Tag Archives: meditation

What have I learnt?

My eight months in Thailand are nearly over – in two more days I’m flying back to Australia.  I’ve been reflecting on what I have learnt during this adventure.  I’ve learnt things during my time at the temple, on Koh Tao doing my dive master training, at the Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University, and even on the plane flying over here!  There is far too much to fit into one blog post, but here are 10 lessons that I’ve learnt that will make a difference to how I live my life from now on.

1.  Fit your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you

Eight months ago, as I was settling myself into my seat for my flight to Bangkok, the flight attendant gave this very important safety advice.  However, the advice is useful in a much broader sense in life.  If you don’t look after your own well-being, you are not able to be any help to others.  This connects with another important lesson I learnt during my time at the temple:

2.  Be compassionate to others, and also to yourself

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama

Being compassionate to others is not about pity, and it’s not about only being compassionate to those who are ‘worthy’.  True compassion is that which we feel when we are confronted by someone who we find incredibly difficult, ignorant, rude, violent or evil – it’s about understanding that those people are suffering and their behaviour stems from this intrinsic suffering.  It’s about wanting the best for them so that they have an opportunity to break free from their suffering and become the good person that is trapped within all the bad habits and thoughts they have built around themselves.

Being compassionate to yourself is about recognising that you are only human; that you are not perfect; that you have a lot of potential to improve yourself – and it’s especially about realising that this is ok!  It’s about understanding your own suffering and wanting the best for yourself, so that you can be the best person you can be, and be happy!

3.  Always see the good and rejoice in the merits of others

Encouraging and honouring the goodness of others is really important.  We do not do this enough in life.  We are quick to criticise others, and to notice faults. We may think that some casual compliments are enough to make up for this, but while commenting on somebody’s outfit or hair style is a nice gesture, it’s not very meaningful.

Think about the qualities and behaviours that you admire in others and aspire to develop in yourself, then look for them in those around you. Look actively for the good in others, and let them know that you have seen it.  There is nothing that makes a person feel so truly understood as when another acknowledges something good about them.  It builds a connection and motivates that person to continue with that goodness.

4.  It’s more important to be good, than to be right.

There is an important distinction between good and bad, and right and wrong.  A person may be right, but if they are not good, then they may be right for the wrong reasons, or by accident.  Whereas if a person is good, they may be wrong, but they will be motivated to try to make it right.  A person who is truly good will be right most of the time anyway.

5.  Wisdom is far more important than knowledge

No amount of knowledge in the world is valuable unless the person with the knowledge also has the wisdom to use that knowledge effectively.  Even if a person has no formal education, if they have wisdom they can contribute an enormous amount to the world.  We need to spend time and effort developing our wisdom, not just accumulating more academic qualifications.

6.  The worst thing you can be is unwise and active

The monks taught me that there were four different relationships between wisdom and action:

1.  You can be wise and active

2. You can be unwise and inactive

3. You can be wise and inactive

4. You can be unwise and active

The first relationship is clearly the best.  If you are wise, and you are active, you will do good.  The second relationship is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the second-best option.  This is because, if you are unwise, doing nothing is actually the most sensible course of action.  The third relationship is actually worse – if you are wise and inactive, then you are not doing as much with your wisdom as you can.  The last relationship is the most dangerous – if you are unwise and active, you are likely to do more harm than good, despite your best intentions.

The monks’ teachings were reinforced in our Peace Fellowship lectures on Mary Anderson’s principles of “do no harm”.

7.  Think about how you use the energy you consume

We think a lot about the purity of the food we eat – we take care to avoid artificial colours and preservatives, we try to eat low-fat, healthy meals.  However, the monks taught me that the purity of our food is more than just its nutritional values.  It involves four different factors:

  1. Nutritional value
  2. The origin of the food (e.g. whether we stole or killed for the food)
  3. The mood in which you eat it (e.g. if you eat in a bad temper you might get indigestion!)
  4. The way in which you expend the energy that you gain from that food (i.e. do you use the energy to do something bad, or something good and constructive).

How do you use your energy?

8. Remember to breathe

During my Dive Master training on Koh Tao, I was reminded of the first rule of scuba diving, and of life – always remember to breathe!

I would add to that the notion of mindfulness – and the usefulness of the breath to bring you back to the present moment.  Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely meditation to use while concentrating on your breathing:  “Breathing in, I dwell deeply in the present moment; Breathing out, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Learning to scuba dive, and breathe underwater, you are suddenly acutely aware of every breath in and every breath out, and there are pretty dire consequences if you hold your breath.  For me, working with first-time dive students was the perfect reminder about something that I had started to take for granted – how magical it is to breathe underwater.  It made me start to again notice every breath, how deep it was, how the pressure of the water affected the feeling in my lungs…Who’d have thought that scuba diving was so good for meditation!

9.  Always leave a bit of air in the tank

Another important bit of advice for scuba diving and life in general! You never know when you are going to need that little bit of reserve for an emergency!

