Thursday, February 23, 2017

Travel, 'Textures of Silence', Buddhism and Neuroscience

Greetings from Bangkok, where I am briefly staying before starting my teaching tour to Malaysia, Singapore, and on to Europe. I have only recently uploaded a blog for February, but I will soon be quite busy teaching and travelling, and so do not know when I will be able to send another blog. Also, I wanted to let people know my schedule (attached at the end) in case we are able to meet up somewhere in the world.

My three-month stay at Wat Poo Jom Gom has been very rewarding in terms of peaceful meditation practice. Especially during the last month I was in quite good physical condition from many weeks of walking, the weather was almost perfectly agreeable and the weeks of solitude and regular practice allowed the mind to settle into some exceptionally peaceful states – it does happen sometimes!

I will now enter a more active and busy phase of practice, with quite a few teaching engagements, travels and visits to various monasteries and meditation groups. I will particularly miss my hour and a half pre-dawn walking meditation from the hill-top cave to the monastery hall. Since I usually have my most peaceful meditation early in the mornings, I would normally stay in my lodging to continue with practice. However, living at Wat Poo Jom Gom in a secluded cave some distance from the main monastery requires me to journey down to the hall to go on dawn alms-round.

The walk down is a type of meditation like no other. I usually set off at 3:45 am, through the fresh, cool morning air wrapped in dark, pre-dawn silence. Concentration meditation shifts from focusing on the breath to focusing on the small section of path illuminated by the tunnel of light from the headlamp. Mindfulness meditation shifts to an increase in bodily sensations from the cool air, the careful placement of each step on the uneven surface of the rocky path and the different patterns of pre-dawn sounds: the rustling of dry leaves in the breezes, the melodic patter of sandals on the path, the occasion wild dog barking and the flowing symphony of thoughts and textures of silence in the mind.

I leave the cave before 4 am in order to have an unhurried pace. I can thus relax the body so much (plus a modicum of fatigue from low blood sugar after not eating for 20 hours) that it often feels as if I am floating along the path. The mind can be so calm from several hours of meditation, many hours of undisturbed solitude and the sensory deprivation of the dark early morning, that the experience is sometimes an exceptional meditation. On one occasion the mind was so quiet that I came up with the insight: 'The silent mind is beyond space and time, since the only space is 'here' and the only time is 'now''.

I usually make several stops on the way, turn off the headlamp and gaze at the star-filled sky. Every fourth or fifth viewing I see a shooting star, and occasionally I can see a satellite silently passing steadily through the darkness.

Textures of Silence

I refer to 'textures of silence' to designate the various forms of silence (or quietude of mind). For example, the coarsest texture is the sound of blood being pumped through the body and resounding in the ear drum. The second coarsest texture is the higher-pitched sound of 'ringing in the ears', which for some people has become annoying tinnitus. Then there are various textures of humming or buzzing 'in the head' when thought ceases. I sometimes refer to these as the sound of 'hovering thoughts' (being the listener of thoughts) or 'the sound of consciousness' (being actively conscious of the silence).

One of the most interesting forms of silence is that arising from absorbed awareness of physical sensations. This is interesting because there is a collage of textures of silence, combined with a variety of mental noise. If the sensations are extreme there is a predominance of vascular sound, whereas if the sensations are very subtle, the hum of no-thought predominates. Some sensations may of course trigger mental reactions: memories, feelings of pleasure or pain, emotions of liking or irritation, etc.

Wat Poo Jom Gom is a place where I experience much physical sensation, due primarily to living in such direct contact with heat, cold, sunshine, wind and insects. During almost every waking moment the body is continuously assaulted by a vast array of various sensations, some pleasant, but many unpleasant. I almost always have some insect bite which itches or stings, or there is an insect crawling on the skin. Living largely unsheltered from the weather, I am continuously aware of the varying temperature (fortunately not too much in Thailand): the warmth of sun on the skin, the waves of heat-induced sweat and the cooling or chilling gusts of wind. The main result of this dominant awareness of physical sensation is that there is much less mental activity (or at least less awareness of it), and thus it seems that the mind is more easily able to settle into states of quietude. Of course, this is also supported by many hours of solitude, and perhaps by some degree of altered consciousness from the extraordinary natural environment which, since it is something with which I am quite unfamiliar, can often 'stop the mind' which marvels at it. Also, as there are no stories, associations or memories connected to the environment, the mind just stays at the level of silently seeing it – it is just like this and not like anything else.

On one of the occasions when I had an especially quiet meditation, an insight arose that really there is ultimately just nothingness. That is, when the mind is totally quiet there is nothing there. It then occurred to me how hard it would be to explain this, as most people living in the midst of 'thingness' would not understand. This can only be appreciated when we take into account the Buddha's teaching of the principle of co-dependence or co-existence, that things arise interdependently. Thus, in this situation, there is nothingness because there is, at another level, somethingness.

