Monday, September 12, 2016

September 2016

Greetings from Birken Forest Monastery, near Kamloops, British Columbia.

After arriving from Australia in early July, and a flurry of family visits, I came to Birken in time to enter the Rainy Season Retreat on July 20th. We are five monastics: three monks -- myself, abbot Ajahn Sona, and Ven. Santacitto, a Canadian ordained in Thailand; a Norwegian novice, Nandaka; and the long-term Thai nun, Sister Mon.

The main house with 12 bedrooms, meditation hall, kitchen and eating area.

On the one hand, the monastery is situated deep in the wilderness, on a plateau at 1,200 meters elevation, with the nearest permanent neighbor fourteen kilometers away. Other than an occasional vehicle passing on the rough gravel road or a plane flying overhead, there are no other man-made sounds. It is quite an amazing experience to stop wherever one is and listen to the all-pervading silence, interrupted by brief bird calls, the chirping of squirrels or the shwooshing of a passing breeze. Of course, with the external silence one's thoughts echo loudly in the mind! However, one of the first steps towards calming the mind is to observe what all the mental noise is about. Is it really necessary? What is its effect on the heart?

On the other hand, it is sometimes hard to realize the isolation, since there are many signs of human occupation. The area has been extensively logged over many years, so there are indications of human disturbance at frequent intervals. Patches of artificial pine plantations dot the landscape, old logging roads criss-cross the countryside, free-range cattle wander around, and there are remnants of previous habitations.

The old logging roads are very useful for wandering through the area, since much of the older forest has become a maze of fallen pine trees, victims of the pine beetle epidemic which has devastated vast areas of forest in western Canada and the USA. This peaked about ten years ago and the dead trees are now toppling over throughout the forest. It is also possible to walk through the pine plantations - if one is very mindful, as they are underlaid with the scattered debris of the logging industry, which very wastefully just harvests the larger trees and pulverizes all the smaller ones.

One of the most impressive displays of the remnants of previous inhabitants is the 'Ghost Town' about two hours' walk from the monastery. This is a collection of around a dozen abandoned houses which were once the lodgings of the workers and their families at a busy sawmill. For some reason the sawmill closed down and the village was completely abandoned. From the vintage of the abandoned cars it appears this happened in the late 1950's or early 1960's. A number of the houses are showing their age, with collapsed roofs, broken windows and surrounded by vegetation. It would certainly make a good movie set for one of those post-apocalyptic films!

I decided to spend the Rainy Season Retreat here at Birken partly because I was visiting Canada anyway, and also as an opportunity to continue work on another book. Ajahn Sona very generously offered to support any of the senior monks who wished to have a retreat, and has been exceptionally accommodating for my 'retreating', as well as several excursions I made for teaching in Vancouver and to visit family. I spent a very comfortable and fruitful Retreat here in 2012, when I was able to finish the 'Treasures' book.

Shortly after I made the arrangements to stay at Birken, I received an invitation to spend the Rainy Season Retreat in Bali. A very devout family in Denpasar, whose youngest son is a monk with U Pandita in Burma, is working towards developing a Forest Monastery in the hills north of Denpasar. This is near the mother's native village, at an elevation of about 800 meters. A small hermitage has been established in a Chinese cemetery, and a hall, kitchen and teacher's hut built in the outskirts of the village. I would have very much liked to help support their project, but having already agreed to stay at Birken and committed to the writing project, I had to decline for now.

Although I tell some people for simplicity's sake that I am on a book-writing retreat, in fact producing a book is secondary. The main point is that I am working on a theme for contemplation, and, if it works out a book may manifest! While working on the 'Hindrances' book I came across a terse but poignant phrase: 'I-making, mine-making and the underlying disposition to conceit', which appears a few times in the Pali texts. I wondered what this meant, but unfortunately no direct explanation was given, although related teachings kept cropping up in various places throughout the Pali scriptures. After completing the 'Hindrances' book I started to investigate this theme further, without at first fully realizing the profundity of the topic. But it gradually began to dawn on me that it related to some of the deepest and most significant of the Buddha's teachings, including the teachings on non-self/non-soul, the Five Groups of Grasping, and Conditional Causality. It didn't take long for me to realize that clearly understanding these themes could easily take a lifetime, or maybe several!

