Striving for the Breakthrough

S13.1 Abhisamayasa.mutta, Connected Discourses on the Breakthrough, translated by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
(ATI translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Thus I have heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Saavatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anaathapi.n.dika’s Park. Then the Blessed One took up a little bit of soil in his fingernail and addressed the bhikkhus thus:
  “Bhikkhus, what do you think, which is more: the little bit of soil that I have taken up in my fingernail or this great earth?”
  “Venerable sir, the great earth is more. The little bit of soil that the Blessed One has taken up in his fingernail is trifling. It does not amount to a hundredth part, or a thousandth part, or a hundred thousandth part of the great earth.”
  “So too, bhikkhus, for a noble disciple, a person accomplished in view, who has made the breakthrough, the suffering that has been destroyed and eliminated is more, while that which remains is trifling. The latter does not amount to a hundredth of the former mass of suffering that has been destroyed and eliminated, as there is a maximum of seven more lives. Of such great benefit, bhikkhus, is the breakthrough to the Dhamma, of such great benefit is it to obtain the vision of the Dhamma.”

The “breakthrough to the Dhamma” and “to obtain the vision of the Dhamma” are metaphors for the attainment of stream entry – sotapanna. This is a very important stage of development.

Many lay followers obtained this breakthrough and vision during the lifetime of Gotama Buddha. Strive with diligence.

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Lower Fetter – Adherence to Rules and Observances (Sa.myojana Siilabattapaaramaasa)

There are ten sa.myojana – fetters binding beings to sa.msaara – the round of rebirths. The first stage of bodhi-enlightenment is sotapanna-stream entry. This stage is marked by the elimination of the first three fetters with one of these being siilabattapaaramaasa – the fetter of clinging to rules and observances. The other two lower fetters are sakkaaya di.t.thi-identity view and vicikicchaa-doubt (about the Dhamma). I can cover these two in another blog article, though I will state here that these three fetters have in common the theme of establishing sammaadi.tthi-right view.  Right view is essential for liberation.

Many people misunderstand Sa.myojana Siilabattapaaramaasa – the fetter of clinging to rules and observences. Some might quickly read the phrase in English without thinking more deeply and discussing it with others and then think they understand what it means. I encountered people who claimed this fetter  means that the Blessed One allows ‘advanced followers’ to not hold the five precepts or to break the laws of various countries whenever it suits them.  Others interpret this to mean that we shouldn’t bow to pagodas, offer incense and flowers etc. to Buddha images and so on. These ‘clever people’ claim that these are rituals that can be abandoned before we want to attain Nibbaana. They cite the simile of the raft to support their view.  

It is very important to keep the five precepts.  Siila (good moral conduct) is the foundation for developing Samaadhi (concentration) and Pa~n~na (wisdom). Making offerings and paying respect to pagodas and Buddha images helps us to develop kusala (wholesome/skilful) mental states. We can develop the indriya (controlling faculties) of saddhaa (faith/confidence) and samaadhi (concentration) by paying respects mindfully and with clear comprehension (sati sampaja~n~na).  Keeping precepts, making offerings and paying respects to pagodas etc. need to be done with the right attitude and keeping samaa di.t.thi (right view) in mind. If we keep precepts and make offerings with wrong view then there is very little benefit and probably some harm as a result.

I selected some quotes from the suttas that might help us to deepen our understanding of this fetter and eventually to utterly destroy it.


Note that the quotations from the Majjhimanikaaya below are all from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, though I’ve pasted the links to the ATI website, translated by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, or Metta.lk translated by Sister Upalavanna, for your convenience in obtaining an on-line English translation.  I’ve interspersed some interpretive notes in black font between the quotes. Maybe readers might read the quotes in purple font as a series several times before reading my interpretive notes which can be treated a bit like footnotes or endnotes in a text book. 

Sa.myuttanikaaya translated by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
S45.178 Lower Fetters
“Bhikkhus, there are these five lower fetters. What five? Identity view, doubt, the distorted grasp of rules and vows, sensual desire, ill will. These are the five lower fetters. This Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these five lower fetters, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning.”


