Thursday, March 24, 2016

March, 2016


Greetings from Wat Buddha Dhamma, near Sydney, Australia.



I arrived here on February 27th after spending a few days with my old friend John Barter in North Sydney. As in previous years, John invited me to offer some teachings at his psychology practice for the Thursday morning, and evening meditation classes and a day-long workshop on Saturday.

Since I had a free day on Friday, John and one of his students, Stephen, took the day off work, and together with Stephen's son and brother-in-law we took an excursion to Ku-Ring-Gai National Park north of Sydney. The park is a series of forested promontories stretching out into Broken Bay, where the Hawkesbury River flows into the Tasman Sea. Needless to say, there are a number of viewing points looking across the bay to the headlands of the Central Coast to the north, Lion Island in the middle of the channel, Barrenjoey Lighthouse and Palm Beach on the east, and the long Pittwater estuary to the southeast. As for much of the coast of Australia, innumerable beaches nestle between precipitous headlands. We clambered down one rugged track to a hundred meter patch of golden sand, guarded by a jagged cliff on one side and a steep, thick covering of Australia bush on the other, as huge waves crashed onto the beach, churning the water yellow with swirling sand.



Towards the end of last year, following the end of the Rainy Season Retreat, I travelled to Bangkok for several invitations to teach and visit some doctors. The main teaching engagement was at the Young Buddhist Association of Thailand meditation centre. The retreat, with 145 diligent meditators, was very well organized, so I only needed to make an appearance in the large meditation hall for two sessions of instruction, and the evening talk and Questions and Answers session. Fortunately, Ajahn Piyasilo from Chiang Rai was able to assist me with translation and leading the walking meditation. The organizers were keen that I should lead the retreat again next year.

I then returned to Poo Jom Gom for another few weeks before joining in the circumambulation of the memorial stupa on the last day of the Ajahn Chah commemoration ceremony. This year saw a larger number of senior Western ajahns than usual, including Ajahn Pasanno, Abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery, USA; Ajahn Sucitto, former abbot of Chithurst Monastery, UK; Ajahn Karuniko, the new abbot of Chithurst Monastery and Ajahn Kusalo, Abbot of Bodhinyanarama Monastery, New Zealand. I stayed on a few more days to participate in the Wat Nanachat Community Day, where 35 monastics from nearly 20 countries introduced themselves and shared their experiences of the last year, and then returned to Poo Jom Gom once again.

Wintertime in Thailand is the fire season, when the villages burn off the excess vegetation from their fields so they are ready for planting when the monsoon arrives. However, a few restless individuals also set fires illegally in the National Park. The park rangers said that these fires enable the villagers to harvest special mushrooms which grow in the ashes of burnt leaves, and obtain more bamboo shoots from the new growth of the burnt bamboo clumps. Needless to say, I only see the devastation caused by these seemingly random fires, and am moved to extinguish them whenever discovered. Fortunately, my vantage point high up the mountain enables me to see the first hints of smoke and I am usually compelled to hurry to the spot to extinguish the fire.

This year I only had to extinguish six fires, only three of which caused me excessive exhaustion. The worst one was at midday during strong winds, quite near to one of the huts. I stumbled across it on the way back to my cave and just managed to prevent it from getting close to the hut. Unfortunately, I didn't have a broom or rake with me, and after nearly half an hour of raking fire-breaks with my bare hands in the midday heat, had to give up when the flames got into the dried-up meadow and blazed two meters into the air (see photo). However, while retreating and pausing to take photos, I noticed that on the edge of the meadow there was a large patch of barren ground with only a few leaves scattered about. It would be quite easy to make a fire-break there, so I spent another half hour sweeping a clearing between the leaves with hands, feet and branches, and was able to contain most of the advancing fire. Fortuitously, Novice Mahaviro came along and together we managed to contain the rest of the fire.



Unfortunately, perhaps due to the meagre monsoon rainfall, there was not much of a 'cold season' in Thailand. One morning the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling 11°C, and a few mornings it was 13°C. The cold is heralded by the cool northeast wind, of which I took advantage to make a few extended excursions deeper into the park. It is quite an exhilarating experience to explore new territory, perhaps due to the excitement, bordering on anxiety, of stepping outside one's familiar environment. This, together with the need to maintain extra vigilance in order not to get lost and discovering unusual sights, combines into a memorable adventure. Even though I usually take a different route each day to return to my cave, the act of branching off into completely new landscapes is often like spreading wings.

I have been reflecting upon the reason why being in nature can be so peaceful and relaxing. When I leave the Sala to return to my cave I notice increasing relaxation the further I go from the Sala. This effect continues until I am about 500 meters into the park, approximately where I meet the first expanse of rocky outcrop with wide-ranging views of the mountains in Laos. It seems that this relaxation is related to the falling away of reference to my 'social self'. In nature there is no need to think about how I should act or what I should say; no real need for any self-reference other than getting this body reasonably comfortably to the shelter of the cave within a suitable time. I notice the opposite effect when I am approaching the areas of the monastery where people reside. I become more aware of time, what I will do next, who I might meet first, start to recall any significant events, etc. It is as if I again take up my persona, with all of its self-reference, associations, expectations and memories which previously I had mostly put aside or at least held very lightly while in solitude.

Most people appreciate the fact that we each have our own personal physical space, of which we often are only aware when someone invades it. I think we each also have our own personal psychological or 'psyche' space. This is usually much more subjective, in the sense that some people are more 'self-conscious' than others. For example, some people could walk through a crowded street and not be too bothered by others, whereas for other people even seeing one other person may cause reactions. (Of course, how much of the non-reaction is due to sensitivity numbness or sensory shut-down?)

To a large extent we live in our own self-centred world, assaulted by sensory impingements which we need to process with some degree of vigilance and effort. And much of this processing requires some self-reference, if only to determine whether or not there is danger. In an environment where we are impinged upon by human sounds, our 'social self' is also activated, and for many people this is where much dissonance and unease occurs. Being in quiet nature, on the other hand, can often be very relaxing, soothing and even psychologically healing, since it involves no or little self-reference. Even exciting nature can be 'relaxing', in the sense that we can be (temporarily) transported 'out of ourselves' by the exceptional experience, and come away refreshed, invigorated, and perhaps awestruck into inner silence. Many people appreciate spending time in nature, either to let their self-referencing quieten down, or just take a holiday from their busy 'selfing' activity.

