When you become aware

Thirty-three years ago, a young graduate from Holland became interested in meditation and yoga. Having studied Economic Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, he was looking for a career in development projects and thought India would be an ideal country to get started.

During his six-month stay there, he became interested in Buddhism and toured Buddhagaya and other Buddhist places of worship. He went back to Holland and returned to India the following year wanting to be ordained as a Hindu priest. However, on the advice of a Buddhist monk he came over to Sri Lanka and was ordained as a Bhikku instead.

Today, Olande Ananda Thera (in keeping with the tradition of using a monk's birthplace ahead of the name, he prefers to use the Sinhala term for Holland) is immersed in meditation. Making Sri Lanka his base, he tours Germany, Holland and USA to conduct meditation retreats several times a year while also holding regular sessions at Pagoda, Nugegoda.

"I came to Sri Lanka on May 1, 1975 and spent five months as an Upasaka in white cloth with a beard like a Yogi, before making contact with Ven. Dauldene Gnannissara Maha Nayaka Thera at his Pagoda temple," Ven. Ananda recalls. He then went to the Kanduboda meditation centre but on his teacher's advice, he made the Pagoda temple his headquarters and learnt the Buddhist way of life.

"As a layman I visited and practised Vipassana at Kanduboda and soon realised that the practice of Vipassana and Sathi Pattana were more valuable to me than the Hindu practices I had followed earlier. That's how I decided to become a Buddhist monk. After ordination, I also got in touch with several learned monks including Ven. Madihe Pannasiha Maha Nayaka Thera, Ampitiya Rahula Maha Thera, Ven. Narada and Ven. Piyadassi. I began studying the books, practising meditation and having Dhamma discussions - that was my informal study of Buddhism."

Having done meditation for three decades, how does he feel it helps the layman? "If Buddhism has to have an effect on people's minds and help give them either insight or peace of mind, then I think just studying the words of the Buddha won't do. It should be complemented with some type of insight through meditation. That will bring inner calmness," he explains.

Stability when disturbed
"The advantages are two-fold - short term and long term. Among the short-term advantages, there can be an immediate effect on your state of mind. If you are confused or unhappy or not focused and you don't find real happiness in the things around you - then there is the possibility that through meditation you may get some sort of stability and focus, clarity, calm and happiness in your mind. The long-term effect would be to help overcome the causes of our suffering at a deeper level in uprooting greed and hatred through the elimination of delusion, little by little through the practice of the meditation," he elaborates.

At the Pagoda Centre, Ven. Ananda conducts meditation sessions on Sundays (3-5 in the afternoon) and on Tuesdays (5-7.30 in the evening). The simple, practical sessions in English are suitable both for beginners as well as advanced practitioners. After a short introduction, there is guided meditation - sitting and walking. A Dhamma discussion follows - an open forum where Ven. Ananda answers questions relating to meditation and Dhamma in general. "Anyone interested may call me on 812397 between 8 and 9 in the morning or evening and come over," he says.

Ven. Ananda travels widely and he sees an increasing global interest in Buddhism, especially in meditation. Rather than rituals and festivals, the interest is in the practice of meditation. There is considerable interest both in Theravada and Vipassana meditation on the one hand, and Mahayana Zen meditation and Tibetan Buddhism on the other. There are very well organized meditation centres in many countries.

He has also conducted meditation programmes in the Netherlands and Germany and since 1997, has been invited every year to Buddha Haus in Allgau, Germany founded by Ayya Khema, to conduct a six to eight-day meditation programme. At the Metta Vihara retreat centre, in a mountainous region of Germany close to the Austrian border, he has a programme stretching over five to six weeks for individual meditation.

With plans to formally open the spacious building at the Pagoda Centre next month, for residential courses, he will spend more time in Sri Lanka. He hopes to arrange for structured courses over the weekends and longer retreats where both resident laymen as well as locals could attend.

