Back in Perth – new directions old directions

Dear readers, I have been active with other priorities and not blogged much. Now that I’m busier, I’ll probably blog more.  I hope you enjoy the new blog page style. I updated my June post on Sri Lanka and added a lot of photos.

I returned to Perth about 12 weeks ago. I applied for many jobs and finally accepted an interesting role starting on Monday, 14 November.  In order to generate income for paying bills I usually work as a in government on social policy development and project management.  I always find work though it can take about 2 months of applying.  This time it took nearly 3 months…

I enjoyed my recent trips to Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom. On the first trip to Sri Lanka (3.5 weeks in June 2011) I stayed with Bhante Nyanatusita at the Forest Hermitage where I installed mosquito screens, door handles, and tidied up a storage area. Bhante and I also went on a 5 day tour of places north of Kandy. We hiked in forests and climbed hills. I really enjoyed visiting ancient monasteries at Ritigala and Kaluda Pokuna as well as several significant sites at Anuradhapura.  I learned a lot from close association with Bhante and our Dhamma discussions.

The second trip was only about 10 days and again mostly in Kandy working at the Forest Hermitage. Bhante and I installed a wifi antenna with lightning protection on the roof and significantly improved Bhante’s Internet connection.

The detailed map located just past the main entry gate to Udawattakele, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Old sign for the Forest Hermitage, Udawattakele, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Michael made two mosquito screens with scrap wood and left over mesh at the Forest Hermitage in June 2011. These two screens were installed in the window frames of the outside kuti sometimes used by guest monks.


Inside the outside kuti sometimes used by guest monks at the Forest Hermitage, Kandy, Sri Lanka, June 2011

Shaded meditation walking path near outside kuti, Forest Hermitage, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Wifi antenna installed on the Forest Hermitage roof, 13 August 2011. It is not quite finished. After this photo we attached three metal pipes connecting the antenna pole to the solar panel frame. These connections were insulated to prevent any lightning current flowing between them. The green wire in the photo is an earth wire that leads from the lightning attractor above the antenna itself down to a lightning rod embedded in the ground. You can see the white plastic pipe protecting the wire from the antenna and entering a small hole in the roof tile.

A new LED lamp for an existing socket at the Forest Hermitage, Kandy, Sri Lanka, June 2011

New lamps, medicine and ARRID plugs for the 12 volt electrical solar powered system at the Forest Hermitage, Kandy, Sri Lanka, June 2012

My second trip (10 days in August 2011) coincided with the Australian cricket team’s tour of Sri Lanka which I had no interest in. It also coincided with the annual 10 day Perahera festival held in Kandy. I have little interest in colourful parades mainly because I don’t like mixing with crowds of people. I saw parts of the parade when I was in town shopping for items to install the wifi antenna. The parade is very popular among Sri Lankan people.

Michael & an elephant at the forecourt of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 10 August 2011 (photo taken by Ven. Nyanatusita)

Corner of Dalada Veediya and Yatinuvara Veediya, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 13 August 2011.  People were sitting on plastic sheets on the pavements waiting for the Perahera festival parade so pedestians had to walk on the roads to get around. 
My trip to the United Kingdom was my first trip to the mother country since 1974. Except for my own two children, all other members of my Australian family (two parents and three siblings) had visited more recently and some have visited many times. I had a mild case of culture shock when I first arrived at Heathrow Airport and then spent my first week mostly in Wittering (near Chichester), Sussex. The weather was sunny and warm almost the whole time I was in the UK, even in Scotland.  I then went to Telford in Shropshire; Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland; and then Beverley, Hull and Polkington in Yorkshire. I visited most but not all of my UK relations. I was warmly welcomed by all and I learned a lot about family history.

This trip to Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom was part of my exploration of ways to live a spiritual life as a lay man. I validated this approach and am very confident that this is the right thing for me to do it (not saying this is the right thing for everyone).  In previous blog posts I wrote about getting stuck at the same point during Mahasi method vipassana meditation retreats. Since January 2010 I changed my primary meditation practice to samatha though I am still doing satipaathana (mindfulness of body, feelings, mind and dhamma; it has always been a combination of samatha and vipassana).

Some might say that I have not tried hard enough. I am not keen on metaphorically bashing my head on a brick wall. I believe the path is gradual and gentle.  I think the right amount of viriya-energy arises with the right amount of samaadhi-concentration. An imbalance in the faculties is an obstacle.