During the briefly cool weather I twice journeyed up the dried-up stream bed and returned over the neighbouring 'mountain', which afforded an unusual view of the familiar Jom Gom mountain and the rocky promontory where my cave is situated. While the landscape in the area is not what one would call spectacular, it is quite unusual in comparison with other nearby landscapes. Just north of the neighbouring mountain is a huge expanse of barren, rock flowing gently down the slope like a lava-flow and then breaking up into a collection of massive boulders as it drops steeply into the narrow valley of the main stream. Meanwhile, the mountain is topped by huge rectangular sandstone blocks, scattered like some giant's Lego set.

Jom Gom 'mountain' on left, rocky outcrop of the Nibbana Cave on right side. Laotian mountains in background.

On my second journey up the stream bed I encountered several rock faces which would be quite impressive waterfalls in the monsoon. One of them was nearly 15 meters (50 feet) high, staggered in three stages. The first stage was a six-meter high sheer wall which looked like the end of my travels. However, tucked behind a block of stone was a narrow passage where I was able to climb up to the second level, a rippled ledge in front of a jumble of massive boulders. I clambered through them into a sunken basin, to face a seven-meter high wall of rock which at first resisted my attempts to climb higher. However, by stacking up several small boulders I was able to pull myself up onto a large rock and manoeuvre myself over further rocks along the sides to the third level, a broad, gently sloping plate of rock with several water-filled troughs. One of these troughs, miniature bathtub size, provided welcome sweat-cleansing (although I was sweating again in 10 minutes!) After an easy two-meter climb I was in the stream bed, in a broad valley nearly at the top of the plateau.

I noticed that it was now 3 pm and that I had been walking for three hours, meaning that unless I could find another route back I would have to retrace my steps and return just before nightfall (although I did have my head lamp with me). Thus I first needed to discover precisely where I was. The visible landscape did not look familiar. The cliff-faced hill off to the right was either the mountain north of Poo Jom Gom seen from the west, or some mountains in Laos. I turned sharply the way I had come and wandered through some woods and across a rocky outcrop to a high ridge and there it was – a vast panorama spread out before me. Almost straight in front of me in the distance was the large, golden Buddha statue at the Cave Monastery and in the far distance the mountains bordering Cambodia. Off to the left was the neighbouring mountain where I had been a few days previously, and beyond was Poo Jom Gom.

Thus knowing where I was, that I had about 2 ½ hours until dark and was now down to the last of my water, I decided that I would take a chance at a short cut down a stream bed I had seen previously beyond the neighbouring mountain. This should take me quickly (i.e., straight) down to the valley, where I could meet the path up to the Tea Cave, the closest source of water and a quick shower before dark. The risk with unknown stream beds, however, is that there is the possibility of meeting an impassable barrier such as a cliff, chasm or underground cavern. This would mean either retracing my steps or crashing through the thick vegetation on the banks of the stream. Anyway, if I hurried I should have ample time for some alternatives.

I briskly zig-zagged my way across the rocky ridges and valleys, across the parched, golden meadows, along the gleaming white-sand stream beds and up a steep wooded slope to the sweeping rocky plateau below the neighbouring mountain. I was making very good progress when I noticed smoke rising from several directions. Two of them were near the area where I had just been, and one was near the area where I was headed. Realizing the lateness of the day and my declining energy level, I had to forgo a return to where I had been. I also doubted whether I would be able to do anything about the fire ahead of me, but proceeded apace. As I neared the spot where I presumed the stream descended into the valley, I noticed that the smoke was rising from an area only a hundred meters further along the ridge. I decided to at least have a look at the extent of the fire. When I arrived at the scene the fire was lazily threading its way among the slabs of rock which staggered their way down the valley. Even though it appeared that the fire would eventually burn itself out upon reaching the rocky overhangs, it looked relatively easy to rake some leaves away from the edge of the streams of fire and assist its extinction. I therefore grabbed a sturdy branch and clambered over the rocky slabs to clear a fire-break between the rocks. Of course, as usual the theory was easier than the practice. In some places it was very easy to shift some leaves aside and the fire quickly came to a halt. Elsewhere the fire was deep in a crevasse, and I had to balance precariously on some sloped rock to flick the leaves away, while being engulfed in acrid smoke. After some initial success I branched out to circle the periphery of the fire (no use doing only half a job).

The going eventually got difficult where the fire was creeping through dwarf bamboo. Not was I poked, scratched and cut by the bamboo, but as it was hard to scrape a clear break through the thick vegetation, the fire constantly kept jumping the break, not to mention occasionally flaring up in a thick clump of tinder-dry leaves and stalks. However, 45 minutes and a liter of sweat later, it looked and sounded as it the fire was finally out. Since I was only 100 meters from the stream bed and already partly down the slope, I cut across the slope and soon came to the smooth rock stream bed. This was three to four meters wide and looked to be fairly easy to climb down. I had to do some clambering around some bigger boulders, but quickly dropped down the valley until I met a five-meter drop. Fortunately, this ledge was quite near to the tall bamboo along the valley bottom, so it was easy walking down to the sandy stream bed on the valley floor and up the other side, where I soon met the path gently climbing up to the Tea Cave. Within fifteen minutes I was at the water-tanks for a much-needed drink and a well-earned shower. From there it is only ten minutes' walk to the Nibbana Cave, so I took a slight diversion to a viewing point overlooking the valley. I could easily see the area where I had just descended, and was relieved that no smoke was rising, but about 300 meters along the slope, wisps of smoke were still floating over the tree-tops. By that time it was too late and I was too tired to make the trek across the valley, and the fire did not appear to be too large. I also knew that another stream came down the valley nearby, which would probably act as a natural fire-break to contain any further advance. Next day, when I again checked that area for smoke, the sky was smoke-free.