10.  Don’t waste a moment!

These eight months have flown by so quickly that it has reminded me that there is no time to waste!  If there’s something that you want to do – do it now!  If there’s something that you need to say – say it now! Live every moment to its fullest, learn from everyone and everything around you, do as much good as you can cram into every twenty-four hour period (including taking good care of yourself).

This morning prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh is now the first thing I read every morning.  It reminds me of how I want to live my life, day by day:



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Back to the temple

On Saturday I took some of the Rotary Peace Fellows out to the temple.  I was a little bit nervous about it, because I wasn’t sure what they would think.  I am used to the temple after having spent four months living there, but I knew that when people saw it for the first time it was kind of a surreal experience.  I needn’t have worried though.  Everyone had a ball and loved all the same people I love for the same reasons!

First we met Om and Anita at the visitors centre.  One of the taxis had become lost in the temple grounds and when we spoke to them on the phone we realised they were in the underground carpark under the mediation hall!  Om explained to the taxi driver in Thai how to get from there to the visitors centre.  After we were all finally in the right place, we met Luang Phi Pasura and he gave everyone an introduction to meditation.

Luang Phi Pasura

After that I was excited to find out that we were going to travel around the temple in the little transporters that I called the “monk-mobiles”.  I had never been in one but always wanted to ride in one.  I often saw big trains of them carrying hundreds of monks around the temple grounds.

Andrezza and I with the monk-mobile

We went to see the Chapel and then went to the local food stalls where I always used to eat when I was living at the temple.  It felt like I was home again!

Walking around the Chapel

Charlie ordering his papaya salad

After lunch we were lucky to have a meeting with the Vice Abbot, Luang Phaw Datta.  I was so excited about seeing him because he is always very interesting and he makes me laugh with his cheeky grin.  Everyone loved him!  Luang Phi Pasura and Luang Phi John translated for him when he needed it, but he spoke mostly in English to everyone.

Luang Phaw Datta, Luang Phi Pasura and Luang Phi John

Luang Phaw told us a bit about the history of Thailand and he explained the basis of the Buddhist Five Precepts.  He also presented everyone with a bundle of books each.

After that we had a whirlwind tour of the Cetiya and a quick visit to the Vihara. Everyone went back to Chula after that, but I stayed for the whole weekend.

Ping Ping told me that I could stay in my old apartment that night.  It was so weird, and yet so familiar, to be back there.  I went and said hello to my former laundry lady, the Hom Krun coffee hut girls, and some of the food stall holders.  It was so nice to see them all again.  Unfortunately my Thai has not progressed sufficiently to have more than a very halting conversation with them, but we got by with lots of hand holding and smiling!

On Saturday afternoon I was back in the Peace Revolution container office with the crew!  It was just like old times (and there were even some ants that I carefully avoided)!  After we had a meeting about recent developments, everyone got all giggly and announced that they had a special gift for me.  They dimmed the lights and put on the projector and showed me a movie that they had made especially for me.  It’s brilliant!  They basically made a movie about my time at the temple. They had compiled photos of me at various events and some film footage that I had never seen before.  At the end everyone recorded a personal message for me.  There was even a bloopers part at the end, where they included funny mistakes that they made when trying to put the film together.  We all laughed and cried all through it, especially me!  The film goes for 20 minutes, and it must have taken them a long time to put it together.  I absolutely love it!

On Sunday (after a night on a very hard bed, with no dinner and a cold shower – how quickly we take for granted little luxuries!) I went to the temple with everyone for morning chanting and meditation.  While we were there, Fon found me.  Fon is in training to be upasaka at the temple.  She was one of the first Thai staff I met and she is very sweet.   She used to give me massages every day! Anyway, she had made me a gift and she shyly gave it to me.  It was in a little bag that she had handmade:

The bag Fon made for me

Inside the bag was a book that she had also handmade.  It contains the story of our friendship, from the first moment she met me (in the bathroom at the meditation retreat centre) until the present.  I was so incredibly touched.  She had drawn pictures and inserted photos to make the story.  I was amazed at all the things she remembered.  It was just the sweetest gift and I got all choked up as I looked through it.  I will treasure it forever.

The book Fon made for me

When we first met

The last page of the story, but not the last page in the book - to be continued...

On the page above you can see that she has called me “P’Sam” which in Thai effectively means older sister Sam.  So sweet!

After morning chanting and meditation the Peace Revolution crew, including Luang Phi Pasura and Luang Phi John went out to lunch.  We had an absolute feast, and there was a great deal of laughter!  The monks (as per the rules) sat at a table nearby and ate silently.  We served them their food by offering it to them on their yellow cloths that they laid out on the table in front of them.  After we had all finished our meals, they chanted a blessing for us.  I wondered what the other people in the restaurant thought, but I expect that the Thai people are used to this kind of thing happening.  I giggled to myself as I imagined this happening in the middle of a restaurant in Australia!

