Que Viva Buddha en Mexico!

A Conversation Between Morgan Z. Callahan

and Bhikkhu Nandisena

Jilotepec, Veracruz, Mexico

  Not to do any evil,

To cultivate what is wholesome,

To purify one’s mind and heart:

This is the teaching of the Buddhas.

(Dhammapada, verse 183)

It’s been an enjoyable and illuminating two visits (April, ’08 and April, ’09) to Dhamma Vihara Monastery where I conversed with the abbot, Theravada Buddhist monk and teacher, Venerable Nandisena, and some of his students

I want to thank Bertha Imas, Alina Morales, Sr. and Sra. Murrieta (who took me to and from the monastery on my first visit), the Vasquez family (Julio, Hortensia, Paloma, Palomita and our young guide, Yair, who drove me to the monastery on my second visit). I was curious to visit Dhamma Vihara, the only Theravada Buddhist Monastery in Latin America.

Let me start backwards, with a brief account of my second visit in April, ’09 where a meditation retreat for 25 retreatants was just finishing.  I met three Mexican retreatants and one retreatant from the U.S.: They extolled the virtues of “dropping out,” “slowing down to observe their breath whether sitting on a chair or cross-legged, walking, or lying down.”

The retreatants at Dhamma Vihara practice both “mindfulness meditation” (Satipatthana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, 10)  and metta meditation (Metta Sutta). Mindful meditation is emphasized. In metta meditation practice, the retreatants shower loving kindness to themselves and others. The retreatants also do a practice called “sharing merit.” At the end of the day, the meditators recite out loud, “May all beings share the merits received by us for the obtaining of any kind of happiness.” [Que todos los seres compartan los méritos que hemos obtenido para la adquisicíon de todo tipo de felicidad; que los seres que habitan el espacio y la tierra compartan nuestros méritos que ellos protejan las enseñanzas.]

The retreatants practice 13 hours a day of meditation, all day long. Be mindful. Notice. Pay attention. Go deeply within. Relax. Calm down.  Pay Attention to breath. Let go of anger, greed and ignorant delusions. Radiate feelings that all be well, happy! Intend for there to be peace, within and without. Study the teachings. Do lots of sitting and walking meditation. Keep the precepts.

I had the chance to have a short chat with Bhikkhu during this second visit. Bhikku was very animated after the three previous days’ celebration of the 10th anniversary of the monastery.  We shared some hearty laughter.

I’m lucky to have met Bhikkhu, because I’m learning more about the history of Buddhism in Mexico and the activities of current genuine Buddhist centers, where Mexicans and people from around the world are practicing meditation.  

 I enjoyed the natural environment of Dhamma Vihara.  The people of Jilotepec I met are supportive of having a Buddhist monastery in a predominantly Catholic population.

Here is a brief history of Dhamma Vihara.

 

The 10 Year History of Dhamma Vihara, by Alina Morales

Years ago I took some workshops. The subject was attachment, change and impermanence.  The newly acquired perspective of these concepts widened my view of the world and life and I was very grateful to the person who shared this knowledge with me.  Some years after attending these workshops, I learned about Buddhist meditation, which helped me to put these new concepts into practice.

This finding was definitive, because what one learns in theory is not always easy to take into practice.  Meditation started to help me to get rid of everything that did not help me to be well, tranquil, and to have peace of mind.  The hardships that later came to my life did not seem to affect me the way they did to those persons closest to me.

A couple of years later I met Venerable U Silananda and Venerable U Nandisena, when Bhikkhu Nandisena was to come to live to Mexico. It was then that I started to deepen in my knowledge of Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism.  The purity of this teaching opened up an even wider outlook, to wit, the importance of the precepts, service, generosity.  Bhikkhu  Nandisena's life was also a good example that strongly influenced my life.

To establish a Buddhist monastery in a place with strong Catholic roots is something very commendable, and especially when circumstances and conditions are not the most favorable.

In the beginning, a group of people from Veracruz invited Venerable U Silananda and Venerable U Nandisena to come to Mexico to establish a meditation center.  Once Venerable U Nandisena was established in Mexico, and after some time had passed by, it was evident that the interest of the original group was only in meditation as a mean
s to a psychologically healthy mind--and not to the spiritual aspects of the Buddhist teachings.  Also the protocol and care of the Sangha was not scrupulously kept.  So after some time, the original group that started this project left, and a group of people living in different parts of the Mexican Republic, mostly from Mexico City, took charge of the monastery.  From then on, the actual conditions we counted on were not the most favorable because the majority of the people that supported the monastery lived hours away from it.  However, subsequently, little by little, people from Xalapa and Veracruz City have gotten closer and now we count on the support of people who live closer to the Vihara, in the State of Veracruz. 

