FPMT teacher Ven. Antonio Satta leads ten-day silent meditation retreats in the classic Vipassana style all around the world. His spare teachings are precise, getting right to the point. He is not one to sugar-coat the message, yet it is often laced with a quiet humor. He does not waste words: each is measured and meaningful and always beautifully tuned to the specific circumstances of each retreat.
Ven. Antonio is eloquent about the need for students of Tibetan Buddhism to engage in ‘mindfulness-awareness’ meditation, and says that discipline is the essence of Buddhism.
Born in Italy, he was ordained in 1979. In 1981, he spent some months training in Sri Lanka, living at a meditation center founded by Mahasi Sayadaw. He then spent years at Tharpa Choeling monastery (now Rabten Choeling) with Geshe Rabten, undertaking a classic Tibetan course of study which emphasized intellectual analysis and debate.
Retreatant Martin Boudin interviewed Ven. Antonio following the annual month-long Vipassana retreat hosted by Root Institute in Bodhgaya, India.
Martin Boudin: This type of retreat is not normally associated with the Tibetan tradition. How did this retreat evolve?
Ven. Antonio: This retreat is based on the classic Vipassana. But it also has Mahayana elements – some so-called basic Mahamudra meditation and a strong emphasis on the practice of acceptance as taught in the mind training (lo-jong) texts. And, it is taught in a Mahayana context. The real emphasis is on understanding the ‘three marks of life’: that it is unsatisfactory, impermanent, and selfless. In that sense, it is definitely classic Vipassana.
It seems to me that we can talk of two types of confusion: intellectual and emotional. Intellectual confusion is eliminated through study, emotional confusion with mindfulness awareness. The approach, particularly in our tradition, is to eliminate the intellectual confusion. But the Western students who approach the Dharma are so overwhelmed by emotional confusion! Based on my own experience with Vipassana, it seemed that a simple and uncomplicated approach would help eliminate emotional confusion.
MB: You spoke during the retreat about the conceptual approach not being as suitable to the Western mind as we are already so full of concepts.
Ven. Antonio: It depends what you mean by ‘conceptual approach’ and to what branch of the practice you are referring. We are obviously talking about meditation and not study; in order to study we definitely need to think, to use concepts. It is in the context of meditation that there is a debate, a discussion about whether concepts are useful or not.
If by meditation we are referring to a practice where one tries to generate a certain feeling and then dwells on it and becomes familiar with it, then of course one would need a certain thought process. This is what we mostly do when we meditate on the Lam-Rim.
If, on the other hand, we are referring to a practice where one does not try to create anything, but looks at things as they are, then we don’t need concepts. In that case, concepts would be more of a hindrance.
But there is a big misunderstanding (or not understanding!) with regard to no-concepts in meditation. ‘No-concepts’ does not mean ‘not thinking’, in the sense ‘do not think!’ ‘No-concepts’ here means silently observing what is taking place.
If we take anger, for example, do we need to conceptualize anger when it is happening? When something is taking place, do we need to think about it in order to understand what is going on? Do we need to conceptualize pain to know that it is pain? ‘Hmm, is that pain? Or something else …?’
In mindfulness-awareness meditation, understanding has a very different meaning. It’s not the understanding of acquiring knowledge, but simply seeing clearly, as it is, with bare attention. Bare attention means to let the experience talk for itself without interruption from inner complaints and lamentation – conceptualizations.
Rather, we listen or observe what it is trying to say. And when, for example, we let anger be anger – without generating the strong wish not to be angry, while anger is taking place – we’ll see what anger is trying to tell us: “I am just passing by. I won’t stay, even if you cover me with gold.” Because that is its nature: impermanent, transient. The only way to see-feel this truth is with the mindfulness of bare attention, silently observing with no conceptual interference.
And we should not make the big mistake of thinking, “I know anger is impermanent, transient, etc., etc.” It’s not so obvious!