Luang Phi Pasura and Luang Phi John over the remnants of our feast (taken with my 'old style' camera setting)

Peace Angels: Nicky, Joy and Anita

The monks even gave me a present!  A buddha pendant:

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After my weekend at the temple, I came back to Chulalongkorn feeling full of peace and very loved.  All my wonderful Peace Revolution family are so genuinely caring. They go out of their way to give you compliments, and they are not just those kind of shallow “nice dress” kind of compliments that we Westerners throw around without much meaning.  They truly observe the things that you do that are good, and they actively “rejoice in your merits”.  For example, sometimes I would be doing something like trying really hard to cheer up a student who was a bit homesick, and later that day one of the crew would come up to me and say “I really love the way you notice when the students are feeling a bit sad and how you go out of your way to cheer them up”.  Or I’d come into the office out of the steamy hot weather outside and say “ahhh, airconditioning nirvana!” with a big grin and someone would say “I love how you are so enthusiastic about all the little things”!  There should be more of this in the world.  We really should learn from the Buddhist philosophy of always “seeing the good” in others and “rejoicing in their merits”.  It’s so easy to criticise, or to give half-hearted compliments in order to be “nice”.  It’s much harder to really see the good in others, and to make the effort to tell them – but I can tell you from experience – it’s truly worth the effort.  You end up surrounded by happiness and feeling truly loved!  Thank you Peace Revolution crew and the teaching monks – you have given me some of the most precious gifts of my life, and so much more than the video, the book and the buddha – you have taught me invaluable life lessons and been such good examples for me.  I rejoice in your merits and share mine with you with much love!

Talking about meditation

When people think of Buddhism, they tend to think of meditation.  It is the foundation of what someone who is a Buddhist does, as well as trying to live their life according to the five precepts.  Here at the temple I’ve been doing a lot of meditation over the last three months.  Some days I have done up to six hours a day, but most days around two hours (in the morning and evening).  The meditation style that they teach here at the Dhammakaya Temple is a little unorthodox, and has in fact been the subject of some controversy and much debate in the Buddhist community over the last ten years or so here in Thailand.  (I will write more about the Dhammakaya controversy in a later post).

I was originally trained in Vipassana meditation, which is the main form of meditation practiced by Theravadan Buddhists.  I did my first 10-day silent meditation retreat in 2000 and another a few years later in Melbourne.  I’ve also done a couple of 3-4 day silent retreats and 1-day retreats over the last ten years.  I have meditated regularly at times, usually for a few months after one of my retreats, and then my practice has, in the past, dropped off.  This is something that I am fairly confident won’t happen again.  I feel like I am in a good habit of daily meditation now and it’s something that is making a real difference in my life.

So what’s meditation all about?  In the West, people tend to think of it as something you do for the purpose of relaxation, however this is not exactly right. Being relaxed when you meditate is helpful to your meditation because you are comfortable and relatively calm, but it’s not essential: it is possible to meditate without being completely relaxed (anyone who has done a 10-day vipassana retreat will remember the pain of sitting still for hours and hours and agree that they were not feeling relaxed during many of those meditation sessions!) Becoming relaxed is also not the purpose of meditation.  Very broadly speaking, the purpose is to enable you to observe your own mind and to see reality as it is.

There are two main types of meditation in Theravadan Buddhism: anna panna (to develop concentration) and vipassana (to develop wisdom).  Anna panna meditation generally involves focusing your attention on one thing (usually the breath) and trying to concentrate on that for as long as possible.  Vipassana (also called “mindfulness meditation” in the West) involves really paying attention to whatever is happening to you in the present moment (e.g. sensations on your body, emotions, thoughts, etc) with equanimity (i.e. just observing what’s happening and not reacting to anything).

Anyone who tries anna panna meditation for the first time will discover that it’s incredibly difficult to concentrate just on your breathing for more than a few seconds (perhaps minutes if you are a focused kind of person).  Before you know it, your mind has wandered off, forgetting about the breath and following a train of thought.  This is the nature of the human mind.  The first time I went to the vipassana retreat we spent the first day just doing anna panna meditation.  Our instructions were to try to concentrate on our breathing for 5 minutes without getting distracted.  I found it impossible, and by the end of the day was convinced that I was actually crazy!  I was so relieved that night when the teacher explained that we probably all thought we were crazy but that we were all normal, we just had “monkey minds” and everyone in the room started laughing, clearly having had the same thoughts as I had.

After practicing this kind of meditation for some time, you do become more focused and you can concentrate for longer and longer periods of time, but there are still days when your mind is busy and you can’t focus.  However, this doesn’t mean that your meditation is not going well.  All you have to do, when you notice your mind wandering, is to focus your attention back on your breathing again.  You just keep starting again every time your mind wanders, never berating yourself or becoming frustrated.  Just accepting that at that moment you have a wandering mind, and starting again.  The monks have a saying about those thoughts that like to pop into our mind and distract us from our meditation:  “You can’t stop a bird from flying over your head, but you can stop it from building a nest in your hair”.  What they mean is, when you notice your mind wandering, don’t follow the train of thought, let the thought go and come back to your focus.

