This text was written by Hannes Huber at the occasion of 25-years jubilee of Panditarama Lumbini Meditation Center, Nepal.
Satipaṭṭhāna: The Best Export from Myanmar
I have been practicing Dhamma since 1985, mainly in Sri Lanka. When I attended a one-week retreat with Joseph Goldstein in Germany in the late 90´s, I was very inspired, not just by his teaching, but also by a poem he read. It was about a camel, which, with the utmost effort and concentration squeezed itself so small so that it could traverse the eye of a needle. Joseph compared it to the balanced effort and concentration, patience and perseverance needed to make awakening possible: the realization of the four noble truths.
I went up to Joseph and asked him: “who is your teacher? You must have a good teacher.” He answered, “Sayadaw U Paṇḍita in Myanmar.”
I knew I needed a prolonged time to practice, and this was not possible with Joseph, as his three-month retreat was scheduled at the wrong time of the year for me but he did write me a letter of recommendation.
Later, I flew to Myanmar and just walked in to Paṇḍitārāma Yangon. I thought the letter written by Joseph would do. But no. Sayadaw U Paṇḍita was in America at that time and it took me three days of effort until I finally was accepted to practice at Paṇḍitārāma.
I was there for one month, and it was hell. Very difficult. Very painful. On the last day I picked up my cushion and happily left the meditation hall. Sitting at the entrance of the hall was a Burmese monk. He looked at me and shouted: “finish it!”
These words reverberated in me, because actually, in that moment I thought I would never return there again to practice. But yes, after a year I was back again. This time at Hse Mine Gon.
Practice was more inspiring, but time was short and I had to leave for home again. I decided to take a sabbatical in order to find enough time for a long retreat in the year to come.
Just before I left, someone told me that Sayadaw U Paṇḍita had been invited to Hungary to teach in the near future. Wow! So close. I lived in Vienna. I had an idea: let us have a Hungarian – Austrian Joint Venture.
As things turned out, I co-managed this retreat together with Mrs. Altmann from Budapest. And it was a great success. Sayadaw U Paṇḍita, together with Sayadaw U Vivekānanda visited Vienna, gave a Dhamma talk at our Buddhist Centre with about 80 people in attendance. This was combined with a short weekend retreat as well.
Quite a number of Austrian Yogis then joined the Hungarian yogis at the retreat at lake Balaton in Hungary. It was probably the first Satipaṭṭhāna retreat in Hungary. Actually the meditation hall was a garage so we improvised. We decorated it so it looked more like a temple. It was in this retreat that Sayadaw U Paṇḍita with Vivekānanda as his translator planted the first seeds of Dhamma in this part of Europe.
Around this time, I heard from a Swiss yogi about a newly established meditation centre in Lumbini, Nepal: Paṇḍitārāma International Meditation Center with Sayadaw Vivekānanda as the teacher.
I had already planned a six-month retreat at Hse Mine Gon, but thought, let me try Lumbini as a kind of warm up and prepare me for the long retreat in Myanmar.
When I arrived the first time in September 2000, it was hot, really hot and humid. Mosquitoes were plentiful. No windows in the meditation hall, and a loud clock. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock. Many good opportunities for noting aversion but Ven. Vivekānanda guided me well through that time of resistance. He assured me, even within these unpleasant circumstances the practice could be developed. I trusted him, and he was right.
The Meditation Center was newly built, and far from the completed version it is today. There were only two small dormitories, one for men and one for women. We were only three Yogis at that time. Adriano Emina from Italy, a dhamma friend from Austria and me. We shared the dorm.
Ven. Vivekānanda was a wonderful teacher and he gave us a lot of his time, with daily interviews, which could last 20 minutes or more. He supported me a lot, and his explanations were very, very helpful. My practice became somehow more systematic. Interest – dhamma vicaya was developed and I started writing down my experiences, even started drawing from the experiences regarding the primary meditation object - the rising and falling of the abdomen. Boring? No! – a whole universe opened up!!
I had to leave after four weeks, but decided to return for another three months, right before my long retreat in Myanmar was scheduled. And these three months – now already more yogis were there, as word spread fast – it became more than just a warming up and preparation period for Myanmar. It’s possible this was my most important intensive practice period ever. At the end of this retreat I felt like how the camel must have felt after fulfilling it’s challenge.
