Why I chose to not ordain

This answer to this question is complex and difficult to explain. This posting is personal and will not cover all the issues that are relevant to all people. I write from the perspective of a middle-aged male raised in Australia.

I received a couple of queries about this question and this prompted me to write this posting as a response. I suppose I set the question up in the earlier version of the “about me” paragraph under my photo [I must update that photo one day…].  This posting took over a week of writing and editing and I’m still not happy with the quality.  It is my longest posting by far, with over 4000 words. I was going to write a short version, a sort of executive summary and a long version for those interested in more detail but then merged the two into what appears here. I’ll move on to other topics for future postings now. I have a few draft posts on Dhamma topics waiting for my attention. I’ll try to post one a week but don’t count on it.

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From late 1981 until the end of 2009 I practiced vipassana meditation as taught in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition. It was the early insights from this meditation that convinced me in 1982 to become Buddhist and to ordain as a monk in Thailand. After I disrobed in 1984, I continued to practice vipassana meditation as a lay man though I didn’t do any more retreats until November 2005. That seven day retreat led by Ven. Sayadaw U Lakkhana was intense and reinvigorated my practice once again. I knew I had to keep practicing. At that time I didn’t have much confidence in myself as a meditator and imagined that it would take many lifetimes to make a breakthrough to stream-entry (sotapanna).

In December 2006 – January 2007 I did a 6 week retreat in Yangon with Ven. Saydaw U Janaka (Chanmyay Sayadaw) and once again went up the insight knowledges (vipassana ~naa.na). I reached a difficult stage and left the retreat one week early. I still didn’t have much confidence in my practice. From 2005 onwards I was also beginning to read more Dhamma books and delved into the excellent translations of the Suttas by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. This sutta study and continued practice at home further strengthened my confidence in the Dhamma (saddha) and increased my sense of spiritual urgency (sa.mvega).

By mid 2008, I had decided that conventional lay life in a couple relationship was a hindrance to spiritual development but still wasn’t sure if I should ordain as a monk. At that time I was confident I could live the celibate life so ordaining was a possibility once more. My family situation left me free to choose to ordain or not. So I began preparing for a trip to Asia to go back to Yangon and to visit Thailand where I had been a monk before. I thought that before possibly ordaining I needed to focus on making a breakthrough by doing longer more intensive retreats. This is more important than robes or rules of conduct.

I thought about the 2006-07 retreat at Chanmyay Yeithka in Yangon that I broke off early due to reaching a difficult stage. My own assessment (not confirmed by anyone else) is that I may have reached number 10 (of 16) – Knowledge of reflection (patisa.nkhaa~naa.na). I was determined that I would persevere next time and not give up the retreat so early. In fact whereas I only did a six week retreat in 2006-07, in March-June 2009 (16 weeks) at Saddhammaransi Yeithka, I reached this same stage after the first four weeks and seemed to stay there for the remaining 12 weeks. It was very frustrating. I was restless the whole time and wanted to leave. I struggled very much. Some of my wish to leave was due to uncomfortable environmental factors which I have outlined later in this blog. I believe that most of the restlessness and mental pain was an effect of the insight knowledge itself.

I finally gave up and transferred to Mahasi Sasana Yeithka, also in Yangon, where I continued meditating but not so intensively. There I talked with and helped other resident foreigners. I seemed to stay in the same insight knowledge but with less apparent stress. Maybe it was an immature number 11 (of 16), knowledge of equanimity towards formations (sa.nkhaar’upekkhaa~naa.na)? Again the environment was not ideal for me to meditate. Some Burmese Dhamma friends have criticised me for being weak and not persevering. They said I may have made a breakthrough had I stayed longer and they even encouraged me to ordain despite the obstacles.

I wrote above that I had only practiced insight meditation in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. Prior to leaving Australia for this trip I had been studying suttas and reading about deep concentration meditation (samatha) and meditative absorptions (jhaana). This was attractive to me for many reasons and not least because from what I was reading in the suttas, it was the way that the Blessed One and the Sangha at that time practiced. I believe I had some weaknesses in my spiritual development that may have hindered progress.

I shall provide some doctrine before continuing this theme.