Vispassana meditation takes this a step further, in that you pay attention to more than just your breathing, but the basic principle is the same.  You pay attention to whatever you are feeling or thinking, but you try not to react to it, you just observe it.  This can be very difficult, because we are in the habit of responding to many things in life with either craving (wanting something, or wanting more of something) or aversion (wanting something to stop).  So, for example, when we are meditating and we feel this wonderful sense of peace and bliss, we tend to respond to that by wanting that feeling to continue.  When it stops, we sometimes then start wishing that it would come back again.  Conversely, when we feel some pain (my leg always falls asleep and starts feeling very uncomfortable) we tend to start wanting it to stop, or we try to ignore it (which, of course, usually makes it worse!).  In Vipassana meditation we are trying to train ourselves to notice all these different sensations, thoughts and feelings but not to respond to them with craving or aversion.

Why do we do this?  It’s kind of complicated, but in a nutshell, it is our cravings and aversions that create our suffering.  They also tend to exacerbate our delusions; our tendency not to see reality as it really is.  The more we simply observe the way our mind and body works, the more we start to understand ourselves.  Meditation is like a kind of safe place for us to practice observing and understanding ourselves.  It’s hard to do this when we are out in the world engaging and interacting in the moment.  We might be able to do some self-reflection in retrospect, and while this is useful, it doesn’t actually train us to be able to reflect before or during the action (which is much harder).  Meditation creates an environment in which we can observe our thoughts and feelings as they are occurring, without too many distractions.  It also, slowly and subtly, develops us in the habit of doing this.  So after practicing meditation for some time, we start to notice our thoughts and feelings when we are not meditating, in the heat of the moment.  The aim of meditation is to get to a stage where we are fully conscious of our thoughts and feelings at all times; so we can always see reality as it really is. Lord Buddha described this level of consciousness as being “awake”.  This is, effectively, enlightenment.

Meditation itself is actually not difficult.  What’s hard is doing it with the right attitude.  The right attitude is almost to think that meditation is useless.  To do it with no expectations: to “just do it”.  Meditation is not about gaining something, it’s about letting things go.

There’s a zen story about a student who sat down to meditate for the purpose of attaining enlightenment.  His teacher came by and asked him what he was doing.  The student said “I’m meditating to attain enlightenment”.  The zen teacher picked up a tile nearby and started polishing it.  The student asked “what are you doing?”  The zen teacher replied “I intend to polish this tile into a mirror”.  The student said “No amount of polishing will turn that tile into a mirror”.  The zen teacher replied “No amount of meditating will turn you into a Buddha”.

To get the most out of meditation, counter-intuitively, we have to do it without wanting to get anything out of it.

This is something that I struggle with.  Sometimes when I meditate it feels like it goes really well, other times it feels like I am completely wasting my time sitting there.  The fact that I am analyzing the value of my meditation sessions means that I am in the wrong frame of mind already!

Putting the problematic aspect of evaluating the quality of my meditation sessions aside for the moment, I will try to explain a little more about some of my experiences.  I have had a couple of really amazing meditation sessions.  These have occurred very intermittently over the last ten years, while I was doing vipassana meditation and also once while I was doing dhammakaya meditation.  Ironically, each of these experiences occurred in a meditation session that started out ‘badly’.  What I mean by this is that each time I remember thinking “oh this meditation session is a complete waste of time” because my mind was wandering a lot.  But what turned those sessions into something wonderful was that each time, the following thought was something like “oh well, I’m just going to have to sit here for the next hour anyway, I can’t go anywhere because everyone else is still meditating, so I might as well just keep my eyes closed and see what happens”.  That letting go seems to be the key to everything.

So what do I mean by a wonderful experience?  Most times when I am meditating, I am conscious of the time and I am conscious of my body (usually some part of it hurting!).  Occasionally, though, something happens and suddenly, unexpectedly, it’s like your body suddenly disappears, and yet your mind is crystal clear.  It’s really hard to explain what is going on in my head at the time.  I can’t tell you what I am thinking about, but I am ‘aware’.  I’m not asleep: I’m acutely awake.  I can hear the monk or the meditation teacher speaking to us, I am aware of what he is saying, but I may not be paying too much attention to it (For example, he may be making suggestions about how we can focus our minds or something and I can hear it but don’t need to do it because I’m on some other kind of level.  This confirmed for me that I was not hypnotized, something at first I was suspicious of, because I’m completely in control of my own thoughts.)  It’s like my mind is floating in a very bright light and I am filled with a sense of complete calmness and bliss.  Time goes very quickly when I am in this state and when the monk or meditation teacher asks us to slowly open our eyes I don’t want to stop.  I feel like I can keep going like this forever.  During this time, and for a period of time afterwards, this sense of clarity and happiness remains.  I feel like I can see clearly, I can think clearly, I am overflowing with good thoughts and feelings and nothing bothers me.

