An Interview with Venerable Pannyavaro

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Yew Lye Hin

Yew Lye Hin: Bhante, can you tell me what was it that got you interested in Buddhism?

Ven. Pannyavaro: Well, I was a student of about twenty in the early sixties when I picked up some books on Buddhism in a library in Tasmania - that was more than forty years ago. Immediately, I had a conversion experience, in as much as “This is the answer”. Since that time I have practiced variously. Forty years ago in Australia I knew of no Buddhist temples, but when I eventually got to Sydney, I found a Buddhist temple in China Town. It was a Pure Land temple run by a Chinese businessman, but there were no monks or teachers. The temple had regular meetings and so it became the first centre for the newly emerging Buddhist groups of various traditions around Sydney.

Then I went to India in the early seventies. I was interested in Hatha Yoga and while in South India I heard about some Buddhist retreats in Varanasi at the Burmese Buddhist Vihara being conducted by S. N. Goenka, a Vipassana teacher in the U Ba Khin tradition of Burma. This was the first time I had formal teachings in vipassana meditation in a retreat that lasted for thirty days. After which I went to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha was enlightened and it just happened that it coincided with the first Kalachakra initiation by the Dalai Lama. At Bodh Gaya I met various Tibetan Lamas, but it was there that I met my first vipassana teacher in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition, an Indian who had spent seven years as a monk in Burma – Mahindraji. Surprisingly, when I went back to Australia, Mahindraji showed up in 1977 to give a retreat and fortunately I was able to practice again with him. Later on, I went to Sri Lanka and ordained as a novice monk with the late abbot of Meetirigala Nissarana Vanaye, Ven. Matara Sri Gnanarama Mahathera . He combined the Forest Tradition of samatha meditation with the Mahasi Sayadaw method of vipassana meditation. I didn't last very long there mostly because of the conditions as I became quite sick and had to leave. From Sri Lanka I then went on to Thailand with the intention of going to Burma. But in the meantime I stayed on in Thailand waiting for a visa and received higher ordination in Bangkok at Wat Bovorn. Then with the permission of my preceptor, I went on to Burma and did intensive practice at the Mahasi Sayadaw centre in Rangoon.

I was able to do a one year retreat at the Mahasi Sayadaw centre, which was exceptional because at that time you could usually only get short term visas of three months or so. So in between times I used to go from Burma to Thailand occasionally going to Malaysia to stay at the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre in Penang. Mostly it was with a group of Western monks as it was a place were we could rest up and recover from the rigorous practice in Burma. Off and on, I practiced intensively in Burma and Thailand for about six or seven years. Looking back now, I'm very appreciative of that time spent in Burma as it allowed me to totally dedicate myself to intensive vipassana practice.

When I returned back home to Sydney I founded a meditation group, the Buddha Dhamma Meditation Association. I brought my teacher Sayadaw U Janaka to Australia for a three months teaching tour in 1992. I then became a regular teacher at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre at Medlow Bath and at the Buddhist Library in Sydney as I slowly developed my own centre combined with teaching overseas.

At this stage I got involved with computers having to produce newsletters, etc for my meditation centre. The early nineties were the early phase of computer technology, so I often had problems with the hardware and software. It was all very problematic. Even though I had practiced meditation intensively, I wasn't very good I must confess at handling those situations. So I came to realise that computer work was about problem solving and not reacting and getting upset about difficulties - so that became the challenge.

Somehow or other I set up the first (with the help of friends for I had no computer background at all and no programming experience) the first and only Australian Buddhist BBS, Bulletin Board System – BuddhaNet BBS. That evolved to the Internet when I got space on the University of Western Sydney server, which was the start of the website, which has just grown and grown. I set it up in 1992 - about 14 years ago - and since then we have developed into a electronic publishing and Buddhist content creation service which includes Buddhist Studies (we have produce a CD-Rom of Buddhist Studies for Primary and Secondary Schools) and a lot of other Buddhist content. A new project we are currently working on is a Buddhist eLibrary database and that will be set up shortly.

However, my core business is vipassana meditation as monk who also happens to be involved with electronic propagation of the Buddha Dhamma via the World Wide Web. I suppose Western monks tend naturally to see service as part of being a monk; but I have never lost sight of my commitment to the contemplative lifestyle. So currently, our organisation is in the process of purchasing a property near Lismore in Northern New South Wales, which is north of Sydney and south of Brisbane on the east coast of Australia. It is a 95 acre property that will be a retreat centre first and then we bring in the monastics. It will be a hermitage combined with a retreat centre where people can learn basic meditation techniques through one-day workshops, weekend and ten-day retreats. We plan in future to build facilities that will attract international meditators to come and do long-term practice in the same way as I had benefited from in Asia, especially in Burma, where you can go to a retreat centre any time and there are teachers and where you are supported to do intensive practice.

Without the deep practice , I am not sure what's going to happen to the Dhamma in the future. The real Dhamma, the true Dhamma will happen when we have people who are doing the deep practices, especially intensive vipassana meditation. That's why I want to build a retreat centre, which supports people doing intensive meditation practice in a hermitage environment. Currently, I'm traveling overseas to raise funds for the retreat and monastery project, because in Australia while there is a lot of interest in meditation and Buddhist practice, there is not yet a culture of Dana that supports it.

