An Interview with Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw

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An Interview with Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw

Questions and Answers
The following questions and answers are from the booklet “An Interview with Mahasi Sayadaw,” prepared (in Burmese) by Thamanaykyaw and translated by U Hla Myint. 

Q1: Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, did you have full faith in Satipatthana Vipassana practice when you started it?

“No, frankly I didn't. I did not initially have full faith in it. So, I don't blame anybody for not having faith in practice before they start it. It is only because they have little or no experience of it. In 1931, when I was in only eighth Vassa (monastic year in terms of seniority), much to my curiosity and confusion, a meditation master called Mingon Zetawin Sayadawji was teaching: Note going when going; note standing when standing; note sitting when sitting; note lying when lying; note bending when bending; note stretching when stretching; note eating when eating. I got confused by the fact that there was no object to observe in ultimate sense, such as mind and body, and their impermanence, suffering and egolessness. But I gave it some consideration and thought: “How strange the way Sayadawji teaches, I'm sure “he is highly learned, and is teaching from his own experience. It may be too early for me to decide whether it is good or bad before I myself practice it.” Thus, I started to practice with him.

Q2: Venerable Sir, could you explain the meaning of Satipatthana?

Satipatthana means mindfulness or remembering constantly. What one is supposed to remember without fail are all physical, sensational, mental or general phenomena the moment they occur to him or her.

Q3: Venerable Sir, I believe you made very fast progress in your practice arousing one insight knowledge after another. Didn't you?

No, I didn't. I could not appreciate the practice three or four weeks after I had started because I did not yet exercise enough effort. Some of the yogis here, however, even though the practice is new to them, manage to develop enough concentration and mindfulness after a week or so, to see impermanence, suffering, and insubstantiality to some extent. For me, I could not make any remarkable progress in the practice even after a month or so, let alone four or five days. I was then still at zero progress in my practice. This is because my faith in the practice was not strong enough, and I did not make enough effort. At this point, skeptical doubt called Vicikiccha, usually hinders the insight knowledge and Magga- Phala from taking  place. So it is very important to do away with such doubt. But, I was wasting my time by mistaking the skeptical doubt for productive analysis.

I thought it was only a conventional or conceptual way of practice and not in the ultimate sense that one observes objects such as going, bending, stretching, etc. The Venerable Sayadawji taught me in that way as a basic training. Perhaps, later he would teach me how to distinguish between mind and body, etc. Later on, while continuing with this practice I spontaneously realized: “Wow! This is not just a basic training, but noting physical and mental behaviors, like going, bending, stretching, etc., are also intermediate advanced instructions, too. These are all I need to observe. Nothing else.”

Q4: Venerable Sir, what do we have to note when we start our practice? When going, for example, are we supposed to note the mind and body involved?

“Yatha-pakatam Vipassana-bhiniveso” =“Vipassana stays with any obvious object” it is said in the subcommentary on the Visuddhimagga. So, one is instructed to start his or her Vipassana by noting any obvious object; i.e., an object easy to note. You should not start with subtle or difficult objects thinking that you will accomplish the practice sooner rather than later. For example, when a student begins schooling, he should begin with easy lessons. He could not be given difficult ones. In the same way, you should start the practice with the easiest observations. The Buddha teaches the easy way: “when going,” for example, note “going”. That's it.

“Yatha-pakatam Vipassana-bhiniveso”

Q5: Venerable Sir, is it possible to experience phenomena in an ultimate sense by merely observing“going,” for example, as going in a conceptual way?

There are three kinds of “I”. The first is the “I” mistaken for a person or ego in terms of wrong view (ditthi). The “I” taken as someone Important in a sense of pride (māna) is the second one. And the last one is the “I” we use in every day language in a conversational sense. When you note “going” as going, the “I” involved is the third kind, which was used even by the Buddha and Arahats, as it has nothing to do with ditthi and māna. So I instruct yogis to note in every day language every step they take as “going.” 