Want a fun and simple introduction to meditation?  Check out the “Inner Peace Time” section of the Peace Revolution website, where you can download in mp3 format guided meditations from some of my favourite monks:  http://www.peacerevolution2010.org/docs/en/inner-peace-time

Buddhism – Back to basics

Over the last three months I have learnt a lot about Buddhism.  I’ve also learnt a lot about the many different schools or traditions of Buddhism (people call them sects, but not in a derogatory kind of way).  There are two main schools.  These are:

  1. Theravada – “way of the elders”, based on early Buddhist scriptures preserved in Chinese and Pali, prevalent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
  2. Mahayana – early Buddhist scriptures are supplemented by a large number of other scriptures that contain many new teachings, prevalent in East Asia.  A subset of this group is known as the Vajrayana, which adds another set of new scriptures that survive in Tibetan and Chinese, and is prevalent in Tibet, Mongolia and Japan.

Probably the most widely known Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, is part of the Mahayana tradition.  My experience has been only with Theravada, and the Dhammakaya Temple is part of that tradition (albeit a particularly modern and sometimes controversial version of it).

One of the things that has become very clear to me after a lot of reading and Dhamma lessons and discussion with the monks, is that all of the traditions have the same basis in the Buddha’s original teachings.   These teachings are pretty straightforward and largely common sense.  However, the basic teachings have been overlaid, by the different traditions and the different cultures of the people who follow them, with a variety of rites, rituals, beliefs and rules.  For example, in Thailand people bow to the Buddha statues and make offerings of incense and jasmine or lotus flowers, but the Buddha never taught that these actions were required to practice Buddhism.

If you are interested in getting back to the basics of Buddhism, I can highly recommend a book called “Buddhism Plain and Simple” by Steve Hagen, published by Penguin Books.  I will draw on some of his work in this post.

First, I should point out that the Buddha (or to be more accurate, the first recorded Buddha, known as Gautema or Siddharta) was just an ordinary human being.  Although he attained enlightenment, this did not turn him into a god or anything like that – he was still a human being.  What set him apart from most other human beings was that he was completely “awake”. I don’t mean awake as opposed to asleep.  Rather, I mean awake in the sense that he could see (and accept) things as they really are; his perceptions and thoughts were not clouded by emotions or ignorance.

A buddha is anyone who has become completely awake.  Enlightenment just means that you have become completely awake – that you can see the reality of the world for what it is.

What is fundamentally important about this is that you can’t be awake simply by believing what someone tells you.  You can only be awake by seeing and experiencing reality for yourself.  This is actually much harder than it seems, given that most of us live our lives developing habits of not seeing reality as it is.  If it was as easy as simply believing someone else, we could read the Buddha’s teachings and wake up straight away!

This is one of the things that drives me crazy!  I can read the Buddha’s explanations about why we tend to be miserable, and what we need to be able to see and understand in order to be happy and peaceful, and it makes perfect sense.  But it’s not easy to change a lifetime of thinking habits in order to start functioning in day-to-day life with that kind of clarity.

Meditation is the technique that the Buddha taught in order to assist us to really see for ourselves the reality and to start noticing and breaking down the habits that are clouding our vision of reality.  I have been meditating at least twice a day (and often three or four times a day) every day over the last three months.  While enlightenment is definitely a long way off (some would say lifetimes away!) I am starting to see some distinct improvements in my thought processes.  It’s like I have moments of clarity (very fleeting and intermittent, I have to admit), but I am really starting to notice when I engage in some cloudy thinking.  At the moment, most of these insights happen in retrospect.  They don’t necessarily save me from the suffering of the moment.  They are, however, starting to stop me from suffering for so long!  Anyway, I guess that when you have the insight in advance, that’s when you’re really on the road to enlightenment, and after only three months I feel like I’ve only just started out on this very long journey.

I’m going to write about my actual meditation experience in a later post, but for now I want to discuss some of the Buddha’s basic teachings about why we tend to live in a cycle of unhappiness, and what we need in order to find lasting peace and happiness.

The Buddha taught that there are four fundamental truths in life:

  1. The fact that the nature of life is suffering.  We suffer because we feel pain, we suffer because everything in the world is constantly changing, and we suffer from simply being (because there are so many unanswered questions about how we came to exist, what is our purpose in existing, and what happens when we cease to exist or die).
  2. That all suffering arises from craving, or wanting things to be different.  In other words we suffer because: we want to feel good; or we don’t want to feel pain; or we want things to remain the same; or we want things to change; or we don’t want to die; or we do want to die.  Sometimes we want all of those things at the same time!
  3. Suffering can stop!  Because the nature of life is change, just as suffering arises, it can also stop.
  4. There is a way to stop our own suffering.  Buddha called this The Eightfold Noble Path because it involves eight different components.   One component is the practice of meditation.  The other seven are things that we can do (or aspire to) that will make it easier to stop our own suffering, and also make it more likely that we can do so.

