CONVERSATION WITH BHIKKHU AGGA
2016, June 10th
In the context of our Laddership exploration I met a dear monk. It was very random. I was staying at a friends home near a vipassana meditation center for few days. Bhikkhu Agga was visiting a friend in the area, and that friend was busy for the evening. He recommended Bhikkhu to visit some friends living near by and spend the evening with them.. I was so lucky to be in these friends’ home and have a chance to interact with the 34 year old monk, originally from Netherlands, and now living most of the time in Burma.
Here excerpts of the conversation 🙂 It’s kind of deep from the beginning 🙂
Joserra & friends: Thank you dear for spending time with us. I am going through a beautiful proccess we call Laddership Circles right now, a space of exploration and connection where we can experiment with inner transformation and service to others and the Planet. The first week the theme is Stories. So as part of the assignment we had to interview someone during the week. I was thinking to interview a Bhakti Yoga practicioner, an amazing singer who I met yesterday, but he couln’t make it today and then you appeared! It’s so great.
Bhikkhu Agga: Oh, they say: ‘Be careful with what you wish, you might get it’ 🙂
Joserra & friends: Oh, then: ‘May all beings be happy!’
Bhikkhu Agga: Yes, I wish that too. It’s difficult to achieve that, but in the end it will be nice…
J&F: So this aims to be just a natural conversation not an interview as such, so let’s see what emerges 🙂
B: Great, so I am going to ask you first then. 🙂 Talking about devotion. What does devotion mean for you?
J&F: It’s a difficult question!
B: Yes! And I haven’t thought about it as well…
J&F: Well, I have witnessed states of surrender when you feel life is asking you for something and you take that step no matter what. Sometimes you have to leave everything you know behind… Sometimes even the attachment to our own lives, or body even, and just take that step. As you did for example becoming a monk… That kind of surrender is devotion for me…
B: Yes, I think devotion and surrender are very close to eachother. But, I think usually devotion has to do with something outside of you, something higher, it could be something higher about another person. I think there is a component of honouring that higher in someone else.
J&F: So then, for you, is there a sense of a higher self or someting like that?
B: This concept of a higher self came to me only two weeks ago. It was the first time I heard the term higher self. A dear friend had a boyfriend and whenever they would argue or have any difficult situation in their relationship they would go to the other person and say: ‘I would like to talk with your higher self’.. It’s an interesting practice 🙂 I think the higher self is to put yourself in a position of vulnerability, openness, trying to be as wise as possible, as pure and open as possible… so I don’t think that higher self is something substantial or external, but more like an attitude.
J&F: It is something internal.
B: Yes, more from the inside…
J&F: Not separated…
B: Yes, I don’t see it as a kind of God…
J&F: What about the term Higher Concioussness?
B: I think there is very much interconnectedness, but at the moment I don’t think we are part of any concioussness manifesting.. I don’t think we are part of God, so to speak.
J&F: That sounds very buddhist 🙂 (laughs)
B: (Laughs). Yes, maybe… Recently I traveled from Netherlands to Brussels and I met my uncle who is a benedictine monk, a christian monk living in the south of Netherlands. I haven’t seen him for a long time, so I thought it could be nice to have a conversation with him. We met and we had really good conversations. We talked about how similar the ways of our lives are, and also how big the differences. He said that we both are looking for a way to relate to the Absolute. I thought about what he meant… I understand that from a Christian perspective, God is the Absolute, so you relate to that by praying or by having faith in Jesus, but then I joked to him, ‘then, if you relate to the Absolute, if you can relate to it, then it’s not Absolute anymore, because then it’s relational, and the Absolute cannot be relational because it’s absolute.’
