My meditation experience
"Dust-Encrusted Footprints – My Zen Meditation Experience (Collection)"
Zen meditation retreat
In May 2009, by a fortuitous opportunity, I accompanied my girlfriend to a ten-day Zen meditation retreat led by the Venerable Sayadaw U Tejaniya from Burma. This unexpectedly introduced me to Theravada Buddhism, a significant branch of Buddhism, and the core practice taught by Sayadaw U Tejaniya was Mahasi Vipassana meditation. The essence of this meditation practice is singular: "mindfully observing phenomena as they occur in the present moment," and the process of doing this is referred to as "meditation." The act of sitting in meditation involves attentively observing the phenomena of the body and mind as they occur in the present moment. Cross-legged sitting is chosen because it is the most suitable and stable posture for prolonged meditation. Walking meditation is similar to the warp of a fabric, moving straight ahead while attentively observing the body and mind's phenomena during walking. Daily life mindfulness involves attentively observing the phenomena of the body and mind as they occur in everyday life.
The slow pace is intended to enhance clarity in observation, and silent labeling is used to bring the mind closer to the object and to cut off the arising of delusions after observing phenomena, thus avoiding missing the observation of subsequent phenomena. The purpose of all these practices is to be able to clearly observe the true nature of body and mind phenomena in the present moment. The Venerable Sayadaw said that once you thoroughly understand the true nature of body and mind phenomena, you can eliminate suffering. This was entirely different from what I had known about Buddhism in the past. If it were not held in a temple, I wouldn't have associated these practices with Buddhism. However, at that time, I wasn't particularly interested, and my days were often unproductive. When the Zen master was around, I would make an effort to appear dedicated, but when he wasn't, I would slip out of the temple to enjoy myself. At times, just to pass the time, I tried to observe my abdomen as taught but found it challenging to perceive the abdominal movements, let alone maintain observation for an extended period. I recalled that the Venerable Sayadaw had mentioned that if you couldn't observe the abdominal movements, you could start by placing your hand on your abdomen to feel the rising and falling, then remove your hand once you could observe it. After trying this for a while, my mind gradually became quieter, and the phenomena of the abdominal movements became more distinct. I also attempted to label the observed phenomena. As I continued observing, my inner world seemed to gain clarity like the opening and closing of countless petals, and for a moment, it felt as if the entire world was limited to this phenomenon. My mind was fully focused, and after observing for a while, joy quickly arose. At that point, the phenomenon started becoming less clear. Although this was very brief, I felt a unique sense of lightness and tranquility I had never experienced before. I wanted to see it again but the more I desired, the more it became chaotic. After a few sittings, I lost interest and continued my undisciplined lifestyle.
Developing interest in Buddhism
After this meditation retreat, I began to develop some interest in Buddhism. Amid a busy life, I started reading some scriptures and commentaries from both Theravada and Mahayana traditions. During those years, my career was advancing rapidly. However, as life improved, I began to feel increasingly confined internally.
I was consumed by my work every day, with no sense of freedom. After marriage and having children, dealing with complex family relationships further exhausted me. It felt like there were numerous invisible circles that wrapped around me, one layer after another. Stepping out of one circle only led to entering a larger one. I felt utterly confused about life and desperately wanted to escape it all. In the summer of 2014, my wife and I embarked on a road trip around China. For more than a year, we traveled from the south to the north and from the west to the east, hoping to find a place where I could find peace. However, after traversing much of China, I realized that, no matter how beautiful the scenery, how free the life, or how remote the location, I couldn't escape the inner turmoil.
In November 2015, when we returned from our travels, everything was the same as before. Traveling hadn't made the slightest difference in alleviating my troubles.
Sayadaw U Tejaniya
One day, my wife and I happened to talk about the past meditation retreat, and I remembered that Sayadaw U Tejaniya had taught us that the body and mind are the basis of suffering.
If we could fully understand the true nature of body and mind, we could eliminate suffering. This seemed quite reasonable to me. After all, once you thoroughly know a machine's structure and principles, it becomes easy to repair it. So, I tried looking online to see if there were any meditation retreats like the one I had attended before. Fortunately, I found out that Sayadaw U Tejaniya was going to hold a meditation retreat at Bao Feng Monastery in Nanchang at the end of the month. I quickly called the monastery to register, but the slots were already filled. I had to beg Venerable Wei Cheng, who was in charge of registrations, and told him that we would handle our own accommodations. We didn't need the monastery to arrange anything for us; we just wanted to participate and listen to the teachings of Sayadaw U Tejaniya. Thankfully, he agreed, and since the lodging was full, we only needed to arrange our own accommodations. So, after more than six years, we participated in a meditation retreat for the second time.
After the meditation retreat began, I spent almost every day feeling drowsy, scattered, agitated, suffering from leg pain, and plagued by various delusions. There was very little time when I could genuinely focus on observation. Despite a strong desire to meditate, when faced with these difficulties, my mind was filled with doubt about the effectiveness of meditation. I contemplated retreating back to the outside world continuously, calculating how many days remained until the end of the retreat. My restless mind was like a fish just caught, struggling to return to the water.
Fortunately, the daily Dharma talks by the Venerable Sayadaw and the encouragement during group sittings helped me hold on. This continued for about five or six days. One day, during a meditation session, I still woke up drowsy as usual, and I oscillated between delusional thoughts and pain. I didn't know when it started, but gradually, the delusions reduced, and the pain became less unbearable. As my mind grew clearer, my observations of pain also became more distinct. At that point, I noticed the pain transforming into pockets of heat moving around. Following a series of changes, the excruciating pain, which had been unbearable, suddenly receded and turned into bubbles rising on the surface like raindrops hitting water. It appeared to be bubbling, while my bright mind observed it. The scene was extraordinarily clear and magnificent, as if I were in a pure, unblemished space. It was even clearer than what my eyes could see, and there was no longer the suffering of pain. Instead, I felt an incredible lightness and tranquility. After observing for a while, I became excited, and this sight vanished.
This was so extraordinary that after the meditation session, I hurried to find the meditation teacher to share my experience. I thought such a unique experience might lead me to see Nirvana if I observed it a bit longer. I believed that the meditation teacher would acknowledge and praise this. Unexpectedly, after hearing my report, the meditation teacher told me very seriously to label what I observed as "seeing" or "observing" and not to engage in thinking.
Upon hearing the teacher's guidance, I felt quite disheartened. I thought I had spent so long to witness such an amazing phenomenon, yet it seemed like nothing to the teacher. I even began to wonder if the teacher had ever experienced such a miraculous state, which is why they didn't understand what I was saying. Why else wouldn't they be astonished?
In the following days, I consciously sought out these extraordinary experiences, fantasizing that through such experiences, I could ultimately reach the legendary Nirvana. However, there was no progress until the meditation retreat ended. Shortly after returning home, it was the Chinese New Year. As I grew older, I found that the New Year was always full of troubles. I felt that the lives of most people in this world were not what I desired, and life should not be about earning, spending, and seeking entertainment until death. I decided that in this limited life, I must find the true meaning of existence. After the Lantern Festival, I quit drinking because I wanted to keep a clear mind at all times to search for the truth of life.
Deignea at the Baofeng Temple
Two months later, I registered for a ten-day meditation retreat organized by the Burmese meditation teacher Deignea at the Baofeng Temple. Despite both being from Burmese Buddhism, the meditation techniques were different. After considering various factors, I decided to continue using the Mahasi meditation method.
Having experienced the previous meditation retreat, I had become somewhat accustomed to the retreat lifestyle. However, I still eagerly anticipated its conclusion. Influenced by my previous special experiences, I began forcing myself to put in extra effort. During meditation sessions, I focused intensely on my abdomen, and during walking meditation, I concentrated on my feet. I hoped to witness more unique phenomena. There were days when I walked for two to three hours, leaving me extremely fatigued.
Once the retreat concluded, I realized that despite gaining some insights that resembled descriptions in books, I hadn't encountered anything as profound as my earlier experience. Upon returning home, I began to reflect on a few things. First, several years ago, I had no prior knowledge of meditation. Still, I quickly experienced positive results because I was genuinely curious about the processes occurring within my abdomen. During the last retreat, my intentions were similarly pure, merely desiring to understand the nature of pain. In contrast, during this retreat, I was actively searching for unique phenomena, which completely deviated from the original purpose of understanding the essence of mind and body phenomena.
