Conversing With an Italian-Argentinian Buddhist Monk in Mexico

Conversing with Venerable Nandisena

Morgan Zo Callahan

Jilotepec, Veracruz, Mexico

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Here we are, Venerable Nandisena and I, together again facing expansive green grasses, melting into a surrounding forest. Nandisena tells me of a delicious meal and company he and a couple of his students had the previous night with a local family. We’re talking about the Dharma, of the good-hearted Mexican people, of Dhamma Vihara, the sole Theravadan monastery in Latin America. We’re talking about lofty topics and very ordinary everyday concerns. He recently completed translating the Dhammapada from Pali to Spanish. Ven. Nandisena was happy to complete this effort of love, because it is the first Spanish translation of the ancient commentary of the verses of the Dhammapada attributed to Buddhaghosa (fifth century).

Bhikkhu Nandisena was born in 1954 in Argentina; he was a disciple of U. Silananda from Burma. He was ordained a monk in 1991 in California.

I had visited and spoken with Bhikkhu in 2008 and 2009.

I now wanted to ask Ven. Nandisena about his university days. I was aware that he was a university student in the 1970’s. I reflected on my own “turbulent mind/heart” of the late 60’s & early 70’s. In Argentina, it was the time of “The Dirty War” (Guerra Sucia), 1970 to 1983, where state-sponsored violence reigned against activists, students, journalists, guerrillas and sympathizers. It’s estimated that 10,000 people were killed or “disappeared.”

I was also interested in seeing how his teaching was going and to ask his opinion about two authors I was reading: Steven Batchelor and Achaan Chah.

What’s happening at Dhamma Vihara and in Mexico?

MZC: I notice that you now have 32 retreatants here. That must be encouraging for you.

BN: This is Easter vacation and I’m glad people here in Mexico take the time to come here. We even had to unfortunately turn away 20 people from Puebla who wanted to come, because we didn’t have the space. Our monastery has been open for 11 years and people visit our website; we have a mailing list. We have a small third floor attic that we’ve made into a dormitory. (Laughing) Some of the people have to live there, but no one seems to mind. The weather is nice, no rain, and we didn’t have any problems with electricity or water this time. I hope you come some time yourself and meditate with us.

(We talk for a while about works with street teens and children.)

How do you find Mexico this year? Tell me about the work for street children at Matraca.

MZC: I’m very uplifted by so many young volunteers this year; there’s a growing spirit of wanting to share and encourage the disadvantaged youth I’ve been meeting with.

Yes, there’s also a desire in many youth to be excessively materialistic, to only go for money. There the problem of intoxication, both physical and mental. This year, as I’ve done in the past, I’ll go out into the streets very late and find youngsters I’ve known who are just wasted from using inhalants, paint thinner and the like. I witnessed some who are destroying their brains. I’ve met with parents whose children were kidnapped and forced to prostitute themselves. So there is this disheartening side of my experience of Mexico as well as being happy to see a fresh spirit of volunteerism and awareness that serving others wisely and compassionately brings us joy. Really the people are just great.

Perhaps, as all of us, the young might place happiness in the wrong places. If only I had more power and position, more pleasures, then I would be truly happy. Of course, we both understand how many of the youth suffered poverty and still suffer poverty. It’s easy to be critical when we are well fed. On the positive side, I am seeing pockets of influence for promoting spiritual values and service to others. I’ve seen young people leave the situation of the street and who now are working or going to school, and I sense their appreciation and enthusiasm for living. I’ve spoken with indigenous people who are building their lives and caring for their families with great dignity.

BN: There’s presently a lot of violence in Mexico around drugs and gangs. Extortions, kidnappings. Even the poor workers here are forced to give money to criminals for “protection.” People don’t talk; they’re intimidated so they won’t go to the authorities. Not all the authorities are trusted. The ins and outs of Mexican politics and rules and regulations are daunting. So this is part of the climate in which we must teach Buddha’s way of peace. We are delighted that we can be a small influence to invite people to learn and to meditate. And, of course, there are wonderful elements in Mexican society as well. We try to stay patient and to be in the moment. The people have made me truly at home here.

Bhikku’s Experience as a University Student in Argentina, 1970s

MZC: You grew up in Argentina as a Catholic?

BN: Most families in Argentina are nominal Catholics, some more than others. My family didn’t put any pressure on me to follow the Catholic religion. From there, I went on to the university. You did whatever you wanted; you followed or didn’t follow any religion. It was up to you. I didn’t give a lot of attention to religion. It was in the 70s and you know how turbulent life in Argentina was. There was a military coup; there were great human rights violations. People were fighting the government. Many killings. Demonstrations. I was in the University in Cordova when there were bombings, murders, and shootings. It was a volatile place. I studied economics, and I was in the middle of the demonstrators and the authorities.

