Saturday, November 11, 2017


Changing place and changing mind

Greetings from Thailand, where I arrived some days ago.

The Rains Retreat at Hartridge Monastery in Devon flew by very quickly and very peacefully. I was able to settle into my preferred routine of balancing physical, mental and spiritual exercises. Fortunately, all the Western monasteries are situated in quite exceptional natural environments, suitable for quiet meditation and communing with nature, and with supportive spiritual friendship. Hartridge Monastery is quite easily accessible for people yet also in a quiet rural environment, surrounded by farmland and near a number of public footpaths. The countryside is criss-crossed by a maze of narrow farm tracks lined with hedges, and in some places with towering, ancient beech and oak trees. One also has the choice whether to stay on the ridges with sweeping views or plunge into the thickly wooded valleys. The choice is often made by the weather conditions – either open, wind-blown ridge or sheltered but damp valley.

Unfortunately, my plans to finish the I-making book did not reach completion, although the opportunity for more in-depth reflection was very beneficial and rewarding in itself. In fact the book has increased in size, so much so that I have started to write a second one, a shortened, condensed version, which is also incomplete at this point. However, as I entered another period of travel I had to pack it up for the moment, but hopefully can get back to writing once I have a more settled lifestyle again.

The time following the Rains Retreat is a time for visiting, particularly for supporting the annual robe-offering ceremonies held at each monastery. Thus, following the Hartridge ceremony and five-day visit from Ajahn Damrong, Ajahn Sopa and Ajahn Sucitto, I travelled to Harnham Monastery in Northumberland for the Kathina Ceremony on October 15, followed by an Elders Council Meeting. I was then planning to attend the Kathina at Chithurst Monastery in West Sussex, but I was asked to lead a five-day retreat at Amaravati. Ajahn Pasanno was scheduled to lead this retreat, but the forest fires in northern California had affected Abhayagiri Monastery, so he was not able to travel to England as planned. Although the monastery residents were evacuated for a number of days, the monastery was fortunately not damaged. The local town was not so fortunate, with eight of the residents losing their lives and 20 properties destroyed.

I thus missed the Chithurst Kathina ceremony, but was able to support the dedicated meditators who very diligently participated in the retreat. I then travelled to Chithurst Monastery for a few days' visit, before catching the flight to Bangkok. Autumn had arrived in England, with yellowing leaves flying in the wind and the temperatures slipping more often into single digits. I was fortunate that most of the days at Chithurst were sunny and dry, allowing numerous walks through the countryside with brilliantly coloured trees. One day was organized as a day-long Sangha walk to the Yew Forest at King's Vale. Since it was somewhat further than I was used to, I joined the group for the first part up to the top of the South Downs hills, where we stopped for lunch. From the highest point we had a faint view of the Isle of Wight and Chichester Cathedral on the south coast. I then made my way back to the monastery along footpaths meandering across the very green fields, criss-crossed with streams of the Rother Valley.

Changing our mind

My study and meditations on the Buddha's teaching have accentuated the quite radical insight which the Buddha realized. It has become increasingly clear what the Buddha meant when he said that the Dhamma is not easily understood by the average person. To truly understand his teaching requires nothing less than fundamental changes in our usual way of relating to reality. In general I would say that this is two-fold, although the two changes are closely related.

The first fundamental change is from an object-oriented approach to reality to a process-oriented approach. This, I would say, is the fundamental insight to which the Buddha awoke – that everything is a process rather than some fixed object.

The second fundamental change, following on from the previous one, is from an interpretative mode of relating to an observing mode. That is, instead of depending upon our interpretations of what we apprehend, we should give more precedence to a continuity of observing the on-going flow of impressions. Unfortunately, most of us have trained our minds to quickly interpret what we observe (from assuming that it is a stable object) and then judge, think and react according to the interpretation. And most of the time the interpretation is not complete, accurate or appropriate. That is, if everything is continuously changing processes, when can we conclude that anything is definitely a certain way or a certain form?

