Today is the first dana held in TIMS’ new temporary premises. It is a meritorious deed by Ooi Cheng Suan and her family to let TIMS use this place while it is waiting for its new premises to be built. To mark this day, the Dhamma talk will be delivered by the three other members of the Sangha present today. Ven Balacitta recently spent some time in Myanmar with me when I went to Myanmar to visit my teachers; Ven Kumara was in China for two months undergoing treatment for his health problems; Ven Attarama, a visiting samanera, was recently practising in Sri Lanka. They will relate to you their personal experiences.
It was a great opportunity to follow Bhante to Myanmar as I had the chance to experience the true essence of the country that the ordinary tourists do not get to see. As opposed to the developed areas and popular tourist sites, I saw a country where poverty is extensive and severe. In rural areas, bullock carts are still the main means of transportation on dirt roads and many homes are very small (about 10 feet square) with none of the basic amenities we Malaysians take for granted—not even a radio or TV set. However, these areas are a meditator’s paradise because of the citizens’ deep religious convictions, which are so pure in their simplicity. In temples, noontime entertainment consists of listening to Dhamma talks. There is no competition and corruption from the mass media, resulting in purity of mind and thought. These Burmese people speak from their hearts and metta shines beautifully on their faces. Even a non-meditator residing there will, I think, develop morality and a better personality. When I first saw the women with tanaka powder (a powder made from the tanaka tree and is used to counteract the harmful rays of the sun) smeared on their faces with very unbecoming results, I thought that the women in Myanmar had very poor make-up skills. Later on I realised that underneath the layer of tanaka, they have very good skin. This is in contrast to women who look good with make-up but the skin underneath is blemished.
Amidst the poverty, there are temples that reflect the religious spirit in the country. For example the Shwe Dagon pagoda is glorious in the daylight. The Burmese people have a deep-seated respect for monks. Once, when a group of our members were seen in the company of Bhante Aggacitta and I, they were given very cheap rates while another group who went shopping on their own, were charged three times the price.
Whenever dana was performed, it was always a truly joyous occasion and it is not unusual to have a few hundred monks for dana. It costs so little to build temples there; for example a stupa can be erected at a minimal cost of a few thousand ringgit only. I am truly happy to be able to see the real Myanmar where Buddhism is pure and entrenched in the minds of the people and where the meditative experience is so intensive.
I visited the Purple Bamboo Grove Meditation Centre in Yueyang, Hunan. Initially, my visa application to China was rejected. This was because the Chinese authorities are wary of all religious personalities as a result of the activities of the Falungong. It was only after an appeal to assure them that I was there to seek medical treatment and not for religious reasons that I finally got my visa.
Although by name a meditation centre, only the two Sangha members of the Mahayana tradition there practised a form of qigong meditation. It was not a practice there to give anumodana talks, so throughout my stay there I did not give any talks after dana. Thus, as a gesture of appreciation for all the dana that I received, I agreed to organise a week-long retreat to teach vipassana meditation to a few people within the privacy of the temple. They were familiar with the Amitabha teachings and way of practice, and were happy to have the chance to learn what they call “the Sakyamuni way”.
Some of them had strong faith in reciting ‘amituofo’ and were encouraged by a monk to persist in reciting beyond the point of fatigue. A few did follow that at the expense of their health. I was told that on two occasions, one of the devotees suddenly woke up in the middle of the night and shouted out ‘Amituofo!’ Obviously the mind had become obsessed with the recitation. Such are the problems that can arise when faith overwhelms wisdom.
In general, all who took part in the retreat achieved some sort of progress. Those who were long-term residents there continued with their service in the temple while attending the retreat. After the fourth day of the retreat, a meditative atmosphere could be felt at the centre where earlier there was none. A thought occurred to me, “Ah, now the ‘meditation centre’ has a ‘meditative flavour’.”
The temple was once used for qigong healing sessions usually attended by thousands of people at a time. Such group energy rendered the healing effective. The same thing applies to group meditation too. It is often more effective than solitary sessions at home. I was told of an inconceivable miracle that happened in a group qigong session. One of the participants who had earlier had the gall bladder surgically removed found that a new, though small, gall bladder has grown back! Inconceivable, isn’t it?
Once, the contractor who sponsored the workforce for some construction work at the temple asked me for blessings. I agreed to do so later at the shrine. A group gathered and I took the opportunity to tell them to take the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts, which would then make the blessings more effective. As I was explaining about the precepts, I noticed that the contractor seemed uneasy. Later I found out the reason: he had a mistress. Then I understood why his secretary who sat behind him was smiling away. Also among the audience was the ex-mayor of Yueyang. After the session, he admitted that he did not recite the precepts because he had a habit of killing mosquitoes. I told him that it is better to keep the precepts even for a short while rather than not at all.
Among the buildings that they were going to build was a monk quarters. I was told by the abbess that it would be ready by the time I go there again next year. I asked how she could be so sure about that when even I have not had such an idea. She said it’s kammically predestined. I don’t know. She is the psychic; not me.
From a young age I realised that life is short and frequently reflected on the purpose of life and the meaning of ‘I’. In the course of my life, I met with quite a number of accidents, some of which were serious but I always managed to emerge practically unscathed. Reflecting on this, I felt that I was destined for more than the mundane existence of life. I was into Christianity at one time but found that although the fellowship among Christians was wonderful, it was ultimately neither satisfactory nor sustaining. My experiences with a few other religious groups also left me feeling dissatisfied. I saw a lot of poverty and suffering while I was working in Indonesia. Being neither interested in the accumulation of wealth nor worldly possession, I decided to renounce. However, my search for peace and truth in Buddhism was not a smooth path for I did not have the good fortune to meet with the right teachers until I went to Sri Lanka where I met my current teacher and underwent a 3-year period of silent intensive self-cultivation.
A lay person fulfilling his duties has to take care of others—parents, spouse, children and home and has no time to take care of his own inner self. To me, a layman’s life is 80% dukkha. However, a little bit of happiness every now and then tends to make us forget this fact, and life goes on in a cycle like this. We must remember that life is short and everyone dies in the end. Knowing this, we should always strive harder. You all in TIMS are lucky to have a dedicated and capable teacher like Bhante Aggacitta to guide you on your journey in search of ultimate liberation. Luckily for me I did finally find a suitable teacher after failing to do so a couple of times.