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forest sangha newsletter

October        2007               2550                 Number  81
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah


Staying with the journey

Ajahn Kovida shares some of her recent experiences practising in Asia


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In October 2005 I departed for Thailand, planning to spend eight months away. As it turned out I extended the trip for a further eight months in order to practise in Burma.

After 12 years living between Amaravati and Cittaviveka I embarked on this journey because I had an urge to take more risk. To let go for a while of the relative security of these monasteries where all my needs are taken into account, and female mendicants are not unusual. I wanted to step off an edge. Also, amidst the
busyness of administering to community life I sometimes fantasied about other conditions for practice. Some combination of solitude, friends, Dhamma input, nature, quietude, space to study. The ‘if only’ experience.

At first I lived for a while in a retreat centre for women set in the hills of central Thailand. Its founder, Khun Lek provided every possible support in this tropical haven. The most striking thing for me was adjusting to the differences between West and East: the language, the trees, the birdsong, the smells, the climate, even the sound as the wind moved through the trees! As I began taking in my new surroundings I started to enjoy the people, the place and the tropical beauty. In this, and many other ways, being in another environment and culture highlighted my habitual bearings on things. In the process of adjusting I saw how many things I had taken for granted and become blindly attached to.

For the latter half of my stay in Thailand I lived in a monastery in central Issan. It was remote – a place where few foreigners passed through. I was a strange sight for the local villagers but the abbot, Ajahn Sudhiro, was skilful in connecting us. At the meal offering for the first few days he would introduce me, explain where I had come from, and ask me to say a little about my practice and my intentions for being there. He then encouraged the villagers to share reflections of their lives with me. In this way we got to know each other. I would walk on almsround each day and felt a welcome part of their world.

As the journey progressed to Burma, the different practice situations influenced my way of inquiry. The time spent in branch monasteries of Sayadaw U Pandita and Sayadaw U Janaka practising the ‘Mahasi’ method showed me the value of slowing down and stilling. I was instructed to note each activity throughout the day to develop the ability to observe in detail bodily and mental experience. I found this helped to stabilize mindfulness and I felt much more clear, still and sharp. Attachments, reactions and assumptions became much more obvious. As did the relationship between this mental activity and the external experience. In one walking meditation where I determined to make extra effort to observe precisely, I noticed concentration increase, then lessen, and tension arise. Investigating the tension I saw there was craving for the pleasant experience of a concentrated state; a desire to be sure and clear and collected. I saw just how easily I became unconscious during these pleasant experiences – automatically attaching to them. And how this sets up an expectation for meditation to be a particular way. As those biases in intention gradually loosened I became more naturally mindful in an interested and relaxed way. Then it became possible to observe in more detail without straining.

For six months I stayed with Ashin Tejaniya, whose teaching style is similar in many ways to Ajahn Sumedho’s with an emphasis on establishing awareness, and also inquiry (dhammavicaya). He made no requirement to adopt a set practice schedule. The only responsibility was to observe and investigate what the mind is doing, what the mind is paying attention to. He gave regular group interviews.

Initially he encouraged establishing the right attitude towards practice. Whatever sight, sound, smell, thought, mood or emotion was happening – to know that as an object. To establish the perspective of the mind knowing the object. And in doing so, gauging how mindfulness varied depending on what was happening. How steady and attentive is my mind? Is there enough equanimity to detach and see experiences more objectively? If not, what would help bring these qualities about? If we know the object as an object, and the ‘mind’ as ‘mind’ there is no identification.

He encouraged us to investigate:

'Where is attention going to be?  On persons, ideas, stories, views (objects of perception)?; Or on Dhamma and reality – paramatha?  [If we choose we can]  deliberately recall our understanding of the benefit of paying attention to direct experience. It is our habit to only pay attention to objects of perception and interpretation. This is the nature of ignorance and living in samsara. When [we're] aware, we can see previous memories more clearly [and how] the mind is not attached to the object itself but to the habitual tending towards the object.  If we see on a deep level that  [the experience of the] defilements is suffering we naturally let go.'


Seeing feeling, emotion and thoughts as objects, I paid particular attention to the kilesa (the ‘defilements’ of desire, aversion and delusion). I found it helpful to be reminded to see them more objectively. They became more like events in the mind, aspects of nature built up through the force of habit. From this perspective I observed the particular ways in which greed and hatred operate. For instance, how greed can become eagerness and make the variables of life seem like an obstacle, wanting to have things a certain way. I saw how the amount of desire or aversion seemed commensurate with the idea of ‘me’ and ‘mine’; How this delusion of self-view (moha) presents a biased, one-sided view, whereas awareness brings a broader view, which then brings more peace and acceptance. With this it became possible to let things be and detach from the influence of the defilements.

This process of investigation brought vitality to my practice and enhanced what I'd already learned. These and various other experiences during this journey deepened my appreciation for the Dhamma. I am grateful for the support and guidance I received in understanding how to let go of desire. How these insights arise depends on many factors. Steeping into other contexts gave new input and fresh perspectives which helped inform my practice and broaden my ability for inquiry. As a result, some of the places in my heart to which I return repeatedly are seen in a new way
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