I sympathized with the need for human rights, but was put off by the violence from both sides. The dean of my university was shot dead at the entrance. Somebody came and shot him at blank range for political reasons. This made such a strong impact on me. I’m thinking: what’s behind all the hate and waste of human life?

I lived on the ninth floor of a building and a bomb was set off there because a man who worked with the government lived there with his wife and daughters. I witnessed many horrific things. I did finish my studies, later doing some post graduate studies in Italy in economic development, and started working, but I was affected by all of this violence and open to finding some spiritual sources, some wisdom. I started with Western philosophy and I had a grandmother who liked Borges very much. As you know, Borges was interested in Buddhism. I wanted to read and know, but it wasn’t until I left Argentina that I started to study and practice Buddhism.

MZC: Yes, Jorge Luis Borges, Argentinian writer and poet, died at 87 in 1986. He wrote a small book, What is Buddhism? What impressed me about Borges, who lost his eyesight by age 50, was his sensitive comparison of poets to the blind. “Poets like the blind can see in the dark… when I think about what I’ve lost, I reflect: who knows themselves better than the blind? Each thought becomes a tool.” Borges spoke about the insubstantiality of things and questioned our ordinary way of perceiving and understanding.

Meeting the Teacher

So you came to the United States in the 80s and had the luck to meet your teacher U Silananda in 1985?

BN: Yes, at first I studied Tibetan Buddhism and U Silandanda was teaching Theravada. So I was sorting out the different ways within Buddhism. At the beginning I just didn’t know. I was fortunate to meet U Silananda, and I was attracted to become his student. He was able to go deeply into the Four Noble Truths. My teacher told me not to believe, but to experience for myself. So I liked the freedom of this, and I began to meditate and study. I didn’t need blind faith, but I began to experience and see the Four Noble Truths for myself. There is a noble anguish in living and there is a worthy path to train the mind and the heart to understand this suffering and see how it might be eliminated. I did meditation retreats and studied with my teacher. U Silandanda especially taught the Abidhamma. I became interested in studying the Tipitaka, the three teachings of the Pali Canon which are the suttas (discourses of the Buddha), the Vinaya (disciplines for monks and nuns), and the Abidhamma (summaries of psycho-physical realities).

I decided that if I want to go deeper into Buddhism, I need to be ordained a monk; I wanted to dedicate my life to it. So I ordained in 1991 and spent five years with my preceptor. We started coming to Mexico and started this monastery in 1999.

MZC: Did you go to Burma? What was your impression of the monks there? As a visitor, I can feel a sense of tranquility here in the monastery; I see that people are practicing sitting and walking meditation. There’s a tangible quality one can feel when people come together to focus on understanding themselves with openness, with a sense of freshness.

BN: The amazing thing for me in Burma was the people’s devotion to Theravadan Buddhism; the monks are very serious about studying the Pali Canon. They monks are very orthodox; they study Pali grammar according to the ancient method. Though it’s a poor country, the people are very nice. And they live under very difficult conditions. I think Buddhism has helped a lot, but on the other hand, I wonder if the people are too patient, if they put up with too much. I ask myself whether the people should tolerate so much.

MZC: Sometimes patience can mean being afraid; being nice can be the anxiety to please. There’s fear when you have such a repressive government.

BN: Yes. And this can be problematic. You know the precepts were taught 2500 years ago and are usually applied individual to individual. But how about society? And government? We need to understand the precepts from a societal and organizational perspective as well. When you are, for example, in an institution, government, corporation, the way you relate to others is so vital. Does the institution relate according to the ethical precepts? Society cannot be harmonious without ethics. Governments cannot simply control others; corporations cannot only maximize profits. So we need to apply the precepts to this context of the larger society.

MZC: You learned a lot about systemic violence when you were a university student?

BN: Yes and I see it now in Burma and in the world. I gave a presentation on ethics recently to the judiciary in Xalapa. We spoke about how institutions can too often act like predators rather than being fair to the people. How can we say we are serving others if we are exploiting them? At the time of the Buddha, you would be brought to the king if you committed some offense. Simple. A punishment or a pardon was swiftly given. Now it’s so much more complex. Modern society demands that we apply ethics more broadly.

MZC: So you train and become a monk. What was your experience as you began to meditate regularly and to follow the precepts? What was it like to become so close to your teacher, U Silananda?

