Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August 2015

Greetings from very dry and warm British Columbia, Canada.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paradox of Desire

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paradox of Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Wanderings and Reflections

Greetings from Wat Buddha Dhamma, Ten Mile Hollow, Wiseman's Ferry, NSW, Australia.
I arrived here the day before Magha Puja, full moon of February/March, commemorating the spontaneous gathering of 1,250 arahants to pay respects to the Buddha. At present the community here is quite large, with seven monks, two anagarikas and five long-term lay guests. I was invited to offer some reflections upon the significance of this day and Ajahn Khemavaro encouraged the community to continue their meditations until dawn.

In the last few weeks I have changed my residence from Wat Poo Jom Gom in the middle of Pah Taem National Park in North-east Thailand, to Wat Buddha Dhamma in the middle of Dharug National Park in New South Wales, Australia, two hours' drive north of Sydney.
Surprisingly, Pah Taem National Park and Dharug National Park are similar in that they both have large rocky outcrops of sandstone. Thus here there are also numerous rocky overhangs which could provide shelter, although there is only one 'livable cave' on the monastery property, which is used by people seeking simple accommodation. And a special feature of the rock here is that there are numerous patches of fine, soft sandstone, which erodes into shallow caverns with startlingly white or yellow walls of fine sand. Some of these have unusual shapes sculptured by wind and rain and others have subtle coloured patterns sweeping along the walls, almost as if some ancient Aboriginal painter had given play to his creative powers.

In direct contrast to Pah Taem National Park, however, here the forest is much more predominant than the rocky outcrops. This makes for some challenging off-trail walking, especially combined with the not very walker-friendly Australia flora with its many prickly plants. When walking in the bush I need to keep reminding myself that this is Australia, since the flora and fauna are so unusual and unique you could be excused if you thought it was a different planet. And, while there are some familiar fauna such as a prolific amount of bird life, even these are exceptional in their range of colours and loud bird calls.

Also, here there are not so many engaging panoramic views as at Poo Jom Gom, although fortunately the tracks mostly follow along the ridges, so there are numerous opportunities for broad views over the surrounding forested hills as one progresses along. The southern edge of the Park borders the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury River, which although flowing gently, is lined with towering sandstone blocks. Also, the monastery is situated on the Old Great North Road which was built by convicts in the 1800's. The section winding up through the sandstone cliff from the Hawkesbury River is considered a marvel of engineering, with sidings, drainage channels and a road bed of carefully carved stone blocks.

Five Weeks at Poo Jom Gom

Following my three weeks at Dtao Dum, I arrived at PJG on 13 January during the refreshing 'Cold Season'. With 15°C morning temperatures and a steady northerly breeze, it was on the 'cool' side. However, the breezy 30°C afternoon temperatures were very pleasant.

The main benefit of spending some time at PJG is the experience of solitude and silence, which are not so easily found these days. I thus decided to spend my five weeks' stay there in the Nibbana Cave, approximately a one-hour walk up the mountain. As soon as one leaves the vicinity of the Sala the sounds of the village begin to fade away, and any contact with people ceases. One enters a realm of gentle but raw nature, accentuated by a constantly changing procession of rugged, unusual, amazing and startling scenery, as one winds one's way through the valleys and plateaus which comprise this area of the National Park.

The solitude and silence allowed me to deepen the practice of listening to the silence of the mind and 'being awareness'. One of the insights I had during the Rains Retreat at Chithurst Monastery last year was the benefit of taking the quiet/silent mind as one's main focus for attention or point of reference. This insight was reinforced through my studies on the supreme importance of 'appropriate attention' in developing spiritual practice. Whatever attention settles upon has a very strong effect upon the state of the mind, and while attention is often directed by our previous conditioning, we do have some degree of control so as to be able to direct it appropriately. Normally most of us take the active/busy mind as our main focus of attention or point of reference, and then spend much of our time and energy trying to resolve, solve, sort out that busy-ness of mind. An easier way of resolving much of the mental activity is simply to turn attention to the intrinsic silence of the mind. And being in a quiet environment makes the practice easier, as we are not having to expend so much effort on sorting through sensory input.

Of course, the calm, quiet mind is only part of Buddhist practice, that is, as a suitable basis for Insight Meditation facilitated by awareness or mindfulness. And, while the development of mindfulness exercises covers the four main areas of our experience, learning to abide in awareness itself allows for a fuller, more natural and flowing experience of awareness through all aspects of life.

The solitude and silence of PJG allowed for much more continuity in practice, although I noticed that fatigue had quite a debilitating effect. As the month progressed, the fresh, clear air was gradually replaced with smoky haze as the 'Dry Season' burning began. During this season I only put out three fires, but I spent numerous afternoons making fire-breaks around the caves which the monastics have used.

During my first 'fire season' at PJG I extinguished about twenty fires of varying sorts. My initial efforts were reasonably easy and successful, the only deleterious effects being smoke inhalation, some scratches from scrambling through the brush and dehydration due to excessive sweating. However, as I dealt with other fires that season I suffered some more serious injuries – a burnt, bruised and bloody arm from a falling burning stump and an injured arm from a fall. Also, several times I nearly fainted from exhaustion and dehydration.
Previously my only experience of fires was of those in the controlled environment of wood stoves or camp sites, where they were usually friendly and even welcomed. Thus this experience of meeting a fire burning openly and uncontrollably in nature was a completely new phenomenon. This was truly a 'wild beast' with an insatiable appetite, a wide range of moods and temperamental behaviour.

The burnt-over meadow.

So how do we relate to such a 'wild beast'? Most people, if they were willing and able to confront such a thing, would probably try to attack it directly. However, one needs to be very careful with this unpredictable phenomenon, which has the potential to cause injury and possibly death.

In the teachings on developing mindfulness the Buddha gives us some helpful guidelines. Basically, we should first study what the phenomenon is, giving special attention to what causes it and what removes it. Thus in the case of fire we can observe that it is sustained by nutriment – inflammable material and air. And it reacts differently to different kinds of fuel. Certain forms of inflammable material cause it to flare up into large, aggressive flames, while other material burns slowly but persistently. Also, gusts of wind can cause a sudden flare-up or at least move the fire in certain directions. Another aspect of fire is that it needs a certain temperature to ignite.

When we understand these principles we know that there are three ways to extinguish fire: prevent it reaching inflammable material, cut off the air supply or reduce the temperature (i.e., with water). Since there was not a readily available supply of water, the first two options were the only means left. Fortunately, most of the fires at PJG were ground-fires amongst the piles of dried leaves, the dried grass or the dwarf bamboo. Leaf fires were the easiest to deal with – simply rake a path through the leaves to prevent the fire reaching new fuel. When it gets into dried grass it flares up dramatically into leaping flames, the intense heat even causing a mini-firestorm with its own swirling gusts of wind and up-draughts. The only way to deal with this type of fire is to wait until it reaches a natural fire-break in the rocks. Fire in the scrub bamboo is also difficult to tackle, as it too flares up, although not as spectacularly as grass, and then the upper portions fall over, igniting the surrounding area. Thus making a fire-break can be quite frustrating, as it is frequently breached by the toppling fire brands. However, once one learns some of these methods, it can be quite rewarding to be able to bring a previously raging fire to an abrupt halt, in the process saving many plants and other forms of life.

Kuala Lumpur

On my way to Australia I stopped over in Kuala Lumpur to give a retreat at the Utama Buddhist Vihara. The Bundar Utama Buddhist Society (BUBS) has a very well-designed and attractive four-storey multi-purpose building for Buddhist activities. As well as a regular weekend programme of Saturday night and Sunday morning public Pujas and Dhamma talks, retreats can be held simultaneously, with student classrooms doubling as dormitories and a very spacious upper meditation hall, quite removed from the daily activities. The building has two rooms and a 'Dana Sala' (meal-offering room) for visiting Sangha. The volunteer staff are all familiar with Sangha etiquette, and very efficiently organize and manage all the events, retreats and talks. It is thus very easy and comfortable for teachers to offer talks and retreats. For my retreat 43 retreatants followed the schedule very diligently, and generously expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to hear the teachings.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Seclusion in the Wild

January 12, 2015
I have just returned to Wat Nanachat after over three weeks in Kanchanaburi Province in western Thailand. Most of the time was spent at the remote branch hermitage Dao Dtum (Black Turtle – after the stream which runs through the area). 

It is quite an amazing place. A former tin mine in Sai Yoke National Park, it was offered as a Sangha residence many years ago, and more recently has been accepted as a Sangha residence by the Forestry Department through their project to allow the Sangha to remain in the National Park boundary, subject to restrictions on building permanent structures. (A similar arrangement exists for Poo Jom Gom hermitage in Pah Daem National Park on the Mekong River.)

The monastery off-road vehicle.

This was my first visit, so it was quite an interesting adventure. I had heard of the remoteness of the place, but no one had warned me of its ruggedness. The journey there in a four-wheel drive, off-road vehicle was the most unbelievable travel experience I have had. We turned off the main highway and crossed the infamous River Kwai of 'Bridge on the River Kwai' fame, and proceeded down increasingly worsening country roads until the pavement ended. We then began two hours of bumping along bone-wrenching, teeth-rattling, brain-shaking tracks. Houses became less frequent and more basic, the fields were less organized and the trees larger and more abundant. We stopped for a break at the Border Patrol Station, and when we started again the Thai Ajahn accompanying me casually mentioned, 'And now the road gets really bad.' 'What', I said, 'worse than before?' 'Oh, yes, much worse.' And so it was. On a number of occasions I was sure the driver was going to stop and tell us to get out and walk as the boulders got bigger, the inclines steeper and the ruts deeper. However, he just kept bumping and rattling along with the engine howling, shifting gears every few seconds as the track conditions changed.

Other than two passes over hillsides, the track mostly follows along the valley floors, crossing various streams. In total we forded streams some 60 times, often bouncing down one rock-strewn bank, shifting to low gear and teetering up the other bank. Fortunately this was over a month after the monsoon ended, so the streams were easily passable. During the height of the monsoon the road is often impassable due to flooding or washed out from run-off, not to mention the occasional tree falling across the road, which happened the day we were travelling out. Seemingly an elephant passing along the road had toppled a tree and the incoming car had to carve a detour through the bamboo, causing a two-hour delay.

The hermitage comprises three specific areas. The main entrance area has the kitchen, main hall, workers' lodgings, guest lodgings and public toilets, and bathing facilities. One hour's walk up the valley and onto a ridge is the 'Outer Sala' and three monk's huts where the Sangha resides. 

Part-way up the valley another route branches off to the 'Inner Forest', where the main stream winds through a thickly-wooded valley which stretches to the Burmese border. In this area many teing (raised bamboo platforms) have been built to accommodate Wat Nanachat Sangha members, who spend two months of the Hot Season camped out in the forest. 

Several of the largest trees grow here, and the stream used for drinking and bathing gently meanders through the lush vegetation. A simple hall has been erected near the entrance, replacing one destroyed by an elephant some years before. This year approximately 20 monks, novices and anagarikas will be staying after a two-week tudong (walking tour) in the nearby forests along the Burmese border. Two paths lead up to this area. One consists of the 'arahant steps', 350 large, irregular steps winding up the steep slope to a broad path beside an old water channel from the mine. 

The other path, the 'Waterfall Path' weaves up through a series of ten waterfalls ranging in height from several to twelve meters. This path has not been much developed; it crosses the stream half a dozen times and in several places one has to resort to use of hands and creative footwork. However, with many inviting pools along the way, it is very likely much used in the hot season.

I was very pleasingly surprised to find the forest in this area either undisturbed or verdantly returning to its pristine nature. My previous travels in the mountains of north and north-east Thailand had been quite depressing, as every year more and more forest has been felled, burned off or turned into agriculture. In this area, perhaps due to its remoteness and maybe its proximity to the Burmese border, it seems the destruction has halted, at least for now.
The added bonus of the lush, undisturbed forest is the variety and abundance of wildlife. There have been sightings or evidence of wild tiger, elephant, gaur (the largest bovine), boar and bear, as well as various wild cats (including leopards), deer, monkeys and a profusion of bird life, from the chirpy little flycatcher to the loudly loquacious Black Drongoes to the Great Hornbill, whose distinctive flapping could be mistaken for a stuttering jet engine. It was not uncommon for a troop of macaque monkeys to wander through the canopy along the monks' hut ridge, or for a flock of Variegated Hornbill to roost in a fruit tree over-head and twitter to each other as they feed.

Dao Dtum is a very physical place. Each day we trek 45 minutes down from the ridge to the main hall, crossing three bamboo bridges and two rocky walkways, for our daily three-minute 'alms-round' to the kitchen. Since the nearest habitation is seven km over a rugged track, the monastics are dependent upon food brought in by supporters and prepared by a paid cook. Fortunately the cook is quite creative and so is able to provide some slight variations on the staples of canned fish and vegetables, noodles, dried soya, peas, grains, crackers and biscuits. He has recently started a garden, so there are always some fresh greens and mushrooms, and sometimes banana and papaya. On occasions a generous supporter may journey in to drop off a supply of fresh vegetables or durable fruit.

Following the meal at the main hall we trek one hour back up the hill to our individual huts, and may not see anyone until the next morning. The first week I was quite tired most of the time from all the walking, even with frequent stops on the way up to catch my breath. However, by the second week I had gained much strength and even ventured a lengthier walk over the nearby fire-break. Ajahn Buddhisaro was concerned about the difficulty, since it had not been cleared for a year, so he had the monastery workers spend several days clearing fallen bamboo and under-brush, and sweeping away the accumulation of fallen leaves which make the steep ascent and descent especially treacherous. Thus one afternoon all four of us trekked up the very steep 200-meter elevation difference to the top of the local mountain (approximately 800 meters elevation) and even more steeply down to the Inner Forest. Although they were heavily obstructed by the thick tree-cover, we were able to glimpse some of the heavily-forested hills and valleys stretching off in all directions. 

Fortunately elephants had previously travelled on the same route, leaving well-trampled imprints which provided us with very useful steps in the steeply-sloped hillside. Since it was still daylight when we reached the Inner Forest, we made an excursion into the furthest reaches of the valley, which is only two kilometres from the Burmese border. Here we saw what looked like leopard claw-marks on a tree, while across the stream a bear passes each night.

Having now 'gained my walking legs', before departing I was interested in venturing on the other end of the fire-break, which rises up to approximately 1,000 meters. One section of this fire-break had not been cleared in three years, so two workers were sent ahead to help clear the way and guide us to the farther end. Since this trip was estimated to take between four and five hours (at my relaxed, sight-seeing pace), we left after the meal. The workers had done an excellent job, even sweeping up the dead leaves, as parts of the path were exceptionally steep. However, their progress was even slower than my walking pace and we caught them up several times. As we reached the higher levels the bamboo forest gave way to spacious glades of towering 'yang' trees soaring over our heads, with panoramic views on both sides of the narrow ridge. As we crossed the summit and turned towards the downward path to the Inner Forest, the way became exceptionally steep and thickly overgrown. The workers were now directly in front of us, clearing a way through the entanglement of tall grass, vines and bush, while we half slid, half clambered down the increasingly steep slope. The way dropped straight downwards at nearly sixty degrees to a trickling stream in a lush, dark valley, suddenly eerily silent after our noisy descent along the windy ridge. We filled our water containers and then headed steeply up the further slope into a thickening bamboo grove.

