Grahame has been involved in Buddhist meditation practice for over 40 years. He began his study in England in 1969 before being ordained as a Buddhist monk for one year in BodhGaya, India in 1971. He took a primary role in the establishment of Vipassana meditation in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw in Australia and co-founded the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre outside Sydney., Grahame leads introductory and day long courses in Illawarra & Sydney areas and regularly teaches longer intensive retreats in Honolulu, Hawaii where he is a guiding teacher with the meditation group Vipassana Hawaii. He also teaches yearly retreats in Sri Lanka with the Nirodha Trust. He has also helped pioneer a workshop format that enhances the transfer of mindfulness from the formal sitting practice into daily life. Grahame returns to Myanmar (Burma) regularly in order to deepen his own practice and study of the Buddha’s teachings ,at times assisting in the teaching of Vipassana retreats for foreigners. Grahame teaches a classical tradition of insight meditation with a relaxed, accessible style.
PODCAST with INSIGHT MYANMAR
A recount of the journey into becoming a teacher, and helping spread the Mahasi tradition to other parts of the world, is the subject of our next talk with Grahame White.
INTERVIEW WITH GRAHAME WHITE BY LOUISE SOUTHERDON
WHEN DID YOU FIRST ENCOUNTER BUDDHISM OR MEDITATION?
I first encountered Buddhism in Sri Lanka in 1967 when I was 21. I was on a surfing trip with some friends and we had gone to this surf spot where there was a temple on the point. We knew nothing about Buddhism at all, it wasn’t even taught in school, but as I was walking back from the surf I saw these monks, and something must have been triggered in me because my mind went really quiet and concentrated, just for a few moments.
But the incident that led to me actually getting into Buddhism happened about a year later when I was surfing in France, in Biarritz, where I was staying for six weeks. Someone lent me Hermann Hesse’s book on Siddhartha. And there was a paragraph on the second or third page that said something like, “If you breathe in Om and breathe out Om, you will experience Brahma”. I didn’t take much notice of that until I got back to London soon after and the place where I was working closed down and I was made redundant. And one night when everyone was out of the house, this book came into my mind, and I sat down very self-consciously, crossed my legs, and breathed in and breathed out Om, and I had a really blissful experience. Then one of my friends told me he’d been to a Thai temple in London, and I asked him to take me there, so I went and the Thai monks were giving weekly classes much the same as at the Buddhist Library now. So I started practising with them, in the Theravadan tradition, but at that point I didn’t know there were different traditions and different forms of meditation. All I knew was that you could feel pretty good by practising meditation. Fortunately for me, they were teaching Vipassana.
DID YOU FEEL YOU WANTED TO CHECK OUT DIFFERENT TRADITIONS?
No, I didn’t know there were other traditions, I didn’t know you could do anything else. I started practising with the Thai monks, I used to go every Wednesday night and I used to sit at home, and my practice went well. My first retreat was a seven-day retreat; it was only a short retreat, but it was hard actually. Then after a while this friend and I decided that we were going to go to Thailand to become monks. He left before me and I was going to meet him but while I was staying at the Thai temple in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha was enlightened, the abbot there said, “It’s too late for you to get to Bangkok now because the rainy season is starting [it was July]. Why don’t you stay here and ordain here?” And so I did. For the next 12 years, Bodhgaya in India was more or less my second home.
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO BECOME A MONK?
In the beginning at least it was a training period, not a lifestyle. It was an opportunity to train further within a sangha. At that time, there was very few Western monks and there was nothing really set up for Western monks so you had to fit into the Asian system. It was more difficult than it is now. We weren’t trained all that well actually; they basically provided a meditation teacher and a place to sit. But I grew to really love the lifestyle – I liked going on alms rounds, I liked going to the temples, I still love it. And I liked the Asian people; what I like about the Burmese and the Thais who practise Dharma is that that’s what they want to talk about – they don’t want to talk about anything else but the Dharma, which is great. That’s why I love going there. Because, except for surfing, what else is there to talk about?
WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE MONASTIC LIFE?
There was something in me…I definitely wasn’t a full-time monk. I was there for a period of time, I did it for a particular purpose: to give me a training and an understanding of Buddhist life. A lot of monks in Asia do their three month training before getting married and living their lay life; it was something like that for me. I didn’t ever have an idea in my mind that I was going to be a monk for the rest of my life. I was too attached to surfing! But I would recommend anyone to go and do it. It’s great. It was very relaxed and enjoyable. I was living in the monastery, sitting and studying, going for walks in the afternoon and going up to the temple and doing puja [showing reverence to a god or spirit through prayers, songs and rituals]. It’s not like being on retreat all the time. You’re just living. It wasn’t that intensive – I think they’re much more intense now. And the other thing is, and this is a really good Buddhist teaching: through the meditation you develop a generous nature and other people benefit. So I like being an everyday Buddhist now, because it encompasses all these factors.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT BUDDHISM OR MEDITATION THAT APPEALED TO YOU?
When I first started, it was just bliss; I was getting blissed out and I was happy with that. But then when you start to understand the Buddha’s teachings more, you start to see what’s in the mind that creates suffering – when you start to see that, you see that anger’s there and jealousy and frustration and attachment and all the rest of it, then you can see what’s happening. I’ve always been a reasonably okay personality, but quick-tempered – and that lessened. Situations that would arise wouldn’t set me off so much. I noticed a detachment developing in the mind towards the things that I would usually react to. So the bliss states started to die down, and an equanimity of mind developed.
And not only did I enjoy the meditation, but I liked the philosophy as well – I was into what the Buddha taught, I liked the wholistic approach to the Dharma. And when I started meeting especially other Asian Buddhist people, I liked their generosity and kindness; I can see their negative aspects as well, but on the whole they have a lighter way of dealing with stuff, and I liked that a lot. I liked their non-seriousness. They were serious, but light, about life.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING IN INDIA BACK THEN?
When I first arrived in Bodhgaya in July 1969, there were no Westerners there. By November there was a group of people and it was really great, I really liked it – and that’s when I met Joseph [Goldstein], that was his first trip to India. There were about 15 people living in the Burmese temple, and I moved from the Thai temple into the Burmese temple with them and we were practising with Anagarika Munindra, who died just recently. And then I had a Vietnamese monk friend, who’s now an abbot at the Vietnamese temple in California; he and I went to do a Goenka retreat, it was only the second-ever Goenka retreat and there were 15 of us. Then in December we came back from Old Delhi and they decided to have a retreat in Bodghaya and that was the end of Bodghaya as we knew it, and the beginning of popularised Buddhism as we knew it. Everything started from there.
I think a lot of it had to do with Mr Goenka’s charisma, and word of mouth. All of a sudden there were about 150 people at the Burmese temple, people living on the roof in tents, it was amazing. This was the time of the Flower Power hippie movement, and a lot of people were travelling through India and Nepal, and a lot of people were into Hindu traditions, into the Hindu yogis. But it was Bodghaya that was really the epicentre of Western dharma – it’s from there that Western dharma spread out, through Joseph [Goldstein] and Ram Dass, through lots of people.
THIS ISSUE OF DHARMA VISION IS ALL ABOUT FEAR. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE FEAR?
The Buddha always taught in two languages: the conventional language, which is for all of us in the everyday world; and a more ultimate language which is the language of nirvana, of complete enlightenment. I like that understanding, it explains things really well.