There are five controlling faculties (panc’indriya) which include:

  • confidence (saddha)
  • energy (viriya)
  • mindfulness (sati)
  • concentration (samaadhi)
  • wisdom (pa~n~naa)

These must be well-balanced to make good progress in meditation and achieve a breakthrough. I self-assessed myself as being relatively weak in mindfulness and concentration. From what I was reading in the suttas, it seemed that a period of intense deep concentration meditation (samatha) perhaps up to the level of developing mental absorptions would increase mindfulness and concentration. With these two important factors strengthened, all the five controlling faculties would balance and a breakthrough may occur. At least this was the theory as interpreted by myself.

In secondary materials such as popular books on meditation and audio lectures by Buddhist teachers, even Theravada Buddhist teachers, there is a lot of talk about developing the ten perfections (paramis). These are not in the suttas or the commentary literature (A.t.thakathaa) at all. The doctrine of perfections only appear in the sub-commentary literature (Tiika) and later than that. The Theravada tradition adopted the doctrine of perfections from the Mahayana tradition more than 1000 years after the Blessed One attained Nibbaana without remainder (about 500 BC). The ten perfections are often referenced by modern teachers as a way to measure progress on the spiritual path. They may say “the perfections are not sufficiently mature, be patient and keep practicing. Maybe next life-time …” and so on. I believe a more appropriate reference is the five controlling faculties.

Ok, now back to the theme. I left Yangon and went to Bangkok where for about two weeks I did little meditation while relaxing and meeting with old friends. I ate lots of food and talked with friends about my plans to find a suitable meditation centre or monastery to practice samatha meditation. However, soon after meeting Pi Yai, she persuaded me to try insight meditation in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw one more time at Section 5, Wat Mahadhatu. She arranged everything and I stayed there for 2 weeks and then 8 weeks. These two retreats were interrupted by a week when I travelled to Laos to renew my visa for Thailand for 3 months. The 8 week retreat at Wat Mahadhatu was the best. I had a few environmental difficulties but persevered. Pi Yai was a great meditation coach and a fantastic Dhamma teacher. Once again I reached that difficult insight knowledge, number 10 and maybe flipped over into number 11 sometimes, I’m not sure. It was not so uncomfortable this time though. Even so I gave up again after 8 weeks. I missed talking about the Dhamma and sometimes thought of my plans to try samatha meditation. I stayed in Bangkok another 4 weeks helping Pi Yai teach drop-in travellers who went to Wat Mahadhatu to learn meditation and get an introduction to Buddhism. It was fun and quite rewarding.

I then went to India for a month to do the pilgrimage of Buddhist sacred sites. This was very important to me. I wrote a lot about this in the December 2009 postings. Then I went to Sri Lanka to Na Uyana Aranya with the specific purpose of beginning samatha practice and hoping to possibly attain one or more of the four mental absorptions (jhaana). The plan was to use the jhaana as a base to then do insight meditation in the manner outlined in the suttas.

There were more obstacles at Na Uyana Aranya and I didn’t attain jhaana. Even so, my time there was very useful and productive. I learned a lot about samatha practice, Sri Lanka, Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka as well as having many interesting and penetrating Dhamma conversations.

The journey was primarily about doing retreats aiming for a spiritual break through. Evaluating monasteries as possible places to ordain was very much secondary. All the time, I knew that ordination was a possibility but not certain and not a goal in itself. The goal was to make a spiritual breakthrough regardless of worldly status or livelihood.

The only place that came close to being suitable for me to ordain is Na Uyana Aranya. I did not visit all possible venues for ordination. As I passed through each place I decided, ‘this place doesn’t suit me’ until I reached Na Uyana Aranya. It was the best of all the places I’d been and the only place I seriously considered ordaining. In the first two months I even told Ven. Ariyaananda twice of my intention to ordain. Then in the second two months the average temperature and humidity increased. I was unable to do regular walking meditation between sitting sessions because either there was no shade or there were too many insects.

In the second two months, my lower back ache was bothering me. Climbing the steep hill every day was a hassle in the humid weather. There were other minor issues that all accumulated to the point when I finally decided not to ordain at Na Uyana Aranya. By that time, my funds were low and I had to return to Perth to earn money. If I had more money then I might have looked around Sri Lanka at other monasteries or maybe travelled back to Thailand to look around there. I might have gone back to India to visit pilgrimage sites. I might have gone to other places in the world to meet with Buddhist teachers and get more advice about practice and Dhamma.