Second, although I put a lot of effort into sitting and walking meditation, I failed to maintain continuous observation during other times. Consequently, I couldn't cultivate profound concentration.
Burmese meditation teacher Yandegya
In late June, the Burmese meditation teacher Yandegya was scheduled to conduct a meditation retreat at the Baofeng Temple, teaching the Mahasi meditation method. I registered early and diligently studied the sections about meditation methods from the discourses of Mahasi Sayadaw and the teachings of Sayadaw U Pandita.
Learning from the lessons of the previous two retreats, I secretly made up my mind as I headed to this retreat. I was determined to completely empty my mind and abandon all fantasies about experiencing something extraordinary. I intended to approach the retreat like my first experience with meditation, attentively listening to the Dharma talks and strictly following the guidance. It was a scorching summer, but luckily, torrential rain began on the day the retreat commenced, creating very comfortable weather.
During this retreat, from the moment I woke up to the time I went to sleep at night, I rigorously adhered to the instructions of Sayadaw U Pandita: moving slowly, observing the arising phenomena of the mind and body as they occurred in the present moment, and making appropriate notations. To avoid being caught in unwholesome states for extended periods without awareness, I frequently followed some methods taught by Sayadaw U Pandita. I would often check my thoughts - was I observing or thinking? Was I anticipating specific phenomena? Because of my past attachment to special experiences, I paid close attention to these thoughts. When I found myself desiring a special experience, I reminded myself not to waste time like I had in the past. Simultaneously, I observed this thought and noted it as "thinking." Uninterrupted observation throughout the day was very beneficial.
Only on the first morning after the retreat started did I experience drowsiness, but by the afternoon, I had already started to adapt to the meditation life. Two days later, even in my dreams, I habitually observed. Sometimes, I would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, realizing I hadn't been observing or noting. I would then, in a half-asleep state, make a notation for "sleeping." These effects came quite quickly; just two or three days into the retreat, I experienced minimal delusional thinking during both walking and sitting meditation. Even when I did notice delusions arise, I would cut them off and make them disappear with a prompt notation. I started to question whether I was suppressing my delusions because I disliked them. I reported this situation to the meditation teacher during the group meditation session. The teacher said that this was a normal occurrence and instructed me to continue.
On about the fifth day, I was walking in the corridor as usual, but I found it challenging to observe the phenomena clearly. It was like playing a whack-a-mole game; my reaction was too slow, and I kept missing. I felt like I might have regressed. At this moment, there was a puddle of water in front of me on the ground, and sporadic raindrops were falling onto it, creating random ripples on the water's surface. Watching this phenomenon, I began to contemplate: How could I see the complete process of these ripples arising? Before the raindrops landed, the water surface was calm. Only when the raindrops touched the water did the ripples appear. But with such a wide water surface, raindrops could randomly fall anywhere. If I tried to chase them, my reactions couldn't keep up. Even if I were faster, I'd still miss the moment of their arising.
So, I focused my gaze on a small area of the water's surface. I didn't need to see every ripple, nor did I need to see ripples at every moment. I only needed to pay attention to this small area. When a ripple arose, I could see it immediately. If not, I wouldn't shift my focus elsewhere. This way, I could observe the entire process of every ripple arising in this specific area clearly.
I thought to myself that this situation was similar to my current difficulty in promptly observing the phenomena occurring in the present moment. My body was vast, and if I tried to observe phenomena after they arose, I wouldn't see the complete phenomenon. I shouldn't be chasing after them. Instead, I should only pay attention to a part of my body. When sitting, I should focus on my abdomen; when walking, I should focus on my whole foot. When turning, I should focus on the upper body. I only needed to be mindful of this one thing. In doing so, I would be able to observe any phenomena arising in the area I was paying attention to. With this thought, I began walking and applying this method.
At this moment, the intention to turn arose clearly during the act of turning, and my observations of other phenomena were no longer sluggish. I recalled a sentence that Sayadaw U Pandita had us memorize at the beginning of the retreat: "Observing the phenomena of the mind and body that arise in the present moment with precision is Vipassana practice."
I had never paid much attention to the word "observing" before, and now I realized that maybe this was the feeling I should have. This discovery greatly benefited me.
During recent meditation sessions, I often found myself stuck in a state where there wasn't much to observe, as if something was blocking my progress. After some time in this state, I would become impatient and restless. Then I recalled the advice given by the meditation teacher that when there's nothing to observe, one can make a notation to acknowledge it. In other words, simply knowing the state of mind. I started to apply this method. When I did, it was as if the obstacle, like thick fog, rapidly dissipated, and everything became clear, similar to the way a car's windshield clears up when it blows away dense fog. Or like a person wearing glasses, and the condensation suddenly disappears. After having experienced this, I quickly reminded myself to note "seeing," "knowing," and even the sense of tranquility that followed. With this clear and bright mind, I noticed that the phenomena I observed became clearer than ever before.
After an hour of walking meditation and returning to sitting, my concentration had significantly improved. Previously, I needed to observe for some time before the movements in my abdomen became evident. However, this time, as soon as I sat down, the movements in my abdomen were very noticeable, and my attention couldn't shift away. After observing and noting for some time, tranquility gradually arose, and I focused my attention on this tranquility. My mind became increasingly peaceful.
I don't know how much time passed, but suddenly, it felt like my entire being was descending uncontrollably, as if I were about to fall into an endless abyss. Even though my mind knew I was still sitting firmly on my cushion, I felt intense fear, my heart raced, and I wanted to open my eyes and escape. However, I remembered the meditation teacher's words: "Meditation is not dangerous." So, I suppressed my fear, continuously noting "knowing," acknowledging this state of falling. Strangely, at this moment, the words "knowing" appeared one after another in front of me, like watching scrolling subtitles on a TV screen, individual characters appearing and disappearing, with no regard for their actual meanings. This situation was extremely peculiar. I had to give up noting and just focus on this continuous descent. There was still a slight sense of fear within me, unsure of where I might fall.
The descent became progressively faster, and my observation sped up as well. Suddenly, I felt a sort of flicker in the back of my mind, and everything came to a sudden halt. In the moment of consciousness interruption, I found myself in an extremely pure and clean space, but I had completely lost control of myself. There was no ability to move or anything to move. Subjectivity had completely disappeared. It was like a camera, merely an observer. My field of view automatically expanded, and the space became larger and boundless, like standing by the seashore, gazing at the infinite ocean.
After some time, my mind spontaneously retreated from this space, and I regained my active consciousness. At this point, the sensation of the body had completely disappeared. Body and mind were empty and silent. I observed this silence while thinking, "Did I disappear? Is this no-self? Is this Nirvana?" After thinking for a while, I decided, "Regardless of what it is, I shouldn't become too entangled in it. It won't run away. If it is what I suspect, I can't afford to waste such a precious state. I might regret it later. If it's not Nirvana, overthinking and clinging to this experience would hinder my future meditation. Moreover, having experienced such a state, it was already remarkable. So, I reminded myself and continued noting and recalling." Soon, I let go of the experience. Noting was indeed an excellent tool. Even for such a unique experience, with habitual notations, it helped cut off the inclination to dwell on it, and I quickly ceased to attach.
Later, I noticed a remarkable transformation in my body and mind, which seemed entirely different from before – very clear and tranquil. However, I didn't dwell on it but continued to observe the present moment and add notations. Perhaps because my concentration wasn't disrupted, this state persisted into walking meditation.
During the walking meditation, my observation of my footsteps was exceptionally clear. Most of the time, there was no concept of feet. When lifting and pushing my foot forward, the phenomena I was aware of were constantly changing – sensations like warmth, cold, lightness, and heaviness. This was especially apparent when setting the foot down. I distinctly felt the hardness when the foot touched the ground. At the moment of deciding to set the foot down, it was as if a floodgate opened under my lower leg, and a surge of water instantly filled the entire sole of my foot.
Throughout the walking meditation, both feet repeated these phenomena continuously. Sometimes I would stop and think, "Is this an illusion?" However, it was evident that it wasn't an illusion. It was a clearer knowing than usual. After walking like this for some time, I was genuinely surprised by how clear and naturally occurring this phenomenon was, and I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed it before.
Subsequently, during the sitting meditation, a fellow meditator nearby would occasionally cough. Their cough was loud and sudden, and it would startle me. I began to note "hearing" and, using the same mindfulness approach as before, I focused on the function of "hearing" itself in my ears instead of paying attention to the cough sound directly. My inner world quickly became extremely clear, as if I had transitioned from noise to tranquility, from murkiness to clarity, from chaos to order, and from disturbance to stillness. The coughing now seemed very pure, clear, and independent. From the instant the sound began to its end, it was fully known, like seeing both ends of the sound. It no longer caused me any anxiety.
