Conversing with Venerable Nandisena – Morgan Zo Callahan


Interview with the Abbot of Latin
America’s only Theravada Buddhhist Monastery

Conversing with Venerable

Morgan Zo Callahan,
Jilotepec, Veracruz, Mexico, Tuesday,
April 6, 2010

we are, Venerable Nandisena and I, together again facing
expansive green grasses, melting into a surrounding forest.
Nandisena tells me of a delicious meal and company he and a
couple of his students had last night with a local family.
We’re talking about the Dharma, of the good-hearted
Mexican people, of Dhamma Vihara, the sole Theravadan
monastery in Latin America. We’re talking about lofty
topics and very ordinary everyday concerns. He recently
completed translating the Dhammapada from Pali to Spanish.
Ven. Nandisena was happy to complete this effort of love,
because it is the first Spanish translation of the ancient
commentary of the verses of the Dhammapada attributed to
Buddhaghosa (fifth century). An English translation is soon
to follow.

Bhikkhu Nandisena was born in 1954
in Argentina; he was a disciple of U. Silananda from Burma.
He was ordained a monk in 1991 in California.

I visited with Bhikkhu in 2008 and
2009 and my first interview, edited by Ken Ireland, can be
found online at
thanks to my friend, Doug McFerran, professor of the Los
Angeles Mission College course, “Comparative Survey of
World Religions.” This first interview was also
published in a limited edition by Rosemead Buddhist
Monastery in Red Buddhist Envelope.

I wanted to ask Ven. Nandisena about
his university days. I was aware that he was a university
student in the 1970’s. I reflected on my own
“turbulent mind/heart” of the late 60’s &
early 70’s. In Argentina, it was the time of “The
Dirty War” (Guerra Sucia), 1970 to 1983, where
state-sponsored violence reigned against activists,
students, journalists, guerillas and sympathizers. It’s
estimated that 10,000 people were killed or

I was also interested in seeing how
his teaching was going and to ask his opinion about two
authors I was reading: Steven Batchelor and Achaan

What’s Happening at Dhamma
Vihara and in Mexico?

MZC: I notice that you now have 32
retreatants here. That must be encouraging for

BN: This is Easter vacation and
I’m glad people here in Mexico take the time to come
here. We even had to unfortunately turn away 20 people from
Puebla who wanted to come, because we didn’t have the
space. Our monastery has been open for 11 years and people
visit our website; we have a mailing list. We have a small
third floor attic that we’ve made into a dormitory.
(Laughing) Some of the people have to live there, but no one
seems to mind. The weather is nice, no rain, and we
didn’t have any problems with electricity or water this
time. I hope you come sometime yourself and meditate with

We talk for a while about works with
street teens and children.

How do you find Mexico this

MZC: I’m very uplifted by so
many young volunteers this year; there’s a growing
spirit of wanting to share and encourage the disadvantaged
youth I’ve been meeting with.

Yes, there’s also a desire in
many youth to be excessively materialistic, to only go for
money. There the problem of intoxication, both physical and
mental. This year, as I’ve done in the past, I’ll
go out into the streets very late and find youngsters
I’ve known who are just wasted from using inhalants,
paint thinner and the like. I witnessed some who are
destroying their brains. I’ve met with parents whose
children were kidnapped and forced to prostitute themselves.
So there is this disheartening side of my experience of
Mexico as well as being happy to see a fresh spirit of
volunteerism and awareness that serving others wisely and
compassionately brings us joy. Really the people are just

Perhaps, as all of us, the young
might place happiness in the wrong places. If only I had
more power and position, more pleasures, then I would be
truly happy. Of course, we both understand how many of the
youth suffered poverty and still suffer poverty. It’s
easy to be critical when we are well fed. On the positive
side, I am seeing pockets of influence for promoting
spiritual values and service to others. I’ve seen young
people leave the situation of the street and who now are
working or going to school and I sense their appreciation
and enthusiasm for living. I’ve spoken with indigenous
people who are building their lives and caring for their
families with great dignity.

