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.


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.


The Removal of Distracting Thoughts

Yogis, especially beginners, are often discouraged by distracting thoughts. They say that meditation is difficult and they want to give up because of distracting thoughts. Sincere yogis, can spend long periods sitting, walking or in other postures, apparently meditating but in fact, just thinking.

Thoughts of the past, present and future keep arising and the untrained mind with relatively weak concentration and mindfulness takes up these thoughts and for some time forgets the object of meditation. Then at some point, the mind recalls the object and begins again.

Some yogis feel discouraged because they identify as a person doing meditation. It may be helpful to put aside notions of identity while meditating. Identities are totally redundant when meditating. Are ice skates useful when sleeping in your normal bed? Is a canoe useful when cycling in the park far from water?

When meditating the yogi can put aside notions of identity and just note objects that arise and pass in the present moment. If the mind forgets and a train of thoughts takes over, then as soon as the mind remembers, just continue the noting. Try not to indulge in recriminations, self-doubt, doubt about the method and so on. These judgemental thoughts are not helpful.

A yogi can just note a thought as a thought, regardless of what the content of that thought might be. Thoughts of sport, food, oceans and Dhamma are all just thoughts. As soon as aware of thinking, the yogi can note “thinking, thinking, thinking…” and then note whatever other object arises. Sensations of discomfort, pains, itches, sensations of cold or heat; feelings of like and dislike; all should be noted and not clung to. Nothing is worth clinging to in this world, especially when meditating.

After some time of diligent practice, the mind will note a continuous stream of phenomena, arising and passing, some thoughts, some sensations, some feelings and so on, all just arising and passing…arising and passing… If sufficient energy is applied, the yogi will develop and enhance skills. There will be fewer lapses of concentration and mindfulness. More and more details will become apparent. The noting of objects appears faster, steady and the yogi’s general feeling will be less of like and dislike and more of equanimity.

Majjhima Nikaya MN.152.4. Indriyabhaavanaa Sutta, The Development of the Faculties. (อินทริยภาวนาสูตร)

“Now Aananda, how is there there supreme development of the faculties in the Noble One’s Discipline?

Here, Aananda, when a bhikkhu sees a form with the eye, there arises in him what is both agreeable, there arises what is disagreeable, there arises what is both agreeable and disagreeable.

He understands thus: ‘There has arisen in me what is agreeable, there are has arisen in what is disagreeable, there has arisen what is both agreeable and disagreeable. But that is conditioned, gross, dependently arisen, this is peaceful, this is sublime, this is, equanimity.’ The agreeable that arose, the disagreeable that arose, and the both agreeable and disagreeable that arose cease just as quickly, just as rapidly, just as easily, and equanimity is established.

This is called in the Noble One’s Discipline the supreme development of the faculties regarding forms cognizable by the eye.

Passages 5-9. of the Indriyabhaavanaa Sutta contain similar advice for smelling an odour with the nose, tasting a flavour with the tongue, touching a tangible with the body, and cognizing a mind-object with the mind.

The following passage applies more to yogis doing samatha. However, some yogis doing vipassana may find it useful if they are struggling to develop mindfulness and are bothered by distracting thoughts so much that they wish to give up meditation altogether…Don’t give up! Be patient. Persevere.

Majjhima Nikaya MN20.8 Vitakkasa.n.thaana Sutta, The Removal of Distracting Thoughts. (วิตักกสัณฐานสูตร)

“Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is giving attention to some sign, and owing to that sign there arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then when he gives attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome, any such evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him and subside, and with the abandoning of them his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.

When he examines the danger in those thoughts…When he tries to forget those thoughts and does not give attention to them…When he gives attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts…When with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he beats down, constrains, and crushes mind with mind, any such evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him…and his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.

This bhikkhu is then called a master of the courses of thought. He will think what ever thought he wishes to think and he will not think any thought he does not wish to think. He has severed craving, flung off the fetters, and with the complete penetration of conceit he has made an end of suffering.

That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words.

The remedy is to give attention to ‘some other sign connected with what is wholesome’ rather than to the sign connected with what is unwholesome. This remedy may be easier said than done. Lord Buddha defines signs connected with what is unwholesome as ‘thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion.’

As soon as a yogi doing vipassana is aware of a mind with desire, hate or delusion, the yogi should note the thought and immediately give attention to ‘some other sign connected with what is wholesome’ such as the breath or the sensation of touch. Though for a yogi doing samatha the wholesome sign might be a coloured disc-kasina, a bloated corpse, loving-kindness-metta or the the touch of the breath passing over the upper lip. Many more meditation objects are explained in the Vissudhimagga.