On these two recent trips to Sri Lanka I kept precepts and offered items and service to the Sangha that stays at the Forest Hermitage.I also participated in Dhamma discussions with Bhante and others. I listened to and read  Dhamma. Although positive and wholesome, these good deeds maybe less important or virtuous than bhavanaa-mental development through vipassana and samatha.  However, the importance of developing samaadi.t.thi-Right View cannot be overstated. Dhamma discussion, hearing the Dhamma and asking pertient questions are all excellent ways of developing and supporting Samaadi.t.thi.

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Quick tour – Ritigala, Anuradhapura, Mahintale, Dambulla

Sri Lanka, June 2011

On Friday last week, Ven. Nyanatusita and I took a bus from Kandy to Matale and visited the Aluvihare Rock Temple. There were some interesting paintings and caves converted into small buildings. Many Sri Lankan pilgrims and a few foreign tourists were walking around.

A view looking West from the main gate up the hill toward the Aluvihare Rock Temple, near Matale, Sri Lanka, June 2011
A view looking east at a courtyard between boulders at the Aluvihare Rock Temple, near Matale, Sri Lanka, June 2011

Michael near a moustached lion figure at the Aluvihare Rock Temple, near Matale, Sri Lanka, June 2011

After walking around, we ate lunch and then took a bus north to Dambulla where we thought we might be able to climb the hill to see the cave paintings. We arrived around 2pm in the hottest part of the day. There were many pilgrims perhaps returning from the Poson Poya (possibly the most significant uposatha day in Sri Lanka – Thursday, 16 June 2011) celebrations in Anuradhapura and Mahintale. We heard a report that there were over 5000 Sri Lankan Police Officers mobilized to monitor over 1,000,000 pilgrims. We decided to visit the Dambulla caves another day and walked across the road to drink tea at the “Tourist Welfare Center”.

We then rode a three-wheeler towards Sigiriya stopping at a national park where we walked around inspecting the remains of an ancient meditation monastery.  I was very impressed with this place. It was quite overgrown in many parts and the paths not clear. We explored many old cave sites and found evidence of kutis being built hanging between large boulders. I felt inspired and imagined the ancient Sangha living on the site possibly over many hundreds of years.  After 2-3 hours we got back in the three-wheeler and continued on to the Pidurangala Temple located at the base of a large granite hill 800m north of the more famous Sigiriya. The young pirivena monks allowed us to stay the night in the dusty local village headman’s office including an ensuite occupied by many varieties of local frogs.

On Saturday morning, we climbed the stairs to view various cave kutis (meditation huts) and ruins. Unfortunately none of the kutis were occupied. Though looking well built on the outside, the kutis stank of bat faeces and needed repairs. We doubted any meditation monks would like to live there now because of the steady traffic of curious tourists and pilgrims walking by. We climbed up the hill and through some boulder strewn areas to reach the flat peak. I didn’t see the easy way at first and took a rather dangerous and steep climb with no supports.  We passed a young English woman on the way up who also later climbed the hard way. After a false start, I expressed respect for mutual bravery. Shortly afterwards some Sri Lankan people and more foreigners arrived (the easy way). The top of the hill is spectacular. The winds were gusting strongly and could be dangerous for people near the edges. There are no railings so visitors must take care. It is best to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the heat of the day. The rock would become very hot.  We could see nearby Sigiriya and in the distance also see the hill with the Dambulla cave temple.

A restored reclining Buddha statue at the ancient ruins of a monastery near Sigira, Sri Lanka, June 2011. 

A view looking south at the ancient ruins of a monastery near Sigira, Sri Lanka, June 2011

A view west at a modern Buddha statue at a monastery near Sigira, Sri Lanka, June 2011

A view looking north at a monastery near Sigira, Sri Lanka, June 2011. The kuti under the rock in the photo was built over 20 years ago and abandoned. It is now inhabited by bats.

A view looking northwest at the ancient ruins of a monastery near Sigira, Sri Lanka, June 2011

The central buildings of a monastery near Ritigala, Sri Lanka, June 2011.  The building on the left is used as a dining hall and is built under a large boulder.

Michael climbing the hill where the stupa was being constructed at Ritigala, Sri Lanka, June 2011




Michael climbing between boulders on the hill where the stupa was being constructed at Ritigala, Sri Lanka, June 2011



A makeshift ladder near the top of a hill where the local Ritigala monks wanted to build a stupa, Sri Lanka, June 2011. 





