Koos asked me to write an article for SIMsara. OK, I will arrive in the Netherlands in May and together with Dingeman we will have a retreat. So it is meaningful to connect, to feel each other, to tune and “synchronise” a little in advance.
This year I will have not much time to spend in Netherlands, as in May we are also opening a small meditation centre in the North of Czech Republic, and I am expected to take care of that place. In spite of all that activity, I am looking forward to meet the friends I have connected with last year in Zwolle and Amsterdam.
Dhamma family is something rare: You can’t say that it always runs smoothly, yet people support and inspire each other in the framework of wholesomeness, and so the dynamic of Sangha can emerge.
I am now in Dhammapala – Swiss Buddhist monastery – together with couple of monks, a novice and few visitors. Especially for a monk the Sangha-comunity is very important. Last year I spent most of the time in Czech Republic, being fully active there, giving many lectures and large retreats. After 7 months it felt very right to reconnect with the fellow monks here, and to ‘dive’ into the peaceful winter-atmosphere of this mountainous place.
But OK, I should put some topic for the SIMsara on the paper. Let me see…
When I walk in the streets of a town, sometimes people ask me: “What is your religion? Are you a Buddhist?” My first reaction is usually a bright, amused smile, often accompanied by gentle feeling of friendly human touch with the other person. On the street I usually side-step the fact that I do not feel to be a “Buddhist”, or a monk of some “religion”. I try to respond with something that has more meaning for me, or simply feels more true. So perhaps I point to my monk’s robe and say: “Oh yes, this is a Buddhist colour”, or “The Buddha is my teacher, you’re right!” However, when the preconditions for an undisturbed conversation are more favourable, I gladly share my standpoint more precisely.
Now switching on a little lamp on my table, turning the lampshade towards the wall in front of me. I have a picture of Thai forest Monk Ajahn Mun there. On this picture he is perhaps in his late forties. He used to live during the first half of this century – a very remarkable being. I have drawn a lot of deep Dhamma-inspiration just from the few existing photographs and from the stories about him.
I had so many different teachers – mostly from the Burmese tradition, however, Ajahn Mun (though I never met him) I would consider (together with U Pandita Sayadaw) to be my most important root-teachers. – You know? Someone who gave you incredibly much, from whom you have got so much Dhamma-sap. And Dhamma is my life. Buddha’s teaching is not a religion for me, not a matter of some professing or believing. It is like the compass for the little boat of my existence; boat that is thrown around by the waves of the ocean of life, tossed like a nutshell in the whirls of samsara.
I didn’t become a Buddhist monk because of devotion to some tradition. My deep esteem for the Buddha’s teaching did not come only from logical or philosophical considerations. Some 30 years ago, I came across a book about the life and doctrine of the historical Buddha. This encounter triggered in me deep process of clarification, that was happening – as I would say today – in ‘both halves of my brain’. Perhaps these clarifications were rather coming through the different parts of my brain. Be it so, or be it both: My mind was finding a deep resonance with what I was reading. I was opening up to something, what gave completely new perspective on the phenomenon of human existence, changed my orientation and consequently also gave new direction and aim to my life. And I felt that the new enlarged perception of my ‘beingness’ was containing all the previous values and positions, that it was encompassing and surpassing everything I realised and experienced ever before.
‘A typical case of spiritual conversion’, you may say. Yes, perhaps you can call it this way, if you like. However, ‘conversion’ or ‘spiritual transformation’ feels to me more like an act of replacement: ‘for that, what one has, to get something better’. In my case, it was rather a radical enlargement of scope – something comparable to the experience when you zoom from a few scattered details into a full 360-degree panorama.
One of the decisive components of this process was the realisation, that the human being as it is: equipped with its extremely limited sensory receptors and its very limited mind, is able to detect, encompass and perceive only an enormously narrow ‘band’ or ‘frequency’ of existing reality. Not in the sense, that the other, endlessly larger part of reality would be somewhere far away, or behind our cosmos, or so. Rather like the waves of a television broadcasting with pictures and sounds literally penetrating our heads. Not having sensory feelers for that area, without an TV set, we are simply not able to account for them.
