Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Luangta is doing less walking now

Luangta used to walk back to his kuti after the morning meals. He also have been seen walking morning and evening walks by himself- and we look always look forward to catch a glimpse of him. That was the previous years when I go to Thailand to visit him.

Recently, when I was in Thailand, I noticed from the live broadcast that once Luangta finished his morning meal, he will be escorted back to his kuti via a small goft cart. I asked my teacher why Luangta is no longer walking back to the kuti by himself. She told me that he had fell down twice- he will be walking and suddenly his legs do not have energy and give way.

I am grimly reminded that year after year, Luangta, due to his advanced age, will be physically weaker. Even though during the time when he walked out for almsround, I have not started going to the monastery, at least I have been fortunate enough to see him during his evening walks. The vision of him walking slowly back to his dwelling from the morning meal will forever be in my mind. In October, I will be making the trip back to Udon to pay respect to Luangta.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Danger of Dhamma Intellectual Knowledge- and not learning from the heart

There are Dhamma speakers out there who teaches Dhamma but do not like meditation. If one do not meditate, then the Dhamma arising from one's heart is from logical deduction. Basically, these people just go about with intellectual debates of the Tipitaka- you can find that in articles, forums and international debates. I am not saying all, but there are some. There is grave kammic consequence especially when one teaches someone meditation but in fact, oneself is not accomplished in meditation- the so called teacher leads the student to darkness and hinders the progress by wrongly intepretrating the pupil's meditation experience.

Thai forest tradition emphasize a lot on development of the heart and sometimes, the meditation method taught cannot be found in books. But the method taught had helped the student to progress in meditation. Language of the heart, as taught by Luangta is very true- that is why I can relate well to the teachings and over time, I've come to know others who can relate to the teachings as well. However, I have been looked down by some of my more 'knowledgeble' friends because I am not familiar and cannot easily quote suttas or Abhidhamma. I used to learn Dhamma in an intellectual way but found my mainstay in learning the Dhamma with my heart.

Dhamma learned intellectually is tainted as the teachings does not go to the heart and the knowledge is based on logic. With no practical, ie meditation, retreat in forests, etc, this knowledge does not get embedded in the heart. And we do not completely trust or have genuine faith if our heart does not believe in the teachings (even though our brain does). The person can be the best Dhamma presenter, speaker or writer- but if the Dhamma is not understood instinctively in the heart, it is no use. No use at all.

So, should the person's world fall apart (8 worldly conditions are real), when unexpected tragedy or suffering arise, the intellectual person becomes ill equipped to deal with the onslaught of emotions and arising of dukkha. The suffering becomes so great but the person was not able to apply the intellectual knowledge to overcome the emotions. Due to this, the person started to lose faith in the Lord Buddha's teaching- thinking that the Dhamma had failed him, when in fact, it was he who had failed the Dhamma in the first place by not being true to the practice.

With 'timely' intervention of missionaries from other religions coming in to further discredit Buddhism, the person, who previously was a Buddhist, converts to the other religion. Some of these former Buddhist also become the person actively attacking Buddhism.

What the person had failed to understand is that they had started to study only the theoritical aspects of Buddhism in order to write or speak in public. It is to satisfy their ego's desires to show off the knowledge especially in debates and forums. When they only know a bit, they want to be known and famous.

Whereas, many Thais are different- in their simplicity, they're more emotionally intelligent, humble and have stronger faith in the Buddha's teachings. They believe in kamma, dana, sila, chanting and helping people. When they have the time, they go to temples to observe the 8 precepts. Even though the practice is also sadly fading, I've known a few Thai women who go to temple to observe 8 precepts for 7, 9 days or 3 months (vassa) and dedicate the merits to their parents or children.

Some foreigners (I am not saying all, but I've known of some) stay in temple for the novelty of it so that they can go back to whenever they came from and boast to their friends that they've done a meditation retreat in Thailand, India or whereever. They do not feel the benefits of following precepts, of learning meditation or doing dana. Perhaps it is also unfortunate that due to language barriers or unfavourable kamma, they did not manage to meet a good teacher to guide them, so half the time, they also do not know what they are doing.

It is important, if we are true Dhamma speakers, to constantly make aspirations so that may we be able to find a true Dhamma teacher who is able to guide and teach us effectively. Constantly pray and reaffirm the aspiration, and always try to do good, help others, and observe at least the 5 precepts. Then one day, the path will unfold- because we are sincere and we want to practice- the Dhamma will not let us down.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Faith in the Teacher & Progress

If you are sincere and want learn the true Dhamma, you have to first built up your store of merits or conditions that will support you towards that aspiration. Follow the basic practices like observing your sila (precepts), perform dana (be it monetary or with your time and energy to help others) and take time to meditate. Then, constantly make the aspiration to be able to find a good teacher.

By the fact that you're naturally inclined towards the Dhamma, means that you've most likely acquired that understanding from your previous birth. This is especially when you have been brought up in a non Buddhist country and have not been totally exposed to the teachings of the Buddha when young- then one day, when you chance upon a potrait or some writings or perhaps your friend talk to you about it, you felt drawn to the teachings. In my travels to Thailand, I've met a number of foreigners who were drawn to the Dhamma, so much so that they were willing to make the journey to Thailand, sometimes alone to learn from great teachers like Luangta.

