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Notes from Limmud 2009

Buddhism in Britain

the Venerable Amaranatho Samanera

from the Amaravati Buddhist Centre in Hertfordshire

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[Having recently read Buddhism Explained by Laurence Khantipalo-Mills, I was motivated to go back and reread these notes I took of a talk at Limmud given by a Jewish Buddhist monk. If you're not very knowledgeable about Buddhism, though, I recommend you to go and read a book such as this one: this talk is not IMO comprehensive enough to serve as a general introduction to the subject, which is not to say you shouldn't read it even if you don't know anything about Buddhism. I, after all, originally did.]

Monastic tradition is not for many; there's only fifty or sixty from his tradition in this country. There's no need to keep it going; in Thailand there are temples which have fallen into ruin. He's not allowed to preach; only if people ask him can he talk about Buddhism.

The style of robes is 2500 years old, part of the Thai Forest Tradition. The Dala Lama wears red; monks in towns bright orange.

Ten rules: no killing, stealing, lying, drink or intoxicants, money, sex, luxurious beds, meals after twelve o'clock, singing, dancing or jewellery. There are 100 training rules for a novice monk, 127 rules for a full monk.

The speaker is an alms mendicant: He goes out on the street, not every day, and waits. He can't ask for anything apart from water. He lives on faith and generosity. There is quite a connection between Judaism and Buddhism about generosity. A reciprocal relationship between them and the people that support us.

Disproportionately, there are a huge number of Jews in Buddhism. This dialogue was initiated by the Dalai Lama: He wanted to know how he could keep his tradition going; so he invited rabbis to come and talk at Daramasala. This book The Jew and the Lotus produced the phenomenon of "Bu-Jews".

The speaker's tradition is based on practice, not scriptures. It's about trying to realise what life is all about. The first Noble Truth: there is suffering [dukkha in Pali, duhkha in Sanskrit]. The second: What's the cause of suffering? Trying to understand and investigate this, through meditation: contemplation or reflection. Contemplation is taking a text, breaking it down and .

Three-month retreat at his monastery in "noble silence" (they can talk in particular places). They sit and walk every day for three months. Obviously not for neophytes!

"Nirvana" means to blow out a candle. As they sit in meditation and watch their minds, as they understand the movement of their mind and can do something about it. Things they want to grab hold of, or things they want to push away. Generally, they are always doing one of those two.

Buddhism is about radical acceptances. It doesn't say we agree with something or disagree with it. As a monk, he cannot defend himself: his robe stops him doing that without making a conscious decision to free his right hand.

From watching things pass, you respond rather than react. Reaction is coming from a habit, but the more they relax or trust or have faith, they free themselves from the habit and can just respond.

Meditation is happening all the time; you don't need to sit in the lotus position or anything. You don't even need to have a peaceful mind; just relax the mind. As you incline your mind towards relaxation and accepting who you are, [lacuna?]. Put a petal on your hand and see what it does. As you hold a thought, see what wisdom arises out of you. Wisdom is not extraordinary; it's natural. It just takes a willingness to open up.

If you could spiritually attain nirvana you'd buy it at Tesco. You don't spiritually attain it, you recognise it.

R. Nachman of Breslov: Go out into the forest and have a good old scream and shout; but also to be quiet and listen. Meditation is being quiet and listening.

We're educated; education means splitting your mind in two; which means you can't [lacuna].

"Buddha" means to wake. In the Zohar 1.4a: "You beings on Earth are in deep slumber and awaken. Who among you have laboured to to turn darkness into light And bitterness into sweetness?"

"God" is a tricky word: From a contemplatitive point of view, what does it mean. It comes from "go"; what does it mean. What does י־ה־ו־ה (the letters of the Tetragrammaton) mean? From [lacuna] the point of view of "I Am that I Am" is very Buddhist. י־ה־ו־ה corresponds to the four elements. From the Buddhist point of view you get to figure out what God is for yourself. It's about the Infinite. You can't describe it. We call G-d "The Name" because it's indescribable. "Sinyatta"—"emptiness", also indescribable.

