Just the Gist

Sariputta, one of Gotama Siddhattha’s first and foremost disciples, possessed the particular skill of extracting the essence out of teachings and concepts, and also speaking in such a precise manner. In one sutta he says: “Speak a little or a lot, but tell me just the gist. The gist is what I want. What use is a lot of rhetoric?”

Methinks he’s got a point. While I am still on the opposite end of rhetoric habits, I will now try to tell you just the gistWolfi of what has been going on in my recent weeks:

London. I spent another five wonderful days in London with my beloved girlfriend. This time the weather was more typical (lots of rain), so we visited some exhibitions and museums. The highlight was a louder-than-expected noise that I made in the National Gallery – now is that where the term “arty-farty” comes from? ;-)

Reunion. Upon returning back to Graz, I went to the 10-year-reunion of my former classmates. Both to and from the venue I lost my path while riding my new bicycle. What to do after such an outburst of scatterbrained confusion?

Puregg. The perfect remedy: a Vipassana retreat with Hannes Huber in Puregg! This time I shared 7 days of silence, yoga and meditation with Pepi, Hannes and 9 fellow meditators. Later I will describe this wonderful experience in more detail. For the time being, I invite you to read my entries from last year’s retreat: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6].

CERN. In Summer 2007 I will spend three months in France/Switzerland to work at CERN (programming in Python). Hooray! In a few days I’ll be on the train to Geneva. Extensive reports are about to follow here. :-)

Miscellaneous. I came in 2nd at a recent KaraNet photo contest – yay! And my father has just become the first and only Austrian “Master of Homeopathy”. And I love my new MacBook which will be very useful in Summer. And a dear friend of mine is getting married soon. And … I am blathering too much. Good night! :-)

Right Speech

I used to enjoy participating in discussions. Despite the knowledge that there are always many sides to a story, I still believed that my own subjective (and flawed!) viewpoints were somehow “more appropriate” and would lead to “better understanding”. Intending to be “objective”, I took sides, sometimes even fervently. Trying to make things right, I often made things worse.

Recently, however, my urge to take sides decreases. Beyond all belief systems and viewpoints I wish to discover relations and structures – something that remains “invariant” under any possible viewpoint, similar to mathematical and physical concepts (e.g. symmetry groups, isomorphisms, general covariance).

Still I can sense something “not quite right” about most of my utterances, including this posting right here and now. Whenever I speak or write, it seems to me that a subtle form of “tunnel vision” arises, like a growing “blind spot” that I cannot see. Indeed there is some benefit in remaining silent: you can listen better, and thus you might understand more.

As for my favourite “speech guideline”, Gotama Siddhattha mentions these five factors of Right Speech: a well-spoken statement is thus spoken …

– at the right time
– in truth
– affectionately
– beneficially
– with a mind of good-will

… all of which probably sounds “obvious”, yet it seems much easier said than done. The “right time” (or proper/appropriate time) cannot be enforced by will, it has to be recognized through “wisdom” (carefully developed on its own). As for “beneficial”, wishful thinking alone is not enough. The “mind of good-will” co-determines the long-term effects of any bodily, verbal or mental action.

One must be honest with oneself, though – to apply even the slightest trace of self-deception concerning any of these factors defeats their very purpose. Understanding becomes difficult without integrity, both for oneself and others.

Interestingly, the dichotomy “(un)endearing & (dis)agreeable to others” has no effect in light of these factors. You don’t necessarily have to say what others expect to hear. Just remain completely aware of it all. – Easy, huh? :-)

Puregg – Day 6 (2006-10-01)

Hiking. Before noon the whole group went hiking through the woods. It was quite interesting to experience this as a form of walking meditation. Whenever my mind went astray, I gently invited it for a cup of tea. After about 16 mental cups of tea we reached the peak and thoroughly enjoyed the view.

Words. Up there the group started talking again, yet no one appeared to have the urge to speak much. It seemed more like a gentle transition from silence to listening. On the way back I had a very delightful conversation with a nice woman from our group. Upon arrival we packed our belongings. During lunch Hannes sat next to me, and we spoke about sources of Theravada literature.

Farewell. Then it was time to say farewell, and I felt especially sad about leaving Pepi. She is such a wonderful woman full of kindness and wisdom, and somehow she reminds me of my grandmother. These few days in Puregg had been so priceless that I still do not know how to express my gratitude.