The 'last sunset' over the meditation platform on the rocky outcrop of the Nibbana Cave.

I departed from Poo Jom Gom on Feb. 10th somewhat earlier than I had intended, as I was accumulating a backlog of material to type up because my computer had died (which is why this blog is so late!) I therefore decided to spend a few extra days at Wat Nanachat using one of their computers, before my onward journey to Bangkok and Sydney. As usual, Ajahn Kevali was most welcoming and it was especially enjoyable to catch up with a number of monks whom I had met during my stays in Thailand.

We are presently eight monastics in residence, most staying on for the Rains Retreat. I will be staying here until May 11, through Ajahn Sumedho's visit near the end of April. I will then travel to Bodhinyanarama Monastery in New Zealand, where I will participate in their Vesakha Puja ceremony on May 22nd. On May 27th I will travel to visit John and Hanna at their home in northern New South Wales, where John has organized a meditation day and a talk. From May 31st I will be staying at Dhammagiri Monastery near Brisbane until July 7th, and then on to Vancouver, Canada.


Blessings for health, well-being and diligent practice. 


Friday, November 27, 2015

End of the Monsoon - Domestication and Homelessness, Spiritual Security



The main monsoon rains ended quite abruptly in mid-September, with a flourish but without too much drama. As I mentioned in the last blog, the journey across the rocky plateau when it is wet is not so easy, so early morning showers are not welcome. However, they do occur, and the morning of our last big rain was especially challenging. I heard the rain begin at about 2:30 am as I was meditating.. Accepting that the path would be wet, I thought, 'No problem as long as there is no lightning or strong winds, and, hopefully, the rain will ease by 4 am when I begin my downward journey'. Lo and behold, at about 3:45 the rain began to ease, so I got ready to set off, realising that it would still be quite wet under foot, with puddles and the odd stream still flowing. Since the area is mostly rock formations, it is exceptionally prone to flash floods. Ideally, if one can wait one or two hours, by then most of the rainfall has already flowed away.

However, just as I was stepping out of the shelter of the cave the rain began again, and then it decided to really rain! The paths soon became streams, the streams became torrents and the main stream became a white-water nightmare (or paradise if you are a white-water kayaker). Fortunately there was not much lightning, so I splashed my way along the pathways, forded the surging streams heading towards the bridge across the gorge. With heavy rain like this there is always the question, 'Will the bridge still be standing?', and, if so, 'Will it be passable?'. While still several hundred metres away I could hear the raging of the stream flooding down the valley, and as I turned the last corner saw that the bridge was still there, with the surging stream shooting along one metre below it. So, checking that the bridge was still secure, I quickly crossed over and made it to the hall for the morning almsround.

Flood waters surging under the bridge.

My 'Rainy Season Retreat' ended on November 25th. This was quite a physically challenging retreat for my increasingly ageing body. I expected my daily three hours of walking to be a workout, but in fact the real challenge was the heat, for which there is little relief except during brief rain showers. Adding to the challenge, my feet, ankle and left knee were uncomfortable for nearly two months. However, some extra rest, massage and use of a knee brace finally took effect, and all three parts eventually went back to functioning normally. When I am able to surmount these challenges and retire to the Nibbana Cave, the silence, tranquillity and solitude there are priceless.

The ending of the rains also means the ending of the flower season. This is the field which was burnt off in January -- it is heartening to see how resilient nature is to human's destruction.

Being in a remote, secluded place can have a special effect upon the mind. I think this partly has to do with it being so 'undomesticated', so that there are a natural rawness, unfamiliarity, poignancy and directness to it. I would define a 'domesticated' environment as one which is designed to be as safe and comfortable as possible for myself. However, in the process I think something gets left out or forgotten. Domestication can induce a numbness of feeling, a dullness of the senses and a lack of clear awareness due to familiarity.

Homelessness

The Buddha seems to have recognised the benefits of lack of domestication, as he encouraged those who were serious about spiritual liberation to undertake the simple and unencumbered lifestyle of 'homelessness'. This was mainly to allow for devoting a maximum amount of time and energy to spiritual practice, undistracted by involvements in the domesticated 'home life'. However, it also provided the opportunity to develop a number of qualities beneficial for supporting spiritual efforts.

The Buddhist strategy for liberation is based upon relinquishing grasping at self-identity in its various expressions. This strategy involves a number of different approaches, one of which is the practice of homelessness. While normally reserved for those who have undertaken the monastic training, it can also be applied to anyone seeking true liberation – it is as much an attitude of renunciation or relinquishment as it is a particular form or lifestyle. Ideally the lifestyle supports the attitude.

The Buddhist scriptures describe the household life as too confined and note that it is not easy to live the spiritual life in its fullness while living in a home. The home life has many characteristics, but probably the main one is possession, specifically of a dwelling and what goes with it. This can of course be the source of a strong sense of identity, as being someone who owns property and possessions (whereas in fact property and possessions often come to own you!).




Most people appreciate or even require some sort of protection from the elements, whether it is their own personal home or not. In a country like Thailand with only moderate temperature changes, people still need shelter from the monsoon rains, and it is convenient to be protected from the scorching sunshine and irritating creepy crawlies. The Buddha even laid down that monks should spend the three months of the monsoon season (July-October) in a suitable lodging.

The way which the Buddha provides residences for the Sangha and avoids the need for personal ownership is through communal ownership. Thus all major articles, such as property, buildings and furnishings, are owned communally by a body known as 'the Sangha of the Four Quarters, present and yet to come'. In most non-Buddhist countries, however, this rather amorphous entity is not recognised, so religious charitable trusts have been set up to own and manage monastic properties and possessions under the guidance of the Sangha, although not all of them precisely accord with the Buddha's model.

Security and Comfort

Among the other characteristics of the 'home life' which may contribute to increasing the sense of self-identity are: safety/security and familiarity, and comfort and convenience. In fact our life is not always going to be safe or comfortable;, that is why we have to make a conscious effort to seek these factors out. We are being constantly stalked by ageing, sickness and death, and we are continuously buffeted by changing physical and mental conditions, not all of them pleasant.

