Saturday, April 11, 2020

April 2020

Greetings from cool, green Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia;

Yes, Wat Buddha Dhamma is green again!

It is quite a surprise for those not familiar with the Australian flora to see the bush so quickly sprout back to life. Most of the trees have sent out bunches of fresh leaves through the blackened trunks, while others, more severely burned, have sent up new shoots from the roots. However, the scene is quite surreal as all the shiny, new growth appears too perfect to be real – no withered leaves or even signs of insect damage. And all this brilliant greenery is framed against blackened tree trunks and barren, skeletal tree tops!

On general observation it looks like at least 90% of the native trees have come back to life out of the blackened desolation. In fact, on our first visit following the fire, with trees still smouldering, I noticed that the native grasses were already sending up new shoots, not to mentioned the more fire-resistant gammia lilies and grass trees. As long as one does not look up to the tree tops it is hard to recognize that a devastating fire has swept through here only a few months ago.

The main long-term effect of the fire was the destruction of about 10 of the largest trees in the valley. Most of these were Engopheras, which appear to have a suicide gene. During the hot weather, the prime fire season, they drop flammable bark around their trunk and many of them are rotten inside, leaving openings for the fire to enter and burn them from the inside out. However, the curvaceous smooth exterior is quite fire-resistant and quickly sprouts leaf blooms, even when the interior is still burning!

Much of the regrowth is due to the return of regular rainfall. Three days of heavy rain in early February sent the creek into flood mode, and it has been flowing ever since. Now we have started to hope for sunny days to replenish the solar power.

Towards the end of January the Sangha was invited to Tasmania by one of our devoted supporters who had opened a restaurant at Kingston, near Hobart. The small number of local supporters were exceptionally generous during our short stay with bountiful meal offerings at Yom O's restaurant and for picnics on our travels, as well as very comfortable accommodation and energetic transport. We thus packed many things into our five-day visit with a restaurant opening ceremony, Dhamma talks and meditation sessions, together with a number of excursions to some of the scenic wonders of the island.

The Tasmania meditation group.

Tasmania reminded me a lot like New Zealand with sparse population and abundant natural vegetation. Also, surprisingly, Hobart is quite similar to Wellington, being surrounded by hills and situated on a superb harbour. In fact, the hill overlooking the city is called Mount Wellington.

Hobart city and harbour from Mt. Wellington.

And similar to New Zealand, the west coast of Tasmania is wet and mountainous while the east coast is drier and hilly. For our first two excursions we thus headed west, first into the alpine regions of the Harz Mountains and the second day to Mount Field National Park to the alpine regions on top (but not too the ski resort), and then we descended through a glade of some of the largest trees in Tasmania to the 32 meter Russell Waterfall. On our third day the rain caught us up so we journeyed to the drier east coast to the Tasman Peninsula, the site of the old penal colony of Port Arthur. No one was interested in visiting the ruined site as we have had enough convict history through living on the convict-built Old Great North Road. We rather opted to visit a number of the many natural sites. Our first stop was the Tessellated Pavement, where fault lines have fractured a sandstone plateau in such a way as to create natural paving stone patterns on the sea shore. Next we drove and trekked to the Remarkable Cave where the wild waves of the Southern Ocean has carved a 40 meter cave through the rocky coastline to an open-air beach. Our last stop was through the sand dunes to remote Roaring Beach, one of those typical spectacular, pristine antipodean beaches.

Roaring Beach.

Our short but eventful stay in Tasmania soon drew to a close. With heartfelt invitations to return we made our way back to Wat Buddha Dhamma and the continuing tasks of post-fire clean-up and re-building, but much refreshed from the relaxing break.

Present Past and Future
The Buddha's teaching on the development of mindfulness encourages us to live more in the present moment. Most people, however, also need to relate to past and future. While writing this blog, for example, I must delve into the misty realms of memory. Fortunately, the Buddha pointed out that memory or thoughts of the future are not problems in themselves. Rather, the main issue is with the delighting in or seeking pleasure in memories or future plans.