Journey. I shared most of the journey back to Graz with Klaus. Our train was completely overcrowded, so we had to squeeze into the tiny seats on the corridor. But this did not bother us in the slightest way – on the contrary, we shared a wonderful time and very insightful conversations. I can honestly call it the most enjoyable of all my train rides ever. For the last hour I even had a comfortable seat among some very nice passengers.

Lessons. So what have I learned in Puregg? – Practice. This word sums up everything. Yes, there were also intellectual discoveries. But for me the most valuable aspect was the practical application. The direct experience. The proper balance. The realisation of how practice feeds back into knowledge and understanding. Truly these few days have had a highly beneficial impact on my life; its full scope remains to be seen, depending on my future thoughts, words and actions, and the path that I choose with every single footstep.

Future. Clarity had arisen, and yet new confusion was already looming on the horizon. Until the present, in which I write these words, I have once again neglected this beneficial practice. But now I know how to pull myself out of the old patterns of delusion into which I so eagerly throw myself head over heels. Now I know the difference, and I have also realized that what I can do for others depends on what I allow myself to achieve within: a stable foundation, nurtured by constant practice, for the development of long-term happiness. :-)

Puregg – Day 5 (2006-09-30)

In Puregg we had a certain routine for meals. The person closest to the large cooking pot would put a portion of food into the bowls with a dipper and pass them around. We would not speak a single word, start eating together, wait for the last one to finish, and bow down before and after each meal.

Dippers. This morning it was my turn to wield the dipper, and of course I wanted to do everything right. After I had started, someone knocked a tea cup over, and her neighbour dried up the spilled liquids. My eyes and attention shifted from my task to that event. Pepi sat beside me, and with her sharp perception she immediately noticed my distraction. She said, “continue, don’t dream!”, and for a split second I felt quite embarrassed. In the next moment I was grateful for her precise teaching. My embarrassment could only come into existence through the concept of a vulnerable ego, based on an illusion about my “self”. And even if someone now thought of me as a day-dreamer, would that matter? Indeed not! The only important thing was to remain mindful and alert, and to do whatever I did in a proper and most beneficial way.

More dippers. During meditation I was in agony. I felt as though my back pain had long exceeded any levels of “valuable experience”, and that it was only distracting me from deeper insights. But noon arrived, and lunch, and the need for someone to wield the dipper: me again. Now I knew I just had to dish up one full scoop after the other. Such I did – and in the end there was almost nothing left for second portions. I had dished up too much! And there it was again, the embarrassment, the feeling of failure, over such a subtle thing, which nobody had even commented upon. Maybe no one had even thought about it, except for me! But that did not occur to me. I felt like such a loser.

Despair. After lunch we had a break, and I sat down under a tree. I felt desperate. Everything seemed to be going wrong: the dipper experiences, the back pain, my thoughts and emotions. My eyes were filled with tears. I wrote a few lines in my diary and then decided to meditate. After a few minutes I felt something tapping on my shoulder, opened my eyes, and saw a withered leaf that had fallen right between the thumbs and fingers of my hands. I thought of the anicca (inconstancy) principle and smiled. A bit later I spoke to Hannes about my recent difficulties, and he gave me valuable advice.

Agony. In the evening Hannes spoke to us about the five hindrances and other common meditation obstacles. Despite his advice and all my efforts of turning the meditation obstacle “back pain” into the meditation object, my pain increased towards unbearable levels. I did not want to give up and clenched my teeth together, until I felt like I would pass out right there and then. To keep my mind busy, I mentally recited a passage of the Maha-Rahulovada Sutta about the “mindfulness of breathing” technique, until I arrived at the words: “He trains himself, “I will breathe out tranquillizing the bodily fabrication.”

Relief. And there it was. Relief. Serenity. Peace. The pain had disappeared. I perceived nerve signals, and I could still locate the tension, but the suffering was gone. It was like a breakthrough. Now I could sit almost without effort. And it dawned to me that before too long I would remember this experience, and remind myself that I would no longer have to fear pain.

Puregg – Day 4 (2006-09-29)

I shared the guest room with Klaus and Kurt. Interestingly most other participants were females. Could meditation possibly be considered “unmanly” in our western society? Or do males find it more difficult to take a few days off?

Hannes. During Summer I had grown quite fond of the gentle voices of some sutta readings. Thus I delighted even more in Hannes’ way of speaking: calm, gentle, compassionate, understanding, and humorous. His inspiring and very practical speech gives me the impression that he possesses a deep understanding of Vipassana and Theravada. It is interesting that his main teachers were of a quite complementary nature: Sayadaw U Pandita from Burma is what he calls a “warrior monk”, whereas Godwin Samararatne from Sri Lanka taught with a strong emphasis on compassion.