Of course, some degree of safety and comfort is necessary for a sense of well-being, but when do they become hindrances to spiritual liberation? If we try to create too much safety, we may be lulled into a state of complacency and lack of vigilance. Too much comfort can incline to lethargy and a lack of effort. How often do we simply fall asleep when we are relaxing comfortably? When does seeking security become avoidance?

Safety and security are provided by an environment which is protected and solid. Basically, the thicker the walls the safer we feel! But this solidity is really an illusion, feeding the delusion that objects or things are actually permanent. And by assumption this illusion carries over to our view of our own body as a permanent, reliable entity. Safety and security are also supported by familiarity. However, familiarity can easily slip into blind habit, and it is habit, assisted by memory, which seduces us into believing in a permanent self structure. 'You' have seemingly consistent memories (except perhaps as you get older) and 'you' are known as the person with certain particular habits and traits. And comfort is also supported by convenience. I can conveniently get my desires and wishes fulfilled, thus re-affirming the efficiency and efficacy of self-identity. I can have all my conveniences to make my life as comfortable as possible.




The life of voluntary homelessness can help to remove, or at least limit, the effect of some of these supports for self-identity, mainly through having to develop skilful qualities not always important to people in the home life. Thus without a fixed, permanent 'home' to live in we do not feed the sense of possession, ownership or control. Our self-identity is not tied to a place and we are much freer to move to new environments as they suit our changing situation, to which we also become more sensitive. The negative side of this is that we could also become irresponsible and ungrateful for the lodgings we are offered. Thus the Buddha also laid down guidelines for the responsible use and care of communal property so that it is maintained for the benefit of future Sangha members. Also, as Ajahn Chah frequently used to point out, are we just trying to escape some unpleasant situation by constantly moving, or are we moving to find suitable places to investigate the self which is disturbed?

Not having our own fixed abode also gives the possibility to face more directly the reality of insecurity, 'Where will I find shelter? Where will I sleep tonight?' It is, of course, necessary to have some reasonable degree of safety. However, real security requires an increased degree of wisdom and vigilance. The wisdom part is knowing about possible dangers in the place where we are staying and gaining some knowledge about prevention. We can do this in two different ways: one is to gain the appropriate information and the other is through direct experience. For example, experience I encounter fairly frequently is bewilderment and confusion from losing the path down from the cave, which is often so irregular, and the light from the headlamp so focused, that within seconds I can suddenly step off the path. It is a very interesting experience to be someone who knows where they are and where they are going, and then suddenly becomes totally bewildered and disoriented. But if one does not succumb to bewilderment or its associated panic, it is fairly easy to simply stop and re-orient oneself, or take a few backward steps to where you were so confidently on the path.

Vigilance is necessary to avoid threats to safety. And of course, if we are not always in the same environment we are less likely to fall into familiar, repetitive and often mindless habits that keep re-affirming a particular self-identity. Vigilance has several sides to it. On the one hand we notice much more than we normally would, and can become hypersensitive to the environment and our own changing mind states. This heightens our awareness that everything is in constant flux, but can also heighten our sensitivity to the dangers inherent in life – one wrongly placed step can result in a fall, or a loss of mindfulness may lead to an encounter with a dangerous creature.



Every morning I usually have at least one 'snake scare', mostly minor but on a few occasions a major one, even though I can recognise most of the 'snaky roots' on the path. However, branches are continually falling, the flooding rain moves branches and leaves in new formations and sometimes the moving lamplight throws up unusual shadows. Around here snakes are the only thing to be seriously concerned about. There are also scorpions and poisonous caterpillars which can give a nasty sting, but only snakes (or a major fall) could lead to serious injury or death. There are a few 'venomous and potentially fatal' snakes in the area, but most of them are not aggressive. One needs to either harm (i.e. step on) or frighten/surprise one before it would waste its venom on a pesky (i.e. non-edible) human. It saves its venom to obtain a meal. However, there is need for a certain degree of 'snake vigilance' so as not to unmindfully harm or surprise one.

On one of my early morning journeys down from the cave, before I was familiar with the various roots, I got quite a serious fright. A black s-shaped figure with white markings suddenly came into view on the edge of my light-beam. Here a black snake with white stripes is a 'banded krait', one of the deadliest kinds of snake. I paused for a few seconds and then, noticing that the figure did not move, I stepped closer to investigate. It was a nicely curved black root and the markings (not actually stripes) were white sand splashed onto it by the rain drops. Wow, that was a new one for me!

My only actual snake encounter on the morning walks took me completely by surprise. My conditioning was to be vigilant for snakes weaving across the path. However, my close encounter was with one which was coiled up on the edge of the path waiting to strike. Also, because it takes a few milliseconds for the brain to process a visual impression into a usable perception, it took my mind a brief moment before 'snake' registered in consciousness. By this time I was already in mid-step, since I was moving quickly through the forest to keep ahead of the mosquitoes. My foot touched down millimetres from the snake's mouth, but only briefly before I leaped into the air to get clear. I stopped to check out the creature, now several metres away and was later able to identify it as a Malayan pit-viper, one of the 'venomous and potentially fatal' ones.

As I continued on my way I reflected on what I would do if I was bitten. Since this was potentially a venomous snake, I would probably just find a convenient place to sit down and meditate as I calmly passed away. However, I later read that current medical advice is to remain as calm and immobile as possible (so that the venom does not travel quickly and directly to the vital organs), yet make your way to a medical facility for treatment. I was over one kilometre from the main hall and some 40 kilometres from a hospital!

Comfort Level

While it is necessary to establish some degree of comfort even in a temporary environment, we are not always able to establish the same level of comfort as we are used to, which our self defines as comfortable for us. Thus many times our 'comfort level' is challenged, with the result that we learn to expand it, perhaps even to levels we never imagined possible. We also learn what our own 'comfort level' is. I found, for example, that now this ageing body is not able to sit comfortably on a hard, flat surface. In most monasteries in Thailand the monks sit on thin rush mats, with no 'cushions' or zafus for support. Senior monks may be given a thicker sitting mat with a backrest, but cushions are considered only for use under the head while sleeping, and thus should not be sat upon!

