The Many Lives of Insight

The Abhidhamma and transformations in Theravada meditation.

Ledi Sayadaw. Wikimedia Commons, CC-PD

By Erik Braun

Insight meditation, often called “mindfulness meditation,” is one of the—if not the—most powerful forces in the development of modern Buddhism. And it has become a worldwide phenomenon. There are, of course, other important sorts of meditation. There are the varieties of practice in Zen and Tibetan traditions, just to name a couple of areas of fervent activity—not to mention practices outside of Buddhism (Transcendental Meditation, for instance). I focus on insight because, first, originating in the early twentieth century as a mass practice in Burma (now called Myanmar), the practice is tremendously important as a force affecting the Theravada Buddhism of the entire region. In those cultural contexts, we can say that insight meditation—known as vipassanā in the Theravada canonical language of Pali—has transformed the very notion of what it means to be a Buddhist.

Furthermore, beyond the borders of South and Southeast Asia, insight is now affecting people’s lives across the world, perhaps even in revolutionary ways. Thus, we have a Time magazine cover from 2014 that proclaims “The Mindful Revolution.” Although perhaps a bit hyperbolic, the claim of a revolution shouldn’t surprise us: In 2012 alone, there were 477 clinical studies of insight practice; The New Republic named 2014 as the year of mindfulness; its practice has spread to the curriculums of many grade schools through such organizations as Mindful Schools; and numerous businesses—Google, General Mills, and Target, for instance—promote the practice to their workers.

The spread of mindfulness in the United States is about much more than lowering stress or increasing productivity. In conjunction with ongoing developments in Burma, insight meditation in the United States has the potential to reconfigure relationships between the secular and spiritual, and such reconfigurations can radically change people’s lives—whether they have kids, who they vote for, and, ultimately, people’s very notions of the self. This reconfiguring scrambles any attempt to chart a linear progression of modernization or secularization within Buddhist meditation on the global stage. Practice takes many forms; hence, the many lives of insight.

To get some sense of the “lives of insight” and their ramifications, I’ll focus here on two seminal figures. The first is the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw, and the second figure, another monk, is Pa Auk Sayadaw. I’m interested in exploring how these two men used a particular resource to enable insight’s ascendency and influence: the Abhidhamma. The term Abhidhamma means “higher” or “special” doctrine.1 It is that portion of the Theravada Buddhist canon that aims to present reality in terms of what’s understood to be genuinely real—not persons or objects as we conventionally know them, but complex conglomerations of ever-changing processes that we mistake for substantial things. Following from these canonical texts, the Abhidhamma can also refer to an analytical method these texts exemplify. Such analysis in commentarial literature is, in step with its rarified subject matter, exacting, detailed, comprehensive, exhaustive, and—as anyone who has ever read them can attest—often exhausting. Given its minutely focused and dry nature, the use of the Abhi-dhamma as the basis for mass meditative practice may be surprising.

It is true that the complexity of the Abhidhamma literature has created the impression of it as something that, in terms of the details of its teachings, concerns only a handful of elite monastics—far beyond the interests of a typical Theravada Buddhist, let alone a secular American meditator. While the Burmese have long taken great pride in a collective sense of themselves as specially dedicated to the Abhidhamma, even there, for most of Burmese history, only monks, by and large, studied the Abhidhamma, and only an elite cadre went beyond the basics.

Things changed dramatically, however, in the early twentieth century. To understand the popularization of Abhidhamma study that started then, I turn now to Ledi Sayadaw, or, as I will refer to him, Ledi. Born in the village of Sainpyin in royally controlled upper Burma in 1846, some sixty miles from the capital of Mandalay, Ledi entered a traditional world of monastic learning when he was ordained at the age of ten. He would distinguish himself as a brilliant scholar, proving to be especially adept in the study of the Abhidhamma. It is he who would, as one Burmese scholar put it, spread the Abhidhamma “like falling rain,” thereby making it a topic to be studied by all. And, crucially, it is he who would tie its study to mass meditation.

Certainly, Ledi didn’t do all this by himself. Rather, he responded to the great popular interest in the Abhidhamma in the charged circumstances of British colonial rule.2 During the colonial era, many Burmese, both laypeople and monastics, were anxious that the rule of the barbarian, non-Buddhist British would make Buddhism disappear from the world. And what would go first when Buddhism disappeared? The authoritative texts stipulated it would be the Abhidhamma. As a contemporary Burmese monk puts it, the Abhidhamma serves as the “frontline fortress” for Buddhism’s survival. The Burmese saw the presence and policies of the British as a destabilizing attack on that frontline fortress, and thus as an attack on Buddhism’s very existence.

