(English translation of ‘Moraliteit als mijn manager’. In: Open Boeddhisme, September 24, 2015)
Many of Mettavihari’s followers maintain up to this day that he was an able meditation teacher in the tradition of the Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw. Mettavihari’s own life, however, as well as study of original sources and statements of Mahasi’s successors, lead to the conclusion there are many arguments against that. Both Mettavihari himself as well as his followers would have been much better off with Sila (morality or virtuousness) than with Karma as ‘their manager’, as one of his characteristic sayings went. For Mettavihari’s followers it is not yet too late to take a turn for the better, but that needs a deep self-reflection.
Mahasi Sayadaw’s succession
After Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw’s passing away in 1982 the Mahasi Sasana Nuggaha organisation requested two monks to take over as ‘leading Sayadaws’: Ven. Sayadaw U Sujata and Ven. Sayadaw U Pandita as the junior monk. The Ven. Sayadaw U Pandita, at that time in his sixtieth year, was obliged to accept, as he told many years later1. Sayadaw U Sujata had a heart disease, and he died just in the night the lay organisation had requested him to take over the position of the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw. From that moment on Ven. Sayadaw U Pandita had to take sole responsibility2.
In the Mahasi tradition someone is considered as a teacher only after having attained the first stage of holiness (Sotapanna). According to many the Mahasi himself was an Arahat (someone who has attained the fourth and highest stage of holiness).
Sayadaw U Pandita
In 1987 Sayadaw U Pandita conducted his second, long retreat in the US. The first retreat in 1984 took three months, and had taken place at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The second one was six weeks in Arizona. One of the participants of this retreat told me years later that during this retreat some subcutaneous unrest arose when the Sayadaw told his audience that a Sotapanna3, someone who has attained the first stage of holiness, will not transgress the Five Precepts4 anymore. A feeling arose: ‘That can’t be true, can’t it?’ As the woman told me, the people who were disturbed were particularly people who were teaching already or who seemed to have a certain ambition to do that in near future. She herself was not disturbed, nor had this ambition.
Sayadaw U Pandita’s teachings, also his admonitions, are always meant as a support and an encouragement, but are often considered as challenging by his audience. I did experience this myself and Joseph Goldstein5 knows all about it too.
‘There was one time when I was practicing in Burma with Sayadaw U Pandita, with a dry spell in my practice for several weeks. The same day after day after day. And I was pushing it all along, but nothing was happening, nothing was changing that I could see clearly. And so Sayadaw in one interview said to me: ‘Joseph, you should contemplate your sila’. And he was suggesting that as a way of arousing energy and joy. But the first thought that came up in my mind was: ‘What did I do wrong?’ That was the first impulse in my mind. So we need to get past that habit of self-judgment and realise that it IS a powerful reflection.’
Mettavihari’s organisation did edit five booklets in the 80’s. Buddhism in Brief (1981) and the Dutch translation Boeddhisme in het kort (1983), Vipassana Meditation and its Knowledge (1983), based on teachings from 1982, and an edition of Mahasi Sayadaw’s Satipatthana Vipassana (originally edited in 1954). About 1990 Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Meditation was published6.
In none of these four own editions, however, can be found that Mettavihari considers himself to be of the Mahasi school. The name Mahasi cannot be found in any of these booklets. It is a fact that one of his teachers has been U Asabha, a Burmese student of Mahasi, who has been teaching in Thailand from 1952 up to his passing away in 2010.
Not a monk
Since the recent openness practiced by present and former board members of the Buddharama Temple in Waalwijk about Mettavihari’s behaviour, there can be no more misunderstanding that Mettavihari from his first sexual activities in the Netherlands in 1974 was no longer a monk7. Until his death in 2007 he did not only commit sexual misconduct, but also theft: because Mettavihari lied about his monkhood, dana was obtained and spent improperly by him.
Sexual misconduct, theft and lying: Mettavihari permanently transgressed three of the five precepts Sayadaw U Pandita mentioned in 1987. What did this mean practically for those whom Mettavihari was teaching to? As we know, his follower Henk Barendregt testified in 2007 that Mettavihari has instructed more than one thousand people in the Netherlands8. Did they perhaps have bad luck with that?
