In this translated teaching, the late meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw presents his step-by-step instructions for the practice of insight meditation. Introduction by Steve Armstrong.
Mahasi Sayadaw was one of the most learned and respected Burmese Buddhist monks of the last century, and his practice, writings, and teachings have had immense influence on Western practitioners of insight meditation.
For seven months in 1945, during the daily bombardment of the neighboring town of Shwebo, Mahasi Sayadaw wrote his great work, the Manual of Insight Meditation. In Theravada Buddhism, vipassana, or insight meditation, involves the ever-deepening intuitive understanding of the three universal characteristics of all experience: impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and an impersonal, evanescent quality (anatta). In his Manual of Insight Meditation, Mahasi Sayadaw expounds in detail the doctrinal and practical aspects of the development of insight meditation.
Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield were among the first generation of American vipassana teachers, and they have practiced extensively within the Mahasi tradition. In 1976 they established the Insight Meditation Society, which offers retreats in a modified format of the Mahasi method. Upon the death of Mahasi Sayadaw in 1982, his student Sayadaw U Pandita carried on the teaching of the Mahasi method, both within Burma and extensively abroad, leaving a lasting impact on the practice and teachings of contemporary Western dharma teachers and their students.
Do not make the breath more vigorous than usual in order to make the rising and falling more distinct. Neither slow it down nor speed it up.
In 2000, I returned to the Mahasi Meditation Center in Burma where I had previously practiced as a monk for five years under the guidance of Sayadaw U Pandita. At that time, I discovered that Mahasi Sayadaw’s two-volume Manual of Insight Meditation had not been translated into English in its entirety. Recognizing the significance and value of such teachings to the growing community of insight meditators and to the application of mindfulness across a wide spectrum of secular life, Kamala Masters and I undertook to have the book translated for publication in English.
Since that time, under the supervision of Sayadaw U Pandita, we and several of our senior students have been involved in this project. The following teaching is taken from Chapter 5, about which Mahasi Sayadaw has said, “Even reading and studying only Chapter 5 will enable you to practice insight meditation in a straightforward way, and you will be able to realize path knowledge, fruition knowledge, and nibbana.” –Steve Armstrong
Teaching by Mahasi Sayadaw
True insight practice is awareness of all of the mental and physical phenomena that are constantly arising at the six sense-doors. However, in the beginning, because your concentration and awareness are not strong enough, it will be difficult to observe all of the phenomena that are constantly arising. You will not be skillful enough to follow all of the objects, or you may get caught up in searching for an object to note. For these reasons, you should initially focus just on the rising and falling of the abdomen, which is happening all the time and noticeable enough to observe without much difficulty. Later, when your practice matures, you will be able to note the objects as they arise.
Begin by sitting with your legs crossed, or in any other sitting posture that is comfortable to you, and focus your mind on your abdomen. You will feel it rising and falling. If you don’t feel this clearly, place your hand on your abdomen and the rising and falling will become obvious after a while. When you breathe in, you will experience the rising movement of the abdomen. Note this as “rising.” When you breathe out, you will experience the falling movement. Note this as “falling.” Do this mentally, not audibly. Do not make the breath more vigorous than usual in order to make the rising and falling more distinct. Neither slow it down nor speed it up. If you change the natural pattern of your breathing, you may get tired quickly and not be able to note properly. Just breathe in and out normally and regularly, and observe concurrently.
As you do this, you may reflect that observing the form or concept of the abdomen is not what you should do. But do not worry. Initially, of course, it is almost impossible to avoid a conceptual sense of solid form. So, in the beginning, you must observe objects on a conceptual level. That is the only way that your concentration, awareness, and insight will mature. In due time, however, your insight knowledge will break through to the ultimate reality beyond the concepts.
Distracting Thoughts and Physical Discomfort
As you continually note the rising and falling of the abdomen, various kinds of thoughts will arise. When this happens, note them using everyday language. For example, when you find yourself thinking, note it as “thinking, thinking.” If you are daydreaming, note it as “daydreaming, daydreaming.” If you are imagining something, note it as “imagining, imagining.” If you are considering something, note it as “considering, considering.”
