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The Ancient Roots of the U Ba Khin Vipassanā Meditation
Vipassanā meditation taught in the tradition of U Ba Khin has by now become one of the most widely practised forms of insight meditation in the world. Thanks to the diligent efforts of S. N. Goenka in particular, the U Ba Khin method is currently being taught on a dāna basis in affluent societies like the United States of America just as in poverty stricken areas of India, with the same instructions given in Theravāda countries like Sri Lanka and in Islamic countries such as Dubai and Iran.1 Instructions in this particular type of vipassanā meditation are also available in prisons, both in the East and in the West, as the U Ba Khin method has acquired governmental recognition for its potential to reform even hardened criminals.
This success speaks for the potential of this method of developing liberating insight, yet little is known about the origins of this meditation technique. U Ba Khin (1899-1971) learned vipassanā meditation from U Thet (1873-1945), whose teaching activities took place with the support of the famous Burmese scholar monk Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923).2 Beyond that, no further information seems to be available from Burma. In spite of this paucity of records from Burma, however, there is evidence that this meditation practice reaches far back into the history of Indian Buddhism. It is this evidence for "the ancient roots of the U Ba Khin vipassanā meditation" that the present article intends to explore.
In addition to the relatively limited literary records of Indian Buddhism still available today, fortunately already since the second century of our era Chinese Buddhists had begun to systematically translate discourses, monastic rules, commentaries and treatises from various Indian Buddhist schools. The sustained effort of the Chinese translators over the centuries eventually created what could well be the most extensive corpus of translated material in the history of mankind.
A famous translator active in this enterprise was Kumārajīva (344-413), a Buddhist monk from northern India renowned for the polished Chinese of the translations completed under his guidance and in collaboration with large assemblies of native scholar monks. One of the works translated by Kumārajīva is the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra, a miscellany of various texts related to meditation. Among others, the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra has preserved a treatment of the sixteen steps of mindfulness of breathing, and it is among the instructions given in this treatment that the evidence we are looking for can be found. In relation to the third step of mindfulness of breathing, which is to "experience the whole body" while breathing in and breathing out,3 the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra instructs that awareness should be developed in the following way:
念諸息遍身, 亦念息出入, 悉觀身中諸出息入息, 覺知遍至身中乃
Mindfulness [during] all breaths pervades the body, [while] being as well mindful of the out- and in-breaths.4 Completely contemplating the inside of the body [during] all out-breaths and in-breaths, awareness pervades and reaches inside the body up to the toes and the fingers and pervades every pore [on the surface of the body], just like water entering sand, aware from the feet to the hair [while] breathing out [and in], pervading every pore as well, just like water entering sand.5
The Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra’s presentation of the implications of the injunction to "experience the whole body" is closely similar to the position taken in the U Ba Khin tradition, a position that differs from the traditional explanation given by the commentator Buddhaghosa. According to S. N. Goenka, with this third step of mindfulness of breathing "the whole body must be felt", in the sense that "with the help of the breath the whole body is felt inside ... then it is also felt outside ... on the surface of the body".6 According to the Visuddhimagga, however, the instruction to experience the whole body while breathing in and breathing out should be understood to refer to the "whole body of the breath", in the sense of being fully aware of the beginning, middle, and end stages of each breath.7
The word kāya, used in the Ānāpānasati Sutta’s instruction for the third step of mindfulness of breathing, can have a considerable range of meaning in other Pāli discourses, where it does not invariably refer to the physical body. Such instances can be found, for example, in the expression sakkāya, literally "own body", an expression which in the discourses stands for all five aggregates and not only for the physical body. Another example is the expression "to touch with the body", kāyena phusati, used to describe the experience of the immaterial attainments. Since to enter any of the immaterial attainments requires leaving behind all types of form or experiences related to form,8 in such contexts kāya stands for an experience made with one’s "whole being", not with the "physical body".