The practice according to Mettavihari
That depends of course what instructions these were. The core of the practice according to Mettavihari reads, among others, like this:
‘The present ignorance is caused by the presence of craving and attachment to the five aggregates (body, sensations, perceptions, conditions and consciousness). This ignorance is effected by feeling of these aggregates. The Buddha has had the discovery, by naming the contact of things that come to us, by doing so, the feeling of these five aggregates does not exist anymore.’ (Buddhism in Brief, 1981, p.10)
‘Now act as an observer and be aware of the sense- contact and immediately name it , so as not to give the feelings a chance to arise. If you go on naming anything that arises from your senses, there will not be anything but contact , there will not be feelings like good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. (Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Meditation, ± 1990, p. 42)
These passages make arise the question if they are fitting with the fundamental teaching of Dependent Origination, and not an own version of it.
Contact and feeling
Before I continue, I will give an example of what is meant by contact and feeling.
During a 5-day retreat I did, and coordinated, one of the participants was a young man. He had been at one of my retreats before. After a few days, during a sitting session, I heard from his direction regularly sighing sounds. This made the thought arise in me: ‘He will have a hard time.’ But it did not end with that. ‘Did I explain all things well?’ was the next one. And ‘Am I capable enough for conducting retreats?’ was followed by ‘Is there actually any sense in doing a retreat?’ So at first the mind puts another person's behaviour in an unfavourable light, then my own behaviour, then a part of mine as a person, and eventually even the Dhamma. So these were thoughts of doubt, with which I did continue my practice.
One day later, again during a sitting session, comparable sounds came from his direction. But what I did notice now: an unpleasant feeling. And surprise! Where are those thoughts I had yesterday? As a test I tried to invoke them, but there was no bearing for them. At hearing those sounds, an unpleasant feeling arose. That was all. That makes a difference!
Contact (phassa) is here the hearing of sounds. Feeling (vedana) the unpleasant sensation that arose. It can also be pleasant or not-pleasant-nor-unpleasant. Which one of these three feelings might arise, it arises conditioned, dependent on more than one condition, and cannot be arrested. Only when we are very calm we are able to notice this feeling (vedana). When we are not mindful of feeling - which was the case the first day I heard the sounds - a development starts which is described in Dependent Origination as: contact > feeling > desire or anger > attachment > becoming > ‘birth’.
Now I return to the texts from the two Mettavihari booklets. It looks very much like he expostulates his readers so that it is possible not to feel feeling (vedana) anymore. It goes too far to me to draw conclusions only based on texts. After a first retreat with him in 1980 I never went back again, so I cannot speak out of my own experience. Yogi’s who are not able to get into contact – or who have no more contact – with their primarily, basic feeling, become intellectual zombies. And if they are going to do 'as if', they become ostrich-yogi’s, who do not see feeling, because they think their teacher has told them there is no longer such a thing as feeling, when they do their very best. In my opinion this can cause serious psychical harm. In the 80’s I heard sometimes rumors about teachers who did claim that an Arahat during the rest of his life does not have feeling anymore. So if Mettavihari was one of them, he was not the only one. Anyhow, according to Mahasi Sayadaw this is definitely incorrect9. An Arahat still has pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling with every contact, but (s)he has generated the capacity not to let it expand to anger or desire, wrong opinions about him/herself or others, accusations etc. An Arahat has a detached relation to feeling and is always able to stay with him/herself, so to speak.
Mettavihari made a distinction between what he called ‘real morality’ - the restraint of the senses as described above - and a morality based on intentions or on taking of precepts.
‘All meditators will have to concern themselves with morality, the real morality. (. . .) If you remain alert and notice the exact moment of sense-contact, then true morality has arisen. (. . .) There is also a morality which depends on the taking of a vow or on observing certain precepts. But this is not the real morality for those who meditate.’ (Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Meditation, pp. 42-43)
This is something Joseph Goldstein, for instance, is thinking quite different about. When Frits Koster makes mention of this view during an interview10 in 2007, his reaction is as follows:
‘Sad to say we are not always practicing. In the midst of our busy daily life we may easily miss our careless moral behaviour. When you have committed yourself to the precepts, however, it may very well be that when you are about to do something which is morally unskillful – the concerning precept arises in your mind by way of warning. Sila keeps you alert and helps to be morally careful with a mild, open attention.’
