Out of Retreat Again and Returning to Perth

Monday, 3 May 2010: I left Na Uyana Aranya and came to Kandy which is cooler and is the home of the Buddhist Publication Society – a wonderful bookshop with attached Buddhist library.  I plan to go to Negombo on Tuesday, 12 May and then depart Sri Lanka on Friday, 14 May, stopping over in KL for about 12 hours before continuing on and arriving in Perth on Saturday, 15 May.  While in KL I will try to visit the W.A.V.E shop and maybe obtain even more Dhamma books.

Saturday, 8 May 2010: I have visited the Buddhist Publication Society shop many times during this week and purchased many books that the BPS has posted by surface mail to Perth. I also spent a lot of time in one of the Kandy Internet cafes, writing e-mails, doing research and catching up on news. On Wednesday, I went back to Na Uyana to donate some items and pick up a letter that arrived after I left. I only stayed one hour.

This morning I visited Venerable Nyanatusita at the Forest Hermitage on the outskirts of Kandy. He is the current editor of the BPS and has a Dutch background. He told me that he was ordained in Sri Lanka in the Galduva tradition and has spent a few years living at Bodhinyana Monastery with Ajahn Brahmavamso.

Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga
I asked many Dhamma questions and Bhante very patiently answered with humour and wisdom. I was delighted to learn that Bhante is currently translating the Vimuttimagga from Chinese into English. This is excellent news. The first English translation of the Vimuttimagga by Soma Thera and Kheminda Thera et.al. was done quickly and not originally intended for publication.  Nevertheless, the first English translation has been translated from English into other languages including Thai. Surely it would be better for those Thai translators and other language translators to have translated from the Chinese text rather than compound the errors in the first English translation.  For the sake of Buddhists who use languages other than English and Chinese, I do hope that in future translators into Thai and Burmese etc. will base their efforts on the Chinese text. 

Many people seem to prefer the Vimuttimagga over the Visuddhimagga because of the latter’s abhidhamma influences and divergance from the suttas. I’m sure that a new English translation of the Vimuttimagga will recieve a lot of attention by meditators and scholars alike.

Ven. Nyanatusita also told me that the next edition of the Visuddhimagga is not far off and that the publication of the next edition will coincide with its release on the Internet, possibly as a PDF.  I gave away my previous copy of the Visuddhimagga when I was in Myanmar last year and was keen to get another copy. I finally obtained a new hard bound edition for 1000 Sri Lankan Rupees (about $10). It must weigh more than 1kg on its own.  There was only one more copy at the BPS. These two were recently found in storage. It is almost impossible to find new copies for sale now so the new edition will be warmly welcomed. Having it on the Internet will also make it convenient for casual readers or those who can tolerate reading books on computer screens.

There is an interesting article about the Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga by Venerable Analayo which I recommend you read. We live in good times for Buddhist studies and practice. The standard of scholarship seems to have improved vastly during the past century. I hope to see more advances in this life time.

Na Uyana Aranya in the hot season

At this time of year Na Uyana Aranya is hot and humid. My own kuti was not shaded from the afternoon sun and the concrete walls and ceiling absorbed the heat during the day only to slowly release during the evening.

ABOVE: A view looking south east toward Kuti M37 Na Uyana Aranya, Sri Lanka, January 2010

ABOVE: A view looking west toward Kuti M37 Na Uyana Aranya, Sri Lanka, February 2010

My walking path was also exposed to direct sunlight during the day. Many ant trails crossed the path at random places. The kuti was located about 15 minutes walk up a steep rugged path that is muddy and slippery after rain. The steps are high and awkward. Walking around in thongs is also inherently dangerous, all the more so when the feet are wet and the ground muddy. There are many concrete paths at Na Uyana Aranya but not on the way to the kuti I was in.  One needs to climb the paths at least once a day to eat at least one meal a day. There is breakfast and lunch available. Some people also attend morning chanting, evening chanting and group meditation sessions and inevitably climb up and down many times in a day. My 50 year old knees complained a lot, especially if I was loaded with a 25kg backpack which was not very often. It usually took one or two weeks for the knee pain to subside after carrying the pack up or down.

ABOVE: A view of a fork in the path looking north on the ‘mountain side’ at Na Uyana Aranya, Sri Lanka, February 2010
 ABOVE: A view of a covered path in an old growth area of the forest at Na Uyana Aranya, Sri Lanka, February 2010

My kuti also had many very small mosquito-like biting insects “hopitos” [not sure of the spelling or even if I’ve remembered the name correctly].  Despite their small size, they seem to be vastly more persistent in finding ways to repeatedly bite one than any mosquito I’ve encountered. My feet, elbows and to a lesser extent head were covered in their bites which are very itchy. I used incense to discourage them to some extent and always slept under a mosquito net in my kuti. These relentless insects are active from about 4pm to 9am every day.