BN: There’s presently a lot of
violence in Mexico around drugs and gangs. Extortions,
kidnappings. Even the poor workers here are forced to give
money to criminals for “protection.” Here people
don’t talk; they’re intimidated so they won’t
go to the authorities. Not all the authorities are trusted.
The ins and outs of Mexican politics and rules and
regulations are daunting. So this is part of the climate in
which we must teach Buddha’s way of peace. We are
delighted that we can be a small influence to invite people
to learn and to meditate. And, of course, there are
wonderful elements in Mexican society as well. We try to
stay patient and to be in the moment. The people have made
me truly at home here.

Bhikku’s Experience as a
University Student in Argentina, 1970s

MZC: I’m imagining that you
grew up in Argentina as a Catholic. What were the
circumstances that turned you to Buddhism?

BN: Most families in Argentina are
nominal Catholics, some more than others. My family
didn’t put any pressure on me to follow the Catholic
religion. From there, I went on to the university. You did
whatever you wanted; you followed or didn’t follow any
religion. It was up to you. I didn’t give a lot of
attention to religion. It was in the 70s and you know how
turbulent life in Argentina was. There was a military coup;
there were great human rights violations. People were
fighting the government. Many killings. Demonstrations. I
was in the University in Cordova when there were bombings,
murders, and shootings. It was a volatile place. I studied
economics and I was in the middle of the demonstrators and
the authorities.

I sympathized with the need for
human rights, but I was put off by the violence from both
sides. There was just so much violence; the dean of my
university was shot dead at the entrance. Somebody came and
shot him at blank range for political reasons. This made
such a strong impact on me. I’m thinking: what’s
behind all the hate and waste of human life?

I lived on the ninth floor of a
building and a bomb was set off there because a man who
worked with the government lived there with his wife and
daughters. I witnessed many horrific things. I did finish my
studies, later doing some post graduate studies in Italy in
economic development, and started working, but I was
affected by all of this violence and open to finding some
spiritual sources, some wisdom. I started with Western
philosophy and I had a grandmother who liked Borges very
much. As you know, Borges was interested in Buddhism. I
wanted to read and know, but it wasn’t until I left
Argentina that I started to study and practice

MZC: Yes, Jorge Luis Borges,
Argentinian writer and poet, died at 87 in 1986. I remember
that he wrote a small book, What is Buddhism? I don’t
believe there’s an English translation. What impressed
me about Borges, who lost his eyesight by age 50, was his
sensitive comparison of poets to the blind. “Poets like
the blind can see in the dark… when I think about what
I’ve lost, I reflect: who knows themselves better than
the blind? Each thought becomes a tool.” Borges spoke
about the insubstantiality of things and questioned our
ordinary way of perceiving and understanding.

Meeting the

So you came to the United States in
the 80s and had the luck to meet your teacher U Silananda in

BN: Yes, at first I studied Tibetan
Buddhism and U Silandanda was teaching Theravada. So I was
sorting out the different ways within Buddhism. At the
beginning I just didn’t know. I was fortunate to meet U
Silananda and I was attracted to become his student. He was
a wonderful teacher. I was able to go deeply into the Four
Noble Truths. My teacher told me not to believe, but to
experience for myself. So I liked the freedom of this and I
began to meditate and study. I didn’t need blind faith,
but I began to experience and see the Four Noble Truths for
myself. There is a noble anguish in living and there is a
worthy path to train the mind and the heart to understand
this suffering and see how it might be eliminated. I did
meditation retreats and studied with my teacher. U
Silandanda especially taught the Abidhamma. I became
interested in studying the Tipitaka, the three teachings of
the Pali Canon which are the suttas (discourses of the
Buddha), the Vinaya (disciplines for monks and nuns), and
the Abidhamma (summaries of psycho-physical

I decided that if I want to go
deeper into Buddhism, I need to be ordained a monk; I wanted
to dedicate my life to it. So I ordained in 1991 and spent
five years with my preceptor. We came to Mexico and started
this monastery in 1999.

MZC: Did you learn alot in Burma?
What was your impression of the monks there? As a visitor, I
can feel a sense of tranquility here in the monastery; I see
that people are practicing sitting and walking meditation.
There’s a tangible quality one can feel when people
come together to focus on understanding themselves with
openness, with a sense of freshness.