Because of impermanence, people come and go; they help a little and then move away. And I think that the teachings of the Dhamma and Bhikkhu Nandisena's example of strength have given me and some others that started to work with him from the beginning, the needed strength to keep on working in spite of the hardships found in our way, in spite of the obstacles of the distance
and the lack of people to attend to Bhikkhu and the monastery properly.

Some of the members of the group have had the intention of residing in the Vihara in order to support and fulfill the needs of Venerable U Nandisena, so he can count on receiving the right care and to also provide facilities for the many persons who are willing to practice and learn from the teachings of Venerable U Nandisena, but until now it has not been possible.  We really hope we soon can find the conditions to make this a reality.

                             

My First Visit 

 I did the interview with Ven. Nandisena, April of ’08.  We have since asked for more clarifications.  So this has been a conversation from April ’08 to July, ’09. Before doing the interview, I was invited to come a few hours early to do sitting and walking meditation. I spent some time just walking around the property with its expansive green lawn. The animals made friends with me: a black dog with tan paws and mouth named Tasha; a cat, white and brownish gold, named Sampatti; A brown, white-collared dog named Suvanno. A very loving dog, Suvanno, gets around graciously without a left front leg. I later encountered an inquisitive golden tan and white, dark-nosed donkey, Upekkha, as she was viewing a meditator, Juan, who was serenely composed, sitting on a front porch.

Two main buildings with a meditation hall, a library and study room, guest rooms, and a fully equipped kitchen are situated on 22 acres of natural beauty in the mist forest of Jilotepec. Fog was crawling over the trees; spindly yellowish green cacti were peeking up through deep green grass.

During my afternoon “Day of Recollection,” I did two hours of walking meditation. The hilly environment of Jilotecpec, Veracruz seemed also to be making friends with me. I walked up to the edges of the woods, some going uphill.  Oaks and birds and animalitos, delicate rosy wild flowers, icons of a Golden Buddha shining in a brilliance of peace, an artistically done but somewhat claustrophobic meditation room where I sat cross-legged for 45 minutes, just sitting, being aware of whatever was arising. I recalled Robert Aitken’s description of sitting meditation: “Sinking into one’s bones and sinews and facing the bare emptiness of the mind. This mind is both inside and outside--neither inside or outside.”

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Interview with Bhikkhu

Bhikkhu Nandisena was born in Argentina; he’s an Italian whose lay name is Angel Oscar Valentinuzzi.

He studied in the Taungpulu Kaba Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California and was ordained in 1991. His teacher was U Silananda from Burma (RIP, ’05). His preceptor was Hlaing Tet Sayadaw.

We talked about the following topics:

Bhikkhu’s Teachers

Theravada (from the Burmese tradition) in Mexico

Meditation

The Fifth Precept to refrain from Intoxicants/Vegetarianism

Bhikkhu’s Translation Work

 The Meaning of Theravada Buddhism 

 Social Action and Sharing Merit

Bhikkhu started the interview wanting to know about my own involvement in Buddhism.

Bhikkhu’s Teachers

MZC: Thank you for receiving me and having this conversation. I appreciate your time. It’s a blessing to be with you.  My friend, Ken Ireland, a Buddhist for more than 30 years, has contributed some of the questions I’d like to ask.

BN: What was your first exposure to Buddhism? And where do you practice now? Tell me what practices you do?

MZC: With Suzuki Roshi in 1969. A wonderful introduction. I especially benefited from his teaching of “not-knowing,” i.e. Suzuki Roshi would talk about how we cannot fully know the other or completely comprehend the great mysteries of life and that we should keep open, listen deeply, be in the present, keep discovering and uncovering, being full of the wonder that reality and love require of us, keeping “our beginner’s mind.” 

And he’d say that illuminous “beginner’s mind” is already available to us, if we’d just pay attention. I still considered myself a Catholic, so, luckily for me, I never got into the “ism” part of Zen Buddhism and, for the most part I never felt Suzuki Roshi was overwhelmed by the inevitable “institutional politics.”  Well, it was the late’60’s. What a time of free exploration on many multi-colored levels!