So on a more ultimate level, fear is just the same as anger or any of the defilements in the mind, the destructive emotions in the mind – it comes about because of contact with the outside, with the sense door. And because of our ignorance of the true nature of things, fear perpetuates – because we have wrong view about self, we feed it with story, with our thoughts of self instead of being able to see it as a phenomenon that is arising and passing away. So for me, fear is no different to anger or happiness or joy or calmness or any of the other mental states that come into the mind. But of course there are levels of intensity: the fear of catching a wave at [legendary Hawaiian surf spot] Waimea Bay is different to the fear of being attacked while walking down a dark street, or the fear of losing your job or your relationship. When the fear is intense, there’s more identification with the experience. I mean, it’s good to have some fear – like fear of heat on the stove – when it’s a safety mechanism, but what’s not good is this self-identification with the fear. That’s the important thing as far as a Buddhist is concerned – to be able to become aware of fear when it arises in the mind and to be able to follow it and see the passing nature of it; instead of reacting to it and identifying with it.
So that’s all on an ultimate level. What we can do on an everyday level is just start to notice it, don’t let the story perpetuate. What usually happens is that fear will come into the mind as a thought – and instead of stopping it right there, we’ll write a novel about it! Eventually it’ll fade away but the situations or conditions will arise again and the conditioning will be there for it to start up again. So all these mental states are there as potentials in the mind. They’re not there all the time of course, but they’re there when certain conditions arise to trigger them.
WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE ARE GENERALLY SO AFRAID OF FEAR?
Because it’s a really strong feeling, and that makes it difficult to deal with. Anger’s strong as well. They’re the two that are the most difficult to work with. I think fear is probably more insidious than anger – once it’s gone past a certain point, it’s really hard. It all comes down to likes and dislikes, and usually fear arises because of dislike – when we’re uncomfortable in a situation, fear comes up.
HOW DO YOU THINK PRACTICE CAN HELP US RELATE TO FEAR?
It helps enormously because once you become skilled and your mindfulness concentration becomes strong, as soon as fear arises in the mind, mindfulness is there, the identification gets less, and the fear doesn’t last as long. So when fear arises, instead of it going on for say five minutes or ten minutes, it may only last for one minute because you’re able to see it more easily and not react to the situation. If you don’t add fuel to the fire, it goes out.
YOU MUST HAVE EXPERIENCED FEAR IN YOUR SURFING LIFE OVER THE YEARS – DOES THAT STILL HAPPEN?
When I go out in big waves and I haven’t been in bigger surf for a long time, I do notice fear arising, but there’s a certain detachment as well. So the fear’s there and you’re getting glimpses of fear coming in, but because you’re not buying into them the fear goes through its own number, and you just sit there and wait for it to be over, and then you catch a wave and you’re okay. It’s quite interesting. So it’s not that fear doesn’t arise, but it arises less and the intensity of it isn’t as great.
HOW HAS YOUR PRACTICE CHANGED SINCE THOSE EARLY DAYS?
In the initial part of practice I think there are lots more ‘bells and whistles’, lots more exciting experiences, peak experiences, concentration experiences that come when you’re doing mindfulness practice. And you grow to like them, you even become a little attached to them. But what happens over the years is that those mellow out and don’t arise any more; different experiences arise, experiences that have more to do with insight and equanimity. You develop the ability to see fear – or anger, or jealousy, or frustration or happiness or sadness or joy, whatever comes into the mind – just as it is without getting swept away by it. It’s not that the destructive emotions of the mind go away, but you have the ability to see them more quickly and you not only see them arising but you see them disappearing.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE MEDITATION TECHNIQUE THAT YOU TEACH?
I teach a traditional Mahasi practice with an emphasis on observing the sensations of the body as well as the mental side of things. I find that being able to observe the thoughts, feelings, emotions that arise in the mind is very effective for Westerners, especially in their everyday life – because Westerners are so caught up in the mind and the stories in the mind. They’re caught up in concepts as being real – “I’m this and I’m that” – and if they can start to observe the arising and passing away of various mental states, their identification with them drops away and the mind becomes calm.