Of course, merely thinking about these changes of relating is still dwelling in interpretation. Fortunately, though, the Buddha has given specific meditative practices to help facilitate this change. Exercises in focusing attention help to quiet the internal dialogue which is interpreting, or at least give us the possibility to know how much we are interpreting. Developing the exercises in mindfulness encourages us to observe directly the nature of body and mind as they are changing. The very act of mindfulness is observing, and when we observe, what we see is process rather than object. Thus the more we practice the Buddha's teaching, the more we change our out-of-harmony way of relating to reality to one which is more in tune with the way things really are.

Wishing you all beneficial and rewarding practice.

The uphill trek.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

July 2017
Travels from April to July

Greetings from Hartridge Monastery, Devon, England. I arrived here in early July, a few days before the beginning of the Rainy Season Retreat. Since I was in Europe anyway, and as it is uncertain when I will be back to Europe in future, I thought that it would be suitable to spend yet another Rains Retreat in England. I chose Hartridge Monastery because it was the only one of the four British monasteries where I had not previously stayed for any length of time. Ajahn Jutindharo was very open to the idea, and even promised to 'reserve' the 'hermitage hut' at the far end of the property as a suitable location for further intensive work on my on-going book project. I am thus residing in a comfortable hut, surrounded by lush Devon forest, under the usual grey clouds on a mild summer day.

The local village of Rawridge as seen from Hartridge.

The monastery is located about 30 kilometers east of the cathedral city of Exeter, in an area of outstanding natural beauty called the Black Down Hills. These are actually a series of very flat ridges intersected by deeply-sloping valleys. The flat ridges make excellent pasture land, and so are mostly wide, open fields providing panoramic but wind-swept, views across the countryside. The numerous small villages are situated in the sheltered valleys, and various farm houses, barns and hedged pastures are scattered up and down the slopes as far as the eye can see.
We are a small community of five monastics – three monks, one novice and one anagarika, plus various long and short term guests. The other monastics have all been resident here, before so I am the only 'incomer'.

Sumedharama Monastery, Portugal
My third stop in Europe, in early April, was Sumedharama Monastery, Portugal, where I resided for seventeen days. The present 'temporary' monastery is a large rented property, with a four-bedroom, two-storey house providing a meditation hall and library on the ground floor, a guest house and some good-sized gardens. It is situated about forty kms north-west of Lisbon and some four kms from the coastal town of Ericera. The association which is leading the project has already purchased 10 hectares of land nearby, and is in the process of finding contractors to begin the construction of a multi-purpose building complex, with four monastic huts, a meditation hall, kitchen, monks' lodgings, storerooms and numerous toilets and showers. The cost including taxes is estimated at over 1.2 million Euros. When this first of eight phases is complete, the community will move from and give up the rented accommodation which, although adequate, is not suitable as a long-term monastic residence.

 Harbour of Ericera. (A. Vajiro photo)
The Sangha has been resident in Portugal for five years now, has a dedicated community of supporters and has built up a favourable relationship with the local people. One monk walks the 8 km round trip to the market in Ericera for alms-round each day, and almost always returns with a generous donation of food. One morning when I was out for my early walk, a woman spontaneously offered me three bags of buns!

During my visit, some of the dedicated supporters living nearby took Ajahn Vajiro and myself for an outing to central Portugal to visit some limestone caverns and ancient dinosaur footprints. Visiting these places certainly puts human beings in their minor place in the universe. For example, the stalagmites (on the ground) in the caverns 'grow' one centimeter in one hundred years from the dripping of calcium-laden rainwater. Thus, one of them near the walkway, 2.2 meters high, has taken 22,000 years to 'grow'. Meanwhile, the dinosaur footprints preserved in sedimentary deposits date from about 145 million years ago! To get some perspective, the dinosaurs survived on planet earth for 165 million years, whereas Homo Sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years (and some people doubt whether we will survive into the next century).

Where Dinosaurs roamed. (A.Vajiro photo)

April 13 is the Southeast Asian New Year, so a number of Thais living in Portugal took the occasion to come to the monastery and celebrate in the traditional way with offerings, followed by the 'washing of hands' ceremony, symbolizing the washing away of any hurt they may have caused in the course of the year and beginning the New Year afresh.