The first sign of complications soon manifested when one of the workers came back down the slope towards us, saying they had gone the wrong way. He zigzagged through the bamboo thicket before heading off towards the left and called to the other worker to clear a path for us. It seems a clump of bamboo had died and fallen across the main track, entirely obstructing it. About every ten years bamboo goes to seed (it is in the grass family) and then the entire clump dies off and collapses; and in this area the bamboo is huge. However, we could still find markings on the bigger trees, so we weren't too far off course. We soon came up to a ridge and the way once more became heavily obstructed, the workers having to hack a passage through the undergrowth with their machetes. Now there was no obvious fire-break, and one of the workers said that in the three years since it was last made the bamboo had grown up extensively. We continued to wander along the ridge, in some places following the trail made by the workers and in other places weaving around trees and clumps of bamboo. As the ridge began to slope downwards we heard the sound of waterfalls. We all came to a stop as the workers looked perplexed: there shouldn't be any waterfalls or streams on this part of the fire-break! We were told to wait while they scouted down the valley ahead.

The Thailand-Burmese border crosses the top of this 1,125m mountain.

It was a very picturesque place to wait; surrounded by peaceful forest, a steep, heavily-forested hill with towering trees lay off to the right and the sound of waterfalls floating up from a deep valley on the far right. After about 20 minutes the workers returned with the news that they could not find the way ahead; perhaps we had taken a wrong turn further back. It was decided that we should go back up the ridge and look for the correct turning. We retraced our steps up the ridge without any sign of another turning. Meanwhile it was now after 3 pm, with not a lot of time to go exploring before dark. The workers made another attempt to scout around and one of them disappeared up the ridge. After another 15 minutes we decided that the best plan would be to return the way we had come, even though it would be longer, since we now had only a couple of hours of daylight remaining – lost on a ridge, in a thick bamboo forest 10 kilometres from the nearest habitation did not sound like an attractive option with wild tigers hunting at night! However, one of the workers had now disappeared and did not even answer the shouting of the other worker – where was he? The lost worker could very likely look after himself, but when we asked the remaining worker which way we had come, he was not sure. With thoughts of looking for a camp site for the night arising in my mind, we waited in limbo for what seemed like a long time. Finally, we heard the answering shout of the other worker far up the ridge. Within 10 minutes he was back, and when asked for the way back easily led us back down the ridge and onto the original trail. We were soon back at the trickling stream, quenching our thirst and preparing for the very steep clamber back up to the top. Fortunately the track was well-made during our descent, even swept of leaves, so the ascent was quite smooth and easy, if somewhat sweaty. Once again we were rewarded with expansive views over the mountains as we descended from the mountain top past the towering trees, and then steeply down through the bamboo. We were quickly back at the main hall from which we had departed some 8 hours previously. Now we only had another hour's climb back to our huts on the further ridge! Admittedly the last 15-minute trek from the Outer Sala to my hut at the far end of the ridge was somewhat of a strain, but the thought of a hot bath and warm drink drove me on.

One of the limitations of such dense forest as Dao Dtum is the difficulty of wandering off the tracks. Combined with the steep and in some places rocky terrain, there are not too many routes to wander on. Also, in the monsoon season the forest is crawling with leeches and malarial mosquitoes, while in the dry season it is infested with ticks. Fortunately the numerous trails already created usually provide enough exercise for most people. Also, the diversity of flora and fauna not only attracts ever-renewed attention, but keeps one constantly alert and vigilant.

Dao Dtum is probably the most remote of all the branch monasteries. This provides an environment with minimal external distraction. During my three weeks' stay no monks came and no monks left. We did now hear any news or receive any post or emails. I made several phone calls to arrange my travel to Ubon and several of the other monks phoned family during the Christmas/New Year holidays. Otherwise, the weather was pleasantly cool and almost nothing happened!

Personally I found that with so little information to process I had many more memories arising. Some of this was re-processing my travels over the last months, some just images of memorable experiences. I think some of this was due to the increased vigilance and awareness one cultivates when in a new, unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environment. (I started every time I heard a rustling in the dried leaves lining the path, expecting to see a snake, yet every time it was merely a harmless skink scurrying to safety. I never did see a snake the whole time.) The lesson here is that it is important what we expose our mind to, since it may come back to us later.

