Interview with Buddhist Monk Venerable LP John Paramai Dhanissaro on living "The Middle Way".
To gain insight into what it truly means to live your life “The Middle Way”, we interviewed Buddhist Monk Venerable LP John Paramai Dhanissaro who lives a life dedicated to the study, understanding and message of Buddhism. (or “Middle Way”)
The Middle Way Hostel will open by Summer 2020. The aim of our hostel is to encourage guests to find balance and inner peace during their stay. To this end, we called our hostel – The Middle Way Hostel.
You can watch the video above or read the transcript below. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!
Q. What is Theravada Monk?
Monk John: There are three main schools in Buddism. Theravada (Or the Traditionalist)
The thing is, after Buddha passed away, there was no one who could pinpoint which behaviours monks were allowed to do and which behaviours they could not.
So there were two kinds of approaches.
The first approach was to not change any rules. Even though Buddha himself permitted that rules could be changed in the future.
The second group say, yes, let’s change. If we don’t change it will make it more difficult to teach people now and in the future.
For example, My cloth.
This is the cloth that is claimed to be the original cloth from Buddhas time, but this cloth does not help me deal very well with cold weather. If I am in Thailand, then it is perfect, but if I have to travel or perhaps live in Ireland, then this cloth is perhaps a little bit too cold.
Before coming to Ireland, I was in Iceland and I almost became an ice monk 🙂
So a group of monks felt we should allow change and adapt and this became Mahayana Buddhism, eventually Tibetan Buddhism.
The traditionalist tries to preserve the tradition and try to change as little as we can. This is why you do not see many Theravada monks travelling around the world because the environment which is perfect for them is the countries in which they live in South East Asia.
So, that’s the difference 🙂
When it comes to meditation, how can one go that level deeper? Is it just practise? Can you be doing it wrong for years?
Monk John: The progress of meditation depends only on two conditions.
First, you need to use the correct method.
Second, you need to keep doing it consistently, every day, very often.
With these two conditions, you will be able to progress.
The thing is that, sometimes, the progress that we have made, we actually kind of devalue it. It loses its value. We are not mindful of our actions. Even though meditation helps us improve our actions, makes us feel happier, our actions will be more positive, the way we speak, what we do.
But also we will do actions that will cloud the mind.
I talk about this as the quality of the mind.
There are actions that will clean the mind.
There are actions that will cloud the mind.
When we do actions that will cloud the mind, of course, meditation becomes harder.
It’s like building muscles. If you want your muscles to be strong you have to exercise every day, right?
But sometimes you are a little bit too relaxed. You are a little bit too lazy to actually go to the gym to work out. That actually makes your muscles weaker and as a result, you have to start all over again. And people don’t understand this. People think the progress they have made so far will stay with them forever.
If your body’s muscles are weak you have to start with a little weight and this is what people refuse to do. They try to jump into the big weight and lift it up. But the mind is not ready and then they feel that meditation is not for them.
Q. So without being taught how to properly meditate you are probably not going to make too much progress, would that be fair?
Monk John: Everyone should try and get some meditation lessons?
Meditation is about balance. Between concentration and relaxation.
It is not simply about relaxation alone, because sometimes we breathe in and out just to feel more relaxed. We need to also have balance.
The mind needs to concentrate on something – and this something can be described in terms of two qualities:
– First: The feeling.
– Second: The position of the feeling.
So, you need to feel something – somewhere.
It means that when you breathe, your mind needs to focus.
Not only on the breath but at a special point.
In the meditation method I teach, we focus on the centre of the body.
It means that when your mind is off the centre, when it’s not on the centre, your mind is not at its focal point.
If you compare it to a magnifying glass or your optical glasses. There is one spot where If you look through that spot, you get the clearest picture.
This is what we call the focal point of the mind.
So the mind that has been purified is best.
The energy is magnified and also we can stay there longer.
Because if you don’t stay at the most stable point of the mind, your mind can be distracted.
Imagine you’re crossing a long hanging bridge.
You have to make sure you stay in the most stable position of the bridge or it will be swinging the whole time. So the centre is the most stable point.