So my idea on this would be that, when there is no more self, no more ‘I’ that relates with something else, then there can be something absolute… Maybe this is very high metaphysics to start with (laughs)
J&F: No!It’s great to start with! (laughs)
B: Oh, I hope it doesn’t make it too difficult…
J&F: It’s very interesting… So you are saying that when the ‘I’ vanishes then something else appears…
B: Yes, when the ‘I’ completely vanishes, something else appears. Buddhists call this Nirvana, Christians call it God. But in my opinion ‘God concept’ is inferior. I do understand the concept of God, but I think even God is subjected to laws. I think one plus one is two and I don’t think God can make one plus one is three. So I think he is also lower that this kind of laws. But let’s talk about more simple things! (laughs). Yes, let’s come back to devotion 🙂
J&F: Now we are talking about devotion to what :). So what is devotion for you?
B: Yes, I agree with you. I think it’s surrender and also honouring something which is external to you. In Myanmar we do this thing called Pooja, which is a prayer which shows respect to the Buddha. When I am in the monastery people come together at 7 pm and we all do the chanting together. That really feels like devotion. You sit down and you praise the Buddha. I get really happy when I do this. I think, ‘Oh, he was such a good person’ and I feel happy thinking about him. So when I do this chanting together with other people I really feel that’s also devotion.
I think in the Hindu tradition they talk about various ways, like Karma-action, Jnana-knowledge, Raja-meditation and devotion-bhakti… I feel we have to combine them. Different people have different qualities and the emphasis they put is different. Some people will use devotion more, some will use knowledge, some people wisdom, some action..
J&F: Some people all of them…
B: Yes! I think in the long life everyone has to cultivate all of them…
J&F: Yes, to master all of them…
B: Yes, from my own life, I remember that first I didn’t like chanting and devotion. Later on I started to get this happiness from devotion. In the beginning I thought they were blind rites and rituals and I didn’t want to follow them…
J&F: So, coming back to your begginings, where and when this path started for you?
B: I don’t think I can choose one point… Maybe it was Karma from previous lives as well, I am not sure (laughs). But from this life, I think I didn’t understand the world when I was a child. The world was not obvious for me. I think most people feel this, but maybe for me it was stronger. At one point I started to study philosophy, because I thought it might help me to understand a little bit more, but then I started thinking too much, having too many thoughts…
J&F: Maybe too far from the heart?
B: Yes, indeed, it was too far from the heart, and too much head. Then I remembered someone telling me ‘Oh, you should try meditation to calm down your head’ so then I did a 10 day meditation course in one of the Vipassana meditation centers when I was 21. Then I thought, ‘Oh, this is great, because I can use it to understand myself, to understand reality much better’. I got a tool which I could use to understand reality better. So many of the intuitions I had before, around how to deal with the world when everything is dying or dissapearing, now I had a tool, which was really helpful.
So I started with that and kept meditating more and more, and this lead me where I am right now 🙂
After I went to Myanmar to stay at a monastery and people there told me, ‘Why don’t you become a monk?’ And I replied: ‘I don’t want to become a monk. When I meditate my eyes are closed, so there is no use for different clothes. There is no difference.’ When you are sitting being wearing this or that I thought it wouldn’t make any difference, but then another thought came in my mind: ‘Well, if I fly back to Netherlands and my plane crashes and I die, I think I would regreat not being a monk’, so I thought, ok, in this life, let’s try to be a monk, at least once, taste and try. So first it was 2 weeks. It was a great experience, it felt very light and the cloths felt like a meditation armor, I felt like a meditation knight, I felt protected… And 2 weeks after when I became a normal person again I felt very naked, I missed the protection…
I was very happy to have a simple life. Then I thought I would like to be a monk more time… And then I started to think I should meet my mother, my father, my friends back in Netherlands… It’s easy to be a monk in Myanmar with the eyes closed, but I thought it would be better to face friends and family too so I went back and I told them I would like to try being a monk, I had no idea how long.. and now it’s 5 years later…
J&F: How did your family react?