Shortly before my departure for Switzerland I was invited for a visit to the historic town of Sintra, situated around a rocky hill north-west of Lisbon. We first meandered through the botanical gardens of the royal palace high up the slope of the hill to arrive at the highest point, which gave us a panoramic view over sprawling Lisbon city and up and down the western coast. I recognized several trees from New Zealand and the Western Cedar from the Pacific Northwest of North America. Our journey took us westward along the base of the hillside to a former Capuchin monastery (Convento dos Capuchos), with its simple buildings moulded into the surrounding rocks. This order was the most ascetic tradition of Catholic monastics, and the simplicity of the place attests to their ascetic inclinations with tiny, unheated cells, although they were lined with cork for insulation from the chilly winters. The monastery was founded in 1560, but abandoned when all religious orders were abolished by the Portuguese royal family in the 1830's.
We then continued on to the most westerly point of continental Europe, called the Cabo da Roca, on a rocky promontory overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean below. This was the point which the early Portuguese sailors were so eager to view, because it signalled their return to home waters, often after years exploring strange and mysterious lands.

The Lighthouse of Cabo da Roca.

I departed from a balmy 25C Lisbon, and after quite a scenic flight across northern Portugal and Spain, southern France and the foothills of the French Alps, arrived in a cool 10C at Geneva for my visit to Dhammapala Monastery. The unusually cool weather was due to the 'bise', a cold northern breeze. However, one side effect is that the crisp, clear air accentuates the view of the snow-capped mountains – the towering mountains appear to be hovering virtually within arm's reach. Thus the trip up to Kandersteg was a very powerful experience. In the three years since I was there I had forgotten the exceptional, mind-stopping wonder of being surrounded by towering peaks.

However, it was not long before the other side of extreme nature was revealed. At the end of April we were buffeted by a three-day blizzard. April snowfall is not, however, a serious danger, and once the sun returned the fields were soon green again, although some of the wild flowers were a bit flattened.
On May 14 Dhammapala arranged a Vesakha Puja celebration near Bern. Several hundred Thai supporters and a number of Swiss gathered for the meal offering, my talk in Thai and a very 'cosy' circumambulation inside the hall. One of the Swiss attendees was Ariya Nani, whom I had known many years ago and who subsequently ordained as a nun in Burma. Over the years she became a well-known international meditation teacher, but more recently, due to health and family reasons, she has had to leave the robes, although she is still quite active in teaching.
Ajahn Thanissaro, a Thai monk resident at Dhammapala for many months, was booked to lead the annual Thai-language retreat, so I was more free to make my own programme. I visited two of the meditation groups, in Geneva and Bern, attended by quite a few people.

England and the International Elders Meeting (IEM)

On 20 May Ajahn Khemasiri and I travelled to Amaravati Buddhist Monastery for several days of meetings with the International Sangha of Ajahn Chah's monasteries around the world. This major event is only held about every three to four years, as a means of helping to keep the widely-spread Sangha connected. I am quite fortunate in being able to make personal visits to many of the monasteries worldwide, but most of the senior monks are tied down to the duties of looking after their respective communities, with little time for friendly visits elsewhere.

This year about 120 monastics from the various continents gathered, and the overall atmosphere was one of exceptional harmony and cooperation. A number of weighty and pressing procedures were quite smoothly agreed upon, and initial structures set up, for example, a standardized process for establishing further branch monasteries.
Photo and news can be found at:

Following the IEM I travelled with Ajahn Munindo to his monastery at Harnham near Newcastle, where I stayed for three weeks. The monastery was recently able to purchase a four-bedroom house about 200 meters down the back-entrance lane. This provides a much-needed extension to the accommodation for the Sangha, especially a comfortable and quiet residence for visiting elders. 

Mangala House.
I had a reasonably peaceful time at Harnham, with one Sunday-night talk, a double-header visit to Edinburgh and Glasgow and leading a seven-day retreat at the monastery's Kusala House retreat centre. Since many monastics had gathered in England for the IEM, there was also much coming and going of Sangha members passing through Harnham on the way to different places.