I learned from Sri Lankan monks to paint the columns of my kuti with smelly black sump oil which inevitably soiled my white upasaaka clothes. To some extent this prevented the trails of ants climbing the columns and entering the kuti. Even so, the ants still found ways to enter. Maybe they drop from trees over the roof? Fortunately, the ants did not bite the body. My concern was not to inadvertently kill them while moving about or while bathing.

The monastics eat food in a daana saala (food hall) above ground while upaasaka would eat on the ground floor sitting on benches. This area is not so clean and there are many flies.

ABOVE: Michael and Stuart in front of the food hall, Na Uyana Aranya May 2010. Monastics eat upstairs and lay men eat at ground level.

Previously, I have meditated in cooler more convenient conditions. No situation is perfect. There will always be some condition or another that we may struggle with. Even in the conditions I experienced at Na Uyana Aranya, there are other monastics and upaasaka (lay men on 8 precepts) who appeared to survive and thrive. Many of my previous teachers, even as long ago as 1983, have told me that I indulge in restlessness.

I found that aanaapaanasati is excellent practice and will continue to practice this way for the time being. I experience a relative calmness and sensed that I was making progress though slowly.  Besides the difficult physical conditions mentioned above, I also hampered progress by talking with others for short periods almost every day and reading Dhamma books borrowed from the Na Uyana library. Usually conversations were of a practical nature concerned with getting things done or they were related to the Dhamma. Ideally, there should be no conversation except with the teacher at meditation interviews.

Gardening Service at Na Uyana

I probably made conditions worse for myself by voluntarily gardening along various sections of the paths around the monastery.  There is a type of long grass (which may have originated in Africa and been introduced by the British colonizers) and a few other plants that tend to take over paths rather quickly. I borrowed a short machete from another yogi and slashed away at the grass or pulled out clumps of grass after rain had softened the soil holding its roots.  Bhikkhus are constrained by a vinaaya rule prohibiting them from damaging plant life and if they ever saw me working, they would smile or thank me for my efforts.  Of course there are regular work gangs organised to eventually clear the paths but I felt it was an opportunity to make merit.

ABOVE: Long grass near eastern side of the lake in Kandy, Sri Lanka May 2010. This same grass infested Na Uyana Aranya. It grows 2-3 metres tall, has sharp blades, prickles on the stalks and its sap seems to burn exposed skin.
ABOVE: Closer view of long grass near eastern side of the lake in Kandy, Sri Lanka May 2010

While gardening, I would cheerfully recall the effort of Sumedha making a path with his own body for the Blessed One Diipankaara and the Sangha before taking his bodhisatta vow, 4 innumerables and 100,000 aeons ago.  I would recall the development of the Noble Eightfold Path, even though gardening service is not one of the Path factors.  I would recall the Visuddhimagga notes on preparing for meditation, cleaning one’s kuti, one’s body and surroundings in order to improve concentration. I therefore imagined that by clearing the paths, I would be helping the monastics and upaasakas to develop deep and stable concentration. I would recall that Na Uyana Aranya has many snakes, scorpions, centipedes and other creatures that dwell in grass. By clearing the long grass and weeds away from the path, these creatures and the people using the paths were likely to notice one another before direct contact and possible harm. Perhaps in some way this work prevented loss of life, pain and injury.   Hmmm… that is a lot of thinking, even if it is wholesome-kusala. I relate these thoughts in this blog to encourage readers to consider their own daily work in a wholesome way. It is possible to derive merit from many kinds of work even work that is not so directly involved in serving the Sangha and other virtuous people.  I shall try to give more such examples in later blogs.

Even so, this physical work was not so good for my lower back, knees, shoulders or hands. I was lucky to have gloves which protected the skin of my hands but the sinews and muscles were a bit strained by the effort of grasping and pulling the clumps of grass. They are still sore now.  Sacrificing the comfort of the body is necessary for accumulating merit and developing those skillful qualities – kusala that will eventually lead to Nibbaana.  There are too few opportunities for making merit. How often do we have direct encounters with the Sangha, with virtuous people striving for penetration and higher mental states? The Sangha is the unsurpassed field of merit. So what is a bit of pain in the back or the hands?


5 thoughts on “Out of Retreat Again and Returning to Perth

  1. I tried to reply to your last post but it seems I'm not allowed to reply …(maybe I'm not authorised.)I'll try again.

    I recently came across your blog when searching for 'Na Uyana'. I am pleased to see your efforts to understand and practice Buddhism. Even though I am a Buddhist, now only I'm trying to understand the core teachings and meditation techniques. And specially with mediation, I would like to talk to someone who has actually done it. So hopefully, when you are back in Perth, I can get in touch with you.

  2. Hi Michael,

    I think I have seen you at Nauyana, I used to visit the place time to time and do meditation. I hope to go next week too 🙂 it's pleasure to see posts like this.

    Come back again !


  3. Hi Lahiru,
    We may have crossed paths but didn't talk. Please pass on my regards to everyone at Na Uyana. I will write an e-mail to them soon. May you gain great merit by visiting the worthy ones, hearing the Dhamma and practicing diligently. Anumodhanaa.

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