Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rains Retreat in England and Appropriate Attention

Already half of the Rainy Season Retreat has passed and I am well-settled into the Vultures Peak Hut in Chithurst Monastery's forest.

Before arriving here I spent a short week at Santaloka Hermitage in the Gressoney Valley of northern Italy. Andrea met me at Martiny train station in Switzerland and drove me over the Grand San Bernardo pass on a spectacularly sunny, clear day. We arrived at the 2,500 metre pass just in time to stop for lunch at the small lake, surrounded by patches of snow. Santaloka Hermitage, at an altitude of 2,000 metres, was free of snow, with the meadows a profusion of alpine flowers. I had hoped to do more exploring to higher altitudes than my last visit, which was early in the spring with still much snow. However, the weather was not very cooperative, with many cold, wet days. The one day I did manage a reasonable outing, I got caught in a rain storm. Fortunately, with Boonjun's rain poncho I remained fairly dry. Once again the supporters were extremely generous in providing all the requisites and I met a few new people. One woman from the small village where Boonjun lives has been listening to Dhamma talks off the internet for several years, but this was the first time she had met a live monk. Alas, my time there was very short, and I soon left the towering mountains of north Italy for the gently rolling hills of West Sussex.

Santaloka Hermitage and stone stupa.

Ajahn Sucitto and the resident community generously welcomed me to spend the Rains Retreat in a hut in the forest. My hut, the Vultures Peak hut, is situated on a minor 'peak' (but no vultures), near the top of a ridge overlooking the hilly South Downs, just north of the south coast of England. It is a twenty-five minute walk from the main house where we receive food and have showers. Part of the walk is along a narrow country lane which through centuries of use has now eroded 1 ½ metres below the surrounding landscape, like a sunken walkway. Thick vegetation grows along the sides, including several large trees, so that it is well sheltered from the weather. The only minor disadvantage is that if one meets a vehicle, one needs to squeeze into the undergrowth along the sides, often meeting thorny brambles.

Vultures Peak hut.

The second part of the journey is like walking into a children's wonderland. An old coach-road veers off the paved lane down into the Hammer Stream valley. With no houses nearby, the sheltered valley is exceptionally silent and timeless, the wide dirt track lined with huge old beech and oak trees. The monastery side of the track towards the Hammer Pond is heavily wooded, with many large trees, and the other side is a forest of mature chestnut trees. The result is the 'cathedral effect', with a towering 'roof' of leafy branches and a broad, open 'ground floor'. This effect is greatly accentuated when the shafts of early-morning sunlight come cascading through the canopy, reflecting off shining beech leaves or ferns, and diffused through the hovering mists. Other than one weather-beaten footpath sign, there is no evidence that one is in the 21st century. I half expect to meet a horse-drawn carriage bound for the south coast or see Robin Hood and his Merry Men leap out from behind a beech tree (although they lived in Sherwood Forest north of London!).

The track crosses Hammer Stream at New Bridge. It is 'new' because it was only built in 1795. Chithurst House, built in 1862, is much newer, almost 'modern' compared to other features in the monastery forest. On the eastern side of Hammer Wood is part of the Roman road running from the south coast to London, while above the pond one can still make out the remains of an Iron Age Celtic fort.

The alternative route to the hut, passing the Nuns' cottages and circling Hammer Pond, is also exceptionally scenic. The narrow lane, sloping quite steeply down to Hammer Stream, has been eroded up to 5 metres deep and is mostly lined with large trees, which at one point are so thick that it is like walking through a tunnel. The lane runs past the two Nuns' cottages, and then the path turns into a forest track behind the new Shrine Room. After many years using the converted garage for a shrine room, several years ago a new building was added as a Shrine Room and storage room with many windows, topped with a glass-sided cupola, allowing in even more light. The nuns also have two meditation huts further up the hill above Hammer Pond.

The forest path then turns off to meet Hammer Stream and follows it up to the waterfall over the weir. Most of the year there is water tumbling over the man-made weir (dam), originally constructed to power a 'hammer' to forge iron ore. From the open space here one can also get quite an extensive view of the Hammer Pond, at present heavily covered in yellow water lilies. The path next skirts around the edge of the pond close to the water, and then climbs up to a track lined with towering beeches parallel to the pond.