BN: I changed my life. Before I had only read, but when you meet with a teacher and stay close to a teacher, well that is the great change. I turned around. I felt a transformation by practicing and learning from my teacher. I discovered an inner happiness and peace. I felt I found an opportunity to know what the Buddha taught. I stayed with my teacher until he died; even after I came to Mexico, I used to accompany my teacher when he traveled. I stayed with him for almost 20 years.

MZC: In the Theravada tradition, what is the role of the teacher? You studied Tibetan Buddhism first where the teacher, the guru, actually gives initiation. The Tibetans identify very strongly with the teacher who can awaken others, because they themselves are awake. The teacher has a quality that draws you into insight, tranquility, wisdom, moral integrity and compassion.

BN: We don’t conceptualize as the Tibetans might. We don’t say that you are receiving any transmission. The Buddha said before he died that the Dhamma, the teachings, would be the teacher. In Theravada, you have both the preceptor and the teacher; the preceptor is giving you the discipline (Vinaya) and the teacher is giving you the teachings (Dhamma). You can remain with your preceptor and your teacher, but once you learn, it is the teachings which are important and, of course, your own living of the teachings. Yes, this is a different orientation than that of a guru-tradition. At the same time, one’s teacher does embody the teachings and there is a definite relationship to one’s teacher. The teacher has gone through the process of applying the teachings to daily life. It was so helpful for me to have a teacher to talk about what was happening in my meditation. Whatever was arising in me, even so-called “higher” experiences, I was always guided by my teacher to recognize the universal characteristics of being, of suffering, of changing, of impermanence and of no self. To see things as they are is the definition of wisdom. It is you who must see.

Through all the stages with my teacher, I felt times of joy. My teacher taught me not to have expectations; rather just to practice, to be content at all the stages of the practice just as it would unfold, to be in the moment. You don’t say: “I’m trying hard to be enlightened.” You don’t focus on a future goal. So much of Vipassana is to accept things just as they are, not to want things to be different. Experience exactly what you are experiencing. The Pali word, khanti, patience, has a deep meaning: that you just trust the unfolding of reality, to accept life and consciousness as they come to you.

MZC: Does this acceptance affect your work here in Mexico?

BN: Yes, very much. When we are on a retreat, for example, I accept that the people are dealing with their “Mexican” samsara, with difficulties that are, yes universal, but also very particular to Mexicans. I don’t know how I would be able to deal with life in every day Mexico. So I try to practice this acceptance; I allow myself to more and more be understanding of how the Mexican people live their lives in the circumstances here in Mexico. I listen more. Though I have to say, I do not practice what might be called a strong form of “engaged” Buddhism in the sense of often being outside in the society. We have retreats here almost every month. I go out to give talks; I sometimes enjoy meals with people in their homes, which is great. I also go to Argentina and Chile to give retreats and talks. I do know that there is a need in Buddhism to have more social involvement, to be more into education. I try to communicate this need when we go to international conferences, such as the recent one sponsored by the king in Bangkok.

Teaching and Considering Vegetarianism

(We talk about the animals at the monastery and I show Bhikku some picture of the monastery animals I took on my last trip. Bhikku is animated when playing with the animals.)

MZC: The animals here are wonderful hosts as well. Very friendly and curious.

BN: Laughing. We may be getting some goats soon. You know the economics of this? They milk the goats. The female goats give birth to billy goats, but there is no use for the billy goats. So after 40 days, they kill the male goat to eat. So we are going to adopt a male goat. And see from there if we can add more. We do eat seafood here, but I’d like the monastery to become completely vegetarian. We still follow the practice of not eating after noon.

You know the conditionality of things; one of the great problems of Mexico is the drug trafficking. But the consumer in the U.S. and Canada is part of it; it’s all inter-related. You are part of that chain.

MZC: All things are effects and causes of each other. Interdependence.

BN: Right. So the less we are causes or conditions for the destruction of animals, that is a better situation, even though in Theravada we can eat meat without breaking the precepts.

MZC: Do the people here change you and the way you understand and apply the teachings?

BN: Yes, the more I live here, the more I understand the problems unique to the people here. I connect more and I am more sympathetic. And I also learn. During the retreats we have the interview. I come to see that people have a wide variety of problems. Sometimes, I feel like a psychologist. I listen. I realize that people do not come here only to learn about Buddhism, but to address some problem. I notice that many people want to know what’s behind their dissatisfaction with so many areas of life, with the government, the economy, family, inner turmoil.