More closely related to the present issue is a passage in the Ānāpānasati Sutta itself, which reckons the breath as a "body" among bodies, thereby providing an antecedent for the explanation given in the Visuddhimagga.9 The next step of mindfulness of breathing, which is the fourth step in the overall scheme of sixteen steps, instructs to calm the "bodily formations", kāyasaṅkhārā.10 According to an explanation given by the nun Dhammadinnā in the Cūḷavedalla Sutta, the breath is such a "bodily formation", so that the Visuddhimagga’s understanding of kāya as representative of the breath would also work for the fourth step.11 Yet, the instruction to contemplate the whole "body", kāya, is part of one way of developing kāyānupassanā, "contemplation of the body", a contemplation of which the other instances listed in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta are clearly concerned with aspects of the physical body, not with the body of the breath.12 In view of this, it would be more natural to assume that the expression kāya used in the third step of mindfulness of breathing should also refer to the physical body.
Besides, when one considers the instructions on mindfulness of breathing from a practical perspective, Buddhaghosa’s explanation becomes less convincing. The task required during the first two steps of mindfulness of breathing is to know if the breath is short or long.13 Thus the cultivation of full awareness of the whole length of the breath, and thereby implicitly of its beginning, middle, and end stages, is already undertaken during the previous two steps. Unless one is aware of the breath from beginning to end, one would not be able to know if the breath is long or short.
On following the Visuddhimagga’s explanation, then, the third step of mindfulness of breathing would simply repeat what has been practiced earlier. As the scheme of altogether sixteen steps of mindfulness of breathing depicts a clear progression of practice, one would expect the third step in this scheme to introduce a distinctly new feature for contemplation and not merely repeat what has already been covered in the two preceding steps.
Such a distinctly new feature for contemplation could be arrived at if the word kāya in the instruction for the third step of mindfulness of breathing were to be understood as referring to the physical body. That is, while breathing in and out a meditator at the same time broadens the scope of his or her awareness from the touch sensation caused by the breath so as to encompass whatever may be felt in the whole of the physical body. If one were to adopt this interpretation, the next step of calming the "bodily formations" would then not be restricted to calming only the breath, but would refer to calming all bodily formations (saṅkhārā), to letting the whole body, inside and outside, become increasingly calm and settled. This is in fact the interpretation given to bodily formations in the Paṭisambhidāmagga, which in its gloss on the third step of mindfulness of breathing mentions the breath as well as motions of the body, such as bending in any direction, or even bodily shaking, as instances of "bodily formations".14
Such an understanding of the implications of kāya as the physical body underlies also the treatment given in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra, according to which the third step of mindfulness of breathing would require a shift of awareness from the breath alone to encompassing the whole body. Such a shift of awareness from mindfulness of the breath to a comprehensive awareness of the whole body is also a distinctive feature of the U Ba Khin method, which teaches a systematical scanning of the whole body with awareness, quite literally from feet to head, pervading every pore of it, just as described in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra. The close similarity between the instructions given in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra and the approach taught by U Ba Khin can be seen in the following quotations from descriptions of this meditation practice:
The method consists in concentrating the mind ... through the practice of mindfulness of breathing, and then turning the concentrated attention that has thus been achieved to the various parts of one’s physical organism - moving systematically through the body - in order to develop an increasingly thorough and subtle awareness of all the sensations which arise in it. ... The student begins to scan the body from head to toes, moving methodically from one part to the next.15 The technique used in this tradition is to concentrate on each part of the body in a systematic fashion, to note whatever sensation, if any, is occurring in that part of the body ... We go through the body being aware of the sensations from head to foot.16
The close similarity between the vipassanā meditation taught in the tradition of U Ba Khin and the instructions given in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra finds further corroboration in the simile given in the Chinese discourse, which compares the pervasion of the whole body with awareness to water that enters into sand. This imagery fits well with a stage reached after sustained practice of the U Ba Khin method, when awareness has been refined to the point of enabling the meditator to experience sensations throughout the body during a single act of scanning the body. The tradition refers to this as "sweeping" the body in a "free flow", expressions that reflect how awareness passes in a "sweeping" or "flowing" manner through the whole body within the time period it takes to breath in or to breath out. S. N. Goenka describes this stage of meditation in the following manner: You learn to reach the important station of feeling sensations in the whole body in one breath: from top to bottom as you breathe out, from bottom to top as you breathe in.17
Such a stage of practice combines two aspects, as it involves a sweeping or flowing motion of awareness through the body and at the same time an awareness of even the subtlest type of sensation occuring in any part of the body. The simile given in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra well illustrates these two aspects. The minute grains of sand can be taken to illustrate the minute sensations to be experienced, while the water that seeps into the sand represents how awareness seeps and flows inside the body. Just as when water seeps into sand, every little grain of sand will be moistened, similarly, when awareness sweeps through the body, every little part of the body will be permeated with awareness.