Daily Life
There are times when difficult issues arise in our lives and we may need to deal with them in a responsible, ethical and worldly way. There are also times when all that can practically be done has been done, yet we may still worry and think obsessively about problems. We may be stewing in anger over an injustice we are powerless to put right. We may be troubled or obsessed by unwanted or frustrated desires. We may be suffering with delusions of various kinds. Lord Buddha’s advice applies in daily life as much as in meditation. In fact calming the mind in this way will help people to settle their minds for meditating at a later stage.

Lord Buddha recommended many signs ‘connected with what is wholesome.’ Here are some for you to consider:
1. Lord Buddha (if you are a Buddhist), think about his life and virtues
2. Dhamma, think about the Dhamma you have studied
3. Sangha, think about the virtues of the Noble Ones, read and recollect the lives of prominant disciples such as Thera Sariputta, Thera Mahamoggallana, Thera Kassapa, Thera Aananda, Thera Anuruddha, Theri Uppalavanna, Theri Khema, Theri Kisagotami and so on.
4. Morality, recollect how your life is harmless to self and others.
5. Generosity, recollect how you have selflessly donated to worthy causes (eg. the Sangha).
6. Deities, recollect the virtues of beings who have appeared in celestial realms as deities. I sometimes recall that some of these deities are also Noble Ones who may have been deities or human beings taught directly by Lord Buddha. One of the ways of recollecting the virtues of Lord Buddha is sattha devamanussanam teacher of deities and humans.”

There are many other signs ‘connected with what is wholesome.’ In popular psychology we are encouraged to imagine a beautiful park, with shady trees, swans and small friendly animals. We imagine ourselves sitting or lying in the shade near a bubbling brook or a small lotus pond. These images can calm our troubled minds and temporarily free us from the obsessive thoughts.

I have friends who like to listen to calming music that soothes them and relaxes their minds after a hard day at work. Some listen to the music on their portable music players while commuting.

In daily life we are not troubled all the time. It is also wholesome to reflect on:
1. the inevitability of illness, ageing and death.
2. making our lives simpler with fewer belongings and fewer distracting pastimes.
3. gratitude for our parents and teachers who cared for us and taught us life skills.
4. gratitude for friends and colleagues who helped us with our work and supported us in times of trouble.
5. compassion for unfortunate beings, including animals.
6. sympathetic joy (opposite of jealousy) for beings who currently enjoy wealth, good looks, fame etc.
7. equanimity while recalling that all beings are subject to kamma, good actions gets good result, bad action gets bad result.
8. wish that all beings act wisely so they may enjoy fortunate lives.
9. how to reduce our harmful impact on the Earth and other beings.
10. how to live with healthy minds and bodies.
11. good-will for all beings, regardless of whether they are friends, enemies or unknown.

The goal of removing distracting thoughts is so that the ‘mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.’ A mind thus concentrated is of immense benefit and may be readily applied for insight-vipassana.

May you sever craving, fling off the fetters, and with the complete penetration of conceit make an end of suffering.

Remedies for Restless Minds

Five Hindrances
Lord Buddha identified five hindrances (nivaarana) to mental development: lust, anger, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt. There are many synonyms for these hindrances and other commentators may use different words. A keen student who is not familiar with these five hindrances would do well to study them further. Essentially these five hindrances are symptoms of a lack of mindfulness and concentration. Once a yogi develops persistent mindfulness and profound concentration, the hindrances will disappear, the mind will be bright and pliant, ready to apply for worthy purposes.

When the hindrances dominate the mind the yogi may not be aware of the need to apply a remedy. Some people may consider hindrances as normal and not wish to avoid them. So the first step is to be motivated to avoid hindrances and this requires the right view that a hindrance dominated mind leads to suffering, the right view that hindrances cause suffering, the right view that the ending of hindrances is ultimately worthy, and a certain degree of confidence in the benefits of a hindrance-free mind, confidence in the yogi’s capacity to develop a hindrance-free mind and confidence that there are practical techniques that can be applied for developing a hindrance-free mind.

Lord Buddha recommended a virtuous life style that is blame free and promotes social and personal happiness. A lot of restlessness arises due to harmful speech, behaviour and thought which cause remorse and regret. Some restlessness arises due to ignorance and wrong views. We misunderstand reality and assign blame here or there for the wrong reasons and this confusion creates restlessness. Associating with wise and compassionate people who model the virtuous behaviour and who can give yogis a “reality check” during confusing times is of incalculable benefit.


The more we practice, the easier it is to note hindrances such as restlessness. We can develop a base level of mindfulness and right view to remind ourselves that the mind is beginning to be dominated by hindrances. Lord Buddha provided a vast amount of helpful advice for overcoming hindrances. The Aanaapanasati Sutta (the discourse on mindfulness of breathing) is a one of many discourses. Another is the Satipathaana Sutta (the discourse on establishing mindfulness). Frequent reading of these and other discourses is highly rewarding.

