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A Buddhist Pilgrim's Progress
Daw Khin Myo Chit
The following account represents the second part of a two--part article that appeared in The Guardian Magazine (Yangon, Myanmar) in the February 1963 issue (pp. 13--19), by Daw Khin Myo Chit.
Ihad done my first sitting with U Sasana as my meditation master. I had promised him to do three sittings as a trial. When I went home from the monastery after the first sitting I felt well and fresh in spite of the trenuous nature of the sitting. However, that night I woke up shivering with cold, my body feverish. Since my husband and my son were still at the monastery I was all alone in the house.
I remembered what my master told me: "Whatever happens to your body or mind there is nothing for you to do but to be mindful of them. You will need the strength to be mindful. To gain that strength, breathe hard and be mindful of the touch of the air on the nostril. When you have enough strength to tackle your bodily pains, be mindful of them till they are no more."
Since I had no one to help me, I had to find strength from within. I sat up and breathed as hard as I could ignoring the feverish sensations. Even as I breathed fever subsided and I began to perspire. In a few minute I fell into a restful sleep. In the morning I felt well and fresh. There was not a hint of fever.
I went about doing the usual household chores and went to the monastery. I reported to my meditation master what happened last night and went on with my second sitting. There was not much difference with the first. There always came a moment while breathing hard when I felt I could not go on. With U Sasana’s encouraging words I rallied my strength to go on only to find myself able to breathe on and enjoying myself too. In this way I finished the three sittings I promised.
My master just said: "Now you know what it is like. If you feel like doing the practice go on. If you feel otherwise, do as you please." My husband and my son came home from the monastery. After reorganizing our worldly life we felt we should continue the practice.
With the blessing and consent of our meditation masters we did try to practise at home and found out something about ourselves. That something we discovered was not at all flattering -- that is, we would not or could not do the practice properly without the supervision of the meditation master.
After having done a few sittings under the supervision of the meditation master we knew the standard of perfection to be attained at each sitting. If we did well in the breathing session observing the rules -- without changing position when cramped, without pausing when fatigued, without letting any bodily sensation interfere with the breathing -- we could tackle the unpleasant sensations that arose in the second half of the sitting. Sad to say we always broke the rules. Without any one to watch over us we cheated and never did well when we practised mindfulness over the sensations. As a result of cheating we failed to get the feeling of peace and well being after the sitting. After overcoming a great disappointment in our own untrustworthiness we had to face the unflattering truth about overselves and go to the monastery to practise under the watchful eyes of the meditation master.
We went to the monastery once a week for two sittings. A month or two later I began to have difficulty in breathing. After a minute or two of hard breathing I was seized with a severe contraction in the chest. Although I could overcome such a crisis by rallying my strength to breathe harder, at other times I could not do the same with this one. My meditation master told me to breathe harder but things got worse. As I struggled hard to get over the crisis, my body trembled and my neck swelled as if bursting.
I could not get over the crisis even though my meditation master kept on telling me to strive more. I felt he was asking me to do the impossible. As I struggled I seemed to have found a way to get round if not to get over the crisis, to find some place of shelter instead of bravely running through the blazing pathway.
Like an animal trapped in a burning forest trying to find a place of shelter, instead of breaking through the blazing pathway I found a way to shirk the painful sensations that rose in me while breathing. As I was trapped in the throes of pain, I could not breathe even softly. Disobeying the meditation master who reminded me to breathe harder to get over the crisis, I found myself holding the breath automatically.
As soon as I held my breath I experienced a sensation of floating like a light feather in the pleasant wide open space. The master’s voice reminding me to breathe hard seemed far away. I fell into a trance during which I saw a huge pool of liquid whose colors changed into hues of a rainbow as they swirled round. It was a wonderful sight beautiful beyond description. All my pains were no more.
When I told my meditation master of my experience he said that trances and visions were not to be encouraged, for they were more of a hindrance than help in my task. They would not bring me any nearer to the Truth I was seeking.
