“Sustain awareness at every moment and in every posture, whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down. Before you act, speak or engage in conversation, establish awareness first – don’t act or speak first, establish mindfulness first and then act or speak. You must have mindfulness, be recollecting, before you do anything. Practice like this until you are fluent. Practice so that you can keep abreast of what’s going on in the mind; to the point where mindfulness becomes effortless and you are mindful before you act, mindful before you speak. This is the way you establish mindfulness in the heart.” Ajahn Chah
Jonathan Preboy from KwaZulu Natal, and Anna Scharfenberg from Germany, have been resident teachers at Dharmagiri since March. They offer students staying at Dharmagiri guidance in Vipassana meditation. In the interview below, you can get to know them a little better. Jonathan has family in Underberg, the town local to Dharmagiri. Beside helping at Dharmagiri, they support their family as well as lead Underberg’s local meditation group. Anna has also been working in Underberg’s local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.) Jonathan and Anna will be offering a retreat from September 1 – 26 at Dharmagiri. Please click here for further details. This retreat is run on dana (free will offering). Students are welcome to join in anytime between the 1st & 26th to start their retreat or basic course.
Feedback from a student: I really enjoyed arriving at Dharmagiri, it was just what I had hoped for: simple, beautiful, good energy, and with the appropriate facilities for a retreat. Jonathan and Anna were great instructors of Vipassana: clear, knowledgeable, humble and available. It was very much my own journey (isn’t it always?), but I was left enough space (little dogma) to uncover insights by myself. I found the routine of the practice engaging; sometimes boring, sometimes unsuccessful, sometimes successful, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes nothing. And that was what it all came to be about: awareness of the present moment.
The Vipassana practice certainly enabled a change of consciousness: I lived in the moment, had a heightened sense of awareness, and my sense of self lightened. It was an experience I am grateful to have had. I also particularly enjoyed the alive silence of the retreat. My thanks goes to Dharmagiri for making the space available for retreat, and cultivating good energy there, and to David and Martin (Dharmagiri staff) for their quiet support, and to Anna and Jonathan for their instructions and enabling structure. If Dharmagiri was closer to Cape Town I would already be back for another retreat.
Christopher Higgo, Cape Town.
Interview with Jonathan & Anna
When, where and why did you start meditating?
Jonathan: My interest in meditation started with reading books like “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” (Sheldon Kopp) and “Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis” (Erich Fromm). In 1992 I went for a weekend retreat at the Buddhist Retreat Center in Ixopo and for the next 10 years my meditation was a mixture of Buddhist and new age practices. The main motivation for meditating was to understand myself/ life/ people better.
Anna: That was 2002. I was quite burned out from my studies, had a depression and a lot of anxiety. There were a couple of meditation techniques I had tried already plus some yoga. The strongest helping hand that reached out to me at that time was that of my flat mate, a former monk from the Thai Buddhist tradition. He taught me about the Eight-Fold Noble Path and I immediately signed up for my first Vipassana course in the tradition of S.N. Goenka.
Can you share any highlights from your meditation/spiritual journey e.g. teachers you have met?
Jonathan: Reading about meditating and mixing practices was not satisfying. The suffering and delusion was so overwhelming that in my early thirties I stopped practicing as a clinical psychologist and started traveling. In 2002 an inspiration (or desperation) arose to study with a meditation master. The desire to have a master was implanted, strangely enough, by the Destroyer book series from my teens and reinforced by Jack Kornfield´s book “Living Masters”. At Mahatat Temple in Bangkok I asked the abbot where I could find the greatest meditation master in Thailand. Following his direction, I found myself later that year practicing Vipassana meditation with Ajhan Tong at Chom Tong Temple in Northern Thailand. His wise teaching and loving kindness have guided my meditation practice and teaching since then.
