EP 004 Tina Rasmussen Jhana & Non-Duality
Updated: Jan 12
Ryan J. Burton: Fantastic to have you.
Tina Rasmussen: How are you doing Ryan? Thanks for inviting me.
Ryan J. Burton: Yeah, I'm super excited for this talk. I even got a new microphone. I have to apologize to my previous guests for not giving them the same treatment.
You're the author co-author of the book, "Practicing the Jhanas: Traditional concentration meditation as presented by the Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw." He is a Burmese meditation master. So I had listened to an interview that you did on Buddhists geeks and you talked about going through the jhanas and the formless attainments and seeing sub-atomic particles and really experiencing reality in a way that I'd never heard anyone describe up to that point.
So that's when I started to look into your work. You're like a unicorn. I've been in the Theravada world for so long and to so many different temples. There's so many different ways of practicing and, and so many different philosophies and techniques and the ones that were always profound to me were the jhana practices, but there's so few people that have actually attained them and can speak with them authoritatively. So very happy to have you and so are the monks and nuns that are listening to this call.
Tina Rasmussen: Well, it's a delight to be able to share some of this with that, with an audience like that. So I really appreciate the invitation.
Ryan J. Burton: Absolutely we can turn the clock back to when this path of meditation and spirituality really started for you. Now meditation is super popular. Everyone is into it, but back in the seventies before then it was, it was pretty weird. I'm sure. So how did that all start for you? Did you kind of have a spiritual awareness, even before you started a meditation practice? What was that all like?
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah. Well, the way that it happened, my parents were very open-minded spiritually. So I was raised with a lot of openness, even though we did go to unity churches, which in that day was, and I lived in the Midwest, so it was, kind of on the edge, but still mainstream enough that it was like normal.
Then when I was 13, there was a family day at then, the Methodist church that we were going to in the suburbs of Chicago in Wheeling and I just happened to wander into the sanctuary and somebody was in there teaching meditation. And my story now is that this person just come back from Asia somewhere and, it was in the 70's and he was sharing what he learned and my parents were off doing something else. I don't know where they were on the church grounds and so I sat in there and I listened to what he was teaching.
And I just started doing it at night. I mean, I had no education about Buddhism or anything like that, but I just started doing the practice and it was really helpful. Being a teenager can be a little stressful. So it was extremely practical for me. That was how I got started when I was a kid, my parents took me to a lot of different temples and churches.
We went to the Bahai temple in Chicago and, we went to a Jewish synagogue and to other places because they really, even though we were going to a Methodist church, were wanting me to experience different traditions. So I do think that was very unusual and it just gave me an open-minded view about these things.
Ryan J. Burton: From having exposure to some of these various traditions through your parents when did you first encounter meditation as a form of a practice? When did you first sit down with that person who had returned from Asia?
Tina Rasmussen: That was when I was 13.
Ryan J. Burton: Wow. Yeah. So, most of the people on the call didn't get into meditation until they were 17, 18. Some of us not until we were age 25. So to start at 13, that's just wild, especially to have done it back then.
Tina Rasmussen: It was just such a fluke because my parents didn't even know I was doing it. I would do it before I went to sleep. They wouldn't have minded if I was doing it, but I just was doing it for myself. I didn't have all the teachings behind it. I just had it as a practice. That was it and it wasn't until I got into my 20's that I really started. In my mid to late 20's I really started wanting to learn more about traditions and I just started devouring books from all different traditions from the library and experimented with different traditions. I did my first Buddhist retreat in my mid to late 20's and that was that. I was just hooked after doing it.
Yeah weekend retreats and I just started doing longer and longer retreats and more and more retreats then started honing in on Buddhism. Once I started actually doing the practices deeply, I just loved them and wanted to just do more and more.
Ryan J. Burton: Was there a kind of initial, mystical or religious experience?
Tina Rasmussen: Hmm. Well, when I look back. At the time I just, I actually went into the long retreats, not wanting to read too much. I really wanted not to be influenced by, and I didn't even know exactly that I was doing this, but there was some part of me that didn't want to expect or know what to expect.
So I actually didn't start reading about the practices until I was many years in and had done month long retreats. And really what I had was the talks the teachers were giving, but what I realized now was that even on my first long retreat, I would hear the talks and I would hear about how hard it was. The teachers would be saying how hard it was and how much people were struggling and this and that.
I'm thinking gosh, I mean, not that I didn't have hindrances and defilements, I totally did, but I would just get into really some extremely blissful places that didn't seem like the norm and I go into my interviews and say, I can be with the breath all day without going off.
I'm having this amazing I'm like outrageously blissful. What do I do? And my teachers would be like, "enjoy yourself." So I did start getting a sense that it wasn't common. It was very, it was extremely healing and at the end of every retreat the people around me when we broke silence and they were like, so relieved that it was over, and I would just bawl my eyes out the whole time.
I never wanted to break silence and come out of it because, I mean, I had a good life and things, but there was something so pristine and such a depth of truth in that level of silence and depth within oneself that I really, I didn't want it to end. At the time I didn't really know how to talk about it or how that it was unusual until I started talking to other people.
I got invited to a senior students group when I was still in my twenties because my teachers could kind of see what was happening. So yeah there were absolutely tastes fairly early that are what made me start doing like a month long retreat every year.
I went deep. I did my first 10 day and it was hard. I remember it's kind of funny now because this was my first 10 day retreat. I was in such great shape like in my twenties and I was so uncomfortable the whole time. I was so restless and this poor guy next to me, I thought he was ancient. He was probably about 50. He's probably younger than I am now and he just seems so ancient to me, but he never moved.