Convenience is also challenged by homelessness, as we are not always able to have our preferences satisfied. A home is usually a place where we can build our own comfortable environment with every convenience, so we can constantly get whatever we want. In other words, we build an environment to suit our desires, rather than have to surrender our desires to live in the environment as it actually is.



Spiritual Security

Thus, as the Buddha recommended, living a life of homelessness can help us cultivate many useful spiritual qualities, which not only support the deeper realisation of the Buddha Dhamma of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality, but provide many benefits for dealing with life's everyday challenges. We have much more (inner, spiritual) security and comfort from developing beneficial qualities than from trying to artificially create an apparent secure and comfortable (external) environment.





Sunday, October 18, 2015

Heat, Following the Path, Perceptions and Views


I am now at Poo Jom Gom, staying in the Nibbana Cave where I resided earlier this year, and already half of my 'Rainy Season Retreat' has concluded. We are currently nine monastics in residence – six monks, one novice and two anagarikas – from seven different countries.

The Mekong River at high water. The foreground is Thailand the background Laos.

My last few days in Canada were quite eventful, though all proceeded smoothly due to the efforts and support of many people. Ajahn Tawatchai and the monks and supporters of BBM Thai temple in Burnaby were very welcoming, and a number of the Thai supporters, and those who came to the Friday evening talk made generous donations towards my travel expenses. On Saturday close to 100 people attended the day of meditation in Burnaby, and then some 40 people attended the four-hour teaching and meditation session on the Sunshine Coast, north-west of Vancouver. Recordings of some of these teachings can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGlUZRzXXYU&feature=youtu.be and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JG8gBjWwZTQ. 
Anumodana to all the devoted helpers for these events, sponsoring the hire of the halls, providing the meal offerings and helping with other arrangements.

I arrived here at the end of August, naively believing that the worst of the heat would have passed. Surprise! Unfortunately, this year the cooling monsoon rains have been quite meagre and thus it has been unusually warm.

An approaching thunderstorm.

The journey down from the cave in the morning is relatively cool, even though I usually need to stop for a bath to wash the sweat off. However, the journey back up to the cave after the meal is a 'sweat bath' all the way. In fact I sweated so much that my sight became affected by the amount of salty sweat dripping into my eyes. A few times I was crossing the plateau as the sun beat down; even with an umbrella sheltering me, the sun baking down on the black rocks was like walking through a blast furnace. Several times I arrived at the cave feeling quite unwell with nausea and weakness, as if I were suffering from a minor case of heat stroke. A rest and some electrolyte drink returned me to normal. My usual route now is to follow the stream two thirds of the way up the valley, in order to have several cooling, cleansing baths before the ascent through some shady forest.

One of the bathing pools; note the stone bridge in the background.

As some people will remember from previous blogs the path from the Nibbana Cave crosses several rocky plateaus and winds through several forested areas. The pathway through the forested areas is relatively easy walking. Even though it is criss-crossed with tree roots (which often look like snakes), the rain has washed the sandy soil to make a series of irregular steps, the tree roots being the tread of the step. One needs to vary one's stride to fit the height, size and shape of each step, but at least the surface is stable and level.

'Snaky' steps in the forest.

The pathway across the plateau, however, is continuously uneven. It crosses a variety of rock formations, from gently undulating surfaces to sharply outlined ones with odd-shaped rocky protrusions or clearly defined valleys and ridges. It also winds around large boulders and patches of grass or shrubs, as well as climbing or dropping over steep slopes. Add to this the fact that most of the rock surface is covered in a black algae which bakes in the sunshine and is very slippery when wet, and one has a very interesting, if often challenging, walking environment.

The interesting path across the plateau.

On the morning of my second night in the cave I began my hour's walk down to the Main Hall at 4 a.m., just as lightning began flashing, with thunder rolling and the wind rising. Since it is much easier to cross the rocky plateau when the rocks are dry, I quickened my pace for the descent, hoping to keep ahead of the storm.

Fortunately, I was very familiar with the path from my previous stays, since it is extremely difficult to make out the way by sight when the rocks become wet. When the rocks are dry the details of the uneven surfaces become more pronounced, due to differences in the degree of light or darkness of the surface. However, when it is wet the surface becomes a more homogeneous darkness, which makes it hard to distinguish the depressions from the ridges. Some mornings I feel as if I am drunk as I stagger across the rocks, tripping on the higher parts and lurching into lower ones, all the time trying to keep the next marking cairn in sight.

Due to my familiarity with the path I could rely to some degree on memory and my previous experience of losing the way a number of times (and being the wiser for it) as a 'reality check' to help me stumble through the storm. I immediately noticed a relaxing in my attitude and more confidence that I would be able to manage the situation. This helped to allay the fear of uncertainty, 'Will I make it?' Since I had lost my way a few times before and still found my way back to the path, I knew that all would be well.

Having resources other than only sense impressions as a support for relating to reality is, of course, very helpful. I could thus make use of three of the Five Groups (khandha) which the Buddha said are the primary basis of a human being; that is, I could use eye-consciousness, perception/memory and the wisdom of experience (sankhara), without giving extra reference to physicality and feeling, although they were both also present. 

When we have a greater degree of knowing or wisdom we are less fearful, and thus less conflicted by disturbing mental states. Although memory and experience are both impermanent and non-self, they do provide some extra balance against having to over-rely on the very unreliable sense consciousness, especially in challenging situations where the senses are reaching the limit of their capacity.

A monsoon deluge from the shelter of the dry cave.

Not having a number of supportive references is, of course, the root cause of so much misunderstanding and distorted views. Many people receive an initial sense impression and immediately grasp that as the truth. This then becomes their personal view of the situation: 'This is how reality is'. And of course it becomes more problematic when this impression triggers some of our own unconscious memories or habit tendencies – if it conforms to our own views, it definitely must be true!