BN: The amazing thing for me in
Burma was the people’s devotion to Theravadan Buddhism;
the monks are very serious about studying the Pali Canon.
The monks are very orthodox; they study Pali grammar
according to the ancient method. Though it’s a poor
country, the people are very nice. And they live under very
difficult conditions. I think Buddhism has helped a lot, but
on the other hand, I wonder if the people are too patient,
if they put up with too much. I ask myself whether the
people should tolerate so much.

MZC: Sometimes patience can mean
being afraid; being nice can be the anxiety to please.
There’s fear when you have such a repressive

BN: Yes. And this can be
problematic. You know the precepts were taught 2500 years
ago and are usually applied individual to individual. But
how about society? And government? We need to understand the
precepts from a societal and organizational perspective as
well. When you are, for example, in an institution,
government, corporation, the way you relate to others is so
vital. Does the institution relate according to the ethical
precepts? Society cannot be harmonious without ethics.
Governments cannot simply control others; corporations
cannot only maximize profits. So we need to apply the
precepts to this context of the larger society.

MZC: You learned a lot about
systemic violence when you were a university

BN: Yes and I see it now in Burma
and in the world. So there’s not just individual
violence. I gave a presentation on ethics recently to the
judiciary in Xalapa. We spoke about how institutions can too
often act like predators rather than being fair to the
people. How can we say we are serving others if we are
exploiting them? At the time of the Buddha, you would be
brought to the king if you committed some offense. Simple. A
punishment or a pardon was swiftly given. So now it’s
so much more complex. Modern society demands that we apply
ethics more broadly.

MZC: So you train and become a monk.
What was your experience as you began to meditate regularly
and to follow the precepts? What was it like to become so
close to your teacher, U Silananda?

BN: I changed my life. Before I had
only read, but when you meet with a teacher and stay close
to a teacher, well that is the great change. I turned
around. I felt a transformation by practicing and learning
from my teacher. I discovered an inner happiness and peace.
I felt I found an opportunity to know what the Buddha
taught. I stayed with my teacher until he died; even after I
came to Mexico, I used to accompany my teacher when he
traveled. I stayed with him for almost 20 years.

MZC: In the Theravada tradition,
what is the role of the teacher? You studied Tibetan
Buddhism first where the teacher, the guru, actually gives
initiation. The Tibetans identify very strongly with the
teacher who can awaken others, because he or she is
themselves are awake. The teacher has a quality that draws
you into insight, tranquility, wisdom, moral integrity and

BN: We don’t conceptualize as
the Tibetans might. We don’t say that you are receiving
any transmission. The Buddha said before he died that the
Dhamma, the teachings, would be the teacher. In Theravada,
you have both the preceptor and the teacher; the preceptor
is giving you the discipline (Vinaya) and the teacher is
giving you the teachings (Dhamma). You can remain with your
preceptor and your teacher, but once you learn, it is the
teachings which are important and, of course, your own
living of the teachings. Yes, this is a different
orientation than that of a guru-tradition. At the same time,
one’s teacher does embody the teachings and there is a
definite relationship to one’s teacher. The teacher has
gone through the process of applying the teachings to daily
life. It was so helpful for me to have a teacher to talk
about what was happening in my meditation. Whatever was
arising in me, even so-called “higher”
experiences, I was always guided by my teacher to recognize
the universal characteristics of being, of suffering, of
changing, of impermanence and of no self. To see things as
they are is the definition of wisdom. It is you who must

Through all the stages with my
teacher, I felt times of joy. My teacher taught me not to
have expectations; rather just to practice, to be content at
all the stages of the practice just as it would unfold, to
be in the moment. You don’t say: “I’m trying
hard to be enlightened.” You don’t focus on a
future goal. Vipassana is to be able to see the universal
characteristics. So much of vipassana is to accept things
just as they are, not to want things to be different.
Experience exactly what you are experiencing. The Pali word,
khanti, patience, has that deeper meaning that is just to
trust the unfolding of reality, to accept life and
consciousness as they come to you.

MZC: Does this acceptance affect
your work here in Mexico?