The purpose of undertaking such sweeping of the body with awareness is not merely to improve tactile sensitivity and become able to feel subtle sensations. The whole point behind undertaking such practice is to develop a thoroughgoing and continuous awareness of impermanence. Through continuous "sweepings" of the body with awareness, the meditator becomes directly aware of the truth that all parts of the body, and together with them also the observing mind, are in a continuous state of flux and keep on passing away.
The Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra gives considerable prominence to this insight and its implications in its treatment of the thirteenth step of mindfulness of breathing, which instructs to contemplate impermanence when breathing in and breathing out.18 Whereas the Visuddhimagga only mentions that to undertake this particular step of mindfulness of breathing requires one to be aware of the impermanent nature of the five aggregates,19 the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra has considerably more to say on this topic, as it also depicts the insight that results from such awareness of impermanence:
觀無常亦念息入出. 觀諸法無常, 生滅, 空, 無吾我, 生時諸法空生, 滅時諸法空滅. 是中無男, 無女, 無人, 無作, 無受, 是名隨無常觀.20
Contemplate impermanence while being mindful of breathing in and out. Contemplate all phenomena as impermanent, as arising and ceasing, as empty, as without an ‘I’ or a self. At the time of arising, all phenomena that arise are empty, at the time of ceasing, all phenomena that cease are empty. Among these [phenomena] there is no ‘man’, no ‘woman’, no ‘person’, no ‘deed’, no ‘experience’ - this is reckoned ‘contemplating in accordance with impermanence’.
Just as the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra detailed treatment of the thirteenth step of mindfulness of breathing highlights the deepening of insight that results from sustained contemplation of impermanence, so too the U Ba Khin tradition attaches considerable importance to developing a clear and experiential appreciation of impermanence as a basis for the arising of insight. U Ba Khin describes the more advanced stages of vipassanā meditation in his tradition in the following words: Mindfulness and concentration on changing sensations and feelings are so strong that all senses, even the movement of the mind, are experienced as changing, as vibrations. Perception of the whole world, matter and mind, becomes reduced to various levels of vibration in [a] constant state of change.21
This description by U Ba Khin further supports the impression that the approach to vipassanā meditation undertaken still today by his followers corresponds to the way of meditation reflected in the instructions given in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra. Once the whole world of matter and mind is reduced to various levels of vibrations in a constant state of change, all substantialist notions of a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, of a ‘deed’ or an ‘experience’, will indeed be thoroughly undermined.
