How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

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mgdpublic
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How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by mgdpublic » Tue Jun 12, 2018 9:56 pm

I well understand the difference between the concepts of samatha and vipassana but I often fail to see the practical differences. For instance, take Mahasi's instructions - Follow the breath, but when you falter, note what happens then return to the breath. I don't see how this is any different than a meditation for samatha, save perhaps for the additional instruction to note what happens. If one is "good" at Mahasi's methods then presumably they'd be following the breath without ever losing focus and therefore have little opportunity to note and thus gain insight. How is this not a samatha practice? Many people say that not only is Mahasi a vipassana practice, but that it is a particularly dry one. How is this given the fact that the primary task is to focus on the breath? Thanks!

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mikenz66
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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by mikenz66 » Tue Jun 12, 2018 10:30 pm

Welcome mgdpublic,
mgdpublic wrote:
Tue Jun 12, 2018 9:56 pm
I well understand the difference between the concepts of samatha and vipassana but I often fail to see the practical differences. For instance, take Mahasi's instructions - Follow the breath, but when you falter, note what happens then return to the breath. I don't see how this is any different than a meditation for samatha, save perhaps for the additional instruction to note what happens.
The "noting what happens" is quite a big difference. It's a matter of emphasis. If your aim is deep concentration then I think you'd focus on a simple object, and keep returning to it without delay. With the Mahasi and related approaches you use a complex object (abdominal motion, motion of the feet, touch points, etc) that tends to have a lot of variability. And the emphasis is (depending on the teacher) not so much to worry about sticking with that object, because the "interesting" observations have to do with what's happening to the mind when it gets drawn to something else.

Having said that, I think the amount of tranquillity you build up doing this practice (or Goenka, etc) is underestimated by people who say "there is no development of samatha...".
mgdpublic wrote:
Tue Jun 12, 2018 9:56 pm
If one is "good" at Mahasi's methods then presumably they'd be following the breath without ever losing focus and therefore have little opportunity to note and thus gain insight.
Ha! Ha! :tongue:
Well, as I said, if one looks at the complexities of the object, it's always going to be more difficult to stick with than a simple object (such as the touch of the breath on the nostrils - though that can have other challenges). And the recommendation is to spend up to half one's time walking, which is inherently full of distractions (but very rewarding).
mgdpublic wrote:
Tue Jun 12, 2018 9:56 pm
How is this not a samatha practice? Many people say that not only is Mahasi a vipassana practice, but that it is a particularly dry one. How is this given the fact that the primary task is to focus on the breath? Thanks!
Like you, I've no idea why they would say that it is "particularly dry". Anyway, "dry" just means "not absorbed". According to the Commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga access-concentration levels are required for serious insight, and you can find plenty about development of jhana factors here, for example: http://aimwell.org/inthisverylife.html# ... sanaJhanas

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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by befriend » Tue Jun 12, 2018 10:31 pm

It's mindfulness of motion and the wind element not anapanasati mindfulness of abdominal movements rising and falling therefore it leads directly to seeing impermanence and the other 2 characteristics Dukkha and Anatta. That's why it's not samatha and is vipassana.
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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by JamesTheGiant » Wed Jun 13, 2018 12:33 am

I strongly disagree with the idea that the Mahasi technique is a "dry" practise. The brightest, most intense nimitta I ever "saw" was while doing mahasi style. It was amazing!

mgdpublic
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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by mgdpublic » Wed Jun 13, 2018 12:47 am

befriend wrote:
Tue Jun 12, 2018 10:31 pm
It's mindfulness of motion and the wind element not anapanasati mindfulness of abdominal movements rising and falling therefore it leads directly to seeing impermanence and the other 2 characteristics Dukkha and Anatta. That's why it's not samatha and is vipassana.
Is there a real practical difference between anapanasati and mahasi vipassana besides the addition of noting?

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mikenz66
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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by mikenz66 » Wed Jun 13, 2018 1:03 am

Naming objects is just a way of aiding focus. I'd say that the key to this approach is the idea of having a primary/grounding object (commonly abdominal motion, motion of feet, touch points, etc) to build concentration (do note the link to U Pandita's discussion of jhana factors above), and the instruction to note (with or without naming) the most prominent objects that arise (sensations, moods, thought, whatever).

As befriend says, the traditional classification is that one is supposed to remain focussed on paramattha dhammas ("ultimate" realities) such as wind element, whereas traditional concentration practice would bring the focus onto conceptual objects that lead to stable absorption.

