Dr. Thynn Thynn is best known for teaching daily-life mindfulness practice to cultivate right-now awareness in every moment of our lives. But the lineage she carries forward is a Buddhist mystical training called Samatha, with its “path of the masters” and its mission to protect and promote the Dhamma until the time of Maitreya Buddha.
Ethnically Chinese/Thai, Dr. Thynn Thynn grew up in Burma and trained with monks there. She is one of the very few Asian-born Buddhist women teachers in the United States. She pursued her most arduous spiritual training, as directed by her teacher, in a two-year self-retreat while raising her children. In her teachings, she draws often from her experience of marriage and child-raising as well as her work as a physician and public health consultant in Asia. Her book Living Meditation, Living Insight has been reprinted seven times and distributed for free to more than 46,000 readers in numerous countries. (It’s available from www.saetawwin2.org.)
In 1998 Dr. Thynn Thynn established her Sae Taw Win II Dhamma Center near Sebastopol, California. The center offers study and practice for American students as well as ceremonies and festivals for members of the immigrant Burmese community. When I arrive to talk with her, Dr. Thynn Thynn greets me with a warm hug. She wears the dark brown clothes of an eight-precept yogi, which has been her costume since her initiation in 1999 here at her center. Short and round, with thick gray hair, she radiates the equanimity she trains her students to cultivate, while her calmly observant black eyes signal a probing intellect.
As we walk past, Dr. Thynn Thynn points out the ceti (stupa), a twenty-foot-high tower throwing back sunlight from the mirrored surfaces of its several tiers. This structure is emblematic of the uniqueness of her lineage, she explains: “The ceti harnesses the forces of the universe and of the buddhas and creates a vortex. It’s like setting up a power plant or radio station that radiates spiritual energy and also attracts the people in our lineage to assemble here.”
Inquiring Mind: Your lineage, which incorporates the “path of the masters,” differs from the commonly known tradition in Burmese Buddhism. Please tell us about it.
Dr. Thynn Thynn: As you know, in Buddhist meditation training, there is an initial set of concentration practices called samatha meditation. While we do those practices, we also use the word “samatha” differently—to delineate our distinct lineage within the Theravada tradition. Within this Samatha lineage, a particular path is followed by the masters, who attain the abinnas, the paranormal or psychic powers. The better-known lineage that has come out of Burma is the Vipassana lineage, as well as the scholarship by Burmese monastics like U Silananda; this Samatha is a parallel Buddhist lineage existing in Burma. You can follow the Vipassana path, you can go for the Samatha, or you can do both.
Generally, those who seriously follow the Samatha path have been kammically connected to the lineage through one of the many masters. Amongst the general Burmese Buddhist lay population as well, the use of some of the Samatha practices as their daily devotions is very prevalent. These include taking the five, eight or ten ethical precepts; chanting sacred mantras; doing metta, or lovingkindness, meditation; chanting the Buddhist virtues; and anapanasati, or mindfulness of breathing—some of these being used specifically to develop concentration.
IM: Burmese Vipassana masters such as Mahasi Sayadaw gave their teachings to Western students like Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. The Burmese lay master U Ba Khin taught vipassana (insight) meditation to Ruth Denison and S. N. Goenka. Were Samatha masters closed to Westerners or to passing on their practices to foreigners?
TT: Actually, the Samatha lineage found its way to the West very early on. The first Samatha ceti was built in America near Niagara Falls in upstate New York in 1958 by Dat Paung Zon Sayadaw, a disciple of one of the major Samatha lay masters in Burma, before any of the Vipassana teachers had set foot in America. Dat Paung Zon built cetis all over the world—in New Zealand, South America, South Africa, and Canada and two in America.
Although the teachings did not flow as yet, these cetis were the forerunners of the Samatha tradition in this country and worldwide. Building cetis that radiate spiritual energy is like planting seeds, laying the groundwork until the time is right for their sprouting into practice centers.
IM: In my experience of the Vipassana tradition as it’s practiced in this country, the teachers advise against developing psychic capacities. Yet in Samatha, you say, this is encouraged.
TT: Yes, psychic powers are the main avenue through which the work of the masters is manifested in our lineage. These paranormal attributes, which are known as divine powers in the Theravada scriptures, include clairvoyance, astral traveling, mind-reading and bi- or trilocation, in which a person can be in two or three places at the same time. These masters are mostly bodhisattvas who at the end of their Earth life achieve transcendence, meaning they ascend to a level of limited immortality in the otherworldly dimension. It is in this dimension that they practice and strive toward buddhahood, but along the way they also serve as custodians of the Buddhist teachings and exist for eons until they reach their goal. That particular progression toward full awakening is really unknown outside Burma.