Although conventional language is used, a yogi is bound to experience phenomena in an ultimate sense beyond the concepts when his concentration gets strong enough. When going, for example, at some point, he or she is bound to experience the intention to take a step, the stiffness, tension or motion involved, and their constant changes. He or she will not find solid form or shape, but the phenomena arising and passing away on their own accord. In due course of time, he or she will see not only objects to observe, but also the concurrent noting mind itself arising and passing away immediately. 

If you don't believe it, try it. I ensure you that if you follow my instruction, you will, indeed experience it for yourself . 

Q6: Venerable Sir, did you initiate the observation of “rising falling” of the abdomen  when  breathing?

No, I'm not the one who initiated the observation of“rising-falling.”  Actually it was  the Buddha who did it, because he taught to observe Vayo-dhatu  the air-element included  it the five aggregates. The rising and falling is constituted of the air element. Initially, some people questioned the observation of the rising and falling of the abdomen. However, encouraged by friends, they tried later on, they appreciated it so much that they even criticized the former nitpickers. I'm sure every one who tries it will appreciate it from his or her own experience, just like the taste of sugar which one can appreciate directly from one's own experience.

Q7: Venerable Sir, in Vipassana practice is it necessary to label or name an object such as“rising, falling”etc.?

Names, whether they are in technical terms or in ordinary language, are all conceptual or conventional and not that important. What matters most is to be aware of the phenomena involved in an object like “rising and falling of the abdomen when breathing.” In reality, just being aware of an object without labeling at all, will serve the purpose. Without labeling, however, it may be difficult to be fully aware of an object precisely and accurately. Also, it will not be easy for the yogi to report his or her experience to the teacher, or for a teacher to give advice to the yogi. That is the reason why the yogi is instructed to label an object when he or she notes it. Even then, it would be difficult to use technical terms for all objects a yogi encounters. That is why I instruct yogis to use ordinary language like “rising, falling” when he or she practices.

Q8: Venerable Sir, do you always encourage us to label an object?

No, not always. There are times you find objects occurring to you so fast that you have no time to label them each. Then you have to keep up with them by being merely aware of them moment to moment, without labeling. It is also possible to be aware of four, five or ten objects spontaneously, although you are able to label only one of them. Don't worry about that. It also serves your purpose. If you try to label all the objects occurring, you are likely to get soon exhausted. The point is to be scrupulously aware of objects; i.e., in terms of their characteristics. In this case, you can also note objects occurring through  the six senses moment to moment instead of noting routinely, 

Q9: Venerable Sir, is there any disadvantage by not labeling a meditation object, like rising, falling, sitting, standing, doing, lying and so on?

Yes, of course, there are some disadvantages in not labeling a meditation object: inaccurate concurrence of mind and meditative object, superficial awareness, energy reduction,  and  so  on.

Q10: Venerable Sir, if noting “sitting, sitting” when one is sitting serves one's purpose, why is one instructed to note “rising, falling” when one is sitting?

Of course, it serves one's purpose to note “sitting, sitting” when sitting. But if one observes a single kind of object for long, it would become so easy that he may lose balance from little energy and too much concentration. This would result in sloth and torpor and  shallow   or  weak  awareness.  That's why one is instructed to observe “rising and  falling”  as a main object when one is sitting.

Q11: Venerable Sir, how does a yogi keep the balance between concentration and energy by noting “rising and falling?”

Noting “rising and falling” demands neither too much concentration as it is not a monotonous kind of object, nor excessive enthusiasm as it's only two types of object to note.  Thus, the balance can be kept between concentration and energy.

Q12: Venerable Sir, what is the purpose for the rotation of one-hour sitting and one-hour  walking in  practice?

Too much walking tends to arouse more energy but less concentration. So one is scheduled to sit and walk alternately an hour each. Thus,  the balance can be kept between  concentration  and energy.

Q13: Venerable Sir, if one notes “rising and falling,” will one be expected to be solely  aware of the abdomen itself rising and falling? 