BN: Yes, Suzuki Roshi was the founder of the Zen Center in San Francisco.

MZC: And for the past 18 years or so I’ve been part of the community at the Rosemead Buddhist Monastery where Bhante Chao Chu (whom you’ve met at the International Buddhist Conferences in Thailand and Vietnam) is the abbot. I try to meditate daily, but I don’t always. Sometimes during the day, I take a break from working, and focus on breathing mindfully. In the morning, besides “just sitting” I use a few moments to send some loving kindness to myself and to all of us, at times picturing or thinking about a particular person who may be difficult for me or about the soldiers in Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, about children, my family and friends and poor around the world. Sometimes I picture the young children on the streets here in Veracruz who are working and begging and some sleeping there. I also wish and pray for those who are now happy to have their happiness increased.

BN: Theravada is mostly taught at the Rosemead Monastery? Ven. Chao Chu has studied both Theravada and Mahayana?

 MZC: Yes, Bhante Chao Chu teaches that all the three major forms of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrajana, are to be respected and considered to be complementary. But Theravada is emphasized.

You are ordained and teach in the Theravada tradition. Would you tell us about your teacher and preceptor?

BN: Yes, all the branches of Buddhism must work together as you know. I studied the teachings of U Silandanda. My preceptor, Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, presided over my ordination. You are under the supervision of the preceptor for five years in the Theravada tradition. My preceptor was the abbot of Boulder Creek in California. He passed away at age 97 just before U Silananda died in 2005.

Theravada (from the Burmese tradition) in Mexico

MZC: How much of the cultural elder school, especially from East Asia, have you brought to Mexico, this Lain American country? For example, robes, language, chanting, ceremonies?

BN: I wouldn’t use the word “cultural,” because the Theravada tradition stresses the basic scriptures, the Tripitaka, the 3 Baskets of the Buddha’s teachings. The chanting is done in Pali.  So we’ve brought Theravada Buddhism here, not the culture. We do the morning chanting, devotional chanting and the protectional chanting. We practice insight meditation. In the Burmese tradition we have our robes, but we don’t use bowls here in Mexico. We just have our tables in the dining room; we eat on the floor. We don’t go out and beg for food. There are no Buddhists around here.

MZC: Yes, the teachings are important, but I would imagine there are specific challenges teaching Theravada in Mexico. Have you created any ceremonies specifically for the Mexican people?

BN: No, we haven’t really. We have two yearly ceremonies, one to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday in May and one called the “Day of Lights” at the end of October, the full moon. The Buddha came back in the Theravada tradition from one of the higher planes of existence where he was accompanied with celestial beings during the night. So the night became day. We have not invented anything.

MZC:  What kind of questions do the practitioners ask you? What are the most common interests among those who come to you?

BN: Well, different kinds of people come. Local people come. These local people are curious to see what we do here, to see the Buddhist images. For these people, I emphasize sila, right conduct. Some others come from other parts of Mexico who are already Buddhists or very interested in Buddhism and they ask about meditation. They tend to be more serious about the practice and they ask about the dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha.

I do think for all, the foundation is sila, ethics, and the 5 precepts. So all of us should follow Buddhist ethics, which means we do not cause harm or suffering to other beings. The only way not to cause suffering to other beings is to follow these precepts.

MZC: I share your appreciation for the Mexican people, such an amazing people with a rich culture.

I’ve experienced that, especially in the past, there wasn’t a strong current of volunteerism here in Mexico, e.g. in regard to our work with the street children. I think that’s changing in Mexico. I’m most impressed by the young people around works such as Matraca and Vivir Joven, which do a lot of both heartfelt and practical service for the poor. I’ve seen a whole new wave of youth reaching out to the most needy areas here in Veracruz. How do you feel enriched by the Mexican culture? What do you feel Buddhism can offer the Mexican people?

BN: I like the Mexican culture for several reasons. There is a wonderful tolerance and warmth here. We like the people and they like us as well. What can we offer? We can bring the teachings of sila here, more awareness of how to lessen suffering in our interaction as human beings. We need to live together harmoniously. We want to teach the importance of not stealing, not cheating each other, not falling into drunkenness and drug abuse, not doing physical violence. That’s why Buddhism can be important here.