In this post I want to focus on the second truth: that all suffering is based in craving.  We all have three main types of cravings:

  1. Sensual desire:  This includes physical and emotional sensations (and it’s not just about sex!)  We want to feel physically good.  At the very least we want to be reasonably healthy and comfortable: we want enough food, water and shelter.  And generally speaking, we usually want much more than that, we want to feel much better than just ok, than just surviving.  We also want to feel good emotionally.  We want to feel happy, peaceful, to have fun, to have stimulating friendships, good relationships, and enjoyable lives.
  2. Existence:  We all want to exist.  Most of the time, psychologically healthy people want to stay alive for as long as possible.  Age and our failing bodies make us suffer.  Death is usually not something we look forward to and we try to avoid for as long as possible.
  3. Non-existence:  There are many things that are a fact of life that we wish didn’t exist.  When we feel pain, we crave for it to stop.  When our life has troubles, we wish they would go away.

So here’s the rub.  That all makes complete sense, doesn’t it?  We can all accept that life has ups and downs, that we don’t always get everything we want.  Life doesn’t always go according to plan.  Good people don’t always have good things happen to them, and bad people don’t always have bad things happen to them.  People we love decide they no longer love us, or they die.  We grow old and die before we’ve done all the things on our “Bucket List”.  These are big picture examples, but on a daily basis we suffer over lots of much smaller things.

So why is it that we suffer so much when things change?  When bad things happen?  Why can’t we just accept that this is life, and we may as well be happy with whatever life is throwing us right here and right now?  This doesn’t just apply to coping well with bad things.  If we really, truly, accept these truths, then we also learn to enjoy to the fullest the good things while we have them.  We don’t waste a second.  We live our lives like there’s no tomorrow, understanding that there really may not be a tomorrow.  We waste a lot of time suffering over things that we have lost, or things that we want, and while we are doing so we lose the opportunity to be happy with whatever it is that we actually have at that moment.

I’m sure everyone reading this (including me) can accept the inherent truth in what I have written, and yet we still suffer.  Why is this?  It’s because, at some level, we still don’t really believe it, or we don’t want to believe it.  At some level, we still believe that things shouldn’t change, that life should be fair, that we can control our own destinies.

Steve Hagen sums it up nicely:

Our problem is that we don’t pay attention to what we actually know.  We give our attention to what we think – to what we have ideas and beliefs about – and we discard what we actually see.

Meditation and the other aspects of the Eightfold Noble path can assist us to learn to see what we inherently know; to become more awake.  It’s probably not going to happen suddenly, like the alarm clock shocking us out of a deep sleep in the morning, but little-by-little, moment-by-moment, it will start to make a difference.

Stay tuned for more in later posts, about meditation and the other parts of the Eightfold Noble Path.

In the meantime, as you finish reading this post, stop and think for a moment:  not about things that you want or don’t want – think instead about all the things (physical and non-physical) that you already have.  Remind yourself of all the goodness in your life right here and right now, and be happy!

It’s not all bad!

Random funny things that have happened lately:

I found a huge millipede walking across the foyer of my apartment block.  It was as long as my foot and about as wide as my thumb.  Its legs were going like crazy!  I tried to take some photos of it with my iPhone but they didn’t come out very well.  The security guard came to see what was so fascinating and looked at me a little strangely as I stood there mouth agape as he gently swept it outside.

We have two new security staff at my apartment building.  They are young guys and they are so cute.  When they see me coming they fall all over themselves trying to get to the door before me so they can open it for me.  The older security guards can barely be bothered raising their heads to nod hello, but the younger guys are definitely big on service with a “wai”!

I went to my laundry lady on Monday to drop off my weekly laundry.  Whenever I arrive at her store she laughs nervously, because we always have these hilarious conversations in Thai-lish and sign language.  This time when I arrived, however, she was very upset and said “Phi Sam” (this is unusual for her to say, it is like calling me ‘sister’ which is a bit personal for the laundry lady).  She doesn’t speak much English but she showed me my pyjamas, which she had accidentally splashed with bleach.  So the blue now has some random white patches.  She was almost in tears.  I told her “mai pen rai, it’s only for sleeping” and she was so relieved!  She wai-ed and wai-ed me and kept saying “thank you Phi Sam”.  I laughed and told her “mai pen rai” a few more times (it’s like saying “no worries”).  It just occurred to me that I don’t know her name.  That’s awful, I go there once or twice a week!  I will have to ask her when I go back there tomorrow.

Yesterday I was riding my bike back to my apartment when someone went by on a motorbike and yelled out “HEY!  Sam!  Hello!  Good morning!” (even though it was afternoon).  It was so funny.  I have no idea who they were but they were clearly very excited to have seen me!