I first arrived at Chithurst Monastery in 1982, when we spent most of the Rains Retreat replacing the tiles on the roof of the dilapidated old house. My first 'lodging' was on a stack of insulated plasterboards in the area which, after renovation finished, became the 'Chao Khun Room', where Chao Khun Panyananda and other senior monks stayed. Over the years much hard work and care have gone into renovating the decayed Victorian house, so that now it is a very well-kept monastic structure, a suitable legacy to the memory of Luang Pa Chah, whose exquisite portrait hangs in the main hallway, benevolently observing.

The major change since I lived here is, of course, the superb new Dhamma Hall and cloister complex. Previously this was the rambling old coach house and stables. During the time I was here we had drawn up initial plans, but the final result is much more grand and outstanding than we first envisioned. Besides the excellent exterior stone-work, the interior, featuring large oak beams and trusses, conveys a sense of enduring time, deference to the past and stability stretching into the future. The Dhamma Hall is connected to the house by a cloister, which also extends along the eastern side of the pond and lawn, enclosed with a holly hedge on the south side, creating a peaceful sheltered space.

During the Rains Retreat the monastery is full to capacity, with eleven monks, two novices and five anagārikas, sharing rooms in the house and the seven huts in the forest. The community alternates with each person having a three-week silent retreat. Although the monastery is nearly one and a half hour's drive from London, quite a few people make the journey at weekends to offer the meal, and an increasing number of local Thais are becoming regular supporters. There are also several alms-rounds to local towns, one of them a nearly four hour walk (with a return ride).

My retreat time here has been exceptionally peaceful. Even though we are in crowded south England, with passing aeroplanes, nearby traffic and local party noises, the huts are far enough from footpaths to be very isolated. I have been using this opportunity to do some regular work on my book on the Hindrances. The good news is that it is nearly complete. We are down to the last details of editing, so it looks as if we will meet the deadline for next year's printing. While it has been quite a 'brain-teaser' to put all the materials together, it has also been a valuable learning experience. Several aspects of the teachings have become more prominent in my practice since the project began, and some key points are very important to keep in mind. One valuable teaching which stands out in working with the Hindrances is the important of Appropriate Attention. Below is a short passage from the chapter on Supportive Conditions.

One skilful mental quality which the Buddha specifically mentioned as fundamentally important in working with the Hindrances is appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra: S.V. 64f; A.I,3f). While it is not mentioned in the standard categories of teachings (since it is somewhat of a technical term), the Buddha emphasized it as a very significant factor in the mental training of meditation. Thus appropriate attention is the key factor in resolving each of the Hindrances, and its opposite, inappropriate attention, is instrumental in their arising and increasing.

Bhikkhu Analayo (2012: p.193-205*) has made a thorough study of the term 'yoniso manasikāra' as it is used in the Pali Canon. He has distinguished three aspects of the qualifying term 'yoniso': thorough, appropriate and wise. Thus it has a range of nuances in different contexts. I have chosen to use 'appropriate', although the other nuances may also apply.

Attention (manasikāra) is a mental function which is present in any act of consciousness. What we attend to and how we attend have a strong effect upon the mind. Unfortunately, the attention of unawakened beings still under the distorting influence of greed, aversion and delusion is biased in an inappropriate way, which then invariably perpetuates the distortions. Most of us already know the effects of inappropriate application of attention, for example when we are caught in fantasizing about sensual attractions. Observe how this further nourishes sensual desire. Thus both too frequent attention and too narrow attention, not seeing the object from other angles, can be unskilful. If we can shift our attention wisely by seeing the fantasy as fundamentally just a perception, we can notice what mental state this can engender. That is, wisely attending to an object in terms of understanding its nature can have a transforming effect.

The Commentaries explain inappropriate attention as similar to the 'distortions' (vipallāsa), that is, seeing the impermanent (anicca) as permanent, unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) as pleasant, non-self (anattā) as self and the unattractive (asubha) as attractive. This is, of course, the usual way in which unawakened beings view reality. The Discourses, however, explain inappropriate attention in a more practical way specific to each of the Hindrances. For example, sensual desire is nourished through giving attention to the attractive aspect of an object (literally, the 'image of the attractive'). Thus developing appropriate attention requires some re-training of the fundamental way in which we relate to reality.”