Buddhism and Neuroscience

Perhaps the most important recent discovery of neuroscience is neuroplasticity, that the brain is much more changeable then scientists first thought. This ability of the mind to change is succinctly expressed by the axiom: 'neurons that fire together wire together'. This means that the network of neurons involved in transmitting information changes depending upon the type of information, and when that information is repeated, these networks create habitual pathways. Thus the network of neurons engaged when we repeatedly think positive thoughts begins to create regular positive thought pathways, which encourage positive thoughts to occur more easily and more frequently, until our personality may become more optimistic.

A number of psychologists have also made some valuable discoveries that help support the Buddha's teaching on non-self. For example, Daniel Kahnemann has explained some of the unconscious distortions and biases to which the mind inclines in spite of the general view that we are fully aware and in control of our interpretations and decisions. Particularly insidious are 'priming effects', which occur in the 'implicit' or unconscious memory where exposure to one stimulus influences our response to another stimulus. In one famous study students were unconsciously fed information implying old age, and were then observed to act as if they were much older than they really were! Also, of note are the familiarity bias, the confirmation bias, the affect bias ('the emotional tail, wags the rational dog.') and a number of others.

There has also been some revealing research on the nature of memory (sañña, in Pali), which is a common source of self-identification, supporting the Buddha's teaching that it is intrinsically impermanent and not-self.

Unfortunately, due to the emphasis on studying brain activity, much brain research inclines to what might be referred to as a materialistic view of a human being. Thus, one researcher concludes that we are merely ever-changing neural activity and no permanent 'self' has been found. While at one level of understanding this is certainly true, at the subjective level most people understand otherwise: We are not just neural processes but much more. But what is that 'more'? My reflection is that the 'more' is that this neural activity has meaning for us, which leads to deeper understanding and new ways of relating to life.

A related example may be music. On one hand it is merely electromagnetic signals impinging upon the ear. Subjectively, however, it is much more, in that it has personal meaning for us, triggering subjective emotions, feelings, memories, etc. In Buddhist psychology there is consciousness of sounds, which then condition name-and-form: feeling, perception, intention, attention and contact. These mental processes create a wide range of special meaning for us. We are then conscious of these phenomena, which again condition further name-and-form, which conditions further consciousness, conditioning further name-and-form, in an ever-expanding web of diverse experiences. At the physiological level we can say that these are all just neural activities. However, subjectively they are much more than that, and it is this meaningful subjective experience which is what we call life, in spite of the objective neural undercurrents.

On February 20 I gave a talk at the Buddhadasa Archive in Bangkok (BIA) on the topic of Buddhism, and what modern brain research has learned about the effects of Buddhist mind-training. This talk will eventually be uploaded to the BIA website:

Selected bibliography for those interested in further reading:

The Emotional Life of Your Brain; Richard J. Davidson with Sharon Begley; A Plume Book, 2013

Explains the basic Six Emotional Styles and the results of his research on meditators.

The Self Illusion; Bruce Hood, HarperCollins, Toronto, 2013

A professor of developmental psychology explains the development of the self illusion through our social upbringing.

Thinking, Fast and Slow; Daniel Kahneman, Penguin Books, 2012

Explains the functioning of the two systems of mental activity and how they are subject to limitations confirmed by various distortions, biases and non-attention to information.

White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory; Kotre, John, The Free Press, New York, 1995.

Self Comes to Mind Damasio, Antonio, William Heinemann, London, 2011.

The Brain That Changes Itself; Doidge, Norman, Penguin, 2008.

Buddha's Brain; Hanson, Rick, New Harbinger Publications, Inc., Oakland, 2009.

Travel Programme February to November 2017
Feb. 25-March 5: 10-day retreat at Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary, Taiping, Malaysia
March 11-12: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
   March 10: Day and evening retreat at Bandar Utama Buddhist Society:
   March 11: Talk at Cittarama, 8pm
   March 12: Talk at Nalanda Buddhist Society
   March 13: Talk at Subang Buddhist Society
March 16-20: Buddhadhamma Foundation, Singapore
   March 18-19: Non-residential retreat.
March 21-28 Santacittarama, Italy
March 29 – April 2: Retreat in Paris, Terre d'Eveil;
April 3 – 20: Wat Sumedharama, Portugal
   April 11: Talk at Upaya Centre, Lisbon:
   April 15 or 16: Thai New Year Ceremony, Bajao
April 21 – May 20: Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland
   May 3 or 10: Talk in Geneva
   May 14: Vesak Ceremony
   May 17: Talk in Bern
May 21 – May 26: Amaravati Monastery, UK
May 27 – June 20: Ratanagiri Monastery (Harnham), UK
   June 10-17: Retreat at Kusala House, Ratanagiri
June 20 – June 28: Cork, Ireland
   June 23-25: Non-residential retreat
  June 27: Talk in Dublin
June 28 – July 6: Santaloka, Italy
July 6 – Oct. 20: Rains Retreat at Hartridge Monastery, Devon, UK

November 3: Arrival in Thailand

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

February 2017/2560

New Year greetings from NE Thailand.