MZC: That’s wonderful. You are focusing on the individual human being; you are listening and learning as well. You are opening your heart to the retreatants and enquiring with them. You’re asking what makes one happy and peaceful in the midst of particular life circumstances. Do you experience that some of the retreatants, even in the midst of problems, which will continue, find some insight into what happiness might be? Perhaps they discover the joy of serving others as well as getting to know their own mind-hearts?

BN: Yes, serving others is what make us happy. It’s paradoxical. You forget about yourself when you serve others. At the same time, we should work on knowing our minds and to develop ethical living, to learn not to cause suffering to others. Others are just like us even with our differences. So it’s our responsibility to make our actions “blameless.” We learn how to relate to our inevitable problems.

I include non human beings in this such as animals. Lately I’ve become interested in groups, which try to protect animals, such as PETA. I wanted to know what was the philosophical principle behind PETA. I was surprised to find it’s not based on religion. They are following the utilitarian philosophers of the 17th century, such as John Stewart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. You know: animals have feelings and we don’t want to upset that. Animals have a capacity for suffering, and we should act in the interests of every being. There’s an author, Peter Singer, who writes about this in Anthem of Animal Liberation. In Buddhism, the non-harming of beings is in our philosophy.

MZC: I saw in your schedule that you have talks and question and answer times. What are talks that you have been giving, and what are some of the questions being asked? Do you feel the retreatants have the chance to get past the academic and ask the questions they really want to ask?

BN: Yes, that’s the key. This retreat we taught some of the stories from the Dhammapada, and people asked a few questions about the stories. The questions are longer than the talk, and most of the questions are about the person’s individual life. So these are even more important than the questions about the stories. The stories are a springboard to get to what the people really want to ask. I talk for about an hour and then we have dialogue for about an hour and a half. People get to bed about 10 o’clock and then get up at 3:45 a.m. At 4 o’clock in the morning, the retreatant begins meditation.

Steven Batchelor

MZC: You are familiar with Steven Batchelor? He writes about “deep agnosticism,”–deep not in the sense of not caring but of passionate realizing that one does not know about metaphysical questions. You can google his 1996 New York talk, “American Buddhism Today,” which celebrated the 30th anniversary of Rochester Zen Center. Batchelor quotes the Cula Malunkya Sutta (63rd in the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali Canon): “If anyone should say, ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal; finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether or not an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death, ‘ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha… ” The Buddha wasn’t so much interested in such religious questions, because it’s not possible to arrive at fixed answers to, for example, what happens after we die. As Batchelor put it: ” We encounter the sheer mystery of things.” As hard as we try or wish, the world we know cannot be contained in our concepts of it.

Batchelor writes in his books, Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, that he thinks dogma has become a problem in Buddhism. “Ideas and doctrines that have evolved over the centuries since the time of the Buddha have come to be superimposed upon the Dharma as we find it presented in the earliest known sources, for example, in the Pali Canon. Just as the myths of the Buddha’s life have been imposed upon the historical fragments of his life, that one likewise finds scattered throughout the Canon. What I’ve done is to try to strip away the myths about Siddhartha Gautama to try to arrive at a more historically grounded portrait of the Buddha. The Buddha is a human being. I’ve also tried to remove some of the dogmas.”

He goes through the Pali Canon and separates what was new to the Buddha and what was also held in Indian philosophy before the Buddha. He can then pinpoint what’s unique to Buddhism. So he doubts rebirth and different realms of existence. He pinpoints as distinctively Buddhist: dependent origination; the practice of mindful awareness, being focused on the totality of what is happening in our moment to moment experience; the Four Noble Truths & the Eight Fold Path; the principle of self-reliance, not to be dependent on some authority figure.

BN: Yes, good. But he says that the idea of rebirth is alien to Buddhism, that rebirth is not in the earliest texts?

MZC: Well, that rebirth was previously in the earlier Indian writings and that it is not unique or even essential to Buddhism.

BN: But in the Tipitaka, you have so many references from the Buddha himself that refer to rebirth. Even in the Dhammapada we have these two verses that the Buddha announced after he became enlightened which refer to rebirth and the ending of rebirth. And doesn’t “dependent origination”–which Batchelor accepts– include the notion of rebirth?

MZC: Batchelor is specifically talking about the rebirth in the Indian philosophy where there is a rebirth of the individual soul or atma, which goes from life to life. Batchelor says that the Buddha was not interested in whether this is true or not, whether there is even a soul, if “the mind is different from the body.” And further, we cannot know the answer to such questions.