While noting the rising and falling of the abdomen, you may feel like you want to swallow or spit out the saliva in your mouth. Note this as “wanting to swallow” or “wanting to spit.” If you actually swallow or spit, note it as “swallowing, swallowing” or “spitting, spitting,” and immediately go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. If you want to lower your head, note it as “wanting to lower.” If you bend your neck to lower your head, note it as “bending, bending,” and focus on every movement involved. Do it slowly, not quickly. Afterward, go right back to the primary object of rising and falling.
When you feel uncomfortable stiffness in any part of the body, focus only on the stiffness and continuously note it as “stiffness, stiffness.” Keep your noting concurrent with the actual sensation. The stiffness may slowly fade away, or it may get even more intense. If it becomes unbearable and you want to shift your posture, note that mental state as “wanting to shift, wanting to shift.” If you actually shift your posture, continue with noting each of the physical movements involved in that process. For example, when you want to lift one of your limbs, note that as “wanting to lift.” Then, when you actually lift it, note each movement as “lifting, lifting.” When stretching it, note that as “stretching.” When bending it, note that as “bending.” When lowering it again, note that as “lowering.” Don’t make any of these movements quickly. Make them slowly and steadily. If you feel something touching any part of the body as you move, note it as “touching.” When you are done shifting your posture, or if the stiffness fades away without shifting your posture, immediately go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.
As your concentration gets stronger, you may experience unbearable pains in the body. You may feel a strong pressure, like an airbag being inflated inside your chest, or a sharp pain like being stabbed with a dagger; you may experience a stinging pain, like being pricked with many small needles, or an overall irritation, as if insects were crawling all over your body. You may also feel fierce heat, severe itchiness, unbearable aching, extreme cold, or a variety of other unpleasant sensations.
If you become frightened and stop noting when one of these kinds of extreme sensations occurs, you will find that it immediately disappears. However, it will generally reappear when your concentration becomes strong again. Don’t be afraid if you encounter one of these kinds of experiences. It is not a sign of some serious disease, but only an ordinary sensation that you often have in your body. However, you rarely notice it because your attention is occupied by more obvious sensations. It is actually your strong concentration that is making it obvious to you in this way. So there is no need to worry that something is wrong with you. Just continue to note it in order to overcome it. If you stop noting, you may encounter the same kind of sensation every time your concentration grows stronger. If you note it with patience and perseverance, though, at some point it will suddenly disappear once and for all.
When you want to lie down, note that as “wanting to lie down.” While you prepare your bed, note all of the movements of your arms and legs as “lifting,” “stretching,” “repositioning,” and so on. As you are actually lying down, focus on the whole body that is gradually lying down and note “lying down, lying down.” When you feel the touch of the pillow and bedding, note that as “touching, touching.” When finally lying down, note the movements of your arms, legs, and body as you adjust your lying posture. Do it slowly and mindfully. Then, if there is nothing else to note, focus on the rising and falling and note it continuously.
As you lie in bed noting the rising and falling of the abdomen, you may feel some unpleasant sensations, such as stiffness, heat, pain, itchiness, and so on. If so, note these mindfully in the same way that you would during sitting meditation. Any distractions, such as swallowing, thinking, imagining, etc., should also be noted carefully as at other times. If you want to turn over, bend or stretch your limbs, or adjust your position in any way, first note the intention and then note every single movement involved without missing one. When there is nothing else in particular to note, go back to noting the primary object of rising and falling.
If you feel sleepy, note that as “sleepy, sleepy.” If your eyelids feel heavy, note that as “heavy, heavy.” When your meditation is mature, the sleepiness disappears and the mind becomes clear again by noting in this way. If so, note that as “clear, clear,” and go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. If sleepiness has not disappeared, you should not stop noting. Just continue noting the rising and falling or any other object without any intention of falling asleep. When your body gets really tired, you will eventually fall asleep in the midst of your noting.
As soon as you wake up, note “awake, awake.”