BN: Yes, very much. When we are on a
retreat, for example, I accept that the people are dealing
with their “Mexican” samsara, with difficulties
that are, yes universal, but also very particular to
Mexicans. Life’s not so easy for many of the
retreatants. If I were outside of the monastery, I
don’t know how I would be able to deal with life in
every day Mexico. So I try to practice this acceptance; I
allow myself to more and more be understanding of how the
Mexican people live their lives in the circumstances here in
Mexico. I listen more. Though I have to say, I do not
practice what might be called a strong form of
“engaged” Buddhism in the sense of often being
outside in the society. We have retreats here almost every
month. I go out to give talks; I sometimes enjoy meals with
people in their homes, which is great. I also go to
Argentina and Chile to give retreats and talks. I do know
that there is a need in Buddhism to have more social
involvement, to be more into education. I try to communicate
this need when we go to international conferences, such as
the recent one sponsored by the king in Bangkok.

Teaching and Considering

We talk about the animals at the
monastery and I show Bhikku some picture of the monastery
animals I took on my last trip. Bhikku is animated when
playing with the animals.

MZC: The animals here are wonderful
hosts as well. Very friendly and curious.

BN: Laughing. We may be getting some
goats soon. You know the economics of this? They milk the
goats. The female goats give birth to billy goats, but there
is no use for the billy goats. So after 40 days, they kill
the male goat to eat. So we are going to adopt a male goat.
And see from there if we can add more. We do eat seafood
here, but I’d like the monastery to become completely
vegetarian. We still follow the practice of not eating after

You know the conditionality of
things; one of the great problems of Mexico is the drug
trafficking. But the consumer in the U.S. and Canada is part
of it; it’s all inter-related. You are part of that

MZC: All things are effects and
causes of each other. Interdependence.

BN: So the less we are causes or
conditions for the destruction of animals, that is a better
situation, even though in Theravada we can eat meat without
breaking the precepts.

MZC: What is it that gives life and
vibrancy to your teaching here in Mexico? What is it that
established this monastery as so conducive to meditation and
reflection and what do you feel as a challenge, even a
struggle, for you to be a communicator of the Buddhist
Theravada teachings? How do you make the teachings
accessible to those who come here?

BN: The challenge is to be able to
understand the teachings and apply them in the society in
which the people are actually living today. This creativity,
while being faithful to the teachings, is what is
life-giving. The quality of the relationship with people,
while living and studying the teachings, is what makes this
monastery vibrant. The people bring and share life with me.
We face the challenges of adaptation; we continue to
understand the teachings and communicate them by getting to
know the people as they are living here in

MZC: Do the people here change you
and the way you understand and apply the

BN: Yes, the more I live here, the
more I understand the problems unique to the people here. I
connect more and I am more sympathetic. And I also learn.
During the retreats we have the interview. I come to see
that people have a wide variety of problems. Sometimes, I
feel like a psychologist. I listen. I realize that people do
not come here only to learn about Buddhism, but to address
some problem. I notice that many people want to know
what’s behind their dissatisfaction with so many areas
of life, with the government, with the economy, with family,
with inner turmoil.

MZC: That’s great. You are
focusing on the individual human being; you are listening
and learning as well. You are opening your heart to the
retreatants and enquiring with them. You’re asking what
makes one happy and peaceful in the midst of particular life
circumstances. Do you experience that some of the
retreatants, even in the midst of problems, which will
continue, find some insight into what happiness might be?
Perhaps they discover the joy of serving others as well as
getting to know their own mind-hearts?

BN: Yes, serving others is what make
us happy. It’s paradoxical. You forget about yourself
when you serve others. At the same time, we should work on
knowing our minds and to develop ethical living, to learn
not to cause suffering to others. Others are just like us
even with our differences. So it’s our responsibility
to make our actions “blameless.” We learn how to
relate to our inevitable problems.

I include non-human beings such as
animals. Lately I’ve become interested in groups, which
try to protect animals, such as PETA. I wanted to know what
was the philosophical principle behind PETA. I was surprised
to find it’s not based on religion. They are following
the utilitarian philosophers of the 17th century, such as
John Stewart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. You know: animals have
feelings and we don’t want to upset that. Animals have
a capacity for suffering and we should act in the interests
of every being. There’s an author, Peter Singer, who
writes about this in Anthem of Animal Liberation. In
Buddhism, the non-harming of beings is in our

MZC: I saw in your schedule that you
have talks and question and answer times. What talks have
been giving and what are some of the questions being asked?
Do you feel the retreatants have the chance to get past the
academic and ask the questions they really want to

BN: Yes, that’s the key. This
retreat we taught some of the stories from the Dhammapada
and people asked a few questions about the stories. The
questions are longer than the talk and most of the questions
are about the person’s individual life. So these
intimate questions are even more important than the
questions about the stories. The stories are a springboard
to get to what the people really want to ask. I talk for
about an hour and then we have dialogue for about an hour
and a half. People get to bed about 10 o’clock and then
get up at 3:45 a.m. At 4 o’clock in the morning, the
retreatant begins meditation.

