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

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