As soon as you wake up, note “awake, awake.” At the beginning of your practice, you will find it difficult to catch the first moments of waking. If you are not yet able to note right from the moment you wake up, you should start noting whatever object arises from the time you remember to note. If you find yourself thinking, note that as “thinking, thinking,” and then continue noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. If a sound wakes you, note “hearing, hearing.” If there is nothing else to note, continue noting the rising and falling.
If you wash your face or bathe, you should note every single action involved, without any gaps. You should also note any other activities, such as putting on your clothes, making your bed, opening or closing the door, arranging your things, and so on, without any gaps.
At the beginning of your practice, when you are not yet able to note things as they arise, there will be many gaps. There will also be many instances where you cannot be aware of and note the intentions to change. Don’t feel frustrated! If you note with the attitude that you will note meticulously and carefully, you will be able to note and observe more and more. When your understanding becomes mature, you will be able to easily note even more objects than explained here.
Increasing the Number of Objects
After about a day, you are likely to feel that simply noting the rising and falling of the abdomen is too easy. You may find that there is a gap or empty interval between the rising and falling movements. In that case, you should switch to noting three objects, adding a third object of the sitting posture itself. You will then be noting: “rising, falling, sitting; rising, falling, sitting…” In the same way that you note the rising and falling, you should be aware of the sitting posture of the body as you note “sitting.” If you are lying down, you should note the three objects: “rising, falling, lying.”
If you still find that there are gaps while noting these three objects, you can note “rising, falling, sitting, touching,” adding a distinct touching sensation in any part of the body as the fourth object. If you are not comfortable with that approach, you could also note: “rising, sitting, falling, sitting.” If you are lying down, the four objects to note are: “rising, falling, lying, touching” or “rising, lying, falling, lying.” If your breath becomes so subtle that you cannot feel the rising and falling of the abdomen clearly, you should note the sitting or lying posture or “touch points.”1 You can note four, five, or six touch points, one after another.
Working with Mental States and Practicing Diligently
If you have been practicing for a long time, or if you are not making any progress, you may become lazy. Note that as “lazy, lazy.” When mindfulness, concentration, and special insights have not yet arisen, you assume that noting does not get you anywhere and, therefore, doubts arise. Note that as “doubt, doubt.” At times, you may hope for smoother practice or some special experience. Note that as “hoping, hoping.” If you reflect on your previous practice, note that as “reflecting.” If you wonder whether the object you are noting is mental or physical, note that as “wondering.” Sometimes, when your practice does not go smoothly, you may feel frustrated. Note that as “frustrated, frustrated.” Sometimes, when you find that your practice is going well, you may feel happy. Note that as “happy, happy.” You should note all mental states in this way, whenever they arise, and then continue to note the primary object.
You should note each and every thought, whether wholesome or unwholesome. You should note each and every physical movement, whether large or small. You should note each and every feeling arising in the body or mind, whether pleasant or unpleasant. You should note each and every mental object, whether wholesome or unwholesome. If there is nothing else in particular to note, then note the primary object, such as the rising and falling of the abdomen when you sit, or the lifting, moving, and dropping of the foot when you walk. Note these objects uninterruptedly and continuously.
In this way, except for the sleeping hours, you should note continuously and uninterruptedly all day and all night. Before long you will be able to observe all mental and physical phenomena the moment they arise and develop the insight knowledges one by one.
When you practice noting as described above, and your mindfulness, concentration, and insight mature, you will find that the noting mind and the noted objects occur in pairs. For example, you will observe both the physical phenomena (body) involved in the rising of the abdomen and the mental phenomena (mind) that notes it; the physical phenomena of the falling of the abdomen and the mind that notes it; the physical phenomena of lifting the foot and the mind that notes it; the physical phenomena of moving the foot forward and the mind that notes it; the physical phenomena of dropping the foot and the mind that notes it, and so on.
When your practice is going well, you will see the rising and falling of the abdomen and the noting mind separately in this way. Thus, you are able to distinguish between mental and physical phenomena, or mind and body. It will seem like the noting mind is rushing toward the noted objects. This is awareness of the characteristic of the mind to incline toward its objects. The clearer your observation of physical objects becomes, the more obvious the noting mind will become. The Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) says:
Whenever the physical phenomena become clear, unambiguous, and obvious to a meditator, the mental phenomena associated with those physical sense-objects will also become obvious to him or her on their own accord.
