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Interview with Venerable Hasapanna

By Annelise Roberts, 13 January 2020, Maitripa Centre

I talked with Venerable Hasapanna, Abbott of Dhammasara Nun’s Monastery, at the 37th annual Buddhist Summer School at Maitripa Centre, Healesville. Fresh from delivering a morning teaching on idiosyncrasy and compassion – “true compassion is when you understand the suffering of others, but you don’t get sucked in” – Venerable was bright-eyed and answered my questions generously, sometimes speaking stridently and enthusiastically, sometimes dipping to a whisper, and occasionally very kindly stopping to check whether an answer was sufficient.

A.R.: Thank you very much Venerable Hasapanna for agreeing to do this interview for E-Vam Institute.

V.H.: It’s my pleasure.

A.R.: I wanted to ask Venerable to tell us a little bit about the tradition of Buddhism that Venerable lives in and practices within.

V.H.: So it’s a Theravada tradition, it’s a forest tradition. We are more conservative. The training and monastic life and the way we practice is the closest to the Buddha’s time. Like the mendicant, we are totally dependent on the generosity of the laypeople and we don’t hold money. Of course, some people ask: “How can you live like that? You have no money and you can’t go anywhere!” We get used to it, we don’t find it inconvenient. Lots of people think ‘oh it’s so inconvenient,’ but we get used to it without money. We just eat whatever we’ve been offered. And it’s just truly living a homeless life. For nuns, we live in the monastery, especially for trainee nuns.

In Theravada, they have different sects and traditions. Ours is a forest tradition so we are more focussed on living in solitude, seclusion – we are more focussed on the cultivation of the mind. Of course, we do service, for example looking after the monastery and being in the monastery, and lay people come to offer dana, they come and offer food to us and they come and stay. That’s a part of our contributions. It’s a mutual support – they come to support us, especially for our material wellbeing, so we give them supports [in turn], like they come here, and they spend time with the nuns. This is how it was in Buddha’s time. What we give back is dharma, we teach, and teach by example. I used to tell my nuns that how you carry yourself, how you conduct yourself through your behaviour – that is the best teaching. Sometimes it’s not what you say – it’s actually what you do. This is truly the best teaching. People can speak beautifully and then they have to look at how they’re behaving. Action, our behaviour, speaks louder than words. It’s better than a thousand words. So, the essence of our training is more focussed on the studying of the vinaya and also meditation, while encouraging a life of solitude and seclusion. That’s why the monastery is set-up actually in a forest, so we have quite a big piece of bushland, it’s close to 600 acres. We are truly in the bush.

A.R.: Are there challenges in living a forest lifestyle in a country like Australia, which isn’t traditionally a Buddhist country? To set the community up?

V.H.: No. We are lucky because we started off with the Buddhist Society [of Western Australia]. At the beginning it just a small centre, and then after that they grew and then they had more monks, and then they built the monks’ monastery, with [Abbott] Ajahn Brahm at Serpentine [Bodhinyana Monastery]. After that we had the nun’s monastery, and then we had a retreat centre, and also we have now a city centre. So actually we’re being well supported. That’s because the location of our monastery is really good. We are not too far from everything – only 45 minutes from the city, and 30 minutes, 25 to 30 minutes to the closest town, so they have all the facilities, a hospital, a bank – we normally don’t go to the city. And then, we also have that very peaceful place, it’s quiet and peaceful and there’s very good energy. It’s convenient for our lay supporters to come to the monastery to offer us food, and also we have the solitude, the seclusion, the peace.

A.R.: Venerable spoke before about going to a Catholic School as a child, and being introduced to Buddhism through your brother – is that right?

V.H.: Yes.

A.R.: Was there a moment that Venerable really accepted Buddhism? What was it like to really become a Buddhist?