We all have memories and sometimes need to plan or imagine what the future may present. However, we usually imagine that the past is back there and the future is up ahead – then we go travelling! When we know that the past is already gone and the future is just a fantasy, then we no longer get lost in trying to seek pleasure in them. We just acknowledge memory or plans as particular forms of mental activity in the present moment, and do not try to create more pleasure (or pain) out of them then they already have.

As an exercise just try to observe how you relate to memories or thoughts of the future. Do you see memories as a record of past events or do you go into fantasy mode – 'if only I did that', 'maybe if I hadn't done …', etc.

Unfortunately, we usually think that we simply recall buried memories. However, modern research has discovered that what we actually do is recollect certain key elements and then build a plausible new story around it. The new version then overwrites the old version and becomes the new 'old memory'. Have you noticed how the details of old memories are quite hazy and often doubtful?

In a positive sense memories can be a source of wisdom. If we are willing, we can see where we have gone astray at certain times and what has helped us to realign. Rather than moan over mistakes we can try to be more vigilant in future to not keep falling into the same old habits. 
Thoughts of the future can open up possibilities, but they are only possibilities and not actualities. And, at what point do these possibilities lead you into unnecessary worry – about mere possibilities!

The past is a memory,
The future a mere thought.
Only in the here and now are we alive.

Wishing everyone good health and well-being.

Monday, December 23, 2019

December 2019

Greetings from burnt-over Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia;

The thirty year old Sala survived the second bushfire.

I have not been writing much in this blog over the last while, basically because there was not much to 'ramble' about. However, things changed quickly after the Rainy Season Retreat with the on-set of the Australian Bushfire season. Then it was so busy that I had little energy or time to write!

As some of you may know, Wat Buddha Dhamma is situated deep in the Dharug/Yengo National Park surrounded by dry eucalyptus bushland. When bush fires threaten we are advised to evacuate to a safer place. For Tuesday, November 12, the Fire Danger Level for NSW and Queensland was raised to 'Catastrophic', meaning all those in fire-prone areas should evacuate to safer areas.

Since we were in no immediate danger (although the Park Ranger suggested otherwise), we initially did not think to leave. However, when we reconsidered the implications, some other options arose. We were in the path of an extensive, fast-moving, out-of-control fire some 45 km away (Gosper's Mountain – the 'mega fire' now engulfing 470,000 ha) and would be spending the day shrouded in acrid smoke in temperatures approaching 40C.

After careful consideration it was decided that it might be a suitable day to take a picnic lunch and visit the local town to complete a few errands, then review the conditions in the early afternoon. By early afternoon fire conditions had deteriorated considerably with hot, windy conditions fanning existing fires and producing new ones. We thus decided to de-camp to an apartment made available to the Sangha in west Sydney to review conditions in the evening. By early evening fire conditions had truly become 'catastrophic' with 80 fires burning throughout the state, 15 at Emergency Level.

Thus, at the invitation of our generous Vietnamese supporters, we remained overnight and were offered the next day's meal. By morning, with a cool southerly weather change, fire conditions were considerably reduced and we made our way back to the Wat. As we approached Wisemans Ferry the northern horizon was covered in smoke, and from the ridge road we could see massive plumes of smoke billowing up from the vast swathes of burning National Park forests towards the northwest. Fortunately, the monastery property and surrounding area was not impacted by the fire, although the area was covered in a layer of ash, including finger-sized scorched leaves blown 40 km across the hills.

Our second evacuation occurred towards the end of November with a lightening strike at Three Mile Line on the Old Great North Road. Since we are at Ten Mile Hollow on the Old Great North Road we did not appear to be threatened. However, the Fire Service was concerned that the fire would cut off our access road and advised to evacuate. With telephone calls coming in, a siren-wailing helicopter hovering overhead and a visit by fire personnel, we decided to depart for the lodging in west Sydney to appease the officials.