MZC:  Perhaps the use of the sacrament of Confession in the Catholic tradition can be used as a magical way to avoid responsibility, rather than as a way to be more aware of one’s actions and their effects.

BN: Magical. You do away with all your faults.

MZC: In Buddhism, there’s more of an effort to cut away the roots of those inclinations and tendencies to conduct oneself in hurtful ways to oneself and others?

BN: I think that’s the difference. In Buddhism, that’s what meditation and the practice of morality in daily life can offer here.

MZC: People who are Catholics can then be enriched in their Catholism by Buddhist practices and teachings.

BN: Yes, I think so. People come here as Catholics and leave as better Catholics, truer to the best in their tradition. We are teaching by example. We are living the ethical teachings. It will take many generations for a good number of people to practice Buddhism here. We’re happy if Buddhism helps one be a better Catholic.

MZC: Do you feel encouraged by the response you’ve received here in Mexico?

BN: Yes, I do. We’ve survived ten years here. I am still enthused. What we lack here is the presence of more Buddhist monks. Monks do not want to come here. I know many Burmese monks and they are not interested in coming to Mexico.

MZC: Is it the language and the culture?

BN:  That’s why. And the food (laughing).

MZC: The Burmese monks want to go to the U.S.

BN:  Yes, yet they stay isolated in Burmese communities in the U.S. where they can speak the language and follow their customs. There are thousands of Burmese in Los Angeles. This is good for the Burmese in California, but I don’t know how good this is for Buddhism at large. The monks don’t reach out. My teacher was an exception. Ven. Silananda was interested in touching many people in the United States and around the world. The monks in the U.S. are overly shy. They are invited by many of the Burmese families to chant and so on, so they are comfortable

MZC: Perhaps you can encourage the young monks to come here?

BN: Maybe. Even the young monks only want to visit and then return to their Burmese communities in the U.S. U Silananda had a missionary spirit. There was a Mexican monk here, Ven. Thitapuñño, who is from the state of Puebla. He was a monk for 5 years; he was ordained in Canada. He’s still active with Buddhism, but as a layperson.  In our Theravada tradition, we do not have married monks. In the Mahayana and Tibetan traditions, there are some who are allowed to marry.

MZC:  What more would you tell us about the history of Buddhism here in Mexico? The filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky, in The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky introduced many to his first and very impressive spiritual master, Zen Buddhist Ejo Takata. Jodorowsky’s play, Zarathustra ran continuously for a full year and a half in the late 60’s, with Ejo sitting in meditation on the stage for two hours. Ejo said: “By having me participate in your work, you have introduced many thousands of Mexicans to Zen meditation.” (The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsy, p. 15). Ejo Takata was all the way out there.

 I see there are at least ten Zen centers in Mexico City. I’ve become aware that there are also a few Tibetan Buddhist centers in Mexico. I’m told there are about 12,000 Buddhists in Mexico. What can you tell us about the Buddhists, who are not Theravada, here in Mexico and Latin America? And are there any native born monks in any of the Buddhist practice centers in all of Latin America?

BN: I do not much about the history of Buddhism in Mexico. I know that long before we established the monastery near Xalapa, a Thai monk had been coming to Mexico to teach Vipassana. His name is Ajahn Tong. I heard Master Ejo Takata was one of the first who established a center in Mexico. Theravada is the smallest of the three branches of Buddhism in Mexico. I do not know of other native born monks in Latin America.

Meditation

MZC: Would you expand upon how meditation influences the daily life of your students? What problems with meditation do your students bring you? What are some of the benefits they find in practicing meditaion?  What is your principal teaching on the practice of meditation?

BN: Meditation helps my students to be more mindful of their everyday activities and to have less mental impurities. During retreats sometimes they report they have difficulty keeping their posture during the entire period of one hour; sometimes they experience intense pain; they also report difficulty keeping the mind on the main object of meditation. They find that meditation brings peace of mind. I teach mindfulness meditation focusing on the breath as the main object.

MZC: Would you express this in terms of the complementarity of samatha meditation (e.g., breath with one-focused concentration, tranquility meditation)  and vipassana (just being present, “choiceless awareness,” insight meditation)? How do they work together for your students?  What do you teach about the jhanas (deep absorptions) in meditation?