*'Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses', Bhikkhu Analayo, www.pariyatti.org

The Heather Meadow in Hammer Wood

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mountain Silence
July 1
I am currently at Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland once again. I was here earlier, from April 10 to May 6, mainly to teach a weekend retreat in Thai and give talks in Bern and Geneva.

Every time I return to Dhammapala I am awestruck by the spectacular, mind-stopping scenery. No matter what season it is, stepping out of the train is like stepping into a very different world from what one is used to. On the one hand one walks past neat and orderly houses, just like in other parts of Switzerland, but in the immediate background huge mountains of rock tower up into the sky. When the train departs most human sounds are silenced by the pervading presence of nature. Our assumed importance shrinks to a small speck beneath the massive walls of rock, ice, trees and the ever-flowing waters.

The Buddha, of course, encouraged meditators to seek out quiet places. Their absorbing silence and sensory calm are especially supportive of meditation and listening to our inner noises. Much of the environment in the city is designed to stimulate the senses and reference to self: 'I like . . . I want . . . I buy.' Whereas in nature, even though we may 'like' some aspect of the scenery, that liking usually arises from some inner sense of beauty, awe or appreciation, and rarely moves on to wanting to possess it or buy it.

Living in nature can also give rise to reflections on impermanence and impersonality. The landscape and weather are constantly changing: plants growing and dying, snow falling and melting, rain dropping and flowing away. Rocks tumble down the mountains depending on the law of gravity, not on whether I am walking past or not.

When I arrived in April the mountains were still heavily covered in snow, which added another dimension to the sense of otherworldliness. In almost absurd contrast, the meadows in the valley were already richly green and sprouting spring flowers. Within a week, however, the valley was coated with a fresh layer of snow which quickly melted; only to return on the Sunday of the Thai Retreat.

During my two months' stay I was able to visit a number of places nearby and noticed that over the years there have been some serious weather conditions. Several years ago an exceptionally heavy rainfall caused some major flooding, especially in the Gasterntal, where numerous bridges were washed out and large boulders strewn across the valley floor. The following year a severe wind storm roared through the valley, toppling huge swathes of pine trees in patches throughout the forest. Fortunately, it seems that no houses were damaged, the local people having had the foresight to build in particularly secure areas of the valley.

The resident community of Dhammapala has now grown to five. Ajahn Khemasiri has remained the senior monk since I left in 2005. Ven Nandiyo had returned after two years residing in Germany. Ven Kancano I knew from brief visits to Amaravati, and I had previously met Ven Bodhinyando at Harnham. And Anagarika Christoph spent several weeks with us at Poo Jom Gom during the Rainy Season last year.

My two-stage journey to Aruna Ratanagiri Monastery in Northumberland went very smoothly and the plane arrived early at a refreshingly cool Newcastle, a few days before the start of a weekend retreat. Fortunately, Kath had everything efficiently organized so I could relax and focus on the teachings for a small but keen group of retreatants. After so much travel I also appreciated the quiet retreat environment for a few days.

The following Sunday we celebrated Vesakha Puja, with a large number of people attending the evening meeting and many staying for the dusk circumambulation of the lake. The Thai weather devas must also have been attending, as an unpredicted rainstorm suddenly arose, bringing copious amounts of 'auspicious rain'.

My visits to Ratanagiri are always a reviewing of the old and an adapting to the new. Since I was the senior monk there over twenty-five years ago I can recognize the core of the original, rented farm cottage. However, over the years many changes have taken place. A large Dhamma Hall was added shortly after I left and then, under Ajahn Munindo's guidance, more rooms were added, the Kusala Retreat House was created and more recently the reservoir at the base of the hill and surrounding land was purchased and three huts were built.

The reservoir and huts on the new property at Ratanagiri.

A few days after Vesak we set off for the five-hour journey down south for the International Elders' Meeting, which is convened in different locations every three or four years. This year's International Elders' Meeting was the largest one so far, with over 100 monastics residing at Amaravati Monastery for nearly one week. The Amaravati Community very diligently and efficiently organized probably the most smoothly-run event ever held, and the lay supporters provided ample supplies of food and other requisites for the exceptional numbers of Sangha members.