I have thus changed my original idea of writing a detailed book on the original theme of 'I-making'. Instead, by the time the Retreat ends and my travels begin, I will hopefully have completed a study-guide or handbook of references, notes, and reflections which I, and anyone else interested in this theme, can continue to use for further investigations.
As many people familiar with the Buddha's teaching know, the second of the Factors of Awakening is 'Investigation of Dhamma'. Dhamma has two main meanings: the Buddha's teaching, and all things. Or we can say that the Dhamma as the Buddha's teaching is a particularly skillful way to view all things, in order to help us 'see things as they really are'. I have known about the value of investigation of Dhamma for some time, but this has been reinforced by some of my recent studies regarding the conditioning of consciousness by its contents. That is, consciousness is conditioned by what is in the mind and what is in the mind conditions consciousness. Thus, in a simplified sense, if we focus our mind on skillful themes, this can have a beneficial effect on our mind.

One of the most noticeable examples of this occurred a few days ago. I returned to my hut after a shower to do some writing and found that I had nothing to write! I felt as if I had lost the thread of the theme I was working on, Dependent Origination. However, since for me the early evening is the best time for writing, I thought that maybe I could at least work on some of the other chapters, which were still just a jumble of unorganized notes and references. I then spent nearly an hour sifting through the notes, collecting related notes together, deleting duplicates and transferring some notes to other chapters. Then next morning during meditation, various reflections related to the chapter I was working on arose. I was pleasantly surprised, since in the evening I was merely doing what I refer to as 'left-brain, donkey work': just sorting through information, but not actively trying to absorb or understand the material I was attending to. However, somehow it must have filtered down to a deeper level of consciousness, and the next day it bubbled up as insightful reflections.

On another level, though, the benefit of investigation of Dhamma is to help us step out of our limited world of constant self-reference. In order to investigate deeply, one needs to quieten all one's preconceptions, presumptions, expectations and, if possible, all one's cultural conditioning, in order to open as much as possible to what the Buddha is explaining to us. This is where external and internal silence is so helpful, if not always so easy to find. Thus I have been balancing my time between conceptual study and meditation practice or mindful walks in the silence-enshrouded wilderness.

As the Rains Retreat ends I will have several teaching engagements in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast, north-west of Vancouver, and Victoria, ( and then will make a short visit to Abhayagiri Monastery in California before returning to Thailand for the winter.

Wishing further insightful practice to all.

With Metta,

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June 2016

Greetings from Dhammagiri Monastery, near Brisbane, Australia.

I arrived here on May 31st after spending a few days with John and Hanna in the Tweed Valley, northern NSW. A small but very interested group of people participated in a day workshop on May 28 and a slightly larger group attended the Monday evening meditation.

View eastwards from Lammington National Park, Queensland.

I had an exceptionally beneficial two and a half month stay at Wat Buddha Dhamma. As many people recognize, everyone's temperament is unique. And while it can be very useful when we are young to stretch ourselves beyond our personal boundaries, as we grow older we may find that we are no longer so stretchable, and that it may be more energy-efficient to settle into familiar patterns which we have found to be beneficial. Thus I have observed that a beneficial situation for myself is one where I am able conveniently to have a moderate mixture of physical exercise, mental exercise (study, reading, writing and teaching), and spiritual exercise (formal meditation practice). Every place I have visited has its benefits and limitations, but the one which has provided the right balance of all these factors is Wat Buddha Dhamma. This year the weather was superb (if slightly on the dry side), so I had the opportunity for almost daily excursions around the National Park, including two day-long trips in opposite directions along the Great North Road. The solar-powered lighting allowed me to spend many evenings studying the Pali Canon and other materials (which may coalesce into another book). And the exceptionally quiet, natural environment was very conducive to especially productive meditation.

If we add to the above mixture opportunities for both socializing and solitude, we may have a very suitable combination of situations which are favourable to a balanced approach to spiritual practice. The Buddha often referred to developing a combination of spiritual qualities to support the furthering of spiritual endeavour: for example, the Eightfold Path, the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Five Spiritual Powers, etc. Of course, each person has their own individual strengths and also weaknesses. Unfortunately, often our inherent tendency is to emphasize our strengths (which give us a sense of confidence and success), and shy away from our weaknesses (which often give us difficulty and embarrassment). However, this attitude is just playing along with the game of self – 'I' is propped up by strengths and humbled by weaknesses. Thus in the Buddhist spiritual practice of deconstructing 'I'-making, we become wary of our strengths and encouraged by our weaknesses! The Buddha's solution is to develop a careful balance of the whole range of spiritual qualities.

Also, the wisdom which is thereby generated should penetrate and be integrated in all aspects of our being. The danger of not being spiritually integrated is that one will not be 'awakened completely', not completely in tune with the way things really are. I would say that this is not even really 'spirituality', since I define 'spiritual' as 'wholeness', being in tune with the whole field of reality or truth. Being partially in tune is not too bad, but it still misses the point of spirituality and, unfortunately, has often been the source of no end of confusion, disillusionment and scandal. Thus if spirituality is not integrated into physicality, it is disembodied; if not integrated into emotionality, it is disaffected; and if not integrated into mentality, it is dissociated. All these three states are incomplete and thus cannot be encompassed in the ideal wholeness and completeness of true spirituality. I would say that the Buddha was well aware of this and hence gave the instructions for developing mindfulness in regard to body, to feeling and to mentality, in order to give rise to a balanced understanding of all these aspects of our being.