Ledi translated this climate of anxiety into popular practice. He drove a movement of continuing interest in the Abhidhamma by tying it to the preservation of the Dhamma,3 and by presenting meditation on the basis of Abhidhamma study as something plausible for busy laypeople. He spread the word by writing many books, by preaching all over the country, and by organizing laypeople among themselves to study and practice. He had great success, and during his lifetime he became Burma’s most celebrated monk.

Ledi’s efforts would lead to unprecedented study of the Abhi-dhamma among laypeople. The lynchpin of his efforts was his most popular work—perhaps Burma’s first print bestseller—the Paramattha Sankhip, or The Summary of the Ultimates, written in 1903. This 690-verse poem provided a translation into Burmese of the Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha, a twelfth-century Sri Lankan compendium of the Abhidhamma system, written in Pali. Though widely used in monastic education, it had never been accessible to the broad base of the laity. Ledi presented his translation as something that, as he put it, “can be mastered easily by women, men, students, and children if they strive for three to four months.” This promise of quick mastery appealed to many because it meant that regular folks could now take an active part in preserving the most precious of Buddhist teachings—the first that would disappear when Buddhism ended.

But Ledi’s poem does more than simply translate. In subtle ways it reorients the Abhidhamma system to lay life, and the accom-panying autocommentary—usually published with it—ties its study to the meditative pursuit of awakening. As Ledi writes in the autocommentary, the poem made possible awakening “in this very life.” That term would become a hallmark of modern meditation—much used in insight meditation circles—as can be seen in the title of an influential book by Sayadaw U Pandita.4 The idea of the possibility of awakening in one life—indeed, the possibility of awakening at all, never mind among the laity, was revolutionary. Up to this time, few monastics meditated, and almost no laypeople.

In numerous other writings, Ledi provided details about the links between study and practice. He argued for the “maturity of knowledge,” saying, “The Insight exercises can be practiced not only in solitude . . . but they can be practiced everywhere. Maturity of knowledge is the main, the one thing required.”5 And he explained methods of meditation using concepts and terms drawn from the Abhidhamma, above all the literature’s explication of the fundamental parts of material reality: “At least, one should strive just to realize the division into four parts within his own body of the four great elements of earth, water, fire, and wind. Although one does not become skilled in any other part of the Abhidhamma, if one masters the four elements, one will gain the seeds of wisdom which are very difficult to acquire.”6

Such study empowered meditation practice. It acted as a sort of force multiplier on meditation’s potential, in that the shaping of one’s mind through preparatory intellectual exercises that depended on basic Abhidhamma knowledge could enable insight to arise more readily in even the most mundane of moments: “To those whose knowledge is developed, everything within and without oneself, within and without one’s house, within and without one’s village or town, is an object at the sight of which the Insight of Impermanence may spring up and develop.”7 Related to this, Abhidhamma study also offered the chance to skip the lengthy conditioning of the mind through the cultivation of a series of deep concentrative states, called the jhānas. A dominant idea in Theravada thinking argued that one must enter into at least the first four jhānas before turning to insight practice. Then and now, most Buddhists see attaining such concentrative states as a very tough job, one that requires full-time dedication over a long period of time—not something a lay person could do.

But, justified on the basis of Abhidhamma learning, around 1904 Ledi presented another option as the sensible choice for a mass audience. He argued that a person can elect to do “dry insight practice” (sukkhavipassanā) with what is called “momentary concentration” (khaṇikasamādhi), which is typically understood as a level of concentrative power well below the jhānas. In the dry insight scheme, one can largely, if not entirely, forego concentration practice to jump straight into insight practice.

Ledi didn’t invent this “dry” option. You can find it in the Visuddhi-magga (Path of Purification), the authoritative fifth-century Theravada textual resource on meditation, and in the canonical literature.8 No one, however, had presented it as a live option to a mass audience before. Ledi was groundbreaking in promoting to everybody, on the basis of “the maturity of knowledge” through Abhi-dhamma study, this heretofore secondary and little-known style of practice. Ultimately, the result would be the centralization of insight practice and learning within Theravada Buddhism. A comment by Thitagu Sayadaw, a biographer of Ledi and one of contemporary Burma’s best-known monks, shows this heritage plainly: “And while it may not be said that one can practice Vipassana only after one has mastered the Abhidhamma, Vipassana meditation and the study of Abhi-dhamma remain one and the same thing.”9 You can also see in Burma today the influence of Ledi’s approach in material form. There is a prominent statue of the Buddha at the popular Botataung Stupa in Yangon that has the two words “learning” and “mindfulness” emblazoned on its very palms.