Steven Batchelor

MZC: You are familiar with Steven
Batchelor? He writes about “deep
agnosticism,”–deep not in the sense of not caring but
of passionate realizing that one does not know about
metaphysical questions. You can google his 1996 New York
talk, “American Buddhism Today,” which celebrated
the 30th anniversary of Rochester Zen Center. Batchelor
quotes, as a support for this, the Cula Malunkya Sutta (63rd
in the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali Canon): “If anyone
should say, ‘I will not lead the noble life under the
Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is
eternal or not eternal; finite or infinite; whether the soul
is the same as or different from the body; whether or not an
awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,
‘ that would still remain undeclared by the
Buddha…” The Buddha wasn’t so much interested
in such religious questions, because it’s not possible
to arrive at fixed answers to, for example, what happens
after we die. As Batchelor put it: “ We encounter the
sheer mystery of things.” As hard as we try or wish,
the world we know cannot be contained in our concepts of

Batchelor writes in his books,
Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist
Atheist, that he thinks dogma has become a problem in
Buddhism. “Ideas and doctrines that have evolved over
the centuries since the time of the Buddha have come to be
superimposed upon the Dharma as we find it presented in the
earliest known sources, for example, in the Pali Canon. Just
as the myths of the Buddha’s life have been imposed
upon the historical fragments of his life, that one likewise
finds scattered throughout the Canon. What I’ve done is
to try to strip away the myths about Siddhartha Gautama to
try to arrive at a more historically grounded portrait of
the Buddha. The Buddha is a human being. I’ve also
tried to remove some of the dogmas.”

He goes through the Pali Canon and
separates what was new to the Buddha and what was also held
in Indian philosophy before the Buddha. He can then pinpoint
what’s unique to Buddhism. So he doubts rebirth and
different realms of existence. He puts aside the talk of
past and future births, for example, because that was
already widely taught in India before the time of the
Buddha. He pinpoints as distinctively Buddhist: dependent
origination; the practice of mindful awareness, being
focused on the totality of what is happening in our moment
to moment experience; the Four Noble Truths & the Eight
Fold Path; the principle of self-reliance, not to be
dependent on some authority figure.

BN: Yes, good. But he says that the
idea of rebirth is alien to Buddhism, that rebirth is not in
the earliest texts?

MZC: Well, that rebirth was
previously in the earlier Indian writings and that it is not
unique or even essential to Buddhism.

BN: But in the Tipitaka, you have so
many references from the Buddha himself that refer to
rebirth. Even in the Dhammapada we have these two verses
that the Buddha announced after he became enlightened which
refer to rebirth and the ending of rebirth. And doesn’t
“dependent origination”–which Batchelor accepts–
include the notion of rebirth?

MZC: Batchelor is specifically
talking about the rebirth in the Indian philosophy where
there is a rebirth of the individual soul or atma, which
goes from life to life. Batchelor says that the Buddha was
not interested in whether this is true or not, whether there
is even a soul, if “the mind is different from the
body.” And further, we cannot know the answer to such

BN: Yes, the Buddha did criticize
the idea of the atma as a permanent self. There is no
underlying or essential soul, which is reborn. What does
non-self or no-self mean? In Theravada, in the teaching of
no-self and karma, there is no storage of your past actions
in some entity, but there is conditionality. There is a
continuity that is caused, including the effects of your own
intentionality. What you will has a consequence, a fruit
(vipaka is the Pali term). So your actions can lead to a
rebirth in this sense.

Also I think that Batchelor has to
be clearer about his criteria for what is to remain and what
is to be taken out of the Tipitaka. Just because the idea of
rebirth was previous to the time of the Buddha doesn’t
mean that the Buddha did not accept a form of rebirth. Yes,
the Buddha taught rebirth in a completely different way. In
Buddha’s first discourse he says that regarding the
Four Noble Truths that he realized things before unknown to
him. That means he found out from his own experience; nobody
taught the Buddha. He did not take the teaching from other
people. One of his insights was that there is a rebirth in
the sense that there is a continuity of mind.