As your practice matures further, the intention to move becomes obvious by itself when you intend to move your body. As soon as an intention arises, you will be able to be aware of it easily. For example, in the beginning of your practice, even if you note “intending to bend,” you are not able to be clearly aware of the intention to bend your arm. However, when your practice matures, you will be clearly aware of the intention to bend without confusing it with anything else. Therefore, any time that you want to change your bodily posture, you should note the intention first, and then note the actual movements involved.
When first beginning the practice, you change your bodily posture often without noticing it. Because of this, you tend to think, “The body is fast; the noting mind is slow.” However, as your insight matures, it seems as if the noting mind is welcoming the object in advance. You are able to note the intentions to bend or stretch, sit or stand, walk, and so on, as well as the different movements involved in bending, etc. Then you realize, “The body is slow; the noting mind is quick.” You experience for yourself that only after the intention to move has arisen can the movement of bending, stretching, and so on take place.
By noting every object that occurs, you experience for yourself that the noting mind arises whenever there is an object. Moreover, at times the rising and falling of the abdomen becomes so subtle that you cannot note them. Then you realize that the noting mind cannot arise if there is no object.
At this level, you are able to see one object disappear before noting a new object, and, therefore, you clearly see the beginning, middle, and end of the object. Clearly seeing each object instantly arising and immediately disappearing with each noting, you understand the impermanence of objects.
By seeing the universal characteristic of impermanence, one also comes to understand that all that one has craved, grasped, and relied on for one’s stability, security, and happiness is also impermanent. With this realization, one recognizes that relying on changeable conditions is dukkha, unsatisfactory.
Moreover, when one realizes that all phenomena change, one also sees that one cannot control any phenomena, since all phenomena arise and pass away due to their own causes and conditions. Because all phenomena is outside of one’s immediate control, it is therefore impersonal, or not-self.
One comes to understand that all that one has craved, grasped, and relied on for one’s stability, security, and happiness is impermanent.
Seeing for yourself that every object that you note directly is impermanent, unsatisfying, and not-self, you reflect that all other phenomena that are not personally experienced must also be impermanent, unsatisfying, and not-self. This inferential knowledge is called anumana-ñana. Those who are less analytical or knowledgeable, or who give priority to continuous noting rather than analyzing, experience less reflection on this inferential knowledge. Those who give precedence to it tend to reflect a lot. For some meditators, though, analysis of this realization continues interspersed with their noting, and their practice stagnates.
Even without this kind of analysis, your understanding will become clearer at the higher levels of insights. So you should give priority to noting, rather than analyzing. If analyzing does occur, it should also be noted without fail.
After you realize the arising and passing away of all phenomena inferentially, you will simply be aware of whatever arises without any further analysis. Your five mental faculties (confidence, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and insight knowledge) will then come into harmony, and your noting mind will become quicker than ever before. Also, the objects—that is, the mental and physical phenomena—appear extremely quickly. For example, each time you breathe in, you clearly see that the rising movement of the abdomen consists of many segments. The same is true for other movements, such as the falling of the abdomen, bending, stretching, etc. You clearly experience subtle vibrations or touching sensations all over your body, arising very quickly one after another. Some people experience fine sensations of itchiness or pricking that arise very quickly and instantly one after another.
When the objects arise so quickly, you will not be able to keep up with the objects if you try to label or name each of them. Just be aware of them from moment to moment without naming them, so that you can follow them. If you want to name them, don’t try to name them all. When you label one object, you may become aware of four, five, or ten other objects. That’s not a problem. If you attempt to name all of the objects occurring, you may become tired. What matters most is to be aware of each object precisely and accurately. In this situation, you should note any objects coming in through the six sense-doors without following the normal procedure. Of course, if noting in this way does not go smoothly, you can always go back to the normal procedure.