V.H.: When I first listened to the talk about the Five Precepts and the teaching, it made sense to me. When I first heard it, I said: ‘oh yeah, that makes sense.’ I found it very easy, it was just easily acceptable. I really agreed with it – at the beginning of all the teachings it just naturally happened that I was just quite open to that. I was more familiar with Catholicism when I was young because we were sent to Catholic school, so of course once a week the nuns would give us a moral class, so we would talk about – I’ve forgotten – sometimes we prayed to God and Jesus, things like that. I didn’t know at that time. I was just a child. But actually, Catholicism didn’t affect me much. It’s strange. I didn’t feel like I wanted to become a priest or whatever when I grew up. I was okay with it, but I didn’t have a strong inclination towards it. I didn’t really have much of a good impression about being a Buddhist monk or nun, you know. But on the other hand, I didn’t have a strong inclination towards Catholicism. I don’t know. Maybe it just comes from a previous life.

A.R.: Venerable spoke a bit before about some of the challenges of being a woman and a Buddhist nun, particularly in some countries. Venerable was speaking about how in some countries, if people provide dana for a woman nun it’s considered to be of less merit than providing it to a monk. I wondered if Venerable could talk a bit about any challenges that you’ve faced as a woman and a Buddhist nun?

V.H.: I’m fortunate because I started my monastic training in Australia, and we have lots of support. In the west it’s the other way around – if you have that [attitude towards women], you are putting people off. People will start to question that, and that is equality, you know. It actually is the other way around in the west. That’s why when we go down to Dhammaloka [teaching centre for the Buddhist Society of Western Australia], and we have our Dana with the monks, actually we go according to seniority after [Abbott] Ajahn Brahm, so we don’t always go behind the monks. We only bow to the monks that are more senior than us – we don’t bow to those who are junior to us. I know the eight Garudhamma [additional precepts for ordained women] – I think most of them are in the Pacittiya [a broader set of precepts], and if it’s in the Pacittiya we’re keeping them anyway.

A.R.: Westerners have been introduced to Buddhism now and there is a wealth of traditions that Westerners are encountering at the moment. Does Venerable have any advice for Westerners who are deciding on a Buddhist path for themselves?

V.H.: Whether you are from the East or West, a mind is a mind – actually there is not much difference. We have defilements – it’s only outside that is different, appearance is different. Basically, we all have the same things: defilements, aggression, delusion. I don’t find that there’s much difference. Maybe the difference is cultural – but in Western Australia especially for the monks’ monastery and the nuns’ monastery, we emphasise a lot that we adapt to the local tradition. We don’t impose. For example, we don’t follow many Thai traditions, non-Australian traditions. Even the Buddha said that – if Buddhism spread to another country, actually we have to adapt to the locals, we have to use the local language and adapt to the culture there. We can’t impose another culture, like Sri Lankan or Thai or Burmese culture. I know we have one nun from Thailand who said it’s very different here – when in Thailand you have to always go like this [bowing] all the time, but for us, you know, it’s like [casually] ‘okay, bye, see you.’ For them: no, you have to do like this. So no we don’t have that much hierarchy and we encourage people to be able to ask questions and challenge. Most people think that [the traditions, like the bowing] is Buddhism – actually that is not Buddhism, some of that is just a cultural thing. It’s just like you go, in Thailand you have the culture, and then Burma they’re a little bit different, and then in Tibet… it’s just a cultural thing, it’s not really Buddhism, you know.

We just follow the Buddha’s teachings. Ajahn Brahm encourages us – for example, we don’t have any ceremony in public. Only when we see him in private, we bow to him, but we don’t make it a big thing like all the nuns bow to the monk. He doesn’t like that. He said: ‘Just bow to me whenever is suitable, but not to make it a big thing.’ Because sometimes it will give people the impression that women are lesser, second-class. And then people have no faith in Buddhism. So especially coming to the west, we want people to have faith in Buddhism, and not to think that Buddhism is something that says, you know, women are always second-class. And we have good support. Most of our supporters don’t like it – last time we asked the monks to go first, and then our lay supporters didn’t like it. They said: ‘Why do you always put the nuns second-class’? So actually we have lots of support, I must say, especially in the west.

A.R.: Venerable was speaking earlier about the kinds of support that your monastery offers to lay people, and Venerable was speaking about people with all kinds of struggles including mental health struggles. What does Venerable think that Buddhism has to offer to westerners who are struggling with mental health difficulties?