IM: How is enlightenment in this life related to the development of psychic powers?
TT: In the scriptures, especially in the translations made by Ledi Sayadaw over one hundred years ago, I found passages that say that with enlightenment there is also development of the abinnas, or divine powers, like all-seeing, all-hearing, intuition and the knowledge of the past lives of oneself and others. Also, bilocation, astral traveling, even passing through walls. That has been described in books by vipassana practitioners about the Indian teacher Dipa Ma. She was able to disappear through a wall and go into the next room.
IM: Is the development of the psychic powers a byproduct of practice, or is it actually the goal of various practices?
TT: It is cultivated to a great extent over time, but there are exceptions like myself. I became very psychic after meeting my guru without so much as seriously taking on Samatha practices. It can also be a byproduct, but we have to be careful of that: unless a person is guided by a Samatha master, it’s very easy to misuse these enormous psychic powers and the privileges that come with them. You can influence people, influence events. If a person is not highly evolved to handle these powers, it’s like giving a very potent weapon to a child or a teenager. When one of us is being trained to carry out the work of the lineage, we have to take very serious vows. The Five Precepts are our lifeline.
IM: Have you actually witnessed your own teacher’s psychic powers?
TT: One incident occurred in 1984, when I first met Shwe Baw Gyun Sayadaw. I had a dream that my four-year-old son would be in danger in the future. In the dream I was directed to take him to this particular master in order to gain his protection. When we arrived at the sayadaw’s monastery, right away I felt something shift in my consciousness. I felt that I knew this master very, very deeply and profoundly.
At one point as we toured the monastery one evening, my little son disappeared for a short while and then reappeared. The next day at lunch a stranger recognized my son and said, “When I was with the sayadaw last night in his private compound, this boy was there.”
But then another man objected, “That’s impossible,” insisting that my son had been with the sayadaw all evening somewhere else. The two argued to prove who was right. Then suddenly everybody stopped, and we all realized—it was an “aha” moment—oh yeah, he was in two places at the same time.
That took away a lot of my concern and worries about my son’s safety. It also confirmed to me that this was an extraordinarily evolved master who was very much linked to my own kammic past.
IM: Do your students know that you are part of this psychic-oriented lineage, and do you teach these things to them or to some sort of “inner circle”?
TT: My senior students and the students who are very close to me know about it. Do I teach these practices to them? Yes and no. When I first started establishing the center, I had a very psychic student. I thought, Well, maybe I should teach her. And I did, but it didn’t work out well. After she quickly developed these psychic powers, she started to think of herself as being different from the rest of the students, and she could not integrate into the general student community. From then on, I stopped teaching psychic work even though there were a few students who wanted to study and develop psychic powers. For about ten years I focused on community-building and developing the teaching programs for daily mindfulness practice.
Recently, with one or two students who are extremely intuitive, I started giving some nominal practices. But I haven’t really started any kind of serious training programs for them.
IM: Is this psychic development crucial for teachers to cultivate?
TT: It is important for teachers to have abilities like this in order to continue the work of the lineage, but not all teachers at the center develop their psychic powers. I’m very careful about teaching American students in psychic practices, because there is no cultural milieu to hold them, to give them faith, to provide them the support they would get in Burma. People in Burma are comfortable with psychic powers, the psychic masters, the Samatha masters. A lot of people go to pay respect to these Samatha masters even though they may not be in the lineage. While Burma is a very conducive social and religious milieu for practitioners of psychic practice to develop themselves, here I found that it’s really not appropriate. Many of my students come to our center to study Buddhism and to practice mindfulness for calming themselves and finding stability in their lives. Introducing psychic work would distract them from what they come here for.
IM: You’ve said that the masters follow the bodhisattva path. One of the differences that practitioners of the Mahayana tradition cite, in distinguishing themselves from the Theravada, is that in the Theravada tradition one makes effort only for oneself, while in the Mahayana one practices for others.
TT: I’m very glad you’re addressing this issue, because the bodhisattva path has been so much neglected or unknown in the Theravada tradition in the West. In the Theravada tradition it is up to the individual to make the choice either to take the arahant [holy one] path or the bodhisattva [benefiting the world] path.