So first we teach people how to concentrate the mind and you do that with the repetition of mindfulness, by using a primary object like the rising and falling of the abdomen [as you breathe]. When the attention can stay with that object, the mind becomes calm. Then what appears are the various sensations; it’s like focussing a microscope. You’re calm enough then to actually observe the mental reactions to the sensations – pleasant, unpleasant, etc – and to see them arising and passing away. If you’re able to stick with it, it’s a very linear process but for most people it’s up and down because the attention is not able to stay there long enough for long periods of time, we’re broken by distractions all the time. But gradually, over a period of time, the distractions become less and you’re able to see what’s happening, you’re able to observe the present moment experience.
HOW DO YOU SUGGEST PEOPLE INTEGRATE PRACTICE INTO THEIR DAILY LIVES?
What’s been interesting for me, especially over the last five years that we’ve been doing these on-the-cushion-off-the-cushion retreats in California [combining sitting and ‘daily life practice’], is that I’ve found that the people who have taken the off-the-cushion way of practice – they don’t sit at all, but they make a commitment to being mindful of mind states like the dislikes, likes and judgements in the mind while they’re doing things – are actually experiencing similar insight as the sitters. It takes longer but it can occur – the insight that arises in Vipassana practice can happen in daily-life practice.
So the ideal practice to combine the two, meditation and daily-life practice. Absolutely. But it’s important to remember that daily-life practice is not just a way to make your day okay. First you have to put the goal up. The goal in meditation practice is actually insight – in developing insight, there is freedom in mind. So if you say that daily-life practice is to have a happier life – that’s not actually what the Buddha taught. There’s this whole other level where the mind is not affected by greed, hatred and delusions – so you’re able to see much more clearly when you have greed in the mind, or craving or attachment. It’s insight leading to enlightenment. But even people who are enlightened still have defilements in the mind, it’s just that they’re not touched by them so much.
IS THERE A TECHNIQUE FOR DAILY-LIFE PRACTICE?
In Vipassana practice, it’s all based on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, so in daily-life practice you still learn to use the four foundations and pay attention to whichever is dominant in your experience. So if your awareness of the body experience becomes strong as you’re moving around, then that becomes the object. Or if the mind state becomes the predominant experience, for example when you’re working and you’re starting to feel tired or frustrated, then you can watch that. I would suggest to people that if they’re unable to observe what’s arising in the mind, then just observe the body sensations. Or an activity of the body – the rising and falling, keep it simple.
You can also make a practice of observing likes and dislikes in the mind; the whole of our life is run by likes and dislikes: I’d like an icecream, I dislike that car noise. When we run the retreats in America, we start with likes and dislikes. You can’t watch every one, of course, but you can choose the most predominant ones that come up, and you get good at doing that. Then you watch the mind judging things. Or they’ll have a period of time where they’re asked to use the Noble Eightfold Path: so they’re practising right speech, or right listening.
I really want to get the point over of the meaning of insight. Meditation is there to gain insight. It doesn’t matter if it’s in daily life or in regular practice, the point of practice is to get rid of those things in the mind that disturb the mind.
HOW HAS PRACTICE AFFECTED YOUR OWN LIFE?
I think what practice has done for me now over all these years is given me a more ready access to mindfulness – I’m able to access it even in the midst of a stressful business life, I can turn my attention to it more easily. It’s not that the mind is cool and calm all the time, but you have the ability to access it when you see it getting out of control.
IS THAT WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO KEEP PRACTISING, DAY AFTER DAY, AFTER ALMOST 40 YEARS?
What keeps you going is that there’s a point in the meditation practice, there’s an insight, that has a very profound transforming effect on the mind. Once you experience this, there’s no going back. Even if you stop [meditating], you remember it. You know that there’s something else in the world. But for a lot of meditators, it takes them a while to get to that point. Once they’ve realised it, they’ll be fine. That’s what keeps you going: the happiness that comes from the meditation practice, which is far superior to any other experience you can have in the world. That’s what keeps you going, there’s nothing else like it.