We returned to the monastery the following day and met an official who said all was good and that they would begin a controlled burn soon to contain the fire some two miles from us. However, this was delayed and high winds on Monday forced the fire over the proposed containment line to within 5 km of us. On Tuesday morning we were warned that the fire was slowly approaching but that the winds were directing the main fire-front away from us towards the east. However, by late afternoon we were notified of potential 'ember attack' and, collecting our valuable possessions, all assembled in the vicinity of the kitchen/office in preparation. Having donned protective clothing, set out fire hoses, filled gutters with water and cleared extra-wide fire-breaks, we sat down for refreshments as increasingly dense smoke billowed over the ridge. Just as we were preparing to retire to our 'safe house' – an earthen building stocked with water and medical supplies, and with ample clear space – the first flames crept over the ridge to the south-east. It was still about 600 meters distance and on the opposite side of the road from the monastery so did not appear overly-threatening – night was approaching, the winds were dying down and the fire was moving downhill.

We casually watched the flames creeping along the ridge when three helicopters suddenly flew overhead and landed in the large field nearby telling us to depart immediately leaving all belongings behind. I was not keen to leave my passport and necessary items so suggested that we could take our belongings and drive out the back route away from the fire. This was agreed and we quickly loaded our things and departed in two vehicles, remembering to take the chain saw and bolt cutters (in case the gates were locked).

We set off briskly but, upon making our first right hand turn through the clearing under the power lines, observed that the fire front had crested the ridge and was halfway down the nearby slope. We had not realized that the westerly winds had forced the fire-front past our position towards the east. We moved off more briskly on the eastward track and several more curves directed us straight towards a steep slope where the flames were being whipped 40 meters over the ridge tree tops. We descended the narrow track winding along a rocky gorge over deeply rutted washouts before the track leveled out and the bush thickened through the gulley. However, in the lower reaches of the valley the smoke began to thicken and another curve brought us to within 150 m of a ribbon of fire creeping down the slope. For a moment I thought that the fire may be in front of us but we had little choice but to continue forward. We sped ahead through thickening smoke and darkness only to run into a fallen tree across the track. Fortunately we had the chain saw and were able to quickly clear the path as the red glow flickered over our right shoulders.

Our departure route after the fire.

Shortly we arrived at the track along Mangrove Creek, fortunately recently ploughed, and turned away from the encroaching fire front along an increasingly well-maintained gravel track, then up the opposite slope through Dubbo Gulley to Upper Mangrove village. While we waited to find a place to stay, a Rural Fire Service vehicle arrived to confirm that we had all managed to evacuate and report on the advance of the fire.

After a short discussion, the six of us were very warmly received by the residents of Aloka Meditation Centre where we resided for two nights. Then our Vietnamese supporters took us to a house in west Sydney and the next day we travelled to Santi Forest Monastery where Sisters Jitindriya and Jayasara generously invited us to make use of the much-appreciated quiet and solitude.

For nearly a week we had little news of the condition of the monastery except that dramatic footage on national television of my cottage blazing and helicopters water-bombing the Sala sent panic through our lay community and an avalanche of text messages expressing concern (

Finally one of our fireman supporters managed to access the property and reported that the buildings were 80% intact! We have since made an inspection to assess the damage. Fortunately, all main buildings survived, and the only loss were three monk's huts [including the iconic 'Ayya Khema' Rock Kuti], plus several caravans, wood piles, toilets and water tanks. Unfortunately, some of the water pipes were damaged and water supply has been disrupted. Also unfortunately, most of the forest has been completely devastated, in some places leaving only charred sticks standing.

Ayya Khema Rock Hut before ...

... and after fire.

The following weekend many supporters braved the difficult conditions of trees on roads, smouldering stumps, charred forest and cold showers to assist in an initial clean-up. A week of chain-sawing and plumbing work has now seen most tracks cleared and water restored to the monk's area.

We are most grateful to the Rural Fire Service who helped protect some of the buildings, to all those who generously housed and supported us during this chaotic and distressing time and all the open-hearted people who expressed their well wishes and contributed to expenses and the re-building fund.