Some readers may wonder if there are some issues that I have not covered in this posting that may be relevant to my decision not to ordain. Although I have written rather a lot for a blog posting, I have not covered every detail. Even so, I would like to briefly outline those issues that are not relevant to my personal decision not to ordain: lust, anger, insanity, criminality, fatal or disfiguring diseases (not including ageing), non-human being, drug addiction, physical disability, physical deformity, indebtedness, obligation for military or government service, incomplete masculinity (for men wishing to ordain as a bhikkhu), family dependents and so forth. Most of these issues are identified in the Vinaaya as obstacles to ordination.

Though still capable of lust, anger and delusion, these conditions are not strong enough to prevent me form ordaining. For example, some people might not have the ability to live a celibate life – they need a sexual outlet. Experienced meditators learn to manage lust and anger. Samatha (concentration) meditation is particularly suitable for temporarily purifying mental states. This is why it is a good idea to spend some time (at least six months) as a lay person on eight precepts to learn how to manage lust and anger and also to sample monastic life. The Blessed One recommended meditation on the body, particularly parts of the body and various decaying corpses in order to reduce the impact of lustful mental states. He also recommended loving-kindness meditation for reducing the impact of angry mental states. I personally verified the effectiveness of these techniques and routinely applied them for short periods each day.

The following section indicates places I stayed during my trip and provides some indication of why I chose not to ordain at each place or stay longer even as a lay man.

Saddhammaransi Yeithka, Yangon, Myanmar (March 2009 – June 2009)

Good: Sayadaw U Kundala is the abbot is an inspiring presence despite not being available for teaching due to old age and poor health. Good room with ensuite. City conveniences such as Internet, hospitals, shops, embassies and international airport. Dr Than Than is an excellent translator and teacher.

Bad: Very noisy city monastery in a noisy neighbourhood. Extremely crowded with 80 per cent women. Oily food. Diarrhea every week or second week. Resident monastics are mostly late-in-life ordinations (retirees). Monastics depend largely on savings acquired in their own previous lay life and regular stipends earned by chanting. Monastics have bank accounts and use money. Many temporary ordinations coming and going with little knowledge of Buddhism. Slack management of lay men doing ten day, one month and 3 month resident retreats. Strict routine of taking 8 precepts every morning and listening to Dhamma talks every afternoon.

Saddhammaransi Yeithka has a branch monastery located outside Yangon in a rural area that is reputed to be less crowded and much quieter. I heard that foreigners have ordained as monks and nuns and stayed there for years to practice successfully. I requested the opportunity to go there but the lay officials at Saddhammaransi Yeithka discouraged me. If anyone were to consider Saddhammaransi Yeithka, they should insist from the start that they wish to go to the rural branch monastery. It is also important to consider whether a competent translator is available.

Mahasi Sasana Yeithka, Yangon, Myanmar (June – July 2009)

Good: Large grounds with many trees close to the centre of Yangon. Mahasi Sayadaw museum and mausoleum. Good room with ensuite. City conveniences such as Internet, hospitals, shops, embassies and international airport.

Bad: Monastics and lay people constantly spitting on the walking paths. Oily food. Diarrhea every week or second week. Poor quality teachers. Slack vinaaya – even the senior teachers use money. Many temporary ordinations coming and going with little knowledge of Buddhism. Corrupt senior lay management request bribes for facilitating foreign meditators’ visas (regardless of being monastic or lay person).

Wat Mahadhatu, Section 5, Bangkok, Thailand (July 2009 – November 2009)

Good: Pi Yai is an excellent vipassana meditation teacher in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. Meditators at all levels would benefit by talking with her. A good place for absolute beginners to get an introduction to Buddhism and Mahasi method meditation. Excellent food (though not vegetarian).

Bad: Extremely crowded, with noisy and inadequate facilities. Many lay women visiting and staying for short retreats. Noisy environment for meditation and sleeping. Many rats, cats and cockroaches. Many monastics smoke cigarettes in the accommodation areas. All monastics use money except a few visiting monks. Lots of chanting and rituals. Monastics depend largely on savings acquired in their own previous lay life and regular stipends earned by chanting. Monastics have bank accounts and use money. Many temporary ordinations. Ven. Raajasiddhimuni “Luang Por Jodok”, passed away about 10 years ago and there is no-one else of his quality. Most monasteries depend on a senior and venerable figurehead. Section 5 is missing one though some try hard to fit the role. As a lay woman, Pi Yai lacks worldly status and influence while ostentatious monastics flap and squawk.