A second inspiring teacher is Sri Ammaji, the Hugging Mother of India. I met her in 2003 and have been fortunate to travel and work with her every year since then. Her miraculous power of love is not only demonstrated by her ability to hug and comfort tens of thousands of people in one night but her charity work building schools (more than 60), orphanages, distributing pensions and emergency relief. Other teachers that have shaped me are my partner, Anna, family, friends and students.
Anna: Meeting the venerable Ajahn Tong, our master from Thailand, was a huge blessing. Through all the struggles that we encounter on the path he is such a light. It is a relief to have the chance to reflect on him or to be near to him when you are in pain because he is a living example of what the Buddha taught. Fortunately he has inspired some wonderful people from Thailand, Israel and Germany who are senior teachers in our tradition. I am very grateful to have received guidance from them over the past years.
Another source and teacher is Amma, the hugging mother. Being in her presence and in her ashram in India is a bit like the Wild West! You leave your room and you bump into somebody you have been trying to avoid; you get your lesson on your way to fetch breakfast or doing Seva (service.) It allowed me to have more insight into painful feelings such as insecurity, numbness, hatred, jealousy etc. Her being a powerful female teacher and the residence being mainly female provides with challenges and a lot of nourishment at the same time. Throughout my whole life my family has been a big teacher and in the last years Jonathan as well. My mother came to Dharmagiri to meditate with us and my father came to Thailand. My two beautiful older sisters did the full basic course in Germany. I am so proud of them!
You have meditated for many years, what have been the insights, struggles and benefits?
Jonathan: The biggest insight has been the density of my delusion. I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Thus while I thought of myself as clever and special and deserving I was mostly just an asshole. Other useful insights have been about anatta (non-self), the value of the Dharma and Sangha and the shocking reality of suffering. The greatest struggle has been to maintain awareness with painful and overwhelming feelings and thoughts. For nearly 10 years after starting Vipassana there were acute feelings of fear/panic and hysteria and during the last 2 years there have been strong feelings of hate and craving. These feelings arise everyday but are especially intense on retreats. The thoughts that are the most painful are negative self-attacks, distorted perceptions, false beliefs and pessimistic predictions.
The first Vipassana retreat resulted in some surprising benefits. I stopped smoking cigarettes (after 18 years), drinking and stopped having relationships for ten years. There was also a profound sense of relief and joy at having found a wonderful teacher and method of meditation. Subsequent benefits of meditation are more regular awareness, greater skillfulness, gratitude, loving kindness, an opportunity to work with good people, less physical contraction, new perspectives and contentment.
What encouragement would you give to those starting out?
Jonathan: Not sure how to be encouraging without falsely implying that I know something or have achieved something. Vipassana meditation is like a bitter medicine. It tastes terrible to the self and only works if you take it.
Anna: If you find something that appeals to you give it a fair try and stick with it for a while. A suitable technique will prove itself. With a good tool and some guidance, the path and everything that comes with it will unfold itself once we are ready for it. Vipassana is a very good technique for beginners, as well as inviting everyone to come and observe the true nature of things by simply using techniques as bowing, walking and sitting.
Many people have done the Goenka Vipassana retreats. Your retreats also are Vipassana retreats, yet you structure them differently – can you say something about that?
Jonathan: All Vipassana meditation aims to develop insight that will cut through delusion and lead to freedom but the techniques are slightly different. Ajahn Tong´s technique closely adheres to the Buddha´s instructions in the “Satipatana Sutta” (the four foundations of mindfulness) and the 16 Vipassana stages outlined by the Buddhaghosa in the “Path to Purification”. In addition, students benefit from using noting to build and maintain awareness and longer daily interviews with their teacher.
Anna: The tradition of S.N. Goenka has proved itself to many people and I am grateful to have come across one of his many centers when I started Vipassana meditation. Someone who has experience in the tradition of S.N Goenka would find a lot of similarities with our technique, but I start with some of the differences.