After having spent a busy few weeks in Bangkok from December 5th to 20th, I returned to the quiet Nibbana Cave at Poo Jom Gom monastery. I had only been away for about two weeks, but when I returned the season had abruptly changed from late monsoon to the cold, dry season. The water in the Mekong River had dropped drastically, the bamboo on the upper hills had turned from glistening green to parched brown and many trees were shedding their dried leaves to the winter winds. The cool, northerly breezes blowing in from the mountains of Laos were, of course, refreshingly welcome.

Mekong River at a low level, looking towards Laos.

Originally my Bangkok schedule was not too busy, but I had to add on some extra engagements, including five visits to the dentist and several more talks in Thai. Fortunately, the Thai retreat went very smoothly, even though at the last moment I had to arrange for two Thai monks to assist me with chanting and leading the walking meditation. The 200 participants were very disciplined and diligent, and very generous in their support. Sixteen monks were also in attendance, fifteen of them newly ordained as a merit-making offering to the late King of Thailand.

One of my engagements was a talk at a Dhamma-teaching event where I was one of five speakers. The monk preceding me was a very well-known teaching monk in Thailand, so the venue was packed with around 1,000 laity and monastics. I arrived early and had occasion for a short chat with him, and then listened to his talk. He is obviously a very gifted speaker, presenting a range of Buddhist teachings relevant to the modern Thai lifestyle. However, it did occur to me that most interested Thai Buddhists must already know much of what he was saying – to 'take care' of your mind, not be attached but to 'let go', etc. I thus reflected that even if people know the basic principles, why is it so hard to actually keep them? 

The conclusion I came to is that it is because we don't have enough of the right mental tools which are necessary to put the theory into direct practice. Most particularly, many people are lacking in sufficient collectedness (or concentration) and clear awareness (or mindfulness), the two main qualities to be developed in Buddhist meditation.

Looking at it from the other end, when the mind is sufficiently collected, it is protected from unskillful states and so we can easily let go of difficulties. This occurs due to three main factors of collectedness. Firstly, collectedness triggers a range of associated wholesome states such as peace or bliss, energy, clarity, and tranquility, which support other equally skilful mental qualities. Secondly, the collected mind remains more settled in a peaceful state and is not easily distracted by disturbances. 

Collectedness means that our usual self-preserving reactiveness to sensory stimulations is calmed, so that they no longer have such a strong effect. Thirdly, collectedness results from a focused attention. With focused attention we are able to attend to what we wish; that is, we can attend to skillful thoughts and not attend to unskillful thoughts.

Clear awareness allows us to better know what sensations are in the body, what the feeling tones are and what states of mind arise, whether they are beneficial or not, what their cause is and what brings their cessation. The three types of experience which are most likely to lead us to get lost in either attraction, aversion or delusions, are physical sensations, feelings of pleasure and pain and states of mind, whether emotional or cognitive. This is why development of clear awareness regarding these three areas of our experience is so valuable. We not only learn about these experiences first hand, but also come to understand what causes them and what brings their cessation. Thus we are in a much better position to take care of our minds.

Most of us normally only become aware when we are on the receiving end of emotions and moods. We think that moods arise from some particular sensory impression, little realizing that in fact they are mostly affected by the mood we are already in, and by our general temperament. So if we are already in a state of stress, one more adverse impression may send us over the edge, or if we are especially high-strung, we may respond unusually strongly to some arbitrary impression. Then we try to manage our moods, often very clumsily with our time-worn collection of coping strategies, and usually with only limited effect because we don't comprehend all the casual factors involved.

Imagine, however, what it would be like if we trained the mind to be much better prepared for dealing with troubling emotions before they arose, rather than merely cleaning up the mess afterwards? When the mind is 'empowered' with collectedness and clear awareness, it is naturally well-protected and more readily lets go of disturbing influences.

Clearly, then, the mind has a significant effect upon general health, so why isn't much emphasis given to mental exercise and training? Most people are familiar with the benefits of physical training for increased health, but relatively few people appreciate the value of mental training for increased physical and mental health. And even Buddhists who know that meditation is important rarely follow it up with any consistency.

