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Everything can be a mistake….”

This is one of three public talks that our teacher gave when he was invited to Hong Kong in September 2008. Upul Gamage talks about the mistakes that led him to the life he now leads as a meditation teacher. This topic was settled on as one of the talks when Upul was corresponding via email with Miss Amy and Mr Jack. He did not know what topic to choose, so he asked them to hand over the responsibility of choosing to Mr Siu.

Upul: Mr Siu suggested that I speak about my own meditation experiences. Suddenly I felt very happy, because if he asked me to speak about something like Nibbana or absolute truth then it would be a big trouble to me.

So I was happy to speak about myself. But later I was thinking about this topic and I realised this is the most difficult thing – to speak about one’s own self. I can speak about Nibbana for hours and hours, about absolute truth for hours and hours, but how to speak about myself? So I thought, “that was my mistake”. I told Miss Amy by email that my meditation is a mistake! When I wrote this email I didn’t expect that they would take it seriously. Unfortunately they took it seriously and they posted advertisements saying that Upul would be talking about his mistakes. So that was my second mistake! But still I think in this way, and I would like to share my experiences with you. I think you will gain some wisdom by listening to my mistakes, not to do them yourselves.

Once when Godwin returned from South Africa, I think in the late 80´s, he was in his room in Kandy. So I went to see him and I asked “Dear Godwin, when are you going back to Nilambe?”  He said that he doesn’t know because there is nobody there to help him and he doesn’t know what to do. Then I told him “If you need a helper, I can come to help you.” He was so happy, he said its like winning a lottery. I thought it´s a lottery win for me too because before I was going there to meditate only for 3 or 4 days.

During that time I was staying in a monastery, in a small kuti inside the monastery. But that location is inside a cemetery so nobody comes there because it is a holy ghost place. There I have total freedom, it´s an absolutely isolated place. But still, when I go to Nilambe to continue my practice I feel something different, something divine, something beyond words. So I thought, “If I get such beautiful benefits out of so few days, then if I go to Nilambe for ever how much benefit can I get?” So I thought, “It’s a lottery win for me too.” Also I thought, when I am in Nilambe just as a visitor, just as a meditator, I do not have to do anything. I just have to follow the schedule; just have to do sitting and walking meditation, that’s all. So I had some idea like I could sit and walk from morning till evening when I go to Nilambe as a helper.

But when I got there and Godwin introduced me to everyone, he said, “This is Upul and he is the new boss of Nilambe”. Godwin´s favourite words: “Upul is the new boss”. I was  proud.

So then the bell rings for the first group meditation session, and I start to walk from my room to the hall. I was so calm and quiet and I do walking meditation. Then suddenly one of the cooks comes to me and says “Oh Upul, there is no sugar.” And I say “Then….?” He says “Now you have to buy sugar. In 1 hour I have to prepare tea so please bring sugar.” I was so upset, he broke my whole calmness but I still walk into the meditation hall and sit. I try to meditate, my meditation object is, sugar, sugar, sugar……When I walk to the meditation hall for the next group meditation a new guest was waiting for me. So I had to give up the second meditation too. I had to give him a room and do all the checking in. so my time I have to spend on such things as shopping, giving rooms, arranging things, and when new people come to Nilambe, I have to teach them, and most of the time they are teaching me. So after a few days I have a headache, a severe headache and I can’t sleep. I think “What a mistake I made.”

So everybody speaks with me about their difficulties and problems, but there is nobody to listen to my headache because Godwin had gone back somewhere. I was alone and I was shy to tell him that I can’t carry on this responsibility anymore, because I was so proud. I couldn’t continue my concentration meditation anymore but I tried to contemplate about this situation. I realised how much I am attached to that former stillness and peace. But that stillness and peace doesn’t come from understanding or from wisdom, it comes from my simple lifestyle, because I didn’t have any big responsibilities before Nilambe. I was so happy about my peace, happiness and joy. So I realised that that type of peace is not real peace. I have to do so many things to achieve that inner peace by facing up to those challenges. That was my first lesson, my first teacher. This is the lesson that I learned from my first mistake.