The meeting was presided over by Ajahn Liem from Wat Pah Pong and Luang Pa Sumedho. For the discussions various formats were used and a variety of themes were touched upon, ranging from the perennial one of our relationship to modern technology to ways of preserving Luang Pah Chah's legacy in the changing conditions of the modern world. With such a large number of people in-depth discussions were not possible, but the diversity of themes allowed the expression of a range of views without giving rise to acrimony. One of the richest sources of exchange was the informal meetings in the evenings and during breaks, when one could renew old friendships and catch up with distant Sangha members. I think it was indeed a great credit to Luang Pa Chah's emphasis upon communal harmony that so many Elders from monasteries around the world could come together to discuss relevant issues and depart with a renewed sense of greater community.
Click on the following link for photo:


I returned to Dhammapala on June 3, when Ajahn Khemasiri had already left for his three-week walk and retreat in Italy. Fortunately the three resident monks are a very harmonious team, so the practical affairs ran very smoothly. My trip to Paris was cancelled due to the French train drivers' strike, but fortunately my translator, Jeanne, was able to step in and guide the weekend instead. This allowed me some time to work on my slowly evolving book and rest up for the visit of Prem and Sompon from Thailand. They generously provided train and cable-car tickets for me to accompany them on several excursions to the Aletsch Glacier (the longest glacier in Europe) and Zermatt, with the picturesque Matterhorn in the background. My last week at Dhammapala was quite busy, with travel to the meditation groups in Zurich and Basel. Once again it was very rewarding to meet old friends, some of whom I had not seen for nearly 10 years.

I will now spend a week at Santaloka, the hermitage at 2,000 meters in the Gressoney Valley of north Italy. A group of very dedicated supporters has converted a former cow shed into a lodging for the Sangha and donated it to Santacittarama Monastery. From there I will travel to Chithurst Monastery in West Sussex, England, where I will spend the three months of our annual Rainy Season Retreat. In contrast to most of the monasteries in Australia and New Zealand, the European monasteries are almost all full with monastics, sometimes under quite cramped conditions. In order for me to obtain a place at Chithurst Monastery, another monk had to move out.

Wishing you all continued insight into Dhamma and the peace of realization.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Visit to Italy

I have been in Europe for over one month already. Having been away for two years it has been a curious experience of the old and familiar mixed with the completely new. I arrived on March 22 at Santacittarama Monastery near Rome where I was very warmly welcomed. I had not been there for nearly ten years and it was strange that not much had changed during that time, other than a major increase in the number of huts, the addition of much better guest accommodation and a large (taller than Ajahn Chandapalo) standing Buddha image. It was also somewhat of a ‘deja vu’ to be together with Ajahn Chandapalo and Ashin Ottama, the last time we were together was in the first Dhammapala in Konolfingen, Switzerland some 25 years ago!

At Santacittarama the original house is still being used for the meal and meditation (or, in warmer weather, the still-enduring, sixteen-year old tent) even though there are six monks and four anagarikas, plus quite a few lay guests. Besides Ajahn Chandapalo and Ashin Ottama, in residence there are three Thai monks: Ajahn Preecha, Ajahn Tok and Ajahn Go, and the senior Italian monk, Ajahn Mahapanyo. Now, however, after nearly fifteen years, they have finally received permission to build a large three-storey Sala, with two meeting halls, library, guest-monk rooms, toilets and showers, and a basement workshop.

Ajahn Chandapalo was telling me of how fortunate they were to find this very suitable property after viewing hundreds of potential ones. It is favourably situated 50 km NE of Rome in the beginning of the Sabine hills, an area of rolling forested hills and valleys cultivated mostly with olive orchards. The monastery property is primarily along the bank of a lush, tree-covered stream, with the main house on a hilltop surrounded by lawns and fruit trees, allowing for plenty of parking space. My hut, situated only five minutes walk from the house, was high above the stream yet still sheltered under the trees. Even though neighbouring houses are fairly close and visible from most parts of the monastery, the atmosphere was exceptionally quiet and peaceful.

The stream running through Santacittarama.

While it was very refreshing to be out of the Bangkok Hot Season, unfortunately, my first week in Europe was mostly rainy and cool, with one morning of frost. Fortunately though, I was accommodated in one of the newest huts (next to the ruins of an old stone building) with a very efficient wood stove which, with careful management, kept the temperature around 25C. Spring flowers were already in prolific abundance and the cherry trees were in splendid bloom.

The hut next to the ruined building.

