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Making friends with the Dhamma

Ariya Baumann

February 22, 2024 

Introduction: Ariya Baumann was a Buddhist nun for 21 years. She is now a meditation teacher, that gives retreats worldwide. She ordained in Burma; she learned Burmese and translated for many of the Burmese teachers. For many years, she guided foreign meditators at a meditation centre there. She now lives in Switzerland and she's due to give a retreat in Perth, Western Australia next month (March 2024) . Through her group, “Metta in Action” Ariya helps those in need in Burma, including nuns on a regular basis. There was such generosity towards this cause in our recent fundraiser, so we look forward to hearing more about your work. Ariya welcome to Sakyadhita Australia.


Ariya: Thank you for the welcome and I'm very happy to be with you today.


Helen:  Ariya let's go back. I'm interested to hear about your dharma journey. You were born in Switzerland, I understand, so how did you discover the teachings and meditation?


Ariya: Yes, I was born in Switzerland, grew up in Switzerland, my parents were Christians, my father Protestant, my mother Catholic, but they were not really religious, they didn't go to church, although they sent us children, I have two brothers, to Sunday school. And at that time at school, we had some religious lessons and so I was doing that. But then when I was in my teens, maybe 13/14 years old, I asked myself, , who is this God? And if it's this kind, loving God, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why are the children starving in Africa? , if you were a loving and kind, he wouldn't allow these things to happen. And also, I thought, I reflected that, if there is, whether you call it God, or absolute love or higher something, then if that really exists, then everybody could experience this higher entity or love, absolute love for themselves. But how I was taught in Christianity, you just believe that there is God. And you believe that Jesus was his son coming to earth. But I didn't want to believe what others said, I wanted to experience it myself. And because I wasn't given any means to come to this experience myself in the Christian context, I started to read books about other religions other philosophies. So when I was 15/16/17 year old and so my search was for something, some practice with which I could come to this experience myself. And when I finally read a book or found something about Buddhism and the practice of meditation and this path of inquiry into yourself and into what is the world, then it seemed like I had found something that I was looking for.


Helen: Did you find any Buddhist centres or teachers in Switzerland?


Ariya: No, at that time, that was in the late 1970s. I didn't know about any Buddhist centre or Buddhist monastery in Switzerland. I was kind of relaxed, I had to rely on books and in one little book that had little stories and quotes from different religions, I found this story, kind of a sense story, which directly spoke to my heart, and which made me go off into a little cabin up in the Swiss mountains. It was about being mindful, being in the present. When you sit, you sit, when you chop wood, you chop wood, when you catch water, you catch water, and you're not already doing or thinking about doing the next thing. And I was very good in doing one thing, and already being ahead of myself. And so I thought, Yes, I will try. And so in this mountain cabin in one week, I was just trying to be present with whatever I was doing. I had to collect wood, I had to make a wood fire to cook my meals. So I was mindful when eating when washing the dishes. And, in retrospect, I realized that was my first retreat, and it was a silent retreat.


Helen: And you did that on your own? You knew it was the right thing to do!


Ariya: Yes, exactly. I wanted to experiment. And, then from instructions for meditation that I found in books, I just started to practice meditation for myself. It was basically, be mindful and be mindful of the breath. Yeah, that was how it started.


Helen: And did you practice sitting on a cushion,  the formal meditation?


Ariya: Yes, I did practice, formally sitting on a cushion.


Helen: And what was your path from there? How did your interest in the Dharma develop?


Ariya: So from there, I did a training at the Conservatory in Zurich to become a music and dance education teacher. And, dance education, it was more like being aware of your body in movement. And so again, in retrospect, that was mindfulness of the body, movements, sensations. But after that, I was teaching for three years. And somehow it was like, now I would need to teach for another 40 years, until retirement, and the thought, that cannot be the meaning of life, , just to have a job or money and go for a holiday and have a nice time and then have to work again, I want to know more about myself and the world. So I gave up everything, took my backpack and became a backpacker, traveling around the world. And I started off in Western countries, Ireland, the USA, New Zealand, Australia. And then I heard that in Thailand, one can go to this monastery where they have 10 day meditation retreats for foreigners. So I was looking forward very much. And that was Wat Suan Mokkh.  At that time, Ajahn Buddhadasa, the famous Thai monk, was still alive and so I did this 10 day retreat, it was led by three Western monks. And it was like coming home, it was, ah, this is where I feel at home. This is it. And so, , this was my first official meditation retreat. And that, gave a completely different direction to my life, I knew that I wanted to pursue this part, also in my life.