Soon, I started noting more "hearings." At that time, there was heavy rain outside the meditation hall, and the sounds of rain, clinking kitchen utensils, insects chirping, and birds calling overlapped, creating a mosaic of sounds. These sounds also became distinct and separate. I noticed that when I engaged with the content of the sounds, they would intermingle, becoming noisy. However, when I only paid attention to the function of "hearing," the sounds separated from each other. This clarity and separation were like having a plate in front of you with different pearls. You could easily distinguish their boundaries and count how many there were.
Then I began to focus on one of the most prominent sounds. Strangely, when I concentrated on one sound, all the other sounds disappeared completely. It was as if a symphony had turned into a solo performance. Although there was heavy rain outside, the sound of rain and other surrounding noises felt as if they didn't exist at all. At that moment, I didn't contemplate the unusual nature of this experience. Instead, I concentrated on the faint and sharp chirping of insects coming from a distant hill.
As I resolved to observe only this one sound, the concept of sound itself ceased to exist. It transformed into a bright object I could directly observe, as if it were placed in front of my eyes. Then I expanded the scope of my observation, and every sound that occurred became an individual object. It was like a night sky without clouds, with scattered twinkling stars, each point appearing and disappearing. Although I was aware that these objects were sounds, I didn't analyze them or find it strange. I remained calm and observed them. After a while, I noticed one of the most prominent sounds. It was remarkably bright and clear as it flickered. As I delved deeper into observing this sound, all the other objects disappeared completely. At this point, I discovered that besides this shining object, there was only emptiness and silence. It was like a star shining in a moonless, starless, and cloudless night sky.
As my attention pierced through this shining object, I realized it was created by the interaction of two objects. It was as if, while watching a welding flash, I saw that the flash was produced by the contact of the welding rod and metal. Apart from these two objects, there was unreachable and unfathomable emptiness, like deep space. A thought spontaneously emerged: "So there are only these two objects, and cutting off the connection between them should be Nirvana."
With this thought, I wanted to separate these two objects. At that moment, everything abruptly coarsened and returned to the starting point, like a film being rewound. All the sounds quickly reappeared, and everything returned to normal.
I couldn't help but recollect the experience, and I thought, "Perhaps this was the end of the phenomena." I felt a bit regretful, realizing that if I had stayed undistracted and only observed, there might have been more discoveries. However, now I had only seen it briefly, which was a pity.
After the sitting meditation bell rang, I opened my eyes and found that there seemed to be a profound change in my body and mind – an indescribable sense of ease. Although I was alert, I reminded myself to observe and make notations about these thoughts and feelings.
During walking meditation, I noticed that my thinking about theories started to increase gradually. In my next meditation session, I made an effort to suppress these thoughts and focus on observing the present moment. Quickly, it felt as if I transitioned from turmoil to serenity. I remained in an exceptionally pure state, detached from all phenomena and with the target of observation far away and hard to grasp. I thought with vigilance, "Is this a regression in my meditation practice?" So, I aimed to meditate with even more diligence. However, in the following days, I found that this intense practice either led to entering the state of purity again or to distraction and restlessness. It appeared that progress in meditation had come to a standstill. The meditation retreat was coming to an end, and I felt somewhat anxious. I wanted to meditate all night, but my overly radical intentions ultimately resulted in more distraction.
On the second day after the meditation retreat ended, while driving back home, I finally emerged from the meditative state and began discussing the insights from the retreat with my wife. When we talked about the concept of "self," I instinctively told her that although it may appear as if we listen, see, smell, taste, touch, and think all simultaneously, in reality, there is only one mind in each moment.
For example, when hearing a sound, there is only the "hearing" mind in that moment. Even within the same moment, only one sound is heard, and the moment of "hearing" is the instant in which the ear and the sound are generated. When the ear and sound arise, they disappear. The "hearing" exists only in that moment and then vanishes. A new mind arises in the same way, and there is nothing carried over from one moment to the next. There is no transfer of any phenomena from one place to another; all phenomena arise and cease where they occur.
The so-called "life" is simply a continuous connection of these momentary minds, and there is no entity or mind that exists for two moments, let alone something that can be defined as "self."
As these words left my mouth, even I felt amazed. I had never had such insights before, nor had I read about them anywhere. It was as if a previously firm belief in the existence of a solid "self" had been completely erased from my mind.
And all of this understanding seemed to stem from that day's observation of "hearing." At this moment, I started to feel excited. Could it be that I had eradicated the "perception of a self"? Unable to contain my excitement, I promptly parked the car at a highway rest area and retrieved a book I had kept in the car, written by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, titled "The Progress of Insight: A Treatise on Satipatthana Meditation."
I found the description of the direct realization of Nirvana in the book:
"When the insight wisdom matures, and the five faculties are balanced, the meditator will perceive the rapidity of the arising and passing away of physical and mental phenomena, and their respective objects will appear more distinct. This process will continue for about three or four times. Then, immediately following a strong observation of any prominent object arising at one of the six sense doors (touch, thought, hearing, sight, smell, taste), the meditator experiences Nirvana - the object of observation and the observing mind simultaneously cease, and, consequently, realization wisdom and fruition wisdom arise.
People who have reached this stage clearly experience that their awareness becomes faster prior to realization. Additionally, they can understand extremely clearly how the object and observing mind are cut off following the last observation. All these perceptions are very vivid."
Following this, are the descriptions by meditators of this experience:
The object and the observing mind suddenly ceased and stopped.
The object and the observing mind were severed, just like cutting a vine.
I saw the object and the observing mind falling away, as if unburdening myself.
The object and the observing mind vanished like a fall.
I liberated myself from the object and the observing mind, as if I had suddenly escaped from the imprisonment of a jail.
The object and the observing mind suddenly disappeared, like extinguishing a burning lamp.
I escaped from the object and the observing mind, as if I had suddenly entered into brightness from darkness.
I separated from the object and the observing mind, as if I had suddenly entered into a pure space from a confused one.
I found the object and the observing mind sank, as if they sank into water.
The object and the observing mind suddenly stopped, as if blocking the road and pushing someone running back.
The cessation of phenomena of the body and mind that arises due to dependent origination is an experience that doesn't last very long; it's as brief as observing once.
Following this, contemplation of this event arises. For example, "I must have just experienced the cessation of the object and the observing mind, which is undoubtedly a very special experience, or in other words, it's the realization of Nirvana." Someone with knowledge of Buddhist texts might contemplate it like this: "The cessation of phenomena due to dependent origination is indeed Nirvana. At the moment of this realization, what I understood is realization wisdom and fruition wisdom."
After going through all this, I found that the experience of descending and entering a space that I had on that day was more like the description in the book. However, the experience of observing sound that had completely changed my perspective had no similar description in the book. This puzzled me, and I thought that perhaps I had experienced Nirvana before, and my mind, under that kind of purity, saw some phenomena. Still, the most important thing was to clarify whether I had truly attained Nirvana.
Upon returning home, I found another book written by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw called "The Way to Go Home." In it, there are seven self-inspections to confirm if one has attained the first stage of enlightenment. It seemed to me that, being fresh from the meditation retreat and filled with joy in the Dharma, these inspections resonated with my experiences. Later, I meticulously reviewed various versions of the Sixteen Insight Knowledges. Although I hadn't experienced all of them, I realized I had experienced more or less the characteristics of each insight knowledge. This made me even more excited because the young monk who gave me guidance during the meditation retreat was accompanied by an elder. During our discussions, I didn't mention these experiences much, nor had I talked about them with Venerable Indaka, as he was soon leaving for Wuhan to conduct another meditation retreat. I decided to join the retreat in Wuhan once again, primarily with the intention of reporting these experiences to Venerable Indaka and hoping that he could provide me with a definitive answer.
Meditation retreat in Wuhan
Upon arriving at the meditation retreat in Wuhan, I sought out Venerable Indaka. After studying the descriptions of the stages of realization and checking my experiences against them, I found that the experience of descending was the closest match, while there was no similar description in the books regarding my experience of observing sound. Given the limited time available, I provided a detailed report of the descending experience to Venerable Indaka and asked if this was the realization of the fruit of enlightenment.