The day Ajahn Chandapalo and I began a short trip to Sorrento the weather fortuitously turned sunny and warm. Khun Waew, a Thai supporter who has been in Italy for many years, invited us for a visit and very generously provided transport and accommodation, as well as acting as tour guide. With an early morning departure from the monastery we took the high-speed train from Rome (travelling up to 300 km/hr) and were in Naples for lunch. Before travelling to Sorrento we managed a short excursion to the top of Mt. Vesuvius, the dormant volcano towering over the Bay of Naples made infamous with the destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD. Other than some sulphur-smelling steam rising from a few places, it was not an especially impressive volcano (although potentially dangerous for the 3 million people who live beneath it), however the view over Naples, the Bay of Naples and the snow-capped mountains inland was quite spectacular.

View of Mt. Vesuvius from Sorrento.

The Bay of Naples is a huge crescent-shaped bay with peninsulars at both ends. Sorrento lies halfway along the southern peninsular in a broad bowl between the hills, with fifty meter cliffs lined with hotels along the sea. Off the very end of the peninsular is the Island of Capri with steep cliffs and rocky shoreline. The Amalfi Coast begins over the southern hills from Sorrento. One tour book says this is the ‘most beautiful coastline in Europe’. While not being able to confirm that, it was indeed quite spectacularly scenic with very steep hillsides plunging into the turquoise Mediterranean Sea and pastel-coloured houses stacked up the rocky slopes.

Amalfi Coast (AC photo).

At the meal invitations we met some of the Thais living in the Sorrento area and all the six Thais who live on Capri. Ajahn Chandapalo gave meditation instructions and teachings in Italian for the non-Thais who attended. The Italians, like the Thais, are exceptionally friendly, grand-hearted and ever-grateful and, also like the Thais, are very generous when it comes to offering food. We were very abundantly fed and were accommodated in a quiet, country-side guest house, Villa Rosmary, surrounded by burgeoning lemon trees, and overlooking the sea with Mt. Vesuvius in the distance.

Khun Waew (centre) and friends.

Santacittarama is now very well-known throughout Buddhist Italy which means that there is a steady stream of guests coming for short or long stay, an increasing number of people interested in taking up the monastic training and Ajahn Chandapalo is very busy teaching retreats, giving talks and lectures throughout the whole of Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia. Wherever we went people smiled or greeted us, and a number wanted to talk  or asked to have their photo taken with us (Khun Waew skilfully telling the women not to hug us!). Hopefully there will eventually be more Italian-speaking monks to help with the teachings and the spread of Dhamma in the Italian-speaking world.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

European Travel Calendar

March 22: Arrive at Santacittarama Monastery, Italy: www.santacittarama.org
March 28-31: Visit to Sorrento and Amalfi Coast

April 10: Travel to Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland: www.dhammapala.ch
April 16: Talk in Bern
April 23: Talk in Geneva
April 25-27: Weekend retreat in Thai at Dhammapala

May 6: Travel to Harnham Monastery, UK: www.ratanagiri.org.uk
May 9-11: Weekend retreat at Harnham
May 20: Travel to Amaravati Monastery, UK:www.amaravati.org
May 26-31: Global Elders Meeting

June 3: Travel to Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland: www.dhammapala.ch
June 14-15: Non-residential retreat in Paris: www.vipassana.fr
June 23: Talk in Zurich
June 26: Talk in Basel

July 3: Travel to Santaloca, Italy
July 10: Travel to Chithurst Monastery, UK: www.cittaviveka.org
July 12: Enter Rains Retreat at Chithurst Monastery

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dhammagiri Hermitage, Kholo (Brisbane), Queensland, Australia

My time here at Dhammagiri Hermitage has been very enjoyable but is quickly coming to an end. The external conditions are exceptionally comfortable and supportive. The weather in Brisbane is one of the most pleasant in Australia. During my five-week stay it was almost monotonous, with still, sunny 20C mornings and partly-cloudy, breezy 30C afternoons. A few times the temperature reached mid-30's or dropped to a chilly 18C after some sporadic showers.

The monk's lodgings up on the hill are exceptionally quiet and undisturbed from after the meal until the following morning, allowing for a long uninterrupted period of personal practice. The quiet and solitude allows for some very deep and peaceful meditation. The back part of the property adjoins Brisbane City Conservation Reserve and the water catchment reserve for Lake Manchester, part of the drinking water supply for South East Queensland. Almost every morning I walked out the back gate and onto a series of tracks and trails through the reserves, with views over the lake and surrounding bush-clad mountains.

