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.
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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.
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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.