Yes, indeed, in the beginning of practice, one is plainly aware of the abdomen itself. There is no problem in that. Enlightenment of magga phala is not expected in the beginning,  of  course.  Even Nama-rupa-pariccheda-ñana(the first  and foremost insight  distinguishing  between mind and body) cannot be gained. In the beginning of practice, one has to work to keep the hindrances (wandering thoughts) away by noting them closely. Only when the hindrances are kept away for quite a long time (Vikkhambhana) and the mind is free of them, will a yogi start to experience true phenomena involved in the “rising and falling,” such  as  stiffness, tension, vibration and so on, beyond the plain abdomen.

Q14: Venerable Sir, what is a yogi expected to be aware of when standing?

When standing, just note continuously “standing,standing.” If it becomes monotonous because it is a single object, then a prominent touching point should be added to it, noting “standing, touching; standing,touching.” Or you note “rising and falling” of  the  abdomen, instead.

Q15: Venerable Sir, is it the temperature element,or unpleasant sensation (dukkha), when a yogi is aware of cold or heat?

When a yogi is simply aware of heat, that is the experience of the temperature element. If he or she finds the heat uneasy or uncomfortable, that's experience of Dukkha. Similarly  with cold wind or water, it can be temperature, or unpleasant sensation accordingly.

Q16: Venerable Sir, how does a yogi experience apo-dhātu, the water element?

(Actually, the water element is untouchable, but) a yogi can experience it as “liquidity or  wetness” being connected with  other elements.  So when one feels tears,  phlegm, saliva  and sweat flowing down,  the apo-dhātu,  water element  can be experienced  as “liquidity  or  wetness”in any part of the body.

Q17: Venerable Sir, what does a yogi need to do to see phenomena clearly?

At night, for example, one cannot see things clearly. But if one uses torchlight, things can be clearly seen in the spot light. In the same way,concentration can be compared to the light, through which one can see phenomena clearly: the manner of rising and falling, and the tension, tightness and movement etc.

Q18: Venerable Sir, why do you instruct yogis to start their practice with noting “rising and falling”?

It will take time to develop concentration if you note an object too varied, or too subtle, while it can be aroused faster if you observe an obvious and limited object. That is why we instruct yogis to start their practice with watching the abdomen characterized by stiffness, pressure, vibration, which are identical with vayo-dhātu, the air-element. 

Q19: Venerable Sir, are there only two objects to note, “rising and falling”?

Yes, one is instructed to note initially only two objects, “rising and falling.” He is, however, instructed to note thoughts also if they occur to him, and then to go back to the main object. Similarly with pain. He should go back to the main object when the pain fades away, or after a moderate amount of time even if the pain persists. The same is true with bending or stretching his limbs, or changing his posture. He should note each and every activity or behavior involved in it, and then go back to the main object. If one sees or hears something predominant, one must note it as it is; i.e., “seeing,” “hearing” and so on. After noting them three or four times, one must go back to the main object with full energy.

Q20: Venerable Sir, is it possible to bring about insight knowledge by observing the objects like going or right step, left step, which are known in common sense to every body?

You know the Ana-pana practice, the observation of in-and-out breath. The object, “inhalation and exhalation” seems not to be observed, as it's known by common sense to everyone. But no one dares to criticize like that. In the same way, it makes no sense if you criticize that mindfulness, concentration and insight knowledge cannot be developed by noting “right, left” which is compared with military training. The military training is taken for the purpose of sport or health, while the noting is used to develop mindfulness, concentration and insight knowledge. If  you  reject this  part  of the  practice,  that  will mean you are rejecting the teaching of the Buddha.

Q21: Venerable Sir, what does it mean by the word, “noting”?

The word, “noting” means to pay attention to a meditative object with the purpose to be aware of phenomena that are really happening from moment to moment.

Q22: Venerable Sir, for what purpose do you instruct us to act very slowly?

It is only when you act slowly that your concentration, mindfulness and insight knowledge can keep up with the objects. That's the reason why you have to start the practice by doing everything slowly and mindfully. Indeed, in the beginning, if you do things fast, your mindfulness or awareness cannot follow.

Q23: Venerable Sir, is there any kind of pain or discomfort which belongs to the practice itself? If so, how do we have to deal with it?