Lake Manchester through the eucalyptus trees.

Conditions were suitable for me to keep up my usual balance of physical, mental and spiritual practice. In contrast to Poo Jom Gom in Thailand, where I focused more on physical and spiritual practice, here I devoted more time to mental practice. Besides my special emphasis on book-writing, I also did quite a bit of talking during the after-meal discussions. Fortunately, many of the monastery supporters are keenly interested in meditation, so we had some very rewarding discussions. Unfortunately, the book-writing took up a lot more time than I had expected. I don't think that the slowness of the work was directly caused by the fact that I was working mostly on the chapter on Lethargy and Drowsiness! It is just that this chapter is the longest one in the book, but hopefully not the most boring.

Towards the end of my stay we took an excursion through the surrounding countryside. We first journeyed westwards through increasingly drier areas to the main water supply reservoir for Brisbane, Lake Wiwenhoe. This area was very dry, although the lake was almost full. In the nearby farms surprisingly fat cattle were grazing on only scattered patches of wilted grass in parched, dusty fields. The famous Australian 'outback' begins a further 1,000 km west. On the route we passed a sign noting Darwin, in the next state, is 3423 km away! Queensland is a BIG place, about five times the size of the UK, but with only 4.2 million people, most of them living along the coast.

We then turned eastwards on the Tourist Route through D'Aguilar National Park, climbing up to 680 meters through wet eucalypt forest into the Queensland subtropical  rainforest. Even though we were only some 20 km away, the dense, humid forest was in marked contrast to the sparse open dry eucalypt forest around Dhammagiri. Massive trees over one metre in diameter towered to 50 metres in height. Strangler fig vines draped over branches and exotic palm trees unfurled their fronds in any slight opening in the canopy. This happened to be the rainiest day of my stay, so it was a true 'rainforest experience' with some heavy rain showers, swirling mists and cool winds.

Due to the incessant showers we managed only one short walk through the forest, and as we were admiring the diversity and density of the rainforest, noticed that we were providing lunch for the thirsty leeches! Further along the Tourist Drive at lower elevations, the clouds thinned out and we made a number of stops at well-provided lookout picnic grounds. On one side of the ridge we could look west over tree-covered hills towards the Great Dividing Range, and the other side gave vistas of the coast all the way to Moreton Bay and Moreton Island. One lookout, Camp Mountain, on the site of former gold-mining camps, offered a spectacular view through a tunnel between tall trees direct to the skyscrapers of the Brisbane Central Business District, flanked by two tree-covered hills. It almost seemed to be an optical illusion, as we stood surrounded 300° by tall trees, with a 60° degree tunnel opening to miniature concrete towers in the distance!

I will soon be spending a day with John and Hanna in northern NSW, just south of the Queensland border. John spent time as a monk in Thailand and England, and Switzerland when I was there. He is now a psychologist with a practice in North Sydney and has been a pioneer in mindfulness-based therapy in Australia. John and Hanna have an idyllic property on top of a ridge between Cabarita Beach and Murwillumbah. Looking out the east side of the house one can see the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean, and on the western side, beside the mango trees, watch the sun set over the sugar cane fields of the Tweed valley and the very prominent Mount Warning, or 'Cloud Catcher' to the Aborigines. And just a few hundred metres down the road lives another ex-monk whom I knew in Thailand. Steven, formerly Tan Pamutto, was a monk in the early years of Wat Nanachat. As a former brick-layer, he was responsible for a number of building projects, including the hospital hut where LP Chah spent the last ten years of his life lovingly cared for by his disciples. Tan Pamutto and I spent one Rains Retreat together at Wat Pah Pong, where LP Chah got the Western monks to help finish work on the stone railing around the Bell Tower and the Uposatha Hall.

Sunset over Mt. Warning, NSW. Photo by John Barter.

On Tuesday I will travel with John to his practice at Well-Awareness in North Sydney, where he has invited me to give several talks to meditation groups before I return to Bangkok on Friday. After that I begin a trip to Europe, visiting a number of the monasteries there. My first stop will be Santacittarama Monastery in Italy, and then in mid-April I will visit Dhammapala Monastery in Switzerland. There I have several teaching engagements, including a weekend retreat in Thai for the dedicated Thai supporters.