The smell of burnt wood and sight of blackened forest still lingers about the property (probably for months), however, we are heartened by the dawn chorus of cackling kookaburras, the sighting of our local wallabies, wombats and goanas, as well as increasing numbers of birdlife.


While all situations in life can be a source of contemplating impermanence, it is extreme times like this that bring the truth of impermanence directly into our minds. Most often we contemplate impermanence while in a relatively safe and secure environment such that this contemplation is usually in the abstract – yes, things are impermanent but not me. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down and, if you have not seriously understood impermanence, you can be over-whelmed with suffering at all levels of being at once.

One of the huts which burned down was the Mahathera cottage where I had been staying. Initially, someone who saw the television images told us that it was the Sangha House which had burned down. This news was saddening, but when we established that actually it was my lodging that had burned down, I had to choke back some personal tragedy for the belongings I left behind!

Mahathera Cottage before ... 

 ... and after.

I am still getting used to the situation where people wish to offer me something and my first thought is that I already have it. Then I realize that actually, it is now burnt up in my former lodging! Interestingly, upon reflection, it was not the things themselves that were the source of sorrow but rather the sense of me and mine which those things represented. 
There were things associated with my personal history – a fossil from the rocky coast of Portugal; there were things that relieved some personal pains – special circulation-stimulating socks for feet pain; there was my selection of favourite teas, etc.

In one sense, of course, this can be positive as a means of liberation from identity. Yet, while nothing there was irreplaceable, there is still sorrow at any loss of selfness, and a form of dislocation before another sense of (new) selfness is re-established – hopefully more in tune with continuous impermanence.

The Buddha often encouraged the contemplation of impermanence as one of the direct means to liberation. Other times he extended this to include the contemplation of dukkha since impermanence is always unpleasant for the sense of selfness, which is founded upon stability and need for security. This can lead to an increased understanding of 'anatta', no stable self, in that, what is impermanent and dukkha is, of course, not a stable self.

We blindly assume that we are in control of our life. However, the ultimate truth is that our life is controlled by the elements of earth, fire, water and air. While we may rant and curse them when they are extreme, we should reflect that actually these elements were here long before us. They are just impersonally following their nature – we are the ones who are in the way.

Wishing you all an insightful New Year and the peace of realization.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

July 2019
Greetings from Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia;

Since returning from a six-week journey to S.E. Asia at the end of January I have been peacefully residing here at Wat Buddha Dhamma.

Following the teaching of a three-day retreat here in March, I accepted an invitation to visit with John and Hannah in northern NSW on the Tweed Coast. Over the years I have made many visits there, both visiting friends and giving some teachings. John was previously a novice here at Wat Buddha Dhamma and then ordained as a monk at Wat Pah Pong. We spent several years together at Dhammapala Monastery in Switzerland before his return to lay life and, whenever I was near Sydney, he would invite me to teach at his home or his psychology practice in North Sydney. These invitations have continued after his move to the north where he has a quiet and very scenic home on Double View Road on top of Farrants Hill. His home does indeed have 'double views' – looking to the east one can see the Pacific Ocean and the view to the west overlooks the Tweed valley overshadowed by Mt. Warning and the forested escarpment of Lamington National Park in Queensland.

Mt. Warning and the forested hills bordering Lamington National Park.

During this visit John and I spent a night at Bodhi Tree Monastery near Lismore, inland from the better-known 'spiritual resort' of Byron Bay. The founder and abbot, Venerable Panyavaro, has been involved with Buddhism for many years. He knew the two founders of Wat Buddha Dhamma from early on, Ayya Khema when she was a lay person with a farm in Queensland, and Phra Khantipalo when he was living in the Thai temple in Sydney. He came to Wat Buddha Dhamma at the start and eventually became a novice here. After ordination in Thailand and spending time at various forest monasteries he eventually found that he had a special appreciation for practice in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition of Burma. He therefore styled Bodhi Tree Monastery as a retreat in that tradition and has embarked on a major development project to create a large meditation hall and accommodation for approximately 40 retreatants.