The key to mental health, as for physical health, is daily practice. Doing physical exercises a few times a week is beneficial, but only regular daily exercise will significantly change one's overall health. Likewise, thinking the occasional good, positive thought will be of some benefit, especially when we begin to appreciate that benefit. However, to enact noticeable changes in our general mode of thinking, only some sustained development of our mental training will have lasting effect. Some research has shown that anything less than eight minutes of sustained mental practice will have no effect at all. The main point is that regular sustained meditation practice assists in changing the connections between brain neurons which provide the fundamental pathways of mental processes. Occasional mental exercises may temporarily alter the connections, but only sustained practice will change them durably.

I have been mentioning to people about a BBC documentary I saw on a flight where the presenter, Michael Mosley, practiced mindfulness of breathing for ten minutes a day for seven weeks. This enabled him to make a radical change from being primarily a negative thinker to a more optimistic general attitude. More details can be found at:

On February 20th I will be giving a talk at the Buddhadasa Archive in Bangkok (BIA) on the topic of what modern brain research has learned about the effects of Buddhist mind-training. So I will probably have more to write about in the next blog installment.

Ajahn Chah Commemoration Ceremony

Following several very quiet weeks in the Nibbana Cave, I travelled to Wat Nanachat to attend the ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of Ajahn Chah's passing. In practice this also means having occasion to meet many visiting senior monks. This year several of the more junior abbots attended as well, so I had the opportunity to catch up with Ajahn Jayanto from Temple Monastery in New Hampshire, USA, Ajahn Kalyano from the new Norwegian monastery and Ajahn Jutindharo, abbot of Hartridge Monastery in Devon, England, where I hope to spend the Rains Retreat this year.

I am not normally keen on attending large public events, but I do recognise their benefits on suitable occasions. When they are well organised, the devotional energies of many people can unite to create an exceptionally moving atmosphere. Each year when we meet in the huge hall at Wat Pah Pong and the voices of one thousand monks and novices recite the homage to the Buddha, I feel a powerful surge of religious emotion. Since I was near the front of the circumambulation procession this year, I couldn't see the crowds following behind until we mounted the memorial stupa and I could witness a sea of some 10,000 white-clothed lay-followers eagerly expressing their religious devotion. Fortunately, the circumambulation of the memorial stupa is only the culmination of five days of Dhamma practice for 2,000 of the people who resided in tents at Wat Pah Pong and followed a programme of walking and sitting meditation, together with Dhamma teachings. Thus the atmosphere was very contemplative and reverential, as opposed to merely festive.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Departing Canada, Abhayagiri Visit, Thailand, The Power of Silence

November 2016

Greetings from Wat Pah Poo Jom Gom once again.

I arrived here exactly one month after departing from Birken, and in some ways the contrast couldn't be more striking. While the autumn frosts at Birken had sent the leaves on the deciduous trees flying long ago, here at Poo Jom Gom it is exceptionally green and hot. Some unusual late-season rain has given the vegetation a new burst of verdant life and even the delicate monsoon wild flowers are still in bloom. The mornings are a refreshing 25C, while the afternoons warm up to 30+C.

I mentioned to some people that I might stay at another monastery, Wat Pah Tum Seang Pet (The Radiant Diamond Cave Forest Monastery) in November. However, the situation there is still not completely clear, so it was decided to postpone any visits until things are properly arranged.

After leaving Birken my travels took me to the Sunshine Coast, northwest of Vancouver, where friends had organized an afternoon talk and meditation in the very suitable Sechelt Botanical Gardens. Surprisingly, nearly sixty people turned up, even with some last-minute cancellations. A number of people did journey from Vancouver, however, and members from various local meditation groups participated. Fortunately I was also able to stay for a few days to meet with Dhamma friends and visit several places along the very scenic coastline. One special highlight was visiting the museum of the native Indians and learning about their long connection with the land, estimated to be 16,000 years! We often forget how 'new', and thus how impermanent, our modern culture actually is.

After a few days in the Vancouver area, I then caught the ferry to Victoria on Vancouver Island. The very active Victoria Insight Meditation Group had arranged for me to give a day-long workshop on Saturday and the weekly Sunday night talk. The workshop, held in a large house with spacious grounds, was well-attended by a diligent group of meditators, and the Sunday talk gave occasion for some engaging questions. Quite fortuitously I was offered dental cleaning and examination just as tooth pain was increasing, resulting in an emergency root canal before beginning my longer travels. Anumodana to Rhonda and those who helped cover the expenses.