Wishing you all well-being, peace and continuity in the practice to awakening.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Visit to Dhammagiri Monastery, Brisbane, Australia: January 29 - March 14

I am departing today for Brisbane where I will be residing at Dhammagiri Monastery until March 14, 2014.
Originally Ajahn Dhammasiha, the resident Abbot, invited me to fill in for him while he was away leading a pilgrimage to the Buddhist Holy Sites in India. Unfortunately this was cancelled, however, Ajahn Dhammasiha extended the invitation so that he could have some personal retreat time over that period.
This was also suitable for me to be able to spend some quieter time working on a book on the Five Hindrances with a possible printing date for 2015. Since I will be traveling in Europe this Spring, a month of intensive book writing and a visit with the very devoted monastery supporters seemed like a good opportunity.

The monastery does not have internet access but I am able to arrange some limited use. Otherwise information and news is posted on their website: www.dhammagiri.org.au

Wishing you all a Happy Chinese New Year (January 31) and a Joyful Magga Puja (February 14).

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Space to Doubt

View from the meditation platform on top of Nibbana Cave.

I am now staying in the Nibbāna Cave near the top of Jom Gom Hill. I am not sure if the name refers to the possibility of Nibbāna for those staying there, or whether it means that the cave itself is 'nibbanic' in quality. On the worldly level the cave is indeed at least 'heavenly' as far as caves go. There are no bats, no ants, few mosquitoes and very pleasant temperatures between 20C and 26C, with even occasional gusts of cool wind. The cave also includes a meditation platform with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and down the Mekong River. It is a one-hour sunny walk up and a 50-minute stroll down through a star-filled sky. But the most notable aspect is that it is unbelievably quiet. Mostly there is only the rustling of leaves in the wind or occasionally the distant hum of the Mekong rapids. When the wind stops there is only the sound of the mind.

The Nibbana Cave, with wind guard down.

Unfortunately, I will only be here for a short time before visiting Wat Nanachat and Wat Pah Pong for the annual Luang Por Chah commemoration events and meetings; then it is back to Bangkok for more dental work. At the end of January I will travel to Dhammagiri Monastery in Brisbane for six weeks.

A question which keeps returning is the effect that living close to nature has on the mind. While we each try to maintain a certain stable emotional environment, nature has a wide range of expressions (hence we try to buffer ourselves from its extremes). There are so many things to be aware of: changing weather conditions, variations in the landscape, various insects to avoid or be wary of, certain plants which have thorns or protruding branches, loose stones or slippery dry leaves, the occasional dangerous creature, etc. Living exposed to nature's varied expressions thus requires a heightened degree of mindfulness and clear comprehension, as well as resilience so as to be prepared for the unexpected changes and to weather them with some degree of composure. When staying in especially scenic or unusual places, one is drawn to being more attentive to the environment. This brings forth what I call the 'sense of wonderment', a mixture of awe, intensified interest and a curiosity of inquiry. Sometimes there may be a tinge of fear when the curious inquiry slips into uncertainty or doubt, for example when standing on the edge of a steep drop. The effect of wonderment is a focusing of the mind, an energizing of body and mind, a humbling of grandiosity, and sometimes a stirring of questioning or reflectiveness upon the meaning of life: all supportive qualities for meditation.

Another related effect is the distortions of time which can be caused by travelling through spectacular scenery. I am usually fairly good at judging time. However, sometimes when I have journeyed back to the cave after one of my exploratory excursions through the rock ledges and ravines, I have noticed a severe loss of time perspective. I put this down mostly to becoming absorbed in the scenery. This effect is similar to experiences of meditative concentration: the more the subject absorbs into the (meditation) object, the less 'subjective' it feels, for example, relative to time, place and familiar habits. Taken to the extreme of complete absorption, 'subjectivity' becomes entirely lost in unitary consciousness. Some people can be transported 'out of themselves' through seeing exceptional scenery or through intensive activities in nature. One evening as I stood on the stark plateau amongst exotic rock formations, with the setting sun transforming the horizon into a radiant golden glow, the thought arose that I could just as well be on Mars, the scene being so unworldly. A skilled rock climber I knew in England said that when all goes well, he and the rock become one. The limitation of these experiences is that subjectivity is transcended only temporarily, and they can also become something which feeds the ego, since they are still mundane experiences.