In view of this remarkable similarity between the U Ba Khin method and the instructions given in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra, the historical background to this particular text calls for further comment. For the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra to be translated by a famous translator like Kumārajīva, one would expect that this work, or at least the various parts that make up this work, were well known already before his time. Thus the understanding of the third step of mindfulness of breathing as involving an awareness of the whole body, documented in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra, may well be considerably earlier than its translation, which was apparently undertaken slightly earlier than Buddhaghosa’s compiling of the Visuddhimagga.22
Just as the instructions on mindfulness of breathing found in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra probably date from a period considerably earlier than their translation into Chinese, similarly Buddhaghosa’s exposition in the Visuddhimagga is based on commentaries that were considerably older. According to the traditional account, the Visuddhimagga was written by Buddhaghosa in order to win the confidence of the Mahāvihāra monks and have them entrust him with translating the commentaries into Pāli. With this purpose on his mind, one may well expect that the interpretations he advanced in this work, such as in relation to the third step of mindfulness of breathing, were in strict conformity with the Mahāvihāra commentary.23 Yet, the Mahāvihāra commentary was only one out of a number of different commentaries available in Sri Lanka at that time, commentaries that unfortunately are no longer extant.24 Thus the interpretation of the third step of mindfulness of breathing in other commentaries could well have been different, perhaps even similar to the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra’s presentation. Hence, even though the Visuddhimagga’s presentation has become normative for the Theravāda tradition, information found in other sources, such as Chinese translations of Indian works, deserves to be taken seriously, as it could provide important additional perspectives on what, at least in some cases, might be a one-sided presentation.
The section of the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra concerned with mindfulness of breathing appears to be such an instance, as it provides an alternative understanding of how to develop the third step of mindfulness of breathing. According to modern scholarship, this section of the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra reflects the practice of meditating monks in the northwest of India during the first to the fourth centuries of our era.25
Within the northwest of India, in ancient times the Kuru country in particular had a reputation for the wisdom of its inhabitants and their ability to understand profound discourses.26 According to the commentary to the Satipaṭthāna Sutta, the inhabitants of the Kuru country had a particularly keen interest in the practice of mindfulness.27 This was so much the case that even at the village well the topic of conversation would be mindfulness meditation, and those who had to admit that they were not engaging in mindfulness practice faced strong criticism. In view of such an interest in the topic of mindfulness and its practical application, it is not at all surprising that the instructions on mindfulness of breathing found in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra should stem from meditating monks who lived in the northwest of India.
During the early centuries of the present era, the northwest of India was a stronghold of the Sarvāstivāda tradition. The history of the early Buddhist schools is complex, suffice it to say, for our present purpose, that the Sarvāstivāda tradition, just like the Theravāda tradition still found in today’s Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, was part of the ‘orthodox’ branch of Indian Buddhism, in contrast to what eventually were to become the Mahāyāna Buddhist schools.
To determine the school affiliation of a text translated into Chinese is a hazardous undertaking, all the more so if the text is part of a miscellany such as the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra. Nevertheless, the final part of the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra’s treatment of mindfulness of breathing offers a hint to its possible affiliation. The terminology employed in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra for the final four steps of mindfulness of breathing agrees with the presentation given in the Ānāpānasati Sutta of the Theravāda tradition.28 This is remarkable, since the Chinese counterpart to the Ānāpānasati Sutta, found in the Saṃyukta Āgama, has a different sequence of steps.29 The way the Saṃyukta Āgama treats the final four steps of mindfulness of breathing recurs also in the Śrāvakabhūmi, another important work of the Northern traditions.30
It is significant that, in contrast to these two works, the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra should agree in its presentation with the Theravāda tradition. Although this clearly is far from being in any way conclusive, it does point to a degree of affinity between the instructions on mindfulness of breathing found in the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra and the description of the same practice in the Theravāda tradition. This would make it possible for the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra understanding of the third step of mindfulness of breathing to stem from an Indian commentarial tradition that was also preserved in one of the early commentaries known in Sri Lanka. Owing to the circumstances of the compilation of the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa might then have discarded such a commentarial explanation in favour of the interpretation advanced by the Mahāvihāra commentary.
Whatever may be the final word on the school affiliation of this part of the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra, given that its way of explaining the practice of mindfulness of breathing reached China and was translated by one of the most famous translators in the history of Chinese Buddhism, it seems not farfetched to assume that the same way of explanation also reached Burma, where in some way or another it continued to be passed on by meditating monks until the present. Thus the ancient roots of the vipassanā meditation taught by U Ba Khin appear to reach back even two thousand years into the history of Indian Buddhism, representing a form a meditation practice already undertaken in a similar way by monks in north-western India during the first centuries of our era.