V.H.: Yes, it really truly helps them – because especially in the west, I’ve noticed lots of guilt. People tend to beat themselves up. Actually in Buddhism we don’t encourage people to carry guilt – we encourage people to love themselves and truly respect themselves, to really appreciate ourselves. And especially to have kindness, loving-kindness, compassion towards oneself. Whatever happened, even when we have done silly things, we forgive ourselves and we move on. Especially in the west, especially people from Christian backgrounds – they carry lots of guilt, they beat themselves up. They think that they have to be punished: ‘If I have done something wrong, I have to punish myself. If I don’t punish myself, I feel terrible.’ But we discourage that. I think it’s really good – this is something that we are able to teach, and actually I think it really helps. Because that really causes us lots of suffering, especially mental suffering, how people identify themselves as terrible, as really bad. Rather than thinking that we’re just human. It’s okay to be who we are. I think it’s really helpful and useful. Especially for those who have lots of mental suffering.

You need to develop lots of spiritual qualities, like loving-kindness, compassion – it helps to soften the mind. I think mental suffering is mostly the lack of that love. As we purify our mind, we’re naturally kind and compassionate – it’s natural. It’s not that I have to [do something] – when we purify our mind, we’re naturally kind, naturally compassionate.

That’s why I think you can see Buddhism growing very fast in Australia compared to other religions. It’s really fast. And I can see the growth also compared to when I first arrived in 2002. It’s growing, I can see now.

A.R.: Venerable Hasapanna, this is a Tibetan Buddhist institute. I wondered if Venerable could talk about the relationship of your tradition to other Buddhist traditions?

V.H.: I don’t know much about other traditions because when I was first introduced to Buddhism, it was to Theravada, and then I just stayed with this. I find that I just naturally have that inclination. But I believe, to me, when I look at it, the core teaching is the same: you talk about the Four Noble Truths. It’s just the practice that is different, it’s just that you’re using different vehicles. But you still get there, you know. That’s why sometimes it depends on the individual. For example, we don’t force it on the nuns that you have to practice a particular way – every individual is different. Like those who are more inclined to the forest tradition, they naturally come to us, as those inclined to other traditions won’t come to us. To me they are just different vehicles – we still get there. I really don’t know much about other traditions, you know.

A.R.: Venerable, do you think that Buddhism is a path for everyone?

V.H.: I think someone asked the Buddha this question: ‘Can anyone get enlightened?’ The Buddha said it’s not restricted to any religion, or whatever. As long as you follow the Eightfold Path then it is possible to get enlightened – it’s just a way of life, isn’t it? To have right view, and right intention, right speech, morality, and cultivation of the mind, cultivate the samadhi, stillness, and wisdom … it’s not that you have to become a Buddhist and you can practice – I mean you can call yourself whatever, it’s just a label, it doesn’t matter. Some people still call themselves a Buddhist and may not truly really practice and follow the path! And some people don’t admit they are, some people say ‘oh I have no religion’, but the way they live their life they already practice, they’re already on the path. I see some people – they’re already truly very kind and truly very compassionate, beautiful people, wonderful people, even those that don’t label themselves a Buddhist, but they’re already walking the path. So to me it doesn’t matter what you call yourself. And people can label themselves Buddhists but they are not truly walking the path or truly practicing.

A.R.: Following on from what Venerable just spoke about, what makes someone a Buddhist?

V.H.: What makes someone a Buddhist? I think it’s just a label on yourself. To me it’s all basic, there’s something really basic in Buddhism about being a human. Whether you are a Buddhist, if you call yourself Buddhist or not – morality, living a good life, that is very basic, this is basic humanity, regardless what religion. To be a good person, to be kind, to be generous, to be compassionate. The only [distinctive] thing that Buddhism teaches is non-self, that’s all. But the rest of it, with any other religion we have common ground – practice generosity, being kind, being compassionate, morality, being a good person. Even other religions meditate. The only thing that the Buddhists teach is non-self, and that we believe in rebirth, but other than that we have common ground.

A.R.: Thank you very much Venerable Hasapanna for sharing your thoughts with us, it’s very generous of you.

V.H.: My pleasure.