I've trained in Asia for many years: Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand on Dana, that is, it has cost me nothing, and everything was generously given. So I'm trying to give back what I received. The culture in Western countries is that people pay to practice, but I'm not into anybody paying. That is, I'm not into commercialising the Dhamma. So we offer the Buddha's Teachings and courses at our retreat centre on a Dana based only. The Buddhist teachings should be without any commercial element at all.

Lye Hin: What do you intend to achieve with your new project of the Buddhist eLibrary?

Ven. Pannyavaro: Well, essentially it is a database, which we have already constructed as a working model. The concept of the eLibrary is that it is a repository of Buddhist material: suttas, commentaries, various sorts of texts, including pdf files or eBooks; also it will include audio, art work and video material, in all languages and in all traditions. The material will be freely downloaded from the Internet, with no charge to the user. In order to support this, my idea is that we have a partnership arrangement with different Buddhist organisations, such as tertiary institutions and monasteries of different traditions around the world who will support and help to maintain it as a service for users on the World Wide Web.

Here in Penang, we have had a very generous offer to host the Buddhist eLibrary through Venerable Wei Wu's contact with a local ISP. So we have actually now got a server for the eLibrary. What we are looking for is content and more content. Buddhanet specialise in pdf files, Ebooks and we have an archived library of Buddhist content, which we will contribute to the pooled database. We have secured the domain name: .net .info and .org. This allows any Buddhist organisation who wants to join us on a partnership basis and have quality content of any tradition to have a sub-domain name of their own. They will have a section for their own collection in the database or they can pool it in the main section. In this way, in time, perhaps in a year or two, the content will build up sufficiently so that it becomes a one stop shop to find Buddhist material on the web.

We have already built a database for BuddhaNet's World's Buddhist Directory, which we will launch when I get back home to Australia in two weeks' time. Our World Buddhist Directory is already up online as static HTML pages, but the database has the advantage that you can search and find. So you just put in the search engine what you want to know and it will hopefully come up with what you are looking for. Also you will be able to generate statistics on Buddhist organisations or if a Buddhist organisation wants to do a mailing list they can just download all the listing of Buddhist organisations around the world. You can also browse the Buddhist Masters and their Organisations section; and we have added links to Buddhist news services as well.

We do need support. Currently we rely on volunteer labour, although now, because of the need for specialized skills, especially programming, we have to pay people to do the programming and this type of work, but mostly it is volunteer labour and we never charge for our service. Anybody who uses Buddhanet, and in future the eLibrary, will find that it is a free service. So to do that, we need to get support from Buddhist institutions, as we do from a monastery in Singapore, Phor Kark See and here in Penang the Than Hsiang Temple. Unless we get that sort of support, we can't function. So we are very grateful for that help. Of course, there are many other organisations looking for similar support, but we have been able to run Buddhanet while becoming the world's major Buddhist website with over 800 to 900 thousand hits per day and hopefully in good time the eLibrary will do as well.

Lye Hin: How is the response to the partnership with the eLibrary?

Ven. Pannyavaro: Well, I've just been in Thailand for the International Buddhist Vesak Conference. And while there, I've been going round the various Buddhist universities, Mahachulalongkorn University in Bangkok in particular, with whom we are now negotiating a partnership arrangement, and it is the most concrete arrangement we have so far; also Mahamakut Buddhist University in Bangkok is another possibility too. There is a plan, perhaps not in the near future, that Buddha Monthon, a major Buddhist Centre in Bangkok, will be involved too. I believe the Buddhist library in Singapore is another centre that is interested. Eventually, we hope to have partners in all traditions such as a Tibetan centre in Austria who has got quality content and are interested. So I'm sure in good time with a little networking our project will evolve into a substantial Buddhist eLibrary database on the World Wide Web.

Lye Hin: Will the database be in the English language only?

Ven. Pannyavaro: No, in any language, in all languages. You see, that is the advantage of a database. You can make PDF documents in Chinese or any language you can think of as the fonts are embedded and thus can be open in any reader. It will be up to the individual partners to digitalize their content which can be in PDFs, Word docs, or whatever format. And if it is in audio or video it doesn't matter what language it is in, certainly there is no need for it to be restricted to English as there is a lot of Buddhist content in Thai, Chinese, etc. At the moment I'm having my Buddhist Studies for Schools translated into Mandarin and Vietnamese. So Vietnamese or Chinese or any other language won't be a problem, and not forgetting the major European languages, Spanish, German, and Italian. Of course, I would like to have the eLibrary content in all the major languages and Buddhist traditions as well, not just Theravada. I happen to be a Theravadin monk, but Buddhanet is non-sectarian, in fact I consider myself to be a “pre-sectarian” Buddhist. Anyway, people come and browse around our material and choose what they feel is suitable for them. I am not pushing or telling people to choose one tradition or another. On the net as in life the end users have to be able to discriminate for themselves.

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Venerable Pannyavaro is a Vipassana bhikkhu who has devoted his life to the meditational aspects of the Buddha's teachings. For the past thirty years, he had intensive practice of Satipatthana-Vipassaana medition, especially at the Mahasi Sayadaw centres in Burma. His long training and life experience combine to bring a practical in-depth approach to the teaching of insight (vipassana) meditation in contemporary life.

Venerable Pannyavaro is the resident teacher with the Buddha Dharma Education Association at its Centre at Surrey Hills in Sydney and gives retreats from time to time at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, Medlow Bath.

Currently, Venerable Pannyavaro is developing a 95 acre Bodhi Tree Forest Monastery and Retreat Centre in Tullera, northern New South Wales. For more information, please visit: