Coping with
a Handful of Leaves

by Aggacitta Bhikkhu

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Produced by Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary Publication Team (English)
Editor-in-chief: Looi Sow Fei
Sub-editors: Ven Kumara Bhikkhu, Ang Siew Mun, Audrey Lim, Khor Siew Hun, Seow Siew Hoon
Proofreaders: Lim Chin Meh, Lim Lay Hoon, Lim Lay Poh, Maxine Cheong
Photo credits:
Layout and cover design: Jotika, Sukhi Hotu
Copyright @ Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary July 2004

Permission to reprint for free distribution and non-commercial usage may be obtained in writing from the publisher. This printing: 3000 copies Printed by Setiakawan, Selangor ISBN 983-41646-1-0  


With the exception of proper nouns, uncommon non­-English words are italicized, with full diacritical marks on their first occurrence in the main text, followed by their English translations in round brackets. In subsequent occurrences, they are in normal font. More common terms will also be with full diacritical marks and italicized on their first occurrence but will not be accompanied by translations. 

For easy reference, a glossary of such non-English terms, including some proper nouns, is provided on pg 18. 

Certain words in the main text are accompanied by their original Pali equivalents, which are italicized and placed within round brackets, These are not further explained in the glossary. 



Reference according to


Samyutta Nikaya

Samyutta number:Sutta number



Verse number


Majjhima Nikaya

Sutta number

 All references are based on Vipassana Research Institute's Chattha Sangayana CD-ROM (V.3.0).


“What do you think, monks? Which are more... the leaves in my hand or those above the sisapa forest?" The Blessed One was staying near Kosambi in the sisapa forest when he picked up a handful of sisapa leaves and posed this question. 

"Few are the leaves in your hand, Bhante answered the monks, "compared to the abundant leaves above the sisapa forest."

"It is so indeed, monks," said the Blessed Or "In the same way, vast is the knowledge that I have directly realised but not revealed. But why did not reveal it?" The Buddha explained that it was because such knowledge was not conducive to total liberation from the sufferings pertaining to the endless round of births and deaths. (Sisapavana Sutta, SN 56:31). 

Centuries later, the "handful of leave" bequeathed to us was subsequently inscribed in three huge baskets of dried palm leaves, then printed in several thousand pages, and now stored in several hundred megabytes of disc space. How can we relate the method of vipassana (insight) meditation that we are so familiar with to the handful of sisapa leaves? Could it be a leaf, perhaps just a cell? Or maybe even more minute than that? 

Not very long ago, I was involved in an open discussion about various methods of vipassana meditation. A long-time Mahasi yogi asked, "What do you think of the Goenka method? They even claim that they are doing vipassana meditation." I was quite startled by his remark because it implied that only the Mahasi method was vipassana while others were not. 

There are, in fact, some yogis who had difficulty making headway in the Mahasi method but found the Pa Auk method more suitable for their meditative progress. Some of them have made such great advancement that they have become qualified teachers of that method. 

Yet there are others who assert that access or absorption concentration is an absolute prere­quisite before a yogi can even start to mentally observe (vipassati) the grossest of ultimate reality -­ material phenomena, not to mention mental phenomena like thoughts, emotions and defilements. 

One particular yogi had been regularly practising the Mahasi method on his own for several months when he was talked into accepting this view. He was advised to stop noting predominant physical and mental phenomena "interrupting" his meditation and to just concentrate on the breath at his nostrils. For three months he diligently tried to do so. 

Later he told me that although anapanassati (mindfulness of the in-breath and out-breath) gave him some peace and calmness, he found that his everyday mindfulness was becoming dull and blunt. When he was practising general mindfulness, he could watch his thoughts and emotions even when he was at work, and that helped him in self-restraint. But since he changed to pure samatha (tranquillity) meditation, he was getting wilder in his behaviour. 

Several years ago when I was in Myanmar, I had a discussion with a brother forest monk, Hman Taung Forest Sayadaw U Candobhasa. He is one of the more exceptional yogis that I have met. Having practised various methods of meditation, e.g. Mahasi, Sun Lun, Mogok, Than Un Ya, Kanni, etc., he was still very enthusiastic when I told him about the Pa Auk method.