MĀ Madhyama Āgama MN Majjhima Nikāya Paṭis Paṭisambhidāmagga Ps Papañcasūdanī SĀ Saṃyukta Āgama SN Saṃyutta Nikāya T Taishō Vism Visuddhimagga
I am indebted to Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhikuṇī Yin Kit, Rod Bucknell, Dhananjay Chavan, Lauren Smith and Craig Swogger for comments on an earlier draft of this article.
1A survey of locations at which courses are conducted can be found at www.dhamma.org/alphalist.htm
2Sayagyi U Ba Khin Journal, Igatpuri 1998: 75-86.
3MN 118 at MN III 82,31: sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī.
4The sequence "breathing out and breathing in" may strike an unfamiliar note to those accustomed to the sequence usually found in translations of the Pāli discourses. The instructions on mindfulness of breathing in MN 118 at MN III 82,28 and other Pāli discourses take up first assasati and then passasati, two verbs often translated as "breathing in" and "breathing out". Yet, there is some divergence of opinions on how these two Pāli verbs should be understood. Vism 272,1 records that though according to the Suttanta commentary assasati represents the in-breath, according to the Vinaya commentary assasati rather represents the out-breath. R. C. Childers: A Dictionary of the Pali Language, New Delhi
1993: 61; M. Cone: A Dictionary of Pāli, Oxford 2001: 268 and V. Trenckner: A Critical Pāli Dictionary, Copenhagen 1925 vol. 1: 523, follow the first of these two alternative understandings by taking assasati to mean "to breathe in". But O. Böhtlingk: Sanskrit- Wörterbuch in Kürzerer Fassung, Delhi 1998 vol. 4: 173; K. Mylius: Wörterbuch Pāli- Deutsch, Wichtracht 1997: 250; M. Monier-Williams: A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Delhi
1999: 696; and T. W. Rhys Davids: Pāli-English Dictionary, Delhi 1993: 447, follow the other way of understanding, since according to them "to breath in" is rather the appropriate rendering of passasati or its Sanskrit equivalent praśvasati. In view of such diversity of opinion in ancient as well as modern times, the circumstance that the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra should mention the out-breath first may not be of any deeper significance, all the more since at a later point of its instruction the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra reverses the sequence of these two, cf. T 614 at T XV 275c24.
5T 614 at T XV 275b25. As mentioned in note 4 above, T 614 exhibits some inconsistencies in its renderings of whatever equivalent to assāsapassāsa was found in its Indic original. Therefore I take the reference in the second section of this extract to the out-breath, 息 出, to be an abbreviation or error for the out- and in-breath mentioned earlier 息出入. In fact, if only the out-breath were meant, a complimentary instruction for the in-breath should be expected, which is, however, not found. Instead, after the present extract T 614 continues with other illustrations, giving the example of a bag, a lotus root and a fishing net, emphasizing again that the whole body should be contemplated while discerning the location of the air formations (viz. the breaths), in the sense that awareness should not be limited to the nose or mouth area, but should pervade the entire body up to and including all nine orifices while at the same time clearly discerning the in- and out-breaths.
6S. N. Goenka: Discourses on Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, Igatpuri 1999: 30 and 31.
7Vism 273,24: ādimajjhapariyosānaṃ.
8Cf. e.g. SN 12:70 at SN II 123,15, which speaks of having "touched with the body those peaceful liberations that are formless, beyond form", ye te santā vimokkhā atikkamma rūpe āruppā te kāyena phusitvā.
9MN 118 at MN III 83,32: kāyesu kāyaññatarāhaṃ ... vadāmi yadidaṃ assāsapassāsaṃ
10MN 118 at MN III 82,33: passambhayaṃ kāyasaṅkhāraṃ
11MN 44 at MN I 301,20: assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro.