Ven. Luang Por Jodok was my preceptor (upajjhaaya) when I ordained as a bhikkhu in 1982.  Ven. Ajahn Kao Titawano was the abbot and my principle teacher (aacariya) at that time too. He also passed away about 10-15 years ago.  I miss them and other monastic teachers from that time. It would be great if they were still alive and available for me to consult with.

Na Uyana Aranya, Pansiyagama, Sri Lanka (January 2010 – May 2010)

Good: Ven.Ariyadhamma. Ven. Ariyaananda is cool and an excellent teacher and leader. 500 hectares of forest. Many paths for hiking through the forest. Good accommodation with en-suites. Good vegetarian food with no tummy problems at all. Strong vinaaya. Support for various meditation traditions including Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw and Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw. Excellent collection of books.

Bad: Few kutis have suitable walking paths for meditation. Many kutis are very hot. Many unpaved paths up steep hills. Deadly snakes and insects. Monkeys. Ants. Far from Internet and health facilities. Library room is hot and small. Centralised management. Ants cross the paths at random places each day and many mosquitos and other biting insects attack at night. My kuti was too small for walking inside.

Other yogis encouraged me to ask Ven. Ariyaananda for a bigger kuti but I didn’t want to bother him. He had given me that kuti to use and I didn’t want to be another grumpy, spoiled Westerner. I felt privileged to have a kuti to myself since all the Sri Lankan lay people had to live in dormitory buildings. Perhaps if I had stayed and ordained I could have upgraded to a larger kuti in a shady area with a short walking path inside. I was not so patient.

There were suggestions that at 50 years old and with minor health issues, I may be too old to ordain at Na Uyana. But this wasn’t a firm and final matter. I had confidence that were I to demonstrate determination and sincerity as a lay man for one or two years, there would be no problem ordaining. Some people suggested a way around this would be to ordain somewhere else and then return to Na Uyana to seek residence. That idea didn’t appeal to me. I prefer to be straight forward.

Finance: I started with a budget of about A$14,000. I spent it on living costs, travel and donations. By the time I was making my decision about whether to ordain at Na Uyana Aranya, I had little of those funds left (no debts though). I felt uncomfortable making that decision as though someone (mostly myself?) might criticise me for ordaining to escape poverty and work. This is complex but only one of many minor factors in the ordination decision.

Health: I have some minor health issues that are more conveniently addressed in layman’s life. I like to see doctors and other allied health specialists from time to time. As a monk I would be totally dependent on lay support for medical attention. As a lay man with employment and a reasonable income living in an economically prosperous country I can easily access high quality medical services. These provide a greater degree of physical comfort and possibly a longer life for Dhamma study and practice. I wouldn’t want to be too great a burden to other monastics or the local lay communities.

Teacher and local monastic community: As a newly ordained monastic it is good to have a teacher and appropriate community support for conduct, meditation and requisites. I have confidence that strict monastic conduct leads to deeper concentration and wisdom. There are many teachers who may have strict conduct themselves but live among a community that is slack. There are good meditation teachers who are not good at monastery management. Ideally communities would have a solid tradition and culture that is sustainable in the long term despite changes in abbots and teachers (due to death, sickness and travel). Successful monastic communities are dependent on devoted lay communities.

Vinaaya (rules of conduct for monastics): It is conceivable but not convenient for experienced monastics (maybe over 5 years in robes) to move around without money in these countries. Despite the vinaaya (rules of conduct for monastics) most monastics use money.

Location: There is greater support for monastics in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos than in Australia. This is due to the higher proportion of Buddhist lay supporters in the population and the higher number of monasteries. There is much less choice in Australia for a suitable place to ordain. The Ajahn Chah lineage monasteries have a strict age-limit policy for ordinations and would not ordain a man aged 50 plus. Most other Theravada monasteries in Australia would have smaller communities of monastics and may not have sufficient facilities for ordaining, accommodating and training new monks. I have not fully investigated the options though, so I may be wrong. Most of my research on Australian monasteries is via the Internet.