Our technique has it roots in the school of Mahasi Sayadaw/ Ajahn Tong. In the 21-day basic course or the 10 day retreats the daily routine consists of regular individual walking and sitting practice. The mindfulness is cultivated by observing and noting (naming) what is experienced in the present moment to gain insight in the four foundations of mindfulness. Additionally, once a day we have a short and simple work meditation and a report to the teacher about the conditions of the meditation practice. Same as in the Goenka tradition the courses are held in silence and are based on donation (free will offering). We ask students to observe the 8 Buddhist training rules* if there health allows it. Further anyone come anytime as long or short as they can; if it’s to receive an introduction into the technique, an afternoon, weekend or a couple of days.
*(Eight training rules are the 8 precepts, the 5 daily life precepts, plus the renunciation of entertainments, adornments, eating solid food after the midday meal, and over indulging in sleep.)
How can a retreat help in my life and how does meditation relate to our lives in the world?
Jonathan: The best type of retreat not only provides immediate benefits but also transferable benefits. The immediate benefit of a retreat is to remove the person from the stress of his or her worldly life and offer a safe and healing refuge. If the person practices meditation while on retreat they will gain an even greater benefit because meditation has the power to relieve stress and suffering and generate joy and peace. However, if this was all the benefit, the retreat would be of limited use in normal life.
The greatest benefit from practicing meditation on retreat is the development of skillfulness. The student learns and practices both how to overcome their own negative behavior, feelings and thoughts and how to cultivate their own positive behavior, feelings and thoughts. More practice leads to greater skillfulness and, because the skills are learned from direct experience, (not from a book or thinking), these skills can be transferred and used in their daily life. The main skill, which is aware, is always available, everywhere (on retreat and in daily life).
My days as a Thai Buddhist nun – Maartje Goudswaard
After a busy day’s work and some hectic times I couldn’t wait to get to my special place in the mountains. The winding roads through Lusikisiki and Flagstaff, passed Kokstad and over the most beautiful road through the mountains got me in the mood for what was coming. I arrived late and Martin was still up and waiting for me with a cup of tea and catching up stories, I couldn’t have wished for a better welcome and instantly felt like I had come home. The next day Jonathan and Anna introduced me to the ancient tradition of Thai Vipassana meditation. As the only student I felt very special and privileged to have all their attention to myself. It seemed like a blessing to receive these teachings without having to travel to distant hidden monasteries in Thailand.
Vipassana: I soon learned that it means to see things clearly, without the delusions of the mind. I needed to focus on what I was actually doing in order to quiet the mind and become aware of myself, my thoughts, my feelings, my actions, my body. Bowing, walking and sitting, in continuous cycles over and over again. And naming everything I did. Stopping stopping stopping, Wanting wanting wanting, Putting putting putting, etc. Taking the time and putting the effort in observing myself so intensely had magnificent effects. First of all it made me realize that I think and feel a lot of things, all the time.
It made me more aware of my thoughts and feelings and in time it made my mind calm down. It made me learn how to walk all over again and eventually it made me see things a little more clearly; the morning sun on the mountain, the unbelievable color red of the leaves, the incredible shapes of the flames of the fire, the beauty of the heath on my skin, the taste of sweet tea. It seemed I had never really seen these things before.
I had been a Thai Buddhist nun for a few days and I had bowed, walked and sat like many had done before me, it had felt sacred and purifying. I had tasted David’s divine cooking, which had been an absolute feast each day. I had bonded a little with my sista Zetu.* I had walked the mountain with Martin and we had cut out the path to the extraordinary beautiful hidden valley. But it could not last. The time came to go back to my life. I didn’t want to switch my phone on until hours after I had left. It felt too overwhelming. But of course, before long I was back in the routine of life, with all its distractions. But…, with a little more awareness of what lies behind our busy mind, a little more calmness, a little more compassion to myself (and consequently others) and a little more acceptance of what is.
*Zethu is currently working part time at Dharmagiri, learning about vegetarian cooking and helping David keep those lovely meals rolling out! Zethu is one of Sister Abegail Ntleko’s daughters. She lives at Kulungile.