Nirvana: space. There's more space in this room than things. On the one level, people-to-people, there's always trouble, strife, suffering. Joy, well-being. "Amaranatho", means "refuge in the deathless". Deathlessness is unconditioned, there are no conditions for it. In order to come here, we needed the chairs in the room, the people who made the chairs, the screws, everything.

The speaker is not even sure he is a Buddhist: Buddhism is an attitude you take towards life. The speaker has been a monk for ten years; it was a calling he could not resist. He resisted for two years. He was a very successful computer geek, but the urge came up to give all that up.

His first meditation course: Go-enko, hard-core meditation. Sit ten hours a day. At the end of the ten-day course, he tasted an orange for the first time in his life. He never experienced an orange before. You experience life in a [lacuna]

It's like Christmas time. Out there [outside of Limmud] it's insane. This mindset of wanting and wanting and wanting. There's no centre in this world anymore. Meditation means self-centring, in your truth or beingness or whatever. This allows you to see the world for what it is.

But this means you have to feel the suffering of everything and the joy of everything; it's part of what goes with it.

[Audience question:] Why are so many Jewish people attracted to Buddhism? Speaking for himself, the speaker couldn't find the wisdom, because it was too ignorant. Now to him it's obvious. He can read his barmitzvah piece and it's clear as a bell; it speaks to him and makes complete sense.

When he speaks to Christian monks, it makes sense too. The tzaddikim who were wiped out in the Holocaust held the oral tradition; it's only just coming back now.

[Audience question:] A large percentage of the males in Thailand become monks, but there's a lot of monks abusing young girls and so forth. How does he reconcile this? It's because of karma "action" [lacuna] vipaka karma "the result of your actions" [lacuna] a lot of corrupt monks

Dana = generosity; Sila = morality, natural morality: When your mind calms down nobody will steal, nobody will kill. Semadi = concentration. What you get if you read the Torah and concentrate on the words; you get absorbed by the text. Yet we ignore it; we don't recognise it. And then wisdom arises naturally, it's no big deal.

Buddhism is not about getting rid of the ego; it's about putting the ego into perspective, not allowing it to rule your life.

Mindful-space cognitive therapy is now an NHS-approved therapy. Gamma-state brain waves.

A typical day: Bell went at 4am; Meditate 5-6; Chant 20 minutes in English or Pali, then breakfast. Then work around the monastery: running family camps, doing interfaith work outside the monastery. Afternoon meal at 3, then go back for more meditation.

The third Noble Truth: Cessation. When things stop, there is no problem any more.

Non-attachment to things is misunderstood in the West. Because they do have care and they do have love, attachment to things does arise, but also ceases. This allows them to deal with the death of someone. If someone dies they will have grief; they learn to feel that really deeply.

The Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilbur says an integrated practice, meaning that meditation will not do it for most westerners. You need other tools as well, to go with the meditation.

The Buddha said no statues, no imagery, no nothing. But as religions evolve, people need imagery. [The book I read on Buddhism said Buddhists had no images until they encountered the Greeks, five hundred years after the time of the Budda.] So all the different Buddhas you see are culturally appropriate. Chinese Buddhas are fat because that's viewed as being good in China; Thai Buddhas are very pretty.

As you meditate, they will resonate with you and tell you what they mean. His neck is swollen because of his meditative posture. His eyes are downcast so you need to get down and look up to make eye contact. Long earlobes because they remind you to listen.

There's no disgrace for a monk disrobing and going back, or back and forth again multiple times.

Tibetan monks drive and handle money; we don't. Boddhisatvas: people who defer enlightenment to help other people. But underneath it all, they're all the same.

Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path. The first one: Right View: You are not who you think you are. It's your mind that creates perception.

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