After carefully listening, Venerable Indaka told me: "Your descriptions align with the scriptures, but whether it is the realization of the fruit of enlightenment is something only you will know."
I repeatedly inquired, and Venerable Indaka responded: "Go and meditate. If you have indeed realized the fruit of enlightenment, realization wisdom will manifest frequently. When that happens, you can come and tell me."
However, after the ten-day meditation retreat ended, I did not experience the same phenomena as before. Despite the scorching 40-degree Celsius temperature in Wuhan at that time, I remained joyful and serene throughout the entire meditation retreat.
Upon returning home, this sense of joy continued. I felt like all my worries had dissipated, and I experienced an unprecedented sense of relaxation and tranquility. It wasn't until one evening, about two weeks later, while discussing meditation with a friend, that my inner peace was suddenly disrupted. Without any warning, there was a sudden feeling of emptiness within me. All my joy vanished in that instant, and my heart turned into cold ashes. I lost motivation for everything except for the attainment of enlightenment and liberation.
It was like a student suddenly remembering that they hadn't completed their homework. Starting from the next day, I abandoned all work and lived a simple life with my wife. I spent my days in intensive study, waking up before dawn to read, especially repeatedly studying texts like the "Visuddhimagga" and the "Abhidhamma," and I also read meditation books written by venerables from both inside and outside the country. After finishing each book, I compared the two different translations of the "Pali Canon" side by side. If I ever got tired of reading, I would meditate and then continue reading, often until midnight. I always carried my books with me, even if I had only a few minutes of free time; I didn't want to waste it.
After several months of such dedicated effort, my desire for liberation grew stronger. Although I had completely given up my job and led a simple life with my wife, I felt that my current home environment could no longer satisfy my pursuit of meditation. Therefore, I made the decision to embark on intensive meditation practice at the Chanmyay Myaing Forest Meditation Center in Mobye, Myanmar.
I thought that if I hadn't realized the fruit of enlightenment before, then this time I must attain it. Even if I had attained it before, I couldn't be certain, so my main goal was to achieve a higher level of enlightenment. At least this way, I would confirm whether I had attained the first stage of enlightenment.
To ensure the effectiveness of this intensive meditation retreat, I made thorough preparations. In the month leading up to my departure for Myanmar, I set aside all other books and focused exclusively on the meditation methods taught by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw and Venerable Chanmyay Sayadaw. I meticulously studied the key content of their methods, repeatedly pondered them, and practiced at home. Afterward, I read these books again, continued to repeat this process, and practiced until I had fully mastered their teachings.
Through this repeated practice, I discovered that due to my strong desire for results, I was easily falling into the trap of attachment, making it challenging to detach. Fortunately, some of the techniques taught by Venerable Chanmyay Sayadaw were particularly effective at relaxation. I identified areas where I often encountered difficulties and noted the antidotes behind one of the books. After purchasing a two-month plane ticket and securing my meditation visa, I reminded myself again that although I was going to Myanmar for the realization of enlightenment, all I had to do was to observe the mind and body truthfully without grasping at experiences. I had to completely empty myself and let go of all worldly matters, all theories I had learned in the past, and all cognitive acquisitions. I carried only two books with me, one of which was "The Path of Purification" ("Visuddhimagga"), and the other was a small booklet by Venerable Chanmyay Sayadaw. In November 2016, I boarded the plane to Myanmar.
From the moment I stepped out of my home, I immersed myself in the state of meditation. It was my first time traveling abroad, but I didn't feel excited. Except for taking a few pictures of the scenery along the road with my phone while in a taxi from Yangon Airport to the meditation center, most of the time, I kept myself focused on observing the present moment's body and mind phenomena.
Following the directions provided by Ven. Shanjie at the Burmese meditation center, I quickly arrived at the center and completed the necessary formalities. After noting down the locations of the dormitory, meditation hall, dining hall, and meal times that Ven. Shanjie had informed me about, I delved into a state of meditation. I didn't even spare a thought to explore the center's surroundings.
In November, the temperature in Myanmar was cool in the mornings, with just above 10 degrees Celsius, and hot in the afternoons, reaching over 30 degrees Celsius. The temperature difference was extreme. I could observe my body and mind calmly in the mornings, but in the afternoons, restlessness started to set in, and I was full of mental wandering. When it became unbearable, I used some mental techniques taught by Ven. Shanjie to address this. I attempted to maintain a state of observing body and mind phenomena from the moment I woke up in the morning until I fell asleep at night.
The meditation center was located in the forest, and there were frequent sightings of snakes crossing the paths, especially in the area between the meditation hall's entrance and the restroom. There was a patch of knee-high grass there, which I had to cross every time I went to the restroom. Even though I hadn't actually seen any snakes in that area, I couldn't help but feel nervous and tense every time I passed that spot, so I heightened my vigilance and observed my inner reactions.
One time, I clearly saw a mental image of a snake lunging at me in my mind, and fear arose instantly. Then, the mental image disappeared, and the fear vanished with it. My mind instantly lightened up, and the tension completely dissipated, leaving me in a heightened state of tranquility. I realized that it was because of having such thoughts that the fear had arisen. Without those thoughts, there was no fear. Once I understood this, my fear of snakes started to fade. On a few occasions during walking meditation, snakes crossed right in front of me, and I watched them calmly.
Ven. Mahasi's meditation method places a significant emphasis on observing during meal times. So, I began to observe meticulously and attentively during eating, focusing on thoughts like wanting to eat, wanting to pick up food, wanting to extend my hand, extending my hand, wanting to open my mouth, opening my mouth, wanting to bite, wanting to swallow, and so on. I quickly discovered that taking a single bite of food involved so many intricate motivations and actions. After the food entered my mouth, the pleasurable taste that touched my tongue lasted only for a moment, and it disappeared, especially after swallowing. Observing the sensation of food moving from the throat to the stomach, there was no pleasure at all. Hunger in the stomach felt like an ailment, full of suffering. Eating felt like taking medicine. After the hunger disappeared, I didn't want to eat at all.
Once I lost interest in food, to maintain continuity in my concentration, I stopped going to the dining hall even for the afternoon sweet drinks.
During my previous discussions with other practitioners, they often spoke of how joyful their meditation experiences were, but for me, it seemed that the more I meditated, the more suffering I encountered. It felt as if everything was like a prison, filled with suffering, and I was eager to break free from it all, to the extent that I didn't even want to continue with meditation. At times, I questioned why I left the comfort of my home behind to endure this ordeal. There were so many people in the world who didn't meditate and were living just fine. These emotional reactions could only be observed and labeled as "emotions" and "suffering." I knew I had to endure these two months no matter how difficult it was.
As the observations became increasingly profound and clear, my mood became more agitated. By the eighth day, I could no longer bear it. I was frustrated with the phenomena I was observing, including the practice of meditation itself, and it felt unbearable. It seemed that continuing meditation would lead to my demise. I was on the brink of breaking down, unable to find solace in meditation. During walking meditation, I would think about sitting meditation, and during sitting meditation, I would think about walking meditation. I felt like a restless ant on a hot pan.
During afternoon walking meditation, I observed the repetitive and monotonous movements of intentions and footsteps, like watching a machine endlessly going back and forth, devoid of any enjoyment, boring, frustrating, and stifling. I needed an outlet for these feelings. I decided to return to my dormitory for a cold shower.
After taking the shower, my body and mind relaxed. I sat cross-legged on my bed, and without trying to understand anything, I gently placed my attention on my abdomen. Soon, my body and mind began to feel light and calm, gradually tranquil. It was as if my consciousness had completely ceased...
I don't know how much time passed, but suddenly, a brief moment of blankness flashed like lightning. My body and mind were instantly pure and soon felt rejuvenated. At this point, my body seemed to have lightened by at least half. Walking felt light and buoyant, and it was hard to adapt to.
After listening to me, the meditation teacher told me that what I experienced was not the realization of the fruit of enlightenment. However, I didn't believe him; I was convinced that the meditation teacher had never experienced such a unique state. I thought, "What else could have such a powerful force to sustain this continuous state for days and nights if not the fruit of enlightenment?" So I explained again to the meditation teacher. After seeing my persistence, the teacher sternly rejected my claims and even asked me to leave when I attempted to explain further.