We don’t really know because we never see it as it is. We always feed it with “I don’t want to be angry!” Applying Shantideva’s verses [on patience] while being angry is using the antidote – thinking – at the wrong time. This is obviously the opposite to silently seeing anger going.
In the very moment during which something like anger is taking place, the wish to get rid of it or the not wanting to be angry nourishes the anger as much as wanting to be angry.
We haven’t understood yet that anger wants to go as much as we do. Actually, even more! This is understood only when we observe it silently while it is taking place, without interrupting it.
Anger doesn’t like that.
This is how one would look at the disturbing emotions with the discipline of non-conceptualization. This is what I mean by a non-conceptual approach.
MB: How is developing mindfulness usually taught in the Tibetan Tradition?
Ven. Antonio: Definitely all aspects of mindfulness are taught in Tibetan Buddhism, otherwise it wouldn’t be Buddhism. The question is not where is it taught, but how it is practiced.
In the Theravada tradition, for example, there are monasteries and meditation centers where people train together in the practice of cultivating mindfulness. In our [Tibetan] tradition, it seems to me that it is up to the individual to pursue this type of training.
The four foundations of mindfulness are taught by lamas but not in the context of a retreat. Normally it is a course with hardly any meditation!
It is one thing to study the four objects of mindfulness: the condition of body, feelings, consciousness, and Dharmas. It is another thing to contemplate them, not conceptually, but with a silent investigation.
It is not that we don’t hear about mindfulness, but we don’t see people doing it. There is not collective training as there is collective study. Without sitting and practicing together, the cultivation and development of mindfulness is extremely difficult as it needs lots of inspiration.
It is easy to sit for hours reciting prayers, chanting, upper body swinging; but sitting still and watching one’s mind is very difficult. Only by sitting and training together can one generate the courage needed to follow this discipline. And if we don’t begin to train – not individually but collectively – in the practice of mindfulness-awareness right from the very beginning, then when we eventually start a serious retreat, we’ll realize that we can’t even sit.
What is missing, and probably not understood, is that mindfulness has to be practiced collectively.
MB: What has been the reaction to you teaching this practice?
Ven. Antonio: Do my teachers approve of what I am teaching? The only one with whom I have discussed it a bit is Lama Zopa Rinpoche. I started to explain what I was doing and he said, “That’s good.”
Lama Zopa Rinpoche is very concerned that the practice of mindfulness is used by many in the West as a method to just feel good and peaceful, with not much interest in the actual practice of Buddhism. I totally agree with Rinpoche.
Mindfulness in Buddhism refers to ‘right mindfulness,’ the seventh of the eightfold path, not just mindfulness. The term ‘right’ is not as in right versus wrong. Rather, it means seeing things as they are: unsatisfactory, impermanent, and selfless; ‘right’ in that sense.
When we begin to see things in the right way, we begin to understand existence, life, our self, the Dharma. This is not done by just conceptualizing as we normally do, but by observing – because life is unsatisfactory, impermanent, selfless! It is not an opinion; it is just like that. This is the type of mindfulness I teach.
As for the reaction to me teaching this practice, it’s been very positive.
MB: To you, what is the essence of Buddhism?
Ven. Antonio: The essence has to be something that we touch right from the very beginning. The essence has to be what is essential for us. And what is that? Sila – morality/discipline. That’s what brings the immediate result of mental peace.
Sila, which means ‘cool,’ is that which cools passions: confusion, craving desire, and anger, the so-called three fires or three poisons. Sila is our best weapon to fight unhappiness. Sila has already made the disturbing concepts kneel down by the time emptiness arrives. Then emptiness simply cuts off their heads.
For us, morality/discipline is the real essence of Buddhism. Even next to emptiness and bodhichitta, I think it can still be considered the real essence, because without it there cannot be any realizations.
One may argue that emptiness is the real essence, or in the Mahayana, bodhicitta. But without cooling our confusion first with the water of sila (as the Buddha put it), will bodhicitta ever be generated? Will emptiness ever be realized?