            "How can you cope with so many methods?" I asked. 

            "Whenever I start to learn a new method I make that I completely let go of any other techniques I have learnt before," replied Sayadaw. "One must be unbiased, objective and believing when practising under a competent master. Only then can one reap the most benefits," he stressed. 

            Such are the words of a true Truth Seeker. Faith gratitude and loyalty to one's teacher are doubtless, cardinal virtues of a devout student. But should a Dhamma sibling be accused of unfaithfulness (or "spiritual adultery", to coin a new term) and snubbed for having the guts to try another alternative that may very well prove to be more suitable than the Dhamma family's usual method of practice? There is a great deal of subjectivity involved in walking the path to liberation. What is suitable for one may not be so for another.  "One man’s meat is another man's poison" may be a mundane English saying, but its message reverberates through the Tipitaka and its exegetical literature as well as among yogis of all traditions and ages. 

Most of us would be quite familiar with the story of Ven Sariputta's newly ordained student (found in the Commentary on the Dhammapada verse #285) who struggled in vain with an unsuitable medi­tation subject until the Buddha came to the rescue. He was, it seems, a goldsmith's son. Observing that he was still in his robust youth, Ven Sariputta, the Buddha's foremost disciple in great wisdom, gave him asubha (loathsomeness of the body) meditation to subdue lustful thoughts that he could be prone to. It was a disastrous diagnosis, which goes to prove that even arahants (liberated person who has eradicated all mental defilements) are human enough to err. Throughout the vassa (rainy season retreat of three months' duration), one-pointedness of mind eluded him. His mind simply did not want to concentrate on the loathsome subject. 

After four months of coaching and persistent striving, both teacher and student were exhausted. Ven Sariputta, with all his intelligence and wisdom, could not figure out what was wrong. Finally he took him to see the Buddha. Through his psychic insight into others' inclinations and proclivities, the Buddha perceived that this new monk had been born in a goldsmith's family not only in this existence, but for the last 500 lifetimes! 

The poor novice was absolutely repelled by such a gross subject because he had been used to working with refined, beautiful objects of gold. It was obvious why his mind could not concentrate on the asubha meditation. Realising that a pleasant meditation subject would be suitable for him, the Buddha created a huge golden lotus with drops of water dripping from its petals and stalk. "Here, take this to the fringe of the monastery, erect it on a heap of sand and meditate on it," he said. 

The monk's eyes lit up with pleasure when he saw the beautiful golden lotus in the Buddha's hand. He reached out for it and his mind was immediately absorbed in the golden lotus. Following the Buddha’s instructions, he progressively attained and mastered the four jhanas (states of meditative concentration) in a single sitting. The Buddha then made the lotus wilt and fade in front of him. At that moment, the new monk realised impermanence and he attained enlightenment when he heard the Buddha's words, projected through psychic power from afar: 

Pluck off one's attachment

Like the autumnal lotus with the hand

Just develop the Path to Peace --

Nibbana, preached by the Buddha.

                        DHAMMAPADA 285

Dogmatic Theravada meditators should be asked, "Under which of the 40 objects of meditation described in the Visuddhimagga can this golden lotus be classified? Can it be ascertained that he went through the classical 16 stages of insight knowledge? Did he directly perceive the cause-and­effect  connection of his past lives before he qualified to attain maggaphala (path and fruition of enlightenment )? It can be argued that individuals during the Buddha’s time had superior paramis (perfections of spiritual virtues), so they could break all the rules and still attain enlightenment; whereas lesser mortals like us shall have to trudge every inch of the way just to get a glimpse of Nibbana. With all humility, we may have to admit that we have inferior parami credentials. But who on earth has the audacity to determine which method is best for an individual when even Ven Sariputta, the Buddha's wisest disciple, could prescribe a wrong subject?

 "I tell you, Ashin Phayah (Burmese word roughly meaning 'Venerable'), all of them lure [their students] according to their respective inclinations. Consider for example, Ven Ananda's case. The scriptures say that he attained arahantship (total liberation from all defilements) while he was practising kiiyagatiisati (mindfulness established in respect of the body). Teachers from the Mahasi tradition would of course assert that he was noting the movements of his body as he was lying down. Teachers who favour anapanassati would, instead, suggest that he was observing his breath at that time. 'He must have been contemplating one of the thirty-two parts of the body,' asubha enthusiasts would insist. None of them can be proven wrong because the term 'kayagatasati' can refer to any of those meditations. This is only one example, mind you. The scriptures are full of ambiguities like that," disclosed Hman Taung Forest Sayadaw. 

