Monday, September 6, 2010

Celebrating the New Chinese Year by “Going Against the Stream”

So, do you still remember how did you spend your 2010 Chinese New Year festive holidays? The typical Chinese-cultured society would anticipate a long-awaited holiday season for either a head back to one’s own hometown or simply a reunion with family and friends. Well, this was really not the case for me though… It was a “going against the stream” Chinese New Year holiday to me.

This year, I did not go back to my family in northen Malaysia. I made a prior arrangement to spend the long weekend holidays (about 5 days) at a place totally unknown to me. Equipped with unshakable determination, I managed to locate this very special place in Kota Tinggi, Johor. It’s called Santisukhārāma Meditation Centre (Hermitage of Peaceful Bliss).

The main building at the Santisukharama Meditation Centre
I indeed had hesitation in the beginning and I did miss my family a little. But since the decision had been made, I should not be carrying any regrets. Santisukharama is a Vipassana meditation centre within a 7.5 acres land of cultivated forest, surrounded by palm-oil trees and rubber estates. Founded by Ven Sujiva in 1982, it is truly a peaceful abode, a conducive environment for the serious yogis.

The Sima Hall
The blissful greeting at the entrance
On the day of my arrival, I met Sis Sam, the Chairperson of the centre. I was then brought by a volunteer (bro How) to my room, in which to my amusement, it was a huge room right below the Sīmā Hall! It is supposed to be the monk’s resident. Later I found out that my accomodation was arranged in such a way because the resident monk had planned to leave for Johor Bahru soon and there would be a special Burmese Vipassana meditation retreat starting on the next day and hence most rooms would be occupied.

Sister Sam is a retired teacher. As a person of utmost responsibility and commitment to the place, she seems to run the place nearly from head to toe. Somehow she was very supportive to my presence there “to practise meditation”. She got me listening to talks and Vipassana meditation instructions from the Ven Sujiva which were played from a CD. It was indeed an outright effort of hers to set things right from the beginning.

I had a chance to bump into the resident monk at Santisukharama. It was at a later period when I went back to Singapore that I got to know his name. His name is Bhante Mahacara. I had never met him before, but it seemed that there was an unknown reason of him being so enthusiastic in guiding me some basic Vipassana meditation techniques.

Basically, Santisukhārāma follows Ven Mahasi Sayadaw’s tradition which focuses on the rising and falling movement of abdomen as the meditation object. I told him that I was more familiar with Samatha and Ānāpānasati method. According to him, practising Samatha ultimately results in pure tranquility or total calmness, but Vipassana makes you “see” the interaction between body and mind, and ultimately the 3 Universal Characteristics of the whole thing which give rise to insight. Mindfulness of “in-out breath” at the nose tip could also be used, but at the end of the day, it is the sensation of the area around nostrils that matter.

"Mindfully observing the rise and fall of the abdomen..."
In my understanding from the conversation with him, it seemed to me that Mahasi’s tradition pays much attention on the body and its sensations. The technique is still very much faithful to what the Buddha had taught in Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (The Foundation of Mindfulness). He explains to me in details the four foundations expounded in the sutta and their application in the meditation technique. My job, is to note everything that comes through: “sitting/touching sensations, pain, thinking… and so on”. Just note them mindfully, refrain from making any analysis or any further judgement.

He further elaborated on how walking meditation should be rightfully done: simply just label all movements of the feet as “raising”, “lifting”, “pushing”, “dropping”, “treading” and “pressing”. Just label them first. I was also instructed to note the “intention” to stop and change the course of my walking. “Just note the intention, and see what happens next. Everything that happens must come from an intention behind, just like the law of cause and effect. There’s no ‘I’ or ‘Me’ in your walking, it’s just the interaction between mind and matter”, those were what he told me in which I could recall.

He was so keen to guide me further, to the extent that he reconsidered his plan to leave this place. He wished to stay back to monitor my progress. I was truly overwhelmed by his noble intention, for I was doubting my own ability to follow closely his personal guidance. But when I told him that my stay was not for long, he then reverted back to his original plan of leaving for Johor Bharu.