He was like the Buddha, he's like my role model that he could sit for this long without moving. I was so restless. Of course now I sit like he does, but still even with all that wrestling with all the hindrances and defilements that I have, I would have enough tastes that I could really go "I want to do this again how soon can I do this again?" It accelerated rapidly once I got into it. My interest accelerated very rapidly.
Ryan J. Burton: Right some people seem to have to have difficulty with balancing their spiritual life and their worldly life. They feel like those things are incongruent at times, or they're just not on the same frequency. Did you deal with that growing up or did you kind of feel like your career path was an extension of your spirituality? How did you navigate that?
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah well now it feels all very very integrated, but that has really been a long process. Because I worked, still work a little in the business world, and I do humanistic work, so that's always been congruent. My values about what I was doing were always congruent, but you know 30 years ago, Meditation is not what it is now.
I would be gone and I would be uncertain whether I could actually say where I was going and what I was doing. So I was a little bit in the closet for the first, maybe five to seven years. And then at some point I just felt that to be an authentic person, I had to be able to share this. So I would say where I was going and gradually people got interested over time.
Now companies are having meditation programs in their companies, but when I started, it was not like that at all. It was a little risky even to share that, but at some point I just felt I handed the authentic. Then there was a whole period of like how do I integrate these?
I felt like I had two lives and over the years they've just gotten more and more to where I feel like the work that I'd done in the business world is about human potential, it's with leaders who are having a huge impact on the world, mostly in healthcare and I'm doing a certain kind of human development and working with human potential with these leaders.
And I'm doing a different kind with spiritual practitioners, but it's all about human potential. So it feels very seamless now. But that's been a long journey. So I think for all of us we have to find what's appropriate in our environments. Some environments might be more accepting than others.
But there's also being authentic and at some point, if your spiritual life is really core to who you are, it's hard to hide that completely and feel authentic. So I encourage the people I work with to try and find a way to feel integrated within themselves and then to do what's appropriate externally for the situation that they're in.
Ryan J. Burton: Right and to go back to the practice itself, I believe you had been practicing under a Gil Fronsdil he was the first to refer you to look into the jhanas?
Tina Rasmussen: Actually it was Guy Armstrong. Guy was really to my knowledge, the first person who really, at spirit rock at least which is where I did most of my practice. Then I went to IMS (Insight Meditation Society) for the three month retreat at one point, but living on the West coast. I was doing the month long, I was doing vipassana for years. I didn't even know about the samatha practice because nobody was talking about it or teaching it. Then at one point Guy had a small group of us who secretly were doing the samatha to practice and where there was like this little Island of samatha people.
We were using metta. We are using the Brahma Viharas because that's how they had learned it. And we were in the sea of Vipassana people and we'd be walking quickly and all the vipassana people would be walking really slowly, thinking "they're awful vipassana practitioners look how fast they're walking," but we'd be going into the dining hall being like, "Oh, may they be safe. May they be healthy."
We'd be doing metta and anyway there's a story that Guy tells about this period where one of the metta yogis, she went into the dining hall and she was so into her metta practice, but you know, you're not quite as mindful and she got her meal and she put it down and she realized she had to go get her water and she got and came back and then she sat down on her chair where she'd put her food. And so she sat in her food.
So you can imagine that this little sea of us, metta yogis in the sea of the vipassana practitioners, but yeah so it was Guy who really started bringing that in and he was the one when I did my year long solo retreat and was reporting on what happened.
He said, "you really should study with Pa-Auk Sayadaw" and a good friend of mine, Robert Cusak was the one who first organized Pa-Auk's first retreat in the US and that was how I was referred to Pa-Auk. That was when I signed up for the first two month retreat that the Sayadaw did in the United States.
Then I started doing more of the samatha as time went on because that was being introduced and there were even talks in the hall over the years, then it became a lot more public and there were a lot more people that started doing the samatha and it became a little bit more mainstream and was being talked about, but it was very controversial.
Ryan J. Burton: It seemed that going to these different retreats in different centers, I spent some time at Panditarama in Myanmar, and I did my 10 day retreat in the Goenka tradition. So I've been around the block in these circles and some of them are very not friendly towards the samatha jhanas for whatever reason. Can you touch on that and why it's a thing.
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah. Well initially it was thought that in Asia, there's a different view than what we have in the US and when I do my day longs and things, I have a whole section on this just to make it clear, but there were several reasons.
One is, it was thought that lay people couldn't do that practice and maybe women couldn't do that practice either. So it was sort of reserved for the male monastics, which is kind of how things were then, but more so it was thought that one should have stream entry first because of the supernormal powers that could be developed with the upper jhanas so that one should have responsibility, have stream entry. So that one wouldn't use those for harm.
It doesn't mean a lot to a lot of Westerners who don't believe in those things, but you know a lot of the Asian people that I've met, I've taught at some of the Burmese centers and it's seen differently that it is a real thing.
Even in India, Dipa Ma was studied by a university for doing these things. So there was some thinking that that the practice should be reserved for those who could handle it and also there was a thought that not that many people could do it anyway. So why bother to teach it widely?
So, I mean I understand where they were coming from, also within the Mahasi Sayadaw lineage they really focused so much on the Satipatthana Sutta, which says that you don't need that. Although you've got, I've been told, by Buddhists scholars and historians of which I am not, I teach from experience not from that, but I know people who are extremely learned, including Pa-Auk Sayadaw and they say that 60 to 80% of the suttas when the Buddha was asked how to practice he pointed people to the samatha and the jhanas.