During my six-day visit to northern NSW Ajahn Dtun from Wat Boonyawat, visited Wat Buddha Dhamma and gave a series of teachings, both at the Wat and at the Buddhist Library in Sydney. He also brought two Thai monks to reside at Wat Buddha Dhamma. So I returned here to a much larger Sangha and increased activity on the Dana Hall extension. 

Ajahn Suddhammo, originally from Germany, was trained as a professional carpenter so took on the task of the extension project. His knowledge and great skill soon transformed the chaotic building site into a very solid, well-insulated and attractive addition to the monastery facilities.

New extension on the Dining Hall.

This year Ajahn Khemavaro was travelling quite a bit so I found myself much more involved with the running of the monastery – sometimes here as the only monastic. This resulted in a particularly busy time in early July as we were making preparations for a more formal period of practice during the Rains Retreat. On a few occasions we fortunately had some helping hands. Jeff Oliver, a Dhamma teacher from the Central Coast, brought a number of students for a weekend stay at the monastery and generously engaged in some active meditation helping us clear some of the fallen branches and bark around the various dwellings as a fire break during the hot season. Following this various people helped with the never-ending collection of firewood needed over the winter which coincides here with the Rains Retreat. Even though Sydney is on the southern latitude of Los Angeles and Beirut, Lebanon, being further from the sea there are still a number of frosty mornings.

We were, however, able to fit in an excursion to Bouddhi National Park on the extreme north eastern corner of the Hawkesbury River estuary. It is the Hawkesbury River which one crosses from Wisemans Ferry to arrive at the monastery, so it was interesting to see where it flows into the Pacific Ocean. Boubbi National Park is famous for its rugged coastline and exceptional rock formations, as well as the spectacular view down the eastern coast from Barrejoey Lighthouse to Palm Beach, Manly beach and North Head, the entrance to Sydney Harbour. On a clear day it is possible to see the tops of skyscrapers of the Sydney Central Business District.

Bouddhi National Park scenery.

We eventually finished off most of the work activities and six monks, one anagarika and seven laity entered the Rains Retreat on July 17. Ajahn Khemavaro leads the community in a formal retreat schedule of eight hours of daily walking and sitting practice. The settling into a regular schedule now allows me time to focus more attention on the finishing up of my long-enduring book project (hopefully, then I can get on to another one!).

Wishing you all continued benefits from spiritual practice.

View from Brunswick Heads inland.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

February 2019

Greetings from Wat Buddha Dhamma, 10 Mile Hollow, Wisemans Ferry, NSW 2775, Australia;

I am once again back at Wat Buddha Dhamma after about six weeks travels and teaching in S.E. Asia. Although I was only away for six weeks, somehow it felt like a much longer journey, probably because it involved quite a number of activities in a range of different places.

My fist stop was Kuala Lumpur where a group of supporters of the Forest Tradition had organized a commemoration of Ajahn Chah's 100 years birth. Close to 1,000 people gathered over two days to make offerings to the Sangha and listen to Dhamma talks from 15 of the senior disciples of Ajahn Chah. It was very interesting to listen to a wide range of personal experiences and perspectives on Ajahn Chah himself and his particular teaching style. Some of the speakers had lived with Ajahn Chah for a number of years, some had met him in the last years of his teaching, some had experienced Ajahn Chah when he was bed-ridden, while others benefited from the standard of training and teaching which were his long-enduring legacy.
The Dhamma talks can be accessed:

I then travelled on to Thailand where I gave one talk at Ban Aree in Bangkok before travelling to Wat Nanachat, and then on to Wat Poo Jom Gom where I have been previously spending the northern winters. This year, however, I was escaping from the Australian summer, although the temperatures were not all that different. Once again I had some three weeks of quiet retreat in the Nibbana Cave near the top of Jom Gom 'mountain'. Fortunately, this year there were no fires for me to attempt to extinguish, except on the second last day of my stay. The air was therefore exceptionally clean, and the night sky brilliantly clear for some early-morning star-gazing meditations.

The muddy Mae Khong River with Laos in the background.