B: My mother said: ‘I already knew’ (laughs). They supported me, because I thought it was important and good… But I think I never cried as much as that year, and also my family. But that was also good. It felt as if I was dying, but we had a lot of time to say goodbye. It was not like dying from cancer, but I was leaving this life behind, leaving all the things that were important before, all the noise of the relationships, and that felt really good. I am very grateful for that.
Also now, when I look back after many years I see the relationship with my parents is much lighter than before. When I was a teenager there was so much fighting with my parents, really bad, and now that tension is just gone. My parents are not very spiritual themselves, but they respect me and they are supportive now. They understand I don’t want to come back to Netherlands and have a normal job.
J&F: Do you stay in Myanmar most of the time?
B: Yes, most of the time. I stayed at one monastery, then I moved to another place for one and a half years, then many different places, and latest I have been more in the north of Myanmar, and when I go back I will be in the south, so many different places.
J&F (Mum): I have a brother that always wanted to be a priest and my father didn’t want, but in the end he supported him. It is very important to do what you love to be happy in life…
B: Yes, in the beginning I was meditating, but also having a job as a consultant and all these things, but I found out that if you don’t follow your heart you become bitter. I was feeling I was not following my heart. When I started to follow my heart to do this, then all the bitterness left, and that was really good because I was becoming cynical sometimes because I was not following my heart. It is really important to follow your heart.
I understand there are not so many people that want to become monks or nuns, but I really think people should have the obligation to follow their heart. It’s really important. And not listening to what society says, or not doing this out of fear, following our hearts is our duty as humans.
J&F (Pia): I thought to be a nun for a while. 2 years ago I thought this for the first time in my life. I also thought: ‘Why am I thinking this?’ (laughs). It was not in my plans, but now I came back to India (it was my third time) and I spent 2 months in Amma’s Ashram…
B: Oh! Amma is still alive?
J&F (Pia): Yes! She is really alive! (laughs). Yes, and when I was there I thought again on what should I do… Mother and having a family or staying there and becoming a nun.. These last 2 years I have been thinking about this question and I am not 100% sure of the final decission but I decided not to become a nun yet, maybe later, although I still think about it…
B: Are you couple? (To Pia and Joserra)
J&F: No! (laughs) We are friends. We met last year at a Vipassana center serving a course. We served our first course together, we were both the course managers :). It was tough but beautiful. So many things coming up in the meditations and still you have to serve others… so you cultivate a lot of loving kindness and equanimity.
B: Yes, this is the experience for me when I serve courses too. While you are in meditation sometimes things come up and you have to let them go quickly and stay equanimous…
I also loved to do the translations for the teacher. I loved when I was translating and I forgot about myself, just becoming an instrument for translation. In those moments, the translation used to flow..
J&F: And, for you, how do you find this monastic path is better than one as a lay person? Nowadays we have so many facilities to meditate without being a monk…
B: I can give you a long list of reasons!
One of them is that there is a difference between doing something part time and doing it full time. For example when you are doing vipassana and you sit some courses and serve other courses, then you sit 2 hours daily at home, and then you have a normal job, you are doing part time and this is great because you can get established in meditation… But now I am doing this full time. My whole life is about devotion to the Budhha’s teachings and to apply this, and this gives my practice much more strength. It’s like an engine in one of this small toy-cars (flywheel) which keeps rotating and supporting you the more you turn it…
I feel before, and maybe this is because of Gonkaji’s way of teaching, my meditation practice felt more like: ‘you sit your hour and then you do other things and then you sit your hour and the only thing that counts are your hours on the cushion’, it felt a bit like on/off Dhamma. But now it feels like there is not so much division in meditation or in Dhamma, that division is not there anymore, it’s much more like a whole thing and that I think, it’s very important to create momentum and give strenght and power to meditation. You see Dhamma manifesting in much more places and that’s very beautiful, you can see Dhamma almost everywhere.
Another reason is that as a monk you have a higher sila (morality). 5 precepts is very essential, 8 precepts is very strong, but I feel like when your whole life is based on the sila, this base becomes really strong, and then you can see clearer how karma works… When you make small mistakes in sila you realize: “this is really hurting me, this sila is for my own protection”, so for me, more rules are more protection in that sense, and I think it’s nice to have more protection.