Yes, you may experience several kinds of unpleasant sensations like itchiness, heat, pain, ache, heaviness, stiffness and so on when your concentration gets very strong. They tend to disappear once you stop practice. But, they may reappear if you resume your practice. Then, that is surely not a disease or illness, but just unpleasant sensation which belongs to the practice. Don't worry. If you keep on noting, eventually it will fade away.

Q24: Venerable Sir, what are we supposed to note when the rising and falling fade away?

When the rising and falling fade away, you are supposed to note: “sitting, touching” or “lying, touching.” You can change touching points. For example, you note “sitting, touching” paying attention to a touch point on the right foot, and then note “sitting, touching”focusing a touching point on the left foot. Thus, you can shift your attention from one touch point to another. Or, you can shift your attention to four, five or six touch points alternately.

Q25: Venerable Sir, which touching point should we note among others?

Any touching point is possible to note. If you note, for instance, a touching on one's buttock as “touching, touching,” that is correct; note it on one's knee as “touching, touching,” that is correct; note it on one's hands as “touching, touching,” that is correct; note it on one's head as “touching, touching,” that is correct; note in-and-out breath as “touching, touching,” that is correct; note it in one's intestines or liver as “touching, touching,” that is correct; note it on one's abdomen as “touching, touching”, that is correct.

Q26: Venerable Sir, should we rather observe stiffness, motion or movement when walking if we are supposed to be aware of the characteristics?

The Buddha said: “Be aware of going, when going”. When we walk, the air-element prevails, which is experienced as pressure, or stiffness in terms of its characteristics, or motion, pushing or movement in terms of its function. The Buddha, however, did not instruct us to note it as “pressure,” “stiffness,” “movement.” “motion” or “pushing.” The Buddha's actual instruction is: “Be aware of going, when going”. That's all. The reason is he wanted to give the easy and understandable way. Noting in conventional language is quite familiar and easy to every body, of course.

Q27: Would it not be harmful to one's health if one practiced too intensively?

It is said in the pali texts: “kaye ca jivite ca anapekkhatam upatthapeti = with no regards to one's life and limbs.” This encourages one to practice with heroic effort, even to sacrifice one's life and limbs. Some may think: “how horrible the practice is!” In fact, no one has died from intensive practice, and it is not even harmful to one's health. Actually, there are many testimonies that some people have been cured of chronic diseases by practicing this meditation.

Q28: Venerable Sir, can you mention suitable postures of sitting?

There are three postures of cross-legged sitting: the first  is the sitting with  both soles  facing up like a Buddha statue does; the second is with one's calves kept parallel, or on each other; and the third is the way Myanmar women do with their knees folded underneath, which is called addha-pallanka  (half  cross-legged sitting).  Any one is suitable.  For women,  they can sit the way  they like,  unless in public. The point is to be able to sit for a long time, so that concentration will get chance to take place, develop eventually resulting in insight knowledge.

Q29: Venerable Sir, do you advise yogis not to speak at all during practice?

No, I don't. It is not advisable to do so. It would be wise, however, not to speak of anything frivolous or unnecessary. One should only speak of things necessary, beneficial or doctrinal, and in moderation. Thus, both worldly and spiritual progress can be made.

Q30: ls it possible to note an object a moment after it takes place?

No, of course not. Even though you can buy something on credit and pay for it later, no credit is given in the case of Vipassana. So, you must note an object the moment it takes place lest you become attached to it.

Q31: Venerable Sir, what is a yogi expected to be aware of when sitting or lying?

When sitting, just note “sitting, sitting” continuously. If it is boring and monotonous, since it is a single object, then a prominent touching point should be added to it, noting “sitting, touching; sitting, touching.” Or you can note “rising and falling” of the abdomen instead, focusing on the sensation of the air-element characterized by stiffness,  movement.   Similarly with lying down.

Q32: Venerable Sir, what should a yogi do, if or when he or she finds the observation of “rising, falling” too easy or a gap noticeable between them?

A yogi, adding the sitting posture to the “rising, falling,” should note three objects: “rising, falling, sitting; rising, falling, sitting.” He or she must be aware of “sitting” in the same manner as “rising, falling.” Even then if a gap is found in between, note four objects by adding a prominent touching point to it: “rising, falling, sitting, touching.” When lying  down,  note in  similarly  way: “rising, falling, lying, touching”,  or “rising, lying,  falling,  lying.”