So to me it's a little odd that you pull one sutta out and disregard the wide mass of suttas where the Buddha is talking about both samatha and vipassana and just say well, he didn't really mean it. He just really mapped this, so I'm not sure, but in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition it was a lot more encouraged to only just go for the vipassana because you don't need the samatha. It was taught to the people who taught it to me, who learned it in the Mahasi tradition, but it was then offered to people who had already had stream entry.
Yeah these were all reasons why it was thought to be unnecessary or not wise and then Pa-Auk Sayadaw came along and he had his own scholarship, which was extremely highly regarded around what the Buddha actually taught. He started putting forth different understandings of what the Buddha actually was saying, looking at this large large mass of sutras where the Buddha talked about the samatha and saying, we can't just disregard these.
We need to look at what he actually said and what he actually practiced. I mean that to me is the most compelling thing. When I started teaching, I wanted to find out, well how the Buddha thought about this and he was doing this practice at the moment of his death.
He could have done any, he knew he was going to die. This had been seen and he predicted it before his death so he knew at the moment, at the time he was dying, he could have done any practice he wanted to and he did the samatha practice. Now that is compelling to me. He didn't do vipassana.
He did samatha. So we can speculate as to why he did that and we'll never really know for sure why he did it, but that is really compelling to me, so yeah those are some of the reasons why I think it wasn't done and was controversial because a lot of teachers came back and they just didn't even learn the samatha.
So now if you've got senior teachers, who've been teaching for 20 years, who don't know a practice and who've invested all this time in teaching vipassana, it's a little hard to go back and how do you integrate those? But it has happened. I think now we're at a point where there's a lot more balance, at least that's my perception of it.
Ryan J. Burton: For the people that may not be familiar could you define samatha and jhana?
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah. The samatha practice. Different Theravadin traditions, see it a little differently. So there's my teaching authorization in the lineage of Pa-Auk Sayadaw of Burma. There's also the whole Mahasi lineage. There's the Goenka tradition, which I'm not as familiar about with.
Then there's the Thai forest tradition, which I do know something about how they see it. So just to give a context where I'm coming from the word samatha means both concentration and serenity. So it's important to remember that it doesn't just mean concentration. Some people call it the samadhi practice.
The word samadhi just means concentration. I think there's a reason why it's called samatha, which is that the serenity is extremely important. We don't want to forget that part of it. So that's what the word samatha means basically and there are many objects.
The base object is the breath in this region between the upper lip and the nostril. It could be a region but there's other objects, there's 40 objects. So it's not the only one in the Samatha category, but it's a practice where we focus on one object to the exclusion of everything else.
We just bring our awareness back to that object over and over in order to unify the mindstream and it can become very laser-like, which can cut through our normal perceptions of reality and also give a lot of power to that awareness when it's used for other practices like vipassana. So that's what the Samatha practice is.
In a nutshell, it's a present moment practice. It's really important to remember just like vipassana or any authentic practice, it is a present moment practice and the breath is an easy object to bring us into the present moment. There are three levels of concentration, momentary access and absorption.
Momentary concentration is the first level. So any meditation we're doing we start at momentary, where we're on the object and off, on and off. That's momentary. That's kind of like a lantern. Where the light of our consciousness is just shining in all directions. Then the next stage is access concentration, which has a very big range from about staying with the object for five minutes substantially, all the way up to half an hour where we're really not going off of the objects substantially.
It can be very deep. It starts lighter where we're on and off on and off, and then gets deeper and deeper to where the high levels of access concentration we may not be thinking hardly at all and it's very, it feels very, very different than our normal consciousness and is extremely purifying.
In vipassana you can get up to access concentration. So because of having a momentary object that changes, any of the open monitoring styles of meditation, which we now know through neuroscience. There's the category of open monitoring and then there's another category of focused attention. Any of the styles that do open monitoring can't get to absorption level.
They have other good things about them that samatha doesn't have. So they're great practices, but just to distinguish so then in samatha or focused attention practices, because the object is stable, that's what makes these two different, the type of object.
So because we have a stable object the awareness can become so unified that absorption into the object can happen. Our awareness becomes absorbed into the object and what's really important about an absorption is that it is a non-dual state. This is why I think the Buddha thought so highly of it because the ego self goes dormant in a non dual state. There are other ways to experience non dual States, but through concentration is one of them.
And one of the good things about it is that once a person has access to absorption, it is repeatable. Whereas other ways of experiencing non-duality that are more momentary, like in zen shikantaza or in rigpa in the dzogchen practice, they're momentary and they're not as predictable.
So I think this is part of why the Buddha thought so highly of it because when you cross that the other thing is there's a threshold that has to be crossed where the ego goes dormant and there's a lot that the psyche has to work through for that to be possible because basically we're having awareness without the presence of the ego self.
That in itself is extremely purifying and it's a preparation for awakening. It isn't awakening, but it is practice. It's giving our consciousness practice at being without the ego self, having that be dormant, which is amazing practice for awakening, where that happens in a way that uproots at some level.
Then there are different stages of jhanas that become more and more refined and there are two categories of jhanas. There's the form jhanas, which are all using the breath or other objects. You can use the breath, which is a physical phenomena. So these are also called the material jhanas that's one through four and then there are what are called the formless or immaterial jhanas.
Those are like a whole different category, which in Buddhism these are understood to be actual realms of existence. So there's the physical realm and then these four there's these four immaterial realms and so they're just qualitatively different than the first four.