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[Forgive this diversion. – In relation to the last part of the sutta above please refer also to the Majjhimanikaaya, M43 Mahaavedalla Sutta, Ven. Saariputta tells Ven. Kohita (both were arahats at the time of the conversation) …
M43.12 … the purpose of wisdom is direct knowledge, its purpose is full understanding, its purpose is abandoning…
That is to say, direct knowledge, full understanding and abandoning are three aspects of paññaa-wisdom. Direct knowledge (abhiññaa) is direct experience, here and now. It is not theoretical knowledge.  Fully understanding (pariññaa) is understanding phenomena with the three characteristics of dukkha, annicaa and anattaa (sufffering, impermanence and not-self), again this is not theroetical, it is to be experienced directly, here and now.  Abandoning (pahaana) is not a volitional action, it does not create kamma. It is what happens when wisdom is mature. There is nothing worth clinging to. All phenomena arising and passing are abandoned automatically. When this happens, it is not a choice or a preference of an individual.

Mundane right view is theoretical and supramundane right view is direct experience. Supramundane right view is associated with right knowledge (sammaa ñaana) and right liberation (sammaa vimutti).

M43.13 … there are two conditions for the arising of right view. The voice of another and wise attention.
M43.14 … right view is assisted by five factors when it has deliverance of mind for its fruit and benefit… Right view is assisted by … (i) virtue, (ii) learning, (iii) discussion, (iv) serenity, and (v) insight… 

I urge you to develop these five factors in daily life. When there is mature right view there will be the attainment of sotapanna – stream entry and no more unfortunate rebirths.]
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M2 Sabbaasava Sutta – All the Taints

M2.11  “He attends wisely: ‘This is suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’  When he attends wisely in this way, three fetters [sa.myojana] are abandoned in him: personality view, doubt, and adherence to rules and observances. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by seeing.


[Readers will probably recognise the Four Noble Truths in the above passage and again in the following passage.  The last sentence refers to “taints to be abandoned by seeing”. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi noted that “seeing” here is a code for the path of sotapanna-stream entry. You can figure it out for yourself when you realise that the three “taints” in that passage are exactly the same as the three fetters that are destroyed by the attainment of sotapanna. The verb “seeing” is also referring to the direct experience of right view as it shifts from mundane to supramundane.]

M9 Sammaadi.t.thi Sutta – Right View
M9.34  And what is clinging, what is the origin of clinging, what is the cessation of clinging, what is the way leading to the cessation of clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. With the arising of craving there is the arising of clinging. With the cessation of craving there is the cessation of clinging. The way leading to the cessation of clinging is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is right view … right concentration.


[Only the later three of these four kinds of clinging are destroyed by the attainment of sotapanna. The first of them: clinging to sensual pleasures, is only eliminated by anaagaamimagga – the path of the non-returner. This is the third of four stages of enlightenment. In addition to eliminating the clinging to sensual pleasures, anaagaamimagga also destroys anger. The second stage of enlightenment – Sakadagaamimagga  – the path of the once returner, does not eliminate anything. It merely attenuates (weakens) lust and anger.  ]

M11 Cuu.lasihandaada Sutta – The Shorter Discourse on the Lion’s Roar
M11.10 “Though certain recluses and brahmins claim to propound the full understanding of all kinds of clinging, they do not completely describe the full understanding of all kinds of clinging. They describe the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures without describing the full understanding of clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. Why is that? Those good recluses and brahmins do not understand these three instances of clinging as they actually are …
M11.13 “Bhikkhus, in such a Dhamma and Discipline as that [propounded by those certain recluses and brahmins], it is plain that confidence in the teacher [again, this refers to those faulty teachers, rather than the Blessed One] is not rightly directed, that confidence in the

Dhamma is not rightly directed, that fulfilment of the precepts is not rightly directed, and that the affection among [non Buddhist] companions in the Dhamma is not rightly directed. Why is that? Because that is how it is when the Dhamma and Discipline is badly proclaimed and badly expounded, unemancipating, unconducive to peace, expounded by one who is not fully enlightened.
M11.14 “Bhikkhus, when a Tathagata, accomplished and fully enlightened, claims to propound the full understanding of clinging, he completely describes the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self… 

[please open the link for M11 and read the whole sutta, especially from M11.9 to the end M11.17. It is very good.]