Pieces of Mind. The meditation practice led me deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of my mind. As some of the “common” thought processes were stilled, others surfaced. The pain in my back and neck was growing stronger, and whenever I felt tired I heard voices chattering incoherently. We spent the daytime phases of walking meditation outside (beautiful weather!), and in the afternoon I sat down under a tree, leaning my back against the trunk.

In the evening Hannes gave us a lecture based on the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (one of my favourites). Here is an excerpt, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there, right there.
Not taken in, unshaken,
that’s how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow: death.
There is no bargaining with Mortality & his mighty horde.

As far as I understand it, the Buddha does not intend to say that past and future are completely insignificant. We can learn from past experience, shape the future, and not be heedless. However, the way in which we usually deal with past and future is rather unskillful: lost in reverie about likes and dislikes, or entangled in a “thicket of views” about our self, we grow heedless about the present – the only time in which any action, any change, any decision can actually take place! The good news: we can learn more appropriate ways. :-)

Puregg – Day 3 (2006-09-28)

On that night my sleep was rather uneasy, and in the morning I only woke up from Pepi’s soft voice at the door. Knowing I had overslept, I quickly hopped into my clothes and rushed to the Zendo. During meditation I could not help feeling embarrassed about this. Apart from these feelings I also heard many voices, even music, inside my mind. Would this constant chatter ever fade?

Compost. In the morning Pepi and I made some flower arrangements and fire in the hearth. At noon the first of about 16 other seminar participants, Katrin form Germany, arrived – followed by Klaus from Styria. At Pepi’s request we acquired the task of taking care of the compost. Thus we separated the decomposed contents of one big compost box from non-decomposed components and stones, using spades and some sort of large sieve. Klaus and I were conversing about Theravada, and I was fascinated to realise that his motives for choosing Theravada were quite similar to mine (seeking a fundamental teaching which can be directly experienced without any need for “mental additives” like interpretations, visualisations or belief structures).

Vipassana & Yoga. In the afternoon more participants arrived, including Hannes, our Vipassana meditation teacher. Before dinner, a specific duty for the upcoming days (cleaning the floor, watering the plants, maintaining the candles, …) was assigned to each person. In the evening the first group meditations started. Hannes always gave us an introduction, followed by very calm and gentle instructions about sitting, breathing and watching the mind. Occasionally he would weave some theoretical aspects into his speech, especially during his Dhamma talks (once a day), never neglecting the practical side. And twice a day he would perform some Yoga exercises with us.

Spices & Wind. During these evening meditations, I was wearing a pullover with the strong scent of Indian spices. I had nothing better to think of than ‘this must be very distracting and annoying for the others’, while it most probably distracted myself only! And then wind started going through my belly. Of course the last thing you wish to do in a filled Zendo is farting, and so I clenched my muscles together. Soon I felt cramps in my belly, followed by a strong tension in my legs, so I slightly adjusted my position. And eventually the back pain started setting in. My muscles were getting too tense. But then I told myself that this was just part of the practice, and continued sitting.

Reflections. The stunning starlit sky above us appeared much more intense than in the city. What a wondrous sight! The light radiated by incredibly hot stars, travelling for many millions of years, reaches our solar system, pervades the earth’s atmosphere, hits the retina of human beings, which stand and gaze upon it in awe. Countless things (evolution, laws of nature, even physical constants) had to be just right for this to happen. For a limited lifespan we can perceive, cognize and understand such amazing things.

What are we going do do with such reflections? Buy new designer clothes while counting cents in the supermarket? Live in the past and future? Accumulate more wealth and power at the expense of those who cannot defend themselves? Lie, steal, fight, kill? – I believe that with our last breath we would finally know our potential. And I am sure it’s not about the bankroll, nor titles, nor any of the temporary sense pleasures we seek to indulge in.

Puregg – Day 2 (2006-09-27)

I woke up at 5:00 in the morning. Pepi and I started the day with two meditation periods (a total of 90 minutes).

Puregg. The area is calm and peaceful, surrounded by mountains and nature. The idyllic place consists of a main house, a guest house (including the Zendo), and a garden. Everything is very simple: candlelight only, solar energy just for the kitchen and shower, no luxury or unnecessary items. Located in the main house are the kitchen and library. The guest house is built mainly of wood. In the garden many things are growing: herbs, salads, vegetables, fruits, trees, flowers. And there is a small pond. And a playful, meowing cat.

