Bhante Gunaratana, known worldwide as “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 COVID-19 in 2020, the Bhavana Society suspended in-person retreats. In March of that year, Bhante G began to lead guided meditations on Zoom, followed by in-depth talks on Buddhist teachings. The hour-long sessions attract a worldwide audience.
Douglas John Imbrogno: You’ve been doing guided meditations and dharma talks on Zoom for much of the pandemic. How has that gone and what feedback have you been getting?
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 end, with many thanks expressed. Through telephone calls and emails, 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 to listen to the dharma…We have given them the message of peace that the Buddha taught. The Buddha said dharma is the best medicine. He spoke of the benefit of “hearing and teaching the dharma at the right time.” That is exactly what we have been offering those who come to the Zoom sessions.
Many people around the world are wrestling with sickness, loneliness, and 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 dharma helped her to recover her bearings. The dharma was the right thing to hear at the right time. Of course, there have been many others teaching the dharma during these difficult times.
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 have tried but 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 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 thing that makes your life fulfilled.
If the mind is clean and pure, 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 stimuli temporarily and look at the mind, the very instrument that can make us happy or unhappy.
You can be friendly with everybody, no matter who the person is, when you meditate, and your mind is calm. When you 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 you see within yourself is also the reality within others.
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 the 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. Sitting in one place and focusing the mind on the breath is not the whole of meditation… Meditation is training the mind to be free from psychic irritants. I’d like to advise people: 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, 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. 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 20 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.
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.
How do you advise people to increase their mindful awareness in daily life? How do we become more aware of the body and breath when we are off the cushion?
Bhante G: Mindful awareness in daily life is when you are engaged in any activity. Every day we do three things—think, speak, and act. 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?”
We must understand the difference between carefulness and mindfulness. The difference is that whereas anybody who pays attention to what a 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.
You spend every January and February 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 now? 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 a walking meditation in the meditation hall. Then, after lunch, again I walk outside for one-and-a-half hours. Then, I meditate for two to two-and-a-half hours until 5 or 5:30 p.m., when I take my evening medicine with my evening drink. After that, I meditate until I go to bed. Altogether, I’m meditating for six to seven hours, including sitting and walking meditation. Even when I’m in bed, I’m meditating until the moment I fall asleep… 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.
When I meditate, everything is 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… 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.
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 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 and I’m in that state that I explained earlier, I feel how wonderful it would be if I died now! No pain, no remorse, no greed, no hatred, no confusion. The mind is very pure and clean. I can see how death is taking place. Of course, I wouldn’t be there to tell the story!
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 my breath like I used to. My throat is always dry such that I have to drink water all day and eat very slowly. I want to walk fast, but my 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, my 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 dharma and I see the teachings in this mind and body… 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.
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.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See WestVirginiaVille.com for the full interview.