The Essentials of Buddha Dhamma
in Meditative Practice
Sayagyi Thray Sithu
U Ba Khin
With an Essay on U Ba Khin
by Eric Lerner
Copyright © 1981 Buddhist Publication Society
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Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta --
Impermanence (anicca) is, of course, the essential
fact which must be first experienced and understood by practice.
Mere book-knowledge of the
To understand Impermanence (anicca) one must follow strictly and diligently the Eightfold Noble Path, which is divided into the three groups of Sila, Samadhi and Pañña -- Morality, Concentration and Wisdom. Sila, or virtuous living, is he basis for Samadhi, control of the mind leading to one-pointedness. It is only when Samadhi is good that one can develop Pañña. Therefore, Sila and Samadhi are the prerequisites for Pañña. By Pañña is meant the understanding of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta through the practice of Vipassana, i.e., insight meditation.
Whether a Buddha has arisen or not, the practice of Sila and Samadhi may be present in the human world. They are, in fact, the common denominators of all religious faiths. They are not, however, sufficient means for the goal of Buddhism -- the complete end of suffering. In his search for the end of suffering, Prince Siddhattha, the future Buddha, found this out and worked his way through to find the path which would lead to the end of suffering. After solid work for six years, he found the way out, became completely enlightened, and then taught men and gods to follow the Path which would lead them to the end of suffering.
In this connection we should understand that
each action -- whether by deed, word or thought -- leaves behind
an active force called "Sankhara" (or "kamma"
in popular terminology), which goes to the credit or debit account
of the individual, according to whether the action is good or
bad. There is, therefore, an accumulation of Sankhara (or Kamma)
with everyone, which functions as the supply-source of energy
to sustain life, which is inevitably followed by suffering and
death. It is by the development of the power inherent in the
understanding of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta, that one is able
to rid oneself of the Sankhara accumulated in one's own personal
account. This process begins with the correct
The fact of Anicca, which opens the door to the understanding of Dukkha and Anatta and eventually to the end of suffering, can be encountered in its full significance only through the Teachings of a Buddha, for so long as that Teaching relating to the Eightfold Noble Path and the Thirty-Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bodhipakkhiya dhamma) remains intact and available to the aspirant.
For progress in Vipassana Meditation, a student
must keep knowing Anicca as continuously as possible. The Buddha's
advice to monks is that they should try to maintain the awareness
of Anicca, Dukkha or Anatta in all postures, whether sitting,
standing, walking or lying down. Continuous awareness of Anicca and so of Dukkha and
Anatta, is the secret of success.
The last words of the Buddha just before He breathed His last
and passed away into Mahaparinibbana were: "Decay (or Anicca)
is inherent in all component things. Work out your own salvation
with diligence." This is in fact the essence of all His
teachings during the forty-five years of His ministry. If you
will keep up the awareness of the Anicca
As you develop in the understanding of Anicca, your insight into "What is true of nature" will become greater and greater, so much so that eventually you will have no doubt whatsoever of the three characteristics of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta. It is then only that you will be in a position to go ahead for the goal in view. Now that you know Anicca as the first essential factor, you would try to understand what Anicca is with real clarity as extensively as possible so as not to get confused in the course of practice or discussion.
The real meaning of Anicca is that Impermanence or Decay is the inherent nature of everything that exists in the Universe -- whether animate or inanimate. The Buddha taught His disciples that everything that exists at the material level is composed of "Kalapas." Kalapas are material units very much smaller than atoms, which die out immediately after they come into being. Each kalapa is a mass formed of the eight basic constituents of matter, the solid, liquid, calorific and oscillatory, together with colour, smell, taste, and nutriment. The first four are called primary qualities, and are predominant in a kalapa. The other four are subsidiaries, dependent upon and springing from the former. A kalapa is the minutest particle in the physical plane -- still beyond the range of science today. It is only when the eight basic material constituents unite together that the kalapa is formed. In other words, the momentary collocation of these eight basic elements of behavior makes a man just for that moment, which in Buddhism is known as a kalapa. The life-span of a kalapa is termed a moment, and a trillion such moments are said to elapse during the wink of a man's eye. These kalapas are all in a state of perpetual change or flux. To a developed student in Vipassana Meditation they can be felt as a stream of energy.
The human body is not, as it may appear, a
solid stable entity, but a continuum of matter (rupa) co-existing
with mentality (nama). To know that our very body is tiny kalapas
all in a state of change is to know the true nature of change
or decay. This change or decay (anicca) occasioned by the continual
breakdown and replacement of kalapas, all in a state of combustion,
must necessarily be identified as Dukkha, the truth of suffering.
It is only when you experience impermanence (anicca) as suffering
(dukkha) that you come to the realization of the truth of
Before entering upon the practice of Vipassana Meditation, that is, after Samadhi has been developed to a proper level, a student should acquaint himself with the theoretical knowledge of material and mental properties, i.e., of Rupa and Nama. For in Vipassana Meditation one contemplates not only the changing nature of matter, but also the changing nature of mentality, of the thought-elements of attention directed towards the process of change going on within matter. At times the attention will be focused on the impermanence of the material side of existence, i.e., upon Anicca in regard to Rupa, and at other times on the impermanence of the thought-elements or mental side, i.e., upon Anicca in regard to Nama. When one is contemplating the impermanence of matter, one realizes also that the thought- elements simultaneous with that awareness are also in a state of transition or change. In this case one will be knowing Anicca in regard to both Rupa and Nama together.
All I have said so far relates to the understanding of Anicca through bodily feelings of the process of change of Rupa or matter, and also of thought-elements depending upon such changing processes. You should know that Anicca can also be understood through other types of feeling as well. Anicca can be contemplated through feeling:
(i) by contact of visible form with the sense
organ of the eye;
Once can thus develop the understanding of
Anicca through any of six sense organs. In practice, however,
we have found that of all the types of feeling, the feeling by
contact of touch with the component parts of the body in a process
of change covers the widest area for introspective meditation.
Not only that, the feelings by contact of touch (by way of friction,
radiation and vibration of the kalapas within) with the component
parts of the body is more evident than other types of feeling
and therefore a beginner in Vipassana Meditation can come to
the understanding of
There are ten levels of knowledge in Vipassana, namely:
(i) Sammasana: theoretical appreciation of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta by close observation and analysis.
(ii) Udayabbaya: knowledge of the arising and dissolution of Rupa and Nama by direct observation.
(iii) Bhanga: knowledge of the rapidly changing nature of Rupa and Nama as a swift current or stream of energy; in particular, clear awareness of the phase of dissolution.
(iv) Bhaya: knowledge that this very existence is dreadful.
(v) Adinava: knowledge that this very existence is full of evils.
(vi) Nibbida: knowledge that this very existence is disgusting.
(vii) Muncitukamyata: knowledge of the urgent need and wish to escape from this very existence.
(viii) Patisankha: knowledge that the stage is now set to get detached from all conditioned phenomena (sankhara) and to break away from egocentricity.
(x) Anuloma: knowledge that would accelerate the attempt to reach the goal.
These are the levels of attainment which one goes through during the course of Vipassana Meditation; in the case of those who reach the goal in a short time they can be known only in retrospect. Along with one's progress in understanding Anicca, one may reach these levels of attainment, subject, however, to adjustments or help at certain levels by a competent teacher. One should avoid looking forward to such attainments in anticipation, as this will distract from the continuity of awareness of Anicca, which alone can and will give the desired reward.
Let me now deal with Vipassana Meditation
from the point of view of a householder in everyday life and
explain the benefit one can derive from
The initial object of Vipassana Meditation
is to activate the experience of Anicca in oneself and to eventually
reach a state of inner and outer calmness and balance. This is
achieved when one becomes engrossed in the feeling of Anicca
within. The world is now facing serious problems which threaten
all mankind. It is just the right time for everyone to take to
Vipassana Meditation and learn how to find a deep pool of quiet
in the midst of all that is happening today. Anicca is inside
of everybody. It is within reach of everybody. Just a look into
oneself and there it is -- Anicca to be experienced. When one
can feel Anicca, when one can experience Anicca, and when one
can become engrossed in Anicca, one can at will cut
The experience of Anicca, when properly developed,
strikes at the root of one's physical and mental ills and removes
gradually whatever is bad in him, i.e., the causes of such physical
and mental ills. This experience is not reserved for men who
have renounced the world for the homeless life. It is for the
householder as well. In spite of drawbacks which make a householder
restless in these days, a competent teacher or guide can help
a student to get the experience of Anicca activated in a comparatively
short time. Once he has got it activated, all that is necessary
is for him to try and preserve it; but he must make it a point,
as soon as time or opportunity presents itself for further progress,
to work for the stage of
If these instructions are observed, there will surely be progress, but the progress depends also on Parami (i.e., on one's dispositions for certainspiritual (qualities) and the devotion of the individual to the work of meditation. If he attains high levels of knowledge, his power to understand the three characteristics of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta will increase and he will accordingly come nearer and nearer to the goal of the Ariya or noble saint, which every householder should keep in view.
This is the age of science. Man of today has no Utopia. He will not accept anything unless the results are good, concrete, vivid, personal, and here-and-now. When the Buddha was alive, He said to the Kalamas:
The time-clock of Vipassana has now struck -- that is for the revival of Buddha-Dhamma Vipassana in practice. We have no doubt whatsoever that definite results would accrue to those who would with an open mind sincerely undergo a course of training under a competent teacher -- I mean results which will be accepted as good, concrete, vivid, personal, here-and-now, results which will keep them in good stead and in a state of well-being and happiness for the rest of their lives.
May all beings be happy and may Peace prevail in the world.