Ryan J. Burton: And for these absorptions, the form jhanas and the formless realms, it seems that there's debate or there's contention over what is jhana in some of these communities. I wanted you to touch on that because I hear one teacher saying that jhana is defined as this and I hear you, Ajahn Brahm and Pa-Auk Sayadaw saying jhana is with a nimitta and if there's no nimitta, it's not jhana. So can you, can you address that? Because my point of view is that jhana with nimitta is vastly more stable than one without one. So what's your take on this specific issue?
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah and again I will say that I have only practiced in really in the Pa-Auk lineage. I mean, I did do the Brahma Viharas, but I was told to go to Pa-Auk for really the full story. So I feel that my own teachers told me to go to him. And that's what I'm speaking from. I haven't practiced in, for example, the Ayya Khema tradition, so I will say that.
Leigh Braisington and I once were both invited to an event and he spoke in the morning and I spoke in the afternoon. We each listened to each other and it was quite lively and we just agree to disagree and now it's fine. But yeah so I'm teaching what I've learned. I did ask Pa-Auk Sayadaw that question, because I've been asked that question without a nimitta is it jhana? and he said, no. It's not. He said no nimitta no jhana.
I trust his scholarship. I mean, the man is extremely intelligent and highly respected. When you go to him and you are sitting in front of him asking for, say reporting and asking, this is someone who quotes the answer from the Pali Canon by memory, word for word.
Then he does the same thing in english and never opens a book and he knows everything. So I just, I trust his scholarship. So I say that is my view of where I come from. And he doesn't just use the visuddhimagga. He uses the suttas equally to the visuddhimagga. So for those who say that he's a visuddhimagga teacher, it's absolutely not true.
You read his book, you can see all the sutta references. So when I hear, I have, as you can imagine, there's a lot of crossover among students to teachers then I get a lot of people who have studied in other traditions. I feel that, and I've also met a monk named Ajahn Chandiko. Who wrote an excellent article called “The Honed and Heavy Axe: Samatha and Vipassana in Harmony.”
He's from the Ajahn Chah lineage and I felt that he and I had a very similar view of how it works, even though they feel it's more like two feet up the mountain. In the Pa-Auk tradition, you did the samatha all the way from beginning to end and then you do the vipassana. So there's that difference, but I feel that our understanding of what jhana is is very similar actually.
Ajahn Chah was an extremely attained jhana master. Very few people knew that because he couldn't talk about his attainments, but Ajahn Chandiko went to all of the senior forest monastics who had studied directly with Ajahn Chah and he wanted to find out. What works in this tradition and every single one who was really attained, had jhana.
That's when he became convinced of that and they told him Ajahn Chah could go into jhana in one breath. This is how close he was to jhana. So people who think that, that isn't in the Thai forest tradition, it's just not true. So I feel that my understanding is very similar to Ajahn Brahm's, which again I haven't practiced in his tradition, but from reading some of what he's written and hearing from people, I feel there's a lot of similarity there.
The Ayya Khema tradition. I'm going to say this and I've had to say it to students when they come in and report their experience. When I'm seeing them actually on retreats, I feel that what they're experiencing isn't jhana, it's access concentration because one of the key differences in the instructions is that when you start feeling piti, like in your hands, that's jhana. Feeling piti is access concentration. That is not a nondual state.
What is the benefit? What's the point of even doing jhana? If the non-dual state is the important part, it's not piti arising. So I just I feel that what he's teaching isn't jhana, it's access concentration. It's not invalid. It's a good thing. It's good for people to have access concentration and purification of mind is definitely happening, but it's not jhana it's access concentration.
So the other thing is the lineage of that teaching. Ayya Khema got it from a monk who was unknown, who stumbled out of a forest and gave her these instructions. It wasn't anyone with scholarship. It wasn't anyone who was well known or was even known at all. It was a random monk who wandered out of a forest. So I find it hard to give that a lot of credibility. I mean, I'm not trying to be disparaging, but when I hear it, what I hear being described is access concentration. It's really clear.
Ryan J. Burton: If even in deep access concentration there is no thought, how can people be describing jhana with thoughts just because there's bliss and rapture and light arising? That all happens in access concentration.
Tina Rasmussen: That happens in vipassana. When I used to go into my vipassana retreats,
I would go in one time. This is funny. One time when I was on one of my retreats I would go in and I would describe the headlight doing vipassana and I had all the bliss. I had the jhana factors. I didn't know what any of these things were because nobody ever talked about any of that. I go in and basically be told the practice is good. Keep doing that and I was doing vipassana. I wasn't even doing samatha.
So I was in high level of access concentration. One time I went in and I was interviewing with Gil, and Leigh Brasington was in the teacher training at the time and he was sitting at the back of the room, like behind me, Leigh and I didn't know each other at all.
He was just some teacher in training and I was the retreatant and I'm describing it and describing it and he's not supposed to be saying anything and he says "she's describing jhana!" and I'm like "what's jhana?" I didn't even know what the word meant at the time, but you know this just goes to show that you can have a high level of access concentration in vipassana. So how was that different than samatha?
To me, if you're describing bliss and piti in your hands and stuff, I get all that doing vipassana. What's different about jhana than that? Nothing. So that's to me a key distinction and I've worked with a lot of people who get right up to the edge of jhana.
And there's a whole thing that starts happening for almost everybody where they start, the ego stuff starts getting it's on the verge of going dormant and that consciousness is going to not have an active ego self and fear comes up.