View of the Senior Monk's lodging at Wat Buddha Dhamma.

While residing at Wat Buddha Dhamma I offered most of the weekly Saturday night Dhamma talks, and also gave a short retreat on the theme: 'What is the cause of this thought?' I was studying the Buddha's teaching on Conditional Causality at that time and thought this might be a useful theme to investigate. Most people, unfortunately, do not know much about this aspect of the Buddha's teaching, so that when some challenging thought or emotion arises they immediately react to it, not realizing that most of the time that thought is simply the result of some deeper underlying issue. The teaching of the Four Noble Truths tells us that unsatisfactoriness is due to a cause and is only resolved when the cause is removed. Also, in practical terms, when we turn our attention towards the cause of our mental activity, the mental activity itself often ceases, since we are not giving it special attention. The talks I gave can be downloaded from There is also a video at

I was also at Wat Buddha Dhamma for the visits from Ajahn Dtun in March and LP Sumedho in April. These visits, and the public talks in Sydney, attracted a large number of people to the monastery, but Ajahn Khemavaro arranged the programme along the lines of a retreat format, so the atmosphere was very meditative.

My 2 ½ month stay in Australia quickly expired and I reluctantly had to make a move. Fortunately New Zealand is not too far distant, and I had an invitation from Ajahn Kusalo to visit Bodhinyanarama Monastery, where I had been resident for nearly seven years. Unfortunately, I had to pack quite a lot into my 17-day visit to Wellington, with numerous talks, chats with friends and several outings. I made a point of visiting the group in Palmerston North, where I recognized many familiar faces and noted that some regulars had moved elsewhere.

In spite of the inclement weather, a crowd of about 200 devoted supporters gathered at the monastery for the very joyful Vesak ceremony on May 22nd. Fortunately, a number of monks from Thailand and Europe have expressed their interest in spending time at Bodhinyanarama, so it appears that Ajahn Kusalo's hard work of maintaining and expanding the amazing facilities and the exceptional generosity of the lay supporters will be suitably used.

Ajahn Dhammasiha had invited me to spend some time at Dhammagiri Monastery, as he was planning on making a visit to Europe in June. However, in the end he cancelled his trip and decided to spend the month in silent retreat, as Ajahn Hasapanyo, Venerable Buripanyo and I were all resident during that . time. Dhammagiri Monastery is another place where I can continue my three kinds of exercise, although the main emphasis here is on mental exercise. The guest monk's room where I stay is equipped with a large desk and electricity, and is right beside the library. Also, many of the supporters are quite experienced and knowledgeable practitioners, who provide interesting themes for the daily Dhamma discussions.

There is the possibility for numerous walks, as the seventy acres of woodland on top of the hill where the monk's huts are located borders a Conservation Reserve and Lake Manchester Water Catchment. However, there is only one main route out of the monastery, over some fairly steep terrain, although it does afford some extensive panoramic views in all directions. Thus it isn't so easy to go for a 'gentle stroll'. In fact, it seems that many of the bush tracks are for use mainly as fire-breaks, as some of them are so unbelievably steep that it is hard to imagine any wheeled vehicle using them.

A view of Lake Manchester reservoir near Dhammagiri (on a rare drizzily day).

The reasonably quiet location is quite suitable for meditation. Most of the public activities are conducted during the first half of the day in the Dhamma Hall at the bottom of the hill, so from about 1 pm until the next morning the residents are undisturbed by visitors. Every day there is a Dhamma discussion from 11:45am to 1pm, and on Sundays there is a session of chanting, meditation and teaching from 3pm to 5pm. During my stay I gave most of the talks and meditation teachings, which can be viewed on the monastery website macrosocio-economic

I will interrupt my stay at Dhammagiri to offer another meditation day on Sunday July 3rd at Ratanagiri, John and Hanna's property in northern NSW, on the theme 'The Process of Self – Making and Un-Making – in Buddhist Perspective'. Shortly after this I will travel on to Vancouver, where after visiting family I will reside for the Rains Retreat at Birken Forest Monastery near Kamloops, British Columbia.

Wishing you all diligent and beneficial practice.

View from Colongatta northwards towards Gold Coast (the tower blocks in the distance).

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.


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: and 
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.