Why Meditate?

Swati Chopra interviews Upul Gamage at Nilambe

UPUL NISHANTHA GAMAGE is the resident meditation teacher at a tranquil spiritual retreat – the Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre near Kandy in Sri Lanka. His deep understanding of the practice of meditation as well as the travails of modern life make him a wise and compassionate kalyanamitra (dharma friend) to many around the globe. In this, he carries forward the legacy of the Centre’s founder, Godwin Samararathne, a lay teacher who was widely respected for his wisdom and skill in guiding people on the path.

I spoke with Upul at Nilambe on a quiet morning, after a centring meditation session.

 How can one balance one’s spiritual quest with living in the world?

 We must understand that we have a responsibility towards ourselves, just as we have towards family, partner, parents, children, and society. If we know this, we will find the time for spiritual practice.

It is easy to confuse responsibility towards oneself with earning and consuming more.

 I can give you an example. Most hotels have gyms now where you can go and exercise to reduce cholesterol, blood sugar, and so on. Next to the gym is a restaurant. Half the time, people are either in the restaurant or the gym, and the other half they have to earn to pay for the restaurant and the gym! So, there is no time for the mind.

Do you think de-stressing is a good enough motivation to meditate?

 More than half the meditators start because of personal problems. You can see meditation as a medicine. Doctors send patients to meditate to overcome physical sicknesses, psychosomatic diseases. Some come because of psychological, emotional or relationship problems. Some want to know about themselves. Some want to achieve psychic powers. Some want to meditate because their religion recommends it. Any reason is fine.

You can use meditation as medicine, therapy, psychological exercise to increase memory and brain activity. You can use it as a microscope or a telescope, to see your life clearly, or to understand the world. The important thing is the practice. If you know how to practise, you can use it as and when you need it. If you don’t have problems, you can still meditate to develop spiritual qualities like joy, peacefulness, loving-kindness, compassion.

While meditating, we might achieve peace and equanimity. Do these automatically translate into our daily living, or must we cultivate them?

 It does affect daily life up to a point. If we sit in the morning, we can go to work with a fresh mind. That peacefulness and freshness remain for some hours, but gradually decrease. Sitting meditation is important, but it is not good enough. We have to learn how to apply meditation in daily life. This is why in the Centre’s daily schedule we have ‘working meditation’ – how to work mindfully, and remain in the present instead of thinking of the past or future. Both these thoughts lead to stress. If we can focus on our current work, we will be relaxed.

Also, we want to choose what we like to do, and reject what we do not. This is not always possible. If we do not know how to do work that we do not like, then we struggle. There are complications and resistance. The body suffers as a result. We have to learn how to let go of our likes and dislikes, and to see the importance of the work.

The other important thing is selfless action. We like to work for ourselves and our loved ones. We have to learn to work for others. Sometimes, we might not know who they might be. It does not matter. We can still do something. We can sweep the path even if we do not know who will walk on it.

At work, we can see our clients as meditation teachers. Because of them, we can develop metta (friendliness), tolerance, compassion, and equanimity, especially if they are demanding and unappreciative. There are many opportunities in daily life to practise meditation. Actually, if you live in a forest, you can cultivate only one side of spirituality. The other is immature. I tell people, ‘Do you want to be spiritually paralysed, where only one side is working?’ Good sitters are not necessarily good meditators. When they go back to their normal lives, they might not know what to do, how to face their emotions. It is good to have a retreat, but then we must go back and test ourselves.

How can we bring mindfulness to our relationships?

 We have pre-conceived images of ourselves and others, and we expect them to behave accordingly. We react to our image of the other, without understanding. We think, ‘This person is like this.’ This is especially true of spouses. I tell them, ‘You married an image, not the person.’ Let go of your images, models, frames. Be open to the other person and understand him or her.

Also, if you expect something from the other, say it. Communication is important. Meditation can help us have a friendly dialogue instead of arguments, listen to others, observe and understand them.

Mindfulness and metta help increase your inner capacity, so you have enough space for different opinions and ideas. A spacious mind does not react. It can accept and absorb. To have a wider and deeper mind is important. Otherwise, you always expect the other person to live within your frame.

The meditation techniques you teach are based on the Buddha’s teachings?

 Yes, like awareness of breath, contemplating the body, meditating on physical sensations, watching thoughts and emotions, cultivating positive qualities like kindness, compassion, metta, living in the present moment. Also, investigating what is happening now and why it is happening.

Website: www.nilambe.net

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This interview was published in The Speaking Tree, January 15, 2012.

Remembering Sanghamitra

Sri Mahabodhi at Anuradhapura

Every December, on the day of the full moon, an Indian ancestress is celebrated inSri Lanka. She is Sanghamitra, daughter of Emperor Ashoka, who along with her brother, Mahendra, helped establish the Buddha dharma here in the third century BC. She is also revered as the one who brought a branch of the original Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, and which continues to be a powerful sacred presence in ordinary people’s lives even today.

On Sanghamitra Poya (‘poya’ is a full moon day), on 10 December this year, there is a festive atmosphere inAnuradhapura. Multitudes dressed predominantly in white arrive from far and near. They camp in the lawns of the ancient city, circumambulate its magnificent stupas, and bathe in its manmade tanks. The high-point of the day is a visit to the Bodhi tree, reverentially called ‘Sri Mahabodhi’, as if it were a deity in its own right.

That feeling grows as one steps onto the path that leads up to the tree. People carry flowers, coconuts, incense, and lengths of cloth to offer to Sri Mahabodhi. The crowd intensifies as one enters the compound that houses the tree, and one spots people sitting on the ground, in groups or alone, reciting mantras or simply praying.

The tree itself is cordoned off from the ‘general public’, and officiating monks scurry up and down the steps leading to it with devotees’ offerings. The larger tree in the enclosure is an offshoot of Sanghamitra’s tree, which one can still spot behind, distinguished by its lighter bark, as if whitened by age. In popular culture, Sanghamitra is always shown holding the sacred branch and it is in this context she is referred to on this day dedicated to her, as the loudspeakers come on and eminent monks take to the microphone.

Another branch that Sanghamitra brought with her was that of the nuns’ sangha, and along with it the opportunity for women to step outside patriarchal roles designated for them and into the spiritual freedom of the renunciate’s life. This branch withered away, unlike the Bodhi tree, and disappeared for a thousand years until its revival in recent times. At the Sri Mahabodhi, this renaissance is evident in the presence of several women in robes. Though not full-fledged nuns, they have taken for themselves the option of an alternative to worldly life, one that can be as liberating as it can be difficult to pursue.

In their courage in choosing this solitary path, not supported in the same way as monks’ organisations in this predominantly Buddhist country, these women keep alive Sanghamitra’s pioneering spirit. In their attempt to forge their own spiritual destinies, they appear to be true inheritors of Sanghamitra’s legacy.

Sanghamitta handing the Bodhi sapling to King Devanampiyatissa