That is a really important part of the practice of one's own spiritual unfoldment because when non-duality arises, it is a practice for awakening and it's important to go through all that. So if that is part of why jhana is important and some people will get up there and they can't get over their threshold because there's just work that has to happen for that to be possible.
Their concentration is good. That's not the issue it's working through letting go. The letting go can't be made to happen because the more you push it's the ego self that's pushing. So it's like those toys, you stick on your fingers and the more you pull, like the tighter, your finger gets stuck in it. At the point at the beginning of the samatha, you need the strong will, you have to really be a warrior, but as it goes on there needs to be less and less of that in there has to be a surrender and a deactivation of the ego self.
That's what awakening is so without that, jhana isn't that meaningful to me anyway. So I mean to me that's why I think I just don't see the distinction from vipassana for one thing. Because one can have piti in vipassana and that's part of the teachings that vipassana can get you up to the high access.
So. It doesn't really make sense just logically and then secondly why would a whole practice be designed just to have piti arise? It's the non-duality that's important.
Ryan J. Burton: What is the first jhana like? Because in some traditions, this first jhana is considered samadhi right? You have attained samadhi when you've entered a jhana.
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah. Well, it is. I mean, in the eightfold path, right. Concentration is considered jhana by the Buddha that's pretty clear, I think. So yeah, well jhana at first, before one has the masteries, jhana you can't make it arise. Your concentration and your letting go you're surrender the surrender of the me leading things has to be ripe. Just like an avocado. You can't put an avocado in the oven and make it ripen. You can put it in the paper bag so you can make it a little faster and that's what we're doing with our practices. We're creating optimal conditions, but it can't be made to happen.
Through ego effort. there has to be a humility and a surrender to the Dharma and to the mystery and a trust and a showing up when he has to show up a hundred percent and let go a hundred percent, which is really what awakening is, is being a hundred percent present and a hundred percent surrendered.
So it's a great training. When it happens though one can feel it's sort of hovering there and then at some point the nimitta merges with the breath and the awareness is just pulled in.
Ryan J. Burton: The nimitta is a light.
Tina Rasmussen: It's a light that's in the mind. It has nothing to do with our visual eyes. So sometimes you'll see people like and a lot of the retreats, the Pa-Auk retreats, you see people with towels over their heads or eye masks on and it's like what are they doing? They're trying to see the nimitta!
So just to say it has nothing to do with our physical eyes. It's all a by-product of the unification of mind. As the mind becomes more and more unified the breath and this nimitta become one thing that's called the anapana-nimitta. So it's merged. And if we're trying to see two objects we just stay with the breath.
That's all we do the whole time, really. But people are tempted to look at the nimitta and that'll just erode your concentration. So then you suffer and you get to just stop playing with your nimitta because then it dissipates and everyone sort of has to go through that in their own way.
But it is pretty exciting because people get that they can't make it happen. That there's actually something really mysterious going on here. Then at some point when the awareness, it's like your vibration gets more and more refined and at some point, you're coming up, coming up, coming up and all of a sudden it's the same level of the first jhana and your awareness can be pulled in and surrendering is really the best.
It's a non-doing, but there's a little bit of just really, there's a devotional quality to it actually. There's awarenesses of the object, which is the breath, if you're doing anapanasati and of the jhana factors and there's no thought. There can be what Pa-Auk Sayadaw calls a "slight imperfection of jhana" where occasionally a thought might come up, but it's extremely fleeting.
Usually for most people, they can only tolerate it for a few seconds at first and then pop out and go back into access concentration. It's not like “I” am in jhana. If that's the sense, that's access concentration, there's just the awareness. And it's extremely, the purification that can be felt is much more intense than in access, even though it can be quite intense in access concentration in the higher.
Then over time, if that continues, if one has the stability for that to deepen, it’s like being at 14,000 feet altitude, you start getting used to it the first day. You're like, I can't breathe and then as you get acclimated, you're normalizing and that can be longer and longer. Then the jhana mastery is the next stage of the practice where over time some people can have it arise at-will.
Ryan J. Burton: For the jhana mastery from what I remember from the book, you're able to make the intention to go into any absorption for a specific amount of time and exit on that, right on the clock.
Correct? So if when you were undergoing this training with Pa-Auk Sayadaw and you went into the first jhana and the mastery was to go into it for four hours. You come out at three minutes, 3 hours and 59 minutes. You failed the test.
Tina Rasmussen: Well, yes you do. I mean, this is why it can take two months just to do the first jhana for a lot of people. I mean, he doesn't make everybody do four hours. I think he just made me do it because he wanted me to see if I could. It was like, oh! I got a live one here. Let's see what she can do. So I don't make people do that because it just takes, I don't teach two month retreats anyway, you need to have a long time.
Ryan J. Burton: I want to ask you about that point. As far as time for this level of purification of mind to arise, lots of my friends have gone on these 10 day vipassana retreats or done short retreats and they're like "I'm going to attain jhana at the end of this 10 day retreat!" Mind you, it's a vipassana retreat. Right. So
Tina Rasmussen: Haha goodluck with that.
Ryan J. Burton: Yeah, exactly. A lot of us have unrealistic expectations when it comes to these levels of refinement. You've taught so many of these retreats. Why is it that so many people have difficulty from first sit to first jhana? Is it just that there's not really enough time for a lot of people on a two week retreat? Do they really need three months of silence? Six months of silence? We know in the Tibetan tradition, Shamatha as a practice, there were people just using one object for months at a time before it would arise. B. Alan Wallace has touched on that but what's your experience with that?