I used to believe that such special experiences would only briefly occur during meditation and would not persist for days and nights. Faced with the meditation teacher's resolute attitude, my confidence wavered. I went to the center's bookshelf and found the "Visuddhimagga" (Path of Purification). I read the descriptions about distinguishing the path from non-path wisdom and the clarity of insight, and I began to believe that what the meditation teacher said was true.
After going through these ups and downs, even this pinnacle experience, I started to doubt whether it was the fruit of enlightenment. At that moment, I almost lost all hope in meditation. Although the clarity of my mind and body sensations remained, I developed aversion to them, thinking they were trapping me. Over these days, from near-death-like suffering to extreme happiness, and then from hope to despair, I felt I had lost the motivation to continue meditation, and I was completely directionless.
Out of inertia, I continued to sit and walk like a spinning top, but I quickly realized that I was no longer suitable for meditation because everything I observed was disappearing. When I observed my steps while walking, the steps would vanish, and I felt my lower body was entirely empty. When I observed my posture while sitting, my whole body disappeared. Observing the abdomen, it also vanished. Everything I tried to observe just disappeared. This disappearance didn't mean I couldn't see them; it meant that as soon as my mind saw them, they instantly vanished, like water poured onto the desert, disappearing instantly. It created an unexplained fear, preventing me from observing any further. I was scared that even my life might disappear if I focused more.
Withdrawing from observing present body and mind phenomena, my mind was flooded with thoughts, especially related to what I had experienced over the past days. These thoughts led me into extensive logical thinking about the theories of existence and the world, as found in Theravāda Buddhism. These thoughts exhausted me, so I forced myself back into observation. Struggling between observing and thinking, I gradually bore a heavier burden that pressed on me, making it hard to breathe, and yet I couldn't escape it.
When I focused on observation, there was nothing to stand on, and everything was terrifyingly vanishing. When I stopped observing, I was submerged in an endless and suffocating stream of thoughts. In the end, I felt extreme aversion to both of them. A powerful thought began to arise within me: I needed to leave the meditation center; anywhere would do, I just needed to leave. However, in a foreign land, the only place that came to mind was returning home.
This thought grew stronger and completely occupied my mind. I tried loving-kindness meditation and quickly entered into complete emptiness, residing in a state of no consciousness. But when I emerged from that state, the urge to leave surged like a deluge. Regardless of how I observed and labeled these thoughts, they all carried an intense desire to depart. I couldn't control it, and I decided to leave.
I went to the teacher's room, explained the situation, and the teacher told me, "Meditation should be pursued while the mind is still inclined. But if you insist on leaving, go back home and take some rest."
With the teacher's permission, I left the teacher's room, and the moment I stepped out the door, it felt like being drenched in cold water during a scorching summer. It was as if I had suddenly shed a thousand-pound burden. All my suffering and struggle evaporated in an instant. I gave up meditation, and I felt an incredible sense of relaxation and ease. The enormous logical thoughts that had been suffocating me were gone. My mind and body felt pure and revitalized.
I contacted my wife, asked her to book a flight ticket for the day after tomorrow, packed my luggage early the next morning, said my goodbyes to fellow practitioners, and felt like there was nothing more for me to do. Maybe I would never return. I decided to savor the last day of meditation.
I went to the meditation hall and started to meditate without any burdens. The clear feeling was still there. When I observed, everything vanished instantly. However, after experiencing great joy and great sorrow, and after the transition from hope to despair, I no longer cared. Let them vanish. Even if life disappeared, I no longer cared. Soon, the sensations of the body during observation completely disappeared, leaving only consciousness. But when I observed that consciousness, it vanished too, leaving only the rising and falling of the abdomen. As I observed this movement, both the phenomenon and the desire to observe them vanished in pairs.
I found that when a desire arose, the phenomenon would appear slightly, then both would disappear in succession. When another desire arose, the phenomenon would reappear slightly, only to vanish again. Desire was the cause of the phenomenon, it was the actor, and it was a heavy burden that was tiring and pointless, with no value. It was like the flickering flame of an almost extinguished oil lamp, like scooping water with a leaky bucket, and like trying to stand up a pig's large intestine that would keep falling over. When I saw this, I didn't want even a tiny bit of desire to arise.
"Let them disappear as they wish." At that moment of determination, both desire and the phenomenon of rising and falling vanished into profound stillness. There were no more phenomena. Not long afterward, a thought arose. I recalled the sequential vanishing of these two phenomena and the subsequent absolute stillness. I sank into the stillness again, but I couldn't tell when I emerged from it.
I continued walking in the forest of the meditation center after breakfast, intending to take a few photos as a keepsake. My mind and body were still tranquil, and even when mosquitoes bit me, I felt no disturbance. I casually snapped a photo of one of them.
At noon, after bidding farewell to the meditation teacher and the head of the center, I left the meditation center. As I looked back, a place that I had lived in for just over half a month felt like I had spent years there. The meditation center, once seen as a prison, now appeared like a tranquil paradise. I left the center contentedly.
After returning to my home country, my mind and body continued to maintain the tranquility and joy I had experienced during my previous meditation. I began to reflect on the gains from this meditation and studied the Sixteen Vipassana Insights as described by Mahasi Sayadaw and other meditation teachers. I discovered that the experiences I had undergone during this meditation were remarkably similar to the various insight processes mentioned in the books. Especially the experiences of the last few days closely matched the insights described in the literature. I even started to think that the experience of the last day might be what is referred to as Nibbana in the texts.
However, a few days later, I found myself losing my temper with my wife unintentionally. Although it was just a momentary outburst, it served as a wakeup call for me. No matter how calm and peaceful I had felt previously, my defilements (greed, aversion, and delusion) had not diminished at all. This contradicted my initial purpose of meditation, which was to eradicate defilements. If I hadn't achieved my goal, what did it matter if I had experienced something akin to Nibbana? Besides, despite the similarities between my experiences and what was written in the texts, there was still room for doubt. This uncertainty revealed that I couldn't conclusively determine whether I had attained the goal.
Within a week of returning home, I couldn't stand staying still because I had purchased a round-trip ticket, with over a month left for my return flight. I decided to return to Myanmar for another meditation retreat. I obtained a visa from the consulate and booked a flight for a week later. This time, with the prior experience, I wasn't as uncomfortable during the meditation. To avoid complacency, I continuously pushed myself to be more diligent, inspired by Sayadaw's desire to have right mindfulness as his last thought. I thought that if I could consider each present moment as my last moment, it would be the ultimate form of diligence.
So, I set the intention: if my life were to end now, I wanted to observe the last phenomenon of life. Life is fragile and can end at any moment; nobody can predict it. Every phenomenon might be the last, so I must regard each of them as my last. Even if life continued, one day it would end, and I wanted to be able to end it with full knowledge. With this intention, I often observed with utmost diligence. Sometimes, I would forget and lose focus, but I'd quickly realize and remind myself that if life ended at that moment, I'd die with ignorance.
Through this constant training, my observations became tighter and more proficient. After a few days, the lapses in observation became infrequent. I realized that observation itself could be a hindrance. I abandoned the act of observing, and now I simply followed the thoughts. In this state, I experienced a rapid succession of thoughts, each one independently arising and vanishing. This moment led to a profound sense of freedom, a feeling of seeing two objects.
This prompted a thought, "What about me?" It was clear that there were only the two objects, and "I" was absent. The world then resumed like a rewinding movie, and I came to realize that "I" was essentially composed of these two objects. This insight brought a profound sense of ease to my body and mind.
As time passed, I recalled the two experiences of observing "hearing consciousness" and "thinking consciousness," and I began to wonder if these experiences held the key to my understanding. While historically, Nirvana was often associated with the absence of name and form, I recognized that my experience included phenomena. This didn't seem to align with the traditional definitions of Nirvana. I often found myself puzzled during this period of introspection.
After several months, I had the chance to consult with Ven. Sayadaw in Nanjing during a meditation retreat. Although he didn't have much time to spare and didn't answer all my questions, his reassurance that my experiences were valid gave me some relief. It wasn't a definitive answer, but knowing that such an accomplished teacher acknowledged my insights was reassuring.
With the sense of uncertainty slowly fading, I began to embrace this practice. We continued our travels, and I adapted my daily schedule to maintain at least four hours of meditation each day. Despite being in different settings and conditions, my meditation had become a part of my daily life. Over time, my mental discipline and mindfulness balanced out, and I could seamlessly switch between meditation and daily activities. I was no longer disturbed by external factors.