Distractions from the Path
Because of the momentum of this vipassana insight, you are likely to see a bright light or experience rapture as a result of feeling great delight with both noting and noted objects. So you may get goose bumps, feel a tear roll down your cheek, or find the body shaking. You may have a “springy” feeling, which is often mistaken for dizziness, or a light, comfortable feeling that creeps over the whole body, as if you were rocking back and forth in a hammock. You may experience a peaceful calm that makes you feel comfortable, regardless of whether you are sitting, reclining, standing, or in any other posture. Furthermore, due to the quality of lightness, both your mind and body will become so light, supple, and flexible that you will feel comfortable during long periods of sitting or reclining, without any pain, heat, or stiffness.
At this point, the noting mind and noted objects flow along concurrently and harmoniously. Your mental attitude becomes straightforward. Your mind avoids unwholesome activities and becomes extremely clear due to your strong faith and confidence. At times, this mental clarity may last for a long time, even without any object to be noted.
When one is free from laziness and also not straining too much, a balanced effort becomes obvious. It seems as if the objects are known on their own accord, and so vipassana equanimity becomes apparent. You are likely to experience an unusual degree of very strong delight or happiness and become excited to tell others about it.
However, to take delight in the bright light and other pleasant experiences is being on the wrong path. The correct path of insight is to just continue noting. If you keep this in mind and carry on with noting mental and physical phenomena that actually arise, your awareness becomes clearer and clearer, and every object you note helps you to realize impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self.
After practicing for quite a while, you may feel satisfied with your practice and take a break every now and again, thinking, “It can’t get any better than this. There can’t be anything else special to experience.” But don’t just relax whenever you want. Instead, practice for longer and longer periods without taking a break.
Disappearance and Disillusionment
When your insight develops to the next stage, you no longer see objects arising; instead you only see them passing away. You think that they are disappearing faster and faster. You also see that the noting mind disappears one after the other. For example, when you note the rising of the abdomen, you clearly see how the tiny movements of rising instantly disappear and how the noting mind, too, vanishes very quickly. So you see that moments of both the rising movement and the awareness of it disappear one after the other. You clearly see this for all other objects as well, such as the falling of the abdomen, sitting, bending, stretching, stiffness, and so on. Each object and the awareness of it disappear moment by moment, one after the other. Some meditators even find that there are three things arising and passing away in sequence: a sense object, the awareness of it, and the knowing of that very awareness. But it is enough just to observe that the objects and the noting mind disappear in pairs.
Two consecutive moments are not connected but separate units.
When your insight becomes clear enough that you can see both the sense objects and the awareness of them disappearing in pairs, you will lose the illusory sense of conceptual forms or shapes, such as the form of your body, head, arms, legs, etc. You only experience phenomena disappearing instantly. As a result, you may feel like your practice has become superficial or is not as good as it had been before, or that there are many gaps in your noting. However, that is not actually the case. It is only that the mind naturally takes delight in concepts of solid form; thus, it cannot feel comfortable when those concepts are absent. In any case, this condition is an indication of progress in your practice.
Before this insight is developed, it is the concepts of solid form or shape that you first perceive when you note seeing, hearing, touching, and so on. But at this level of insight, the instant disappearance of phenomena is what you perceive first. In other words, you experience the insight into dissolution first. Your sense of solid forms only comes back when you deliberately evoke it. Otherwise, by just noting uninterruptedly, your awareness remains attuned to the ultimate reality of the dissolution of phenomena. Thus, you personally verify the truth of this saying from the sages of old:
When conventional reality emerges, ultimate reality submerges.
When ultimate reality emerges, conventional reality submerges.
Once you are able to extend the range of the objects to be noted and are able observe without strain, you clearly see that whatever you see or hear instantly disappears, and that two consecutive moments are not connected but separate units. This is understanding as it really is.
1 Touch points are any distinctive physical sensations that can be easily noticed and recognized. Obvious touch points are where the hands touch each other or the knees, where the buttocks touch the sitting bench or the cushion, the touch of knees on the floor, etc. When one intentionally moves attention sequentially through a series of such touch points, awareness becomes very continuous. ↩