Develop loving kindness
How do you begin?
"One shouldn't have high expectations that one's mind is immediately without thoughts and completely focused on one object. The objective is not to get into 'dhyana' and attain Nirvana on the spot but rather to sit down with mindfulness of what actually is. That is to get in touch with one's body and feelings and with the present moment in a relaxing way, with mindfulness and relaxation at the same time.

“If one sits down and first becomes aware of the present moment, that one is sitting at a particular place and feels the body from top to toe sitting there, then the mind already gets away from the tendency to go off to the past and the future. You give your mind an object which is really here in the present and then once you feel the body sitting there, then one can start focusing on the 'anapana' -the mindfulness of breathing. This is an object to focus on, to stay with as much as possible, to return to whenever the mind is going here and there, and to become aware of all those objects like wandering mind or sounds and feelings as they occur. Not to think that they should not occur but to include those objects also as objects for awareness.

“If you do practise it over and over, it becomes easier to stay with the chosen object. If your mind doesn't stay focussed it does not mean that you have failed in meditation. The idea is to have the flexibility to be aware of other objects and to remain mindful and equanimous or even-minded towards other objects which are to do with our own body, mind and sense objects.

"Metta Bhavana or development of universal loving kindness to all beings including oneself is another form. That will help us to create some kind of tranquillity.

"So basically there are two types of meditation - Tranquillity meditation or Samatha bhavana and insight meditation or Satipattana and Vipassana. Actually Vipassana is the result of the practice of 'sati' and the practice of mindfulness leads to insights which give a real view of things as they really are - 'yatha bhuta gnana dassana' which Buddha talks about to see things as they really are. That will help us to uproot ignorance and delusion and gradually overcome the causes of suffering like greed and hatred. I would say that certain amount of Samatha meditation like Metta Bhavana and focusing on the breath is a pre-requisite for deeper insights.”

In his classes, Ven. Ananda starts with 'metta bhavana' and 'anapana sati' as a kind of focusing and concentration technique but also allows the other objects, not to get into 'dhyana' but rather to have moment to moment awareness which in turn is also a bridge towards the practice of mindfulness in daily life. "To practise mindfulness in daily life means to be aware of what one is thinking, saying and doing. Then the 'sati' in daily life while walking, talking, driving, working or doing the dishes and all other activities, will also become part of one's mental and daily life and be an extension of the mind with more awareness of what one is experiencing, saying and doing," he observes.
- D.C. Ranatunga

Scholar-monk’s dream comes true

The Pagoda Meditation Centre is the result of many years of hard work by scholar-monk, Ven. Davuldena Gnannissara Maha Nayaka Thera of the Udarata Amarapura Samagri Sangha Sabha.
The 88-year-old Maha Nayaka Thera made use of donations he received during a six-year stay in Taiwan teaching Pali and Buddhist Studies, to construct the spacious building for the centre on a half-acre plot donated by philanthropist Seelawathi Konsalkorale.

The centre is to be opened on March 8, with an almsgiving for 100 monks preceded by an all-night Pirith ceremony.

"I am now in my last stages. The establishment of a Bhikkhu rest and a meditation centre brings me solace and comfort that I have been able to achieve something useful," the ailing but mentally alert Maha Nayaka Thera said. There are facilities for eight residents. A library will also be set up with multi-media facilities to assist research students.

Hailing from the Davuldena village in Uva Paranagama in the Welimada area, the Maha Nayaka Thera has been in robes for 76 years having been ordained at the age of 12. His father, Aloka Mudiyanselage Kavurala and mother Gajanayaka Mudiyanselage Kirimenike brought up 11 children, three of whom died early. He had his education at Vidyodaya Pirivena and later taught in a number of Buddhist institutions including the Pali Buddhist University, Vidyodaya Pirivena, Sri Vajiranana Dharmayatanaya, Gangaramaya and Bhuvanekaba Pirivena, Gampola.

Well versed in several languages, the Maha Nayaka Thera has authored many books in Sanskrit. He has been to England, Australia, United States and Mongolia on Dhammaduta work.

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