Whenever new people come to Nilambe I have to ask them about their meditation experiences and their meditation techniques. If they want to learn about something then I have to teach them. Once, in 1995, I went to Thailand. A couple of my friends who are Thai monks had invited me to come there. We were on a small island and having some Dhamma practice there. One evening when we were having a Dhamma discussion there was a Thai upasika. She was practising very intensively, so during the discussion I asked her “What is your meditation technique?” The reason I asked this question was that I had an expectation that she may tell us she is practising awareness on the breathing, loving kindness meditation or whatever. And her reply was “I try not to meditate, that is my meditation technique.” At first I couldn’t understand. That answer doesn’t fit my question, so I started to argue with her. “No, you have to practice one of these meditation techniques. Either anapanasati, or walking meditation or whatever; if you are practising something else then it can’t be a meditation.” Then she tries to explain that the real meditation happens when the meditator is not there. So later I realised that when we try to meditate, we try to do so many things; that´s ok, but we can´t say that is meditation.

We can´t practice meditation with ego, that’s the biggest problem: “I” want to be a good meditator, “I” want to sit for hours and hours, “I” want to concentrate, “I” want to be mindful. So it’s ok in the beginning, otherwise there is no way to practice meditation. But later we learn to let go of this ego and let the meditation meditate. You can do this experiment during your own meditation. You can start your meditation with this determination, “I” want to meditate, “I” want to sit for hours and hours, “I” want to practice awareness on the breathing meditation, and so on. Start with this “I”, but later, in the middle of your session try to let go of this “I”. Just ask:  Who wants to meditate? Who wants to concentrate? Who wants to be awake? Who wants to do this sitting meditation? Try to raise these questions. No need to answer these questions, that is the other mistake that we make. We want to answer the question, Who am “I”? No need for any answers, just raise these questions: Is there any person? Is there any entity who wants to meditate? Please just ask these questions and see the difference.

You can do this as an experiment in your daily life too. Normally as a meditator we don´t like certain emotions, certain so-called negative emotions. When there is anger we don’t like it, nobody likes it, but especially spiritual people have a very strong resistance towards anger, desire, fear, etc; we have a spiritual war against negative emotions. It´s ok to have some struggle, we need struggle in the beginning otherwise there is no progress. But you can´t win, there can’t be a winner if you are fighting against yourself. We are fighting ourselves. Where is the anger? It’s inside us, it´s not somewhere else. Where is the desire? It’s in our mind. so if you are fighting against your own anger, or your own desire, you are fighting against yourself. Who can win? There can be no winner, always we re the loser. I made this mistake many times and I am still doing it, but I try to do this investigation whenever I have certain emotions. When I have anger, fear, desire, what we call negative emotions, I try to ask the questions, Who is angry? Who wants to go beyond anger? Who wants to go beyond desire? Is it “me”? So when I ask these questions the picture is going to completely change. You can see that, rather than fighting against the emotion, you just raise the question. This question can give you a lot of freedom. Whether you are experiencing anger or not, anger is not the problem, the problem is ownership. This is “my” anger, “my” desire, etc. this is the biggest mistake that we did, that we do and that we will do.

Mr Siu asked me to talk about how I started meditation, or why I started to practice. In 1977,  We used to go to a temple near our parents´ house on New Moon days because in the evening they have a puja. The Abbot at the temple was so nice, such an educated monk, so friendly and kind. One day he said to us “There are so many young people coming to the temple, this is a new thing.” During that time only elder people were going to the temple. He was so happy and he asked us to organise a Buddhist youth society in this temple. So we organised this and I was the first (and last) secretary of that youth society.

During our first meeting we wanted to know what we were going to do. Somebody suggested we could do some meditation sessions. During that time meditation was a very new thing in Sri Lanka. Meditation was there but few people meditated. Especially we couldn’t find any Lay meditators, and we couldn’t find any meditation teacher. So the Abbot contacted a meditation teacher from far away, I think 300km away from Kandy, to come for this class. So one evening he came and we sit and try to meditate. That was my (our) first meditation experience. It was next to the river and we sat in front of that Monk, the teacher, we were so happy because we were going to meditate. He asked us to sit straight, to close our eyes and not to move. He said we were not allowed to open our eyes until he asked us to open them. I thought, that’s ok, that’s not a problem. Then we sat and we did some guided meditation and in the beginning it was nice, but it goes on for hours and hours. So we can’t sit in one posture, we want to change our posture, and whenever I open my eyes to change he is looking at me. And after half a minute I open my eyes again and still he is looking so I have to close my eyes. So much pain everywhere in my body. I had so many thoughts in my mind. Why did my friend suggest learning meditation? He could have suggested to go for a trip into the mountains, organise a Dana, anything joyful, but why this? What a mistake we made. I think it was after 2 hours or 2-and-a-half-hours finally he said, “Now you can open your eyes.” We were so happy, not because of the meditation though.