BN: Both tranquility meditation and insight meditation are part of what is called in Pali bhavana which can be translated as (mental) development. At the Dhamma Vihara we mostly teach and practice insight meditation though we complement it with the practice of loving-kindness meditation, which belongs to the category of tranquility meditation. Tranquility meditation is for the development of concentration, which is an important step for the development of wisdom. I find the practice of loving-kindness meditation helps my students deal with anger and hatred, and the whole range of situations related with those unwholesome mental states. Regarding the absorptions, it is important to mention that there are two kinds of absorptions or contemplations: (1) the contemplation of the object (arammanupanijjhana), which corresponds to tranquility meditation, and (2) the contemplation of the characteristics (lakkhanupanijjhana), which corresponds to insight meditation.  I am omitting the Pali diacritical marks.

 We emphasize vipassana (insight) meditation, while sometimes teaching samatha meditaion (concentration).  We use all 4 postures, sitting, walking, standing and lying down. During retreats, we have one hour sitting, then one hour walking. Of course, we observe the precepts during the retreats. We also study the teachings.

MZC: I recently listened to a talk by Boddhi Bhikkhu where he talked about overcoming the hindrance of laziness and lack of energy through the practice of walking meditation.

BN: Oh, yes. There has to be a balance between the different postures. You cannot sit for many hours. Your body needs to move and exercise, as well as rest.

MZC: We spoke of the complementarity of samatha and vipassana. You principally teach vipassana. Would you say more about samatha (concentration) meditation and the insight meditation of vipassana?  In what way is concentration the foundation for insight meditation, as taught in the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness?

BN:  Concentration can be practiced first or you can practice the two together. After you’re able to concentrate, you can truly appreciate insight meditation. We follow the school of Mahasi Sayadaw, which is direct vipassana. We teach two ways of being aware of the breath. The meditator can choose between concentrating on the in and out breaths in the nostrils or the movement up and down of the abdomen. If you observe only the object, just keeping your focus on that one object of attention, then it is samatha.  

Regarding the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the great sutta (Satipatthana Sutta) of meditation in our tradition, we use the breath as the first object. This is just the starting point to ground us. But as you meditate, different things will come to your mind and these can be catalogued as these four foundations: the body, feelings, mind and mental objects. But we don’t specifically choose to stay with any of these four objects, because vipassana is really choiceless awareness. So you just take the objects that come to you in the present moment; you comprehend thoughts, feelings and actions in the present moment as they arise. Of course, the attention to the breath (anapanisati) is always available to you and this allows you to re-focus in the now if you find yourself being carried away by thoughts.

MZC: What was Mahasi Sayadaw’s specific method?

BN: The Mahasi Sayadaw’s  method consists of mindfulness meditation using the movements of the abdomen as the main object.

MZC: There are many interpretation of the 4th Foundation of Mindfulness, objects of the mind. For example, we may consider/observe the seven factors of enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, the aggregates and so on. We may see how anger, lust, delusions are affecting our minds. We just observe and meditate on whatever is arising in our consciousness, in our minds, in our hearts. We notice how all is passing and that there is no permanent self.

BN: I think the important activity in meditation is mindfulness. You’re right that many get confused about this 4th foundation. They get caught in the technique, becoming intellectual. Mindfulness can be cultivated in any of the four foundations, in several techniques, but it is the mindfulness, which is what we want to imbue within ourselves. There are two conditions about meditation, which are important. First, that you follow the essential spirit of the scriptures and secondly, that you do what works for you. You can then use what leads you, in your own personal way, to mindfulness.

MZC: I think that’s great that you say “do what works for you,” with the generous and wide-reaching teachings within the best of Theravada Buddhism. May this Best flourish in Mexico! Do you continue to practice your meditation as you were taught by your teacher?

BN: I do. But to tell you the truth since I’ve been in Mexico, I have so many responsibilities. I do not have so much time for myself. But I make some time to go on retreat. I’m doing translation work, which is a form of the work.

MZC: Mindfulness all day long.

BN: Yes, that’s right. I must lead retreats and be with the people and to run this monastery has many challenges. Opening the monastery is easy, but the day-to-day activity is difficult and I do not have much help. People don’t tend to volunteer their time as much as in the States, which you earlier pointed out.

The Fifth Precept: Refrain from Intoxicants and Vegetarianism

MZC:  Do some of the students specifically ask about the precept of not taking intoxicants? Do they ask if this precept means complete abstinence from any intoxicants or does it mean to refrain from becoming drunk, from becoming intoxicated? Does this precept have any leeway, for example, for the moderate use of wine? Or do you teach complete abstinence?