Ledi died in 1923, but influential teachers, such as U Ba Khin, S. N. Goenka, Mahasi Sayadaw, and many others, would spread the teachings beyond the borders of Burma. In the 1960s and 1970s influential Americans, such as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg, would study under these teachers and help start the “mindful revolution” we see talked about today. By joining the Abhidhamma to practice, Ledi played an indispensible part in making this situation possible. Perhaps ironically, his formulation of meditation, so deeply rooted in traditional Abhidhamma learning, has enabled many insight teachers in the United States (though by no means all) to present mindfulness as a strictly secular and scientific practice. Yet, in a sign of the complex consequences of religious innovations, Ledi’s efforts have also made possible a recent approach that is reconfiguring meditative practice in a very different way—the direction taken by the monk Pa Auk Sayadaw.

Pa Auk Sayadaw was born in 1934 in lower Burma in a village called Lay-Chaun, about one hundred miles from Yangon. Like Ledi, he first ordained when he was ten years old. And also similar to Ledi, he’s as much a scholar as a meditator, which is evident in his highly learned Abhidhamma-infused meditation texts. He first trained under Mahasi and U Pandita, so—at least at first—he was formed in the same system and indeed with the same teachers as Goldstein, Salzberg, and Kornfield. In 1981, he took over the Pa Auk Forest Monastery in southern Burma. In 1999, the government named him an Aggamahākammaṭṭhānācariya, “foremost great teacher of meditation,” a sign of the esteem in which the government holds him as a scholar and practitioner. Pa Auk has written numerous works, and he is still very active in Burma and elsewhere in Asia, as well as in the United States, where his renown comes largely from his association with the organization that has also been the most prominent in introducing dry insight practice to Americans, the Insight Meditation Society—usually called IMS—the institution founded by Kornfield, Goldstein, and Salzberg. Pa Auk taught at IMS in 2006 and again in 2011.

Pa Auk Sayadaw

Pa Auk Sayadaw, Pa-Auk Forest Monastery.

Pa Auk’s approach to meditation is distinctive for its emphasis on cultivating the jhānas. There is no shortcut for him! Pa Auk is especially noteworthy for presenting and encouraging practice of the entire Visuddhimagga system. I mentioned the Visuddhimagga earlier as the work that encapsulates the Theravada view of practice in relation to doctrinal teaching. It works within what is called in Pali an Abhidhammapariyāya, or “Abhidhamma perspective.” Though it mentions “dry” practice, it clearly favors cultivating the jhānas first, detailing forty different objects that the meditator may use to develop his or her concentration. Pa Auk presents his approach as faithful to the classic scheme of practice in the Visuddhimagga. He teaches the practitioner to cultivate the jhānas, ideally by using the whole range of objects of concentration meditation—one after the other, from the breath, to the thirty-two body parts, to the disks of colored earth, called kasiṇas, and so forth.

Two of Pa Auk’s American students, Tina Rasmussen and Stephen Snyder, created a chart which shows the possibilities for the progression of practice in this complex system.10 Most practitioners begin with ānāpāna, breath meditation, though Pa Auk readily admits that few have made it through the whole practice regimen. Some reportedly have, however.11 And interest among a broad group of practitioners seems to be growing. A number of books about cultivating the jhānas, especially using Pa Auk’s system, have appeared recently; the Buddhist magazine Tricycle has covered deep concentration meditation; and IMS and other retreat centers have begun regularly to offer retreats focused on the jhānas. The appeal of this meditation—Snyder and Rasmussen liken it to “Jedi warrior mind training”—signals the possibility of a new sort of cosmological view transmitted and reinforced in the practice.

The nature of this view can be seen clearly in the final stage of insight meditation in Pa Auk’s system. At that point, the practitioner turns to the observation of a corner-stone teaching of Buddhist thought, dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). This is the teaching concerning the twelve linked causes and effects that give rise to all reality. In Pa Auk’s instructions, the meditator should observe the workings of this causal system not just in her current life, not just in her past lives, but even in her future lives up to the existence in which she attains awakening. Paradoxically, in other words, through meditation you watch happen what has not yet happened! The idea of watching one’s future lives goes right to the heart of the issue of the practitioner’s cosmological view, since observing your lives to come depends on a vision of reality and its possibilities (rebirth, levels of cosmological existence) beyond what has typically been assumed feasible or even conceivable in the secular mindful revolution.