I maintained a consistent meditation practice, and as days turned into months, I found that over ten hours of walking meditation every day greatly enhanced my concentration. I enjoyed an abundance of joy and felt liberated from the vague sense of purposelessness that had once troubled my life.
Back at home with my parents, meditation became a priority. I had to find a balance as my parents didn't fully understand my practice and sometimes perceived it as a waste of time. Despite daily interruptions and disruptions by my young nieces and nephews, I could maintain my composure. I had found the equilibrium between life and meditation.
Even when I had to help with household chores, it didn't interfere with my focused mindfulness. The experiences that had once been sporadic now became a regular part of my meditation, providing a deeper understanding of the various insight processes outlined in the texts.
After attending a meditation retreat led by Ven. Sayadaw, I sought answers to my questions. But as he wasn't able to provide clear answers and maintained silence, I felt relieved. I realized that perhaps the pursuit of answers wasn't the main goal. This release of the need for certainty brought about a sense of inner peace.
After the retreat, my wife and I traveled through various parts of China, and when we returned to Yunnan, my daily schedule still involved several hours of meditation. My concentration had significantly improved, and I found a harmonious balance between meditation and daily life. I could swiftly transition between them without any hindrance.
Meditation had become the core of my daily routine.
In the summer of 2018, I once again applied to participate in the meditation retreat held by Venerable Indaka at the Gengxiang Monastery in Jiangxi. It had been over a year since my last retreat, and I wanted to ensure that I hadn't gone astray in my practice during that time. The day before the retreat began, I reported my recent experiences to Venerable Indaka, hoping to receive his guidance and make any necessary corrections during the retreat.
Venerable Indaka told me that he would closely examine the correctness of my meditation practice during this retreat because my previous experiences of observing two objects had led to significant changes in me. However, I had been unable to express these experiences clearly through language and translation, which made it challenging for him to understand. Despite extended explanations, we couldn't conclusively identify the nature of these experiences.
Once the meditation retreat started, I continued my meditation practice as usual. During each brief interview with Venerable Indaka, he repeatedly assured me that my meditation practice was completely correct, that there were no errors, and that I would no longer encounter any issues in my practice. His words strengthened my confidence in meditation, and indeed, my meditation experiences were becoming more satisfactory. It was the height of summer, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, yet I remained undisturbed, observing all the arising phenomena in my body and mind.
One day, as I was meditating in the intense heat, closely observing the various sensations generated by the weather and my body's reactions, something remarkable happened. After a brief, accelerated succession of mental and physical phenomena, everything came to a sudden halt. In that incredibly pure state, I perceived what seemed like a dense mist or fog in front of me. Instantly, a thought arose: "This is suffering." At that moment, all suffering, both physical and mental, including all external and internal experiences, rapidly receded like a tide, leaving my body and mind in a state of profound coolness and purity. In that moment, I felt that all suffering had completely fallen away and disappeared. Shortly after, my body once again felt like it was boiling, with every cell vibrating, and tears welled up uncontrollably. But these weren't tears of pain; they were tears of intense joy.
"This is suffering," was so profound that my entire experience was encapsulated by this "mass of suffering." The conventional understanding is that the three realms are like a house on fire, and now I had realized that this body and mind were the house on fire, they were suffering itself. In this moment, I didn't want to be reborn in any form of life or any place. My attachments to body and mind seemed to have completely dissolved, much like a pile of feces – wherever it is placed, it will always be foul, because it is inherently foul.
As I contemplated these thoughts, I recalled the saying of a revered Thai teacher, who stated that seeing the body as suffering corresponds to the attainment of the third fruit of enlightenment (Anāgāmi), and seeing the mind as suffering corresponds to the fourth fruit (Arahat). Now, I was seeing both body and mind as suffering, and I had lost the desire to exist in any of the realms. Could it be that I had attained Arahatship?
Recalling the various insights I had experienced over the past two years, I started to feel somewhat elated. I believed that even if I hadn't attained the fourth fruit, I was at least an Anāgāmi. It seemed that my meditation journey in this life had reached its culmination.
I reported this experience to Venerable Indaka and asked if that moment when all suffering completely disappeared was equivalent to Nirvana. However, Venerable Indaka didn't provide a direct answer; instead, he used a metaphor to describe the state of realizing Nirvana and the peaceful state that follows enlightenment. He provided detailed descriptions of the post-enlightenment state. I won't include these details here to avoid any misinterpretation by other meditators.
After Venerable Indaka shared these insights, I realized that they were reminiscent of my past meditation experiences, but the current ones were closer to the description of that Thai teacher, especially when I recalled the "mass of suffering" experience. It continued to fill me with uncontrollable tears of joy. I thought that these were the tears of an Arahat.
In the days that followed, my body and mind continued to maintain an exceptional state of purity and joy. Feeling that I had completed my meditation work, I returned home after the retreat.
To verify whether I was genuinely free from defilements, I intentionally refrained from meditation upon returning home. Even so, my body and mind continued to be filled with happiness. However, it didn't last long, and after a few days, as the intensity of this joy diminished, various emotions such as desire, aversion, anxiety, restlessness, and boredom began to surface in response to life's circumstances.
After having dreams of being an "Arahat" for a week, I abruptly realized that I had once again fallen into the pit of extraordinary experiences. I began evaluating my progress based on what Venerable Indaka had said. According to him, my meditation practice had not been incorrect, and I had already experienced various insights in line with the descriptions found in meditation texts. Although some traces of greed and aversion still occasionally arose within me, they had significantly lessened compared to before. According to the theoretical framework, it is only after attaining the third fruit of enlightenment (Anāgāmi) that such emotions should cease completely. I pondered whether I had reached the second fruit.
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However, the discomforting emotions often arising due to life's unfavorable circumstances were like hidden thorns buried within me, ready to emerge and cause distress at any moment. If left uncontrolled, I discovered that these emotions could evolve into significant afflictions. This left me deeply dissatisfied because my initial intention for meditation was to eliminate them. Although these emotions had weakened, I still felt that I hadn't achieved my goal, especially given my recent heightened state. I believed that I wasn't far from completely eradicating them.
Similar to a runner nearing the finish line, I decided to make a final sprint, thinking that it would take only a few days, or at most a few months, to rid myself of all the unpleasant emotions entirely. In the days that followed, I found myself meditating nearly all day at home, drawing upon the concentration I had cultivated in the past, along with continuous observation of all the sublime joy and insights beyond worldly experiences. The phenomena I observed became deeper and clearer, and it seemed that my meditation practice had reached its zenith. I often experienced moments resembling what people describe as Nirvana, as well as states akin to the jhānas (the four meditative states) mentioned by meditation teachers.
Throughout the meditation journey, I often dwelled in a state of liberation as if all afflictions had vanished. If it weren't for the daily life with my family, I might have thought that I had already attained enlightenment. However, when I put meditation aside and faced the afflictions directly, I discovered that these unpleasant emotions were still hidden within me, ready to surface for various reasons. Because of my daily state of mind being remarkably stable and joyous, these afflictions emerged weakly, which gave me the impression that perhaps in the next sit, or maybe tomorrow, I would eliminate them entirely. As half a year passed with this expectation, it began to wear on my patience, and I constantly pushed myself without any relaxation.
A year later, due to excessive effort and sudden life circumstances, my emotions fluctuated wildly. I couldn't sleep for two days and nights, and I quickly developed shingles because of my weakened immune system. The shingles rash soon spread across half of my waist. As a result of ineffective treatment, I endured the pain until it healed by itself, leaving lingering aftereffects that caused severe nerve pain. My skin became intolerably itchy to the point where I couldn't even wear clothes.
During this period, I discovered that no matter how painful or itchy it was at the time, once I sat down to meditate, all physical suffering would vanish entirely, as if I were free from illness. However, meditation couldn't substitute for sleep. When I tried to sleep at night, without the protection of concentration, I couldn't sleep for more than a few minutes, as the nerve pain and skin itching woke me. Prolonged suffering and exhaustion both mentally and physically resulted in my inability to stay asleep for more than an hour, repeating this cycle daily and making me restless.
Online sources suggested that these shingles-related symptoms might last for years or even a lifetime. These thoughts filled me with pain and despair. During these months, all my afflictions were exposed clearly, and the effectiveness of my years of meditation was also evident. Based on my performance during this time, it became apparent that my afflictions had not truly decreased but had been concealed by the joy brought about by my usual concentration. The reason for this apparent reduction of afflictions was likely the suppression by my concentration. So, when my concentration wavered, my afflictions reverted to their original intensity.