Somewhat discouraged I tried to obey the master. Even though the spirit be strong, the flesh was weak. When faced with the unbearable pains I would not or could not get over them; it was especially difficult to obey the meditation master when I had found a way to get round the pains and fall into a pool of ecstasy.
My First Retreat to the Monastery
My meditation master advised me to come to the monastery for a week’s retreat, so that I could get over the crisis. I was reluctant to do so. I put off as long as I could giving lame excuses. One day something happened. Coming home from the monastery after our weekly practice, I threw myself on a bed. That moment everything went blank and my body seemed to be no more. Nothing seemed to be left of my body except the heart beat. Even the heart seemed to be no more, only the throb was there. Without the burden of the body the heart throb was pure ecstasy … nothing like I had ever experienced before.
When I was jerked back to the every--day world by someone calling me to dinner I felt sorry for the loss. Since that time I kept thinking of the ecstasy that I had gained and I wondered if I could make it last as long as I wished. Perhaps if I went to the monastery for a week’s retreat I might be able to do it?
So I decided to go to the monastery for a week’s retreat. During the time I had to practise four times a day.
Is This the Truth I Seek?
On the third day of my retreat I had an extraordinary experience. As I began my practice at seven o’clock in the morning, breathing had become easier. I was no longer hampered by any critical pains. When the time came for the practice of mindfulness of bodily sensations I had no pains at all. Only the pit--a--pat of the heart remained. My mind withdrawn from pleasures of the flesh was clear of passions, worries, anxieties and all the perilous stuff that weighed the heart. My mind became a virgin pool, clear and serene. Various shapes of iridescent colors danced beautifully on the mirror--like surface annihilating all that is made of flesh and senses into calm tranquility. I realized then how vain were the pleasures of the flesh when compared with this. Sensual pleasures cloy but then this joy increased every moment of enjoyment. This sweet rest, peace and tranquility, I thought, might be the Truth I was seeking?
I Found the Answer
I began the next session with eagerness expecting to get the same experience. I breathed as hard as I could. But after a few moments I was caught up by a severe contraction in the chest. My throat became parched and dry. Suddenly a death rattle rose up and down my throat. My body shook and trembled and my heart seemed to be a lump of lead. Everything seemed to have gone dead except the death rattle in my throat. I had no breath left in me. When I tried to open my eyes a great shroud of darkness had fallen over me. I could not open my mouth to cry. I felt suffocated as if I was enveloped in the smokes of hell. A deep feeling of frustration came over me. I felt let down by all that I had put my trust in. That virgin pool of ecstasy, where I used to take refuge, was no more. It had gone to nothing in the face of the overpowering death throes.
Now I realized that I must be mindful of the sensations of body as they came whether pleasant or painful, for it was the only way to end suffering; it would not do for me to stray from the path. Like the animal in the burning forest I must break through the blazing path however fearsome it might be.
During the next session I doubled my efforts in breathing, getting over the crisis in the only way the meditation master taught me -- by being mindful and striving harder. When the time came for the practice of mindfulness of the sensations of the body, my whole body seemed to be turned into a lump of lead. All my limbs had gone numb and deadened.
That moment I had strengthened the force of mindfulness so that I was aware of the action of my beating heart as it was. Soon there came a sensation of heaviness. The benumbed body grew heavy; but then this heaviness though it was terrifying was only a sensation. Because I could look upon the heart--beat without the clinging desire to wallow in its ecstasy, I could be aware of the sensation of mountainous heaviness without fear.
Then I reached a state wherein only two things remained of the being whom I called myself; namely, sensations and being aware of them, or being mindful of them. The power of mindfulness caught hold of the sensations in its grip so much so that the two forces hugged like two steel plates screwed together. I did not know how long I stayed like that. Suddenly the strength of mindfulness became so overpowering that it looked as if it would press down the sensations till they were completely rubbed out.
