Buddha en Mexico
A Conversation between Morgan Zo Callahan and Bhikkhu Nandisena
Jilotepec, Veracruz, Mexico
It’s been an enjoyable 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
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 thirteen hours a day of meditation. 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 and happy. Intend for there to be peace, within and without. Study the teachings. Do sitting and walking meditation. Keep the precepts.
I enjoyed the natural environment of Dhamma Vihara. Jilotepec’s people are supportive of a Buddhist monastery in a predominantly Catholic population.
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. 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.
What one learns in theory is not always easy to practice. Meditation allowed me rid myself of everything that did not help me to be well and peaceful. The hardships that later came to my life did not seem to affect me the way they did to those closest to me.
Two years later, I met Venerable U Silananda and Venerable U Nandisena, when Bhikkhu Nandisena came to live in Mexico. It was then that I started to deepen 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, and 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.
My First Two Visits
I interviewed Ven. Nandisena in April of ’08. We had a second meeting about a year later. So this conversation takes place from April ’08 to July, ’09, including some online communication.
Before the first the interview, I was invited to the monastery a few hours early to do sitting and walking meditation. I spent some time silently walking around the property with its expansive green lawn. The animals made friends with me: Tasha, a black dog with tan paws and mouth; 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, sitting on a front porch, was serenely composed.
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 Jilotepec, Veracruz seemed also to be making friends with me. I walked up to the edges of the woods, some going uphill. Oaks, 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 nor outside.”
Born in Argentina Bhikkhu Nandisena is 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.
MZC: Thank you for receiving me and having this conversation. I appreciate your time. It’s a blessing to be with you.
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 to sitting. I benefited from his teaching of “not-knowing,” i.e. Suzuki Roshi would talk aboutbeing full of the wonder that reality and love require of us, keeping “our beginner’s mind.”
BN: Suzuki Roshi was the founder of the Zen Center in San Francisco.
MZC: 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 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 the poor around the world. Sometimes I picture the young children on the streets here in Veracruz who are working and begging and some sleeping on cold streets at night. I wish and pray for those who are now happy to have their happiness increased. Who were your teachers?
BN: 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? 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: What kind of questions do the practitioners ask you? What are the most common interests among those who come to you?
BN: Different people come. Local people are curious to see what we do here, to see the Buddhist images. For these people, I emphasize sila, ethics, and the 5 precepts. So all of us should follow ethics, which means we do not cause harm or suffering to other beings. 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. The Catholic church also teaches these moral codes.
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.
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: 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 know 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.
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 meditation? 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 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. But with practice, hey 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 meditation (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.
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. 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: 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.
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: 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: 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 and 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: 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. 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: You are translating the Dhammapada into Spanish with its 26 chapters and 423 verses?
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 we don’t know where these other verses came from.
MZC: “We can’t overcome anger and hatred through more anger and hatred, but only through love.” We need teachings like this 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: I read one of your translations on the Internet of the Canki Sutta, 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?
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.
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.