I noticed that beneath the intense pain, once I entered a meditative state, all the suffering disappeared completely. This indicated that it might be the strength of my concentration that had kept the afflictions at bay, rather than their complete eradication. Fortunately, three months later, my body gradually recovered. Because my son began attending primary school in our hometown, I returned home to accompany him while my wife went to Myanmar for loving-kindness meditation practice.
In my hometown, apart from dropping off and picking up my son and assisting him with his homework in the evenings, I had very little to do. Therefore, I resumed daily meditation, often practicing for over ten hours a day. After my son's winter break, I returned to Yunnan, and following months of extensive walking meditation, my concentration improved even further, and I gained deeper insights. However, I had already experienced these insights many times over the years, and they hadn't led to any fundamental change. So, I had become indifferent to them, focusing solely on observing.
After a while, I realized that my motivation to maintain continuous observation was derived from the teachings that observing the phenomena arising in the present moment would reveal their nature of impermanence, suffering, and the lack of a self. Such insight would lead to dispassion and eventually to liberation from the suffering cycle. The teaching implied that after realizing liberation, some afflictions would be eliminated, and this process would repeat until all afflictions vanished. For years, I had diligently practiced accurate observation of the present moment, and I had indeed experienced layers of insight and eventually reached the cessation of bodily and mental phenomena. However, I couldn't ignore the fact that despite these experiences, life's daily difficulties continued to reveal that my afflictions were far from being eradicated entirely.
My desire to extinguish afflictions remained strong, but my interest in insight experiences had waned. Simultaneously, I began to feel that the act of observing the present moment truthfully was becoming burdensome, akin to a laborer who hadn't received wages for their work and had lost motivation. All known methods had been considered over the years, and I couldn't find a better approach than observing the truth of the body and mind in the present moment. I had a partial understanding of the scriptures, but practicing in line with their teachings was challenging. Thus, every day, I continued to force myself to observe, often feeling irritated because of this necessity.
One day during meditation, I pondered whether not observing would make me unaware of the current happenings. Would I become like an insensate piece of wood? The answer was quite clear – not observing the body and mind wouldn't turn me into a lifeless being. So, at that moment, I entirely abandoned all active and passive observation and any willed behaviors. I allowed the body and mind phenomena to arise and pass on their own, without interference. The formerly agitated me became remarkably calm, and I remained at ease with a state free from all phenomena. In this state of peace, I realized a knowledge that had never been known or seen before: when body and mind phenomena arise, they possess their own intrinsic knowing. There was no need to actively observe, as this knowing was the natural function of the phenomena themselves. Observing was merely another phenomenon that arose afterward.
I recalled the insights I had while observing ripples several years earlier. At that time, I merely noticed what was arising on a small section of the water's surface. So, instead of actively observing the body and mind, I started to observe what knowing had arisen in the body and mind itself, without any added effort. As my concentration had developed significantly, I effortlessly entered this mode of observation. The body and mind phenomena themselves were vividly clear, and I was no longer engaged with them, but rather resided in a state free from all phenomena. Inhabitants of this clear and unobstructed state occurred frequently. Moreover, more truths about the body and mind were revealed. I realized that what people conventionally refer to as life was comprised of six types of consciousness: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness. These six consciousnesses are formed from the interaction of sense organs with their respective objects. None of them are related to an inherent self, mine, or yours.
Moving even further, I recognized that the occurrence of consciousness was the arising of awareness itself. In the presence of awareness, perception arose, and with perception, evaluations of good and bad ensued. Without continuous mindfulness, I would only be aware during these evaluations, giving rise to thoughts of 'mine,' 'my happiness,' 'what I want,' and 'what I don't want.' Yet, when my meditation reached its pinnacle, awareness was present at the moment of consciousness's arising, eliminating the creation of 'me' suffering, 'my' happiness, 'my' desires, and 'my' aversions. I dwelled often in this luminous, non-grasping, unobstructed state, where more and more truths about the body and mind became apparent. It became evident that life is nothing more than the six types of consciousness. Any notion of 'me' and 'mine' is an imposition on the contents of these consciousnesses.
This is existence, this is being, this is rebirth; the arising of consciousness is the arising of being, the arising of all phenomena is the foundation of all suffering and happiness. After the arising of this consciousness, one comes to know the arising of these phenomena, but by then, it's already in the past and cannot be changed. Such phenomena that arise before we are aware of them are filled with uncertainty and danger, much like gambling; you never know which card you will turn over. It's best to stay away from things you can't control. When I discovered this, I often dwelled in a state of distancing, without liking or disliking, without joy or sorrow, without welcoming or rejecting all consciousness. Until one day, when I entirely abandoned all active and passive observation, and any willed behaviors, and allowed the body and mind phenomena to arise and pass without interference. At that moment, I realized the extinction of consciousness. I understood that consciousness couldn't know Nirvana; rather, it's the complete cessation of all consciousness that is Nirvana.
In fact, when consciousness completely ceases, all concepts about Nirvana lose their meaning. For over five years since I decided to practice meditation, there was never a moment when my mind could truly relax. But this time, I felt a profound ease. Even the desire to meditate had completely vanished. It was like someone who had finished all their work for the day and could now rest leisurely.
I realized that from the very beginning of my meditation practice, I had deviated from the right path. When actively or passively observing, I had already planted a subjective observer, capable of observing, in the depths of my mind. Whether I saw this observer as "me," "the mind," or "awareness," or whether I saw this observer's arising and ceasing as impermanent and not me, all of these were built upon the foundation of the observer's capability. This was a distorted view. As long as this view remained, all subsequent thoughts, efforts, mindfulness, and concentration were also distorted. When pursuing this mistaken path, no matter how hard I worked, the apparent liberations and experiences of Nirvana were also distorted.
From the beginning to the middle and end of my practice, I never truly understood that there wasn't a "self" doing the observing. Although I believed that it wasn't "me" doing the observing, I would still attribute it to the mind, motivation, desire, or intention. When I practiced with this delusion, it was still a form of concentration. The only difference between this and samatha (tranquil abiding) was the object of focus. Samatha focuses on a fixed object, whereas vipassana (insight) focuses on changing objects. Both aimed to bring the observer closer to the observed. In the case of samatha, you eventually enter a state of meditation, while in the case of vipassana, you may see the arising and passing away of phenomena. However, in both cases, the ultimate result was the same – when insight practice gave up observing, it reached meditation, often mistakenly referred to as Nirvana.
Without right view, there was no way to truly follow the Noble Eightfold Path. Without the ability to truly understand all consciousness, the complete extinction of all consciousness couldn't be realized. Perhaps it was because people hadn't witnessed the true extinction of consciousness that they wrongly believed that consciousness at the time of attaining the fruition of the path was the wisdom of the path and the wisdom of the fruition. I realized that all mainstream forms of meditation were like this. The Buddha attained enlightenment 2,600 years ago, and the authoritative texts like the "Visuddhimagga" and "Abhidhamma" have been around for almost 2,000 years. Could it be true that the original teachings only lasted for 500 years, as the scriptures claim?
After thinking for five days, I resumed meditation. By then, my concentration and inner clarity had doubled. I realized that countless moments of consciousness were grasped by thoughts of the present. For example, people often label past consciousness as "the me from the past," yesterday's consciousness as "the me from yesterday," and consciousness of ongoing experiences as "the present me." This constituted the "aggregate of consciousness." Such thinking existed because I didn't understand consciousness, how it arises due to causes and conditions, how it comes into being and then ceases to exist, and how it exhibits qualities of pleasure and suffering based on the nature of its conditions. I also didn't understand the dangers, uncertainties, and uncontrollability of consciousness, or how to disengage from it. Nor did I understand how to stop consciousness or how to prevent it from arising again. All of this resulted in taking consciousness as the base for self-referential thoughts.
These thoughts were like turning the myriad rapidly changing dots of color on a movie screen and the vibrations of sound in an audio system into a storyline and believing that I was watching or hearing something. When all the sensory perceptions from the five senses and consciousnesses of the mind are turned into a seamless, immersive experience, the distinction between reality and the movie screen can become blurred. I pondered whether the ability to experience directly through consciousness, instead of the senses, would make it impossible to distinguish reality from a movie screen. The five sensory consciousnesses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—were also the same, mere responses that combined and formed sensory contact, which, based on its own conditions, then led to feelings. This was how I saw the essence of samsara.