That moment I stayed like one on the threshold of Freedom tasting the first breath of the Great Joy that was to be. Just one step more and I would be free of all that was evil. Like a bird trying her wings for a long flight, I stood on the edge of Freedom. Waves of joy came over me.
The next moment, even before I knew what was happening, everything went black and I fell into depths of despair. I could not go on with the sitting. I threw myself down and wept as if my heart would break. My meditation master said a few comforting words and advised me to sleep on it. At that time U Sasana was away from the monastery so it was my other friend U Vinaya, who helped me over with the crisis. That night I was in great sorrow for something that I did not know. It was as if my mind had been unhinged for the time.
Two Great Forces at Work
The next morning I woke up refreshed in spite of the nightmare--like experience I had gone through the previous night. But that day was a dream--like experience, for I went through the routing of sittings like clock--work.
I had no difficulty in breathing. While I breathed smoothly, a vaporous mist enveloped me and a vision of myself as a tiny particle floating in an ethereal mist appeared and I watched fascinated. When I became conscious of the pit--a--pat of my heart, each heart--throb and the other that followed seemed to be in great conflict, as two great forces were coming against each other.
Of the two forces one was the desire to wallow in the cool serenity of the ecstasy instead of being mindful of the sensations of the body; the other force was the realization that the pool of ecstasy however pleasant was not the Goal I was seeking; more than that the pool of ecstasy was not a safe place and I would be helpless when the pains of death overtook me.
Though realizing the necessity to leave the pool of ecstasy and face the unpleasant sensations with mindfulness, the desire to wallow in the pool of ecstasy was strong. The two forces were at tug--of--war within me. This conflict went on for the remaining four days of my retreat. When the time came for me to go home I was steadfastly determined to walk the Path my meditation masters had laid down for me.
Only back at home I had time to contemplate over my experiences during the week’s retreat and get everything into focus. I realized it was not an easy task to tame the mind. The crises which often threatened to interfere with the hard breathing session were the result of the mind straining itself to wander away from the point of the touch. When with great effort I succeeded in keeping the mind on the sensations of the body, only two things remained of my body, they were the sensations and being aware of them. This was an important step; for with that realization I stood on the brink of freedom.
But why was I thrown back into depths of despair the next moment? Only when I looked back I realized that I had instinctively turned back. The reason was quite simple: I did not want to be free from what is Suffering; for the end of suffering meant the end of life. Life and suffering cannot be separated; if one wished to end suffering life must be ended too -- that is, the unending cycle of rebirths must be ended. Even though one could accept that life meant suffering one could not accept the corollary that to end suffering, life must be ended. I realized that my clinging desire to life had made me turn back from the bound of freedom.
I realized that to end suffering I must end the craving for life. Only if one stopped craving one could end suffering. I knew I must follow my meditation master’s instruction that I must be mindful of the unpleasant sensations of the body, its aches, pains, and agonies. Once again I saw that the road to Deliverance lay not in wallowing in the pool of ecstasy but in breaking through the blazing pathway of painful sensations. If I wanted to be free, I must be brave. This Path -- the practice of mindfulness -- I was convinced, was the Path I must travel.
On the Path
With the steadfast conviction that the practice of mindfulness would surely lead to Deliverance from Suffering, I went on with the practice. I went to the monastery once a week and there I sought the advice and guidance of my meditation masters.
Try as hard as I could, I kept on falling into the pool of ecstasy. The only comfort was that my mindfulness would not allow me to stay there long. I could practise mindfulness of the unpleasant sensations for a longer duration.
As I went on with my practice, in one of my sittings I found my mind firmly fixed on the bodily sensations. I tried to be mindful of the pains only, taking great care not to let my mind wander. Somehow or the other I found my mind had strayed. I was greatly exasperated, for I had been doing my best to be mindful. Still the mind strayed.
I understood then how important it was to keep my mind on the bodily sensations, strictly on the single point without the slightest deviation. It was like balancing a grain on the tip of a pin. The situation was so delicate that the slightest flutter of "oh" or "ah" would upset it.