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah. Well, I will say that I have had a few students come through from B. Alan Wallace's even long-term retreats. I don't think people are getting enough guidance on those. So I don't think that that is necessarily the best use of time because you need a lot of guidance. So that would be one thing I would say is if somebody really wants to do the samatha practice, get some guidance because you could waste months or years of your life unnecessarily.
Ryan J. Burton: Wow. So when you were doing this with the Sayadaw, did you meet with them everyday?
Tina Rasmussen: Yes he insisted on that and if it meant you stood there for two hours in the rain, you stood there for two hours in the rain, waiting every day, which is what the women did. Because they were a lot more of us. When I became a nun, they made me go to the front of the line. But yeah that's what you do. A lot of people don't like it and if you go in and he says, how long are you with the breath? When you say five minutes, he says focus here, next person. And you've waited for two hours to get that. So, yeah, it's a little different than what we're used to and when he used to do that in Burma people would come up on their knees after waiting for three hours and he would do that. So, with the conditions we have in the West are... anyway that's what he wants people to do.
So part of why he asked Stephen and I to start teaching was that he wanted people who could translate. It has been so long since he had experienced that first sit to first jhana territory that he didn't have as much to offer there as he did once you had jhana. So a lot of people have said that he's great from base camp to Mount Everest, but you need somebody to get you up to base camp and that's really what Stephen and I tried to fill in with our book and that's what everybody needs.
So our rate of helping people was higher than his, that's part of why he asked us because he could see that he needed somebody to flush that territory out so just to say that there were a lot of people who did three or four months or treats with him that left in a really discouraged state and he's an amazing teacher. If you have the opportunity to actually get first jhana and then go on he's incredible.
So that will be the first thing is don't think you can just do it on your own. Get some help because people, once the concentration develops whatever you focus on just expands and people get into a lot of Yogi mind and it's intense Yogi mind, and they don't know that they're in that.
Once you get the laser-like awareness with the high access concentration when the hindrances and defilements come up. All that laser- like awareness is going into them and it's a lot. It will go into whatever you're directed at and if you happen to get into some unsound thinking, it's going to get amplified with all that power.
So you really need somebody to help you stay on track and not waste months, yeah, that's the first thing I would say. The other thing I'll say is that not everyone has the capacity for jhana and that's just an unfortunate reality and one doesn't know until I, I feel that it takes at least three, two week retreats.
Like in my experience with a lot of students over the, like the past, 13, 15 years is that to really know for sure. I mean it might even take more than that, but I've had people who, first retreat they're getting their sea legs, just understanding how to balance the energy and the concentration. There's a lot you learn about just getting more skillful, not just in this, but in any practice and then the second retreat, there's some additional skillfulness that may accelerate that.
I've had people on the third, fourth, even fifth retreat that's when they attain first jhana. It takes a while to get their sea legs and to get enough momentum in the practice to be able to tell. Then there are other people, I taught a month long, a number of years ago and it did make a difference for some people, for some people, it didn't make a difference. The thing is that even if one doesn't attain jhana there's still a huge amount of benefit to one's practice of doing that purification of mind.
So the idea that it's a waste if you don't attain jhana is completely false. It's completely false. So, I mean, that's one of the unfortunate things about this practice. That's why I call it purification of mind practice. If one is doing the vipassana and doesn't attain stream entry. You don't give up after two retreats.
I mean can you imagine? Spirit Rock and IMS would have closed years ago if that was true. Of course, none of the Mahasi centers would even be open if people felt that they would give two or three retreats and then give up. So it's a real double standard that people have for the samatha and the vipassana. It's really it's not what the Buddha intended, I don't think, if you read what he actually said.
So that would be the first thing, but I think anybody, when I asked the Sayadaw about this, he said that he felt anybody who was really sincerely motivated to attain first jhana, he thought they could. So I'd just pass that on, but I'd say every retreat if I look back it's between 15-25% of people who attain first jhana. So, that gives you a sense of that. The cool thing is for people who can, if they keep doing it, some of them can go beyond that.
Ryan J. Burton: Second, third, and fourth absorption.
Tina Rasmussen: Correct. I've had some people go up to third or fourth jhana even just on a two week retreat. Once they really have their sea legs, but this is we're talking a lot of retreats and it's extremely rare for anybody to get into the upper jhanas, as far as I know there were only a few.
Yeah. I mean, in all of Pa-Auk’s decades and decades of teachings, he's only had a handful of people that have. So I think to be realistic, I think for most people, the upper jhanas aren't that realistic of a possibility, but first jhana, I mean, this is really what I believe is that if a person even has first jhana, their shot at stream entry is going to be way higher because if you can take their concentration and direct it at vipassana or dzogchen whatever practice you're doing, it is a laser it powers your practice in a way that you just, it's rocket fuel.
I've had so many long time vipassana practitioners come to my retreats and even the ones who never attained jhana, their vipassana practice is so much more robust and they have huge amount of insight. The samatha practice is a wisdom practice. So you can have insight into two of the three characteristics. So the idea that it is not a wisdom practice is totally false.
I mean in the Hindu tradition, the samatha practice is the whole path. If you look at the yoga sutras of patanjali, that's what they're talking about. So I would really take exception and I again have a whole short talk on this when I do either day long retreats on the samatha practice as a wisdom practice because we're getting insight into dukkha and into anatta, suffering and no self at a very fundamental level.
Vipassana focuses more on anicca, on impermanence with the arising and passing, but I get so many people, experienced long-term people, monastics who feel that when they do the samatha practice, whether they attain jhana or not, their level of insight and being able to turn that power.