BN:  In our Theravada tradition, reading the original Pali, we see we should abstain from taking any intoxicant, any alcohol or drug. This is according to our tradition. Some may interpret this differently, but in our Theravada way, we take this to be complete abstinence from any intoxicant. Here in Mexico, people may drink moderately, but also some drink a great deal. I also teach that the Buddha taught that “not taking life” should be extended to animals as well as humans, not causing harm to sentient beings. It’s easy to show the effects, the suffering caused to others by taking intoxicants.

MZC: At the Rosemead Buddhist Monastery, there are Burmese people who discuss vegetarianism. They point out that monks in Burma eat meat.

BN: Yes, many monks in Burma eat meat.

MZC: So some are conflicted about this as applied to the precepts. Yes, it hurts living beings, but it’s often pointed out that it is not an essential part of Buddhism to refrain from eating meat.

BN:  I make the distinction between “the condition” and the direct breaking of the precepts. So in the Theravada tradition, you only break the precept when you directly kill another being or order another to kill for you. But just buying meat, which is already in a supermarket, is not a direct breaking of the precept; however, you are in the condition for another breaking the precept. That is the difference.

 For the monks who beg for food, there is an understanding to take what is offered. But the layperson has more freedom to be vegetarian. Here in the temple we do sometimes eat seafood, but never meat. And we do not eat after noon. We only eat two meals, breakfast at 6:00 am and lunch at 11 am. After lunch we take a rest until around 1 pm. There is sitting meditation at 2 pm.

MZC:  Your eating “seafood” would be considered perhaps “overly liberal “ for the monks of our temple, but that would make good common sense to most of the individual lay members at Rosemead Monastery. We have a mixture of those who practice vegetarianism and those who do not. I feel the individual is so important. We really are different. 

Translation Work  

MZC: I notice one of your works is the translation of some of the Abidharma into Spanish. You do a seminar called “The Abiddharma in Daily Life.”

BN: There’s a book written by Thera Ashin Janakabhivamsa (RIP, 1977) called Abidharma in Daily Life. He was Burmese. He was rector of the International Theravada Buddhist University. We received permission to translate this book into Spanish. I taught an online course in 2005 using this book. We had many students. This book tries to convey the many different kinds of mental states, which occur in the human being, both wholesome and unwholesome.

We speak about meritorious deeds; it is a practical book about how to practice a life in the spirit of service. Also we talk about the laws of karma, because we need to have the right understanding about the law of cause and effect.

MZC: What was Thera Ashin Janakabhivamsa’s core message for modern life in his teachings on the Abidharma?

BN: The core message was that one has to learn about the unwholesome mental states, in order to avoid their manifestation in our minds and to learn about the wholesome mental states so we can cultivate and develop them not only in our minds but also as bodily and verbal actions.

MZC: In general, how are moral codes of the Abidharma modified?

Rules and regulations, which are minor, can be changed according to the Buddhist scriptures?

BN: Yes, Buddha said minor rules could be changed or discarded. When the first Buddhist Council came, however, Amanda couldn’t say which rules were minor and it wasn’t until the 2nd Council that these distinctions were made.

MZC: There is no self according to Buddhist thought; how does rebirth make any sense?

BN: Actually the Buddhist teaching is that there is continuity but not an identity. The intentionality of the aggregates continues because of conditions. Those conditions explain why there is no self. When you are asleep, though there is consciousness, there is no awareness. You retake your “self” after you wake up. You remember who you were. When you are awake you have so many different experiences, through the different doors of your senses. “No self” as a concept is saying that each moment is changing.

MZC: Buddha taught there is neither nihilism (no continuity at all) nor eternalism (one separate, unchanging self).

BN: The Buddha taught a Middle Way that rejects both of these extremes. The thing about the non-self is that it is like a fact, which we need to discover for ourselves. We have to discover and experience for ourselves. Actually there is no “self” that you are going to find within yourself (laughing). You don’t even need to get rid of your ego, because there is no one there to get rid of. You need to see there is no one.

MZC: Maybe in the effort to try to get rid of your ego, you’ll give up.

BN: You’ll give up or you’ll create another one (laughing).

MZC: That’s right. So now I understand you are translating the Dhammapada into Spanish with its 26 chapters and 423 verses.