Recordings of the teachings in Victoria can be obtained from the following addresses:
October 29 2016 Retreat recordings 

Oct 30 2016 Sunday Night talk recording

My next stop on my way to Thailand was at Abhayagiri monastery in Redwood Valley, northern California. I had not visited Abhayagiri in nearly ten years, and it was quite a revelation to see all the changes which have taken place during that time. The monastery has just celebrated its twentieth anniversary and has now almost completed the original plans to provide all the facilities suitable for a full-fledged Forest Monastery. The finishing off of the new Dhamma Hall/ Kitchen complex was still under way, but the main structure is in place and will hopefully be usable by the New Year. Ajahn Passano and the Sangha have gone to great lengths to design the 'perfect' facility, complete with children's play room, depository for departed ones' ashes, rooms for elderly monastics and ample storage. The very attractive Dhamma Hall has under-floor heating and under-ceiling cooling, with a covered 'over-spill' area for larger events, and is adjacent to the large commercial-style kitchen, but sheltered from it by a central storage area. All the facilities are, of course, earthquake-proof and wheelchair-accessible, and will eventually link in with the present toilet facilities, office-complex and eating hall through a covered cloister around a garden, when the faithful old house is removed.

New Dhamma Hall and Kitchen on right, old house in middle, present Dhamma Hall on left.

Of course, Ajahn Passano has not only been busy with building projects, but has also put substantial energy into 'building' the Sangha. There were nearly twenty resident monastics, two Anagarikas and one Novice receiving the precepts during my stay, with a very comprehensive and thorough training programme in place. Some twenty-five huts are carefully spread around the steeply-sided valley, providing opportunities for solitude in the exceptionally quiet environment. I had forgotten how remote the monastery is in heavily-populated California (more people live in California than in Canada!) However, it is on a minor road through the mountains, even though quite easily accessible from San Francisco.

My Saturday night Dhamma talk and photos of the Precept Ceremony can be found on the Abhayagiri website.

The Power of Silence
Some people ask me why I prefer to frequent the more remote and sometimes not so comfortable monasteries, rather than those with more comfortable facilities. One of Ajahn Chah's teachings, presented as a word-play on two key Thai terms, is that the aspiration for a monastic is for peacefulness ('sangop') while that for the non-monastic is for comfort ('sabai'). While I do appreciate some basic comforts, my main interest is being in an especially peaceful, quiet place which is very supportive of meditation, and such places are increasingly harder to find in this ever-busier, ever more crowded world.

In the simplest way we can say that silence manifests in two distinct ways: externally and internally. Thus someone could be in a very silent place and yet not 'hear' the silence owing to the noise in their own mind. Conversely, someone could be in a very noisy place and yet still hear the inner silence of their own mind. There is also the silence which is merely the absence of noise, and the silence which is ever-present. Of course, the real crux is to remain in the ever-present silence when the external noise contains elements which could lead to greed, hatred and delusion. The two main types of silence, the external and the internal, are also inter-relational, especially in the sense that the outer silence can support the inner silence, and the inner silence may help us hear the outer silence.

The Buddha recommended quiet places for meditation. The mind which is continually processing noise is in a more activated or aroused state, which is not conducive to a quiet state of mind, whereas a quiet, peaceful environment allows the mind to settle into a more relaxed, open and receptive state. Indeed, probably the most important aspect of living in a quiet environment is that it allows us to hear more directly the noise in our own minds. When attention is not occupied with processing noise, it is available to notice many other things. And this can help us to investigate the fundamental sources of the internal noise and enable the possibility of freeing the mind from its disturbances.

When my own mind quietens down somewhat, I can then hear the mental processes more clearly, whether it is thinking, planning, memories or whatever. This also works the other way around -- if I notice thoughts arising, I just need to turn my attention to the outer silence and my thoughts quiet down, as if they have just been absorbed by the engulfing external silence.

Silence, whether external or internal, allows us to see the bigger picture, the picture unlimited by our self-reference. Like gazing into the star-filled night sky or across a vast landscape, listening to silence reminds us that we are infinitesimal specks within the eternity of space and time. All our nagging worries or precious thoughts are actually of little importance in the greater reality of things.

The silence, of course, is always there. Thoughts come and go, some return, but the silence remains. And when thoughts fall silent, there is just the vivid present moment in all its immediacy – just this. No plans, no worries, no fears, no doubts. Just clarity, lightness, vitality. Someone who has experienced the great peace of the deep inner silence gains confidence that it is readily available and ever-present. Our practice is continuously cultivating the means to reclaim the silence which is the inherent nature of the mind.

In the middle of December I will leave the outer silence of Poo Jom Gom for several weeks in Bangkok to visit the dentist, give a four-day retreat and a talk in Thai and respond to several invitations. This is always a test of the ability to keep connected to the inner silence in a particularly noisy environment (without resorting to merely blocking out the noise). Before Christmas I should be back in Poo Jom Gom for a quiet 'Festive Season' and New Year celebration.