At the end of my two week retreats there's time to then investigate into one's own conditioning and having that as a tool to gain self understanding and wisdom, people have said they had more insight on a samatha retreat than they ever did in their vipassana retreats just because of the powerful concentration. So I'd like to put out there that even if jhana doesn't arise there's huge benefit in doing it.
Ryan J. Burton: Would you say that for your students that were pretty skilled in meditation, able to enter jhana on these short retreats that if they had more time, let's say a one month or a two months that the formless attainments would have been possible for those students?
Tina Rasmussen: I don't know. I haven't actually done a retreat long enough. The people who've gotten up to third or fourth jhana, the month long did help. So when one has access to first jhana, time really makes a difference because you could just in two weeks you can only do so much, you just don't have enough hours to get really past first jhana. It's really hard unless you're extremely experienced at it in two weeks, it's just not enough time. So then having the time does make a difference. Absolutely.
I don't know. I haven't had anybody get work past fourth jhana and on Pa-Auk's retreats, Stephen and I, according to what we were told by Pa-Auk Sayadaw and one other monastic who taught with him a lot, we were the only ones who learned the detailed method. We're the only westerners who he taught the detailed to and everybody else learned the brief.
So it just takes a lot of time and what I'm teaching now is a modified version. It's not the full detailed because people don't have time and they don't need it. I found a way to have people be able to go on where they have enough stability without learning all of the jhana masteries.
So they learned just three of the jhana masteries that's enough. I don't know what would have been possible and I don't know that I'll ever be able to teach a retreat for more than a month because it's just too demanding for the teachers.
I’m doing another teacher training that's probably going to start in January and if I have a few teachers who have stamina. That can alternate that could maybe be possible sometime, but I am working with people on solo retreats now and especially with the pandemic, I had a lot of retreats in a box that I'm now offering. The people are having a lot of success with home retreats.
So we'll see it's a big job going on up to the formless jhanas because you can't use the breath anymore. So you have to change objects. And like, when I did it, I did all of the kasinas in all four jhanas.
Ryan J. Burton: Different meditation objects, space, light.
Tina Rasmussen: Right. Changing all those up, doing them for two to three hours to get the mastery and then going on. I was so concentrated by the time I tried to do the upper jhanas as that, it just. I don't know what it would be like to try and have somebody do that without doing all of the kasinas first and it just takes a lot of time, I was doing it when I was on that retreat. I could switch objects and within a day or half a day, I could get the jhana mastery with that new object.
Now I think about it, I don't even know how that was possible. It just takes a lot of time. So I don't know what it would be like to try and skip some of those and have somebody just use them. I mean, you've got to use an earth kasina to go to the upper jhanas. So that's not the hardest one. It's like medium hard. So if you, maybe somebody could get up to that. I don't know. I don't know if I'll ever have a chance to find out, but I would love it if somebody could do it.
Ryan J. Burton: That'd be great. Right?
Tina Rasmussen: I know how Pa-Auk Sayadaw felt.
Ryan J. Burton: Right. Well, let's segue into a lecture of yours that I listened to recently. It was called dimensions of non-duality and this was a talk that you gave to a bunch of spiritual teachers that have gone through awakening and have their own careers teaching. So it was, it was fantastic to hear a very holistic perspective on non-duality. This is something that you got a taste of during your first year long retreat, where you were silent and just practicing alone or was it even before this that you started to have a non-dual awareness and awakening?
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah well it started like with most people I think of having tastes and having those glimpses that are so profound that they're life changing, that it's like the most meaningful moment of one's life that you just want to know that more, more deeply. It brings a lot of people to the spiritual path.
So I started having those and having more and more of them and having those be longer and that's when I decided to do my year-long solo retreat and also had the jhanas during that year, too. So yeah that really, the big shift happened during that year.
I knew about non-duality because I had also been studying with teachers like Adyashanti from the non-dual modern Neo Advita tradition, as well as Buddhist teachers and some Hindu teachers, but I didn't really have the level of understanding that I have now because going through the formless realms with Pa-Auk Sayadaw with his guidance and with really getting confirmation of what was happening and really spending huge amount of time.
Because I had to do all the upper jhanas in all the kasinas. So I didn't just do them once. I did them in every single kasina. So, it was lots and lots of hours in the upper jhanas too. Then I started in the diamond approach after that because I really could see that for me the next step was an integration and embodiment and I felt that that path had some really good technologies for integration and embodiment, which has been helpful, but they have a map that gets into dimensions of non-duality called the boundless dimensions in that tradition that I feel have some parallels with the formless realms of Buddhism. So that's what that talk was about.
So it's only been after that I've been able to really understand these refinements in how non-duality can be experienced. That explains why when you look at different traditions, if you look at Hinduism and Buddhism and Sufism and Christianity, Christian mystics, are these people talking about the same thing or what?
They sound so different, but if you really look at the dimensions of non-duality, these are different dimensions, but they're still all non-duality. You can see that different traditions point at different dimensions and that's why they sound different, but they're all talking about the same phenomena from a different...
It's like the blind men and the elephant. One's got the trunk, one's got the tail, but it's all an elephant. But if you heard their descriptions, you would say these people are talking about different things. One's got a snake, one's got a trunk, tree trunk so that to me has been a development.
That's only really happened in the last few years where I've really started understanding this more. Clearly and also through my own experience that's happened since then where I've had more deep dives into these different dimensions and I've actually known what was happening. Before, it was just non-duality and it was like being in a new country for the first time, you get off the train and you're like, Wow! You don't care about what town you're in, you're just in this country, but then when you've been there several times you want to actually know this town is different from this town and this was mountains and this is beach.