Another reason is that when you are practicing for example vipassana from Goenka, you depend on an organization , and now as a monk I don’t depend on organization any more, I only depend on the goodness of others. In Myanmar there is a whole culture that supports monks, meditators, so I can go anywhere in Myanmar with a begging bowl and I get food and I get support and that gives me independence from organizations. That makes me very happy. Before I felt like I had to go to the meditation centers because that was the only place where I got the support and I had to addapt and sometimes even not be authentic to myself in order to follow the organization wishes in the form of rules or regulations, and I was addapting to that because I wanted to be able to stay inside the organization, because I wanted to keep sitting my long courses so I would behave as I was expected to behave just to stay inside the organization and that was not healthy for me.
I also did long time service (long volunteer period) and I realized after a while that sometimes I was not following my heart. I was more following the rules, but not following my heart. Sometimes I felt I could have looked more to the particular situation and not so much to the rules and then for myself decide what was the wisest thing to do. Then out of fear I dind’t follow my own intuition and after some time I realized it was not good. It’s much harder to surrender, to be open, to listen, to be in the present moment and trust in your wisdom at that point and be honest to yourself and decide what’s the best thing to do every moment. It’s much more easy to follow rules blindly.
I tell you this so when you serve in the meditation courses you can have it in mind :). I think some people only follow rules, but some people are more brave and they say, ‘ok, these are the rules, but this is the situation and they use their own wisdom’.
J&F: That’s us! (laugh)
J&F: I feel the same. I am not part of any organization in that sense. And I also try to look inside more to take decissions. I do think that rules help to cover a whole spectrum of situations…
B: Yes, coming back to the question, what is the difference between the monk path and a lay person path, the monk path is a very old tradition, it’s not something I invented, it’s a road where many people have already walked and it’s a big road where many nuns and monks have walked… These are also paths which lead to very special places, unique places, and sometimes it feels like a flow. It’s like when you go in a forest and someone has cut the bushes before you, which is really helpful for you to walk.
Being a monk is not my end goal, my end goal is to be liberated, to be free, and for me now this is helping. Anai, our common friend was a nun for 6 years, and now she is a lay person so who knows what is going to come… Definitely I don’t see myself having a normal job, filling forms or having children, but maybe I am just very shortsighted :).
J&F: When you sit for meditation, do you practice Vipassana?
B: The term vipassana which usually is related to Goenka’s organization, means the observation of sensations. I use a lot of anapana (watching the breath). It helps me calm down the mind, it makes it stronger, one-pointed, doing it for long time, slowly slowly, my mind is getting stronger by practicing both, anapana and vipassana, and this peace inside becomes bigger. And as a monk I have much more time for this. In a way I practice the same than when I was not a monk, but the practice has become richer… Now I understand meditation better.
J&F: How long do you think we should meditate?
Every moment helps. Every moment you concentrate your mind in the breath for example, it helps. The more you do it, the better. 10 minutes morning, 10 minutes evening is already good.
I don’t know if you believe in previous lives, but I feel it’s very rare that we have the chance to bring the mind to the present moment, animals cannot do it, and billions of people don’t do it, so to be able to do it is such a beautiful thing. 1 minute of practice is good, 10 minutes is great, longer is even better. The more you practice the easier it will get. The beginning is difficult; keep going with the practice when it’s not so nice it’s difficult, but later you start to see the value of the practice.. I observe how I feel after an hour of talking, or reading.. and I see how I feel after one hour of meditation, and after meditating I feel so good. For example if I watch a movie I am happy during the movie but afterwards I don’t feel nice; in meditation, maybe when you are with your eyes closes it is difficult, but afterwards, for so long I feel the benefits of it.
After the conversation, we walked towards a near by river and meditated and played for a while 🙂