Q: I was reading about Mahāsi Sayādaw’s system of meditation…
A: No ‘systems’! No system invented after the fact can hold the Dhamma. The Buddha’s teaching is too big to fit in any system; human nature is too varied to fit in any system. At best you may find that the experience of certain types of people fit, more or less, some pattern. Then what about the others? Will you chop the Buddha’s teaching into pieces, take what you like, and throw the rest away? But this is going on.
The Buddha was not a systematic thinker, in the sense of trying to create one logically consistent path to enlightenment for everyone. He gave teachings to individuals as the need arose. He didn’t have an overall strategy or a plan, other than the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. The teachings he gave to individuals were compiled later, and over time various scholars and commentators tried to fit them to the Procrustean bed of their logic. But they always wind up chopping off something! [laughs]
There is evidence in the Suttas, especially how the Vinaya came about, that the Buddha was sensitive and responsive to the condition of the audience. He gave the appropriate teaching to the people in front of him at the time. He didn’t give the 227 precepts all at once, but gradually as the need arose. He never gave a linear presentation of his teaching, like a modern college course. There was no need, because the monks remembered everything and taught each other.
Q: So to make a musical analogy, we could say the best approach to the Buddha’s teaching is not so much like classical music, where every note is determined in advance, but like jazz or Indian music, where there is room for improvisation.
A: Yes. Life is like that; you improvise! You can’t plan everything in advance. Nor can you anticipate everything that will happen in meditation. You have to be flexible, spontaneous. It’s different for everyone, and for any individual it’s different every time. If it does seem to fit some rigid pattern, there’s probably something wrong.
Let me ask you: What do you do when something unexpected happens in life? Look it up in a book? That would be stupid, wouldn’t it? So why should we look up in some book every time something unexpected arises in meditation? “Oh, I’m at Stage X; this should not be happening! Maybe I’m doing something wrong!” [laughs] That nonsense will only make you doubt yourself and the Buddha. It’s no good.
Q: But doesn’t that mean we’re lost, without a map?
A: No, not at all. The whole point is to look in the Suttas; everything is there, everything is already given by the Buddha. There is no need for some derivative teaching. Don’t cheat yourself looking for a teaching you can write on the back of an envelope. The Buddha’s teaching is complex, because human life is irreducibly complex. You can’t simplify it into some neat equation or series of steps. That reductionist attitude is wrong. It will lead to endless doubt and questioning, because your experience will never match the pattern.
Take the time to study the Suttas, and you will see: everything required has already been included. It does not require further analysis. The Buddha’s teaching is better raw than cooked. Many doors to the Dhamma have been given. It is up to the individual to use the one most appropriate for the time. Use your intelligence; don’t surrender it to someone who claims to make it easy for you. Do the work, whatever is necessary.
Patterns and systems are fabrications, part of the burden we all carry. Lay the burden down. Don’t carry it further than necessary; and especially, don’t carry someone else’s burden.
People cling to systems because they promise to make things simpler and easier, but it’s just another instance of clinging to views. Prepare yourself to confront life as it is, without filters. Only then can you truly see what it is.
This is an excerpt from my book The Arahant, the journal of my discussions with a fully self-realized monk.