I also discovered during my Thai language study that not only does “Sam” (with a certain tone) mean “3” (the staff here call me “number 3” as a joke), but “Sam” with a slightly different tone means “disgraceful”!!!!  Oh dear!

I was talking with one of the Thai staff about how sometimes my mind is so busy during meditation that I can’t concentrate.  She said “when that happens, just concentrate on your breasts”.  I was dumbstruck.  I stared at her and then started to giggle.  She asked me what was so funny.  I explained to her what she had said and she was mortified.  She had meant to say “breaths”!

Anita and I have been having fun with the Thai word “boon” (which is ‘merit’ or the good karma that you receive when you do something good).  Anita sent me a text the other day saying that she was sending me “boonbeams”.  I told her that when she did something good for someone else, it was like a “boonerang” and the merit would come back to her!  We decided that when you donate a lot of money to the temple in one go, you get a big “boonus”.

Oh, and an update on the ant situation in the container.  Things are not getting much better!  We now have one of those bag free vacuums and we discovered that we can vacuum up the ants without hurting them, and then tip the container outside to set them free.  We have been using silicon and tape to cover any gap or crack in the inside walls of the container to try to stop them coming in.  The other day Luang Phi John was outside sweeping ants off the outside of the container.  He banged the broom on the wall of the container to shake off the ants, and suddenly something really weird happened!  There was a small hole in the wall of the container, just above head height, just big enough for one ant to squeeze through.  As LP John banged on the wall, suddenly a stream of ants starting coming out of that hole, one by one, and throwing themselves like lemmings into the air.  Some landed on LP John and Ping Ping and they both got bitten.  It was like a shower of ants because the wind would catch them as they were falling down.  Hundreds of ants came streaming out that small hole.  It was truly bizarre.  But also identified a major problem for us – the ants have a huge nest INSIDE the walls of the container!  I’m not sure how we are going to deal with that issue!  But at least at the moment we seem to have sealed off most of their entries into the inside of the container, so there haven’t been so many inside the last few days.

Next week it looks like I’m off to Hong Kong for a few days for some meetings.  I will also get to catch up with some friends there, which I am really looking forward to!

Also, on 11 May I’m off on a diving trip around the Similan Islands!  I’m doing a liveaboard on a boat, with three dives a day, and I’m going to do my advanced OW certification as well.  (I’m just getting in before the end of the season, my liveaboard trip finishes on the day the islands close to tourists)!  After that I’ve booked a bungalow on the beach for a week on one of the islands and I am just going to relax and do nothing.  Then it’s back to the temple for just a two more weeks before I move to Chulalongkorn University.  I know the time is going to fly and I will actually be really sad to leave when it comes time to go.

Look what one of the monks just brought in for us: Sushi donuts!  Weird, but delicious!

Earth Day – 22 April

Today was Earth Day, another ordination of 500,000 ubasika, offering of alms to monks from over 10,000 temples who were visiting from around the world, the casting of the last golden Buddha images for the Cetiya (the pagoda that each temple has that houses important Buddhist relics and also is the centre for ceremonies), and the Abbot’s birthday. As you can imagine, it was a very big celebration day here at the temple. I was there from 7.30am until 9.30pm, when I arrived home a dirty sweaty but happy mess!

Ubasika women from temples all over Thailand have been doing their training for the past week (see my previous post on nun camp for my experience doing this training). Today they all came together at our temple for the ordination ceremony.

Monks also came from 10,000 temples for the annual Sung-Ka-Tarn, a ceremony when lay people offer alms (necessities) to the monks. During this ceremony the monks chanted a long blessing in Pali. Because there were monks from all over the world, they each had a slightly different melody (although they all chant the same Pali words) and it was the most amazingly beautiful sound.

Also, for the past few years this temple has been casting 1,000,000 Buddha images for the Cetiya. Today they will cast the last images, and the million will be complete. The roof of the Cetiya has 300,000 Buddha statues on it, and the remaining 700,000 will be enshrined inside. Each statue is donated by a layperson and their name (or someone they choose to donate for) is engraved into the base of the statue. In a thousand years, when the statues on the outside of the Cetiya are becoming worn, they will be replaced with some more from inside. This will ensure that the Cetiya will be beautiful for at least 3000 years. It is an important religious landmark for Buddhists here. See beautiful pictures of the Cetiya here:

http://www.dhammakaya.net/visitorzone/detail_page_01_en.php

The temple was the most crowded I have ever seen it. The Cetiya arena, which can seat 1,000,000 was packed full (mostly with women) and many men had to stand around the outside. There were also monks from all different countries, with different coloured robes.

Anita and I : Extreme Upasikas!

Ping Ping and I went down to the main meditation hall at 7.30am and helped prepare breakfast and lunch for the visiting international monks. This was definitely the best place to volunteer, as it was in a big airconditioned dining room!