You must keep your mind at the centre. The ability to stay there longer can be developed and if you can stay there longer in meditation, that is when your mind will also deepen into more profound experiences.
Me: Well, that one line you said – The balance between concentration and relaxation -I’ve had a wee moment of realisation there. I think I’ve always just tried to relax. I think I’ve gotten better at that, but I think that’s as far as my teachings have went.
Monk John: People are used to doing one thing at a time.
When they relax, they relax.
When they concentrate, they concentrate.
They never really learn to do the two things at the same time.
If you learn to do these two things at the same time, not only will your meditation progress but in our lives, we can do difficult things while the mind still feels relaxed. This is the very special gift you can give to yourself, which will help you deal with any situation in life.
Q. What is at the core of your message? Is it simply to try and help people find more balance in their lives?
Monk John: That is correct and also to help people find more inner peace.
Because you can’t always get this inner peace from people and from surroundings. We are used to looking outside of ourselves.
We think that maybe going to a place will make us happy. We go there – once we are there, maybe after a few months, after a few years, we start to feel bored and we need to move to another place.
Or maybe we thought that eating this food will make us feel happy, we go there, we eat the food. But if you eat that food for many days in a row, you start to feel bored and then we need to keep changing.
Our clothes, our hairstyles, nothing will actually make us feel content forever.
So these findings actually, may lead to questions.
Why do these things actually have expiry dates according to the amount of contentment we receive?
But the answer is, maybe we are not searching in the right direction the whole time.
We are searching outside, but we are supposed to search inside.
Working with your body, is called a workout, but working for the mind should be called a workin.
We have to work from inside.
When you find the happiness inside you don’t actually need to depend on others to make you happy, which can sometimes be inconsistent.
Q. My generation seem more unsettled, more unbalanced and yet there is a growing trend of people wanting to find balance. Do you feel the desire for your message is growing at the moment?
Monk John: Absolutely, and this is the irony.
People in the East are fond of the advancement of technology from the West, but people from the West at the moment, I see many places, many countries, that are more interested in well-being, especially mental well-being, so the trend is going the other way around.
We even have a joke, that maybe in the future, you will have foreign monks from the West shaving their heads, wearing saffron orange robes, more than people of the East 🙂
Maybe people are looking for something they are missing.
Me: Yes, well-being is the buzz word at the moment. There seems to be a real hunger for it. I think we are making steps. It seems in the last 10 years it has become a big trend, especially in my country. (Ireland)
Monk John: I believe that the two worlds have to go together.
I’m not encouraging people, “Hey guys, quit your lives, and become monks. Live with no jobs and not do anything”.
But I do try to encourage people to do what you’re doing, but you have to be more content and more happy. Have more belief in what you doing. Try to act in your life with more inner peace.
Q. Can anyone become a Monk and what would be the hardest aspect of becoming a Monk be?
Monk John: Absolutely, Technically almost anyone.
There are some exceptions, But almost everyone yes.
First, we should come to the definition of what exactly is a Monk?
Most Monks are trying to search for happiness from within and not without.
It means that during Monkhood, we have to undergo training which helps us focus from within. One challenge that we take from this part is people’s own habits.
You know I was not a Buddhist Monk from the first day I was born in my mothers womb. I also had my habits from my previous life.
Before I became a Buddhist monk I was a software developer, I worked in technology, I had my PHD and then I became a Buddhist Monk.
And the first few weeks and the first few months I was not a Buddhist Monk. Even though they put me in this orange robe. I thought it was some kind of magical robe which will make you some kind of superhuman being. But I was wrong, I was like – “hey I didn’t change it all”.
This robe didn’t change me.
So, I found out later a monks habit are something you have to develop on your own and this is achievable by trying to do new habits to replace your old habits and this is challenging. Otherwise, you will fall back into your old habits every time and that is why as Monks we have a lot of rules.
Rules to get it out of the habits of looking for Netflix movies, trying to have some fun or maybe try to do some parties. We can’t do these any more and so we have to come back to meditation and teach other people to meditate as well.
