"And what kind of meditation did the Blessed One commend? Here someone, quite secluded from sensual desires, secluded from unwholesome states, enters upon and abides in the first meditation, which is accompanied by thinking and exploring, with happiness and pleasure born of seclusion. And he enters upon and abides in the second, the third and the fourth meditations. The Blessed One commended such meditation."
Thus is it said in the Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, written with great originality and uniqueness entirely from the Pali Canon.I’ve meditated but never reached any jhana which jhanas are what is stated in the passage above. But one thing I’ve learned: never to give up, never to be disappointed and never to say "I cannot do it, I’ll never get anywhere." I will, some day, probably in another birth since in this I am too entrenched in life and living of the mundane sort.
This is the advice given by all teachers of meditation and those who guide meditators – never get discouraged nor get too obsessed with getting results. Just sitting perfectly still and relaxed and watching the breath or processes within is triumph enough, for the moment.
Vesak should mean meditation
The ambience or aura of Vesak is still around us. The white clad filling up temples and meditation centres from early dawn; the flickering light of the clay pahana and the muted radiance of the Vesak lantern; the piles of flowers whose fragrance is overpowered by that of joss sticks. And most significant of all – the emphasis now placed on meditation and not on mere worship, rites and rituals.
The mind and attention veer away from the garish pandals, the noisy dansalas, the loud music. Vesak is essentially a quiet, introspective time when one needs to sit quiet and, yes, meditate or at least try to.
Easier said than done; very much easier. One realizes how excitable, how intransigent, how utterly active the quicksilver mind is; how difficult to hold it down. It shoots this way and that with this thought and that. But of course it can be controlled. Truly happy are those who have succeeded in this.
My kalyana mithra with whom I first meditated under Ayya Khema’s instructions is able to sit for two hours at a stretch completely absorbed. This in spite of her arthritis. She gently asks me how I am progressing and is never disapproving. Maybe she hides her disappointment that I still do not always feel the breath entering me and never its exit. She is kind to me and appreciates what I have done for her – being ready to steady her with a helping hand if she decides to spend the poya day at the meditation centre. We’ve done a lot together.
Parappuduwa Nuns’ Island
When Ayya Kkema gave up the Nuns’ Island at Parappuduwa in Dodanduwa, we formed a committee and ran the island for the benefit of meditators. Ayya Khema left at the height of the JVP insurgency since she said she was not going to live once again fenced in by barbed wire. She had suffered during the Holocaust. So my kalyana mithuri and I would travel by bus to Dodanduwa, walk to the edge of the lake and get rowed across by the very dynamic head monk of the Island Hermitage, or his boatman. We had to go see to the resident domestic and later the Dutch nun who lived on the island. JVP Insurgents were suspected of using the meditation hall for a night’s sleep so when my friend and I walked to the hall early in the morning, we would shout to each other, hoping our voices would have any young intruders disappear in their boats. We arranged many retreats for women and even an all night pirit at Parappuduwa, the pirit because the Dutch nun said there definitely was a presence (read ghost) at the far end of the island where her kuti was.
It was difficult to have meditators or nuns living on the island once the head monk of the Island Hermitage died, so Nuns’ Island was transferred to the monks in the adjoining hermitage.
A nun so pure
It was on visits to Parappuduwa, invited over by Ayya Khema, that we first got to know Ayya Vayama from Australia. She was young, she was slender and tall, and very willing to lend a hand to any task. Whether strong or not, whether justified or not, she was delegated all the chopping of branches of overgrown trees and carrying of water from the well to the dormitory and nuns’ kutis when the water pump broke down.
She moved away from Parappuduwa but always kept in touch with two friends and me. She decided to spend some time in the London Vihara and as a gesture of thanks to us three women, she arranged a tour of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. I will never forget the feeling that enveloped me as we sat on the rock opposite the Gal Vihara and gazed for two hours at the statues, our admiration and piety enhanced by the wonder of the companionship we shared.
It was on this visit that early one morning we went to the Ruwanveliseya and sat in quiet reflection – me, while the others soon were absorbed in their meditation. I heard a discussion by a group of pilgrims. "Aney aluth rupayak. Langadi hadala" This was repeated by a man in a group that came later with all his nade` agreeing. Had I missed a new statue? I opened my eyes and looked around. Nothing new. I then realized they had mistaken Ayya Vayama for a statue, seated very straight in her brown robe, meditating with not a muscle moving, even when surrounded and gazed at by the curious. She gave such a guffaw when I related the incident to her. She had been totally unaware of the comments made. That was Ayya Vayama, so human and so ready to laugh and enjoy a joke but able to lose herself completely in absorbed meditation.
She was invited by Ven. Brahmavamso to start a nunnery in Perth and she did that and is now head of a well run, well populated nun’s resort in Gidgegannup She lived for months in a trailer all alone in the forest while the first building was put up. Ajahn Vayama as she is now known, is very occupied with teaching, conducting retreats and supervising Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery.
An aside in the nature of a grouse, with annoyance strictly controlled, is that one cannot meditate either in the maha maluwa of the Sacred Bo Tree nor in the precincts of the Ruwanveliseya because of the chanting by a kapurala in the former place and the mike shouted thanks to donors of money near the Stupa. However much we grouse this will not stop - this disturbing of the peace in these most holy of places. Money collection is the root of the disturbance.
When my mother increased her sil taking from the full moon poya to the others, there still was no meditation as it is practiced now. Her meditation was moving her fingers from one bead to another on her naagunawela while repeating that stanza that starts with atti atti. Maybe she succeeded in concentrating on the asubhas of the body. Conscripted to observe sil with her when I was young, I never could master this verse. My thoughts would roam to a better-than-usual lunch and how to escape Mother’s sharp eye and go play a game or get bullied by my brother who escaped the sil sessions. My third sister went one better. All garbed in white and seated on a mat, she studied the Holy Bible because she had a scripture test the next day!
On this Sunday of the Vesak weekend, my most felt emotion is gratitude. You sit or kneel near the bo tree in the temple premises and it is total gratitude to Him who gave us this wonderful Dhamma – His so practical Teaching. He was patient and understood full well the frailty of humans.
Gratitude to parents and elders who gave us life and living so we now can fully appreciate what they did for us.
Gratitude to Ayya Khema for her almost evangelical exposition of the benefits of meditation and how to get about it; to Ayya Vayama for her humaneness and understanding. She is a living demonstration that a truly good person with much equanimity within radiates, actually radiates a sense of such calm wellbeing and joy that one feels it when in her presence. Gratitude to my friends too, particularly the one who reaches jhanas (I presume; she never tells).
Gratitude to the late Ven Ratwatte Siddhartha who in lay life almost single-handedly got built the wonderful meditation retreat in Hindagala right on top of a hill, and to those like his wife and other teachers who continue to run Dhamma Kuta excellently so we who wish to get away from ordinary life and live a couple of days in a better state, can do so.Feeling gratitude is a lovely feeling – warm if you are cold, cool if you are hot and bothered. So it’s not to worry if you cannot forget all about you and lose yourself in meditation. One lives and improves!!