U Ba Khin: An Appreciation
Over the centuries Theravada Buddhist teachings have been preserved by and large in a monastic tradition. The requisite for the true practice has been the renunciation of worldly existence for a life behind walls or in the forest. Householders were left with the observances of morality, almsgiving, and worship to accrue merit for future lives when they could actually embark on the formal path to liberation. As the sutras themselves reveal, however, this was not the case at all when the Buddha was alive and preaching. Vast numbers of householders received the teaching and the practice as well, and attained high levels of spiritual development.
In the past few decades in the Theravada Buddhist countries there has been a general revival of interest in insight meditation among the robed Sangha, and with it a spreading of the practice outside the monastery walls. This has in a sense revivified the whole outlook toward meditation, practicalizing it, in a way, by focusing on two important aspects. First, how can a man who does not have his entire life to devote to silence and contemplation approach meditation? And second, what role can the meditative discipline play in worldly life?
These problems were dealt with in great detail and with remarkable strength of imagination by one of the most important meditation masters of modern day Burma, Thray Sithu U Ba Khin. He was well known within his country as an important Government servant, for many years the Accountant General of the Union of Burma as well as the chairman of a number of important boards and commissions. At one time he held four such posts simultaneously, was the father of six children and found the time to teach meditation at the International Meditation Center in Rangoon, which was established under his guidance in the early 1950s.
The unique characteristics of his spiritual teaching stem from his situation as a lay meditation master in an orthodox Buddhist country. It was not appropriate for him to instruct monks, so all of his practice was geared specifically to lay people. He developed a powerfully direct approach to Vipassana meditation that could be undertaken in a short period of intensive practice and continued as part of householding life. His method has been of great importance in the transmission of the Dhamma to the West, because in his twenty five years at the Center he instructed scores of foreign visitors who needed no closer acquaintance with Buddhism per se to quickly grasp this practice of insight. Since U Ba Khin's demise in 1971 several of his commissioned disciples have carried on his work, both within and outside of Burma. Hundreds of Westerners have received the instruction from S.N. Goenka in India, Robert Hover and Ruth Denison in America and John Coleman in England. In addition, several of U Ba Khin's closest disciples still teach at the Center in Rangoon.
What is the goal of Insight Meditation? And does it differ in any way for the man whose whole life is devoted to its practice and the man who earns a living and supports others? In the broadest sense there is no difference. The end of suffering is the goal. The experience of Nibbanic Peace within, as U Ba Khin referred to it, is the aim of the practice. But also the end of suffering each moment. Harmony between beings, the end of internal tension, the manifestation of loving-kindness, the ability to perform one's daily tasks free from anger, greed and anxiety. For the lay person and the monk it is the same. The way to proceed, however, differs, at least at the outset.
U Ba Khin understood that unlike the monk, his students faced severe limitations of time to devote to their practice. Furthermore, they had to function in a completely uncontrolled environment generally hostile to proper moral conduct and good concentration, the requisites for insight. Thus he gave them a method that could withstand that pressure. In the short span of ten days, most of his pupils could experience at least a glimpse of the reality within and continue expanding their awareness with two hours daily of formal meditation after they left the Center.
This technique has three distinctive qualities to it. First is its emphasis on the development of sufficient one-pointed concentration. Concerning this, U Ba Khin wrote:
The reason for the necessity of good concentration, he felt, was that with only a limited period of time available, one's mind had to have a degree of penetrating power to really experience the inner reality on more than a conceptual level. He departed from the most traditional monastic view that concentration had to be developed to very high states requiring great time and isolation. But neither did he agree with the approach that began with little specific concentration training. He was interested in a sufficient level for the work of real insight.
The second quality of his teaching was its focus on the characteristic of anicca, impermanence. The Buddha described reality as having three marks, or characteristics: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the absence of a real I or self. In the practice of mindfulness, observance of just what is, focusing the attention of these true marks of reality breaks down false view and weakens attachment, U Ba Khin taught that the most direct access to understanding the process of life was through awareness of impermanence, anicca. He felt that anicca is the most apparent and readily comprehensible of the three marks and that its understanding leads naturally to the others. So the observance of change, or the alteration of all phenomenon at increasingly subtler levels was the real object of his Vipassana technique.
The method itself was the systematic awareness of physical sensation in the body. As the Satipatthana Sutta of the Buddha makes clear, the process of life is identical in every aspect of the mind-body continuum. Choose whichever you like and observe it closely enough and all of reality unfolds. U Ba Khin found that the unfolding is most dramatic and rapid in the physical sensation within the body. His students were directed to place their concentrated attention on that and become sensitive to the process of change observable in the tactile reaction of heat, cold tingling, pain, numbness, pressure or whatever was there. Simply observe the changing nature of the phenomenon within you, he taught.
Continued practice of the method, as he points
out in the following articles, yields spiritual and worldly results
as well. He maintained that a householder could enjoy the fruit
of the Nibbanic experience in this life-time. And he encouraged
men not to be content with ritual practice of simple book knowledge
of the teachings. In addition, the practice, as his disciple
S.N. Goenka terms it, is an art of living. So convinced was U
Ba Khin of the power of this method for clearing the mind that
he insisted that all of his employees in the Accounts Department
take a course of
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