M64 Mahaamaalunkya Sutta –  The Greater Discourse to Maalunkyaaputta
M64.3 Maalunkhyaaputta, to whom do you remember me my having taught these five lower fetters [of the sensual world] in that way? Would not the wanderers of other sects confute you with the simile of the infant? For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘identity,’ so how could identity view arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency [anusaya] to identity view lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘teachings,’ so how could doubt about the teachings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to doubt lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘rules,’ so how could adherence to rules and observances arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to adhere to rules and observances lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘sensual pleasures,’ so how could sensual desire arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to sensual lust lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘beings,’ so how could ill will towards beings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to ill will lies within him. Would not the wanderers of other sects confute you with this simile of the infant?” … 

There are more references to ‘adherence to rules and observances’ in other paragraphs of this sutta. Please read the whole sutta. It will be for your benefit and well-being for a very long time.

The Blessed One may have identified adherence to rules and observances as a fetter as part of his critique of the prevailing Brahmin culture in his day. Brahmins taught rules and observances as a way to higher states and even to union with the Brahma deity.  For example, some ancient Brahmin teachers advocated bathing in rivers as a way to eliminate the consequences of evil deeds while other Brahmin teachers preferred to teach the worship of fire or to tend fires to win the favour of one or more deities and thereby gain a fortunate rebirth.  This is a fetter or hindrance in Buddhism because it is micchaadi.t.thi – wrong view, not least because such views misunderstand the law of kamma and place faith in deities that do not have such powers as those Brahmins believe.

The Blessed One taught the way to union with the great Brahma deity and the way to fortunate rebirth among deities is possible by good moral conduct, donations to worthy people and meditation. For example, the way to be with the great Brahma deity is to practice loving kindness (metta) meditation and attain mental absorption – jhaana. By maintaining the capability to attain jhaana until the end of this life, a person would likely attain a fortunate rebirth in the retinue of the great Brahma deity.  But the Blessed One warned this is inferior because it is not permanent and at the end of a long life as a brahma deity, a being may be reborn in an unfortunate realm and suffer for many life times due to the ripening of older kamma.  Attachment to any form of becoming and rebirth is inherently suffering. The wish to be reborn in any existence is inevitably tainted (with craving) and this is the second noble truth – the cause of suffering.

The Blessed One taught the way to liberation from this round of rebirths. Overcoming the fetter of adherence to rules and observances is one of three important fetters to be permanently eliminated before attaining sotapanna – stream entry which is the first stage of enlightenment. Once attained to this stage it is guaranteed there will be no further unfortunate rebirths and there will be at most seven more life times before attaining full enlightenment – arahat.

May you dear reader develop the Noble Eightfold Path, realise the Four Noble Truths and attain Nibbaana.

Venerable Ñāṇavīra, Notes on the Dhamma

While I was in Sri Lanka and browsing bookshelves at the Buddhist Publication Society and the Buddhist Cultural Centre I found some books by Venerable Ñāṇavīra.  He was mentioned during online discussions back in the early 1990s. I didn’t know much about him or his writings at that time. I did notice that some people seemed to admire him very much while others seemed to criticise his writings in very strong terms. Some people have fixed views about Sotapanna samapati (stream entry attainment), suicide and or attakatha (commentaries) and may reject Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s writing based on his reputation without reading his work.

In the early 1990s I read some excerpts of Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s writings available on the Internet but don’t recall forming a view one way or the other. I bought Clearing the Path Notes on the Dhamma and Clearing the Path Letters (1960-65) and read them both soon after returning to Perth a few months ago.  I encourage you to read Notes on the Dhamma at least. I also found the letters from Ven. Ñāṇavīra to various people very interesting. Ven. Ñāṇavīra probably never thought they might be published as a book. I shall return to both books in future and may read them carefully several times while checking sutta references and so forth.