As well as inducing concentration,the experience of off-trail exploring also requires increased mindfulness and a constant reflective re-orientation. Nature is just the way it is, and is in continuous dynamic change. When we truly tune in to Nature we need to tune out from our obsessive self-reference. Then we can sometimes approach the experience of Suchness, being totally relaxed and present with the way it is: just these sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations and thoughts.

We can also learn a lot from Nature. In the process of opening to the diverse expressions of Nature, we suspend and can even throw off our old, habitual ways of being. This may be one way to lessen the hold of familiar habits which keep bringing us back to the theme of our 'old self'. Through challenging our old self with new views, we learn to take our own views less seriously and sometimes to see how limited they actually are. We each have our own personal 'view on life', and often forget that it is only one view. Step to one side and there is a different view, sometimes even a better view.

Our old self is held together by our habit tendencies and is reinforced by what the Buddha called the 'underlying dispositions' (anusaya). I am particularly interested in these tendencies, which I have previously referred to as 'classic hits' (October Blog), as they are the hardest to hear since they are often just playing softly in the background; yet they are very significant in directing life.

For example, during this retreat I became more aware of doubt as an underlying disposition. I know something about doubt as one of the Five Hindrances, and have some experience of working with it. However, recognizing it as a fundamental underlying disposition which is always functioning in the background was quite a sobering revelation. It's not that I have the same kind of paralyzing perplexity or numbing confusion which I associate with doubt as a hindrance. This underlying form of doubt is much more subtle and insidious. It manifests as a form of not believing certain aspects of experience, which energetically expresses itself as not surrendering or fully letting go. There is sometimes a palpable holding back or hesitancy, a 'not-sureness' in my approach to life.

This non-believing and holding back is worth investigating, as it brings me to the edge of conceit or where 'I am holding on'. And there can be quite a bit of arrogant identity in not believing - 'I don't believe that'. Some aspect of 'me' obviously believes in my non-believing. Some aspect of self is holding on. Is this the rationally-conditioned self? And what belief, view or attitude is supporting this?

One aspect is that I believe there is some wisdom in non-believing as well. Believing too easily may disguise an intellectual laziness to investigate more thoroughly, or an emotional need to believe due to underlying insecurity. I am especially wary of the 'herd mentally', 'fadism' or 'cultism'. When something becomes fashionable or someone becomes popular, I notice my reservations increasing. Some views are so well-packaged or presented so skilfully that they can seem irresistible. This is particularly noticeable when emotional issues are presented in some pseudo-reasonable form. The underlying emotions high-jack the supposedly reasonable discussion, giving birth to 'fuzzy' or 'fudgy logic', and the basis for wise reflection is lost. I have also seen the damage resulting from unreflective belief: defensive righteousness, confused and disillusioned followers, the anger of betrayal, etc.

This doubting tendency is amplified by being in Thailand, where one hears about many things which give occasion for doubt. People speak openly about ghosts, celestial beings, 'mystical beings' such as nāgas and spirits of deceased people, as well as psycho-normal events and the special powers of certain monks. When I first heard about them I would dismiss them immediately as superstition. However, at one point I realized that this attitude was very arrogant, and was actually due to the fact that I myself had not had any such experiences. Other people considered them to be true. For these kinds of experiences my doubting now manifests as 'don't know' or 'could be' rather than outright dismissal.

Ideally non-believing can allow some reflective space to consider things more widely and deeply. Holding back to give some space for reflection may not sound all that bad; however, the real issue is, 'What aspect of self is holding back?'. There is often some fear there, perhaps basically the fear of being overwhelmed, but also fear of being drawn into something which is hard to get out of. It is often harder to let go of a view than not adhere to one in the first place. Is this flexibility or indecision?

Doubt is transcended at the first level of awakening. This does not mean that one then simply believes everything. Rather, as with all the 'defilements', a major transformation takes place. Some forms of doubt, such as of the teaching or the practice, completely fall away. Other forms of doubt become transformed into wisdom. Everything has some element of truth to it. Wisdom is the ability to discern what that element is. Thus some things ought not to be believed, some things should be further considered and some things are worth believing or having some confidence in until we know the truth of them directly for ourselves. Ideally, we then gain some experience in maintaining the skilful balance between the Spiritual Powers of 'knowing wisdom' and 'faith in the not-yet known' which leads on to ever-deepening insight.