Metta meditation (lovingkindness/friendliness)

Sitting here in the beautiful Yangon evening and reflecting further on the time spent in the monastery.

Metta meditation loosely translates as lovingkindness meditation from the Pali, but there is no totally satisfactory translation as is often the case with these Pali terms. Another possible translation could be “friendliness meditation” and there is also a connotation with sunlight in the Pali meaning also.

I spent most of the first five days and also some time towards the end of the retreat doing this meditation in preference to the mindfulness practices.

It is considered a good balance with mindfulness practice and is similarly rooted in Buddhist scripture.

The idea is to cultivate a strong feeling of well wishing towards both ourselves and others. It is remarkably simple in concept. We simply repeat simple phrases in the mind such as – may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful; or thinking of another person – may you be happy, healthy, peaceful etc. Being more general – may all be healthy, happy, peaceful etc.

We do our best to focus on the meaning of the words allowing concentration to develop naturally and, over time, this feeling of well wishing gets stronger although with ups and downs as mood, energy and concentration fluctuate.

It is considered a good balance with mindfullness practice; contributing to  calmness, concentration and a general friendliness towards ourselves and others which is so neccessary both in the practice and in life.

There is nothing extraordinary about this mindstate. Indeed it is the natural, ordinary impulse of the mind when fear, anxiety or confusion are absent from the mind.

This practice is especially helpful for dealing with anxiety as this well-wishing mind displaces worry and anxiety in the mind.

I use it with my daughter when putting her to bed at night when she tends to be a little anxious and always marvel at the power and simplicity of the practice. We simply take turns picking out people and wishing them peace, happiness, health, sometimes being a bit playful with the wishes – ” may grandpa pat be especially happy on saturday” for example! We finish by wishing well to all beings everywhere.

It was lovely to do it in the retreat center with the cacophony of life breaking incessantly into the mind visually and especially aurally. Birds, cows, pigs, lizards, car horns, the endles drone of traffic; all ultimately the sounds of life doing its thing. It also desolves the sense of self by orienting us outwards, making us more aware of the smallness of the personal “I” in the greater scheme of things.

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures  and a recording of some chanting, all from the monastery. As ever, feel free to comment and share

 

 

Long hot afternoons and the disappearing self – report from a Buddhist monastery

I had the privilege of spending 18 days in a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. ( Chanmyaymyaing retreat center, mingaladon township.)

It was wonderful to be part of the rhythm of life there. Every day was in the same rhythm. Up at 4, breakfast at 530, work from 630 to 730, lunch at 1030, juice drink at 5, chanting at 6 and return to room at 9. Apart from that we were encouraged to fill the day with meditation; standing, walking and sitting. No books, phones or entertainment. No conversation apart from meditation guidance. Even the meals were a time of mindful practice. We eat slowly and carefully, as a ritual.

Lunch was always a big ritual. Visitors and locals would often visit and stand prayerfully as monks, nuns and lay practitioners walked slowly into the dining area. Eating was in silence; mindful and calm.

The foreign meditators followed a slightly different schedule with a little less chanting then the Burmese. We also had our own meditation hall and were guided by Sister Viranani, an American nun who guided with skill and care. Indeed, although we were encouraged to meditate as much as possible, we all followed our own rhythm; walking and sitting according to our own rhythm. I took rests after lunch and juice and needed to sleep a little at those times in the early part of the retreat.

Chanting would drift up from the Burmese hall at 6 am and 3 pm. Every day had the same rhythm with the same glorious sunshine, hot afternoons and cool evenings. Over time, a different concept of time becomes apparent. Every day is more of a re-day then a new day. It brought to mind how in Irish we say athbhlian ( re-year) as oppose to blian nua ( new year). Our conception of time moving relentlessly forward with interesting things to look forward to is challenged. We just do the day again ! Rhythm and routine holding the practice together.

The other quality which holds everything together here is devotion. Here, of course, meditation is an aspect of religious practice. It isn’t primarily something you do to get a bit happier or more balanced. It’s goal and orientation is spiritual. To move beyond our attachments.