Further reading on this topic includes:

  • Path Press might be a good place to find related material as well as possibly the  best place to buy Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s books online. 
  • The main website with all the writings in HTML as well as writings by others who have been influenced by Ven. Ñāṇavīra:  http://nanavira.xtreemhost.com 
  • Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi A Critical Examination of Ñāṇavīra Thera’s ‘A Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda’. Pa.ticcasamuppaada may be translated as “dependent origination” or “dependent arising”.  A PDF version of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper may also be downloaded from one of the Path Press websites by clicking on the PDF icon on this page.
  • Ven. Bhikkhu H. Ñāṇasuci’s excellent short article about Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper and Ven.  Ñāṇavīra’s writings. 
  • The Akalika Forum (discussions about Ven. Ñāṇavīra) http://nanavira.top-talk.net/



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.

Well-taught Noble Disciple

In the suttas, the well-taught noble disciple (sutavaa ariyasaavaka) is often contrasted with the un-taught worldling (assutavaa puthujjana). It is useful for us to consider how a well-taught noble disciple behaves in body, speech and mind and then try to emulate that behaviour in daily life. 

M46.4 “The well-taught noble disciple who has regard for the noble ones… and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, knows what things should be cultivated and what things should not be cultivated, what things should be followed and what things should not be followed, what things should be followed and what things should not be followed.  Knowing this he cultivates things that should be cultivated … It is because he does this that unwished for, undesired, disagreeable things diminish for him and wished for, desired and agreeable things increase. Why is that? That is what happens to one who sees.”

“One who sees” is a code for stream enterer (sotapanna) or other noble ones who have attained various stages of awakening.  The stream enterer is sometimes described as having opened the dhammacakkhu (the eye of wisdom) [not to be confused with the “third eye” which has nothing to do with Buddhism at all].

It is wisdom (pa~n~na) that knows what should be cultivated and so forth.

Majjhima Nikaya M64 Mahaamaalunkyaputta Sutta [มหามาลุงโกฺยวาทสูตร] [Sister Upalavanna English translation]

M64.6 “A well-taught noble disciple who has regard for the noble ones and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, has regard for true men and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, does not abide with a mind obsessed and enslaved by identity view; he understands as it actually is the escape from the arisen identity view, and identity view together with the underlying tendency to it is abandoned in him. He does not abide with the a mind obsessed and enslaved by doubt… adherence to rules and observances… sensual lust… ill-will; …”

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation above has True men for the Paali “sappurisa”.  This is a synonym for ariya puggala which is a noble person who has attained one or another of the stages of awakening.  As he did with many other common phrases, it seems that the Blessed One  colonised the word sappurisa for pedagogical purposes. I speculate that perhaps in general conversation prior to the Buddha, the word might have had the meaning of righteous person. That is someone who understands the Dhamma (universal law) as taught in the Vedas, is wise and practices virtuous behaviour.

1. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates “ariya saavaka” as a person who has attained one of the eight stages of awakening.  2. Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu sometimes translates ariya saavaka as “disciple of the noble ones.”  This may not necessarily mean that the disciple has any noble attainment themselves though they have confidence in the noble ones (ariya puggala).  It is possible that the term ariya saavaka has two meanings though I currently prefer the first meaning.

Saavaka” is usually now translated as disciple. It literally means “hearer.”  At the time of the Buddha Gotama, the Dhamma was proclaimed verbally then heard by followers.  Writing was not yet widely used for religious or philosophical activities. Followers hearing the Dhamma would memorise it and keep it fresh in their minds by reciting it from time to time or discussing it with others.

In the second excerpt (M64.6), the term identity view (sakkaaya di.t.thi) refers to a belief in a soul or eternal self that persists after death. Those people with identity view may consider one or other of the five aggregates (khanda) of body, feelings, perceptions, thought formations and consciousness to be a self or belonging to a self apart from these five aggregates.

Identity view is one of the ten fetters (sa.myojjana) that bind beings to the round of becoming, birth and death (sa.msaara).  Upon awakening, the sotapanna abandons three of the ten fetters including identity view, doubt and adherence to rules and observances. The doubt here is doubt about the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha (of noble ones – not monastics as such). The adherence to rules and observances refers to a belief such as “bathing in the river will wash away my sins and I can go to heaven and be with God forever” or “if I light sacred fires and worship a deity I will be enlightened.” 

A stream enterer and other noble ones do not abandon fetters through an act of will. It is not as easy as just making a decision or wishing for it.  Maybe I can write about that in another blog.

Six principles of cordiality and a seven-point test for stream-entry

I paraphrased this sutta using Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ven. Nanamoli’s English translation.

Six principles of cordiality that create love and respect and conduce to cohesion, to non-dispute, to concord, and to unity.
1.  Maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness both in public and private towards companions.
2.  Maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness both in public and private towards companions.
3.  Maintain mental acts of loving-kindness both in public and private towards companions.
4. Use things in common with virtuous companions in the holy life, without making reservations, sharing any gains which accord with the Dhamma and that has been obtained in a way that accords with the Dhamma, including (for monastics) the contents of one’s bowl [one is generous-caaga, not stingy or miserly].
5. Possess in common with virtuous companions those virtues (siila) that are unbroken, untorn, unblemished, liberating, commended by the wise, not misapprehended and conducive to concentration [five precepts are the basic precepts].
6. Possess in common with companions the view that is noble and liberating and leads one who practices in accord with it to the complete destruction of suffering [sammaaditthi right view].
Of these… the chief, the most cohesive, the most unifying, is (6) the view that is noble and liberating…  And how does one know whether this view is held?
Seven-point test for stream-entry-sotapanna
1.  Ask yourself:  Is my mind obsessed with sensual lust, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, [five hindrances] speculation about this world and the other world [life after death or annihilation etc.], taken to quarrelling and brawling and deep in disputes, stabbing others with verbal daggers. Obsessed in this way one’s mind is not well disposed for awakening to truths.
If there are no such obsessions, this is the first knowledge that is noble, supramundane, not shared by ordinary people. [Sotapanna and sakadagaami people occasionally experience sensual lust, ill-will and so forth. However, they are less bothered by these hindrances and can easily concentrate their minds if they wish to. Anaagaamii have destroyed lust and ill-will and have very highly developed samaadhi-concentration. Arahats have destroyed all the aasava-taints and are not disturbed by these hindrances at any time. Some puthujjana-worldlings who have not attained any stage of awakening, but have skill in attaining deep concentration states such as the four jhaana-mental absorptions and the four formless bases may rarely be bothered by these hindrances.  However, most puthujjana who have never trained their minds or studied the Buddha Dhamma are obsessed in this way.]
2. Ask yourself: when I pursue, develop and cultivate this view (that is noble and liberating), do I obtain internal serenity, do I obtain stillness? – If yes then this is the second knowledge… [this refers to the ability to calm the mind through samatha meditation. For those sotapanna who have not attained jhaana-absorption, they are still able to obtain internal serenity by practicing the six recollections such as Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, Siila, Caaga and Deva. They can also practice recollection of peace and use other meditation objects to obtain internal serenity with relative ease. ].
3. Ask yourself: is there any other recluse or teacher outside (the Buddha’s dispensation) possessed of a view such as I possess? If no, then this is the third knowledge… [this means that one believes that right view is only possible within the Buddha’s dispensation and one doesn’t believe that anyone outside Buddhism can attain a stage of awakening such as stream entry-sotapanna].
4. Ask yourself: do I possess the (first) characteristic of a person with right view?  Such a person immediately confesses any offence for which a means of rehabilitation has been laid down. Just as a baby at once draws back when he puts his hand or his foot on a live coal…  If yes this is the fourth knowledge … [This refers to moral shame and fear of wrong doing – hiri and ottappa.]
5. Ask yourself: do I possess the (second) characteristic of a person with right view? Although such a person may be active in various matters for his companions in the holy life, yet he has regard for training in the higher virtue, higher mind and higher wisdom.  Just as a cow with a new calf, while she grazes, watches her calf. If yes this is the fifth knowledge… (heedfulness – apamaada) [A sotapanna may sometimes neglect training but not for long. Because they wish to help fellow monastics or fellow lay Buddhists, or even non-Buddhists, they usually find contentment and satisfaction in the training. Heedfulness is closely related to mindfulness and other skilful qualities that sotapanna have in abundance].
6. Ask yourself: do I possess the (first) strength of a person with right  view? When the Dhamma and Discipline (Dhamma-vinaaya) proclaimed by the Tathaagata is being taught, one heeds it, gives it attention, engages it with all one’s mind, hears the Dhamma with eagerness.  If yes, this is the sixth knowledge… [in this way one would suppress the nivaarana-hindrances to samaadhi-concentration and one’s mind would be pliable, bright and in the best possible state for understanding the Dhamma].
7.  Ask yourself: do I possess the (second) strength of a person with right view?  When the Dhamma and Discipline proclaimed by the Tathaagata is being taught, one gains inspiration in the meaning, gains inspiration in the Dhamma, gains gladness connected with the Dhamma. If yes, this is the seventh knowledge… [this is not something that a sotapanna would have to consciously cultivate – it would be natural and automatic].
A noble disciple possessed of these seven factors is well on the way toward the realisation of the fruit of stream entry [this is someone who possesses the path of stream entry – sotapanna magga]. A noble disciple who possesses these seven factors, possesses the fruit of stream entry [sotapanna phala].  