I realized that samsara, in its essence, revolves around contact. When the eye and a visual object meet, they give rise to eye consciousness, which, in turn, is eye contact. Based on the inherent nature of the eye and the visual object, this contact results in pleasant or painful feelings. When feeling arises, there is thinking and wanting. The same principle applies to the ear and sound, the nose and smell, the tongue and taste, the body and touch, and the mind and mental objects. The reason I hadn't understood this in the past was that I didn't know that the eye and its object, as well as the ear and its object, arose due to dependent origination. I didn't know that the consciousness, feeling, and perception arising in conjunction were awareness and thinking. When aware of feeling, there is thinking, and from thinking, there is wanting and not wanting. When the cycle of consciousness, contact, feeling, thinking, and wanting arises and ceases, when their nature and beginning and end are truly known and seen, one won't think that there is a "doer" or an inherent "active entity" before phenomena arise. Nor will one attribute the activities of phenomena to a "doer." One will understand that phenomena arise due to causes and conditions, and as they cease, there is no more arising. This is how the cycle of rebirth ceases.
Rebirth, in this sense, is the rebirth of contact, and the wholesome path is the aggregate of pleasant contact with less suffering. The unwholesome path is the aggregate of suffering contact with less pleasant contact. Death is when contact in this life ceases entirely, and Nirvana is when there is no contact whatsoever.
"People are ignorant of the nature of the mind-body phenomenon, the six senses, the five aggregates, cyclic existence, dependent origination, and its supporting conditions. They are ignorant of the before and after of phenomena, ignorant of the suffering, dispassion, and cessation of phenomena. As a result, various collections of ignorant thoughts arise. From these collections of ignorant thoughts, various collections of body and mind emerge. With body and mind collections, there is the collection of contact. These ignorant thoughts are what people usually refer to as karma. If one were to know and see the nature of these phenomena as they truly are, with clear understanding and wisdom, then ignorance does not arise. Without ignorance, there is no further arising of karmic activities. After the disbanding of this life's conditioned body and mind, there will be no more rebirth. This is the cessation of body and mind, contact, suffering, afflictions, and the end of cyclic existence. It's the culmination of worldly existence, reality, liberation, and Nirvana.
The right view leads to right thoughts, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is the path to liberation. However, the footprints left behind by the ancient liberated ones have long been covered by the sands of history. What the original scriptures recorded, which the Tathagata repeatedly expounded and reiterated, is rarely mentioned nowadays. The teachings reiterated by various schools and traditions of later Buddhism are scarcely found or may have been taken out of context in the original scriptures. If both paths could lead to the realization of the truth the Tathagata realized, it can only mean that later generations were better at teaching, don't you think? I believe that when these Arhats compiled these scriptures, they would not have neglected the core teachings of the Tathagata while repeatedly collecting less relevant and less beneficial words.
If it weren't for some unique insights that arose in occasional situations, I couldn't have embarked on this path that completely overturns people's conventional understanding. Nevertheless, I still respect and am grateful to the elders and Zen masters who once taught me. Without them, I would not have had the opportunity to engage in Zen practice, let alone their tremendous help and encouragement over the years. Although what I know now is just a drop in the ocean of truth, I haven't seen similar insights outside the original scriptures. Therefore, I have documented some of my Zen practice experiences from the past six years and hope that they might be helpful to those who seek to understand the true nature of their body and mind.
After the article was published, many friends found the following passage in the article interesting, but there were also many speculations and misunderstandings. Therefore, I will provide a detailed explanation of this part. "After realizing this, I often dwell in a state where all consciousness tends to move away, without joy, without sorrow, without welcome, without rejection, until one day, when I completely let go of all consciousness and its contents, and remain in pure awareness without attachment, I directly experienced the cessation of consciousness. It turns out that consciousness cannot know Nirvana; it is the complete cessation of all consciousness, which is Nirvana. This completely overturns the previous understanding of Nirvana. The so-called experience of Nirvana in the past, no matter how profound, unique, or confirming the complete cessation of body and mind may have seemed, was actually dependent on contact and consciousness. Without contact and consciousness, how could one establish what Nirvana is? In fact, when consciousness is completely extinguished, all concepts of Nirvana lose their meaning." As described in the article: I realized the "extinguishing of consciousness," but it is important to note that I did not say "I realized Nirvana." Why is that? Because all concepts and experiences related to "this is Nirvana" or "that is Nirvana" are based on something that is known, can be known, or could potentially be known. When knowledge is extinguished, everything based on knowledge also extinguishes. As I mentioned later, "When consciousness is completely extinguished, all concepts of Nirvana lose their meaning." This is because this article is a factual account, and what I wrote here is an accurate record of what I saw and thought at that time, without addition or alteration. It might be less detailed and easily misunderstood, which is why I'm providing further clarification with metaphors.
For example, when washing a new bowl you just bought, you might sometimes find small specks on the otherwise pristine porcelain that appear to be dirt. No matter how hard you scrub, these specks seem impervious to cleaning. You might eventually conclude that these specks are inherent flaws or decorations on the bowl and that it's clean now. But then, by chance, you manage to remove one of those specks, and at that moment, you realize that the bowl wasn't truly clean until those specks were entirely removed. In this metaphor, when you cleanse yourself of all consciousness, you come to understand that having consciousness means you're not in Nirvana. Only when all consciousness is extinguished, it's truly Nirvana. Similar to removing that last speck on the bowl.
Let me provide another metaphor to explain the statement "When consciousness is completely extinguished, all concepts of Nirvana lose their meaning." Imagine you're watching a movie without realizing it's a movie. Everything you see and hear seems real and is happening. You might reach out to grab things you like or try to escape from scary scenes. However, if the projection of light suddenly vanishes, you'll understand that everything you thought was happening was entirely dependent on that light. Once the light is gone, everything based on that light loses its meaning, and you won't have the misconception of wanting to acquire or escape from those scenes. In the world, everything, including concepts of Nirvana and the fruits of the path, is based on consciousness. People are ignorant of consciousness and its arising and passing, thinking that consciousness only ceases upon death, which leads to a fear of death. This is a wrong view. They are also ignorant of the cessation of previous consciousness upon the arising of subsequent consciousness and believe that consciousness is permanent, innate, eternal, or that it is the same consciousness or the consciousness of the same life persisting through time. This is the eternalist view.
Therefore, some religions mistakenly describe consciousness as the knower, the conditioned, self-nature, true nature, suchness, alaya, Nirvana, Buddha-nature, true self, real self, or divine self, and associate understanding consciousness as these. They consider contact or dwelling in a state of "consciousness-only" as enlightenment and realization. One might wonder why the Theravada texts and Zen masters also speak of consciousness arising and passing and observing the cycles of the six senses, yet they do not seem to share the same insights. It is because mainstream Theravada meditation views consciousness as retroactive, not direct. For example, when they observe auditory consciousness, they do so with subsequent mental consciousness observing the previous consciousness, and the same applies when observing mental consciousness. Although consciousness does not truly observe other phenomena, the mind engages with consciousness and develops attachment and wrong views upon its arising. This leads to the subsequent arising of mental consciousness, which continues in this manner. Therefore, some individuals may develop dispassion by diligently observing the arising and passing away of eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, or mental consciousness.
Cessation of consciousness
Still, they can only leave behind the first five consciousnesses and dwell in the formless realms. They do not genuinely leave consciousness and thus cannot realize its complete cessation, which means they cannot fully transcend consciousness. Ultimately, they may posit what is called Nirvana, such as emptiness, the absence of phenomena, the absence of arising and ceasing, freedom from attachment, emptiness, thoughtlessness, various meditative states, or various conditioned states, as path-consciousness and fruition-consciousness. When one truly observes consciousness at the arising of all body and mind phenomena, at the ceasing of all body and mind phenomena, and understands the characteristics and dangers of body and mind phenomena, one can realize the complete cessation of consciousness. Then, there is no more reliance on consciousness, and everything dependent on consciousness ceases to bind. In the most ancient Samyutta Nikaya, Book Four, Chapter Eleven, someone asked the Tathagata, "What is the highest liberation?" The Tathagata replied, "In the world, some wise ones say purity of the mind is the highest; among them, some wise ones say it's cessation; and some wise ones say it's the absence of attachment. Having understood this and the concept of dependency, the Bhikkhu becomes independent, abstains from disputes, and does not engage in various existence." This passage clarifies the importance of transcending consciousness and why it leads to the highest liberation.