Having Thai language and cultural skills, I could find and settle at many monasteries in Thailand (and Laos). Myanmar and Sri Lanka have many English speakers and probably after 6 months of effort a newly ordained monk could learn enough local language to survive. Certainly within 2-3 years, I would expect to be literate in the local language. In my case, I’ve done that already with my experience ordaining in Thailand so doing it again in another country does not scare me. In Thailand, I’m not keen on the political structure and culture of the Sangha, the non-orthodox ideas (magic, Hinduism, crystals, astrology, money, status) that hinder access to true Dhamma. These are common problems in Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka though manifested in different ways. I expect that some monasteries in Australia may have these problems too.

Location is linked with access to climate, health and communication facilities. Asian countries tend to feel hotter and more humid than most places in Australia (north Queensland and northern Northern Territory excepted). I can live with that though I prefer a temperate climate.

Family, children: I have two children aged 18 and 16 who live with their mother (first wife) in Canberra. While I was traveling from March 2009 to May 2010 I was in intermittent contact with them. As a layman I could be more directly involved in their lives. They need support and guidance sometimes. Now that I’m back in Perth, my daughter is keen to come and live with me later this year.

Family, mother and siblings: My mother is in good health and well. She is always anxious when I’m travelling overseas and encourages me to return to Australia. Even when I lived in Canberra she invited me to live in Perth close to her. My siblings enjoy my company and the exotic flavour I add to the family blend (and meals) in Perth. I’m the only Buddhist in my family – everyone else are pragmatic agnostics (my label for them). Like the majority of Westerners, they seem to accept the common Western materialist paradigm. They don’t like philosophising and prefer me not to question their assumptions about life.

Age: There are guidelines for ordination in Australian monasteries that discourage or prohibit ordination for men aged 50 or over. I just missed out there. I could easily ordain in Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka or Laos whatever my age. Though there are monasteries in Thailand and Sri Lanka that may not allow me to ordain because of my mature age. (More details in the Longer Response below.)

I turned 50 in early 2010. I regard this as middle-aged, the prime of life. However, some monasteries regard the age of 50 as being ‘too old’ to ordain. Nevertheless some of those monasteries with an age policy for ordinations seem to consider each case on its merits. It seems that they want to discourage monks from using the monastery as a retirement home. They would assess each case and judge whether the candidate was sincere and had a strong sense of spiritual urgency (sa.mvega). I gather that some monasteries have a very strict policy of not ordaining men aged 50 and over, regardless of their spiritual urgency.

What next?

Now I am open to the next stage. I retain the preference to be single, celibate and free. I shall get a job, save money and maybe travel again. Though I am less likely to consider ordination in future.

Maybe in a couple of years I can find a cottage in a remote area with convenient access to food where I can quietly do a retreat on my own. This is relatively cheap in Sri Lanka. I believe it maybe possible in Thailand or Laos too. This would be a longer retreat – maybe 3-4 months or longer. I’d like to try continue doing samatha meditation – namely mindfulness of breathing (aanaapaanasati) and see how far it can go.

This could be a model for the future. Work for a while, save money, go on a long retreat for a few months, return to Australia, work for a while, save money, go on a long retreat…. and so on. I am aware that life happens despite our plans.

I shall continue studying Dhamma. I have a fantasy about learning Paali and possibly Sinhala languages. I’m not sure if I can retain the discipline to do so. I’ll probably keep posting on this blog too.

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6-Month Intensive Advanced Meditation Retreat – Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw

I post this information below directly from an e-mail I received from one of the organisers. I will not attend personally. Myanmar is tough on the body and Pa Auk Tawya Meditation Centre, Mawlamyine is particularly tough, especially during the hot months from March to June. Food is not good and living conditions are hard to bear for softies like me. I shall try a centre in Sri Lanka with teachers trained at Pa Auk Tawya. MK
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6-Month Intensive Advanced Meditation Retreat

1st Jan 2010 – 30th Jun 2010

Conducted by the most Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw

We are pleased to announce that the 6-Month Intensive Advanced Meditation Retreat has been confirmed with the details below :-

Venue : Pa Auk Tawya Meditation Centre, Mawlamyine, Mon State, Myanmar

Date : 1st Jan 2010 – 30th Jun 2010

Please note that this is a special intensive meditation retreat and the participants are selected personally by the most venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw.