There were no suggestions to continue this mistake in our youth sessions anymore! We did so many things, but nobody asked for meditation, nobody continued it. But whenever I went to bed there was some inner voice in my heart, “Upul, now you can meditate.” I couldn’t say no, it happened whenever I went to bed. So I sit quietly on the bed and try to follow one of the techniques that I learned from that monk. It happened every day, so I repeated that mistake before going to sleep, even now.

I was starting to read about Buddhism by myself, and when I read Buddhist texts it was so beautiful. If you start to meditate you can achieve 1st Jhana, then 2nd Jhana, then 3rd Jhana and finally 4th Jhana. After the 4th Jhana you may be able to achieve Sota Pati, the realizations, Sakada Gami, Ana Gami and finally you can be an Arahant. So in this order, start to meditate, achieve 1st Jhana, 2nd Jhana, 3rd Jhana, 4th Jhana then Sota Pati, Sakada Gami, Ana Gami and Arahant. Everything in one page, just 8 lines. So I thought, easy, half a page is enough to explain this path. I had a great desire, great big ambition to achieve these things, to achieve a Jhana, to become an Arahant by meditation. Everyday when I sit for meditation I think “I am going to meditate all night, until I become an Arahant, until I achieve at least one Jhana.” After 10 minutes I feel sleepy and I sleep. But sometimes I would carry on my practice for hours and hours, but I didn’t experience any Jhana or come to any realisations. I felt some disappointment, why doesn’t it happen to me? Because in the Buddhist texts there are so many examples in Buddha´s time: Just get some instructions from Buddha, go to the forest, sit under a tree and you stand up the next day or even the same day a different person. But when I sit, same person, nothing happens to me. Really, really nothing happens to me. My mind is calm sometimes, peaceful because of the meditation. But still the same mind, still the same person after meditation as I am before the meditation.

I was trying to achieve some targets, I realised when I was contemplating about this conflict; I am trying to achieve something by practising meditation. So what do I want to achieve? I want to achieve Jhanas or whatever projections. Who projects these things? My mind projects, my mind tells me “Upul, if you meditate you can achieve these things, you can achieve a Jhana, you can be an arahant, you can be an enlightened person.” So my mind projects something and I try to fulfil this target. Whenever I run to achieve this target it is moving away from me. That is the interesting thing. The projector can’t achieve the projection. The same distance is remaining even after a hundred miles. If you are chasing, chasing, chasing for hundreds of miles. If you are chasing, chasing, chasing for hundreds of miles you still can’t meet the projection. The same distance is still remaining between the projector and the projection.

So later I sit, I sit for 2 hours and meditate; after 2 hours I can be an Arahant. No, I´ll sit for 1 month and at least after this month I can be an Arahant….So little by little I push the target away and I relax a little. But after one month nothing happens. I am the same person. So then I extend the time a little bit more, I give more time to the meditation. Ok, I will meditate all year: at least next year I can be someone else. But still the same person! This happened to me many, many times. Meditation doesn´t fulfil my desires, meditation doesn’t fulfil my dreams.

I was contemplating about it again, why did I want to be someone else? What’s wrong with myself? I realised its my mistake: you can’t be anybody else. Meditation is not a vehicle to go from yourself to another person. You can´t go anywhere by practicing meditation, you can’t be anybody else by practising meditation, you can only be yourself. So I am trying to let go of this desire to be an Arahant, to be an enlightened person by practising meditation. I am very careful about saying this in a Buddhist place because people think I am anti-Buddhist.

Before the meditation, enlightenment was so close to me; after meditation I don´t know where it is now. Now I just sit, I try to just sit, I try to do meditation for meditation´s sake not because of anything else. I try, I can’t say I do it perfectly, but I try. None of my friends continue this mistake, only myself. So whenever I go to kandy town, I see them, they are all married. After the office, after their work, in the afternoon they go to their homes and I sometimes meet them on the way. They have to carry rice and breads and coconuts and everything, and sometimes even their children: they are so ired. And I am walking along so relaxed. And they say “Upul we made a big mistake, we should have followed you but now it’s too late.” But after being at Nilambe, as “boss” of Nilambe I have to do all the shopping, not just for 4 or 5 people but for 50 or 60! Sometimes I carry so many breads around with me, and they ask “What happened to you?
” I say “It’s a mistake.”

You will make at least one of these mistakes, to become a meditator or to become a house holder, maybe both.

That means life is a mistake and it is better not to repeat that mistake.