During a five days retreat I conducted a few years ago, in one of the daily interviews, a man made mention of massive feelings of guilt about something he had done in his young days. He told me that as a 13 and 14 year old boy he used to have a knife about him, and in a scrimmage that went out of his control he had killed a peer. He had been punished, had served his sentence and now, about twenty years later, he led a well-behaved life. But during this retreat grief about it popped up.
I did remind him of the precepts we took every day during the retreat, as a moral foundation to our mental practice. ‘Drum into your mind: indeed, this I have done twenty years ago. Now I consider it as a mistake. With today’s knowledge I say every day: ‘I resolve to abstain from taking life.’ Also when you are back home again after the retreat. That’s why you no longer have a knife with you, isn’t it? That’s why you avoid certain places at certain times, don’t you? And certain companionship as well?’ The next day this man made mention of feelings of relief and enlightenment.
Joseph Goldstein expresses this as follows in a teaching11 about four functions of mindfulness.
‘But if we take the time to actually acknowledge our commitment to sila – because we have all undertaken that in a very profound and substantial way – it strengthens our self-confidence, it strengthens our self-respect. It is that understanding with ‘Yes, I can train the mind’, I can guard my actions. This is something I can do and am doing.’
‘And the Buddha talked of this, we read it often in the sutta’s, when people would come and acknowledge wrong doing, a wrong action. So these are the Buddha’s words: ‘It is GROWTH in the Noble One’s discipline, when one sees ones transgression as such, and makes amends in accordance with the Dharma, by undertaking restraint for the future.’ So it is a very liberal understanding of our training in morality. It gives a tremendous strength to us to keep our practice of development unfolding.’
Resistance against ethics
Doubt and aversion against ethics seem to be deeply rooted, as can be seen for instance from the question of a reader in Boeddha Magazine (Spring 2013): ‘What role can ethics play in my daily life? I experience it sometimes more as shackles than as something that is helping me.’
During a retreat Sayadaw U Vivekananda conducted in the Netherlands in 2011, he explained that adultery, to which the precept about sexual misconduct among other things refers, will lead to suffering to at least three adults. Also children, when they have them, will be a victim. Possibly the Sayadaw detected among his audience some question marks or even aversion, because he concluded the topic with the words: ‘And those who think this is not true, will come to experience it for themselves.’
Another example of what I personally call a decline in morality. In the Netherlands television prime time advertisement for alcohol is forbidden, but advertisement for adultery12 is not. So as a child watching television you could easily pick up the idea your mum or dad might have another one. How safe this will feel! Who considers this a vicious tendency, finds himself nowadays back in Dutch political spectrum among orthodox-Christians, as in Dutch Parliament only right-wing SGP opposed against this. (Update: And not in vain. In September 2016 the adultery site voluntarily decides to restrain their advertising only after 9.00 pm.)
Not typically Western
Moral decline is not a typically Western phenomenon. According to Sayadaw U Pandita in his motherland Burma nowadays only 25% of the Buddhists are still living with the Five Precepts – mainly as a result of 50 years of misbehaviour of the authorities, he does not omit to mention. ‘If we do not succeed in turning this round, between 50 and 100 years from now the teaching of the Buddha will have completely disappeared from Burma.’ Of such a vital importance he considers virtuousness in society.
Sayadaw U Pandita compares the importance of sila with an abscess in the mouth. ‘When you have an abscess in the mouth, are you able then to eat properly? In the same way it is not possible to make mental progress without a moral base in our speech and action. Most people in the world have destroyed their inner world by immorality.’
In what way morality is the basis? ‘Hiri and ottappa13 are the two Great Protectors of the world, that make us basically human. And the ability to imagine other people’s minds or situation will protect our behaviour and withdraw us from doing bad.’ This principle is well known in the age-old European golden rule, derived from the Christian Bible: Do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you.