Q. This is perhaps an unusual question but when I was living in Thailand, I was struck, from an Irish perspective, by the huge contrast between Irish Christian Catholic churches - grey, dark and austere and the beautiful, sunny, inviting temples of Thailand. Would you have any advice for the Catholic church of Ireland in becoming more inviting?
Monk John: I believe that, what it takes to become a good temple, comprises of three conditions – this is what my great master told me.
First, the Temple needs to be clean and quiet.
Second, the Temple needs to have meditation activities or peaceful activities.
Maybe Catholic churches don’t have medication activities, but perhaps some peaceful activities for when people come to the church, they can actually change their lives and find more peace.
Third, there must be lessons to teach people how to change themselves.
If people come to churches and templaes and they don’t have any lessons to help them change, why should they have to come to the temple?
They can find lessons on YouTube or maybe somewhere else. Many people will go somewhere else to find lessons.
So without these three conditions, even in Thailand, it doesn’t matter what colour the temple is, the temple is red or the temple is in a cave, but if it makes some people’s minds feel more calm, more peaceful, then that is a good place to go.
Me: Number three there is interesting – lessons.
We do not have lessons. There is nothing to teach someone the benefits of the church, I do feel they are missing something there – interesting.
Q. A part of the Middle Way Hostel will be trying to help business owners. If there was one piece of advice for stressed business owners, what would it be?
Monk John: Do you know the meaning of The Middle Way?
Me: A balance of moderation?
Monk John: The Middle Way Has at least three meanings.
The first is what is described in scripture in Buddhist texts as a way of life. That you don’t overindulge yourself in two extreme parts.
The first part is you torture yourself.
You try to stop eating foods. You try to stop watching movies.
You torture yourself. You punish yourself.
The other extreme is to indulge yourself In all pleasures and not care how you live.
You need to find a lifestyle that is in the middle.
The second meaning refers to a meaning of meditation practice.
The balance between relaxation and concentration. Not too much into concentration and not too much into relaxation.
It should be 50% concentration, 50% relaxation. And the two have to be in perfect harmony.
The third meaning refers to a very special point in the centre of the body.
This is the centre of human beings and it is the centre of all their energy.
So when you keep your mind at the centre, you keep your mind at the Middle Way.
So with these three meanings, for business owners, I feel they should focus on the first and second meanings.
The first is that they should not indulge themselves to one world. Maybe they have parties the whole time or fun the whole time or in the other world they torture themselves with work and stress and so on – They should live in the Middle Way.
And second, they should find balance, In everything that they do. If they work, they should learn to work relaxing. They should smile to their employees and live in an environment which is not too stressful for everyone to work. Every one should find enjoyment and fun in working. Everyone can also find peace when working. Then they will keep working and the whole organisation will be improved.
The third one is that if people can give themselves time to meditate, and they can bring their awareness to the centre of there being every once in a while, this will help them recharge.
It’s like your phone – If you do not recharge it, eventually the energy in the phone will drain and you cant use the phone any more.
We ourselves also have two parts. The body and mind. The body is like the hardware of a phone and the mind can only be running when the phone has battery.
If you recharge yourself, keeping your awareness at the centre of your body, once in a while, you will have enough juice, you will have enough energy, to perform tasks without being distracted.
Q. Would you have any advice in relation to diet and mental clarity?
Monk John: We usually say to eat healthy food, have enough food, but not too much, so everything in moderation. We even have one practise before we eat, in which we close our eyes and contemplate upon the purpose of eating.
I eat to survive,
I do not eat for fun,
I do eat for pleasure,
I do not eat for flavour,
I eat to sustain myself,
So I should not eat too much or too little.
I should estimate the amount of energy that I need in the day and just have enough food for that.
Q. Do you feel environment has a lot to do with finding harmony and if so how could we bring that harmony into The Middle Way Hostel and Bodhi Business Centre?
Monk John: Yes, there are we what we call four Sub-Pha-Ya or in Thai we call four Sabai.
I think you learned a little about this word Sabai? 🙂
First, the place has to be Sabai.
It means that when you enter the place, you feel more relaxed. You don’t feel stressed. You don’t fee any tension. There are no chaotic things. It must be clean, organised and tidy – this will help make the place Sabai.