That's really what's happened since then. It's been 15 years now and my understanding and experience has become a lot more refined around what's going on there. Plus I've gotten the teachings from the diamond approach that I feel he has a good map of non-duality that's quite coherent.
Ryan J. Burton: What's your definition of, of non-duality and awakening.
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah, well, this is it's interesting because
Ryan J. Burton: A lot of people have a different...
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah when I was interviewed, like on conscious TV and Buddha at the gas pump, I asked them "what have you learned?" They both said there's no agreement about what it is, so I thought oh interesting. So just having said that I don't feel my answer is the answer. I just it's what feels true for me. So awakening well there's non-duality which can happen without awakening.
Just like I was saying, for me there's tastes, there's glimpses and this is how it's taught in Tibetan Buddhism, you try and have glimpses, or in Zen or in Theravada Buddhism, you have the glimpses and then those can string together more. And there can be an event that maybe pushes one, there's a leap that's taken. But non-duality is when that sense of the subject and object, that I'm a separate me and all that I'm experiencing are separate objects that collapses and the ego goes dormant.
And there's a sense of non-separation so the sense of body boundaries goes dormant or dissolves and there's a sense of either unity with all things or emptiness of all things or both it depends what tradition, like in Buddhism emptiness is emphasized and the Western traditions unity is emphasized, but I feel that it's not really complete until one has both so that's non-duality.
Then awakening so for most people, it's like sandpapering down the ego self. I talk about the thinning of the me through spiritual practice, through disease experiences, through digesting personality material, all of these things. Sandpapering down the ego self and there's more and more contact with our deeper nature.
So their trust, as the ego self goes down, the trust and the contact with our deeper nature increases and the ego starts relaxing more. So there isn't that fear of what am I if I'm not this ego self? That starts diminishing because there's more actual experience with what's beyond the body and the personality.
Some people can sort of just go up to 50% now they're 51% and they're over the halfway mark that happens for some people where it's very gradual, but I think for most people there are some gradual sand papering, and then there might be a somewhat bigger experience.
That maybe gives them 10 more percent and then there's more sand papering, but I feel that there's that 51% rule where at some point our ground identity shifts over to the ground of being from the ego self and it's more noticeable when there's a big experience where this happens and now maybe somebody was at 35% now they're at 65%, that's really noticeable.
But even after that in Theravada Buddhism there's four stages of awakening. So I think this has been a big misnomer. If somebody has an awakening that gets them past the 51% where their identity has shifted and won't ever go back to the where it was, even if they're acting from the ego and there they have a temporary identification, they don't really believe it. To me that is stream entry and is considered the first stage in Buddhism. That's where we don't go back. It's a permanent shift of identity.
Ryan J. Burton: And would you say that requires cessation?
Tina Rasmussen: I'm not sure about that. I talked to other teachers and there's a lot of ways that awakening happens. I mean to me cessation, which I would define as basically absorption of the personality into the ground of being, so phenomenologically it feels a lot like a jhana but instead of being absorbed into a jhana and having conscious awareness, which is what happens in jhana, even the upper jhanas one always has conscious awareness.
When cessation happens it feels like death is imminent because the ego self isn't dormant. It actually gets absorbed into the ground of being and one loses consciousness. So there is no consciousness of that happening and there is no sense of whether or not it will end or not when it happens so there has to be a complete letting go of the ego self in a way that is a surrender and a relaxation. That one can't make that happen. The ego self has to be surrendered and relaxed enough for that to arise.
Ryan J. Burton: In that moment, before that event horizon into vanishing completely into the ground. Is there a visceral experience that happens in the body? Is there physiological markers that people feel because I'm recalling a sutta reference where I think the description was that the deathless element was being perceived in the body.
Tina Rasmussen: That's interesting. Yeah well, I think it's a great description. I love that the Buddha just said what it wasn’t so people couldn't get concepts about it, but yeah I can only speak from my own experience, which is that it was clear that death was imminent.
There was such a beauty and a draw and it was so compelling to not turn away that it's like the end of what has been sought. So there's both the fear of the death that feels eminent and the magnificence of the end of what has been sought.
Ryan J. Burton: In the stages of insight there's a path, fruition and then the review stage. So after this cessation occurs there's some psychological transformations or changes that occur correct?
Tina Rasmussen: Yeah totally. After for me when it happened, it was only after where consciousness was regained. I was in a chair and I just roughly estimated it had been about 10 minutes and I was slumped over and my neck really hurt a lot. So there is a way that I've heard. I think maybe you and I talked about this one. I've heard of people having this happen while they were driving. I am kind of glad that it wasn't my experience, but the people who had it happen while driving just kept driving and all of a sudden they were conscious and didn't know how they'd gotten from X to Y so there are stories of that.
Yeah but it's a complete surrender really and so that you asked about physiology. At the back end there's the physiology of realizing what's happened and coming out of that and then there's just, I mean, I think I'm sure there are a lot of different descriptions for people because for some people through the traditional like Mahasi style vipassana it's a lot based on the way that letting go is encouraged through seeing.
A certain level of emptiness and meaninglessness and the suffering that is coming from the arising and passing that's uncontrollable. So they have what allows for the letting go. Is the sense there's no control over these phenomena and so there's a letting go that comes it's a little bit more on the aversive side.
So I don't know what that is like a dry insight. I don't know, I can't speak to what that would feel like after because it's coming from an aversive, a little bit of an aversiv