If we add to this an element of fear, or if a strong emotional reaction is stimulated, many people will easily believe whatever information they are fed. Bring up some especially emotive theme -- racism, social injustice, inequality, etc. – and people become 'emotionally hijacked', with their reflective capacities shutting down. Probably most of us have had the experience of being so overwhelmed by an emotional reaction that we cannot think straight, and any attempt at a rational discussion is a waste of time. We don't fully understand that these impressions are uncertain and that the perception of them has been filtered through our own subjective biases. We forget that they are just impressions, just one view of things.
If one agrees with or especially likes a view, it is highly likely that it is very similar to our own view on the matter, whether we know it or not. This is a useful way to get more insight into what views we have. Notice your reaction to views which you don't like; do they clash with your views?

Unfortunately, many 'Buddhists' are not exempt from this phenomenon. In spite of many teachings from the Buddha emphasising the unreliability of sense impressions, the importance of investigating the nature of sense contact and the dangers of holding fixed views, they still fall into the old habit of holding on to views of various kinds. Thus many people easily believe some clever speaker, or hold on fervently to rigid views about practice.

Many Buddhist meditators know (at least in theory) that the body and mind are non-self, and perhaps develop their meditations accordingly. However, few of them realise just how embedded self-identity is in the views we hold, either overtly or as inherent views about ourselves. Understanding this aspect of views is very important, since self-views are the most insidious tools of 'I-making' (the theme of my next book).



In the Udana scripture (Ch.6, Discourse 4) the Buddha tells the humorous story of a former king who had people born blind brought into contact with various parts of an elephant. When asked to describe what an elephant was, they each explained it according to the part they had examined and, becoming quite certain of their explanation, they soon starting disagreeing and quarrelling until that they came to blows, much to the amusement of the king.

Now, if these blind people had decided to share their individual experiences, they might have been able to get the whole picture of an elephant. This, of course, is the best policy regarding individual views. If we are able to listen to each other's views, we are able to get the bigger picture of reality. The Buddha understood this very well, and suggested that for the smooth running of the Sangha, its members should have frequent and harmonious meetings to discuss issues. This is also one of the foundations of the Ajahn Chah tradition, which has allowed quite an array of different personalities to cooperate for the common good.

If one knows how unreliable sense impressions are and has other sources of reference such as previous experience or memory, or some clear understanding, knowledge or wisdom,one is less inclined to grasp initial impressions so unquestioningly. Thus one does not need to hold on to beliefs and is less easily swayed by other people's clever views.

To help gain a wider range of resources it can be useful to engage in some reflection on what we are experiencing. The first thing to do about any sense impression is to determine just how accurate the information is. Re-confirm those sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily sensations and mental phenomena which we have received. Have we really received them accurately? A significant example these days is reading something off the internet, even our own emails. Next time you read something from the internet, ask yourself, 'Did I read this correctly?'. Then read it again. Was it the same? Now try to summarise what you have read in your own words, and check it again with the article.

The second thing is to check our perception of the impression. How precise is that? Is it familiar or is it different than previous memories? Does this perception conform to other people's perceptions? And then, thirdly, is our conclusion or view reasonably coherent and logical, or is it overlaid with (unconscious) emotional issues? What is our particular reaction to this understanding of what we are experiencing?

Thus we may gradually be able to abide in the viewing, knowing full well that views are fluid, and that holding to any of them becomes the fertile ground for self to grow.



Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August 2015


Greetings from very dry and warm British Columbia, Canada.

I arrived in Canada on July 1st, which happens to be Canada Day. I departed from Auckland, New Zealand at 8pm on July 1st and arrived at my sister's house in central British Columbia at 9:30 pm on July 1st after nearly 20 hours of travel (figure that out!)

My three and a half months in Australia and ten days in New Zealand passed extremely quickly, I think more due to having a wide variety of experiences than to merely 'having fun'.
After my initial ten days at Wat Buddha Dhamma the community began preparing for the visit of Ajahn Dtun, so it was a good occasion to visit Wat Buddha Bodhivana near Melbourne. Ajahn Kalayano had invited me several times to visit, especially since they now have a very comfortable new 'Mahathera Kuti' (Senior Monk's Hut). In spite of their busy schedule the resident community members were very accommodating, taking me out for several excursions, including an all-day trip over the Great Dividing Range to the Cathedral Ranges National Park on the dry eastern side of the mountains. The number of supporters coming to offer the meal and stay for the mid-day Dhamma teachings has been steadily increasings and on weekends they frequently over-flow the dining/reception room in the house. Fortunately, a new Dining/Reception Hall, similar in design to the large Meeting Hall, was nearing completion and was officially opened by Luang Pa Opat at the end of April.

The Main Hall of Wat Buddha Bodhivana in the Yarra River Valley, Warburton, Victoria.

On the day of my departure back to Sydney I was invited to offer a blessing ceremony for the re-building of Vimokkha Hermitage in Dandenong National Park. The previous main building had been damaged beyond repair in an electrical fire early last year, and the support committee has undertaken to rebuild a more monastic-suitable structure to continue the legacy. Although they have received a payment from the insurance company, considerable energy will be needed to raise more funds and at overcoming planning, architectural and building challenges before the hermitage will be back in operation. My Anumodana for all the meritorious efforts.

I arrived back in Sydney to spend several days with John Barter at his Well-Awareness centre, where I was invited to offer some teachings at the two Thursday meditation sessions and then led a meditation workshop on Saturday. On Friday night I met Bhikkhuni Nirodha, whom I had met in Switzerland and Australia many years ago as an Eight-precept Upasika. She is now the senior monastic guiding the development at Santi Forest Monastery, south of Sydney. After several years of instability it seems that a committed resident community is taking shape, which may provide suitable opportunities for women interested in monastic life.

After a short visit to John's home in northern NSW, I then returned to Wat Buddha Dhamma for an extended stay in time to teach the four-day Easter Retreat. Ajahn Khemavaro and other Sangha members had organised the retreat diligently, so that all I needed to do was give daily instructions, evening talks and interviews. It was especially heartening to have the young members of the Sydney Technical College Buddhist Society attend. Recording of the talks are available at www.wbd.org.au/audio/others.

