Today we are talking with Ajahn Punnadhammo from ‘The Arrow River Forrest Hermitage’. I was inspired to contact him after my research into Buddhist Cosmology and the states of the Jhana led me to his website. We are just scratching the surface here into what are extremely far reaching subjects. I am very grateful for Ajahn Punnadhammo taking the time to answer these questions. You can visit his site here. The Cosmology book mentioned in the interview can be seen here.
Here is some background information:
The Arrow River Forest Hermitage is a Theravadin Buddhist monastery and meditation center located in Northern Ontario, fifty miles southwest of Thunder Bay. We have 92 acres of land in a beautiful mixed forest. There are presently seven all-weather dwelling places on the property as well as a meditation-hall and kitchen, a sauna, library and well-equipped workshop.
The resident bhikkhu is Ajahn Punnadhammo who has been studying and practicing Buddhism since 1979 and was ordained in Thailand in the forest tradition of Ajahn Chah (novice ordination Feb. 1991, higher ordination Feb. 1992). Between 1990 and 1995 he was based at Wat Pah Nanachat, Thailand. Punnadhammo is a Canadian, born Michael Dominskyj in Toronto in 1955. He began studying the Dhamma under Kema Ananda, the founder and first teacher at the Arrow River Center.
PAA: We have your background from your website which is exciting to read, I see you were in Thailand from 1990-1995 and I wonder if you are able to give us insight into what life was like in those 5 years and what if anything stands out as significant events and breakthroughs in your practice.
Wat Pah Nanachat was an ideal place to train as a young monk. It is the international monastery of the Ajahn Chah tradition set up for his western disciples. The atmosphere is very traditional but the teachings are available in English. It was very inspiring to be living in a Buddhist country where the Dhamma is part of the fabric of everyday life. WPN also has a couple of remote retreat monasteries associated with it and I had the opportunity to spend some time there as well. I especially enjoyed Tow Dtum which is deep in the jungle bordering Myanamar. Living close to nature is a big part of the Buddhist forest tradition, going right back to the Buddha’s time. The South-East Asian forest is very different from the Canadian Boreal forest but both have their unique beauties and wonders.
PAA: Have the teachings remained as they were in Thailand or have you had to make changes at Arrow River to the way things are done to accommodate Western ideas.
The teachings as such remain the same. There is necessarily some adaption of the lifestyle due to both climate and culture. Our tradition (Theravada) tends to be very conservative and seeks to preserve the original teachings of the Buddha. Also my personal approach is not to dilute the original message to make it palatable to modern ideas.
PAA: Within your tradition you use the Jhana as a guide to attainment and increasing stillness within the mind? What is the process and methods you use to achieve each Jhana?
The basic idea of developing samadhi leading into jhana is to make the mind still. That is the true meaning of the word “samadhi” which is usually translated “concentration.” I have thought for some time that this translation misleads meditators into pushing too hard. The term is defined in the old texts as “non-wavering, stillness, stability.” The practice is to unify the mind on a single arbitrarily chosen object. We usually use the breath although other objects are possible as well. The key skill to learn is the art of non-attention. That is, the meditator must learn to disregard all other objects, whether they be internal such as thoughts or memories or external such as sounds or smells. The key is make the mind open and receptive, but only to let the chosen object in. If this is done persistently the other objects will fade away because one is not feeding them the energy of attention. The mind will gradually disengage from the senses and rest in a unified blissful state. This is jhana.
PAA: Are the Jhanas something of a prerequisite for Ahartship? If so, how important are these stages/absorptions to one’s progress? I see that they are listed in the Cosmology book.
Technically yes. There is said to be no enlightenment without jhana. There is however a “bare insight” path which does not pursue jhanic unification but goes straight to vipassana (insight or investigation, a very different meditation). But even the proponents of this method admit there must be at least a single moment of jhana before the realization of Nibbana. It is also clear that when the Buddha spoke about paths to enlightenment the one he mentioned the most was to go through the four jhanas and then to investigate reality upon emergence from jhana. So in summary, while formal development of the jhanas my not be an absolute requirement for enlightenment, it certainly helps!
PAA: We have words like Samadhi and Enlightenment. From your understanding what does it take to truly embody these words? Secondly if we were able to define these terms would it from the context of Buddism mean that they had freed themselves from the six realms of Samsara? Or would it simply mean they have been able to establish the ‘Right view’.