"They're all so eloquent and convincing; we don't really know whom to believe or not to believe. In the end, it's the actual practice -- the direct, personal experience -- that matters most," he continued. "After trying out so many different methods, what do I conclude? Each may start differently, but eventually they all end up doing the same thing - observing the arising and passing away of mental and material phenomena. The clarity and subtlety of the perception, of course, depends on the strength and intensity of one's concentration. " 

During the Buddha's time, monks of different clans, castes, districts and countries stayed and meditated together in one monastery, living in harmony and in accordance with the Dhamma­ Vinaya. But not all of them were meditating on the same type of meditation. One might be practising mettabhavana (development of loving-kindness), another anapanassati, and yet another contem­plating the four great elements. Others might be practising more than just one type of meditation. 

For instance, Ven Rahula, the Buddha's son, at one time was given six different subjects of meditation: thirty-two parts of the body, five elements, four divine abodes, asubha, imper­manence and anapanassati. (Maharahulovada Sutta, MN 62).

 As the Omniscient One was still alive, monks were prescribed the meditation subjects most suitable for each individual. Our story of Ven Sariputta's student is just one of the many cases where monks who were given inappropriate meditation subjects by their teachers struggled in vain until the Buddha came to the rescue. The Visuddhimagga and other commentaries also discuss at length the subject of suitability, not only confined to meditation subjects, but covering other areas such as food, posture, climate, lodging and Dhamma talk as well.  

All this points to the fact that there is a great deal of subjectivity involved in the practice for liberation. Starting off on the spiritual path on the wrong foot could have far reaching consequences. Imagine what could have happened to the ex-­goldsmith monk if the Buddha had not intervened. In my association with yogis and meditation teachers of various traditions, I've met and heard of many yogis who got on the right footing only after they had tried other methods without much success. 

If we know that a Dhamma sibling has dis­covered a new method of practice different from ours that is conducive to clarity of mind, freedom from the Hindrances (nivarana) and deepening of insight, what should we do? Would it be to anyone's advantage to ostracize him or her out of loyalty to the good old teacher or to the Dhamma family's usual method of practice? Why can't we maintain the spirit of liberality prevalent during the Buddha's time ? Even the venerables Sariputta, Moggallana and Ananda would send their students to one another for training. Why don’t we hear of students exchange programmes, e.g. between the Mahasi, Goenka and Pa Auk traditions? Why can't we live in harmony and with mutual understanding, respect and support within our own organisation or society even though we may be practising different methods of meditation? 

The handful of leaves given to us by the Buddha may be insignificant compared to the bountiful leaves of knowledge and information available to us today. But the wonder of that little handful is that it can be so varied, so versatile, so readily customised, and so effective -- if only we allow ourselves the freedom to choose and expe­riment. If only we are humble enough to admit the limitations of our knowledge and experience. If only we are discreet enough when commenting on other’s meditative experiences that are beyond our ken. If only we are tolerant and understanding enough to encourage our Dhamma siblings to try another path that is different from ours. If only we have enough unconditional love to rejoice in the success achieved through the Pa Auk method by a long-time Mahasi yogi. If only we know how to cope with just a handful of variegated leaves. 

Mutual support, understanding and respect, and unity in diversity are essential virtues that will help to nurture our practice while we walk on the spiritual path together. As a minority in a Muslim country, and even among the Malaysian Buddhist community, we Theravadins can no longer afford to be further decimated by our petty dogmatic differences, opinionated assertions and partisan loyalties. To react emotionally or behave judgmentally towards our Dhamma siblings who have found their mecca in the "opposite camp" may well cause an obstruction to their spiritual progress and well being. It may also undermine our own precious fraternity, strength, unity, and direction as the privileged heirs of our Master's handful of leaves, given without a closed fist.  

Source : Coping with a Handful of Leaves booklet

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