BN: Yes, the Buddha did criticize the idea of the atma as a permanent self. There is no underlying or essential soul, which is reborn. What does non-self or no-self mean? In Theravada, in the teaching of no-self and karma, there is no storage of your past actions in some entity, but there is conditionality. There is a continuity that is caused, including the effects of your own intentionality. What you will has a consequence, a fruit (vipaka is the Pali term). So your actions can lead to a rebirth in this sense.

Also I think that Batchelor has to be clearer about his criteria for what is to remain and what is to be taken out of the Tipitaka. Just because the idea of rebirth was previous to the time of the Buddha doesn’t mean that the Buddha did not accept a form of rebirth. Yes, the Buddha taught rebirth in a completely different way. In Buddha’s first discourse he says that regarding the Four Noble Truths that he realized things before unknown to him. That means he found out from his own experience; nobody taught the Buddha. He did not take the teaching from other people. One of his insights was that there is a rebirth in the sense that there is a continuity of mind.

I don’t like the word “rebirth.” I prefer to use the word “relinking.” In the Abidhamma, we learn that what exist are conditions. Mind is a reality. Because mind is within material, it doesn’t move from one place to another. Perhaps this is difficult. Matter is something which moves, occupies space. One characteristic of mind is that it does not move. What makes mind arise is the existence of conditions, the laws of conditionality. That’s why the term “relinking” is more appropriate to understand that when we die, we are “reborn.” It’s not that some mind is reborn in another. Another mind arises and it is related to the previous mind according to certain conditions.

Yes, I’m interested in reading more of Batchelor. Thanks. But I must say that to be a Buddhist you must believe something. For example, we follow the precepts. Why? There is a sensible reason we decide to follow them but, as we go on with our practice, there is also an element of belief.

MZC: There’s a combination of what one experiences and comes to understand and a belief perhaps in the sense of a confidence that there is an efficacy to the practice of the teachings. But again it’s based in one’s own experience, not taken, as Batchelor says and the Buddha teaches, because some authority says so.

BN: That’s what I mean. There’s an experience and some confidence. Without that confidence, we would not be able to go past inevitable doubts.

Achaan Chah

MZC: Achaan Chah talks about liberation depending on the recognition of the radical separateness of awareness, the “one who knows and the five skandas” (form, feeling, perception, volition, consciousness). I question this. How can we separate the one who knows and what is known? The meditator, according to Achan Cha, separates awareness from the object and can focus on the awareness.

BN: The word Buddha can mean knowing, knowing something. The five skandas may be the object of meditation (and we come to see their impermanent and dependent characteristics) and there is the awareness of them. Yet still the awareness is part of the characteristics of phenomena. I agree. I don’t think that awareness can be truly separated from the characteristics of phenomena. Of course awareness is fundamental and essential to mindfulness.

MZC: You have quoted Krishnamurti’s being “choicelessly aware.” Objects come and go, but the awareness remains.

BN: Yes, but that awareness that is aware of objects shares the same qualities of its objects. It too is impermanent and without a self, subject to suffering. Some may consider that awareness, that luminescent presence, to be unconditional, but that is not the teaching of the Buddha, and that’s not my experience.

MZC: As you know, Vedanta teaches that if you go deeply into that awareness, that consciousness, you may spontaneously fall into the Self and that’s all that is. All is arising as a modification of this Consciousness.

BN: Yes. However, in Buddhism even this deep consciousness is conditional. There is no self of any kind. I know in Tibetan Buddhism there is this distinction between seeing the characteristics of conditions-objects and the characteristic of the deep self.

MZC: You see the Tibetan thangas, which depict all realms and conditions as arising within the radiant, self-being, which is unconditional. We do experience an illuminating, shining and expansive quality to deep awareness

BN: That radiant awareness is also suffering, changing and without a self. That’s the meaning of emptiness. It may be easier to identify “yourself” with awareness than with the objects. Awareness is also anatta, no self.

The Buddha does say the “original mind” is luminous, is radiant, and is not contaminated by the defilements of greedy selfishness, hate, and ignorance. The commentaries on the Pali Canon point out that this original mind is the life-continuing consciousness. That is the consciousness we have when we are sleeping without dreaming. That consciousness has the quality of no mental defilements. The Buddha said original mind is luminous because it is free of mental defilements. Likewise in deep meditation we may experience our mind as luminous, as free from anger, resentments and so on. In that case, you can experience your mind as pure and shining; however, we cannot jump from this experience to say the mind is the eternally self-radiant Being. We cannot even identify this experience with enlightenment.

I’m aware of some controversy about this. Even in Theravada, there are some monks who say that the original mind is unconditioned.

(Laughing) Hope to see you soon and continue our explorations. Let’s walk outside together.