Just before departing Kanchanaburi Province we paid a visit to Wat Sununtaram, the monastery founded by the very well-known and popular Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako, whom I had spent time with in the early years of Wat Nanachat. The monastery is in a secluded area covering 200 acres surrounded by wooded, limestone hills and in 25 years of development has expanded to include various large buildings for holding sessions of meditation training for several hundred people at a time. At present the buildings are mostly empty with the 9 resident monks and some lay supporters keeping a quieter life-style as the leaves accumulate on the acres of park and walkways.

I will soon be returning to Poo Jom Gom until the end of February, then to Bangkok for a few days to give a talk in English at BIA and one in Thai at Ban Aree. On 25 February I begin my travels to the southern hemisphere:

February 28-March 1: Teachings at Bandar Utara Buddhist Society (BUBS), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia;
March 3-16: Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wiseman's Ferry (Sydney), NSW, Australia;
March 16-25: Wat Buddha Bodhivana, East Warburton (Melbourne), VIC, Australia;
March 26-28: Teaching at Well-Aware-Ness Psychology, 14 Ridge St., North Sydney;
March 31-May19: Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wiseman's Ferry (Sydney), NSW, Australia;
May 20-29: Bodhinyanarama Monastery, Wellington, NZ;
May 29-June 30: Dhammagiri Monastery, Brisbane, Australia;
July 1 – August 18: Vancouver, Canada;

July 18-19: Teaching at Victoria Insight Group, Victoria, Canada.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Further Ramblings

December 13

I am now back in Thailand after spending eight months in Europe.
Following Ajahn Sucitto's 'retirement party' on November 4th, I travelled to Ireland for teachings. First was a weekend retreat at Sunyata Centre in County Clare on the west coast near to Shannon Airport (www.sunyatacentre.org). The committee of Sunyata would like to offer the ten-acre property to the Sangha as a branch monastery. However, due to a large debt and the unavailability of a senior monk to take on the project, it seems that it will remain a meditation centre in the near future. Besides a purpose-built meditation hall, there are several converted farm buildings and one hut on the ten-acre property, with a small wood and a stream. Located on a hillside, it has an extensive view of the verdant coastal plain and the waves of rain clouds rolling in off the Atlantic. Members of the Thai community in Ireland are very supportive of the idea of a forest monastery, although it is somewhat removed from the population centres of Dublin and Cork.

I then travelled to Cork for two public talks and another weekend retreat. The first public talk, at University College Cork, was attended by some 170 people as it was linked to a conference on mental health. The second talk was at the hall of the village where I stayed overlooking Cork harbour, to introduce the setting up of a weekly meditation group. Another weekend retreat of 20 appreciative people was organized in a very quiet holiday Oyster Haven resort on the south coast.

I ended my Irish trip with an evening talk in Dublin organized by the Irish Sangha Trust, and then took an early morning flight to Rome. After a few quiet and sunny days at Santacittarama,, I caught my return flight to Thailand on November 22.

Santacittarama (orange building in centre), amongst vineyards and olive groves.

I had a few days in Bangkok to recover from jet lag, and then travelled to Petchaboon province in north-central Thailand for a five-day Thai retreat in the Turtle Hut 'spiritual resort' in the hills. It is a very pleasant place with four-star accommodation and gardens for walking meditation. 

Turtle Hut Spiritual Resort, Kow Kho, Petchaboon.

Nearby is a branch monastery set up by Ajahn Achalo on a scenic hilltop adjacent to a National Park. Although he has only been there for four years, the monastery already has five huts, a large senior monk's cottage with a library beneath and an adjacent property for nuns and female guests. Ajahn Achalo has built various shrines based on the Buddhist Holy Sites in India, such as Vulture's Peak, and designed a stupa and the buildings to reflect Nepalese style. 

I spent a very relaxed and pleasant week there, and then arranged to travel into the remote branch hermitage near the Burmese border, where I will be until early January. Since I shall be there over the New Year, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Joyful New Year 2015.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rains Retreat in England and Appropriate Attention

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

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

Santaloka Hermitage and stone stupa.

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

Vultures Peak hut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heather Meadow in Hammer Wood