Second, Sabai people.
Not only the place, perhaps your hostel is perfect, it is decorated very well, but the people at your reception do not look very welcoming. When your guests are in your hostel and people are not very nice, they are not very Sabai. Their minds are not at peace. So training people (staff) to have the best hospitality possible and to welcome everyone with inner peace.
If the people at your reception have inner peace, people entering will also feel that inner peace, because this can be felt, not by talking, but by looking at the eyes and by being closer to each other.
You can feel the aura of peoples bodies. If you get close to someone and that person is so loving, you want to stay close to those people and those people (guests) will come back to your hostel again.
Third, is the food.
The food and food facilities should also be Sabai.
And lastly, are the teachings.
The hostel should have some training and teachings available, that will help people change themselves, that helps people find inner peace.
That is the 4 components which is going to make your hostel unique and also help people get the most benefits from this Middle Way Hostel.
Me: Okay, so we’re onto something 🙂
Q. So you have combined your teachings as a Monk with your studies, which were Telematics and Engineering to create a digital platform. Tell us a little about trying to bring your Buddhist teachings into the digital world?
Monk John: Because I have travelled to many places and organised many retreats, people often say to me that if they could, they would bring me along in their pocket or bring me in their backpack 🙂
They want to take me wherever they go. 🙂
In reality this is not possible, so these days, the world becomes smaller and we are connected much more than before so I believe that technology also has two sides.
The good benefits and the drawbacks of using technology. But if we can focus on the real benefits of technology and make the most of people. That is why I believe that the things I have learned can be useful.
That is why we made a platform online. Also, people can receive my teachings from Facebook, Youtube and many people (because of these online lessons) are still meditating.
This, I take as one of my best achievements.
Q. You are a part of an organisation called the Peace Revolution; can you tell us a little bit about this and what you are trying to achieve?
Monk John: This began with a belief that if you really want to find peace you have to revolutionise yourself because as I mentioned earlier, we always fall back to our old ways of thinking and doing.
You want to meditate and yes, you might meditate tonight, but tomorrow you try to meditate again because you know meditation will help you clean your mind, but tomorrow you will be listening to two voices in your head.
The first voice says “Yes, let’s meditate, it is good, let’s do it – the Monk says so.”
The second voice says to you, “Yeah, meditation is good, but not today, because I have so much work, I have so many things to do, I have kids to take care of, challenges, my health is not in the perfect condition and if I meditate today, tomorrow I will wake up late and I won’t have enough energy and so … not today”.
These two voices are fighting in our heads the whole time.
So if you really want to revolutionise yourself you need to stop listening to the negative voice and start focusing on the positive voice alone and that’s why the change has to be 360 and we use the word revolution and not evolution and it becomes a platform that invites many people, especially young people, because they are a little bit more technology savvy.
It has been going nearly 10 years now. On https://peacerevolution.net/ we have many achievements and people from many countries.
We bring together leaders or representatives which we call peace agents from all over the world.
I think we people from 100 to 120 countries at the moment and when they find their own inner peace, they share with the people around them.
For example, I am in Ireland because a Peace agent invited me here. I don’t actually come here to relax or have a vacation. I come because there is an invitation, to help people find inner peace.
Once you find this feeling of inner peace you just want to share this feeling with the people around you.
Q. What do you think of Ireland? Do you think we are a balanced nation?
Monk John: Well, I can see a little difference between bigger cities and smaller cities, but I think Ireland has so many wonderful things, just to make people happy. Of course, I see happy people and I see unhappy people, then for happy people, I believe that with the practise of meditation it is going to help people appreciate more of what they have so maybe they have to fly to other countries, maybe just once in a while and enjoy more of what they have.
For unhappy people, meditation and mindful practises are going to be a very good start for them to begin a new life. A life that they can be happy from inside of themselves.
I believe that if Irish people can do more meditation practises this is going to be a very wealthy country in terms of material success and spiritual success.
Both things can be together.
Me: Brother John, Thank you, Khop-Khun-Khrap.