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.

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.

Negombo, Kuala Lumpur, Perth

Negombo
On Tuesday, 11 May, I travelled from Kandy to Negombo by regular bus.  It was a hot 4 hour journey sitting next to my luggage on the seat next to me. I bought two seat tickets (one for my luggage). The conductor alerted me to the stop where I wanted to get off, Parakrama Road close to a Nayomi Bakery just about 5km just south of Negombo town. I drank some tea and ate some cakes before taking a 3 wheeler with my 3 pieces of luggage 1km down Parakrama Road to Srilal Fernando’s guest-house. I had booked the room a few days earlier.  I did not wish to go to the Negombo beach which is north of town. Srilal Fernando’s place is relatively close to the Bandaranaike International Airport (Sri Lanka’s international airport). It is very clean, comfortable and economical.

Kuala Lumpur
I flew AirAsia to KL arriving about 2pm, stored my luggage at the airport and rode a shuttle bus into town to visit a Dhamma book distribution centre where I picked up two books and made a donation. I ate roti and dal and drank milk with Mrs Lim from the distribution centre at a nearby restaurant. We chatted about Dhamma and life in KL. Then I went back to the KL airport by shuttle bus and a short while later boarded the flight to Perth.

Perth

I arrived in Perth on Saturday, 15 May 2010 before dawn. The air was crisp and cool. Someone told me the temperature of around 2.5 degrees Celsius though the minimum is usually around 6-8 degrees rising to a maximum of around 22. It was a huge contrast with Negombo, Sri Lanka which was very very humid last week and had a temperature range between 31-27 degrees C.  The southern hemisphere is in autumn now. I enjoyed passing through Perth on my way to my mother’s house. There were few vehicles or people to be seen. There is so much space between things. I travelled by shuttle van from the airport to the city and then by light rail and local bus. Everything seems so clean and luxurious. So much space, so few people… I have experienced this many times and yet each time I return to Australia after some time away, I am always delighted.

I’ve caught up with many family members. The adults haven’t changed during the past year or so while the children have noticeably grown taller and one now talks incessantly.  I have already begun looking for employment.

Out of Retreat Again and Returning to Perth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Na Uyana Aranya in the hot season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening Service at Na Uyana

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

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

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

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