This Q-and-A was featured in the April 2021 issue of WestVirginiaVille.com magazine
By Douglas John Imbrogno | WestVirginiaVille.com | april15.2020
It is not as well known as it should be that a much-beloved, 93-year-old global figure in Buddhism has called West Virginia home since the latter decades of the 20th century. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana — better known around the planet as “Bhante G” — is abbot of the Bhavana Society, a Theravada Buddhist monastery and retreat center near High View WV, in Hampshire County, which he co-founded in the early 1980s.
Bhante G, who was born in rural Sri Lanka, ordained as a monk at age 12 and took full ordination at age 20, as he recounts in his entertaining biography “Journey to Mindfulness.” He came to America in 1968 and earned a PhD. in world religions at American University in Washington D.C. where he also served as chaplain.
Long desirous of establishing a Buddhist forest monastery in America, Bhante G and supporters found and purchased a 60-acre plot of land about twenty minutes from Wardensville, WV. The seed of his idea took root and became the Bhavana Society, a monastery and retreat center that has attracted thousands of lay Buddhists, monks and nuns from around the world in the years since its establishment.
Bhante G has written a number of books, including the now-classic meditation manual “Mindfulness In Plain English,” which has been translated into more than two dozen languages, and its companion “Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness.” He regularly leads retreats on meditation, mindfulness , concentration, and other topics at the Bhavana Society and around the world.
With the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020, the Bhavana Society suspended in-person retreats. In March of that year, he began to lead guided meditations on ZOOM, followed by in-depth talks on Buddhist teachings. Bhante G spends the first two months of every new year in solitary retreat at Bhavana, which led to a pause in the ZOOM sessions. He recently resumed them. They take place promptly from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., on most Saturdays and Sunday.
TO ATTEND BHANTE G’s ZOOM MEDITATION SESSIONS: Log into the meeting at this link a few minutes before 10 a.m. on most Saturdays and Sundaythose days. Type in the password ‘metta,’ (a Pali word that signifies ‘loving-friendliness’). On Saturday, the half-hour guided meditation is followed by a talk on Buddhist teachings. On Sundays, people in the ZOOM session can ask questions on spiritual practice directly of him.)
To mark the recent resumption of the ZOOM meditations, I asked Bhante G to take part in WestVirginiaVille’s “5 Questions” series, which focuses on intriguing people in West Virginia doing interesting things. For more questions-and-answers with him, see the book I edited of highlights from 50 years of his responses to common questions he receives: “What Why How: Answers to Your Questions on Buddhism, Meditation, and Living Mindfully” by Bhante G” (Wisdom Publications 2020) | PS: Thanks to Brian Chamowitz at Bhavana for his assistance in making this Q-and-A. happen.
BHANTE G: I believe several thousand people have attended the Zoom Dhamma talks since we started them in March 2020. Every day when we begin, we can hear a cacophony of people desiring to say hello and the same at the ending with many thanks expressed. Through telephone calls and e-mails, people send their feedback, thanking me. I think that in a way, we must say that this is a blessing in disguise. Although millions of people have died all over the world, there are some who have taken this as an opportunity of listening to the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha around meditation and spiritual practice. They could not go to work, or get to sports and cultural events or even visit relatives, so they were stuck in their homes. Staying at home month after month, whether it’s a large place or a small one, can be depressing, tiring and monotonous, as so many people have experienced.
We have given them the message of peace that the Buddha taught. The Buddha said Dhamma is the best medicine. He spoke of the benefit of “Hearing and teaching the Dhamma at the Right Time.” That is exactly what we have been offering those who come to the ZOOM sessions.
“My very strong advice is that people must understand that they are not going to live forever. We are all born with a one-way ticket.”
Many people around the world are wrestling with sickness, loneliness, depression. There was one case of a husband and wife living together alone and the husband died from COVID-19. The wife was struck with what the Buddha described as life’s experiences of grief, depression, sorrow, lamentation and despair. Listening to the Dhamma helped her to recover her bearings. The Dhamma was the right thing to hear at the right time. Of course, there have been many others teaching the Dhamma during these difficult times.
WVVILE: For people who have long been interested in starting a meditation practice, but who have never quite been able to get one going — or who tried and let a meditation practice lapse — what might be a key piece of encouragement from you? What will a person gain by buckling down and adding meditation and mindfulness practice to their life?
BHANTE G: My very strong advice is that people must understand that they are not going to live forever. We are all born with a one-way ticket. We’re all marching, marching, marching onwards, towards the end of our journey. We have been enjoying our life materially, doing all kinds of things to make us happy. If you stop all of them and ask yourself, “Am I happy?” The answer will be “not yet.” Then, you will go on thinking again about all the other things you have done and ask the same question — and the answer will still be “not yet.” No matter how many times you ask this question, the answer will always be “not yet.” Something is always missing.
