When I first heard that Ajahn Brahmali is conducting sutta retreats I was not particularly interested in the first place. I had just started to discover how meditation is working, and that it actually can work even for me, so that the thought to go for a retreat and do anything else than meditating did not occur to me. And this although I had been attracted by the suttas for quite some time already, and also by Ajahn Brahmali’s way of teaching.
Then it was when attending my first retreat with Ajahn Brahm in Jhana Grove in Western Australia that somebody mentioned they had done a sutta retreat with Ajahn Brahmali some months earlier, “… and we actually meditated a lot!” So I started to get interested.
And there was my chance: When going to Australia for the second time—and for quite a long period this time—I managed to book into a “Happy Sutta Retreat” with Ajahn Brahmali in June 2016.
I arrived at Perth coming from Sydney after having spent the previous two months at Wat Buddha Dhamma Monastery in New South Wales. Given the very basic facilities they have there, Jhana Grove, the Buddhist Society of Western Australia’s retreat centre, was sheer luxury: Having my own room with personal bathroom, warm water for a shower without having to kindle a fire first, a flushing toilet… wow! And apart from this the place is located in the bush, in a quiet and peaceful environment.
It started all with the warm welcome by Bianca, the “angel of Jhana Grove”. She still recognized me which is amazing, given the hundreds of people she is receiving there all year round! She provided me with an extra-warm blanket—it was unusually cold!
So all conditions were present to have a successful retreat.
In his first evening talk Ajahn Brahmali made clear what he understands by a “sutta retreat”—probably better called “sutta and meditation retreat”: Using the words of the Buddha to guide us in our meditation and to inspire us as well—in other words: taking the Buddha as our teacher. Ajahn’s idea was to study just enough in order to understand how we should practise and to be inspired, but not too much so that the intellectual work might become a distraction from meditation.
Our teacher also pointed out what the “middle way” means in terms of a meditation retreat: Neither indulging in sensual pleasures nor tormenting ourselves in any way. “The bigger danger lies in the second one”, he explained. “There is hardly a chance to indulge too much in sensual pleasures in this retreat centre.” The purpose of this middle way as he explained it is to let go of the body. If the mind is too much preoccupied with pleasures provided by the physical senses the body is very much present to our awareness, and the same thing happens if we try to sit through pain, sleep or eat too little or the like. Only when we have neither overly pleasure in the body nor pain that catches our awareness can it happen that the body disappears from our perception and we can access this beautiful inner mental world.
The overall theme of this retreat was “Dependent Origination”, usually considered as a difficult topic, not easy to grasp. But the way Ajahn Brahmali is talking about it makes it quite transparent and understandable. In this retreat he didn’t try to look at it too much from an intellectual or analytical perspective, but rather from a practical one: What does dependent origination mean in our meditation practice? The basic point is that there is a causal sequence, one point leading to another, starting from ignorance and leading all the way to suffering. So we can see how from a given condition step by step the following factors are arising, ending up with suffering, our basic problem. And in the same way there are other causal sequences, starting from suffering and leading step by step to liberation! In other words: All these causal sequences help us understand how our problem, suffering, comes to be, and how it can be resolved. And we don’t have to be “supermen” or “superwomen”, but once started, it all develops in a natural way, without us doing much about it. Actually, without us doing anything about it! As the Buddha explains in AN 11.2: “No volition need be exerted… “.
This is the great message of the Buddha’s teaching, and the message of this retreat: There is a way out of suffering, and each one of us can progress on this way! And not by exhausting ourselves with hard work, but by just allowing a natural process to happen.
The starting point, so Ajahn Brahmali pointed out further, is the attitude we bring into the meditation retreat, and into each single meditation session accordingly. It is important to get this starting point right in order for the whole process of development to take off. And what is this attitude we need as our starting point? It is mainly a sense of happiness. It is this kind of happiness as is resulting from different contemplations the Buddha recommends on several occasions, like contemplating sīla, generosity or the Triple Gem.
And the same kind of happiness actually also results from our own practice of the sīla, notably the backside of the “sīla-coin”. The front side is what is mostly taught, and that is what we should restrain from: killing living beings, stealing etc. But what does the backside mean? The backside of not killing is caring for living beings, developing metta and compassion for them. The backside of not stealing is being generous… and so on for all the precepts.
Did you already invite your friends one time for a coffee or a tea, and did you serve them a nice cake on that occasion which probably you had made yourself? And can you remember how happy you felt when they liked the cake? This is the kind of happiness that comes from generosity and caring for others! In this sense taking the eight precepts is a very important support for our meditation practice during the retreat. And this connection, sīla being the prerequisite for a successful meditation practise, also shows that the Buddhist path cannot be walked on the meditation cushion only. The more we are living a virtuous life outside the meditation centre, in the sense of not only respecting the front side, but also the backside of this coin of sīla, the better we are prepared for the practise now.
In this way it was also possible for me to overcome my mood of “spiritual depression” that had caught hold of me at the beginning of the retreat. I was still recovering from a cold, and also needed some time for adaptation to this new environment again; so my mind just got into a state of negativity with thoughts like “I’ll never manage anything on this path”, “I am not good enough”, etc. With the help of the teaching as taught by the Buddha and laid out by Ajahn Brahmali I was able to let go of this and find access to a brighter state of mind again, and to some peace and happiness. And finally I enjoyed the retreat very much
When listening to Ajahn Brahmali’s talks one thing always struck me: He was putting so much inspiration and joy into every sentence that it was really making the suttas alive as if the Buddha were present here and now! We could all feel how much he loves the suttas, and this love and joy had a contagious quality. And with this attitude of his he set a great example for everybody to develop this joy and love which is exactly what he described as the starting point to get the meditation going. This was just what I needed to help me out of my dark mood!
Was there a favorite sutta for me in this retreat? O yes, there was!!
AN 10.61 Ignorance:
“… Just as, when it is raining and the rain pours down in thick droplets on a mountain top, the water flows down along the slope and fills the clefts, gullies, and creeks;
these, becoming full, fill up the pools;
these, becoming full, fill up the lakes;
these, becoming full, fill up the streams;
these, becoming full, fill up the rivers;
and these, becoming full, fill up the great ocean;
thus there is nutriment for the great ocean, and in this way it becomes full.
So too, associating with superior persons, becoming full, fills up hearing the good Dhamma.
Hearing the good Dhamma, becoming full, fills up faith.
Faith, becoming full, fills up careful attention.
Careful attention, becoming full, fills up mindfulness and clear comprehension.
Mindfulness and clear comprehension, becoming full, fill up restraint of the sense faculties.
Restraint of the sense faculties, becoming full, fills up the three kinds of good conduct.
The three kinds of good conduct, becoming full, fill up the four focuses of mindfulness.
The four focuses of mindfulness, becoming full, fill up the seven factors of awakening.
The seven factors of awakening, becoming full, fill up true insight and liberation.
Thus there is nutriment for true insight and liberation, and in this way they become full.”
(Translation after Bhikkhu Bodhi with slight modifications by Ajahn Brahmali.)
This simile with the water filling up everything and overflowing everywhere is just so nice and gives you the feeling to be under a shower of blessings… And to get the starting point of this sequence, being with some good people who explain the Dhamma and thereby remain faithful to the suttas (the Buddha being the “superior person” to hang around with), is actually not that hard. What I felt here was: I am just with such a person and such teachings right now. That means it should be possible to develop the other factors of this sequence as well, one by one… even for me!
Ajahn Brahmali will come and visit Europe this year in June and conduct one more “Happy Sutta Retreat”, next to some other talks and events. Find out everything about his visit here.