In the relatively well-known eightfold classification of noble ones (ariyapuggala) there are two pairs of four and eight individuals. Two sotapanna, two sakadagaamii, two anaagaamii and two arahata. In each pair, the inferior one is on the path (magga) while the superior one has attained the fruit (phala).  Here is a list of eight ariyapuggala in descending order of superiority:

Arahata phala
Arahata magga
Anaagaamii phala
Anaagaamii magga
Sakadagaamii phala
Sakadagaami magga
Sotapanna phala

Sotapanna magga
The sotapanna phala person is not equivalent to a sakadagaamii magga person. Though they both have already attained sotapanna phala, the sakadagaamii magga person is superior because they are on the path to the higher attainment whereas the sotapanna phala person is for the time being stable and not making significant efforts to reach a higher state. This principle applies to other stages in the table above until finally the arahata phala person has no more work to do since they are fully awakened. 

The exegetical Paali Commentaries to the Abhidhamma Pitaka prepared by Ven. Buddhaghosa (about 1500 years ago) and the tradition of later abhidhammika scholars divert from the teachings in the Sutta Pitaka (basket of discourses). 

In the Introduction to the Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Philosophical Psychology of Buddhism, Abhidhammaattha Sangaha, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
… a few of the Abhidhamma conceptions that are characteristic of the Commentaries but either unknown or recessive in the Abhidhamma Pitaka itself. One is the detailed account of the cognitive process (cittaviithi).  While this conception seems to be tacitly recognised in the canonical books [of the abhidhamma pitaka], it now comes to be drawn out for use as an explanatory tool in its own right. The functions of the cittas come to be designated by way of their functions. The term khana, “moment,” replaces the canonical samaya “occasion,” as the basic unit for delimiting the occurrence of events, and the duration of a material phenomenon is determined to be seventeen moments of mental phenomenon. The division of a moment into three sub-moments–arising, presence, and dissolution–also seems to be new to the Commentaries…

In relation to awakening, proponents of the Commentary theory of cognitive process claim that during awakening there is a single very brief moment of sotapanna magga citta immediately followed by a similarly very brief moment of sotapanna phala citta with no other citta (moment of cognitive process) in between magga and phala. However, this theory is not supported by the suttas. There are many suttas where noble ones who are path attainers (magga) are walking around without yet having attained the fruit (phala). We should always prefer the suttas to later teachings elaborated in exegetical literature.

In later blogs I intend to write some short articles on the less well-known sevenfold classification of ariyapuggala and on the first stage of awakening – sotapanna magga based on reading suttas. 

Mirror of the Dhamma – Four things Posssessed by Sotapannas

This list is from the Sa.myutta Nikaaya, Mahavagga, SN.V.55.8.

  1. confirmed confidence in the Buddha
  2. confirmed confidence in the Dhamma
  3. confirmed confidence in the Sangha of Ariyapuggala (noble ones – enlightened beings)
  4. possess the virtues (Siila) dear to the noble ones, unbroken, untorn, unblemished, unmottled, freeing, praised by the wise, ungrasped, leading to concentration.