Luang Phi John and Luang Phi Pasura : Two of the coolest, funniest and kindest monks I know!

I had a moment of complete panic during the meal service, as I was offering a pot of rice to a monk and he grabbed the pot while I was still touching it. That is an absolute no-no here for Thai monks – not only can they not touch women, they cannot touch anything while a woman is touching it. I gave Ping Ping a look of horror and stood there in shock. She came over and said not to worry, he was a monk from a different country and sect and they weren’t so strict about touching women so I hadn’t done anything wrong. She explained that in some countries monks can even get married and have children. I asked her how I was supposed to know which monks were which. She said you could usually tell by the design of their robes, but it was better always to be safe than sorry. She also said that was why there were usually only men serving in the international monks dining room, so that no women felt awkward around the foreign monks.

At the end of their meals, the servers got to eat anything that the monks didn’t want, so we had a really delicious feast culminating in me eating way too much mangoes and sticky rice and feeling really sleepy in the afternoon heat!

After the ubasika ordination and the alms offering, we moved to the Cetiya stadium. I donated one of the Buddha images, so I was given a round gold ingot to add into the furnace for the casting.

All over the stadium were long shutes where, at the appopriate time, you placed your gold ingot. It then rolled down the shute into a golden bag. These were collected and taken to the main furnace in the middle of the Cetiya where they were melted and then poured by the monks into the Buddha moulds.

After this was completed, we had more meditation and then the lantern lighting ceremony.

As this finished there was a big surprise: fireworks over the Cetiya to celebrate Luang Phaw’s birthday! It was really beautiful and everyone was so happy – it was a truly wonderful atmosphere! It’s impossible to explain what it’s like to be sitting under the open sky, meditating in silence with a million people, and then for there to be chanting, singing and fireworks!

Here is a link to the DMC video scoop of the event. If you don’t have time to watch the whole 20 minutes, highlights are at: 10.24 alms giving; 11.20 upasika ordination; 14.25 casting of the buddha images; 16.50 lantern ceremony and fireworks.

http://www.dmc.tv/?module=articles&action=page&p=6520

Information about the casting of the Buddha statues:

This highly sacred tradition of casting Buddha statue will come to an end this year as the last set of statues are cast. This occasion will also mark the completion of Maha Damakaya Cetiya (Pagoda), which will be closed as soon as the last statue is enshrined inside.

This will be an occasion for all Buddhists to be united, to pay homage to the Lord Buddha through making contribution to the casting of Buddha Statues, which will be revered and paid homage by both humans and celestials. These Buddha statues symbolize the purest of all the virtues (goodness), which will help extending the boundlessness of happiness to the mass of the people. The personal Buddha statues and the Cetiya will be in existence as the center of Buddhism for thousands of years. The merit of paying homage to one Buddha statue is immeasurable; imagine the merit that one will earn when paying homage to the Maha Dhammakaya Cetiya enshrined with 1,000,000 Buddha statues. The Cetiya will be the center for Buddhists all over the world to come to pay homage. Being a part of casting personal Buddha statues adorned and enshrined on and inside this sacred Cetiya will result in great merit that will forever continue until the time the ultimate path of Dharma is reached. Think of the impact the sight of Cetiya will have on people. Think of how many people will feel motivated to have a clear mind and reach inner peace and eventually reach high Dharma when they pay homage to 1,000,000 statues. The number will be countless and so will be the merit. The fruition of merit will be transcended to those who helped adorn this sacred place to have a long and plentiful celestial life (plentiful in celestial wealth) and so in their reincarnations thereafter. This merit will be with them until the ultimate path of dharma and Nirvana is reached.

Please join us in casting personal Buddha statues with your name or your loved one’s name engraved at the base of the statue and enjoy the merit of being a part of introducing this body of enlightenment of Lord Buddha to the world. This body of enlightenment when visualized as a virtuous symbol, placed at the center of the body when meditating, will be the gateway of reaching inner peace and eventually the body of enlightenment or Dhammakaya.

Merit from Casting Personal Buddha Statues

The merit from casting Buddha statues is immeasurable and can be summarized into the following 3 major elements:

1. Physical Beauty (good appearance) – One will be born with good appearance, fine skin and all other attractive qualities, along with longevity and freedom from all disease and sickness.

2. Wealth – one will be born in high places with wealth and prosperity. Any business one touches will turn to gold. One will be blessed with an abundance of wealth and will become a generous wealthy person who helps support Buddhism.

3. Good quality (Intelligence & Wisdom) – One will be born with sharp wit and intelligence. One will be a fast learner and will be able to reach inner peace in a short period of time. Will have wisdom in both worldly and Dharma affairs.

Lastly, here is a very funny advertisement for this event that has been shown on DMC television here. It’s called “Big Boon” (boon is the Thai word for ‘merit’ or the good karma that you receive in return for doing good things).

http://r200.dmc.tv/spot_dmc/520212_BigBoon.wmv