Wishing you all peaceful holidays and a rewarding New Year.

Monday, September 12, 2016

September 2016

Greetings from Birken Forest Monastery, near Kamloops, British Columbia.

After arriving from Australia in early July, and a flurry of family visits, I came to Birken in time to enter the Rainy Season Retreat on July 20th. We are five monastics: three monks -- myself, abbot Ajahn Sona, and Ven. Santacitto, a Canadian ordained in Thailand; a Norwegian novice, Nandaka; and the long-term Thai nun, Sister Mon.

The main house with 12 bedrooms, meditation hall, kitchen and eating area.

On the one hand, the monastery is situated deep in the wilderness, on a plateau at 1,200 meters elevation, with the nearest permanent neighbor fourteen kilometers away. Other than an occasional vehicle passing on the rough gravel road or a plane flying overhead, there are no other man-made sounds. It is quite an amazing experience to stop wherever one is and listen to the all-pervading silence, interrupted by brief bird calls, the chirping of squirrels or the shwooshing of a passing breeze. Of course, with the external silence one's thoughts echo loudly in the mind! However, one of the first steps towards calming the mind is to observe what all the mental noise is about. Is it really necessary? What is its effect on the heart?

On the other hand, it is sometimes hard to realize the isolation, since there are many signs of human occupation. The area has been extensively logged over many years, so there are indications of human disturbance at frequent intervals. Patches of artificial pine plantations dot the landscape, old logging roads criss-cross the countryside, free-range cattle wander around, and there are remnants of previous habitations.

The old logging roads are very useful for wandering through the area, since much of the older forest has become a maze of fallen pine trees, victims of the pine beetle epidemic which has devastated vast areas of forest in western Canada and the USA. This peaked about ten years ago and the dead trees are now toppling over throughout the forest. It is also possible to walk through the pine plantations - if one is very mindful, as they are underlaid with the scattered debris of the logging industry, which very wastefully just harvests the larger trees and pulverizes all the smaller ones.

One of the most impressive displays of the remnants of previous inhabitants is the 'Ghost Town' about two hours' walk from the monastery. This is a collection of around a dozen abandoned houses which were once the lodgings of the workers and their families at a busy sawmill. For some reason the sawmill closed down and the village was completely abandoned. From the vintage of the abandoned cars it appears this happened in the late 1950's or early 1960's. A number of the houses are showing their age, with collapsed roofs, broken windows and surrounded by vegetation. It would certainly make a good movie set for one of those post-apocalyptic films!

I decided to spend the Rainy Season Retreat here at Birken partly because I was visiting Canada anyway, and also as an opportunity to continue work on another book. Ajahn Sona very generously offered to support any of the senior monks who wished to have a retreat, and has been exceptionally accommodating for my 'retreating', as well as several excursions I made for teaching in Vancouver and to visit family. I spent a very comfortable and fruitful Retreat here in 2012, when I was able to finish the 'Treasures' book.

Shortly after I made the arrangements to stay at Birken, I received an invitation to spend the Rainy Season Retreat in Bali. A very devout family in Denpasar, whose youngest son is a monk with U Pandita in Burma, is working towards developing a Forest Monastery in the hills north of Denpasar. This is near the mother's native village, at an elevation of about 800 meters. A small hermitage has been established in a Chinese cemetery, and a hall, kitchen and teacher's hut built in the outskirts of the village. I would have very much liked to help support their project, but having already agreed to stay at Birken and committed to the writing project, I had to decline for now.

Although I tell some people for simplicity's sake that I am on a book-writing retreat, in fact producing a book is secondary. The main point is that I am working on a theme for contemplation, and, if it works out a book may manifest! While working on the 'Hindrances' book I came across a terse but poignant phrase: 'I-making, mine-making and the underlying disposition to conceit', which appears a few times in the Pali texts. I wondered what this meant, but unfortunately no direct explanation was given, although related teachings kept cropping up in various places throughout the Pali scriptures. After completing the 'Hindrances' book I started to investigate this theme further, without at first fully realizing the profundity of the topic. But it gradually began to dawn on me that it related to some of the deepest and most significant of the Buddha's teachings, including the teachings on non-self/non-soul, the Five Groups of Grasping, and Conditional Causality. It didn't take long for me to realize that clearly understanding these themes could easily take a lifetime, or maybe several!