‘Karma is my manager’
Until years after his death Mettavihari has succeeded to impress followers with the saying ‘Karma is my manager14.’ But what was his karma? As Phra Thep Buddhimonkun says15: ‘According to the vinaya Mettavihari was no longer a monk from the first moment of sexual contact. That was his karma.’ In Sayadaw U Vivekananda’s words: ‘Through his actions Mettavihari has harmed some of his students, has done a disservice to Theravada Buddhism in Holland and he even managed to taint the name of Mahasi style Vipassana meditation.’
According to the law of cause and effect Mettavihari has to undergo the results of these deeds. ‘Karma is my manager’ is nothing more than a specious, mock profound one liner. To me it needs no further argument that sila would have been a much better manager. His followers still have the opportunity to turn their karmic tide. But that requests a profound self-reflection – more profound than the 14 by Mettavihari appointed teachers showed until now. It is for a reason that yogi Jan de Ridder in an Open Letter16 made an emphatical appeal to Vipassana teachers to make a start on that.
Difference between karma and sila
To Sayadaw U Pandita the difference between karma and sila is obvious. In the beginning of the nineties during a certain period of time he has been seriously attacked in Burmese media. This was after he had continued his Dhamma work in an own centre after insurmountable differences of vision with the Mahasi Sasana Nuggaha organisation. The only reaction he ever gave was: ‘My sila is all right. That I get this critics now, is a result of former karma. But my sila now is quite all right.’
1. Sayadawgyi told this in a farewell Dhamma talk after ten days of teaching in Panditarama Lumbini, 19 February 2009. Source: Jubilee Commemorative Book 1990 – 2015.
2. This means that anno 2015 the Mahasi Sayadaw has one successor: Sayadaw U Pandita, and many direct followers like U Kundala, U Janaka and Ajahn Asabha. For comparison: a professor at the university has normally one successor, many lecturers, and hundreds or thousands who studied with him for some time.
3. Source: Teachings Sayadaw U Pandita 2012-2013, 2013-2014, 2014-2015. The attainment of the first stage of holiness means a first experience of Nibbana. Doubt has been eliminated then. According to Sayadaw U Pandita just that offers the safety, the base required to be able to teach in a really responsible way.
4. Five Precepts: the intention not to take life, not to take what has not been given, no sexual misconduct, no lying and no use of intoxicants.
5. Source: Joseph Goldstein’s Dharma Talks, 14-04-2004, Satipatthana Sutta, Part 2, Mindfulness, Insight Meditation Society, Forest Refuge, http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/96/talk/281/
6. See Timeline Mettavihari at: Open Boeddhisme: Mettavihari en zijn volgelingen
9. Teaching Sayadaw U Vivekananda about Feelings, 27 February 2015: ‘Arahats do still experience feelings. Other views about this are incorrect.’ The German Sayadaw U Vivekananda is since 1988 a direct student of Sayadaw U Pandita (1921 - 2016). Since 1999 (from 2007 on assisted by the Burmese nun Sayalay Bhadda Manika) he is head of meditation centre Panditarama in Lumbini, Nepal.
10. Boeddhistisch Dagblad, 5 June 2015
11. Source: Joseph Goldstein’s Dharma Talks, 14-04-2004, Satipatthana Sutta, Part 2, Mindfulness, Insight Meditation Society, Forest Refuge.
12. The website www.secondlove.nl calls itself a dating site (‘not only for singles’). Orthodox-Christian political party SGP calls it an adultery site.
13. Moral conscience. Wholesome moral shame, that makes us ashamed and afraid of unwholesome activities. A feeling of disgust towards the kilesas or defilements.: ‘This I will regret tomorrow, therefore I won’t do it now.’ Another aspect is wholesome moral dread to be blamed by someone I consider as wise.
14. In August 2005 there was a blaze in Mettavihari’s house and temple at Papaverweg in Amsterdam-North. ‘I was there and watched it all. There was no reaction.’ A resident nun died four days later as an after-effect. ‘She could not escape to her karma. (. . .) As a result of my meditative practice I kept peaceful inside. I didn’t feel disturbed. (. . .) It just had to be like that. Karma is my manager.’ (Simsara, January 2007)
15. Phra Thep Buddhimonkun (86), the current head monk of Buddharama Temple Waalwijk, interviewed by Open Boeddhisme, 9 June 2015
16. Open Brief aan de Vipassana leraren en de yogi’s