Unfortunately, the time passed rather quickly and I soon resumed my travels. My first stop was back to Wat Nanachat for the LP Chah commemoration ceremony on January 16th. Many thousands of people camped out at Wat Pah Pong for the five days of Dhamma practice listening to teaching, chanting and meditating. A number of the senior western monks were called upon to give Dhamma talks, including Ajahn Viradhammo at nearly mid-night.

My next stop was Bangkok for a number of Dhamma talks and a medical check-up, then on to Singapore for a short, but busy teaching schedule. There is no Ajahn Chah branch monastery in Singapore, however, the Buddha Dhamma Foundation is very active in inviting various teachers to give teachings at a number of venues. I gave one talk at The Buddhist Library and one at Nibbana Dhamma Rakkha centre, as well as a two-day non-residential retreat at Wat Thai Palelai, where I was also welcomed to reside for my stay in Singapore. Members of The Buddha Dhamma Foundation were exceptionally hospitable and generous, and are always appreciative of the Dhamma teachings they receive.

While listening to the Dhamma talks by various senior monks in Malaysia, I was considering what aspect of Ajahn Chah's teaching impressed me the most. My conclusion was that it was the teaching on 'letting go'. Most of Theravada teaching emphasises the getting, increasing or development of spiritual qualities, for example, the cultivation of the Eightfold Path, gaining skill in practising Calm and Insight meditation, etc. All this, of course, has its place in spiritual practice, however, unless it is supporting the letting go of grasping of self, this practice is really missing the whole point of the spiritual path.

Ajahn Chah was, of course, mostly teaching monastics, many of whom had already spend time developing spiritual qualities, sometimes to greatly advanced levels. However, what is often missing in most teachings is the complete letting go of all development and attainments, which is the ultimate purpose of spiritual practice.

While reflecting on Ajahn Chah's teaching I then realized that, in essence, letting go is the simplest of all spiritual practices. However, it is by no means the easiest practice, primarily because of self's all-encompassing influence. It then occurred to me that the teaching of letting go needed to be presented within the wider context of the Buddha's teaching. I presented this context in a talk I gave at BIA, Suan Moke, Bangkok as 'The Direct Way to Awakening'. This 'Direct Way to Awakening' is relinquishing, renouncing, letting go of self-centredness in order to realize Dhamma-centredness.

This principle can be presented in a variety of forms such as surrender, renunciation, letting go, giving up, releasing, etc. On the surface this is not so fundamentally different from most of the major religions, for example, the theistic religions direct a follower from self-centredness to God-centredness. However, where the Buddha differs is in pointing to the ultimate renouncing of even the renouncer. This, of course, can be paradoxical – how can the renouncer renounce him/herself?

The way out of this is to engage in spiritual practices which facilitate renunciation. For example, the practices of Generosity, Morality and Meditation, if done correctly, undermine the nature of self-centredness. While self-centredness is supported by accumulation of 'my' possessions, the practice of Generosity is the giving up of accumulations; self-centredness is supported by following my own habits and actions, while morality is surrendering my preferences to a non-personal standard of morality. Meditation is observing clearly the insubstantial nature of this sense of self we centre our energies around to awaken to the ultimate reality of Dhamma-centredness.

The progressive development of increasing Dhamma-centredness has practical applications in all aspects of life. While, of course, we need to be sensitive to self's demands to some degree, when does self's needs become self-serving greeds? Spending all of our energy feeding self's demands is merely feeding an ultimately false reality, which ends only in disappointment, since all aspects of self's domain eventually dissolve and fade away. Whereas energizing Dhamma-centredness is tuning in to reality, the way things really are, which ends in undying, since ultimately there is no self to die, only the reality of impermanence unfolding.

One of the practical ways to enact this process is that rather than follow what 'I' want, try to follow what life requires. Today this can be quite challenging since 'I' have so many choices. However, if we open up this inquiry: 'What does life require?', we may begin to see more rewarding and satisfying possibilities coming into focus. Gradually we come more and more to appreciate the universal and ultimately satisfying nature of Dhamma-centred reality.

May the Dhamma increasingly infuse your life.