I have already said something about the meaning of samadhi. Enlightenment is another odd word choice in English. It’s not really wrong but it doesn’t correspond with any of the common terms used in Pali for the experience. Instead we have vimiutti – liberation or bodhi – awakening. In Abhidhamma it is referred to as magga-phala which means path and fruit. The essence of what is being referred to is the realization of the unconditioned, or Nibbana. Theravada sees awakening as occurring in four distinct stages. The first is steam-entry which is the first glimpse of Nibbana; it is like the curtains part for just a moment. This moment is enough to change the being forever but it is not yet full enlightenment. Before stream-entry it is impossible even to imagine the unconditioned. After stream-entry there is a new understanding of the conditioned, by contrast as it were. Becoming freed of the cycle of rebirth also occurs in stages. The stream-winner is forever freed from the possibility of a lower rebirth and is destined to have a maximum of seven more lifetimes, always in the human realm or higher. The second stage is called “once return” because he is subject to one more human rebirth. Third stage is a “non-returner” and is almost completely purified. He can be reborn only in the Pure Abodes. An arahant or a perfected one will not be reborn anywhere.
PAA: In Buddism and in your Cosmology book you have written about the universe, beings and even time. How much of this can we take purely as a story from the Pali Cannon and how much can we take it as real information that can be gleaned by anyone with proper practice? For example the beings of the universe mentioned in the cosmology book, are these beings that one could experience contact with given access to the Jhana states?
In my view it is important to avoid the opposite errors of extreme skepticism and extreme credulity. We should accept our own limitations and not pretend that we actually know how the universe works. Every description of the universe, including the modern scientific one, is just a model. It is not the reality itself which is beyond our comprehension. When someone asks if the devas are real, we can reply by asking “what do you mean by real?” This is a deep question. In what sense is this ordinary human realm “real”? Of course the descriptions in the Pali texts are coloured by the cultural background of India, which was already a rich and ancient heritage in the time of the Buddha. Some spiritually advanced human beings may have had visions or interactions with other realms, but they would inevitably perceive them through the lens of their previous conceptions. A Christian mystic sees angels, a shaman might see ancestor spirits, an Indian saw devas. In regard to such visions, one of the psychic powers that can be developed through mastery of jhana is said to be the divine eye (dibbacakkhu) which allows one to see into other realms of existence. Devas and other such beings may also chose to manifest to humans on rare occasions.
PAA: We hear in Tibetan Vajrayana and Dzogchen systems one of the highest accomplishments is that of the Rainbow Body (Jalu) where the practitioner dissolves into the 4 elements or a smaller achievement that of the incorruptible body. What are your thoughts on these achievements?
There isn’t really an equivalent of this in Theravada. The closest thing I can think of is the way the relics (cremated remains) of a dead arahant often transmute into pearl like relics. It is really quite striking.
PAA: According to the Pali Cannon what are the Sun and the Moon?
The sun and moon are conceived as vimanas in which devas live. A vimana is like a flying mansion, an aerial and mobile abode of the gods. Hundreds of devas live in the sun and moon and there is a chief deva in each; the sun god and the moon god. They orbit around Mt. Sineru and it is night when the sun is on the opposite side of the mountain from us. The change in seasons depends on a change of altitude of the sun. From time to time the gigantic asura Rahu swallows the sun or moon, terrifying the devas within. But he is unable to hold it for long because of the force of their motion. This is the explanation for eclipses. There is almost nothing in the canon or commentaries about the stars and planets. And it seems that the model described above wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny for the observed motions of the sun and moon. This reveals a significant difference between the Greek and Indian approaches. The Greeks developed their cosmology by looking at the sky and trying to account for the observed motions. This is the tradition we still follow in the West today. In India, the actual sky was of less interest than the internal world of the mind. They developed a cosmology to account for different levels of consciousness and weren’t really all that concerned with the external world.
PAA: What are some of the things that students can do to make better progress in their practice? Also what advice would you give to practitioners who are not part of larger Sangha and practice on their own.
The first step must always be to improve your sila (ethical behavior). You won’t get anywhere on the spiritual path if your morality is bad. The next step is to develop a meditation practice. The most important thing here is consistency. It is a very good practice to fix a certain time every day for meditation and to follow it diligently. If you only meditate when you feel inspired you will never get anywhere. Overcoming resistance will strengthen your resolve and we often make the most progress when we overcome defilements like laziness or desire mind. Having a sangha to practice with is very beneficial and anyone seriously interested in spiritual development would be well served to seek out a local group if one exists. If not, there are nowadays a plethora of resources on the internet. The covid restrictions did have one beneficial effect is that it brought many of our monks as well as other spiritual teachers to look into possibilities of teaching on the internet. Every week there are new dhamma talks being uploaded to YouTube and other venues. There are also online discussion groups and forums etc. Find something of the sort that resonates with you and it can be a decent substitute for a local sangha.
PAA: Is there anything else you would like to say to readers regarding the practice of Buddhism, meditation or the view of the Cosmos?
One of the traditional meditations that has been largely ignored in the West up to now is devanusati or contemplation of the devas. This is a way of refining and elevating consciousness. It is has a brightening and expanding effect on the mind. I have been experimenting with variations of this practice for some time now. For anyone interested, here is a guided meditation on this theme.