Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Insight Myanmar Podcast #4: Alan Clements on Mahasi Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Pandita, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the future of Myanmar.

“There was nothing to go back to,” Alan Clements recalls in the Insight Myanmar Podcast Episode #4, referring to his decision to leave the West in 1977 and ordain as a monk in Burma. “I’d made a lot of money, I’d been in a long-term relationship...I was well-educated, I read, I painted, it was creative, I played music, I had all the things that people long for.”

You can listen on your favorite podcast app by searching “Insight Myanmar,” or right off the web, or YouTube here.

At a time when foreigners were only given seven-day visas to Burma, then one of the most closed countries in the world, Alan managed to stay nearly five years, training directly under Mahasi Sayadaw and then Sayadaw U Pandita, despite several forced disrobings and deportations and eventual blacklisting. Added to that were the difficult conditions of enduring an extreme climate with no meditation cushions, mosquito nets, sleeping mattresses, purified water, or vegetarian food, and so one cannot help but wonder how Alan was able to persevere as he did. The answer: the promise of receiving powerful Dhamma teachings from some of the greatest Burmese masters of the era. In spite of being so far from the familiar, Alan notes simply, “I felt like I’d come home.”

From there, our talk examines the growth of the mindfulness meditation movement from Burma into the rest of the world, focusing in particular on the Mahasi and U Pandita traditions that he was most associated with, and how the student-teacher relationship that characterized his time as a yogi had to be modified to accommodate greater numbers. Moreover, Alan adds a provocative note to this discussion for those who think they ‘know” what the Mahasi system is: he explicitly states that “there is [actually] no 'Mahasi system'” that can be spread to aspiring yogis in different parts of the world, due to the flexible, individual-student-centered nature of Mahasi’s and U Pandita’s teaching.

Later, we discuss the series of conversations Alan had with Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995, and how her own meditation practice and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings has impacted her political life. While acknowledging the turbulent recent history, Alan is hopeful that the promise of reconciliation is still alive for the country, and that the Dhamma teachings he has learned here can point a way towards this positive transformation.

We end by exploring Alan’s remarkable relationship with Sayadaw U Pandita. He notes how this monk came from the horrors of war-torn Burma following WWII, to become one of Mahasi’s most important disciples and eventually the Dhamma teacher of not only Aung San Suu Kyi but also those in the Burmese military. What is less known is how U Pandita was “trans-religious,” speaking a variety of languages, as well as being able to quote Tolstoy and other great Western authors, and endlessly curious about the lives and practice of his students.

Later, Zach joins to discuss the implications of Alan’s statement that there is no such thing as a “Mahasi technique” that can be boxed up and applied as a single structure to meditators at centers. Joah mentions how deeply moved he was to hear about Alan’s close relationship with his mentor Sayadaw U Pandita, and reminisces on the golden generation of Burmese meditation masters to which U Pandita belonged. They both reflect on U Pandita’s reputation as a strict disciplinarian, and how that was balanced with a real affection and generosity towards those students who gave their all. That the majority of Alan’s Dhamma practice was taking place within a military dictatorship cannot be lost on the story of the mindfulness meditation movement, which leads the two to consider Alan’s insight of how conditionality influences not only what the mind is, but also what it is capable of doing. All this, and a disruptive elephant!

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