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.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Old Self?
I am now back at Jom Gom Mountain Monastery, where it is quite cool and refreshing. This is the best season to be here, with dry, sunny days and a fresh northerly wind. The leaves are falling and the soft sunlight gives the sense of a long temperate-climate autumn. Recently an out of season rainfall has temporarily refilled the streams. With morning temperatures of 14C-16C, many people are complaining about the cold while huddling around smoky fires.

For the last month I was in Bangkok for dental treatment. What started out as repairing a broken tooth turned into an extensive treatment programme which has included three fillings, two root canals and two bridges. Yet to come are one crown and a teeth guard. Khun Meaw and Khun Tun have been exceedingly generous to arrange the appointments, provide transport to and from appointments and, together with family and friends, meeting all expenses. My only part was to be a good patient and endure the noise of Bangkok. The benefit, however, of staying so long in Bangkok was that I was able to meet up with many Sangha members as they passed through. Thus I met Ajahn Achalo (Australian abbot of Anandagiri Monastery, Petchaboon Province) and Tan Pavaro (Canadian, ordained at Birken Monastery) on their way to India; Ajahn Preecha visiting from Santacittarama Monastery in Italy; Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Jayanto on a short teaching trip to Thailand; Ajahn Viradhammo from Tisarana Monastery, Ottawa, visiting LP Sumedho and Wat Pah Pong; Ajahn Cagino from Dhammagiri Monastery (and Orphanage) in Mae Hong Son Province, as well as a number of other western monks.

View of the 'concrete jungle' of Bangkok from the roof of the Sangha residence.

On the journey back here I met someone who had just had an operation to remove a tumour on his neck. I asked him if he was fully recovered and he responded that physically he was recovered, but that he was not feeling quite his old self yet. This was the start of a discussion and reflections upon what our 'old self' really is. Fortunately, as a Buddhist he knew the Buddha's teaching that what we take to be 'self' is constantly changing, so he didn't take his loss of 'old self' seriously.

Twice over the last few months I have also had the experience of not feeling like my 'old self'. During the Rains Retreat I came down with an extremely heavy fever which was severely debilitating. I spent four days on my back and another 10 days recovering my normal strength. A side-effect of this was the strange sense of having part of the brain atrophied. At times I felt like a visitor from some other planet, gazing out of the skull at some unusual landscape which I could not quite process. Recently I took some medicine for allergy and experienced something similar. Although awake, it seemed that part of the thinking brain was asleep and could not be engaged. Although both of these experiences were quite 'peaceful' on the level of not having much mental activity, they were also not particularly clear or insightful. Especially unhelpful was trying to do some intellectual study.

It thus seems that our sense of self is just a habit. We become familiar with certain physical sensations, a certain type of mental/emotional environment and certain character traits, and then identify with them as being 'my self', even if they are not particularly pleasant or useful. Then when any of these factors change, we feel disoriented or confused. However, on closer inspection all these factors are actually changing constantly, sometimes quickly as in the case of illness, or sometimes slowly as with the ageing process. If we can acknowledge this, we can see how much energy we expend on trying to preserve a constant sense of self against the ever-changing tide of life, and how much this wisdom would allow us to flow with its ups and downs.

Of course, one of the key elements of the Buddha's teaching is the unsubstantiality of a self. Where other spiritual teachers assumed some permanent entity called Self or soul, the Buddha saw only dynamic changing processes which constitute 'I-making'. And this is not just some philosophical theory, but can be seen directly for ourselves. For example, carefully observe waking up in the morning. When consciousness starts to wake up, first there are basic sense impressions: bodily sensations, sights, sounds, etc. Then you may notice a thirst for existence: 'What is going on here?', then the grasping of identity: 'I am sensing, thinking, etc.' and the coming-into-existence of being me: 'I have to go here and do that'. It is only through clearly seeing this creative process occurring that we are able to relinquish the nourishing of it. It is much more peaceful not to create more self identity, which we then need to maintain and prevent ourselves from losing amidst the ever-changing flow of life.

The sun-parched plateau near the cave.