One way or another, I always believe that when you are persisting in doing something wholesome, all the the wholesome people and things will come to support you.

My first night was a bit of a torture. I was aware that there will be no dinner served at the centre, only breakfast (at 7am) and lunch (at 11am) will be served due to the observance the 8 precepts. But I was not really prepared for that, my tummy cried the whole night and I could hardly sleep. It was indeed a regret of not sneaking in some snacks to the hermitage earlier to survive throughout the night!

“Hissing” in the midst of gentle breeze, dropping leaves like a curtain of endless length, with birds chirping “mindfully” in between the branches: thanks to the life-giving trees in the centre compound. There are so many trees, so many species, perhaps over 200 of them. Ven Sujiva quoted a cleric in his recent book: “The man who plants trees goes to Heaven.”

The Mahasi’s technique is relatively new to me. I faithfully applied the technique for my Vipassana practice there. Generally, the main distinguishing features of the approach compared to Samatha are the large extent use of body contemplation with the main object used is the “rising-faling” of the abdomen; mindful noting of each process; and walking meditation alternated with sitting, one hour at a time. I found the techniques were so refreshing, galvanising a new venture into the inner discovery for a beginner like myself.

The mindful awareness was largely paid on the rising-falling motion of the abdomen. As it is the grosser bodily activity, I found it easier to place my awareness on the object compared to the in-out breath at nostrils (the Ānāpānasati method). According the Ven Sujiva’s book, “The Tree of Wisdom, The River of No Return: The practice and development on insight meditation”, the priority of object can be changed: when the rising-falling of abdomen becomes unclear, one can switch the attention to sitting/touching sensations, or pain, or thinking processes, and the abdominal movement becomes the secondary object. The main purpose here is to keep the continuity flow of mindfullness. The instruction went on stating that one should not only keep the mind concentrated, but mindful observation on the nature of bodily sensations should also be attempted, and picked up with clear perception of the qualities of the material elements.

Usually I could sit for a full hour, unless sleepiness sneaked in, I would switch the “posture mode” to walking meditation. I discovered that sloth and torpor was the main culprit for my wandering attention, but Ven Sujiva regarded this as one of the mental energy, and should be noted mindfully. I took up the technique and found that the more I sit, the faster it was for me to pick up the “first sign” of sleepy feeling. It’s interesting to notice how it manifested and faded away with mindful attention.

Bodily painful sensation was one of my main meditation object too. When there was only minor pain, I tried to disregard it. It was so interesting to observe the changes in the degree of pain (at the knees and the ankles especially), just like watching the colours of skin when it whirls and wriggles. Impermenance… that was the first hand experience I had. However, when the pain became unbearable, I would change my sitting position, and the “intention” of doing this would be mindfully noted as well.

Walking meditation was relatively easier to be practised, especially being enveloped in such a peaceful forestry environment. Usually I started with brisk walking before slowing down the pace to deep mindful walking. Occasionally, I just engaged the feeling of being “so present” in walking. Different types of pathways were chosen, from the tiled floor to mold-covered walkways. I liked doing it in the outdoor, just loved the feelings of being entertained by the orchestra of swaying leaves and singing birds. But the main thing here was direct experience on the sensations/material qualities of the feet through mind door.

A Zen-like pathway
There were few interesting instances when I practised walking meditation. There were so many ants, big ants, outside the Sīmā Hall. Sometimes I had to change the course of my walking direction in order to avoid stepping on them or rather being bitten by them. Doing this in the middle of the mindful attention on the feet was indeed a challenge, so as not to lose my flow of mindfullness. Again, noting the “intention” was a practise to witness the work of cause and effect in mind-body interaction.