My travels next took me to visit Paddy and Ger in Aghada, south-east of Cork. They had been working very hard to get the meditation room above the garage in shape for the weekend non-residential retreat. Mid-week they also organised a public talk in the local town of Middleton and it just so happened that Venerable Thanavaro (Hungarian) and Venerable Indapanyo (Irish) were both on hand to give the occasion some 'Sangha weight'. The small, friendly crowd was very responsive and several people signed up for the weekend retreat.

Since the two Venerables were beginning a five-day walking tour in rugged West Cork, we all travelled out to a remote peninsula for lunch and an excursion. The 'excursion' turned out to be rather more than we bargained for when we tried to trek directly overland from the rocky coast to the footpath above us. If you have not heard of them before, be warned about Irish bogs! What appears to be smooth, evenly contoured country can easily become waist-deep depressions with sticky mud on the bottom. We must have staggered around a variety of hidden obstacles, zigzagging slowly up the slope for several hours, before stumbling upon the partially-paved walkway. This was a very intimate exposure to Irish trekking, all the time being buffeted by the breezes barrelling in from the Atlantic Ocean and funnelling the cold, clear waters to crash against the seemingly endless stretches of rocky coastline. 
 (Photo by Paddy Boyle.)

On our trek we also discovered the remains of a number of 'famine houses', crumbling remains of farms devastated in the Great Potato Famine of the 1840's when nearly one million Irish starved and another million set sail to begin life again in the New World.

I finished my trip to Ireland with a well-attended talk in Dublin for the Irish Sangha Trust, and then departed early the next day for Torino, Italy. I had forgotten I was flying at the beginning of the holiday season, with the usual crowds of tourists, full planes and delayed flights. Fortunately, I had quite a long wait at Gatwick Airport for my connecting flight, so the delayed departure from Dublin was not a problem. More troublesome were the crowds of people awaiting flights at Gatwick.

Santaloka Hermitage, Gressoney Valley, north Italy

After some fifteen hours of journeying from Dublin, I arrived at the spectacular Santaloka Hermitage at an elevation of 2,000 meters in the Italian Alps. Unfortunately, the previous week's hot, dry weather had just been broken by a series of tumultuous thunderstorms, and the morning temperature dropped to 3.3C! However, what a contrast to the rest of Europe – one looks out the windows to endless vistas of towering peaks in all directions. The only sounds are the wind in the trees, the cascading water and the occasional ringing of a cow bell.

For the first two days of my stay, Santaloka supporters trekked up to the hut with the meal, but on the third day I ventured the half-hour walk down the mountain to almsfood at the edge of the village. The trek back up the hill is a reasonably gentle but steady climb, and once back at the hut one has worked up a healthy appetite.

I arrived on a Wednesday evening and on the Sunday Ajahn Chandapalo joined me after leading a retreat on Lake Garda. The weather was not too cooperative and each of us was nursing a cold, so we only had a few short excursions. However, the day before our departure, Cristian took us both for an outing by cable car up Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. We stopped halfway up for lunch and some acclimatizing, and then, as the clouds were lifting, made the last stage to 3,600 meters. Needless to say, climbing the stairs to the observation deck was quite an exercise, but we were rewarded with spectacular views all around and various peaks, including the summit of 4,810 meter Mt. Blanc, appearing and disappearing in the swirling clouds.

We continued our cable car journey across the wide glacial plateaus on the French side to Aiguille du Midi at 3,840 meters. This is an especially scenic route, particularly as the cable car consists of a series of three four-person cabins spread along the cable at distances of about 100 meters. Thus the cable stops every five minutes as the cars are unloaded and re-loaded at each end, and so the five kilometer distance takes about half an hour, with many panoramic stops along the way.

(Photo by A.Chandapalo.)

My European travels finally wound down, and the following day I started my 13-hour journey to Exeter Airport via Milan and Manchester, arriving only 10 minutes late! Now that I am settled at Hartridge for the next three months with my computer and some interesting books, it remains to be seen how much progress I can make with writing my own next book.

