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“The State of Mind Called Beautiful,” by Sayadaw U Pandita

book coverVisiting in the 90s, I heard U Pandita speak at IMS during a three-month retreat. His key image was a dying tree, its water supply cut off. It was actually a recommendation: remove the causes of kilesa (unwholesome reaction), and kill the kilesa tree. I found the image upsetting. Yet I was impressed with the man.

Kate Wheeler, who edits this new book, calls Sayadaw “a Buddhist version of fire and brimstone.” His style is certainly hard-hitting. Indeed, without the funny anecdotes in her preface showing his sincerity and depth of insight, one could take offence at Sayadaw’s moral injunctions, even dismiss him as simplistic: but one would be quite wrong.

What makes this book new and special is Sayadaw’s lively communication of the moral dimension of meditation training. Chapter One is an overview of Dharma training in which we are shown how lack of moral sensitivity “chars” and darkens the mind, making us reckless of the disturbing consequences of moral breaches. Sayadaw is particularly clear on the dark inner detail of our personal kilesas. For example: “if that person appears to be happily getting away with what they have done, one may well decide to take matters into one’s own hands, gaining satisfaction even from petty meannesses such as ignoring them.”

Writers on meditation rarely go into this territory, perhaps because of the popular wrong view that meditation is a one-stop practice through which we simply get high, bypassing any need for ethical consideration. Some meditation teachers feel that since people are generally good hearted, it is inappropriate to stress Buddhist ethics or precepts. This seems to be something of an avoidance. The reality is that the awareness induced by meditation often exposes our petty-mindedness in the most humiliating way.

Pointing out that nearly all of our outer problems are in fact caused by kilesa, in the following two chapters U Pandita presents two “Guardian” meditations that in particular protect from moral defilement. According to him, the essence of the first, the Buddha-anussati or recollection of the Buddha’s virtues, is the recognition that the Buddha is an enlightened being. We approach this recognition through a detailed enumeration of exactly why Buddhas are so amazing. This includes an illuminating discussion of the importance, for any Dharma teacher, of developing both wisdom and compassion. Sayadaw also comments interestingly on the relationship between a general lack of moral training and current world politics.

Metta or loving kindness, and the other brahmaviharas (compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), are given detailed treatment. Issues such as the distinction between metta and selfish love (tanha-pema), and the near and far enemies of each stage of practice, are tackled in the context of each of the brahmavihara meditations. This chapter is very useful for practitioners of meditation and would on its own justify buying the book.

Chapters four and five are at least as useful, since here U Pandita gives an excellent presentation of insight meditation. Chapter four contains notes on helpful attitudes to practice, qualities necessary for success, suggestions for retreat schedules, and some basic instructions.

Chapter five is a “Technical Discussion of Satipatthana Vipassana” which is pure upadesha, commentary on practice arising straight from the master’s experience. I found this to be the best part of the book, offering much to reflect on. Sayadaw manages to communicate here his deep passion for mindfulness and insight, making it into an exciting prospect – it’s a rare and inspiring gift he has.

The book concludes with a Question/Answer session and a Pali-English glossary.

Kamalashila is a Dharma teacher in the UK and author of Meditation – the Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight.

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