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:
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