Q33: Venerable Sir, does age make a difference in one's practice?

Yes, there is some differences between the old and the young. In order to reach to a certain level of insight knowledge, one man, for example, at the age of twenty or thirty, may take about a month, and another in his sixties or seventies has to take two or three months. It is because the young are physically healthier, mentally active, and less worried than the old. Of course, the older they get, the sicklier they become. The old have weaker memory and understanding, and stronger commitments and worries. As for a monk, it would be great if he would practice soon after his ordination. Because as a newly ordained monk, he is still young and has strong faith in the practice, and his moral conduct is also still flawless. So, in my opinion, however important his study is, a monk should practice soon after his ordination, for three months at least. There were some monks who unfortunately passed away before they could practice. What a pity!---

Q34: Venerable Sir, does our concentration or awareness make a difference in our experience of pain?

When your concentration and awareness are not yet strong, you will find the pain increasing while noting pain, stiffness or heat. But you should keep on noting it with patience and persistence. They often fade away when concentration and awareness are strong enough. Sometimes, while you are noting it, you may find it disappears on the spot. Such type of pain may no longer come back.

Q35: Venerable Sir, does one's sex make a difference in making faster progress in practice?

I often find that women work harder along with strong faith in their teacher and his guidance. As a result, they develop concentration sooner rather than later. This in return arouses insight knowledge faster. Thus, I often find women make faster progress in practice than men do. I also found, however, some women who wasted their time with their wandering thoughts, and made no progress. There are several reasons why they make little or no progress in their practice such as laziness, old age, poor health and so on. Of course, there are also men and monks who make fast progress in their practice when following the instructions strictly.

Q36: Venerable Sir, is it true that for learned persons, their knowledge forms an obstacle to the progress in their practice?

No, it's not suitable to say so. It is impossible that one's knowledge is an obstacle to the practice. As you may know, a highly learned monk called Potthila became an Arahat sooner rather than later by practicing under the guidance of a young novice. In view of this, it is clear that one's education or knowledge cannot be an obstruction to the progress in the practice. As a matter of fact, the real obstacles are pride in one's education or knowledge, little or no faith in the practice, skeptical doubt, failure to follow strictly the guidance of the teacher, lack of heroic effort, and so on. Such are real obstacles to the development of concentration and insight knowledge.

Q37: Venerable Sir, is there any difference between meditators and non-meditators  when  they face with a painful illness?

Yes, of course. Non-meditator can only remember to take precepts,  to listen  to the  Paritta  chanting, to donate robes or food and  so on.   What a pity,  they can only  perform   charity  and morality! As for meditators,  they remember to perform high-level practice  until they  become enlightened  by noting closely  their discomfort itself moment to moment.

Q38: Venerable Sir, should we insist on practice without spiritual aptitude (pārami) strong enough for Magga, Phala enlightenment?

If you do not practice, your spiritual aptitude (pārami) can, by no means, be formed. In other words, even if your pārami is fully accumulated, you cannot be enlightened without practice. On the other hand, if you practice, your pārami will be formed, which will help you experience Nibbāna sooner. If your pārami is fully developed, you will be enlightened in this very life. Or it will serve, at least, as a seed for enlightenment in the future.

Q39: Venerable Sir, is it realization of impermanence when we see, for example, a pot break down or of suffering when we have a pain caused by a thorn in our flesh?

Sometimes, you discern impermanence when you find a pot break down, or suffering when you have a pain caused by a thorn in your flesh. That is, actually conventional knowledge of impermanence, which cannot help you to realize egolessness in an ultimate sense. On the other hand, the real realization of impermanence takes place when you see present phenomena arising and passing away, and that of suffering when you see them tortured by the flux. Only then, can you realize the egolessness in an ultimate sense.

Q40: Venerable Sir, can you describe how we are supposed to realize egolessness in an ultimate sense? .