Wishing everyone a beneficial and rewarding summer.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

April 27 at Dhammapala Monastery, Kandersteg, Switzerland

May: Travels and 'Not-Self' Reflections

I am now into my second month of travel, teaching and 

I left Thailand at the end of February to lead a nine-day retreat at Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary near Taiping, Malaysia. This is a spectacular but very peaceful retreat centre and monastery, perched on a steep hillside at the edge of a large tract of hilly rainforest overlooking the western coastal plain between Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Taiping is reputed to be the wettest place in Malaysia, attested to by the lush rainforest and frequent, cooling afternoon thunderstorms.

The meditation hall at SBS, Taiping.

A group of very devoted meditators, including three nuns, followed the daily routine and raised a variety of interesting questions. During the retreat I collected my food from the nearby kitchen, but for the last three days of my stay following the retreat I went on almsround to Taiping. This is a 45-minute journey down a very steep hillside and through a Chinese cemetery to the Taiping Insight Meditation Society house, where supporters gathered to offer food to the Sangha, meditate, listen to teachings and receive the Anumodana. Venerable Kumara led the teaching sessions in Hokkian Chinese, the local dialect. The two of us then made the one-hour trek back up the hillside, at a leisurely pace so as not to overheat too much, arriving in time to finish the meal before mid-day.

I next travelled to Kuala Lumpur, stopping on the way at Wat Dhammapiti in Ipoh to visit Venerable Thitavijjo, who stayed with me in New Zealand. Wat Dhammapiti is a branch monastery in the lineage of Ajahn Kanha from Thailand, situated in a large cave in one of the towering limestone monoliths which are a special geological feature of Ipoh. Venerable Thitavijjo and I were happy to meet up once again after several years.
I was in Kuala Lumpur for eight days, first giving a one and a half-day retreat at Bandar Utama Buddhist Society (BUBS), and then residing at Cittarama where I gave one evening talk, and also one at Nalanda Buddhist Society. While I was staying at Cittarama, Ajahn Toon from Ubon and six other monks visited for several nights. His talks were translated to English by Ajahn Dhirapanyo, who had stayed in Bodhinyanarama for one year. My last day in KL overlapped with the visit of Ajahn Chandako, who was driven from Singapore by Mr. Veera Santiboon, who then provided transport for me on his way back to Singapore.

Unfortunately, I only had a brief visit to Singapore, where I was hosted by the Buddha Dhamma Foundation, with Veera as attendant and guide. I resided at Nibbana Dhamma Rakkha Buddhist Centre, where a communal meal offering was arranged the first day and some 30 people stayed for the morning Dhamma talk. The following day around 100 very diligent meditators participated in a day-long retreat at a large Mahayana Temple.

After a day of visiting Singapore with Veera as guide, I travelled to Santacittarama, Italy, for a week's stay. It was a welcome relief to be back in a cool climate once again, although I had to remember to dress properly for the changing weather, with morning temperatures around 10C and afternoons up to 25C. Luang Por Sumedho was also visiting Santacittarama at the same time, so we each had a room in the recently purchased 'Nirodha Vihara', a four-bedroom house and property adjoining the monastery.

Nirodha Vihara at Santacittarama Monastery, Italy 

Even after the unexpected purchase of this property, the monastery still had sufficient funds to begin construction of the long-awaited new Dhamma Hall complex. It is hoped that the main floor will be in use for the inauguration ceremony in early June, attended by Ajahn Liem, Ajahn Anek and Ajahn Jundee after the International Elders' Meeting in England.

New Meditation Hall complex at Santacittarama

My next engagement was leading a four-day retreat for Terre d'Eveil association in Paris, where I had taught on a number of occasions. I was very comfortably accommodated by the manager of the retreat, Jean-Charles Chambaud, and his family at their home in Montigny, near Versailles. Jean-Charles was very receptive to my wish to have some physical exercise, so the morning before the retreat we went for a promenade to the nearby sprawling gardens of Versailles, particularly the large forested area with landscaped walkways, a large lake and fountains lined with sculptured figures. Then in the afternoon following the retreat, he took me for a walk through the grounds of Port Royal des Champs. Although not as impressive as the manicured gardens of Versailles, it was a much more interesting place, with a carefully pruned orchard of numerous varieties of pears and apples (who would ever think that tree-pruning was such a specially refined craft?), a very varied herb garden and the remains of the abbey, which was originally founded as a Cistercian nunnery in 1204, but eventually razed to the ground in 1711 due to its involvement with the Jansenist 'heresy'.