I have thus changed my original idea of writing a detailed book on the original theme of 'I-making'. Instead, by the time the Retreat ends and my travels begin, I will hopefully have completed a study-guide or handbook of references, notes, and reflections which I, and anyone else interested in this theme, can continue to use for further investigations.
As many people familiar with the Buddha's teaching know, the second of the Factors of Awakening is 'Investigation of Dhamma'. Dhamma has two main meanings: the Buddha's teaching, and all things. Or we can say that the Dhamma as the Buddha's teaching is a particularly skillful way to view all things, in order to help us 'see things as they really are'. I have known about the value of investigation of Dhamma for some time, but this has been reinforced by some of my recent studies regarding the conditioning of consciousness by its contents. That is, consciousness is conditioned by what is in the mind and what is in the mind conditions consciousness. Thus, in a simplified sense, if we focus our mind on skillful themes, this can have a beneficial effect on our mind.

One of the most noticeable examples of this occurred a few days ago. I returned to my hut after a shower to do some writing and found that I had nothing to write! I felt as if I had lost the thread of the theme I was working on, Dependent Origination. However, since for me the early evening is the best time for writing, I thought that maybe I could at least work on some of the other chapters, which were still just a jumble of unorganized notes and references. I then spent nearly an hour sifting through the notes, collecting related notes together, deleting duplicates and transferring some notes to other chapters. Then next morning during meditation, various reflections related to the chapter I was working on arose. I was pleasantly surprised, since in the evening I was merely doing what I refer to as 'left-brain, donkey work': just sorting through information, but not actively trying to absorb or understand the material I was attending to. However, somehow it must have filtered down to a deeper level of consciousness, and the next day it bubbled up as insightful reflections.

On another level, though, the benefit of investigation of Dhamma is to help us step out of our limited world of constant self-reference. In order to investigate deeply, one needs to quieten all one's preconceptions, presumptions, expectations and, if possible, all one's cultural conditioning, in order to open as much as possible to what the Buddha is explaining to us. This is where external and internal silence is so helpful, if not always so easy to find. Thus I have been balancing my time between conceptual study and meditation practice or mindful walks in the silence-enshrouded wilderness.

As the Rains Retreat ends I will have several teaching engagements in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast, north-west of Vancouver, and Victoria, ( and then will make a short visit to Abhayagiri Monastery in California before returning to Thailand for the winter.

Wishing further insightful practice to all.

With Metta,

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June 2016

Greetings from Dhammagiri Monastery, near Brisbane, Australia.

I arrived here on May 31st after spending a few days with John and Hanna in the Tweed Valley, northern NSW. A small but very interested group of people participated in a day workshop on May 28 and a slightly larger group attended the Monday evening meditation.

View eastwards from Lammington National Park, Queensland.

I had an exceptionally beneficial two and a half month stay at Wat Buddha Dhamma. As many people recognize, everyone's temperament is unique. And while it can be very useful when we are young to stretch ourselves beyond our personal boundaries, as we grow older we may find that we are no longer so stretchable, and that it may be more energy-efficient to settle into familiar patterns which we have found to be beneficial. Thus I have observed that a beneficial situation for myself is one where I am able conveniently to have a moderate mixture of physical exercise, mental exercise (study, reading, writing and teaching), and spiritual exercise (formal meditation practice). Every place I have visited has its benefits and limitations, but the one which has provided the right balance of all these factors is Wat Buddha Dhamma. This year the weather was superb (if slightly on the dry side), so I had the opportunity for almost daily excursions around the National Park, including two day-long trips in opposite directions along the Great North Road. The solar-powered lighting allowed me to spend many evenings studying the Pali Canon and other materials (which may coalesce into another book). And the exceptionally quiet, natural environment was very conducive to especially productive meditation.

If we add to the above mixture opportunities for both socializing and solitude, we may have a very suitable combination of situations which are favourable to a balanced approach to spiritual practice. The Buddha often referred to developing a combination of spiritual qualities to support the furthering of spiritual endeavour: for example, the Eightfold Path, the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Five Spiritual Powers, etc. Of course, each person has their own individual strengths and also weaknesses. Unfortunately, often our inherent tendency is to emphasize our strengths (which give us a sense of confidence and success), and shy away from our weaknesses (which often give us difficulty and embarrassment). However, this attitude is just playing along with the game of self – 'I' is propped up by strengths and humbled by weaknesses. Thus in the Buddhist spiritual practice of deconstructing 'I'-making, we become wary of our strengths and encouraged by our weaknesses! The Buddha's solution is to develop a careful balance of the whole range of spiritual qualities.