Michael feeling rather nervous after getting off the ladder near the top of a hill where the local Ritigala monks wanted to build a stupa, Sri Lanka, June 2011


The top of a hill where the local Ritigala monks wanted to build a stupa, Sri Lanka, June 2011

Michael near the top of a hill where the local Ritigala monks wanted to build a stupa, Sri Lanka, June 2011

A rough path on the side of the hill where the local Ritigala monks wanted to build a stupa, Sri Lanka, June 2011.  This section of the path is relatively easy to walk on.

Michael scrambling down the hill where the stupa was being constructed at Ritigala, Sri Lanka, June 2011


Sunday , Amarvarti, Abhayagiri Vihara, Abhayagiri stupa, Great Stupa


Monday Anuradhapura Mahabodhi tree, 


Tuesday Mahintale many cave kutis and stupas, Kaludiya Pokuna


Wednesday Mahintale  many cave kutis and stupas

Some ruins at Abhayagiri monasteryAnuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011. 

Some ruins at Abhayagiri monasteryAnuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011. 
Some ruins at Abhayagiri monasteryAnuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011. 

The restored elephant tank at the ruins of Abhayagiri monastery, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011. 

Restoration work at the Abhayagiri stupa, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011. There are probably 30-40 monkeys not quite visible in this photo, climbing around the framework and making a lot of noise.

Restoration work at the Abhayagiri stupa, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011. 

The Great Stupa at night, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011. Michael sensed something very special about this stupa.

Looking north towards the Great Stupa, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011

A water catchment “tank” near the Great Stupa at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, June 2011

Kaludiya Pokuna, Mahintale, Sri Lanka, June 2011

I got safely back to Kandy last night (Wednesday) around 9pm. The 100km ride from Dambulla at night was thrilling. The fare was about 60 cents each with front seats to a rally car race in which out bus was participating. I’ve done it before in Thailand but this was perhaps more intense. I just let it happen and enjoyed the ride and the psychedelic light show above the dashboard glorifying various Buddhist and Hindu deities. Many cyclists with no lights and chaotic traffic weaving in and out, sudden stops and turns. Bald tires, soft suspension and bouncy seats set to a sound track of falsetto vocals and deep bass drums etc. At the second last town the bus filled beyond capacity and I had to keep my arms out to stop people sitting or falling on me.  All a memory now.

I’m flying to London on Monday 27 June. Not long now. I’ve been sort of preparing by downloading travel guides for England and Scotland and even reading the text of Macbeth which I hope to see performed at Stratford Upon Avon sometime in July or August.

Maybe England first in early to mid July and then Scotland in late July-August.

Note: I didn’t get around to writing this posting in as much detail as I’d planned.

Forest Hermitage, Kandy

I feel privileged to visit  the Forest Hermitage. This is an historical place for Western Buddhists and where Ven. Nyanaponika and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi both lived and worked for many years. Ven. Nyanatusita is very kind and patient with me. He showed me around and answered all my Dhamma questions and questions about daily life. Bhante is a very intelligent and practical man who works very hard for the Buddhist Publication Society. I encourage all readers to visit the BPS website and download the collections that are free or at low cost.


Forest Hermitage, Udawattekelle, Kandy Sri Lanka, 7 June 2011


MK relflected in the window of the FH, 7 June 2011

There are two cats also living at the FH and I have a mild allergic reaction to them manifested by sneezing and itchy skin.

Bhante allowed me to read an early proof copy of the forthcoming complete translation of the Anguttara Nikaya by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi. I didn’t read it cover to cover and there were bits missing even as it was. I was able to read many sutta that had puzzled me while reading Woodward 100 plus year old English translation published by the Pali Text Society.  Excellent work Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi!

I met a young German and a young Austrian monk staying in the monastic compound next to the FH. There is also a kind Sri Lankan lay man working as caretaker at FH. Ven. Nyanatusita, the Austrian monk and I rode in a three-wheeler driven by Nihal (excellent driver and enthusiastic monastery sponsor) from FH to one of 3 (or more) monasteries at Hantana (a hilly district adjoining Kandy) to visit Ven.Subhuti, a US monk. This monastery is about 800m above sea level and located on the site of an old tea estate. It feels remote, despite being only 20 minutes from downtown Kandy. There are many poor Tamil tea workers/families living on the slopes around the monastery. Ven. Subhuti usually stays at Na Uyana Aranya. Nihal had to return to Kandy by 4:30pm.  I plan to visit Ven. Subhuti again this afternoon.