Having meals at the retreat was another interesting experience. I was arranged to be seated with the Burmese retreat participants for breakfast and lunch. There were about 100 of them, including 3 Sayadaws and 10 volunteers, all from Singapore. Watching the participants walking with an extremely mindful manner into the dining hall made me feel rather “eerie”, it was just like a scientist who had just released a new batch of “human robots”! Mainly Burmese dishes were served. As lunch was the the last meal of the day and served at the early hour of 11am, I was caught in a mind-game: “…the portion of the rice/noodle appeared too little as compared to the others”, “Hey, I like this dish, but I can’t be too selfish to gobble them all…” I just had to remind myself that this meal was only meant to conserve this body for continuity of practice. When you stop distinguishing and discriminating the food served in front of you, they somehow taste differently!
Mindful meal time with the Burmese monks and yogis

I met a few interesting people in the retreat. Apart from my presence, there was another German yogi who had been meditating on his own there about a month ago. But we rarely talked. He had a very unusual way of doing his sitting meditation: he usually did it on an armrest chair, head slanted to one side; the whole posture indeed resembled a “sleeping meditation” instead. Further, I met a friendly Burmese man, known as Zaw Tun. He seemed to be the retreat organiser. He had some useful points to share with me regarding his experience on Mahasi’s Vipassana technique. He said that Samatha helps one to develop deep concentration and traquility, and can only suppress kileṣa, while Vipassana eradicates it completely. In order to keep me up with the practice, he requested for my contact for future updates of the activities in Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation Centre in Singapore. Well, I felt there’s no harm knowing a new friend and a new “abode” for me to pursue futher practice in Singapore.

The Noble Sign
An outdoor shrine in the morning shine
The last few hours of my precious moments in the hermitage were spent with intuitive experience. In that morning, my meditation was disturbed with restless feelings, perhaps a subtle lamentation for being separated soon from this blissful abode (a kind of dukkha too). But that was later replaced with a unique absorption of a sort of “peak” experience during my sitting meditation. It felt like a blissful feeling enveloping my heart, the sensations concentrated on the base of my sitting, but the object was spread to a broader field of sensations, just like what Ven Sujiva coins as “Collected Open Awareness”, in which the awareness was kept at a fairly wide range of sensations, ensuring one practising insight on change. It was my first ever experience on the changes of material qualities of my body, a doorway to deeper insight, indeed…

An elegant Buddha-rupa

Inside Sima Hal
I concluded my trip to Kota Tinggi without a single regret. No computer, no emails, no Facebook, no TV, no Chinese New Year cookies… It is so crystal clear to me now that I was not trying to run away from my family in this festive season, or putting up an act of “anti-social animal” whatsoever. I just want to be “in the present”, a noble course for a higher goal. Though rather unconventional, I believe I was doing this for the benefit of myself and others: “Help oneself to help others; Help others to help oneself”!

"...there's no other path more serene than the path less traveled..."

Thus have I experienced…

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Symbolical Representation of Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple) at Chiang Rai, Thailand

Wat Rong Khun (or also known as White Temple) in Chiang Mai Province is a gateway to the new exploration of contemporary Thai artistry. Built by a reknown artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, it is an extraordinary temple in which he wishes to dedicate to His Majesty the King.

 The whole temple is mainly in white According to Chalermchai, the temple complex will comprise of nine buildings, each of his own distinct architectural style, but all symbolising Buddhist philosophy and Dharma. He intends to portrait this temple as to symbolise Buddhist philosophy and teachings via his own brilliant imagination and passion in contemporary Thai art. It is mainly designed in white colour with some use of white glass. The white color stands for Buddha’s purity, while the white glass stands for Buddha’s wisdom that "shines brightly all over the Earth and the Universe."

The bridge leading to the temple represents the crossing over from the cycle of rebirth to the Abode of Buddha:

wheareas the small semicircle before the bridge stands for the human world. The big circle with fangs is the mouth of Rahu, meaning impurities in the mind, a representation of hell or suffering:

Many other figurines and carvings at the mouth of the bridge and around the temple:
Figures representing man and woman in the sensual realm.

The two guardians of the temple.
The Buddha image is positioned in such a way that it is as if floating in the fire of samsara, being so serene and untouched by the impurities.