It’s not so easy ! The mind wants entertainment. In the midst of a long afternoon the following little poem came to me.

“Entranced by longing

The hot afternoon, immortal sits.”

And peace comes with the disappearing self. Sounds happen, thoughts happen, the breath happens. Mind and object. We relax deeply in such moments. No ownership of experience.

The evenings were beautiful although my mind was often quite tired at this stage. Watching the monks walk in the cool evenings was especially inspiring. Such peace and dedication in every step. If you will forgive me another little poem…

“Evening. A monks prayerful step.

The world we’re given is enough”

All of this of course will be hard for people to square with the news reports of attrocities in the north of the country. I suppose ultimately any religion can poison the spirit when it becomes dogmatic and/or tribal. Dharma (teaching, nature, truth) not dogma is the way.

The monastery sits right in the heart of life. It is in the middle of a farming village. Life there appeared simple. These people have nothing but their community and their monastery. It is their pride and joy. And the oppertunity to practice is offered freely to anyone although, of course, it is customary to offer donation.

It was a beautiful center with lovely comfortable rooms, very nice mediation areas and lovely trees and plants.  But it was next to a busy road ! Any illusion of outer tranquilty quickly dispelled by honking horns; not to mention the constant sounds of cows, pigs, chickens, cockerals and occasional construction work.  The villagers also love playing Burmese pop music through speakers on fairly frequent occasions. So aurally it was far from ideal ! But the Buddha never promised us a rose garden.

Some pictures…

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This was our meditation halls. Those are mosquito nets hanging.

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Shrine in meditation hall ( above)

Accomodation (above)

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The problem with “Mindfulness”

Ive wanted to write about mindfulness for a while now. I want to talk about how it is being portrayed in the West as a therapeutic intervention for everything from chronic stress to depression, anxiety, severe pain, addiction and many more.

I’ve always bridled at the movement a little although my rational mind has always argued that it is good that meditation techniques are coming to the West.

But being in a deeply Buddhist culture in Myanmar has helped me gain some clarity. What the mindfulness movement has done is taken mindfulness out of the cultural context in which it belongs and presented it as a therapy. It has presented it devoid of both the philosophical and psychological teachings of which it forms a central component. Mindfulness ultimately is a tool to help us understand the nature of life. Although it has healing properties, it doesn’t mean much by itself. It is trite to just say “be in the present”. For a start, from the philosophical perspective of Buddhism we should be free of attachment to both the past, the future but also the present.

Then we can be happy and relaxed.

The Buddhist psychology and philosophy is extremely rich and subtle. It is also far older than Western psychology which is still in its infancy. But Western psychology is aiming to bring mindfulness under its auspices, developing theories around it and studying it. It is ligitimate to ask questions about cultural appropriation.

Just as pharmaceutical companies isolate and take out the active chemical ingredient in traditional medicines, so psychologists and other professionals do something similar with mindfulness.

The end result is that mindfulness is over simplified at times to an almost comical degree.

We should be more humble on the West and respect the full context in which mindfulness belongs. This doesn’t mean one must become a Buddhist to practice mindfullness ( far from it !) but the rich teachings and overall context need to be engaged with and respected.

Anyway here’s a pretty lake !

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Kandwagyi lake in Yongon. Off to the monastery later. Thanks for reading.! It’s been lovely to see so many people reading. Please feel free to share and give me feedback and perspective in the comments section. Best wishes and see you in the new year.

A beautiful day in Yangon

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I had a beautiful day today. My mind was cool, calm and happy as I explored the markets and some of the sights.

I went to the markets first. Bogyoke market is a colonial era market set in what is now a tumble down concrete square but with many beautiful shops selling crafts, clothes and jewellery. The sheer scale was exciting to me. So many stalls and goods!

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Next I went to Theingyi Zei market, an older,  more claustraphobic ( if your that way inclined) market described by the Lonely Planet as “a proper Burmese bazaar” . Again the scale of it was thrilling in its way.

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And then I went to “Junction City” a modern day temple of commerce with awful music but some rather nice interior decoration and a Christmas tree.