Bhikkhu Subhuti (left) and Bhikkhu Nyanatusita (right) standing on the precarious balcony of the kuti at Hantana where Ven. Subhuti is staying, 7 June 2011


Three Bhikkhus approaching the kuti at Hantana where Ven. Subhuti is staying, 7 June 2011

My lower back has been painful for the past few days. I think it is due to the travel. I won’t let it stop me though.  As with all physical pain, if we focus our attention on the painful spot(s), we can notice how it constantly changes. What changes is suffering, whatever is suffering is not me, not I, not mine. We let go of whatever is not ours. Then there is release, freedom and liberation.

Perth to Kandy

I left Perth on Tiger Airline on Friday night arriving in Singapore at about 3am Saturday, 4 June 2011. I then flew Tiger to KL arriving about 7:30am. I then learned that Tiger lands at the Budget terminal which is 20-30 minutes drive from the KL International terminal.  My Sri Lankan Airline flight from KL to Colombo was due to leave at 9:20 am, so I missed it. They close the check in counters one hour before the flight because the check-in counter is about 20 minutes away from the boarding gate – even including the free light rail that transports passengers around the vast KL International Airport.  The KLIA is impressive for its size and high-tech facilities, however, the signage and lack of information about these logistical matters is a negative.  Sri Lankan Airlines should have some note on their e-ticket about the counters closing 1 hour before flight and maybe something about warning passengers who may be connecting from the KL budget airport.

From what I saw, the KL budget  airport might just as well have been called Air Aisa Airport since Air Asia dominates  so much. The access to taxis was difficult. There seems to be no consideration for passengers such as myself who might be going to the KLIA. Buses between terminals depart about every 20 minutes and I just missed one so I was obliged to take a taxi. However, you need to go to a special counter, through a police checkpoint just to get a taxi voucher. The taxi voucher counter didn’t accept any currency except Malaysian Ringits. I didn’t have enough MR so I had to go back out through the police checkpoint and find a currency exchange service, wait in the queue and accept an exorbitant exchange rate, go back through the police checkpoint to the taxi counter, back out through the police check point and cross a busy road to find the taxi rank. The taxi had a very small boot so no-one’s normal size luggage would fit in it. The driver then puts on an act about my luggage and then puts it on the back seat.  To his credit, he did driver rather quickly to try and get me to the KLIA on time for my Sri Lankan Airline check-in. He dropped me at the wrong end of the terminal (he wasn’t to know – not his fault) so I ran pushing my trolley loaded with luggage from one end of the terminal to the other, only to find the area completely unstaffed – too late!

I then found where the Sri Lankan Airline office is located and pushed my trolley up there. I waited for about 30-40 minutes in the empty corridor outside the office and then wrote a note to stick on their door while I wandered off to find a toilet and some refreshments. I enjoyed some noodles and sambal washed down with coffee. I went back and waited in the corridor doing pacing up and down for exercise – no where to sit except the floor. Then about 10:30 the Sri Lankan Airline officers arrived at their office. The lady was very helpful and arranged for me to go on the next flight leaving at 2pm, but going via Singapore.  I was relieved.

So I passed time and ate a delicious murtabak ayam (pancake stuffed with curried chicken) and drank tea and juice for lunch.  My seat on the SLA flight was 67G which is right next to the toilet on the last row. The leg room was relatively cramped due to some device on the floor. Many passengers were Indians returning from holidays in Malaysia – some kind of package tour that included a one night stay over in Colombo. Many were rude to the crew and made many demands. Unfortunately there did not seem to be enough vegetarian meals provided by the catering company so some Indian men became very upset. I felt sorry for the SLA crew. Then the captain announced that for some  unknown reason, Changi Airport (Singapore) was only using one runway and our flight was obliged to fly in circles around Singapore in a queue waiting to land. We all had to get off the plane in Singapore and wait for 30-40 minutes to board again. After boarding we waited another 30-40 minutes in our seats to get permission to take off. I suppose all these delays might have aggravated passenger moods. So finally we arrived in Colombo at 7pm – two hours after the scheduled time for that flight and 9 hours after my planned time of arrival (10am).

I got a taxi to my hotel in Negombo and after checking in, went out to buy a Sri Lankan SIM card for my mobile – success. However, when I tried it out, I found my phone is locked to Telstra and the Norton security software also prevented me from changing the SIM. I forgot to disable that before I left Australia. Now I need a new phone.

