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. :-)

Weaving the Tapestry of Quintessence

Ever since my childhood days I’ve been interested in the “quintessence”, structure and relation of things in this universe. This web spun by my consciousness was constantly transforming its shape, its threads widening here and narrowing there, as I directed my attention more and more in distinct directions with child-like curiosity.

Such a web obviously does not cover everything, it is not complete. Occasionally when something inspires you, suddenly you “discover” a new thread interweaving itself with the web.

Now let us go one step further. Let us visualise a multidimensional structure, consisting of a large (countably infinite?) set of units or “nodes”, with all nodes being directly connected to each other by the imaginary threads. The emerging loops and “patterns” with stronger interconnections are like super-nodes, representing larger memes or memeplexes, and you can freely combine all of these… and go beyond.

What is the point? Where does it end?

Maybe one possible “goal” of this game is to rediscover all the connections, until a completely homogeneous structure emerges, leading to full transcendence. Greed, aversion and delusion should be abandoned on the way, lest they would automatically create inhomogenities. But then again, it’s just a visualisation of a path that has been described already in the past – in various different ways.

This is where structural matches, isomorphisms, linking and translating, dichotomies, triangles and lots of other funny things come into play. I will explain my views on these later when my thoughts are sorted. :-)

Mind your Body!

The “body-mind-split” (also known as “mind-body problem”) has been investigated by philosophers for millennia. I am not so familiar with their distinct views, but I believe that the separation between body and mind only exists at a conceptual level. Postulating the separation, however, results in exactly that experience – along with some strange side effects like cursing your stomach just because it sends you signals which you perceive as “pain”. (I am talking from experience! :-))

How can the split be healed?

In the wonderful Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta, Gotama Siddhattha delivers an inspiring teaching to his seven-year-old son Rahula. Indeed the suggested reflection already points towards a possible remedy. In some other suttas Rahula is instructed on mindfulness techniques. Apart from these ancient words, I believe that (among others) the following developments are highly beneficial:

(1) communication on the non-verbal level. Listening to the body is a non-verbal experience. For “talking” (not in the classical sense) a small set of commands seems to exist.

(2) synaesthesia – the establishment of “structural matches” between different senses.

The body is a very intelligent entity, equipped with its own memory and loads of abilities. It keeps supporting and healing itself almost regardless of what your mind thinks about it! A patient and enduring entity indeed. However, in the long run it suffers from a “negative” or malevolent mental attitude.

Baz Luhrmann suggests in “Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen” that your body is “… the best instrument that you have”. I think he’s got a point! Benevolence towards your own body is essential. If only I had always been benevolent towards mine… healthy nutrition, regular sports, refreshing sleep, upright posture: you never believe your parents on those. My suggestion: let’s all start today. :-)


“We say farewell so that later we can greet one another again.”

My beloved girlfriend started her letter to me with these words. It’s a recurring theme in our relationship – simple and beautiful.

Even in her absence I can learn things from her. In the past I have tried explaining to her what I knew about the brahmaviharas, and I suppose I did not understand them myself back then, but I always knew (and felt) that she “radiates” a lot of metta (loving kindness).

Now it is always easy to perceive things in my environment, but a lot more difficult to apply that kind of perception to myself. I often sense a lack of metta in people around me when they converse, even though they clearly wish to “help” each other and firmly believe in their own good will. It’s a bit like jumping immediately to karuna (caring friendship) or mudita (sympathetic joy), but forgetting about metta. Experience shows that it doesn’t work, as the principle predicts.

Yeah, and it simply doesn’t work on myself either. I do “forget” about metta very often. Usually when I perceive something in others, there is at least one instance of the same principle active within me. I just have to get used to look into the mirror with open eyes. :-)