12MN 10 at MN I 56-59 lists contemplation of bodily postures, of various bodily activities, of the anatomical parts of the body, of the four elements of the body and of a corpse in various stages of decay as instances of kāyānupassanā, "contemplation of the body".
13MN 118 at MN III 82,28: ‘dīgham assasāmī’ti pajānāti ... ‘rassam assasāmī’ti pajānāti.
14Paṭis I 184,34: yathārūpehi kāyasaṅkhārehi yā kāyassa ānamanā vinamanā sannamanā paṇamanā iñjanā phandanā calanā kampanā ‘passambhayaṃ kāyasaṅkhāram assasissāmī’ti sikkhati. K.N. Jayatilleke: "Some Problems of Translation and Interpretation", in University of Ceylon Review, 1948 vol 7: 217, comments on kāyasaṅkhāra that "it is likely that breathing is mentioned only as [a] concrete instance typifying a general class of acts, namely bodily reflexes".
15A. Solé-Leris: Tranquillity & Insight, Kandy 1992: 139 and 147.
16U Chit Tin: Knowing Anicca and the Way to Nibbāna, Wiltshire 1989: XXI.
17S.N. Goenka op.cit.: 29.
18MN 118 at MN III 83,12: ‘aniccānupassī assasissāmī’ti ... passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.
20T 614 at T XV 275c23.
21U Ba Khin in J. Kornfield: Living Buddhist Masters, Kandy 1993: 252.
22D. J. Kalupahana: A History of Buddhist Philosophy, Delhi 1994: 207, explains that "Buddhaghosa arrived in Sri Lanka during the reign of King Mahānāma (409-431 A.D.)". According to F. Deleanu "Mindfulness of Breathing in the Dhyāna Sūtras", in Transactions of the International Conference of Orientalists in Japan, Tokyo 1992: 48, the translation of the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra was undertaken by Kumārajīva in 407 A.D., which would thus be earlier than Buddhaghosa’s arrival in Sri Lanka, where he compiled the Visuddhimagga.
23This is quite explicitly stated by Buddhaghosa in his introduction to the Visuddhimagga, cf. Vism 2,22: Mahāvihāravāsīnaṃ desanānayanissitaṃ Visuddhimaggaṃ bhāsissaṃ. B. C. Law: "Buddhaghosa", in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, 1973 vol 3: 410 comments: "As an adherent of the Mahāvihāra, Buddhaghosa strictly followed the commentary tradition of the Great Minster". On the historical background to the struggle of the Mahāvihāra to reassert its authority with the help of the task to be carried out by Buddhaghosa cf. also Ñāṇamoli: The Path of Purification, Kandy 1991: XXVI.
24G. P. Malalasekera: The Pali Literature of Ceylon, Kandy 1994: 91 lists altogether six different commentaries, cf. also E. W. Adikaram: Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon, Dehiwala 1994: 10-17.
25Deleanu op. cit.: 45.
26G. P. Malalasekera: Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names, Delhi 1995 vol. 1: 641.
27Ps I 228.
28T 614 at T XV 275c24 instructs to contemplate "impermanence", 無常; at T XV 275c29 to contemplate "dispassion", 離欲; at T XV 276a1 to contemplate "cessation", 盡; and at T XV 276a3 to contemplate "abandoning", 棄捨. This sequence corresponds to MN 118 at MN III 83,12: aniccānupassī ... virāgānupassī ... nirodhānupassī ... paṭinissaggānupassī
29SĀ 810 at T II 208b10: "contemplate impermanence, eradicating, dispassion, cessation", 觀無常, 斷, 無欲, 滅.
30K. Shukla (ed.): Śrāvakabhūmi of Ācārya Asaṅga, Patna 1973: 231,6, whose instructions proceed from anityānudarśī via prahāṇānudarśī and virāgānudarśī to nirodhānudarśī.