Helen: From there, I understand you arrived in Burma, or Myanmar, and eventually became a nun. Tell us that story.


Ariya: So after this two years of backpacking around the world, I was broke, I had to get some money, I was working in Switzerland, not teaching music and dance, I did something else. After two years, I had money again, I was traveling again to Asia, and then I fell in love with an Australian man that brought me to Dapto near Wollongong and, again, my desire was to practice meditation. So I asked some of his friends, do  a meditation centre? Do , if there is a retreat somewhere, and this person said, well in about 10 days, a Burmese meditation master will come and teach a retreat outside of Sydney. And I contacted the organizers, I could go, and it was Sayadaw U Janaka, this Burmese meditation teacher. And up to then I was not fixed on any Buddhist tradition, it was fine whether it was Thai, I had done also retreats in India, Nepal, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. And then Burmese. Okay. And that was the second coming home. , the way he was teaching meditation, the vipassana meditation based on Mahasi Sayadaw  method. That was what I was basically looking for. That was really this means to dive deeply into these processes in the body and mind. And we had regular daily interviews with Sayadaw and so he realized what was happening in my practice. And after the retreat, he said, “do you want to come to Burma and practice a bit longer?” And I was in a meditative high? So I said, Yes, Sayadaw I'm coming. And that's how I ended up in Burma.


Helen: What is it about the Burmese teachers? I mean, we hear a lot about Mahasi Sayadaw, what is it about them that in your eyes makes them so special?


Ariya: It's such a basic, simple, but direct method to look into the processes in your body, and what is happening in your mind. You do not need theoretical knowledge to do that. But you need an openness, a curiosity, being interested in what is happening. And what I also noticed that, stressing mindfulness in daily activities, like during a retreat, being mindful of the eating, taking a shower, opening doors. And slowing down these activities, that really helped me to understand that meditation is not something you do on the cushion with eyes closed, but it's much wider. It's being present with whatever is happening in your body and mind. And, of course, in a retreat where you do that, from the moment you wake up until you fall asleep. That's very powerful to be present all the time. And when mindfulness becomes better and better when you can maintain it for longer and longer periods that deepens the concentration, the mind becomes clearer, sharper. And then, a whole new world was opening up for me. And, I had thought I would go to Burma for three months, and I thought, three months is a long period for meditation, then I'm at least half enlightened, if not fully. But of course, after three months, I realized I'm not even half enlightened. But it was so interesting, to discover more and more that I told myself, I can still stay on a little bit, and a little bit, and a little bit. And so it ended up like 21 years.


Helen: And where were you when you went to Burma? Burma were you in the capital or were you in a country?


Ariya: When I first when went Sayadawa U Janaka’s centre was in the capital at that time, Yangon and it was on the main road going out to the airport. Well, in 1992, when I went to Burma there was not much traffic, basically no private cars. But there was a bus stop outside of the centre, and the buses were very noisy. They were wooden boxes on four wheels with a horn that worked. So the centre in town was not quiet at all. And there was a tea shop next door who played music almost all day all night long. So I was very frustrated. And thinking, should I stay on or not, but somehow the practice just took off,  with the daily interviews with Sayadaw. And, with the time I learned to meditate with noise to have noise in the background, and suddenly, it wasn't a problem anymore.


Helen: How long was it before you, I understand, you learned Burmese, and you were able to translate the teachings and actually help other foreign students. So how much further along in your journey?


Ariya: From 1992 to 1995, I was basically practicing meditation intensively. Although I took little breaks in between, I would have three or four or five months in a stretch of intensive meditation. And then I would take a break for one month, then I would go to the kitchen to help prepare for the meals, the desserts, the fruits, the cakes. And it was then when I started to learn Burmese picking up words picking up little phrases. After the three years, in 1995, the forest centre was opened about 30 kilometres north of Yangon. And Sayadaw U Janaka  wanted me and my Burmese friend Mimi to go there because by that time, I could kind of talk small talk in Burmese, but the teacher he sent to the forest centre couldn't speak English at all. And so he wanted me to become the teacher for Sayadaw U Indaka. And so then I was thrown into the water without being able to swim. So I had to translate Dhamma talks and interviews with Mimi. She helped me a little bit her English wasn't very good. But, in the free time, I really started to learn Burmese vocabulary, listen to Burmese Dhamma talks went to the Burmese interviews, just to pick up how do you say rising and falling of the abdomen or walking meditation and so on. And so very quickly, I made lots of progress in my Burmese. And then yeah, I was translating a lot for Sayadaw U Indaka and gradually, starting to teach myself the foreign meditators who came to Burma.