Some believe that realization of egolessness takes place if or when you lose your sense of body shape or form by visualizing physical body as particles. Actually, it is not the realization of egolessness that you merely lose the sense of solidity or form of the body by practicing whatever way. It is because you are clearly experiencing the knowing mind and identifying it with “I” or ego. This is similar to the celestial beings called arupa brahma, who have no physical body but still mistake their mind for “I” or ego. So the mere loss of sense of solid form cannot mean realization of egolessness. Only when you observe mind and body the moment they take place and see them arising and passing away on their own accord without subject to anyone's authority, do you realize the egolessness in an ultimate sense.

Q41: Venerable Sir, is it true that by realizing impermanence, one is supposed to spontaneously appreciate suffering and egolessness?

Yes, indeed. Whatever is impermanent is regarded to be suffering and, at the same time, egoless. Actually, they are in an ultimate sense the five aggregates constituted of mental and physical phenomena although they have different names.

Q42: Venerable Sir, is it not too soon for one to describe his or her  progress  of  Vipassana  insights within a month or so?

No, it is not too soon because the Buddha claimed that his method is excellent enough to help one to become anāgami or arahat even within a week. So, if someone states that it is impossible to bring about enlightenment within a month, no matter how intensively a yogi practices, then he is blemishing the Buddha's teaching and hindering people from practice.

Q43: Venerable Sir, what types of difficulties have you encountered in your teaching of Vipassana?

In 1939, I started teaching this satipatthana vipassana in my native place, Mahasi monastery, Seikkhun village, Shwebo township. At that time, the abbot from the adjacent monastery was not happy with my teaching. But he dared not condemn it openly in my presence because he knew I was highly learned. So he did it in my absence only. There were also some monks and lay people who supported him. However, I never acted in response but kept on teaching as usual. Whatever Condemnation  they made, nothing could shake or waver me because I was teaching through my own experience. Later, more and more people began to prove my teaching to be true from their own direct experience.

Later, the monk who had condemned my teaching, unfortunately had an affair with a woman and was disrobed within a few years. He passed away four or  five years later. Again, when I started teaching in Yangon, one of the newspapers kept on condemning my teaching for some time. But I never acted in response. And then, a book entitled “The Ladder To Pure Land” apishly criticized my teaching. Moreover, there was a journal that continually expressed articles condemning my teaching. I did nothing, however, to respond to them considering that the dhamma doctrine was the Buddha's, not mine. So those who appreciated my teaching would come to me. Otherwise, they went to other teachers. Again, I kept on teaching as usual, found no failures but only success in my spiritual career year after year. I opened this Yangon Meditation Centre with 25 yogis in the year of 1950. Now, in the summer time, there are about one thousand of yogis practicing here in this centre. Even in the winter, when usually fewer yogis practice, there are some two hundred yogis practicing in the centre. Indeed, that indicates no failure but success.

Q44: Venerable Sir, how much time should we spend noting at the dining table?

If or when you have your meal alone and can note precisely and accurately, you may have fifty or sixty moments of noting within a single morsel. Thus, it would take you about an hour or so to finish your meal. But when you are eating in a group, it is impossible for you to note in that manner. You should determine to note as much as possible.

Q45: Venerable Sir, how long is it likely to take a yogi to reach the certain level of insight called Udaya-bhaya-ñana (the insight into arising and passing away of phenomena)?

Most people, if they work hard, may take a week or so to attain this insight knowledge. However, a few exceptional people, maybe one or two in a hundred, can accomplish it within three or four days. But there are some people who have to take ten or fifteen days to reach this insight because of insufficient effort or weak mental faculty. Also there are some people who cannot reach to even after a month or so because of some deficiency. Anyway, a yogi is normally expected to accomplish this insight within a week or so if he or she works diligently.

Q46: Venerable Sir, is it necessary to accept nothing but practical experience?