So, when you meditate, you fill your life with understanding of this reality. Understanding the reality is the only way that makes your life fulfilled. Then you can say that you have accomplished something. No matter how long we keep groping in the dark, not knowing where we go, what we are doing, we will not be happy if we keep seeking it externally. Therefore, I urge people to start meditating and continue the practice until you see tangible results.
“Once we start the practice, we must make an effort to continue it, not to give up.”
Some people start meditating, and after just a few days, they discontinue. Then, they come up with excuses. People are very good at giving excuses for not doing good things. They don’t have any excuses for doing wrong things! So, the Buddha said: It is easy for the good to do good. It is difficult for the good to do bad. It is easy for the bad to do bad. It is difficult for the good to do bad.
So, we try to be good and try to make difficult things easy. Once we start the practice, we must make an effort to continue it, not to give up. After all, we are not doing this to please somebody. We are doing this to please ourselves by cleansing our mind. When the mind is unclean, with that unclean state of mind, when we talk, when we think, when we act, results follow us like the cart which follows the foot of the ox.
On the other hand, if the mind is clean and pure, with that clear state of mind, when we think, speak, and act, the results will follow us like our own shadow. You never feel your shadow, it is so light and close. And you are getting close to enlightenment. Now what does this mean? It means brightness and releasing burdens. You are very relaxed, calm, peaceful, and happy. Many people do everything to make themselves happy, except the right thing.
What is the right thing? One must introspectively look at one’s own mind. And we cannot see the mind until we remove all other sensory stimuli. We withdraw from this stimuli temporarily and look at the mind, the very instrument that can make us happy or unhappy.
So, my advice to everybody is: Don’t wait until all your work is over for you to meditate. You will never meditate that way. Therefore, make meditation practice number one on your priority list. Everything else will fall in place in the direction of peace and happiness when you clean your mind. Therefore, you are not doing it for me, your friend, brother, sister, parents, boss, husband or wife. You are doing it for yourself, so that you can relate to all of them in a very cordial, loving way. You can be friendly with everybody, no matter who the person is, when you meditate, and your mind is calm. When have no animosity, resentment, or jealousy towards anybody, then you will see how comfortable, how peaceful you are, because you see the reality. And then you see that the reality that you see within yourself is also the reality within others.
“My advice to everybody is: Don’t wait until all your work is over for you to meditate. You will never meditate that way. Therefore, make meditation practice number one on your priority list.”
WVVILLE: People often say “I just can’t meditate!” Or think they have to somehow instantly shut off their brain and force the mind to be quiet — and they find that impossible. What would you say to such reasons people give for feeling they can’t meditate?
BHANTE G: People often say they cannot meditate because they don’t know what meditation is. it. Sitting in one place, focusing the mind on the breath, is not the whole of meditation. So, this is what most people try to do — and not understanding it fully, they give up. Some people say one nostril is blocked, others can’t feel the breath. Some get hung up on with whether or not they are controlling the breath. So, these are the sorts of things that prevent people from meditating.
Meditation is training the mind to be free from psychic irritants. I’d like to advise people — there is no better object of meditation than the breath. The breath is the most effective subject of meditation and is available to every person at every moment.
For instance, you are in the middle of a very difficult situation, maybe an altercation with a co-worker or a quarrel with a family member. In the middle of all of these difficult situations, you feel like you are going to go crazy because you cannot handle them. So, with all these things going on, you take a pause, and focus the mind on the breath. Even one minute will produce relief. Suppose you are in the office or whatever you are doing, (except driving!), you stop what you are doing, close your eyes and focus your mind exclusively on the breath, without thinking about the future or the past. You can inhale and exhale. Count to one, inhale and exhale — and count two, inhale and exhale. And you focus like this up to ten. Then, do the same thing back down to one. Then again, climb up to nine and back to one. Then up to eight and back to one. And so on, until you get to one and inhale and exhale.
Another way is to stop what you were doing, focus your mind on the breath, take twenty inhalations and exhalations. At the end, you will feel very relaxed. Why? Because the nervous tension you build up will be released.
Sometimes you will lose your count. Suppose you lose it at six and you don’t remember if you were ascending or descending, so you get very confused. So then, it’s easy enough to start all over again. When you do this, time passes very quickly, and your mind gets focused. You become very alert and you gain concentration. So, that is one way.
Another way is to stop what you were doing, focus your mind on the breath, take twenty inhalations and exhalations. At the end, you will feel very relaxed. Why? Because the nervous tension you build up will be released.
So, try this, every hour on the hour. You can even set a reminder on your phone, watch, or computer. This practice will give you a calming, peaceful, relaxed state of mind. If you work eight hours a day and you practice this eight times, that will be eight minutes of meditation added to your day.