The Threatening Crash
Apart from the weekly visits to the monastery I tried to practise at home. Even though I might not do as well as I did under supervision, it at least gave continuity. Living the life of a householder, being full of cares, I found a refuge in the practice even if I could but spare a few minutes out of the twenty--four hours of the day.
One day while I was practicing at home I felt my body was dashing away at a terrific speed towards something but I did not know what. Like a run--away car crashing against a rocky hill I thought I would be smashed to pieces. A great fear seized me and I jerked myself away from that sensation. Once I was free from the clutches of the terrible sensation I realized I had missed a great experience. I knew I should have faced that terrible sensation without fear. With mindfulness as my only stay, I should abandon myself to whatever happened.
I told U Vinaya about the threatening crash, and he said, "Remember, in seeking Truth or Deliverance, you must be prepared to lay down your life. It is not easy to abandon yourself to the unknown. You are treading the Path the Buddha and His Disciples trod before you. You need courage to follow the Path. Without anyone telling you, you now know that you lack courage. You must practise mindfulness more rigorously until you are ready to receive the gift of truth the Buddha had taught and thereby win Deliverance."
I knew I was very near achieving my goal but two things always came between me and my attainment. One was the nameless fear I had described and the other was the joy of expectancy. Knowing I was near my goal I could not restrain my joy of expectancy. One slight "Oh" or "Ah," then all was gone. When I succeeded in restraining the joyful feeling I could not overcome that nameless fear. It was always one or the other that came at the crucial moment.
An Unforgettable Experience
I knew then that this craving for self had made me afraid of breaking through the bounds of pain and suffering. When I asked my meditation master how I could overcome this nameless fear, that rose from clinging to my self, he told me to be more zealous in my practice of mindfulness. This practice of mindfulness is something one can never overdo and however much one might try it is always a little short of perfection.
One day, I went to a lecture by Martha Graham, who was at that time on a visit to Burma. I listened to the famous dancer’s lecture with great interest. I tried to be mindful of the touch of my body on the chair I sat [on] even when I listened.
In course of her lecture Martha Graham mentioned a famous ballet dancer who did spectacular leaps. She told us how that dancer (I have forgotten the name) practiced the leaps for hundreds of times (she did mention the number of times) for a great show, but he could not attain perfection. Even at the dress rehearsal he had not attained the required standard. [It was] only when the actual show took place that the dancer did his several hundredth leap and then and there he attained perfection. Martha Graham commented that it was the hundreds of leaps he had practiced and missed that culminated in the final perfection on the stage.
I could leap with joy to hear that. All the times I had missed because I slunk away in fear or because my mind strayed away to joyous expectation all these were not in vain. One day these forces would be mobilized so that the moment of perfection would be won.
One night I lay in a restful trance practicing mindfulness of the bodily sensations. At first the sensations were not unpleasant as my body was throbbing softly. Later my whole body began to vibrate as if an electric shock was running through me. I no longer could be restful. I had to rally all my strength to be mindful of the sensations. The vibrations grew more and more violent. I went on being mindful unswervingly. My mindfulness was strong but the violence of the sensations seemed to match and challenge it. Mindfulness and sensations met in a death struggle in which fear caused by the thought, "What shall become of me?" had no place. When two things, namely the sensation and mindfulness existed, there was no place for I. The illusion of I was broken. As the sensations increased in violence, the power of mindfulness matched its fearful intensity. I did not know how long this went on. Then suddenly like nerves bursting under a great strain there was a big explosion. The next thing I knew I was sitting cross--legs, my whole body wide open like the boundless sky, with nothing to hang on, nothing to cling to. It was an indescribable moment.
I faced the dawn of the day paying my respects down at the household shrine with the simple prayer,
I take refuge in the Buddha
How many times all through my life had I uttered this prayer! But this time I meant every word of it. I knew I was crowned again with the Three Gems. There was nothing but peace in my heart.
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last updated: 30-08-2002