Each one of us has affinity with certain teachers. With the right teacher, you can progress very fast in meditation because you seemed to understand what the teacher had said. A real teacher who guides you to walk the path should be endowed with the knowledge to understand your heart, your affinity and past kamma. These teachers are rare and far between but with sincere aspiration, you will meet and come across one. Always judge for yourself if the teachings are effective by putting the teachings to practice.

I would like to relay a personal experience of mine- I have always been practicising walking meditation as thought to me by a yogi- by repeating "Bud" when I step my left foot forward and "dho" when I step my right foot forward. After a while of practicing that, I started feeling dizzy when I was doing the meditation. It came to a time when I felt I wanted to topple and lose my balance. One day, I was with a nun and I asked her why I was losing my balance. She said, "I don't understand why many people want to do walking meditation that way to try to develop concentration. There is not enough sati (mindfulness), that is why you wanted to topple. Instead of repeating the meditation word "Buddho" with your walking, can you please do it with your breath? Breathing in, you mentally recite "Bud" and breathing out, you recite "dho". "

I decided to try what she had said- initially, it was hard because I was so accustomed to reciting Buddho with my pacing that my mind automatically go back to my left (Bud) and right (dho). When I told her, she asked me to be patient and do it slowly- when I am not mindful and forget to look at the breath, she said it's ok, just bring your mind back. I did and within a few days of practicing, I could see that I no longer had the sensation that I wanted to lose balance or topple during walking meditation (congkom). I reported this to her and she was pleased that I was willing to follow her advise. It is not that I've not meditated before- in fact, I've meditated for years under very good teachers. But somehow, our affinity were not the same- so the methods that worked for these teachers (other monks and nun) were not working well for me.

After this simple instruction, I no longer had to struggle a lot with walking meditation- previously, I had to force and force myself just to sustain more than an hour of continous walking meditation. But I realised that by being mindful of the in-out breath, I was able to maintain better mindfulness and concentration and hence the walking was no longer a 'chore' or a torture where my lower back, shoulders and legs hurt.

If you do come across a teacher who has compassion and is able to teach you skills that enable you to progress in your meditation, please treasure the teacher and have faith to learn under him/her. You may not built up the trust overnight but that's okay-but by virtue that you are seeking guidance under a teacher, have a little faith and respect for the teacher.

Observe whether the methods given by the teacher helps your meditation to progress- and turn you into a better and happier person on the inside? Is the teacher able to clear your doubts to your satisfaction?

If yes, have faith and follow the teacher's teaching. If the teacher asks you to walk in total darkness even when you are terrified of ghosts, do it. You have to remember that you are fighting against kilesas piled higher than a mountain. Your body, your kilesas is going to fight you, is going to whisper tempting words and try to dissuade you so that you will give up and go back to worldly pleasures. It's too hard, they say. Your paramis are not enough, they say. Why not give up now and just make the aspiration to continue in your next life- they say. These are the constant whisperings of the kilesas.

Your paramis are enough for now- if not, you will not be able to take the plane and make it to the meditation practice. Of course the practice is going to be hard- when you have been giving in to your sensual desires and pleasures, now you are practicing restraint and sila- of course it's not easy. Don't wait for next life- you may not be able to find any good teachers then- you can't even be sure if you are going to be reborn in a realm where you can comprehend the Dhamma. So do it this life- whatever you can and to the best of your abilities.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Don't Give Up on Your Practice

There are ups and downs in our practice. Sometimes we progress, sometimes we seemed stuck.

Let's look at the simile of spiritual practice with the simile of a romantic relationship:
Romantic relationship:
Two persons meet and fall in love. There are periods of bliss- both persons can't wait to see one another and seemed to spend forever together- nothing seemed to be able to tear them apart. When they do not meet, the mere thought of one another makes one wants to float up the air, and so on and so forth. So both the lovebirds eventually got married or perhaps they just move in and stay together. And then, one day, the honeymoon's over.

Both realise each other's bad and sometimes disgusting habits. Sometimes, what had attracted the person to the partner becomes the very factor that repels the person. At this stage, ie after the honeymoon's over and reality sets in, both persons need to work on the relationship. There have to be compromise, understanding, agreement, and each person trying- after all, both the persons are borned from different parents, so of course living habits will be very different.
Couples who are able to work out a compromise and have mutual trust and understanding, the relationships stabilise and lasts for a long time. In fact, genuine contentment sets in- the relationship progress to another level.

But what happens if both are too self-absorbed and intolerant? Then the relationship will die a natural dead, ending in separation. Most relationships today ends in that state. Even though the couples may not officially divorce, they are separated emotionally.

So it is the same with spiritual practice. Sometimes, we encounter Buddhism with feelings of awe, we felt so inspired and felt that we've found answers that we have been searching for. We get so inspired that we can even fly to an unknown country, sometimes alone to search for the teachings of Buddhism. We asked to stay in the monastery- and we feel joyful. Finally, we felt we have found the teachings.