Pepi. One thing I learned very quickly: Pepi knows. She has a good feeling for appropriate words and actions, and guides you gently – herself a very diligent worker with a lot of foresight, neither haste nor idleness. The tasks she assigns to you are always just right.

Before noon I piled up wood in the cellar (hooray, a 3D puzzle!). Later, while cutting apples, I made mistakes whenever my thoughts drifted away from the present. A cut on my thumb would henceforth remind me of the benefits of awareness. And yet, in the afternoon the arrival of two hiking girls distracted me once again. They were looking for a place to stay, but could not do so as they did not want to join the meditation practice.

Practice. Few spoken words, much work in house and garden, lots of meditation. Could there be a more beneficial environment? With the absence of my everyday distractions (computer, mobile phone, media, ads, belongings, desires, resentments, …), I slowly started to discover what was actually going on inside my mind. Trying to steady that which was so incredibly unsteady, I experienced great difficulties and felt tempted to believe that I was not making any progress at all. This phenomenon might be compared to peeling an onion: you will almost certainly discover yet another layer (a recursive process). Once you get to the core, you can investigate even further with a magnifying glass, a microscope, … and repeatedly refine your insights.

In the library I discovered a book about mindfulness meditation (satipatthana) by Theravada monk Nyanaponika Thera. This would soon integrate perfectly with the upcoming Vipassana seminar, about to start on the third day …

Puregg – Day 1 (2006-09-26)

Here follows the account of my days in Puregg, an inspiring place located in the mountains of Salzburg, Austria.

The Journey. After a long train ride from Graz to Saalfelden, I barely managed to get on the right bus towards Puregg. Unfortunately I got off too late: Dienten instead of Filzensattel. This would make things a lot more complicated…

The Ascension. I was told at the tourist information that an “average wanderer” would take about 20 minutes to Puregg. Thus with my unnecessarily heavy luggage I started ascending the mountain, passed a cowherd, took some rest, refilled my water bottle, crossed endless woods, almost passed out, and after an eternity (of about 90 minutes) I eventually beheld my destination: Puregg. What a relief!

The Arrival. Pepi, the woman who has been running the whole place for the last 10+ years, greeted me warmly and showed me around. Then, with her sharp mind and gentle voice, she gave me a crystal clear and irresistible instruction: “After you have unpacked and made yourself comfortable in the guest room, you can come over to the house and help me cutting sage leaves for some tea.” Indeed, soon afterwards we were sitting on a bench outside, cutting sage leaves while talking about life and Buddhism.

Zazen. The days in Puregg have a certain rhythm (5:00 to 21:30), including several meditation periods of 45 minutes each. This was my first “non-homemade” meditation experience, and my first practical encounter with Zazen (“just sitting” meditation of Zen Buddhism), Kinhin (walking meditation), the Zendo (meditation hall) and all related customs. Now I was sitting: almost motionless, with eyes half opened, trying to still my ever-busy mind. In vain? Not entirely! However the difficulty of such a task, never before learned in all my life, is evident.

Thus ended my first day in Puregg. :-)

General Theravadics

In the course of my quest for the “proper path” to follow, two systems have emerged. They are very similar and very different at the very same time. Which two?

Theravada Buddhism and General Semantics.

Why exactly those two? Let me give you an explanation.

Theravada is the most ancient form of Buddhism that has survived until the present. It is (according to my opinion) a purely phenomenological teaching, verifiable through direct experience in the here-and-now, all-encompassing, well-balanced in its factors, grounded on ethics that nurture a cooperative dwelling for mankind and all living beings.

Unfortunately the source (Pali canon) which is more than 2,000 years old has been composed in an entirely different world: the cultural, social, scientific, linguistic and philosophical context can hardly be compared to that of our present time. This makes translations and their interpretations rather difficult.

GS is an educational discipline developed by Alfred Korzybski (author of “Science and Sanity“) in the first half of the 20th century. It is grounded on the observation that the internal (mental) and external (verbal) use of language, words, abstractions etc. gravely affects our sanity (see “semantic reactions”), and analyses these relations in detail. Knowledge about and training (exercises) in GS can improve the understanding of yourself, your mind, language, translations etc. as well as communication skills.

However, GS is largely independent of ethical considerations, and can thus be used for many purposes (e.g. politics) – not necessarily in a way that is “beneficial” for everyone.

Thus filling in the blanks, both systems support each other, making it easier to understand and to apply them in beneficial ways. Or so I believe. :-)