Review Of Mahasi Meditation Retreats

In this review we'll take a look at Mahasi, which is one of the most famous schools of vipassana or insight meditation in the world.

The word Mahasi is a combination of Pali and Burmese. Maha is Pali for great while si is Burmese for drum; hence, Mahasi means big drum.

The Mahasi monastery was named after its big drum that was used to announce the meals. I was told by my Mahasi teacher that the drum was made out of a tree trunk that had been hollowed out.

The Mahasi tradition was developed in Burma by a monk called Mahasi Sayadaw. The term sayadaw is Burmese for teacher. (Please note that the second a in sayadaw is silent.)

His love for vipassana was so great that he developed a system that makes it easier, for beginners and experienced meditators alike, to learn and practice insight meditation.

The respected meditation master also taught in the west. Mahasi Sayadaw passed away in 1982, but his teachings are vibrantly alive. Today, there is a worldwide network of Mahasi monasteries and meditation centers.

Personally, I have practiced at two Mahasi monasteries in Malaysia.

All up, 9 months have been logged in Mahasi retreats, and for part of the time I was ordained as a junior Buddhist monk.

Mahasi Meditation Retreats

One of the best things about the Mahasi retreats, is the fact that they are ongoing. You can start whenever it suits you and stay for as long as you like, which gives you the flexibility to tailor your own retreats.

The teachers are all Buddhist monks with a minimum of 10 years of training. I have a lot of confidence in the Mahasi meditation teachers. Not only are they experienced meditators, they are also known to be dedicated to their work.

The monasteries and centers charge money but it's reasonably priced. It should also be pointed out that the facilities are more than adequate.

The days start round four in the mornings and end at about nine in the evenings. It's mostly meditation practice on the schedule but also chanting, talks and interviews with the teacher.

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Mahasi Meditation Techniques

The Mahasi approach is quite unique. Three times per week there are meditation talks or lectures that cover the meditation techniques and the Buddha's teachings.

During most talks, the teacher will read a chapter in a book by Mahasi Sayadaw. In other words, the teacher repeats exactly what the great master taught.

The meditation practice is based on walking and sitting meditation plus mindfulness practice during daily activities. The time outside the meditation schedule is referred to as daily activities.

The meditators alternate between walking and sitting meditation. Walking meditation generates a lot of mental energy while sitting meditation builds up concentration. It's vital to balance the two practices. All the walking and sitting meditation are done in the main meditation hall.

In addition, meditators are encouraged to be mindful throughout the day, including while eating, washing the dishes, brushing the teeth and resting etc.

The meditation techniques are based on the five senses and the mind. Meditators are instructed to note any sense impressions or thoughts they become aware of. For example, if your shoulders feel stiff, you should think, "Stiffness, stiffness."

Noting is a tool that suppresses greed, hatred and delusion. Put in plain English, noting prevents mental impurities such as anger from arising in your mind.

Ultimately, vipassana practice leads to enlightenment. But long before that, meditators realize the impermanent nature of things: One moment your nose is itching, the next moment it's not; one moment you're full, the next moment you're hungry; one moment your concentration is good, the next moment you're sleepy, and so on.

Any form of meditation that gives attention to bodily sensations is healing. In Buddhism they generally call it purification of the mind.

In my experience, it's tiresome to note every single thought and sense impression. I rather just be aware of my meditation object without engaging in noting, which involves a lot of thought activity.

Further, the lectures are informative and inspiring. Sometimes the talks tend to be a bit dry, since the teacher is reading in a book as opposed to speaking freely.

The teachings often times exaggerate how quickly meditators can make progress and even become enlightened. That's to encourage and motivate you to practice well. My preference is a more down to earth approach.

During the private interviews with the teacher, you can ask about anything that's related to your meditation practice and the teachings. In my experience, you're given ample time with the teacher.

Mahasi Retreat Rules

While in retreat men and women eat and live separately. You're also asked to follow eight precepts or rules including not killing, stealing, lying etc.

The retreats are silent, which means you're not meant to speak to anyone other than the teacher. Buddhists call it noble silence.

The meditators are only allowed two meals per day that must be consumed before noon. If you get sick while in retreat, you can have some food in the afternoons. Moreover, the meditators can help themselves to various drinks whenever they like.

The rules create an environment that is most conducive to meditation practice. It also has a calming effect on the mind.

Final Comments

The Mahasi monasteries are renown for their strict discipline. As a result, the teachers are top notch.

At Mahasi retreats they teach you how to apply the Buddha's teachings in the present moment. That's another plus.

Further, there is an emphasis on walking meditation, sitting meditation and mindfulness practice. Together with morality, they form the very foundation of fruitful meditation practice.

The retreats are affordable and the international network of centers makes it easy to locate a place not too far from where you live.

Some individuals may not feel at ease with the Buddhist chanting and to prostrate in front of a Buddha statue. Remember that the Mahasi centers are not interested in converting you. Their main objective is to show you the path to liberation.

I highly recommend the Mahasi meditation retreats.

Best of luck!

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