BN: You know that, do you?  Yes, and the second part of the book are the analysis and the commentaries on those chapters and verses by Buddhaghosa. There’s an English book by Carter who translated the commentaries on the Dhammapada.

MZC: How is the Dhammapada related to the suttas?

BN: The Dhammapada is a very peculiar work, because, according to our tradition, three months after the Buddha passed away, 500 monks celebrated what is called the First Buddhist Council. Its purpose was to record orally for the first time the authentic teachings of the Buddha. And the second function of that council was to classify the teachings of the Buddha. The classification in the Tripitaka, the three baskets, happened here. It is said that the monks compiled the Dhammapada from the Tripitaka. But what is strange is that less than 200 verses are found in the Tripitaka. So this is less than half of the verses we have in the Dhammapada. So we don’t know where these other verses came from.

MZC: I find the Dhammapada practical and down to earth.

BN: Yes.

MZC: We can’t overcome anger and hatred through more anger and hatred, but only through love. We need this teaching in our world.

BN: Oh, yes!

MZC: The condition of our mind is the condition of our life. How our mind is, how our heart is determines the quality and presence of our life. 

BN: I think the reason the early monks combined these verses with some of the suttas was that here in the Dhammapada we have the concise teaching of the Buddha. The Dhammapada, through the ages, has become the most popular book in Buddhism and not only in Theravada.

MZC:  Buddhist maxims for ethical living, encouraging a life encouraging peace, starting with the noticing of our own minds and hearts.

BN: Yes, so here you know what the Buddha taught.

MZC: I read one of your translations on the Internet of the Canki Sutta. This is also in the Majjhima Suttas, No. 95, translated by Boddhi Bikkhu, which we read at the Rosemead Monastery. What I find interesting is that the Buddha says to be aware when we say, “we see this, we know this and we know the other is false.” Really this is a discourse against being dogmatic.

BN: That’s right.

MZC:  We need this teaching even within Buddhism, within Christianity, within Islam. The caveat against saying dogmatically that “we’re exclusively right and you’re wrong.”

BN: This is important. More than 2500 years ago, the Buddha said that regarding your beliefs, there are two ways. They can be right or they can be wrong (laughter).  The Buddha said the person who protects truth would always say, “my belief can be right or my belief can be wrong.” I think if human beings would have adopted that teaching, so much of the world’s suffering would have been avoided. People can do so many unwholesome deeds because of their beliefs. Put your belief in perspective; don’t just grasp them. Go beyond belief and then experience what’s true for you. I don’t know if other religions can benefit from this teaching. Do you think so?

MZC: Yes, Ken Ireland and I wrote about Islam and found there were open currents in Islam, as well as those which are dogmatic. The same applies to Christianity and to my native religion of Catholicism. In religious traditions, I’ve found both the open, as well as the more rigid, closed approach. I think it’s dangerous to be overly dogmatic, even in Buddhism. So it’s wonderful you’ve translated this sutta into Spanish.

BN: With Buddhism, you can do whatever you want. What is the limit? You have the five Precepts. That is your guide for your actions. The moment you cause sufferings to others, that’s the problem. It doesn’t matter what you believe. So that’s why the Buddha taught that the point is to be aware of what your beliefs lead you to do. The problem with belief is what you do just because of your belief.

MZC: How you live is more important that your beliefs.

BN: Have you read this book, The End of Faith? And also Letters to A Christian Nation? These books by Sam Harris make this point.

What’s Theravada Buddhism?

MZC: We study that there are three branches of Buddhism: Theravada; Mayahana; Vajrajana. You emphasize Theravada. And, of course, we agree that the 3 schools of Buddhism are based on the Four Noble Truths. What would you say distinguishes the Theravada school of Buddhism? What attracts you to it?

BN:  Well, we have all of the Pali Canon in Theravada. We have these three baskets of wisdom to draw from. The Theravada tradition has kept this oldest living teaching of Buddhism. We have these 40 volumes and I think this is unique. They are so important to us. People should investigate deeply into these scriptures.

MZC: We hear the superficial categorization with Mahayana being more conducive to compassion, Theravada being more inward and Mahayana being more outgoing. Yet compassion, meditation and wisdom has been in the earliest scriptures you refer to.