Mindfulness of breathing is an excellent technique for calming the restless mind. Whether the yogi chooses to note the touch of the breath on the upper lip or the rising and falling of the abdomen, noting the breath is a sure way to subdue the restless mind and has no ill effects on body or mind.

Yogis can know the mind and phenomena that arises, persists and passes. It is as it is. Whatever arises, focus on it and note what ever it is. If yogis note many objects and find it difficult to keep pace or can’t find a label for the Dhamma or mental state yogis may note “knowing, knowing, knowing…” while rapidly following each objects as they arise and pass.

Mindfulness of breathing and the four establishments of mindfulness are the ultimate in virtuous behaviour, speech and thought. Done correctly, these techniques will lead to peace and liberation.

Slow Deliberate Movements
One way to overcome a restless mind is to practice noting slow deliberate movements in daily life and during periods of meditation practice. If a yogi has dedicated a day for practice, then it is possible to do all movements very very slowly. Get out of bed slowly, go to toilet slowly, brush teeth slowly and so on. Note each discrete movement. For example, from a reclining position, note the intention to move, note the intention to move a particular limb, move the limb slowly, noting the change in sensation of weight or the touch of an insect on the skin or the pain or other sensation in the joints and muscles as the limb moves. Note the hardness or softness of the surfaces which the body contacts.

Walking Meditation
Slow motion walking meditation helps to focus the mind and builds energy for sitting practice.

A useful alternative to walking meditation for people who can’t walk is noting slow hand and arm movements. The yogi very very slowly moves hands and arms through a repetitive series of movements that have been studied prior or have been taught by a teacher.

Slow Prostrations
The late Ven. Ajahn Kao (Titawano from Wat Bunsimunikorn) taught yogis to deepen mindfulness by prostrating very slowly. According to Ven. Ajahn Kao many people do prostrations fast and sloppily. He advised yogis to prostrate in slow motion while noting each bodily movement one at a time. One prostration might take 30 seconds or more. Some people may need to change the way they bow down to make it more convenient for slow motion bowing and to facilitate one movement at a time.

I would like to post a video or series of photos to show how to prostrate slowly. Start from the kneeling position and have hands together in front like the Anjaali position.

  1. Note the mental intention to bow.
  2. Note them mental intention to move the right hand/arm downwards.
  3. Move the hard/arm downwards very slowly.
  4. Note the intention to bend forward slightly at the hips.
  5. Note the intention to move the hand/arm more and so on with the left hand/arm and so on … note the touching of the ground, the hardness, softness of the ground with each hand separately and so on.
  6. Do the same going back up again after touching your head on the ground.

Painful Sensations Cause Restlessness and Anger
When yogis sit for a while painful sensations arise in various parts of the body including the knees. When mindfulness and concentration are relatively weak yogis may struggle to sit through painful sensations. The intense pain can cause restlessness and doubt to arise. The remedy is to focus the mind on the painful spot. This can be difficult for beginning yogis who may become angry or fearful of the pain. So in addition to the hindrance of restlessness, another hindrance of anger arises to further cloud the mind and weaken the remedies of mindfulness and concentration. If mindfulness and concentration are insufficient the painful physical sensation and restless angry mind will become intolerable, forcing the yogi to change position. The remedy is to develop strong mindfulness and strong concentration prior to the arising of painful sensations. With strong mindfulness and strong concentration, the mind may observe apparently painful sensations with equanimity and thereby gain profound insights.

Developing Right View and Confidence
A lot of restlessness is caused by confusion about what is real and this can lead to a lack of confidence in either the remedy or the yogi’s ability to successfully apply the remedy. An inspiring and knowledgeable teacher may help the beginner.

Initially yogis can put their difficult experiences in perspective. When feeling discouraged a yogi could try recalling the successes as well as set backs. By focusing mostly on the set backs the yogi may become impatient and suffer. Yogis can reflect on their virtues, remembering that they have kept five, eight or more precepts for a long period. They can also focus on their generous behaviour, how they have donated to worthy causes and helped people. Lord Buddha taught that virtuous conduct and generosity lead to a happy rebirth possibly in a heavenly realm or a fortunate human existence. These recollections can help overcome self-doubt and low self-esteem.

Remember that all those revered teachers including Lord Buddha overcame the hindrances. Remembering the virtues of Lord Buddha and other advanced teachers can inspire yogis and build confidence to continue the practice.

Remember the teaching of Lord Buddha, read discourses and reflect on the meaning of the words. Reflecting on the Dhamma helps to overcome doubts and confusion as well as arousing inspiration and energy for practice.

Many yogis experience joy or rapture while reading Dhamma. Joy and rapture is useful for sitting practice though it must be balanced with the calming factors of tranquillity and concentration else the yogi may be over stimulated and become restless again.