Meanwhile, the monastery’s whole year round retreat will continue as usual.

A very big sadhu to those who have dana to this meritorious deed. May you all be well & happy and attain to the highest truth, Nibbana.

Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu …………

With Metta
Organising Committee

Photos in Yangon 2009

Visiting the International Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon, July 2009 1.  I am squatting in front of a row of Theravada Buddhist monks from three different countries (China, Thailand and Laos). We were visiting the International Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. Behind us in the photo is the main administration building. I am wearing a longyi, the traditional sarong of Myanmar.
Front of Foreign Yogi Building at Mahasi Sasana Yeithka July 2009 2. Sri Lankan yogi Mihindu Pulukkody is standing near the front door of the male foreign yogi building at Mahasi Sasana Yeithka in Yangon.
Front of Foreign Yogi Building at Mahasi Sasana Yeithka July 2009 3. The front of the male foreign yogi building at Mahasi Sasana Yeithka in Yangon.
Volunteers and Michael at Saddhamaransi Yeithka June 2009 4. I am standing with three women who regularly do voluntary work at Saddhamaransi Yeithka in Yangon. The woman standing on the far right is Dr Than Than Nyien. She translated for me when I attended meditation interviews. The other woman standing next to me is Daw Wai Wai, a retired veterinarian who mainly worked in the front office. She also helped me a lot. The woman with dark hair could not speak English and I do not know her name.
Donating food to Sayadaw U Kundala in June 2009 5.
I am donating some food to Sayadaw U Kundala, the Abbot of Saddhamaransi Yeithka in Yangon. The young man on the left of the photo is the Sayadaw’s nephew (I think) who is the Sayadaw’s main carer.

Mahasi Sasana Yeithka Foreign Meditators July 2009

Sayadaw U Jatila is a brother of Sayadaw U Lakkhana who is also a leading vipassana meditation teacher in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. Both teachers have travelled and taught overseas, though both relied heavily on translators. Sayadaw U Jatila teaches at MSY for about six months every year from about June to November and spends the other six months at his base monastery near to Naypidaw.

About three days after I arrived at MSY four Chinese Mahayana monks came from Singapore where they are studying. They all spoke Mandarin well and English poorly. I speak English well and Mandarin poorly. Even so, Sayadaw U Jatila asked me to help with translating during meditation instructions, interviews twice a week and once a week for the Dhamma talks. I struggled because I hadn’t learned Dhamma technical terms for Mandarin and neither were the monks familiar with Paali terms used by most Theravada Buddhists, though they knew most of the similar concepts in Mahayana Buddhism using Mandarin. We managed and taught each other a lot. They wanted to ordain temporarily as Theravada monks so I seized the opportunity to make merit and sponsored their ordinations. It was very interesting and we all learned a lot.

The Korean Monk and Korean Yogi appeared unable to speak any other languages except Korean and a few words of English so they didn’t talk with anyone except each other.

I first met the Thai monk – Ajahn Sujin Decharo at Chanmyay Yeithka two and a half years ago and was able to have many fascinating conversations with him in Thai. He has been in Myanmar for nearly 5 years and recently spent 7 monks at Pa Auk Tawya. Ajahn Sujin speaks only very basic English so I also helped translate for two of his meditation interviews with Sayadaw U Jatila because the visiting Laos monk (a student at the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University) was not available to translate at those times.

Note: Talking is not really a good practice at meditation centres. Usually it is better to practice “noble silence” to get maximum value from the time there and make the quickest progress. Even so, I learned a lot during the three weeks I spent at MSY.

Standing row: Korean Yogi, Korean Monk, Myanmar Translator Monk, Ajahn Sujin Deracho (Thailand), Mihindu Pulukkody (Sri Lanka), Michael Kalyaano (Australia)
Seated row: two Chinese Mahayana Monks, Sayadaw U Jatila, two Chinese Mahayana Monks

Standing row: Korean Yogi, Korean Monk, two Myanmar Translator Monks, Ajahn Sujin Deracho (Thailand), Myanmar Translator Monk, Myanmar Translator Layman, Michael Kalyaano (Australia)
Seated row: two Chinese Mahayana Monks, Sayadaw U Jatila, two Chinese Mahayana Monks, Mihindu Pulukkody (Sri Lanka)

Out of Yangon – happy and well

I left Yangon and arrived in Bangkok on Friday, 7 August. It was not convenient to write blogs in Yangon though I sometimes went to Internet cafes and wrote e-mails. Most of the time I was meditating at either Saddhamaransi Yeithka (about 4 months) or Mahasi Sasana Yeithka (3 weeks). I’ll write more about some that in later posts.