On the roof, there are four kinds of animals representing earth, water, wind and fire. The elephant stands for the earth; the naga stands for water; the swan's wings represent wind; and the lion’s mane represents fire:

The most interesting part of the temple, however, lies inside the assembly hall (ubosot). The four walls, ceiling and floor contain paintings showing an escape from the defilements of temptation to reach a supramundane state. It's the area that represents human mind, Chalermchai explained. The Buddha statue seems to be floating in the timelessness of space, giving you the surreal feeling of the abode of god.

Nowadays, Wat Rong Khun is still being constructed. When completed, the construction project of Wat Rong Khun will consist of nine buildings as mentioned: the ubosot, the hall containing Buddha’s relics, the hall containing Buddha images, the preaching hall, the contemplation hall, the monk’s cell, the door façade of the Buddhavasa, the art gallery, and the toilets.

Sources of information:; and

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Discourse to the Kesaputtiyas (Kesaputtiya Sutta: The Instruction to the Kālāmas): The Buddhist Science of Doubt

We might be more familiar with this sutta name called “Kālāma Sutta”, but not the Kesaputtiya Sutta (Chinese: 伽藍經), found in AN 3.65. Both names refer to the same sutta, with the former being more popularly known. Kālāmas refer to the group of people who reside in a town called Kesaputta, hence come the name of the sutta. Be it Kālāma Sutta or Kesaputtiya Sutta, what matters most is the remarkable spirit behind it.

Why the “Doubt”?
Here in this sutta, the Buddha talks about 'doubt', an affirmative acknowledment of doubt which have arisen in the Kālāmas by saying thus: “It is fitting that you are uncertain, that you doubt, Kālāmas. Doubt has arisen in you over what is doubtful.” This is unlike what have been expounded in the Revata Sutta; U 5.7/60 (a discourse on how the monk Revata who sits in meditation, “reviewing his own purification by overcoming doubt”), and Rathavinīta Sutta; M24, where the nature of doubts become a hindrance to the path of liberation. The Buddha finds that the uncertainty and doubt which has taken hold on the Kālāmas could serve as a wonderful science of the mind that cultivate spiritual investigation and wisdom leading to rational faith. (ākāravati saddhā).

Ten Grounds based on Moral Context
The famous Ten Grounds of doubts as enumerated by the Buddha to the Kālāmas:
i) Do not go by oral tradition;
ii) Do not go by lineage (of teaching);
iii) Do not go by hearsay;
iv) Do not go by scriptural authority;
v) Do not go by logical reasoning;
vi) Do not go by inferential reasoning;
vii) Do not go by reflection on reasoning;
viii) Do not go by acceptance of a view after pondering on it;
ix) Do not go by another’s seeming competence;
x) Do not go by your own thinking, “This recluse is our teacher”.
if you notice it closely enough in the sutta, they are always based on whether they could lead to wholesome or unwholesome states, not blamable or blamable, praised or not by the wise, and when undertaken and practised, bring good and happiness. In other words, if these Ten Grounds, being investigated, tested and eventually practised, do not lead to moral virtue, we should not accept them. But the Buddha does not end up ‘injecting’ the ideology of mere acceptance based on the doctrinal moral virtue. He brings in the three established fundamental roots of human suffering, namely GREED, HATRED and DELUSION, and presents it as a ‘controlled subject’ in verifying the moral virtue that he is talking about. Interestingly, there we find the Five Precepts in each of the Three Roots, further validating their moral grounds. Acting as a 'controlled subject', these three roots, if avoided, will lead to the same moral consequences as in the Ten Grounds! This is indeed a wonderful skillful way of the Buddha in presenting his doctrine cultivating ākāravati saddhā (rational faith) by not blindly subscribing to the way of amulika saddhā (blind faith).