It is not practical for you to accept only practical experience. In other words, there is no reason not to believe in nonempirical reality. Although you cannot see something with your naked eyes, it may be seen through a microscope or telescope. Although you have never been to some parts of the world, it is reasonable for you to believe in what is said of it by those who have been there. Of course, we have to accept the discoveries of astronauts although we have never been in outer space. The law of the Dhamma is very subtle and delicate. The reason one may not experience it is probably because of deficiency in spiritual talent and effort or obstructions like Kamma, Kilesa, Vipaka, Vitikkama and Ariyupavada. Most often, however, insight knowledge is not realized due to a weakness in one's effort and concentration. So, if you don't practice as seriously as others do, you cannot expect to realize something special as the others do.

Q47: Venerable Sir, do some people become enlightened while merely listening to a Dhamma talk?

No, it was not by listening to the talk that some were enlightened. In order to attain magga phala enlightenments, awareness of body, feeling, mind or general phenomena is essential.

Q48: Why could Jhana-achievers not discover mind and body to be impermanent, etc.,  despite their attainment of Jhana?

Because they do not observe mental and physical phenomena, which really prevail every moment they go, stand, sit, see, hear and so on, they cannot discover mind and body to be impermanent, etc.

Q49: Venerable Sir, is it true that Magga, Phala cannot be realized in this day and age, however hard we work?

Those who have such opinion will fail to practice for sure, let alone the attainment of Magga and Phala. That view is simply an obstruction to the holy path.

Q50: Venerable Sir, is it possible for us to attain Magga, Phala in these days?

Why not? Suppose you have a formula for a drug, then you can make medicine and take it to get cure of your disease. In the same way, the teaching of the Buddha, like a formula, is present and you also have spiritual aptitude, so all you need to do is put it into practice. You will surely attain Magga and Phala. Keep it in your mind. Moreover, no Pali canons say it is impossible to be enlightened nowadays. In fact, they even say that one can become an Arahat with Triple Occult (Te-vijja) in these days. Even the commentary on Vinaya says, to  a minimum extent, that one can become Anagami, the third noble one. The best reference to cite here is:“Ime ca subhadda bhikkhu samma vihareyyum, asunno loko arahantehi assa.” “Oh Subhadda,” said the Buddha, “as long as there are monks who practice properly, this world will never be empty of arahats.” We can find, in these days too, those who practice in a proper way under good guidance. So I am sure, the world is not empty, even now, of noble persons including arahats.

Q51: Venerable Sir, what do we have to do to realize impermanence of mind and body?

If you watch mind and body moment to moment, you are bound to experience true characteristics of phenomena and to see them arise and then vanish immediately.

Q52: Venerable Sir, what is the maximum amount of “Puñña” or merit that can be accumulated by practicing Vipassana meditation?

One moment of noting is available in each second. Thus, 60 moments in a minute, 3600 in an hour and 72,000 a day except for the four hours for sleeping. This is a huge pile of merit!

Q53: Venerable Sir, how long does it take a yogi to accomplish his or her progress of Vipassana insights?

It depends. Only a few people can describe their accomplishment of insight knowledge within a week or so, while most people usually mention their complete set of insight knowledge after one and a half months, or two. There are, however, some people who have to take three or four months to accomplish it. If, however, one practices seriously as instructed, he or she is likely to describe his or her achievement within a month or so. That's why a yogi is typically encouraged here to practice for at least a month.

Q54: Venerable Sir, can you describe what one's experience of magga-phala  enlightenment is like?

One's mental state changes remarkably and abruptly when he or she realizes Magga, Phala enlightenment. He or she may feel as if he or she were newly reborn. His or her faith and confidence distinctly flourish resulting in strong rapture, ecstasy and great happiness. Sometimes, these mental states prevail so much that he or she cannot penetrate into objects like before even though he or she focuses attention on them. Hours or days later, however, such mental states tend to be mild and he or she can do well again in the practice. For some people, they may feel relaxed or apparently unwilling to practice or seemingly satisfied with what they have just achieved probably because they might not intend to achieve higher.

Q55: Venerable Sir, can you describe someone who, you believe, experienced Nibbāna?