Having recently finished the book on the Five-Hindrances, I had some reflections on the theme of Desire:

The Paradox of Desire

There are a number of themes in spiritual practice which come across as paradoxes, that is, themes which combine seemingly contradictory concepts. Since many people usually relate to concepts in a rigid, definitive way, this can lead to a considerable degree of confusion. When dealing with paradoxes it is necessary to hold several definitions in mind at the same time, realizing that although one definition may predominate, the others may also be present.

One of the confusing paradoxes in Buddhism is the paradox of desire (chanda). On the one hand desire is often mentioned as a cause of suffering, yet it is also some form of desire which motivates us to pursue spiritual practice. To be more precise, it is actually not desire per se which is the main issue, but rather the focus of that desire.

The desire of which the Buddha was particularly critical is desire for pleasures of the senses, which are essentially very unreliable and undependable for lasting happiness. Some degree of pleasurable sense-impressions is necessary for the continuity of life, but for some people the main purpose in life is to try to continuously satisfy their desire for sensual pleasure. Other people may recognize other purposes in life; for example, the realization of truth through the development of spiritual practice. While desire is present in both instances, the objects of that desire - for sensual pleasures or for spiritual practice - are quite different. Thus we need to be very specific about what the object of any desire is.

Of course, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what the object of desire really is. Someone may think that their desire is for spiritual practice, when really they just desire to be happy, comfortable or experience some 'spiritual-like' pleasure. That's why it is important to take the theme of desire as a topic for mindful investigation, in order to better understand this rather slippery topic.

Desire as intention or will is a central aspect of our sense of self which creates skilful or unskilful action. Skilful actions are actions of body, speech or mind which lead to the releasing of self-grasping, while unskilful actions increase that grasping. The unawakened being should thus channel self-supporting desire in a skilful way, so that it leads to the cessation of desire through the cessation of grasping at selfhood. Some form of desire exists until final awakening - two of the last five fetters are lust for material and immaterial existence. For awakened beings, through seeing the objects of desire as ultimately impermanent, unsatisfactory and impersonal, all desire ceases.. They have reached the end of their journey and desire for anything further has ended.

*   *   *

Settling in to WBD I now had a five-week period to follow my more settled 'retreat routine' of meditation, study and exercise. Having recently finished the final proof-read of my third book, 'Working with the Five Hindrances', I started on my next book on 'I-making', since I had access to the monastery's Pali Canon translations. The monastery's location in the middle of Darug National Park offers ample opportunity for a variety of walks along the many tracks, fire-breaks and access roads, while the dry-land bush provides possibilities for some moderately challenging off-trail excursions, particularly along the rocky ledges of the ridge tops. Meanwhile, the large wood stove, en-suite toilet and gas stove in the new Senior Monk's Hut provided a very comfortable self-contained space for sustained periods of formal walking and sitting meditation.

The day before my arrival at WBD in early March, Ajahn Medhino had arrived from Sri Lanka. Upon my return on April 1st plans had now taken shape for him to build an earthen hut similar to the one he had built there. Thus began a rather lengthy process of preparing the site and providing the various materials – foundation stones, sand and clay for the walls, dead trees for pillars and rafters -- as well as undertaking the building work itself with significant help from many supporters and monastics. This may be a precedent for an ecologically-friendly and durable monastic dwelling. This will be the tenth hut at WBD, together with the spacious new Senior Monk's Hut.

Thai supporters from Sydney helping with the building of the earthen hut.

Under Ajahn Khemavaro's guidance Wat Buddha Dhamma has been going from strength to strength. The community has been growing every year; old buildings have been renovated and new huts built. This year a record nine monastics, plus two 'anagariks' (one male and one female), will be resident for the Rainy Season Retreat. And, with the steadily growing monastic community and lay support, Ajahn Khemavaro is looking to develop another monastery combining two of his 'pet projects': preserving a large section of Australian bush and providing a retreat hermitage for senior monks. We thus spent two days viewing four properties in the Port McQuarie/Kempsey area, resulting in one likely site of 2,000 acres – 600 acres of partially-flat grassy fields and 1,400 acres of steep-slope native forest. Although it is 19 km on council-maintained gravel road, it is still only 40 minutes from Kempsey Regional Hospital. A number of very generous supporters have already committed funds for an initial down payment.

Since my Australian visa was expiring it was time for me to make a visit to Bodhinyanarama, Wellington for their annual Vesak ceremony. I met up there with Ajahn Sucitto, who was spending time in New Zealand on formal and semi-retreat after joining the ranks of retired Abbots last year. Also in residence were Venerable Aruno from Chithurst Monastery and Venerable Kusalacitto, formerly one of our local Cambodian supporters. Ajahn Kusalo was, as usual, energetically engaged in preparing for the Vesak ceremony, especially by elaborately decorating the marquee with the numerous paper lanterns which the Sri Lankan children had offered the previous Saturday. Several hundred people attended the ceremony, most of them staying for the teachings and circumambulation.

My time in New Zealand was quite short, as I was scheduled to participate in the Vesak ceremony at Dhammagiri Monastery near Brisbane at the end of May. This year four monastics shared leading the various day-long activities: myself, Ajahn Ariyasilo, Ajahn Dhammasiha and Venerable Moneyyo. A very devoted and appreciative audience stayed for most of the day, from the Precept-ceremony in the morning to the hilltop procession at sunset. See photos at www.dhammagiri.org.au/vesak-2015.

A few reflections from a Sunday talk on the theme of 'non-soul': 

The Paradox of Self

Similarly to desire, another paradox in spiritual practice is that of self or self-identity. On the one hand some degree of selfhood is necessary for life and the development of spiritual practice; on the other hand, it is the obsessive grasping of selfhood which is our greatest source of suffering. Essentially the paradox is that while we do experience a reasonably stable 'sense of self', this 'self' is not ultimately a permanent thing. If we grasp onto it as something permanent we are living with ignorance and out of harmony with reality, and so we will suffer.