Helen: My understanding is that the meditation centers in Burma, are fairly basic, so living there, I think is quite tough. Is that the case?


Ariya: When I arrived in 1992, yes, it was fairly basic although, I as a foreigner had the privilege of not staying in a dormitory like the Burmese meditators. I had to share a room with another foreigner, and we didn't have a bamboo mat on the floor, we even had the bed, but the mattress was like two centimetres foam, which was not very good. And there was no aircon, so it was hot, humid, summer sometimes when there was electricity that was a fan but not all the time. Yes, it was fairly basic, but then with the opening of the forest centre which was designed especially for foreign meditators there it was more, let's say luxurious. Like there were a little kuti’s, little houses. So people had usually a single room with attached bathroom, the mattresses were still very poor, maybe now five centimetres of foam and no aircon. Yes. But  what was so strong was to be in this country where the Dharma is so strong, where it's something that is lived, people practice the Dharma, or those who cannot go into a meditation centre and practice meditation, they understand the value of this practice, and they think that's the best thing you can do in your life. And so, to practice, in a country, or in a place where you feel, you're so much supported, physically, materially, but also, mentally or spiritually makes such a difference. And so for me to put up with very basic facilities was okay.


Helen: Were there many foreign meditators coming to the centre in those years?


Ariya: Yes, when the forest centre was opened in 1995, and Sayadaw U Janaka every year traveling abroad, and inviting people to come to Burma and practice in his centre. We had sometimes 40 or 50, foreign meditators in the forest centre. So I was very busy, Mimi my Burmese friend too, we were the managers, we were the caretakers, we were the translators. We were preparing their rooms, we would take them to the doctors when they got diarrhea, and so on. So we did everything, but it was a very happy very fulfilling time.


Helen: And how many years in total? Did you stay in? Burma?


Ariya: In total it was 21 years.


Helen: Wow. Wow. We've all heard how difficult the situation there is politically? Can you tell us anything about that? How it affected the meditation centers? If you can't, that's okay.


Ariya: Yes. , 'm here in Burma, in Myanmar and I have to be a bit careful about what I say, because I might not get a visa next time when I say critical things. So the situation here in the country is difficult, in the centre, where I am, outside of Mandalay, up in the Shan hills, this is in the countryside, here it's peaceful and quiet, unlike in other parts of the country right now. Sayadaw U Indaka established the main centre in Yangon and this branch centre here with our Metta in Action Project  every year, we also went to his village and supported various projects there. I don't want to pronounce the name of this village. But,, when the coup happened three years ago, there was fighting there and many people had to flee, to leave the village, because many houses fell into ashes. And so these people, in this country, there are no social institutions to take care of such people. So it's basically the monasteries, meditation centers that take care. And that village is not the only one there are many 100 more villages which experienced the same thing. But then people would go to a monastery or meditation centre from a monk from their village. That's why here at the centre right now there are about 80 people taking shelter here, waiting until they can go back to their village which they are longing to. Here at least they have safety, there's a place to stay they get food, but of course, it's not the life that they would like to live.


Helen: I'd like to talk a bit more about “metta in action” in a moment, but we skipped over part of your story, which was that you became a nun and somewhere along the way you disrobed. So can you tell us about that? The decision to become a nun and then stepping back.


Ariya: I was a music and dance education teacher so singing, dancing, playing the piano was my life. And even though when I started to practice meditation, I never considered to become a nun. Because I knew as a nun, you have to follow certain rules, one of them not singing, not dancing, no entertainment. And so that was out of question for me. But after having met Sayadaw U Janaka in Australia, and learning that one can ordain as a temporary nun that was, ah, is this possible? And so when I decided I would go to Burma for three months, I thought, why not take up temporary ordination, just to fully dive into the practice, and leave my lay life outside of the gate. And so with that in mind, I took up this ordination, knowing or thinking of the three months, I go back to Switzerland, and then I sing and dance again. But as I said, the practice was so interesting and so I said, I stay a bit longer and a bit longer and a bit longer until I realized it's three years now in Burma, I have not sung I have not danced, I have not played the piano. And I don't miss it. What was a base for my happiness and contentment was no longer necessary. Actually, I found that with calming the mind and purifying it from the defilement I was much happier and more content than I ever was. And so then this it was like, Okay, I don't need to go back to Switzerland. I don't need to disrobe. I want to stay a nun; I want to continue this life. And so that's how I stayed on in Burma.


Helen: But you are now living in Switzerland or Burma?