Ven. Vivekānanda’s explanations about the unfolding of the practice at just the right time helped me to see the personal process in a much larger frame. The Mahasi method taught at Lumbini has helped me to bring a certain “order” into my practice. It supported a clear and matter-of-fact observation; it ignited interest, but at the same time nourished the necessary collectedness of mind and heart. (This is what is sometimes described as “Vipassanā Jhāna”)
For the support I got there I feel deep gratitude, both to Ven. U Vivekānanda as well as to Sayalay Daw Bhaddamanikā. Sayalay at that time was accountant of the center, cook, manager, coordinating workers, helping yogis, developing the garden, dealing with locals, and keeping in touch with the home base in Burma. All this by one single person. An incredible task, due to her perfect language skills in English, Burmese and Hindi. She acted and still acts as a bridge between all the different cultures involved in running this center.
At that time it felt, this is really the place to be, ideal for intensive practice. It felt very suitable for westerners. There was the nourishing food, müsli in the morning, self-baked bread and sometimes even cheese or pizza.
The core of Paṇḍitārāma is both the teachings and the yogis: the daily interviews and the dedicated people coming from all kinds of countries.
As the word spread Paṇḍitārāma Lumbini became more and more popular among meditators and so it started growing: triplets were built then more and more individual kuṭis. And windows in the meditation hall! It was just the beginning of a whole series of retreats, many times I returned later, to refresh my practice or to develop it further.
However, after three months at Paṇḍitārāma Lumbini, I left for Paṇḍitārāma Hse Mine Gon in Myanmar together with my former wife Andrea. While having the first lunch there Sayadaw U Paṇḍita went up to us and asked us to come for an interview with him next day. It continued like this: seeing him for interview every second day over a period of about five and a half months. This was a challenging, but also very supportive time. He seemed to see potential in Yogis and knew how to bring it out.
Just before I left Hse Mine Gon after almost six months Sayadaw U Paṇḍita gathered a few monks and nuns when I saw him for the last Interview. It was there he asked me, what I thought about Satipaṭṭhāna.
I told him, to my opinion Satipaṭṭhāna is the best export article of Myanmar, spreading to the world.
Sayadaw later often repeated this statement of mine in his Dhamma talks abroad. Of course I do not see Dhamma and the practice of Satipaṭṭhāna as an article or a commodity. It’s true value is priceless. But it is often underestimated what an impact the spreading of Satipaṭṭhāna, especially as taught by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, Ven. Sayadaw U Paṇḍitābhivaṃsa and other respected teachers has had and still has in the West. It has opened up so many opportunities especially for lay practitioners.
Also the range of Ven. U Vivekānanda and Paṇḍitārāma Lumbini is not to be underestimated. At one point Sayadaw U Paṇḍita was invited to Poland, however was not able to go, but instead sent Sayadaw U Pañnñathāmi and Ven. Vivekānanda to teach a 4-week retreat there. About 80 Yogis were expected, so he appointed me to go there as well and to help with interviews so that yogis could have individual guidance almost every day.
Retreats, where I assisted the Sayadaws were also organized in Poland, in Hungary, and soon I was invited for co-teaching with Ven. Ashin Ottama in the Czech Republic. In Italy the so-called “Mahasi-Retreat” at Pian dei Ciliegi was established and continues to this day. It is a one-month retreat offered every April, where the method of establishing Satipaṭṭhāna according to Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw is taught.
There are a number of Yogis who practiced at Paṇḍitārāma Lumbini and with considerable deepening of their practice helped spreading Satipaṭṭhāna to countries like Australia, the USA, Israel, Holland, Italy, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary…Not to forget the travels of Ven. Vivekānanda as well as of Sayalay Daw Bhaddamanikā to teach at many places around the globe.
Finally, I would like to relate an encounter with Sayadaw U Paṇḍita at Paṇḍitārāma Lumbini, when he was already quite advanced in age. He still would travel to guide his annual February Retreat at Lumbini. By this time he would not give interviews any more. He seemed to consciously retire to some extent. When asked if he could offer personal Interviews he replied: “Watching Yogis doing their walking meditation is like an interview”. Once I saw him standing nearby and watching yogis while doing walking meditation. At Dhamma talks in the evenings he would sometimes look straight at a particular Yogi and say what seemed to fit exactly. He did that also with me, and what he said was exactly to the point.
Let me close with my best wishes - may the wisdom gained by the practice of Satipaṭṭhāna, through the relentless efforts of Sayadaw U Vivekānanda and Sayalay Daw Bhaddamanikā at Paṇḍitārāma Lumbini continue to spread to many parts of the world - thus not just from Myanmar, but also from the birthplace of the Buddha.