BN: Yes this is a stereotype about Theravada. Compassion starts with not harming others. So we begin with sila, moral rectitude. Then you can practice loving-kindness. They say Theravada is egotistic and that we think only of ourselves. We are friends with all of Buddhism and with everyone, but we need to make clear what Theravada is. True religion should go beyond the group. When you talk about meditation, compassion, loving kindness, you don’t discriminate. You have to include everybody. Not you are Theravada. Yes we are Theravada, but when we practice, when we live, we are like anyone.

MZC: We are human beings in the best sense of the word.

BN: Yes.

 Social Activism and Gaining Merit

MZC:  I don’t think you worry so much about this in Mexico, but in Burma, in Tibet, some of the monks are involved in mostly peaceful protests against human rights violations. As you know, in 1998, some monks were assassinated in Burma. You know the terrible suffering of monks from Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s call for peaceful speaking out against violations of human dignity. And just recently, you’ve seen the demonstration of monks again in Burma. 220 Buddhist monks & eight nuns are in prison for demonstrating. We speak out in support of these courageous monks and nuns and for the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi through such works as the Clear View Project, which is dedicated to freeing imprisoned monks and nuns in Burma.   

 

BN: The social-economic conditions are so bad in Burma. When you are in such conditions, you do not have an alternative. Yes, you have to speak out. The monks did a peaceful demonstration. The people do not have enough to eat. So I think as long as it is peaceful, it is all right. I support the monks and nuns in Burma.

I don’t think it’s good to protest in a violent way. If you don’t have enough to eat, that’s the breaking point. It remains to be seen the effects on Theravada Buddhism in Burma.

In Tibet, human rights violations are there. But I don’t think monks should necessarily get involved in politics. I read recently in the New York Times that the Dalai Lama may be a god for many Tibetans, but that he is not a good politician. 

MZC:  You agree?

BN: Well, I began to think when I read that article, that if the Dalai Lama would just be a spiritual leader to the people of Tibet, perhaps a lay person would be more effective in protesting human rights violations. A layperson might have more latitude to solve human rights problems. The monk is very limited. I admit I don’t know so much about this.

MZC:  The Dalai Lama has said it’s part of his spiritual practice to speak up about human rights’ abuses. Of course, in the United States, religious leaders have been actively involved in human rights.

BN: Yes, Martin Luther King.

MZC: Even Thomas Merton. I don’t feel it is strange to see a religious monk involved in protesting. I don’t feel it’s odd to see a monk marching for human rights.

BN:  The point with Buddhism, according to our tradition, before the Buddha passed away, moments before his last words, that we should work out our salvation diligently; Buddha told Ananda that after he passed away, you may think this is the word of the teacher who is gone. But don’t think this way. The teachings, the Dhamma and the Vinaya will be the teacher. So in our tradition we do not have a leader. So the teachings are our teacher. This is like an injunction from the Buddha not to get unnecessarily involved in politics, as leaders, in my opinion. Although there is an increasing tendency in the Theravada tradition for monks to get involved in politics, I think the Buddha, as we know Him from the Pali Canon, wanted the monks to devote their lives to learning, practicing, teaching the Dhamma, and also to preserving His Teachings for future generations. This is a lot of work!

MZC: Well, as you, I support the activist monks in Burma and Tibet. I do see it as their way of practicing the teaching to relieve suffering in the world. It’s their spiritual practice, just as real and valuable as being exclusively a teacher of the formal Dhamma.

Metta meditation is important to add to this discussion of speaking for human rights.

BN: We practice metta and hope others have metta likewise, that the leaders in China have metta as well as ourselves.

MZC: Finally, I saw on your schedule from 8:50-9:00 p.m. to “Share Merits.”

BN: Sharing merits is vocalizing about meritorious deeds which we have done and which we can share with others. So others can rejoice at what we’ve done.

MZC: So you vocalize what good deeds you’ve done with others?  Alina told me this takes the form of recitation, through which we intend to share the happiness from our positive actions with others.

BN: Yes, according to Buddhism there are unseen beings who may be near and who can also rejoice with us. You just speak out that you’ve done these meritorious deeds and you let others find joy in that. The mere rejoicing is a wholesome deed itself. For example, you and your friends’ work with street children who are in need.   So we rejoice when we see others doing good deeds. Rejoicing is just the beginning. It’s a seed in the mind, such that others can also do good deeds. Others will want to do good deeds themselves and will find the deep satisfaction in it.

MZC: Many blessings and good luck for your teaching here in Mexico!  Thanks again.

BN: You’re most welcome.

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