Then, the hum drums of daily living finally dawned in- we follow the daily schedules- eating together, chanting, meditation, sweeping monastery grounds, listening to Dhamma talks, making new friends, etc. And one day, we got fed up. Perhaps it is due to the fact that we ran into problems with someone, or our meditation seemed to be stuck and not progressing. Or we got homesick and miss all the stuff that we used to do like shopping, hanging out with friends, dancing, clubbing, etc. We got fed up and one to go home- we thought, well, this is not for me, I've made a mistake! So it is quite similar with the simile of a romantic relationship.

Before you take a plane to go home and decide to forget about the teachings of the Buddha, I want you to understand that many seekers, before they become successful masters, goes through this. They get stuck, they ran into obstacles, and they want to give up.

During this time, the presence of a good teacher to clear doubts is invaluable. But even though a good teacher may be present, we may be just too angry with ourselves or fed up to try. Like a marriage or relationship that ran into problems once the reality sets in, the natural reaction is to want to give up.

If you give up at this stage, you will miss your chance to progress. Understand that this is the stage where the reality of the practice sets in. And as you are integrating the teachings of the Buddha internally, you are bound to run into your kilesas (defilements) or perhaps ripening of some bad kammas. If you get past this stage, your practice will progress. The problem is, can you get past this stage? Are you willing to put up with it and seek guidance to solve the problem? Use perseverance and patience with constant mindfulness to examine the state of your heart?

Luang Phor Liem Thitadhammo, disciple of Luang Phor Chah and current abbot of Wat Nong Pah Pong, wrote about this in his book, No Worries:

Excerpt from the book at page 19- Subduing Mara:
"There are periods when we face problems and unwholesome states of mind in our practice, caused by how we relate to the sensual realm, where the three daughters of Mara, "Miss Raga" (lust), "Miss Arati" (aversion), "Miss Tanha" (craving) come to challenge us.

In these periods, try to hold on and ask yourself: Where do these challenges come from, in what kind of form do they arise? They all comeby way of perceptions in our own minds. They are mental food that we have created for ourselves, they are sankharas. This is a very important point to understand. Otherwise, the doubts and worries that we may experience (about ourselves and our practice) can become so strong that we might think it is better to get up and leave or to put down our efforts towards our task to attain enlightenment.

We are tempted to give it all up, but there is still this tiny bit of feeling deep inside of us that tells us that we shouldn't resign. Do you know the type of Buddha image where the Buddha is shown in the posture of subduing Mara? What exactly is the meaning of Buddha's gesture? Can you see, the Buddha's physical body already wants to get up: his knee already is lifted upwards, but his hand still is pushing it down. It is as if he were saying, "Hold on, wait a second, let's have a close look at this first." This is how we need to face this kind of situation.

Excerpt from the book at page 54:
"Motivation and intention to practice can turn into quite an obstacle. At first we all come to practice with a mind of faith and the feeling that our aspirations are being satisfied. But at some time the satisfaction will become less and the feeling of dissatisfaction naturally will increase. Eventually we become discouraged, tired and fed up. It is normal that there has to be some discouragement in the practice too. In the times we feel strong, we say we can do our job, but in times of weakness, we say we can't stand it any more. This is the way it goes.

We constantly have to be aware, keep observing and questioning ourselves in our practice: "Why do these states of mind come up?" We might not be able to prevent these states of mind, but what we can do is to keep our minds focused one-pointedly. At least we practice to be careful with those factors that lead us into delusion and danger. In doing so, the feeling of being tied up, depleted or enslaved into some narrow perimeter where we don't have freedom any more will become less and less severe and we will be composed and restrained.

Luang Phor Liem also mentioned in his short biography on the times he had been tempted to give up and how he had overcome it. You can read the book online at Wat Nong Pah Pong's website.

Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadaro, disciple of Luang Phor Mun, also wrote in his autobiography on the initial feelings of motivation and awe he had when he first discovered the teachings of Buddhism. But, he had wanted to disrobe a few times when he was new in monkhood. But he presevered and used mindfulness and wisdom to analyse the situation.

I find the writings very motivational, having undergone periods of my practice where I want to just give up, but I fought it and try to seek solutions, only to realise that my practice is able to progress to a higher level after that. I know all Dhamma seekers will eventually reach the stage and I hope that you will not give up. Some of us make very ardous journeys and plan for years (settling of family, financial and unfinished business), then take the risk and venture into the unknown to search for the Dhamma. We would normally carry rose-tinted ideals and imagine ourselves practicising all the way to Nibbana without obstacles. But when we ran into problems and obstacles, we thought to ourselves that we've probably make a big mistake- flying thousands of miles into unknown land, eating unfamiliar food. There will be obstacles, periods of regress and frustation, regret when we stir up our inner defilements. The problems and challenges may make us seriously doubt ourself and our practice.

Only when the defilements show themselves that we are able to identify and pull out the roots once and for all. Defilements will not show if we are high up cloud nine or feeling blissful. If we are true to the teachings of the Dhamma and work in all earnest, the Dhamma will not let us down.