Then, when you come home you will not have a nervous headache. You will be able to talk to your family and friends. You will not be a grouch. So many benefits are there. Thinking of those benefits, you must force yourself to practice, little by little. At the beginning, you have to focus on practicing. But later on, it will become natural.
Also, make it your habit to practice in the morning when the mind and body are fresh. Since modern life is very busy, at least spend 30 minutes in the morning and evening, and one minute every hour, on the hour, throughout the day. So, do this earnestly in order to keep up a daily meditation practice and the result will be a happier, more peaceful mind.
WVVILLE: How do you advise people to increase their mindful awareness in daily life? It seems so easy to get caught up in frantic modern life and the stimulation of 24/7 social media — and then we try to use more thinking to solve the problems our frantic thinking itself causes. And how do we become more aware of the body and breath when we are off the cushion during busy, daily life?
BHANTE G: Mindful awareness in daily life is when you are engaged in any activity. Every day we do three things — thinking, speaking, and acting. In other words, we experience thoughts, words, and deeds. When we are engaged in these three activities, greed can arise, hatred can arise, confusion can arise. Jealousy, fear, tension, worry, anxiety, and all the other painful emotions can all arise. When they arise, we have to be mindful to take care of them. We have to pay attention to our mind.
When we think, speak, and act, we have to look at our mind. And when we see that we’re thinking, speaking, or acting with these defilements in our mind, then we must tell ourselves, this is no good — I must let them go. Letting them go is a very beneficial thing. There are two Pali words, assada and nissarana. The first one means ‘nourishing’ or ‘entertaining.’ Entertaining these negative emotions always leads to dangerous states of mind. Greed leads to clinging, craving, and other harmful emotions. ‘Nissarana’ means abandoning and it comes with benefits. Assada has danger, nissarana has benefit. So, when we mindfully look at our mind, we should ask ourselves — am I building up my dangerous side. Or am I building up my beneficial side?
“When we think, speak, and act, we don’t focus our attention on external things, other people, other objects — because we have no control over them. Rather, we should place our attention on ourselves, on our own mind.”
So, this is what happens when we pay attention. When someone says that someone “inadvertently did something,” that just means the person wasn’t paying attention when they spoke or acted. This can happen anytime throughout the day. With mindfulness as our guide, we can notice it and correct it and act skillfully to bring us beneficial results.
So, when we think, speak, and act, we don’t focus our attention on external things, other people, other objects, because we have no control over them. Rather, we should place our attention on ourselves, on our own mind.
We can use that corridor, that little space, to correct ourselves rather than blaming others. Even in the middle of a discussion between two or more persons, certain harmful thoughts can arise to break the harmony and disrupt our peace. So, when we watch our mind, we can check ourselves and hold our tongue and we can switch on to a positive, wholesome side. This will have a lasting benefit for our entire life. When one little thing slips away, it can result in a lifetime of regrets and remorse.
We must understand the difference between carefulness and mindfulness. The difference is that whereas anybody who pays attention to what the person is doing can be careful, mindfulness is much deeper than that. Mindfulness requires deeper attention to one’s own mind. Careful is external-facing, while mindfulness is inward, introspective, looking at one’s own mind with quality attention.
And what is quality attention? That is the attention without greed, hatred, and delusion. Carefulness, however, can still have these three unwholesome roots. For instance, when a thief wants to rob a bank, he has to be very careful, he has to pay attention, but he has ill intention, greed. So, therefore we have to make the distinction between carefulness and mindfulness. Sometimes people get these two confused.
WVVILLE: Every January and February you spend in solitary retreat. What is that like and what are your days like? Also, having just turned 93 years old, what is life like for you know? ? How do you view one’s inevitable passing?
BHANTE G: During my annual seclusion period, I meditate at least two hours in the morning after I wake up. Then, after breakfast, I do walking meditation in the meditation hall. Then, after lunch, again I walk outside for one-and-a-half hours. Then coming back, I meditate for two to two-and-a-half hours until 5 or 5:30 p.m. At 5:30, I take my evening medicine with my evening drink. And then after that, I meditate until I go to bed. Altogether, I’m meditating 6-7 hours, including sitting and walking meditation.
Even when I’m in bed, I’m meditating until the moment I fall asleep. I don’t want to talk with anybody, nor answer the phone, e-mails, text messages or the like. Instead, I focus my mind on impermanence. I deepen my understanding of impermanence, moment by moment, day by day.
What I’ve learned is that my entire life I’ve lived so far has been a dream. In this dream, I have heard so many things, seen so many things, thought so many things, felt so many things, etc. All of these are gone. Not a trace left. And I see that happening even now. Even while I’m talking at this very moment, I can easily turn my mind on to the Dhamma, the law, the root — that is, impermanence. Impermanence is the law, root, and establishment of Dhamma. Although it is established Dhamma, it does not exist!