I don’t like the word
“rebirth.” I prefer to use the word
“relinking.” In the Abidhamma, we learn that what
exist are conditions. Mind is a reality. Because mind is
within material, it doesn’t move from one place to
another. Perhaps this is difficult. Matter is something
which moves, occupies space. One characteristic of mind is
that it does not move. What makes mind arise is the
existence of conditions, the laws of conditionality.
That’s why the term “relinking” is more
appropriate to understand that when we die, we are
“reborn.” It’s not that some mind is reborn
in another. Another mind arises and it is related to the
previous mind according to certain conditions.

Yes, I’m interested in reading
more of Batchelor. Thanks. But I must say that to be a
Buddhist you must believe something. For example, we follow
the precepts. Why? There is a sensible reason we decide to
follow them but, as we go on with our practice, there is
also an element of belief there.

MZC: There’s a combination of
what one experiences and comes to understand and a belief
perhaps in the sense of a confidence that there is an
efficacy to the practice of the teachings. But again
it’s based in one’s own experience, not taken, as
Batchelor says and the Buddha teaches, because some
authority says so.

BN: That’s what I mean.
There’s an experience and some confidence. Without that
confidence, we would not be able to go past inevitable

Achaan Chah

MZC: Achaan Chah talks about
liberation depending on the recognition of the radical
separateness of awareness, the “one who knows and the
five skandas” (form, feeling, perception, volition,
consciousness). I question this. How can we separate the one
who knows and what is known? The meditator, according to
Achan Cha, separates awareness from the object and can focus
on the awareness.

BN: The word Buddha can mean
knowing, knowing something. The five skandas may be the
object of meditation (and we come to see their impermanent
and dependent characteristics) and there is the awareness of
them. Yet still the awareness is part of the characteristics
of phenomena. I don’t think that awareness can be truly
separated from the characteristics of phenomena. Of course
awareness is fundamental and essential to

MZC: You have quoted
Krishnamurti’s being “choicelessly aware.”
Objects come and go, but the awareness remains. Is this what
Achaan Chah is talking about?

BN: Yes, but that awareness that is
aware of objects shares the same qualities of its objects.
It too is impermanent and without a self, subject to
suffering. Some may consider that awareness, that
luminescent presence, to be unconditional, but that is not
the teaching of the Buddha and that’s not my

MZC: As you know, Vedanta teaches
that if you go deeply into that awareness, that
consciousness, you may spontaneously fall into the Self and
that’s all that is. All is arising as a modification of
this Consciousness.

BN: Yes. However, in Buddhism even
this deep consciousness is conditional. There is no self of
any kind. I know in Tibetan Buddhism there is this
distinction between seeing the characteristics of
conditions-objects and the characteristic of the deep

MZC: You see the Tibetan thangas,
which depict all realms and conditions as arising within the
radiant, self-being, which is unconditional. We do
experience an illuminating, shining and expansive quality to
deep awareness

BN: That radiant awareness is also
suffering, changing and without a self. That’s the
meaning of emptiness. It may be easier to identify
“yourself” with awareness than with the objects.
Awareness is also anatta, no self.

The Buddha does say the
“original mind” is luminous, is radiant, and is
not contaminated by the defilements of greedy selfishness,
hate, and ignorance. The commentaries on the Pali Canon
point out that this original mind is the life-continuing
consciousness. That is the consciousness we have when we are
sleeping without dreaming. That consciousness has the
quality of no mental defilements. The Buddha said original
mind is luminous because it is free of mental defilements.
Likewise in deep meditation we may experience our mind as
luminous, as free from anger, resentments and so on. In that
case, you can experience your mind as pure and shining;
however, we cannot jump from this experience to say the mind
is the eternally self-radiant Being. We cannot even identify
this experience with enlightenment.

I’m aware of some controversy
about this. Even in Theravada, there are some monks who say
that the original mind is unconditioned.

MZC: Thanks so much for your time.
Lots of metta to you and to all our friends here in our
querido Mexico.

BN: Laughing. Hope to see you soon
and continue our explorations. Let’s walk outside