Here's a comment by U Pandita:
Ānāpānassati can take two directions. If the meditator strives to be mindful of the form or manner of the in-breath and the out-breath, then it is samatha meditation and leads to one-pointedness of mind. On the other hand, if the meditator notes the sensation of the in-breath and out-breath as it moves and touches, then it is vipassanā meditation. The element of wind or motion (vāyo-dhātu) is matter (rūpa), while the awareness or consciousness of the sensation is mind (nāma). Therefore, ānāpānassati can be considered as vipassanā, and can lead to high levels of insight wisdom. However, in the Visuddhimagga, in the section on mindfulness of the body (kāyānupassana), fourteen objects of meditation are discussed, and further subdivided into objects for tranquillity (samatha) and insight (vipassanā) meditation. In the Visuddhimagga, ānāpānassati is presented as an object of tranquillity meditation. Consequently, if we are to instruct meditators to develop ānāpānassati as part of insight meditation, we will be inviting much unwanted and unwarranted criticism and controversy. And neither Mahāsi Sayādaw or myself would want to argue here that the Visuddhimagga, the rightly venerated classic, is at fault here.

It has been said that by noting the rising and falling of the abdomen, meditators are distancing themselves from the teachings of the Buddha. The answer to this is a firm and definite “no.” Quite apart from the success that meditators have achieved by noting rising-falling, there is much solid evidence in the Buddhist scriptures, such as the Saḷāyatana Vagga Saṃyutta, to show that the method is very much a part of the Buddha’s teachings regarding mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of the elements (dhātu), and mindfulness of the five aggregates (khandha).

http://aimwell.org/questions.html
I think there is some humour in his comments about the Visuddhimagga...

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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by Goofaholix » Wed Jun 13, 2018 7:12 am

mgdpublic wrote:
Tue Jun 12, 2018 9:56 pm
Follow the breath, but when you falter, note what happens then return to the breath.
That's usually how it starts out but I think you're missing the fact that it's supposed to progress to the point where it's the other way around... ie Notice what happens but when you falter return to the breath.
“Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.” ― Ajahn Chah

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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by budo » Wed Jun 13, 2018 7:24 am

From my understanding after being on a 15 day ajahn tong retreat, the main difference is the prominence of the object. You note the object until it disappears or another object is stronger in prominence enters your sensory awareness. You only return to the abdomen when there are no more objects to follow.

In samatha bhavana, like anapanasati, you have 16 steps to follow and these steps take priority, not a prominence of an object. First priority goes to in and out breathing, second priority goes to the step you're on. Therefore if a new object of strong stimulus enters your awareness you let it go and go back to in and out breathing and the step you're on, you do not follow it as the new object.

First priority: in & out breathing
Second priority: anapanasati step (e.g. sensitive to rapture)

I do not agree with U Pandita's distinction unless someone wants to clear it up for me. Unless he means one can do both samatha and vipassana at the same time, which is true if your first priority is in & out breathing, but untrue if you constantly follow new objects. If you constantly follow new objects then you are just doing vipassana (khanikha samadhi) without samatha.

It is interesting that one can focus on one object (in and out breath) and at the same time move his attention around the details of it (khanikha samadhi) such as its qualities like short, long, warm, cold, etc.. thus doing both samatha and vipassana at the same time.

Therefore, it's what you do with your attention & awareness that constitutes samatha or vipassana

First priority (in & out breathing) is Samatha
Second priority (anapanasati step) is Vipassana

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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by mikenz66 » Wed Jun 13, 2018 9:54 am

budo wrote:
Wed Jun 13, 2018 7:24 am
Therefore, it's what you do with your attention & awareness that constitutes samatha or vipassana

First priority (in & out breathing) is Samatha
Second priority (anapanasati step) is Vipassana
That's my understanding, though I'd add the qualification "mainly" - it's a spectrum. And, it's good to not forget that samatha and vipassana are the result, not the method. And of course breathing is just one possible object - there are plenty of others...

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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by cjmacie » Wed Jun 13, 2018 10:29 am

A footnote on "noting"...

In Sayadaw Mahasi's writings, and in contemporary retreat instructions (e.g. at Tathatgata Meditation Center -- monks from Sayadawgyi Pandita lineage) the "naming" aspect is a crutch for beginners, to be abandoned as soon as possible. "Noting" is in the direction of direct full "knowing" the nature of experiential phenomena -- sans any intermediate (distracting) step of verbalizing perceptual labels. Advanced stages of noting/knowing become very strong vipassana khanikha samadhi, to the extent that it's just as strong as appana or jhana absorption. Mahasi Sayadaw's innovation, so to speak, was to document and build practice methods around the understanding that upacara and khanika types of samadhi can qualify as samma samahdi, as well as appana/jhana. In whatever form, the samadhi becomes equally intense ultimately -- i.e. approaching moments of magga-phala (path-fruition) attainments.

