passage saying that anapansati
practice can be done only by "sons of Buddhas".) Somehow, when (first) reading thru the Visuddhimagga, I didn't notice, or make much of, those passages; there was so much else that is so fascinating. After gaining entrance to 1st jhana, I did study carefully the couple of pages in there about getting from there to 2nd and the other jhana
-s. That helped, together with getting U. Jagara's advice about using those passages. At a subsequent retreat (at Spirit Rock) another teacher, who had spent a year as monk at the Pa Auk monastery, helped me sort-out the 2nd & 3rd, and even a get a taste of 4th jhana. He mentioned that getting 1st jhana is a something of a challenge; 2nd and 3rd relatively easy after that; but 4th is again challenging.
Anyway, my sense of the extreme character of some interpretations is also informed by exposure to the perhaps more relaxed attitude in Thai Forest/Wilderness tradition, mainly via Thanissaro, who goes a long way to preserve, present all the teachings of his predecessors (Ajahns Fuang, Lee, Mun). This tradition – out in the woods without the big libraries and study halls like the Burmese monks have – doesn't go that much by Abhidhamma or Visuddhimagga. Than-Geoff is much less formal, and in teaching more gradualistic about jhana, tho I'm sure that practice in his tradition (and his own) ultimately goes as deep as any.
And, over the last two years or so, with growing exposure to Mahasi tradition, I find at the deeper levels (reading Mahasi's own larger works beyond the introductory manuals) no essential difference from Than-Geoff's teaching (though a lot more detailed erudition in the commentarial tradition); and Mahasi stuff not really that different than Pa Auk Sayadaw, when one scratches the surface (i.e. reading "The Workings of Kamma"). Popularly, there's this big contrast between Mahasi's vipassana way and Pa Auk's jhana way. Turns out that's more like a news-journalist contrast, highlighted to attract attention.
Anecdote: Two years ago, attending a weekend retreat at TMC that happened to include the Wesak celebration, U. Pandita Sayadawgyi showed up (by surprise), and gave the Dhamma talk – very impressive experience. After the ceremonies, standing around, I chatted breifly with a woman (American) in his entourage, in white-pink garb like a Burmese nun, who had done the translating of Pandita's talk from Burmese into English. I mentioned that I'd had some training in Pa Auk methods, to which she replied something like "Oh but this is different; this [Mahasi-Pandita] way I know it works!." Reminded me of past conversations with born-again Christian fundamentalists. An attitude found among fanatic followers (fans), not the teachers/leaders.
katavedi wrote:I think the "true jhana" debates are quite silly, ...
Likewise in agreement. People getting started with jhana
-lite (e.g. Brasington, Vimalaramsi, Bodhipaksa, et al) has its place, opens the door; when diligently pursued can go the whole 9-yards. But also admitting an irritation with the sometime polemics from "sutta-jhana
" crowd; e.g. Leigh's assertions (as I've even heard in person) that "the Visuddhimagga got it all wrong", which is "so appalling" (e.g. in Part 2 of his recent book). I've done in-depth research into the origins of the "sutta-jhana
" hypothesis (the writings of Rodney Bucknell, Martin Stuart-Fox, Paul Griffiths, writings and talks of Ayya Khema); could write a book about it – but is it worth the trouble?