Sun shine on crowds at Versailles under grey skies

The retreat was held at a Christian nunnery in Epernon, a village on the pilgrimage route between Versailles and the renowned Cathedral of Chartres. As with many retreats, there was a wide range of experience, from one complete beginner to many well-experienced meditators, thus providing an interesting variety of questions. I was assisted by the excellent translation of Jeanne Schut, who also led the short sessions of evening chanting with explanations in French.

Recordings of the talks can be found at:

The French translation will be available on Jeanne's website in the future:

'Not-Self' Reflections
At a number of my talks, and during the various retreats, I often talked about the theme for my present reflections on 'I-making'. Please keep in mind that these are just some of my on-going reflections on this very profound theme and not any categorical or absolute statements. Hopefully they may be helpful to assist others in their investigations of the Buddha's teachings.

One aspect of this theme is the teaching of 'anatta', often translated quite literally as 'not-self'. My experience has been that this translation has often led to some serious misunderstanding. When people in the present time come across this translation, they often interpret it to mean that the Buddha is denying that a self exists, and then are either seriously confused or simply dismiss this teaching as absurd, since everyone can directly experience a sense of self.

In fact, what the Pali word 'anatta' literally means “is not 'atta'”, and this 'atta' ('atman' in Sanskrit) refers to the permanent, eternal essence dwelling in each person, similar to the 'soul' of Christian belief. Thus, a less confusing translation of the term 'anatta' would be 'not-soul', although 'atta' is also used in the context of the everyday self. For example, one very well-known verse from the Dhammapada is:

By oneself is wrong done, by oneself is one soiled; by oneself is wrong not done, by oneself is one purified. Purity and impurity depend upon oneself; no one can purify another. (Dhammapada 165)

I have thus sometimes translated “anatta” as 'not-self/soul', which I realize is quite clumsy.

The Buddha presented the teaching on 'anatta' in two contexts. The most common one was by way of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness - that is, all conditioned, constructed phenomenon are impermanent; what is impermanent is unsatisfactory or incomplete, thus it is not a permanent, perfect self/soul. The second context was by way of control: that is, if the body and/or mind really were an abiding self, then we should be able to command them to do as we wish.

Thus the meaning of the teaching on 'anatta' is that no conditioned, constructed phenomena has any permanent, autonomous essence. The Buddha's profound spiritual investigations led him to the realization that, in ultimate truth, there is no permanent, eternal self/soul – all objects that can be known are constantly changing, causally-conditioned processes. In this context it would be better to translate the meaning of 'anatta' as “without permanent essence”. Causally-conditioned processes persist through life giving some continuity to the sense of a self, but our ignorance of this leads to the belief in a persisting self.

When people say, “But I can experience my self,” what they really mean is that they can experience a sense of a self. However, when asked, “What is that sense of self which you experience?”, most people are at a loss how to respond. What the Buddha saw was that there are the processes of body-mind, but also the grasping, clinging, identifying with body-mind which give the processes the appearance of being permanent. When we are able to see this, we can release our grasping: the body-mind persists as causally-conditioned processes, but there is freedom from this ignorant view of a permanent self. Thus there still is a 'sense of a self', but associated with this is the realization that this 'self' is a relative, uncertain and constantly changing process. It is a wonderfully joyful relief not to have to take your sense of a self so seriously!

During the retreat in Paris, reference was made to the concept of a 'Higher Self' sometimes mentioned in Mahayana Buddhist literature. However, while this may be more understandable than a 'not-self', it still lays open the tendency to a deluded self-view. Traditions and teachers make use of various translations as a skilful means to guide their students to awakening. In the Theravada tradition we are fortunate to be able to make reference back to the original Pali terms.

Wishing you all a peaceful and insightful Vesakha Puja.

Refreshing afternoon thunderstorm at SBS, Taiping