After a cold shower (no hot water at the A$78 per night hotel – don’t go there – Rani Beach Resort) and lots of water, I spent some time horizontal for the first time in over 24 hours. I woke refreshed, packed my stuff and ate some included breakfast within sight of the Indian Ocean. It was lovely.  I then got in a three wheeler to the Negombo bus station and found that there are no air conditioned buses to Kandy. In retrospect, I could have gone to Colombo to take the train or an AC bus to Kandy, or I might have found an AC bus to Kurunegala, get off and get a different AC bus on to Kandy. I just wanted to keep moving so I got on the non-AC bus. I managed to buy three front seats (111 SL rupees each = about A$1 or about 65 British pence) just behind the driver that are normally reserved for clergy. I took a risk that if a monk boarded, I’d have to relinquish my seat (even though paid for). I pushed my luggage onto the window seat and sat comfortably on the other two seats for about 1 hour while the bus was not full. Later when many passengers boarded and I felt guilty for having pregnant women, old men and children standing in the narrow aisle, I invited a woman to sit down next to me while I squashed in next to my luggage. The woman spoke English and we had a brief conversation. She actually worked at the airport. She was fascinated by my Kindle e-book reader and I showed it off to her. She showed me a book by Ajahn Sumedho “Now is the Knowing”.  I told her how I’d met Ajahn Sumedho in Bangkok and in Perth many years ago. She seemed pleased to meet a non-Sri Lankan Buddhist.  As soon as she got off, another lady sat down for the remainder of the trip to Kandy.

Kandy was warm and humid but not excessively so. I found a three wheeler to take me to the Buddhist Publication Society BPS bookshop but found it closed on Sunday, so I went straight on to Mrs Clement Disanayake’s guest house where I had stayed several times when I was in SL last year. Without a booking, she welcomed me. She had no other guests. She is a lovely 72 yo widow. We chatted about our lives in during the past year I’d been in Australia. I noted that I left Sri Lanka around 19 May 2010 and now returned 4 June 2011, just over one year away. With Mrs Disanayake’s recommendation, I found Mr Nimal Pieris at Tele-pix on Perideniaya Road, a much awarded SL businessman who promptly sold me a Samsung touch phone which may have been once destined for the Polish market judging by the language of the instruction booklet). Anyhow, the phone works fine. I finally phoned Mum to reassure her that I arrived safe and well.

[Mrs Clement Disanayake’s guest house is listed in the Lonely Planet and possibly Rough Guide books for Sri Lanka – recommended]

I ate a good Sri Lankan curry meal as lunch at one of the Devon restaurants for less than A$5.  I didn’t need dinner after that. I chatted more with Mrs Disanayake, showered and slept early. There is a 2.5 hour time difference with Perth. (6pm Sri Lanka is 8:30pm Perth).

This morning after a pile of toast, eggs, jam, bananas, herb rice porridge and 3 cups of tea for breakfast 🙂 I went down to the BPS book shop which opens at 9am. There I spoke with Berty who remembers me. He is very charming and operates the till in the shop.

I am donating some items to the Sangha of the Forest Hermitage lead by Ven. Nyanatusita Bhikkhu. The box is a little bulky but not heavy – about 10 kg or less.  Berty and his colleagues at the BPS shop phoned Ven. Nyanatusita and we have agreed that the BPS van will transport the fridge and me to the Forest Hermitage which is in the middle of the Udawattekelle bird sanctuary. Usually entry fee is 600 rupees but if visiting the Hermitage, this can be waived if you are carrying an official letter provided by the BPS. On the other hand, providing money for the maintenance of the bird sanctuary is a good thing.

I will stay overnight at the Forest Hermitage for a while. I am looking forward to some Dhamma talks with Ven. Nyanatusita.

Going to Sri Lanka and United Kingdom

My last job finished on Friday, 27 May 2011 and with no other employment in the near future, I decided to fly to Sri Lanka to visit sacred places I haven’t been before and then visit relatives in the United Kingdom.  I might stop in Bangkok to see friends while returning to Perth. This trip is a tour and not for meditation.

I depart this Friday, 3 June, arriving in Sri Lanka on Saturday 4 June. I may stay overnight at Negombo before taking a bus to Kandy. I plan to visit Ven. Nyanatusita at the Forest Hermitage for a few days and then visit Na Uyana Aranya to pay respects to monastics.  I may not stay overnight there though.  Then I might go on to  Matale to see the Aluvihara and to Anuradhapura to pay respects to the ancient Bodhi tree, stupas and various ruins.

I shall continue to blog my travels and post photos.

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.