One of the most important teachings of the Buddha is the teaching on anatta. This is usually translated literally as 'non-self'; however, I personally think that a much better literal translation would be 'non-soul'. What the Buddha is saying with this teaching is that there is no permanent-abiding essence in anything. A permanently-abiding essence is what most people would associate with a soul or something similar, for example, consciousness or memory. Of course, while many people would tend to attribute permanence, or at least some stable continuity, to their everyday self, they would also be somewhat aware of its continuously changing nature, for example, changing views, increasing knowledge or fading memory. In contrast, 'soul' implies some intrinsic unchanging essence.

Also, I think this translation would help mitigate much confusion and initial emotional resistance. By 'self' most people mean their sense of identity, personality or individuality. When they first hear this teaching on 'non-self' many will feel confused and possibly frightened, because it appears to contradict their direct everyday experience of themselves. Whereas if they heard 'non-soul' most people (especially with a secular education) would be easily inclined to agree without feeling any threat to their familiar sense of self.

This understanding may also help people appreciate that spiritual practice is a developing process, and in the early stages one is actually developing skilful self-qualities such as generosity, morality and meditation. Most people need some self-motivation, self-reliance, self-discipline, etc. in order to undertake and follow through the process of spiritual development. If it is all 'non-self', why bother in the first place? In essence, skilful self development is the exercises and attitudes which gradually lead to the attenuation of obsessive grasping of selfhood rather than to its destruction. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people ask, 'How to get rid of self?' Watch out, someone without a (sense of) self is defined as psychotic!

In a somewhat similar way to the paradox of desire, selfhood itself is not the main issue. It is our relationship to self which is the source of possible suffering. The constantly changing, relative self which provides us with a reference within the chaos of the universe is necessary for a sane relationship with reality. However, when we grasp or cling to it (or identify it as body, consciousness, feelings, perceptions, or mental processes, i.e. views or beliefs), we cease to flow with the natural transience of reality and face disappointment, frustration and despair.

Of course, a more positive expression of the teaching on anatta would be, 'Everything is causally conditioned'. Reality is subject to the universal principle of conditional causality, rather than that of our personal self or a universal Self. Thus, rather than deny the existence of everything with which people are familiar, they can replace it with the truth of causality, even though that may be difficult to understand correctly.

*   *   *

Following the Vesak celebration I had only a few days to catch up with Ajahn Ariyasilo, whom I had known for many years in Britain and New Zealand, before he returned to the Buddhist Society of Victoria in Melbourne. Ajahn Dhammasiha then began his scheduled trip to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore for the annual Sangha meeting at Wat Pah Pong and teachings in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I and Ven. Moneyyo, who was my attendant monk at Chithurst last year, settled into a peaceful and harmonious practice routine. Although not many in number, the monastery supporters are exceptionally generous to the Sangha and very dedicated in their spiritual practice, with many attending the afternoon teachings and the Sunday meditation workshop. I was once again able to continue work on my new book, get some exercise in the wide areas of forest at the back of the monastery property (which borders the Lake Manchester water catchment and Brisbane City Recreational Reserve) and follow a steady routine of meditation. 

In mid-June Prem and Sompon arrived in Brisbane and we journeyed to Airlie Beach in Whitsunday Island National Park, 1,000 km north of Brisbane. Together we spent several relaxed days in the area, including a day-long cruise to the spectacular Great Barrier Reef and another to Whitehaven Beach, a protected pristine, powder-sand beach on Whitsunday Island. I then returned to Dhammagiri for another peaceful stay until Ajahn Dhammasiha returned and we had a very brief time to catch up before my departure to Auckland.

The Great Barrier Reef off the north east coast of Queensland, Australia.

The main purpose of my trip to Canada was to visit with family: two brothers, a sister, a 95-year old aunt, and numerous cousins, nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews. The main event was the annual Family Picnic at a local park named after my grandmother. She had been a pioneer in the Surrey area of Greater Vancouver, so when the family farm was sold, a small portion was designated as a park and named after her. Unfortunately, the picnic is held on the second Sunday of July, when I am usually observing our Rainy Season Retreat at a monastery far away, so I have only attended three of these events in twenty years.

I interspersed my time with family with some teaching. The first teaching was an invitation from the Victoria Insight Meditation (VIM) group to lead a day-long meditation on the theme of my soon-to-appear book 'Working with the Five Hindrances'. The venue was a Unitarian Church with a very spacious meeting hall and extensive grounds, a ½ hour drive from down-town Victoria, where Sister Medhanandi from Sati-Saraniya near Ottawa had led a retreat the previous month. This was followed by a Sunday evening talk at the weekly group meeting. I was very comfortably hosted by Brock and June, in a meditation hut in their garden, and we had time for an excursion up the west coast of Vancouver Island, enjoying a picnic lunch on rugged China Beach overlooking the mountainous Olympic Peninsular in Washington State. The dedicated VIM community were extremely generous with donations, covering the cost of my one-way flight from NZ and the purchase of some requisites for my time in Thailand. Anumodana for your generosity and dedication to Dhamma practice.

On the shore of Pender Island, Southern Gulf Islands, British Columbia.

After several more family visits I went to stay with Ajahn Sona and Sister Mon at Birken Monastery, four hours north of Vancouver in south-central British Columbia. I had spent the Rainy Season Retreat there in 2012, so was happy to have the opportunity to re-connect with the community and have some 'monastic time' between family visits and teaching.
I will soon return to Vancouver to stay at the Ajahn Buddhadasa-Panyananda Monastery, where I will give the Friday evening talk. On Saturday, August 15th I will lead a day-long retreat for friends in the area and then travel to the Sunshine Coast north-west of Vancouver for a Sunday afternoon talk. I then have only one free day before my flight back to Thailand.

On Friday, August 21 I will be giving a talk at the Buddhadasa centre in Rote Fai Park, north Bangkok, before returning to Ubon and entering the second Rainy Season Retreat at Poo Jom Gom on August 30th. This is a time devoted to more formal meditation so I will be following a retreat schedule for the coming months.


Wishing you all health, happiness and continued success in practice.