Pa Auk’s teachings on meditation have caused controversy, to be sure. Some prominent monks in Burma have objected that seeing future lives cannot be part of insight practice, because insight concerns the observation of only what is real (and, of course, future lives have not yet happened and so can’t be real). The Myanmar government, in fact, suppressed Pa Auk’s books in the past because of these critiques.12 But his teachings are easily found in print now (and on the internet). And what is telling is that they are now conveyed by his Western students, too.

Pa Auk’s student Shaila Catherine gives very explicit instructions on how to see your future lives in her book Wisdom Wide and Deep. Catherine explains one must first go into a deeply concentrated state. Then, one looks a few minutes into the future, then an hour, then up to the moment of your death. You move through your death and on to observing your next life and your next and so on, all the way to the end of your “karmic stream” of lives (your last life being the one in which you obtain awakening). In a sign of the technical, Abhidhammic nature of this activity, Catherine reminds the reader that it requires thirty-one to thirty-five mental factors, in Pali called cetasikas, to generate a human or celestial rebirth.13 These factors are attributes of consciousness enumerated in Abhidhamma teachings.

This meditative journey through time and space goes well beyond other popular Burmese systems. Certainly, it passes into an entirely different realm of expectations compared to the this-worldly psychological orientation of most Western teaching. Catherine herself says: “When I first received these meditation instructions I was skeptical. I left the interview shaking my head, assailed by doubting thoughts, ‘Does my teacher seriously expect me to see into past lives? This is too weird! This is impossible. . . .’ ”14 Yet she persevered—indeed, now she teaches it! Such a development complicates any understanding of the trajectories of Buddhism’s contemporary development.

These days, scholars are happy to acknowledge the dynamic multiplicity of religious modernities. But what interests me is the ongoing global exchange of perspectives, practices, and beliefs—religious, Buddhist, or even those that are purportedly outside of any religion—that complicate and even confuse boundaries among the religious and the secular within the modern context. So the issue becomes modernities that are neither religious nor secular as we have conceived those categories. The Westerners who take on practices that entail some sort of belief in future lives suggest that people can stand—if at times uneasily—outside exclusively Buddhist or secular domains. This fact points to the changing nature of the secular/religious divide that is the larger interest in my current research.

The secular is anything but a simple term, of course. As Charles Taylor has argued, the secular is no mere subtraction story; it contains goods, including a sense of equality, potential political arrangements, even a sort of humanist flourishing through a “mindful revolution.” In the United States, Pa Auk–style practice has taken hold in a context that often mixes it in a complex fashion with a secular viewpoint. Such meditation provides many with a powerful sense of meaning, of an enchanted life. This kind of enchanted experience is typically seen as outside of the secular. While some scholars, such as Taylor and William Connolly, have argued that such experience need not be tied to the religious, the sense of meaning within Pa Auk’s system of meditation depends on apparently “traditional,” highly complex, and technical Abhidhamma teaching that lies squarely within the Buddhist fold. Yet it is often presented, particularly but by no means exclusively in the United States, in at least quasi-secular contexts with scientific, psychological, and neurological justifications. Thus, even Catherine presents her book Wisdom Wide and Deep as “a pragmatic application of the Buddhist psychology of the Abhidhamma.”15

Where and when a practice appears matters very much to its formation and influence. So it is with Pa Auk meditation. Its point of origination here in the United States as an increasingly popular practice within the secular mindfulness milieu (above all, at IMS) shapes its presentation and, crucially, its reception, and it determines its oblique relationship to the secular. The result is a somewhat schizophrenic situation—one that can feel “weird,” to use Catherine’s word. We might say that it is a conflict-filled situation, for competing visions of the world overlap one another. Such a situation indicates the complicated, sometimes contradictory, and provisional relationships between the religious and secular. (We can follow the sociologist Randall Collins here in his observation that, at least at times, “Secularization is not a zeitgeist but a process of conflict.”)

It has been argued by some scholars that secularizing meditators in the United States could arrive in a sort of “post-Buddhist” state, strictly focused on practice shorn of all cosmological commitments. Without a doubt, that’s happening, in a process that leans heavily on cognitive science and supports a neuro-physicalist or “naturalized” perspective reflected in works like Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. But the developments from Ledi to Pa Auk suggest that this is not the only possible trajectory. Indeed, in the United States, even if the cultural inertia makes the tendency toward a disenchanted materialism a sensible choice for many, connections and frictions on the global stage may act as an impediment or even a diversion to other outcomes.