IM: Do practitioners in the Samatha lineage take the same bodhisattva vow that a Zen or Tibetan Buddhist practitioner would take?
TT: It’s not the same wording, but it says essentially the same thing. In the larger Burmese community the bodhisattva vow is not taken as frequently or as prevalently as in Mahayana Buddhism. But the opportunity is there. So far, countless laypeople and most of the eighty-nine historical Samatha masters have taken the bodhisattva vows. This manifests for these masters through their clairvoyance; and usually, through their healing powers, they attract followers, some of whom have past-life kammic connections with them. Lifetime after lifetime, disciples are called to their own master through dreams and visions. This insures that there is a critical mass of followers to maintain the Buddhist teachings.
Millions of people went to take refuge with my guru, Shwe Baw Gyun Sayadaw, during the forty to fifty years of his ministry. During my guru’s lifetime the first group of people who went to him were social outcasts—criminals, ex-convicts, destitute people, very poor villagers prone to violence. He taught them basic practices like the Three Refuges, the Five Precepts, and refraining from alcohol and red meat. He prescribed mantras, sacred chanting and metta meditation—simple practices that they could handle. His influence spread so far and wide that the crime rate went down in one of the districts. Not just criminals but black-magic practitioners would give up their powers and follow his path. My master was also a great healer of alcoholism and drug addiction.
In the poor villages around his center, Sae Taw Win, he built schools and clinics. His center in itself has become like a big village, with 500 to 1,000 people. Babies are born there, children grow up, people get married there. So the social aspects of Buddhism are very much displayed or exercised there. It’s a very different scenario from the Vipassana centers in Burma, where everybody’s focused inward in their meditation practice.
IM: I find it interesting that people are drawn to the Samatha lineage through dreams or visions.
TT: This is the most unique and effective communication system on Earth, akin to YouTube perhaps. Whether disciples are born in Burma or anywhere else in the world, it is through these methods that they are called to the masters. It’s something like getting the flock to come home.
All this fits into a bigger mission. It had been forecast by Gotama Buddha that his dispensation would last only 2,500 years unless the followers of Buddhism endeavored to keep the teachings alive until the next Buddha, Maitreya, came. So it is the mission of the masters to be custodians, to make sure the teachings are continued. The followers will be psychically pulled back to the lineage. And those who are ready will get enlightened. Those who are not ready will have to continue to build up their parami, or spiritual virtues.
IM: You say that those who are “ready” will get enlightened. What does that mean in the Samatha lineage?
TT: Well, of course, in Buddhist tradition, we are taught that we have moved through eons of lifetimes in the past. There are people with different levels of parami accumulated through those innumerable lifetimes. Those who have accumulated enough parami are ready to be enlightened in this lifetime. In the Samatha lineage, the masters can see how ripe the disciple’s kammic parami is. They will somehow move that person so that that person will achieve enlightenment in one way or the other. That’s very similar to the stories of the Buddha’s lifetime, when he would select an individual from a big audience, knowing exactly who was ready to be enlightened at that very moment. He would guide that person and give the sermon for a particular occasion in which the person would get enlightened on the spot. And the others in the audience would also benefit.
Even though my guru has passed on from this Earth life, most of his disciples in Burma are still practicing very religiously. Most of the ten or so sub-centers are being guided by him through dreams and visions. That’s how they progress. The master doesn’t have to be there in person. That’s also the way I am being guided, as well as a very few of my inner circle of students. Enlightenment is the goal of the masters for their disciples, but how they guide us and bring us to enlightenment is through their abinnas, their divine powers of clairvoyance.
IM: Is enlightenment a goal of practice for all practitioners?
TT: Yes, definitely. That’s without question.
IM: Samatha, or concentration, practice has been criticized by some as not leading to enlightenment. How do you respond to that critique?
TT: It is true that samatha practice by itself does not lead to enlightenment, but it sets the stage to prepare the person for enlightenment. In one of my guru’s talks he said, “Vipassana is like the bulb of a flashlight, and samatha is the battery in the flashlight. You need the bulb to really light up, but you also need the battery to power the bulb.” The strength of samatha practice directs a person to the right master and the right kind of experiences that lead to enlightenment. So it is a very powerful path that can facilitate. Samatha practice speeds up a lot of your paramis. Instead of having to walk up the hill or the stairs, you are provided with an escalator!