Ariya: Yes. Now, my base I live in Switzerland, and I have  disrobed after 21 years of being a nun because a couple of years before I finally disrobed, I was diagnosed with a metastasis. I had a melanoma before and so this had metastasized, and this led to the amputation of my lower leg. So at that time, I was in Switzerland, had my leg amputated, and learning to walk again with a prosthesis. So I was staying with my parents because I had no plans to stay in Switzerland being a nun. And so staying with my parents, I realized, there we are getting older, and the forgetfulness of my father, I realized, well, this is more than just being forgetful. So I told him, go and check it out, and it turned out to be outside now. So that was a big blow for my mother. But it was very good that I was with them at that time. But then shortly after that, my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma, and she died within seven months. But luckily, I was there so I could take care of her, in the final months of her life, and I could tell her that I would take care of my dad, that she didn't need to worry that I would take care. And so, already with amputation of my leg and having this diagnosis and the prospects of living much longer were not very high. So that made me think, how do I want to spend the few years that I may have, so how they want to spend them, what is important, what are my priorities, and also what is most beneficial for my practice. And then with my parents, all this coming together, I came to the conclusion that disrobing would be best for my practice, and for taking care of my dad, so that he could walk around in Switzerland with kind of a normal looking person, and not with this funny looking clothed person with a bald head. So then, I put down the robe, but luckily, I could continue the life I was living before I didn't need to go and get the job to earn money because I could continue to teach meditation retreats. When I would go away and teach a retreat, we had a caretaker for my dad. So and then I would go back and take care of my father. And so that was five years until my father died. That's now four years ago. So since then, I'm just fully dedicating my life again to practice the Dharma to share the Dharma, teach the Dharma to do translation work, to do this Metta in Action work.


Helen:  Now you're teaching, and you teach around the world. Tell us a little bit about what you teacher. I understand you teach both metta and vipassana meditation is that correct?


Ariya: Yes, that's correct. The Vipassana meditation this is what I really connected to with Sadayaw U Janaka and then going to Burma and Sadayaw U Janaka the longer I was with him, the more he was also stressing the cultivation of metta. So, I was accompanying him twice when he was teaching in Switzerland, assisting him in his retreat, and of a 10 day retreat he would have the meditators cultivate metta for three days and then only switch to vipassana.   And also then my second teacher Sadayaw U Indaka he was stressing a lot the cultivation of loving kindness, practicing metta. And so with that, I did the longer metta retreat and translating Sadayaw U Inaka’s book on the practice of metta meditation. I see from my own practice, but also from guiding others in their practice how important that metta practice is not only for my personal practice, but also in day to day life. how valuable this practice is when we can manifest the kindness the care in the world out there.


Helen: Your retreat - and what we've titled this webinar is making friends with the Dharma.  I wondered if you could just tell us a bit about that, why that's important.


Ariya: Yes. Because, basically, we have to rely on ourselves  lastly,  we have friends, we have teachers, but finally we have to rely on ourselves. And so, if we make the Dhamma to our friend, then we have a very good friend with us wherever we go, whether we are with other people, whether we are alone, but having the Dharma, or the practice of the Dharma, that is a reliable friend. And a good friend stands to you or supports you in difficulties and so that having the dhamma as a good friend, it's always there, when you need it, or you can always access it, because it's there. And it's also said, on the flyer for this webinar there are many aspects of the Dharma, which can be your good friend. But basically, it's these two aspects of understanding wisdom, which we get through the practice of Vipassana meditation, insight meditation. And on the other hand, it's the qualities of kindness and compassion. And these two aspects, vipassana, metta, karuna, insight understanding and kindness, compassion, they really go hand in hand, they support each other. And when we can rely on these friends on our understanding on our wisdom, when you can rely on our kindness, our compassion, this is so helpful in our formal meditation practice, and also in our day to day life.


Helen: You're also very involved in Metta in Action which is supporting both the nuns and I believe the villagers. So what are some of your current projects?


Ariya: Yes. So over the years, supporting the nuns has become a priority, because in this country, the monks get much more support from the people here. But the nuns do so much good work. So we really want to support them, and having been a nun myself, and being in the position where, not getting as much support as the monks so I can really feel with them. And some of the nuns, they have established monastic schools, which means they take little nuns, little novices, but also lay kids from the neighbourhood, and provide everything because in the government's school they need to buy the uniforms, they need to buy the books, they need to pay a little money for electricity here and there. And many poor families, they cannot afford to send all the children to school, l maybe one if at all. And so in these monastics schools  the children get everything for free. And so, this is such an important thing for children to get an education because when they are educated, they can make something out of their life. And so, right now supporting the nuns, the nunneries, and these monastic schools are organized by the nuns is one of the priorities and now under the very specific condition in this country, so we support the internally displaced people like the locals who had to flee from the villages. So just supporting them with basic foodstuff, rice and oil and whatever is needed to get through the days.