When we are very happy, we are not interested in the practice. Neither are we interested when we are unhappy. Sila is what cools these two extremes, making the mind neither happy nor unhappy, and thus creating the condition to begin to practice. The question is not what text to study first but what practice to first adopt. If we phrase it like that, the answer is clearly sila: morality/discipline. That is the essence for us.
This interview was edited by Lozang Sönam. More information about Vipassana meditation and retreats led by Ven. Antonio around the world can be found at: www.fpmt.org/teachers/resident/satta.asp.
The Vipassana Experience
Comments from participants in Root Institute’s one-month Vipassana and Basic Mahamudra Retreat (VBM) held in February-March 2006 in Bodhgaya, India
“I hope that you understand what the word ‘spiritual’ really means. It means to search for – to investigate – the true nature of the mind. There’s nothing spiritual outside. My rosary isn’t spiritual; my robes aren’t spiritual. Spiritual means the mind and spiritual people are those who seek its nature.” – Lama Zopa Rinpoche
I found the retreat very beneficial. I have a very, very busy mind. My mind always seems to be thinking about things, so even when I try to do my daily practices, it’s very hard to stop thinking about other things. The Vipassana practice involves seeing thoughts, emotions, and delusions as just mental states, impermanent, and “not me,” so that you just notice them and let them go without getting caught up in them. This is very, very helpful because it’s not possible (for me, anyway) to completely stop having these delusions, but you can learn to not be so caught up in them. – Ven. Sangye Khadro (Kathleen McDonald), USA, author of the best-seller How to Meditate, 2004 VBM
This retreat was the best Vipassana retreat I have ever done. It is unusual to get so many detailed explanations during a retreat, and all at the right moment: not too early when they would be meaningless, and not too late when that particular stage is gone. I have been in centers where we were left to ourselves, and the mind would just run any way trying to understand how and why. But Ven. Antonio explained everything so perfectly! And the staff at the Institute created such a great environment, it made silence so much easier! – Diana C., Italy, 2006 VBM
Daily since leaving the retreat, I am seeing an unfolding of all the things I learned there. Ven. Antonio definitely planted some powerful seeds, and I am seeing them ripening in the depth and regularity of my practice and in my ability to read and study texts that before I would not have even bothered opening. Most importantly, I am seeing a transformation in the way I deal and interact with day-to-day life. – Meaghan J., Canada, two months after the 2005 VBM.
Ven. Antonio mentioned many times that the Tibetan word for meditation means familiarization. Because of my strong habituation with intellectualizing everything, at first I felt bored hearing Ven. Antonio unapologetically and insistently repeating the same saying like, “Your mind is out of control … accept …” or “See that this is not ‘I’ but rather the mind which is accompanied by …”. Instinctively, I felt, “Ok, I think the point is understood. Can we go on to the next topic, like maybe Mahamudra?” But Ven. Antonio continued, “You are bored … good … accept … accept … accept …”. Slowly but surely the repetition, the familiarity, began to cut through my layers of complex, self-inflicted intellectualization and finally I began to understand, “Oh, that was a moment of acceptance.” “Oh, that was a moment of bare attention.” “Oh, that was a moment of discontentment and that of contentment.” Those understandings were not of a conceptual, sophisticated intellect produced by an ‘I,’ but rather they were simple and experiential, produced by causes and conditions. In this way, I began to have more and more confidence in the knowledge arising out of simple awareness. Letting go of the sense of “I am controlling” is very difficult. But through Ven. Antonio’s insightful instruction, I really began to clearly see how when I try to control, my mind is completely out of control; but when I accept or when I am content, then control begins to take place. Acceptance is the start of making peace with our own internal disturbing conceptions, and in that sense, is the beginning of control. – David Y., Israel, 2001, 2004 & 2005 VBM
[Registration for the 2007 Vipassana and Basic Mahamudra Retreat opens September 15, 2006 on-line at www.rootinstitute.com.]