I understood that the human sphere of existence with its ‘Universe’ is only a very narrow field, only one particular section, selection, – a scrap – of all that exists. Moreover, I have seen, that the human mind is dominated by one particular, strongly distorted interpretation of that tiny part of reality it can perceive. The picture of human situation became even more pitiful, when I reflected, how the human mind, supplied by sensory impingements in the form of neuronal impulses, creates of that data-impute an image of the world and likewise an image of oneself. The resulting mental construct we routinely take without any further consideration to be the reliable, true, steadfast reality itself. It started to dawn on me, that the great spiritual teachings are frequently referring by their language of symbols and allegories to those parts of reality, where the ordinary human being has simply no access to, or, as in the case of the Buddha, referring to the whole of ‘reality’ -I call it the ‘Allness’- in its endless cycles of time.
In this way I was ecstatically reflecting throughout that first night after reading the small booklet about Buddha. I was reflecting about, what the Buddha has seen by his insight in his night of awakening called Enlightenment. Siddhattha managed to step out of the multifarious layers of illusion, ignorance, predilections, mental tangles, deformations, and he woke up to the full “Reality”, the undistorted, unsplit “Healthiness” of Nibbana (Nirvana). So he became the Buddha – the Awakened One.
In the night of his enlightenment he saw “the All” – all that exists and doesn’t exist – as if on his hand, transparent from all sides. He has seen what we call “the world” as human interpretation of the passing show of phenomena. He also saw the underlying principals of this passing show: the law of karma. He saw that the human “I” is only a flickering mental ego-centric notion, fortified by strong intensity of attachment, in its true nature a mere distortion of reality, lacking any actual unchangeable self-essence. Something like a knot on a string. A real tangle, a ravel.
By the end of that night the Buddha realised the full liberation from all bondage, misery and suffering, he realised the freedom of Nibbana.
“Interesting!”, you may say. “And what should I do with all this, being not-awakened, being self-centred, having many attachments, living in a split world of dualities, partialities, a world of happiness and sorrow, sometimes high-minded and other times mean, right and wrong, appreciation and disregard, gain and loss, intelligence and stupidity, a world of likies and dislikes, understanding and no-understanding, success and failure, inspiration and frustration, hope and disenchantment…?” – I would reply: ‘You don’t have to do anything, if you wish. But you can do something, if you decide!’
The reason why the Buddha formulated his Teaching was only one: he wanted to help reduce useless suffering, unhappiness and sorrow. He wanted people to realise the freedom in their own hearts. So this may be one good reason to consider the Dhamma as one’s guide for this life. In my case, there was also a second reason, which, in our time, is perhaps gaining more and more importance: a spontaneous – sometimes latent, sometimes very pronounced – inclination toward truth, toward clarity and insight, a spontaneous inclination toward wisdom.
The Dhamma-orientation for me appears even logical. I like purity, which is the base of the Buddha’s path – it is called sila. I like to reconnect with deep layers of my being – we can understand it as the middle of the path called (samadhi), and I like to end useless suffering, I like to see clearly and to be free from all undesirable and unprofitable things – and that is called panna in the Buddha’s Teaching. So these are the three steps, the three components of the training we practise intensively in a retreat, and we continue to practice in our daily life.
The retreat I’ll give together with Dingeman will be intensive and really demanding. The participants do not talk with each other at all (except on the beginning and the end of the retreat). The participants are expected to follow the given instruction as much they can. There are sitting and walking meditations during the whole day. It needs a clear, strong motivation to work through the beginning difficulties. The first two days are usually the most difficult. One may feel like a fish being deprived of its element in which it used to swim all the time: on a retreat we do not speak, we do not watch television, we do not smoke, we have hardly anything to eat after the lunch, no music, no dancing, no books, no drugs, no picture-drawing, no poetic imaginations, no astral travels, no – no – no’s. But to meet with oneself and to go further beyond that, is fully on the program! Are you scared to see into yourself? It may happen that sometimes the tear of despair comes, sometimes the tear of celebration – it goes like that. The aim of course, is to see through all these layers of self-ideas, to put them finally all aside as something really outgrown, or even as a worthless garbage, and, with a feeling of relief, to step out from the cage of one’s ego-obsession. To step out into freedom. At least a little bit. You know, it’s not easy to realise it all in one retreat…