The future….perhaps. Air conditioned, clean and spacious. How could you possibly argue with that? 20171214_145310.jpg

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And then there were the temples. Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a am er ( how can I put this?) a roundabout.

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Yes thats right -a roundabout. Rimmed with shops, the inside is rather nice and costs three dollars to enter.  After ordering me to take off my shoes a middle aged lady shoved flowers in hand ( for the Buddha) and charging the equivelent of a dollar. I can’t argue (or even bargain) with middle aged Burmese women ( you learn something new every day I guess!).

Nice enough overall but nothing compared with the Shwedagon Pagoda. This was absolutely stunning. About a 40 minute walk from town I first noticed it here after rounding the bend

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The approach across busy streets requires the usual game of dodge the cars but after that……absolute heaven.

On entering the approach is deceptive and lined with stalls ( ssssh don’t tell Jesus) and there is three flights of stairs as you approach the entrance proper. Then its ten dollers in but totally worth it. I really had no idea of the beauty ahead of me and was grousing inwardly about having to pay!

But then, I was in this beautiful place. Everyone was barefoot and the atmosphere was one of quiet joy.

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Absolutely gorgeous. This is the orient of my dreams. Hundreds of temples, statues and pagodas set in a concentric ring with a gold gilded stupa in the middle 99 meters high. Originally built to a height of 18 meters in the 6-8th centuries, it was raised to 40 meters in the 15th century and brought to its current majestic splendour in the late 18th century.

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In a philistine act the British occupied it in the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824 resulting in vandalism and  pillage and  they and dug a tunnel under the stupa to see if it could store gunpowder. They occupied it again from 1852-1929 following the second Anglo-Burmese war. The Portugese also tried to make off with a bell tower in 1605. He wanted to melt the bell down to make canons but it fell into the river in transit. The same thing happened when the British tried to make off with a bell in the 19th century.

But somehow the stupa survived the Europeans.

Later in the 20th century it became a focal point for both nationalism and later for pro democracy demonstrations also. It is a strong symbol of Myanmar and loved by the people.

It was very special to be there. There were many people, both monks and lay people praying and chanting. I had a very pleasant meditation myself there also.

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And tomorrow I will go to the monastery until the new year. I hope to do one more post before then. Thanks for reading!

Ta Prohm and Angkor Thum

Today I had the pleasure of visiting Ta Prohm and Angkor Thum.

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Angkor Thum is the ruins of the ancient capital city of the Khmer empire and contains the Bayon temple and the Baphuan temple as well as many, many more. The complex sits on a 9 km squared walled site with beautiful gated entrances over another vast moate.

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The Bayon temple is at the heart of the complex and was the state temple

Look at this beautiful smilling stone ! Wouldnt it make you happy just looking at it…

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but the Baphaun is equally impressive.

 

I had some job climbing this in the midday sun.

Ta Prohm is adjacent to Anxhor Thom  and is beautifully synthesized by the forest into an arboreal idyll. Gorgeous.

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There is something deeply joyful about Ta Prohm. The trees growing around and out of these gorgeous ruins has a deeply soothing, joyfull impact on the mind. They strike the unconscious as a deep and potent symbol of impermanence and transformation. Perhaps we are reminded the future will be beautiful in any case, whatever happens.

I had some phone troubles today too ! My data ran out at the temples and I had to navigate the old fashioned way – often asking for directions ! Signage was pretty bad and I’d left my physical guide books at home.

Notwithstanding this cycling around the temples is really very pleasant and the streets are quite enjoyable to cycle on. It is chaos, but everyone is very mannerly on the road. There is no aggresive driving and everyone weaves around each other taking good care.

Tomorrow Ive hired a tuk tuk to go see some of the further temples. And hoping to catch an early sunrise at ankwar wat also.

National museum of Cambodia, Wat Ounalom and The Royal Palace

I woke early today and put my trip back on track. By which I simply mean that I accomplished my plans for the day. I went to the national museum and the royal palace. In between I purchased some books and spent many hours in bars and cafes taking an epic amount of time over coffees, teas, water snd meals.