I learned a lot about meditation, the mind, the Dhamma, Buddhism as practiced in Myanmar and surprisingly I also learned a little about Mahayana Buddhism from 4 visiting Chinese Mahayana monks. I’ll write more about these topics in later posts.

I lost about 15 kg while in Myanmar. This is partly due to not eating in the afternoon or evenings while maintaining 8 precepts. It was also partly due to frequent bouts of travellers’ diarrhoea and having less exercise than usual at Saddhamaransi Yeithka. Even at Mahasi Sasana Yeithka the exercise was very low impact – slow walks and some yoga. Fruit is relatively expensive in Yangon right now with most of it being imported from China and Thailand. Most of the fruit trees in the Yangon area were destroyed in cyclone Nargis (May 2008). So the meditation centre monks, nuns and yogis sometimes didn’t eat fruit or if they did it was only bananas. Even so I had good health most of the time.

Now I’m staying at Suk 11, a hostel on Sukhumvit Road. It is comfortable, friendly and central. I may stay here until mid next week and then travel on to either Nong Khai or Cha Am for a week or two of quiet time to write. While in Bangkok, I’m looking for a notebook laptop to use for writing while travelling from here onwards (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal etc.).

Perth to Yangon

My plans are clearer now though by no means certain.

Postponed Trip to India
I am following good advice from friends and family not to go to India before the retreat in Myanmar.
The disadvantages and inconveniences:
1. I would be travelling there alone on the first trip and this is inherently stressful. It may be better for at least the beginning of the first trip to travel in a small group with an experienced person or guide.
2. The weather is particularly hot in late March-April after the moderate temperatures of December-February.
3. My original plan to travel to the main sites in one or two weeks was to cramped with lots of activities in a short period. It would be better to have more time to meditate, read discourses on location and see the less often visited sites.
So now I will probably go to India either in October-November 2009 or from late December 2009 to February 2010 with the later period more likely. I’ve done a lot of research on the India trip that I’ve filed away on the portable media player. I can read the maps and notes stored there. I got an Indian tourist visa but now will not use it before it expires. I will have to apply for another Indian tourist visa at a later time.

Between Perth and Yangon
My last day at work is Thursday, 19 March. I shall take my bags to work and go to the Perth International Airport from there. I will fly overnight and arrive in Singapore around 3AM, Friday, 20 March. I may find a cheap place to rest for a few hours. I want to buy some white meditation shirts and other small items at Mustafa’s. I will also go to a clinic to have the JE vaccination and the annual flu vaccination. I was hoping to visit one or two monks in the afternoon. Neither has replied my e-mail yet. Now that may be delayed for another visit to Singapore while something more urgent has appeared. I just found out that a friend’s parents are very unwell and so maybe I will visit them in the afternoon.

I fly from Singapore to Bangkok between 6PM and 7:30PM. I plan to take a combination of taxi and train to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam, and check in to a guest house before midnight on Friday, 20 March. I will check out from there around Tuesday, 24 March and fly to Yangon.
In Ayutthaya I can relax a bit, tour the ruins, visit the museum and just get used to being in Asia before commencing the retreat in Burma.

Retreat
I have a six month meditation visa for Myanmar (Burma). One needs a meditation centre to be a sponsor in order to get a six month or three month (or whatever length) meditation visa. Saddhammaransi Meditation Centre is my sponsor for this trip.

Ven. Sayadaw U Kundala has been very sick during the past few years but has recently made a good recovery. A friend who was in Yangon a few weeks ago reported that Sayadaw is up and about meeting visitors and is likely able to talk with me. This is great news for me. I am fortunate indeed.