Also, the wisdom which is thereby generated should penetrate and be integrated in all aspects of our being. The danger of not being spiritually integrated is that one will not be 'awakened completely', not completely in tune with the way things really are. I would say that this is not even really 'spirituality', since I define 'spiritual' as 'wholeness', being in tune with the whole field of reality or truth. Being partially in tune is not too bad, but it still misses the point of spirituality and, unfortunately, has often been the source of no end of confusion, disillusionment and scandal. Thus if spirituality is not integrated into physicality, it is disembodied; if not integrated into emotionality, it is disaffected; and if not integrated into mentality, it is dissociated. All these three states are incomplete and thus cannot be encompassed in the ideal wholeness and completeness of true spirituality. I would say that the Buddha was well aware of this and hence gave the instructions for developing mindfulness in regard to body, to feeling and to mentality, in order to give rise to a balanced understanding of all these aspects of our being.

View of the Senior Monk's lodging at Wat Buddha Dhamma.

While residing at Wat Buddha Dhamma I offered most of the weekly Saturday night Dhamma talks, and also gave a short retreat on the theme: 'What is the cause of this thought?' I was studying the Buddha's teaching on Conditional Causality at that time and thought this might be a useful theme to investigate. Most people, unfortunately, do not know much about this aspect of the Buddha's teaching, so that when some challenging thought or emotion arises they immediately react to it, not realizing that most of the time that thought is simply the result of some deeper underlying issue. The teaching of the Four Noble Truths tells us that unsatisfactoriness is due to a cause and is only resolved when the cause is removed. Also, in practical terms, when we turn our attention towards the cause of our mental activity, the mental activity itself often ceases, since we are not giving it special attention. The talks I gave can be downloaded from There is also a video at

I was also at Wat Buddha Dhamma for the visits from Ajahn Dtun in March and LP Sumedho in April. These visits, and the public talks in Sydney, attracted a large number of people to the monastery, but Ajahn Khemavaro arranged the programme along the lines of a retreat format, so the atmosphere was very meditative.

My 2 ½ month stay in Australia quickly expired and I reluctantly had to make a move. Fortunately New Zealand is not too far distant, and I had an invitation from Ajahn Kusalo to visit Bodhinyanarama Monastery, where I had been resident for nearly seven years. Unfortunately, I had to pack quite a lot into my 17-day visit to Wellington, with numerous talks, chats with friends and several outings. I made a point of visiting the group in Palmerston North, where I recognized many familiar faces and noted that some regulars had moved elsewhere.

In spite of the inclement weather, a crowd of about 200 devoted supporters gathered at the monastery for the very joyful Vesak ceremony on May 22nd. Fortunately, a number of monks from Thailand and Europe have expressed their interest in spending time at Bodhinyanarama, so it appears that Ajahn Kusalo's hard work of maintaining and expanding the amazing facilities and the exceptional generosity of the lay supporters will be suitably used.

Ajahn Dhammasiha had invited me to spend some time at Dhammagiri Monastery, as he was planning on making a visit to Europe in June. However, in the end he cancelled his trip and decided to spend the month in silent retreat, as Ajahn Hasapanyo, Venerable Buripanyo and I were all resident during that . time. Dhammagiri Monastery is another place where I can continue my three kinds of exercise, although the main emphasis here is on mental exercise. The guest monk's room where I stay is equipped with a large desk and electricity, and is right beside the library. Also, many of the supporters are quite experienced and knowledgeable practitioners, who provide interesting themes for the daily Dhamma discussions.

There is the possibility for numerous walks, as the seventy acres of woodland on top of the hill where the monk's huts are located borders a Conservation Reserve and Lake Manchester Water Catchment. However, there is only one main route out of the monastery, over some fairly steep terrain, although it does afford some extensive panoramic views in all directions. Thus it isn't so easy to go for a 'gentle stroll'. In fact, it seems that many of the bush tracks are for use mainly as fire-breaks, as some of them are so unbelievably steep that it is hard to imagine any wheeled vehicle using them.

A view of Lake Manchester reservoir near Dhammagiri (on a rare drizzily day).

The reasonably quiet location is quite suitable for meditation. Most of the public activities are conducted during the first half of the day in the Dhamma Hall at the bottom of the hill, so from about 1 pm until the next morning the residents are undisturbed by visitors. Every day there is a Dhamma discussion from 11:45am to 1pm, and on Sundays there is a session of chanting, meditation and teaching from 3pm to 5pm. During my stay I gave most of the talks and meditation teachings, which can be viewed on the monastery website macrosocio-economic

I will interrupt my stay at Dhammagiri to offer another meditation day on Sunday July 3rd at Ratanagiri, John and Hanna's property in northern NSW, on the theme 'The Process of Self – Making and Un-Making – in Buddhist Perspective'. Shortly after this I will travel on to Vancouver, where after visiting family I will reside for the Rains Retreat at Birken Forest Monastery near Kamloops, British Columbia.

Wishing you all diligent and beneficial practice.

View from Colongatta northwards towards Gold Coast (the tower blocks in the distance).