I very much enjoyed the museum which features art from the golden khmer age right through to the present. Naturally it consists mostly of Buddhas, carved out of wood or stone. Indeed parts of rhe museum are more like a temple with offerings to the Buddha being made and “guardians” attending to them.

I must say this was entirely to my liking and added greatly to both the liviliness and beauty of the place. The courtyard too was exceptionally peaceful and felt like a much needed refuge from both the heat and the cacaphony of the street. I sat there in a peaceful stupor drinking in the tranquil morning atmosphere.20171204_085723.jpg

 

After the museum I went to Wat Ounalom and stopped into the temple. The monks were warm and welcoming and spoke a little English. I meditated a little in the temple just as they were having their mid day meal. It was lovely to hear their affable, happy conversations as I meditated. I am wary of projecting too much onto these monks however. I know little of their lives.

As a solo traveller I am very much at the mercy of books to keep me company and purchased some new books in a gorgeous book store just outside the monastery of Wat Ounalom. I added Steinbecks Of mice and men and Orwells Burmese days to my collection.

I have just completed Herman Hesses Sidartha and am nearing the end of Eamon Kelly’s book Irelands master storyteller. The latter deserves its own blog posting here which Ill get around to shortly but I will mention that it is a wonderful travel campanion full of humor and insight.

After lunch I went to the royal palace and had a wander around. It was a beautiful tranquil space with many beautiful buildings mixing royal symbolism and adornments with Buddhism. I imagine that after the viscious persecution of Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge the easy marriage between royalty and Buddhism is a soothing reminder of a timeless order for the average Cambodian. But I am only speculating as an outsider of course. As soon as I start speaking of “the average Cambodian ” or ” the man in the street” I have almost certainly ceased to say anything usefull and am drifting into cliche and stereotype. Here are some photos and some music I heard there also performed in the courtyard.

Travels in Cambodia . Day 1

So I started this blog with the intension of writting about all things Irish but it feels good to write here about my foreign trips too.

I therefore present what I can only call an outsiders guide to Cambodia.

My intension really is to share. Its that simple. I will try and avoid cliche and keep it personal and honest.

I was alternately nervous and excited about the trip. Ive dreamed of coming to south east asia ever since I started practicing Buddhist meditation 17 years ago. You must be wondering why I waited so long. It seems every second person has been here but for me somehow it never happened. As I settled into fatherhood and career it never felt like the right time. I must credit Tom Ferris the writer, podcaster and blogger for shaking up my mind about what is possible in the midst of lifes demands and responsibilities. Like many of my generation my work is largely day to day and job to job as both a teacher and tour guide but rather then cursing this state of affairs I am going to view it as an oppertunity.

So here I am.

It is simply wonderful to be here. Stuff is happening everwhere. The rocky footpaths are jammed with food stalls, barbers, mechanics, carvers. Anything and everything jostling together. Tuk tuk drivers constantly looking for work. Its a grind, Im not blind. But everyone is so good natured, if clearly snowed in with the demands of a hard life.

Making.Ends.Meet.

And then there are the monks and the beautiful monasteries. Like lights they move around in their saffron robes. My heart is happy when I see them. The monasteries and temples are by far the most beautiful buildings and stick out as sincere human refuges amidst the cacophanous 21st century mess we are catching ourselves up in.  Children are playing around them. I sat in a temple amidst a few teenage monks while the kids kicked a ball outside. Birds were singing within the temple. I could hear cocks crowing somewhere in the grounds. The city din receded to a gentle hum. My mind was gentle and peaceful. I could have been in the middle ages.

It helped that my phone was in the repair shop all day getting unblocked. Practicalities intruded on my mind then after leaving the temple. I was anxious about not having my phone. Would it be fixed? Was I being overcharged.? The muddiness of life that we love.

By the evening my phone was finally fixed. I heard the monks chanting on my home. Heart lifted and mind reacquinted with my mental internet candy.

So onwards and upwards…tomorrow is another day. And a day at my leisure….may it change me and seap into my bones…

Lots of love, Alan