Helen: I understand you also organized practical things like helping with building bathrooms and repairing buildings.


 Ariya: Yes, in the nunneries we always ask the head nun  what do you need? And then they would say we need proper latrines, proper toilets, for 23 nuns I have only one book that they can learn, so it would be good that each nun has a book, or they say, the roof is leaking, it would be good before the rainy season to fix the roof, or to build another building to accommodate more nuns, because many of these nuns they also take orphans or half orphans, offer them a place where they can live, or they can get an education.


Ven Chokyi: I found it very interesting Ariya you were talking about before ordaining, having this background in singing, dancing, playing the piano, theatre, and I was like, that's so my background. Yeah, totally. But I was maybe like you, I was ready, I was totally ready. And I find it interesting that decision must have been, as a monastic it must have been a very difficult decision or, or maybe not, I mean, you sounded quite comfortable with deciding to disrobe to care for your father and, and also being so very considerate of how it would be for him, his experience, as you said, walking around in monastic robes and so forth. So I just wondered how those transitions have been for you.


Ariya: It was, it was kind of a difficult decision. I gave myself the time just to really let it sink in and hopefully one day it just would be become clear if I disrobe or not. And so in this whole process, then yes, I came to this point where it was like, yes, that's the right thing to do. No, it was not so much a decision from the head, but it was much more a decision that came from let's say the heart from within. And when it was clear, then it was not difficult anymore because then it was just feeling that's the right thing to do.


Helen: You think you might take robes again?


Ariya: At the moment, I'm not considering it actively. But who knows.


Helen: I'd like to invite Sky who's been I think involved with Ariya’s retreat. Perhaps you can tell us about the experience got the Sky if you don't mind?


Sky: Well, each year, the last few years, I've been during the two week January metta retreat. And it's just lovely to participate, seeing Ariya in Burma and at the retreat centre there, but knowing that we can't go there, but still feeling that very strong connection. And I find that it's a lovely retreat, because since COVID, of course, we've been doing it at home. And so the blend of committing to so many hours of sitting and walking and being online for discussion and dharma talks, and also doing things in our world, is a lovely blend, actually. Usually I did such long retreats intensive retreats, particularly in Burmese tradition, they're quite intensive. And to sort of do this much more as a daily living process, I found, especially with the metta is beautiful, it's very beautiful.


Helen: And you found the metta very beneficial?


Sky: I've always used metta, it's always been the softening of the heart, that I don't think you have so much with the Vipassana and also the deep connection with other beings and all beings. So the opening of the heart is quite profound, as well as the deepening of the concentration and the stillness.


Helen: Ariya you will be giving these, for those of us who try and get to Perth, you'll be giving these online retreats in the future.


Ariya: People would love to come here to Burma again, be physically here for this metta retreat but we don't know how the situation will develop here in this country. And as long as people cannot come here, we will continue to give these online retreats.


Helen: Perhaps Bridget would like to say something because I know you're writing a book on aging. And I just thought what Ariya was saying about experience with a parent might be relevant.


Brigid: It's a challenging book, because those of us who are no longer 30, aging and death, we we've heard about this, the Buddha mentioned it, and now it's getting really real. And so it's, it's our everyday life, but it's also our practice. And I think now more than ever, for most of us self-compassion and metta are just so important, as we face our own bodily frailty, and losing friends. I live in a place for older people and so it can just strike people out of the blue, one minute they're vibrant and the next minute they're hospitalized. So it's just something that takes us I think deeper into our practice to go as we get nearer to the end of our lives and as we're facing old age, sickness and death and friends and you just can't go past metta. That's what I think specially on a hard day. And teachings like Ariya’s are wonderful. Just one little quick question with Metta in Action which I will donate some more to when I get off this. Just wanted to ask Ariya is it easy for you to get the money through to the people. Because I listened to that talk on Dharma Seed recently by Carol Wilson and Greg Schar talking about the situation in Myanmar and it made it sound a little bit like it was harder to for the money to come in and go out. Are you able to utilize the money we send or is that a bit tricky at the moment?


Ariya: Sending the money to this country has always been difficult and usually I carry it on me even if it's large sums.  I also this year I was packed with a lot of money and no problem.


Helen: Thank you, Ariya that was beautiful, and thank you for all your wisdom. We hope you have a very safe trip to Western Australia, to continue your work with the retreats and measuring action. It's very inspiring.


If you would like to give to Ariya’s charity, Metta in Action, we will forward on the donations.

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