“Do not believe in anything!”: Is it true?
Many, as I could see so, think that Kālāma Sutta tells us “not to believe in anything at all”! Is that so? Well, I don’t think that this is what the Buddha intends to deliver in this sermon. If we revisit the Ten Grounds again, we can see that it is dealing with the question of epistemology (theory of knowledge, asking the question of “How do we know what we know?”). But the Buddha is not interested in validation of knowledge via knowledge-based investigation, but rather on the ethical-based knowledge. Hence, if we do not believe in any moral faculty in things that we should and should not do, then it is better off for not believing in anything at all… However, this is not the Buddha’s intention in delivering this sermon. There should be an ethical system which could be validated via direct experiences, that serves as the torch for deciding what is true and what is doubtful.

You Can Doubt Over “Karma & Rebirth”, Not a Problem!
Towards the last portion of the sutta, the Buddha exhibits how one could cultivate positive emotions by the way of the divine abodes (Brāhma Vihāras). So to speak, for one who continues to purify his mind by voiding it of enmity, ill will and free from corruption through the practice of the four divine abodes, he or she is guaranteed the benefits of Four Self-Assurances, irregardless of whether one believes in karma and rebirth:

The idea of the whole context here is that you don’t have to subscribe to the two most difficult-to-grasp doctrines of of the Buddha, karma and rebirth in order to be a good person, or a proper Buddhist specifically. Looking at it from another angle, even if you don’t believe in Buddhism or the Buddha himself, so long as your mind purified thus, you will still receive positive rewards here and now, or at the most, nothing bad will befall you at all. This is often termed as the “Buddha’s wager”, which does not take the underlying agenda of speculating “karma and rebirth” in the first place in examining the Ten Grounds. It is simply based on the very fact of human’s mutual respect and cultivation of goodness towards self and others, that we should accept or reject the mushrooming ideologies and doctrines out there…

Article inspired by the Dhamma sharing by bro Piya Tan at The Minding Centre, Singapore.

The Handful of Leaves

“On one occasion when he was sitting under a Siṃsapā tree, the Buddha took some of the leaves in his hand and asked his disciples thus, “What do you think, bhikkhus, which is more numerous, these few Siṃsapā leaves that I have taken up in my hand or those in the Siṃsapā grove overhead?” When the disciples answered that there are more leaves in the Siṃsapā grove overhead, Buddha then said, “Similarly, it is definite that there is much more than whatever I have told you.” Further, the Buddha has said that he has not told these things because they are unbeneficial, irrelevent to the fundamentals of the holy life, and do not lead to revulsion, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna."
[The Siṃsapā Grove (SN 56:31)]

What the Buddha is interested in teaching us is the knowledge and understanding of suffering and the cessation of suffering. That is all!

There are many stories and similies found in the life of the Buddha and in the Jataka tales that are designed to deliver certain messages. What is illustrated in the story above is trying to tell us this: seek only what is necessary for your own deliverance (realisation).

The Buddha is not putting down other knowledges in the world. He is not prohibiting us to seek them tirelessly too. What he actually means is that there are so many knowledges in the world, and his doctrine is merely meant to help us getting out of samsara! If you are interested in this, then his teachings are for you.

This story is in fact used to handle some metaphysical questions put forward to the Buddha. For example: “Is the whole universe eternal or not eternal?” “Is there an origin and an end to the universe?” “What happened to the Buddha after death?” “Is the body and self the same?”

So to speak, some people became too attached in seeking for the things lying so far away, but in the matter of fact, they have not even learnt how to become a good person in the first place! It is just like trying so hard to find out how many leaves there are in forest, but couldn’t even bother to look at what is there in the leaves of the Buddha’s hand!

My thought: Some people think that the Buddha teaches deep and philosophically profound doctrine, some deep psychological concepts or whatsoever. Some even think that the dependent origination doctrine can lead us to discover the origin of the universe. Some think that the Buddha is a physicist, his doctrine can expose the mystery of quantum physics.

To me, all these are extremely unnecessary and irrelevant. The teachings are expounded so clearly enough, and indeed pointing right to the “moon”: to know the mind, to develop the mind and to free the mind (via mindfulness). That is the most important of all, and I would sincerely think so…