“When I meditate, everything is arising and passing, arising and passing — it never stays for even a nanosecond!”
When something arises, impermanence arises with it. When something passes away, impermanence passes away with it. In other words, arising is impermanence, and passing away is impermanent as well. And yet that is called the establishment of Dhamma. Why is that? Because anything and everything is arising and passing within impermanence.
So, when I meditate, everything is arising and passing, arising and passing — it never stays for even a nanosecond! And so many things meet in this body. The physical body parts, certain energies or forces, such as earth, heat, water, air. We cannot see these, but the forces are there. The force of earth is hardness or softness. The force of heat is radiation. The force of water is holding or flowing. And the force of air is oscillation, or movement.
So, all of these forces are moving. They are always in a state of flux — moving, moving, moving. Form, thought, feeling, perception, consciousness, are all arising and passing away. Even upon reciting a syllable in the English language, or a snap of our fingers, in that very short time, all of these elements and aggregates are changing so rapidly. And these are all interdependent. So, when one changes, of course, the others change too, simultaneously.
In meditation, we can see the dependent origination formula in action — with the arising of this, this arises; with the passing away of that, that arises. For instance, when light comes, darkness disappears — instantaneously! So, as ignorance arises, our understanding withdraws and visa versa. That is the formula that we can see in action when we meditate. This is what we call a dynamic system.
During vipassana meditation, we can see these yin and yang forces working together. When we interfere with words, concepts, and the like, we will block our awareness of the reality. This is why it is important to make opportunities for what some Buddhists call “noble silence” at times in our lives. When we’re chatting and listening away, we can miss the boat. The more I meditate, the deeper my awareness goes into this understanding, and I can stay in this positional awareness for two hours easily. Unfortunately, however, nature, hunger, and pain call me out of this state.
When I meditate, when I’m in that state that I explained earlier, I feel how wonderful if I died now! No pain, no remorse, no greed, no hatred, no confusion. The mind is very pure and clean. I could see how death is taking place. Of course, I wouldn’t be there to tell the story!
Since 1947, every night I’ve gone to bed with the idea that I could die in my sleep that night. Since it has been in my mind all these years, now, I want to see how it happens! I’ve heard people say: “I know I will die, but I don’t want to be there when it happens.” But for me, I want to be there when it happens, so that I can, with this awareness, have this experience, this peaceful experience.
“I’ve heard people say: “I know I will die, but I don’t want to be there when it happens.” But for me, I want to be there when it happens, so that I can, with this awareness, have this experience, this peaceful experience.”
I don’t want anyone to be there at the final moment. After I breath my last, my friends, family, and caretakers can come in. At 93, I am pretty aware of the decay of this body. I cannot eat like I used to. I cannot walk like I used to. I cannot talk like I used to, or see, hear and so on and so forth. Even getting up from my seat is difficult now because my body seems heavier due to the deterioration of bones, muscles, etc. I can’t even hold the breath like I used to. My throat is always dry such that I have to drink water all day and eat verrrrry slowly. I want to walk fast, but the body won’t allow me. I can’t drink cold water or eat spicy food. Very quickly, I can catch a cold or pneumonia.
So, I’m quite aware of all of this happening to the body. However, hearing and vision are still functioning well. My mind is still quite good. My memory is still quite good. I’m more aware of the Dhamma, and I see the teachings in this mind and body.
When I read Dhamma books, now I feel that the Buddha is talking to me, because what he says, I can see it in my life. When I was younger, I couldn’t see this. I’m losing my sense of taste and smell and the skin dries very easily. Every day when I take a shower, I have to apply lotion to the hands and body. So, I ask myself: “What happened to me, all of the sudden?” In the past, I would not go to bathroom at night. Now, I have to go two, three or more times, because the bladder has become weak. Sleep is very light. Sometimes I wake up at 1 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep.
Now, meditation is how I compensate for this lack of sleep. I can meditate on impermanence as an experience, rather than as a theory. Impermanence is here and now, past and future. Therefore, 93 is a very powerful, insightful, time in my life, because I have brought all these loose ends together and I am icing the cake.
“I think if we don’t learn from our life and just die, we are utter fools. We must learn from our life.”
And I’m very happy that I became a monk, that I started Bhavana Society, to spend the last part of my life in meditation. That is the best thing that I have done in my life. I have done many, many, many good things, but this is the best. And not only that, but this place is open to many thousands of people who have come and will come to meditate.
I want to continue teaching meditation until I cannot talk anymore and practicing until this body dies. So, 93 is the blossom of my life, a great blessing. I think if we don’t learn from our life and just die, we are utter fools. We must learn from our life. What we learn from our lives, we cannot teach others, because life is an experience, and we cannot teach an experience.
For more on the Bhavana Society and to learn of the schedule of in-person retreats once they resume at the center, visit BhavanaSociety,org.