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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by mgdpublic » Wed Jun 13, 2018 12:34 pm

Thanks all for your insights thus far. So am I capturing the spirit of the majority opinion here by saying that the difference between vipassana and samatha versions of anapanasati would be in the "willingness" to be distracted? So for instance, when I'm trying to concentrate I will often get rumblings of thoughts/sensations that don't quite meet the standard of being note-worthy distractions from the breath so I fortify my concentration on the breath. If I were attempting vipassana would I just give those proto-distractions time to fully form and become worthy of a note? Would it be fair to say that the difference between vipassana and samatha-cultivating anapanasati is the percentage of time the meditator spends noting vs focusing on breath? Thanks!

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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by befriend » Wed Jun 13, 2018 5:03 pm

someone correct me if I'm wrong but I thought what makes Mahasi an insight practice or vipassana is that the object ones paying attention to is impermanent. Samatha is meditating on a stabilized conventional reality where vipassana is an impermanent ultimate reality i.e. Not an idea. I could be way off.
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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by budo » Wed Jun 13, 2018 5:48 pm

mgdpublic wrote:
Wed Jun 13, 2018 12:34 pm
Thanks all for your insights thus far. So am I capturing the spirit of the majority opinion here by saying that the difference between vipassana and samatha versions of anapanasati would be in the "willingness" to be distracted? So for instance, when I'm trying to concentrate I will often get rumblings of thoughts/sensations that don't quite meet the standard of being note-worthy distractions from the breath so I fortify my concentration on the breath. If I were attempting vipassana would I just give those proto-distractions time to fully form and become worthy of a note? Would it be fair to say that the difference between vipassana and samatha-cultivating anapanasati is the percentage of time the meditator spends noting vs focusing on breath? Thanks!
It's a bit more nuanced than that. You're implying a lack of self control when it comes to vipassana which is not the case. You are not "letting yourself get distracted", in both ways you are doing it with determination and intention.

Another way to look at it is that samatha is the scope, vipassana is what happens within the scope. When you're in meditation you can choose the scope to be your breath (samatha), and then you can follow the objects that occur within the breath (short, long, cold, hot, movement, heavy, light, nose, abdomen, chest) and that would be vipassana. Or you could be walking outside in the park with no scope, and just move your attention to whatever is most prominent whether your walking or the sound of a train. Or you could go to the exact opposite end of the spectrum and have 100% strict scope, such as the tip of nose with no wavering of objects in between (aka no vipassana) and get absorbed into jhana.

Basically anything that happens outside of the scope you let go of and return to the scope, this is samatha. Anything that happens within the scope you can contemplate or watch, and that would be vipassana. You could have 100% scope with no waivering, or you could have 0% scope and move between objects that are most prominent, or you could have anything in between 0% and 100% and the scope of your choosing.

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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by mikenz66 » Wed Jun 13, 2018 7:43 pm

befriend wrote:
Wed Jun 13, 2018 5:03 pm
someone correct me if I'm wrong but I thought what makes Mahasi an insight practice or vipassana is that the object ones paying attention to is impermanent. Samatha is meditating on a stabilized conventional reality where vipassana is an impermanent ultimate reality i.e. Not an idea. I could be way off.
That's how I understand the position of the classical Theravada, as explained, for example, in the Visuddhimagga. Even if one does not agree with all aspects of the Classical interpretations, one could, from purely practical considerations, argue that a "stabilized" object is more conducive to absorption than rapidly changing objects, so many teachers of jhana (including, of course, the Visuddhimagga) suggest using a mind-created object, such as a light nimitta, feeling of joy, etc to enter absorption.


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Re: How is Mahasi not a samatha practice?

Post by 2600htz » Tue Jun 19, 2018 4:30 pm

mgdpublic wrote:
Wed Jun 13, 2018 12:34 pm
Thanks all for your insights thus far. So am I capturing the spirit of the majority opinion here by saying that the difference between vipassana and samatha versions of anapanasati would be in the "willingness" to be distracted? So for instance, when I'm trying to concentrate I will often get rumblings of thoughts/sensations that don't quite meet the standard of being note-worthy distractions from the breath so I fortify my concentration on the breath. If I were attempting vipassana would I just give those proto-distractions time to fully form and become worthy of a note? Would it be fair to say that the difference between vipassana and samatha-cultivating anapanasati is the percentage of time the meditator spends noting vs focusing on breath? Thanks!
Hello Mgdpublic:

I think If anapanasati where just "focusing on the breath", there would be no need for a Buddha to arise in the world and explain how meditation works.
We have suttas like MN-118 for a reason, where instructions are clear and precise. Once we understand this, its easier to look for interpretations.

If the difference between vipassana and samatha would be the percentage of time the meditator spends noting vs focusing on the breath, then a person checking once a day the breath would be one who took to perfection vipassana and anapanasati.

Regards.

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