Yes, I can. Among those who first practiced under my guidance, my cousin called U Phochon was impressive. When he reached the stage of bhanga-ñāna (the fifth level of  Vipassana  insight), he started to find trees or people fluxing. He thought something was wrong with his view because he had learned from a teacher that things like a tree, log, post, stone, human body, etc., last for a due period, while physical phenomena caused by one's kamma or mind passed away immediately after they arose. On the contrary, he saw, at that time, things flux. So he came and asked me what was wrong with his view. I encouraged him saying that nothing was wrong with his view but it was bhanga-ñāna (the fifth level of  Vipassana  insight), which helped him to see things passing away immediately. After a few days, he clearly described his experience of Nibbāna, the cessation of mind and body.

Q56: Venerable Sir, what are the descriptions of Nibbāna made by those who, you believe, have attained it?

Some descriptions of Nibbāna made by those who, I believed, realized it are as follows:
• I found objects and noting mind to cease abruptly.
• I discovered that objects and noting mind were cut off like a creeper chopped down.
• I saw objects and noting mind fall down immediately like a heavy burden unloaded.
• I perceived objects and noting mind drop down as if I lost my hold on them.
• I felt as if I escaped from objects and noting mind.
• I found out that objects and noting mind ceased abruptly like a candle light blown out.
• I felt as if I got out of the objects and noting mind, like coming into the light out of the darkness.
• I felt that I escaped the objects and noting mind, as if I got into clarity from obscurity.
• I found both objects and noting mind submerged as if they were to sink into the water.
• I discovered that both objects and noting mind stopped suddenly like a sprinter who was pushed back from the front.
• I found both objects and noting mind disappeared suddenly.

Q57: Venerable Sir, by allowing a yogi to listen to the talk on the progress of insights, are you confirming that he or she is a Sotapanna ( who has reached the first stage of enlightenment)?

No, not at all. We never make judgments of one's spiritual status. When we are sure, however, that a yogi is good enough at practice, we allow him or her to listen to the talk given by one of our meditation teachers, expounding on how the insight knowledge advances up to the enlightenment of magga and phala. The purpose is to help a yogi to be able to decide his or her spiritual level by checking his or her own experience with the talk given. Moreover, this will offer him or her a chance to enjoy his or her achievement and give encouragement to work harder for further development. It is not for us to decide what level of enlightenment he or she has attained. So, it is simply a misunderstanding that we confirm that a yogi is Sotapanna by allowing him or her to listen to that talk.

Q58: Venerable Sir, it is, some say, unreasonable that a meditation teacher is unable to confirm that so and so yogi among his students becomes Sotāpanna. Is that true? 

Yes, it may be unreasonable from their point of view, but it is very appropriate to Sāsana tradition that a meditation teacher is not able to confirm that so and so person among his yogis becomes Sotāpanna. The Buddha is the only one in this position to confirm someone's enlightenment such as sotāpanna, sakadāgāmi, anāgami or arahat.  Even Venerable Sāriputra never did it that way. So we never do this way, either. This is the appropriate way in the Sāsana tradition. 

Q59: Venerable Sir, how many people do you believe to be enlightened under your guidance?

I believe there are thousands of people who have reached, within a week, the insight knowledge distinguishing between mind and body from one's own experience by practicing strictly as instructed and arousing strong concentration. And also, there are thousands of those who experience mind and body interacting and constantly changing; i.e., cause and effect, and impermanence, suffering and egolessness of the phenomena. And also, there are thousands of people who are believed to accomplish Magga, Phala enlightenment after they have developed mature insight knowledge by observing mind and body moment to moment.

Q60: Venerable Sir, what is a yogi expected to be aware of, when he or she is walking, noting “right foot, left foot,” or “lifting, pushing, and dropping?”

The sensation in the foot or body of a yogi is what he or she is to be aware of. In technical terms, vayo-dhatu, the air-element characterized by stiffness, pressure,  motion or  vibration; tejo-dhatu, the fire-element characterized by temperature:  cold, warm  or hot;  pathavi- dhatu, the earth-element characterized by  hardness,   softness or  smoothness.  But, especially vayo-dhatu is prominent to  observe  most of the time. 

From “An Interview with Mahasi Sayadaw” 
Prepared by Tha-ma-nay-kyaw, November 17, 2001
Translated by Hla Myint Kyaw, January 21, 2002