Hopefully, I have learned from mistakes I made on a six week retreat in Yangon two years ago. This time, I have at least six months for the retreat – ten times longer or more.
1. Don’t write a daily journal; and 2. Don’t talk to anyone unless absolutely necessary. These activities involve discursive mental practices which are inherently conceptual and far from observing ultimate realities. Writing and talking are to be avoided as much as possible on Buddhist meditation retreats. Whether samatha or vipassana, the same rule applies.
3. Maintain continuous mindfulness and careful or appropriate attention at all times (sati-sampaja~n~na and yoniso-manasikaara). This is about continuity of mindfulness on the right objects. Try to maintain mindfulness of presently arising and passing phenomena at all times, even when bathing, eating, walking to the interview, sweeping the hall and so forth.
4. Purchase small necessary items at the beginning of the retreat so I don’t need to go to the office and make requests. Being experienced, I know what I need now.
5. Don’t look at other meditators or people at the meditation centre. They have a duty to observe phenomena arising and passing over there. I have a duty to observe phenomena arising and passing over here.
6. Do only basic chores necessary for daily life. Avoid repairing toilets when there are still two other toilets in working order. Despite this being a good deed, the benefit does not compare (is not one sixteenth part) of the benefit of meditation. All the planning, shopping for parts and solving of small problems involved in such repairs is very distracting for beginner meditators in the middle of a retreat. This reminds me of the old story of “cleaning the oven before writing the next thesis chapter.”

Cargo
I have been anxious about taking the Suttapitaka books on this trip. When planning this trip earlier, I was not sure if I would return to Australia or not. I may meditate most of the time from April to November (or even longer) without any breaks for study or travel (except maybe short distances within Burma to other meditation centres). In that case, I may not need Suttapitaka books. Having them nearby, I may be tempted to read them or refer to them while on retreat. I’ve become quite attached to them during the past two years. They are my dearest possessions. I shall contemplate the parable of the raft and see if I can let them go for a while.

Australia in December?
I may return for 3 weeks from late November to mid December 2009 to attend my children’s school graduations. One will graduate year 12 and another may (or may not…) graduate year 10. It will mean a lot to them if I can attend. It would cost a lot in airfares though. I checked fares and could not find any discount fares for that period yet. They may be advertised later. Or maybe with the global recession, the cost of flying will increase as the airlines shut down more flights.

Leaving Perth

Travel Options
My work contract will expire on 19 March. It is not certain yet but seems unlikely that my employer will extend my contract. I excited to be on track to recommence the journey. I am considering the various options for travelling to Myanmar. I will have a six month meditation visa for Myanmar so I thought of entering the country six months before Pavarana Day (end of the vaasa – rains retreat) on 4 October. This means that if I want to leave Myanmar around 6-7 October, then I should enter no earlier than 6-7 April. It is also possible that before the six month visa ends I could apply and obtain for another visa to stay longer.

A. I could go to India for the pilgrimage of Buddhist sacred sites during October and November. I’ve never been to India and have long thought of going especially to see the places where Lord Buddha was born, enlightened, began teaching and attained parinibbaana-liberation with no physical remainder. It would be good to also visit the places where major discourses were proclaimed. Such a trip would be very inspiring. It would be convenient to go in a small group perhaps with at least one person with previous experience of the pilgrimage. Accompanying a monk would be a good way to travel.

B. I could get an extension of the meditation visa or go out and apply for a new meditation visa. I currently would like to train in jhaana meditation at some point in the future and doing so after the six months vipassana retreat might be a good time to start.

I don’t know yet what I’ll be thinking of after six months of meditation. From previous experience of longish meditation retreats of 2-3 months, I was so content to do whatever was happening. I didn’t seem to have a strong wish to go anywhere or experience anything exciting. The equanimity and calmness pervaded everything. Then after a while the mental states grossed out again and desires dragged me here and there following the “red and green.”

If I entered Myanmar around 7 April, then I would have a gap of about 2 weeks to fill. I could do a quick pilgrimage to India in that time. Or I could stay in Thailand, maybe in Chiangmai and do a 2 week retreat before going to Myanmar.

The positive side of the delay
One good thing about delaying departure until March this year has been spending time with my Perth family, my Mum, siblings and the younger generation. The best thing has been a longer period of preparation for the trip. I’ve been studying the Dhamma more intensely and learned a lot during the past six months. I’ve firmed in my wish to remain single and free.