In a curious turn, globalization seems, at times, to produce a check on people’s tendencies to assimilate and reformulate Buddhist practices according to their wishes or assumptions about the world and its workings. With more circulation of teachers and teachings, choices and interpretations are now made with a self-consciousness that requires someone like Catherine to face “the weird” and “the impossible”—and even embrace it. Perhaps her ongoing interactions with Pa Auk Sayadaw prevented the sort of distance she might have needed (and would have had more readily in the past) to adapt his system fully to Western sensibilities—to a pragmatic psychological application, as she puts it.

The expression “lives of insight” refers not just to permutations of practice but to real people living out their understandings of the world; it is meant to capture this sense of people’s agencies. Of course, the kind of respectful reticence that might contribute to reconfigurations of Buddhism and secularism by preventing an easy move to a pure secularism is only one possible factor among many. The appeal of the Abhidhamma itself as a totalizing system of explanation is critical to consider, too, besides the complex intellectual and social factors in American and other cultures that frame and inform all developments. The landscape is remarkably complex, and exploring it involves teasing out multiple influences and trajectories.

Without a doubt, however, the Abhidhamma has been and remains an important—if often unexpected—part of the development of insight meditation, one that different actors have used and, crucially, continue to use to shape different lives of insight, Buddhist or otherwise. The outcomes are sure to be varied and surprising. As I have seen personally in visiting meditation centers in Burma and in the United States, talking to teachers, and exploring the literature, developments in Buddhist practice are sure to defy predictions, for the lives of insight are as complex as the lives of those who make practice a reality.16


  1. Bhikkhu Bodhi has an excellent and accessible introduction to Abhidhamma literature in A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha, gen. ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi (BPS Pariyatti Editions, 2000).
  2. The British took over Burma in three stages. They gained control of the extreme southern portion of the country in 1826 and of lower Burma in 1852, and then annexed the upper region to unite the country under colonial rule in 1886, until Burma’s independence in 1948.
  3. Dharma in Sanskrit, meaning the teachings of the Buddha.
  4. In This Very Life: The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha (1995).
  5. Ledi Sayadaw, Vipassanā Dīpanī or The Manual of Insight, trans. U Ñāṇa (The Society for Promoting Buddhism in Foreign Countries, 1915), 64.
  6. Ledi Sayadaw, Anthology of Ledi Manuals, vol. 1 [in Burmese] (Society for the Dissemination of Ledi Manuals, 2001), 304–305.
  7. Ledi Sayadaw, Vipassanā Dīpanī, 64.
  8. For example, in the Aṅguttara Nikāya (Numerical Discourses of the Buddha), II, 157.
  9. Thitagu Sayadaw U Nyanissara, “Abhidhamma and Vipassana,” pioneer.netserv.chula.ac.th/~sprapant/Buddhism/Abhiddhamma.html.
  10. Stephen Snyder and Tina Rasmussen, Practicing the Jhānas: Traditional Concentration Meditation as Presented by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw (Shambhala Publications, 2011), 134–135.
  11. They include the Americans Rasmussen and Snyder, Shaila Catherine, and Marcia Rose.
  12. The claims by a number of Pa Auk’s followers that his system is superior to all others in its comprehensive vision of practice has been understood by some as an implicit criticism of the government-backed Mahasi teachings of “dry mindfulness.” This seems to be the reason the Mahanikaya Council of Myanmar, which governs saṅgha affairs in the country, recommended in the 1990s that Pa Auk’s books not be published; see Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1999), 272.
  13. Shaila Catherine, Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana (Wisdom Publications, 2011), Kindle ebook location 6177.
  14. Ibid., Kindle ebook location 5758–5762.
  15. Ibid., Kindle ebook location 349.
  16. This is the revised version of a talk given at the conference “Scholastic or Transformational? Explorations of Burmese Abhidhamma,” June 30, 2015, at King’s College, London. My thanks to Professor Kate Crosby and Dr. Pyi Phyo Kyaw who organized the conference and invited me to participate.

Erik Braun is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. He received his PhD from the Committee on the Study of Religion, Harvard University, in 2008. His book The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (University of Chicago Press, 2013) explores the origins of mass insight meditation in Burma. It was a winner of the Toshihide Numata Book Award in Buddhism in 2014.

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