Interview with Nina van Gorkom
by Robert Kirkpatrick
Nina van Gorkom was born in 1928 to a family of socialist intellectuals.
Her father was a member of the Dutch parliament. She studied at Leyden
University and during this time she became a catholic. In 1952, she married
Lodewijk van Gorkom, a Dutch diplomat.
In 1965, Lodewijk was posted to
Thailand and Nina started learning Thai language. She took a keen interest
in Buddhism, attending classes for foreigners at Wat Mahathat. There she
met, in the summer of 1966, Sujin Boriharnwanaket. Impressed by the profundity
of the Buddhist teachings, she became convinced of the truth of the Buddha’s
words and later assisted Khun Sujin in discussions about Buddhism for Thai
radio stations. These talks were later published as Buddhism in Daily Life,
her first book.
Nina and Lodewijk left Thailand
in 1970 and lived in Japan, New York, Indonesia (where Lodewijk was the
Dutch ambassador) and Austria. Lodewijk retired in 1990 and they now live
in The Hague in Holland.
Nina’s writings are well-known amongst
English speaking Buddhists, and she is highly respected in Thailand where
several of her books have been translated into Thai language with (after
many reprints) over one hundred thousand copies now. Her books have also
been translated in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal and Germany.
What started your interest
When I came to Thailand, I was
impressed with the kindness and graciousness of Thai people. I wanted to
understand their culture. Once I began to study Buddhism, I wanted to apply
it to my life rather than just learn it as a philosophy. After I met Sujin
Boriharnwanaket I was able to ask any number of questions. I just kept
coming and asking. Her answers always related to nama and rupa (mind and
matter), to the realities that we experience every moment in daily life.
How did studying Buddhism
affect your life as a catholic?
Khun Sujin told me to continue
going to church. She said that by studying nama and rupa I would come to
see what was most helpful in life. After a while I just stopped going to
the church and spent all my time in Buddhist activities.
What attracted you about Khun
She explained so clearly the realities
that arise at the different doorways. She always reminds us “what about
this moment now, what appears?” What is the aim of vipassana: to get something
for ourselves? No, the aim is detachment from the self, from the beginning.
Khun Sujin helps us to notice the subtle clinging to self. Even now, Lodewijk
and I go regularly go to Thailand, to meet with Khun Sujin and other teachers,
to discuss aspects of mind and matter. In October we are meeting Khun Sujin
and other friends, in India, for Dhamma discussions.
When you write about the development
of vipassana, you don’t speak about concentration methods or sitting practice.
Vipassana, insight, is actually
panna (wisdom) which has been developed to clearly understand realities
as they are, as non-self. It is not some special practice, it is not sitting
or breathing. If one wishes to induce calm by sitting one still wants to
get something. There is subtle clinging which can pass unnoticed. The aim
of vipassana is to have less ignorance of realities, including our defilements,
even subtle ones. Therefore it can and should be developed in daily life;
any object can be an object for mindfulness and understanding.
But can’t sitting quietly
be an assistance for mindfulness to arise?
Even mindfulness is anatta, non-self,
it cannot be induced just by concentrating or trying to be calm or by sitting
quietly. The conditions for mindfulness to arise are listening to the Buddha’s
teaching, discussing, considering and pondering over realities. And it
develops by studying realities as they appear in our daily lives. Some
people find it difficult to accept that one cannot force sati to arise,
and they wonder whether this means idleness. The Buddha taught us to develop
all good qualities, such as generosity and metta, along with right understanding.
It is understanding, actually, that should be emphasized.
Nevertheless, the Buddha taught
concentration practices such as anapanasati--breathing mindfulness. Doesn’t
that suggest that they are important?
We read about this in the scriptures
because in the Buddha’s time there were people who were able to concentrate
on the breath. This is a very subtle rupa, which is produced by citta.
It is most difficult to be aware of breath, before one knows it one takes
for breath what is something else, air produced by other factors, not breath.
The commentary to the Kindred sayings V, The lamp, states that only Maha-Purisas,
the great disciples can practice it in the right way. Thus, the Buddha
did not teach that everyone should practice it. To those who were gifted,
who had the accumulations to do so, he taught it. He explained that there
is no self who is breathing, and that breath is only rupa.
How should we practice vipassana?
The situation is not: that a teacher
tells you first what to do, that you "practise" together, that you do this,
then that, at a certain time, in a special place. There is no rule, there
is no special technique. In fact, we don’t use the words practising vipassana,
but rather: developing understanding of realities little by little, and
that, quite naturally, in daily life. We should see the advantage of understanding
different realities, different momentary conditions, to realize that there
is no "me" who is developing but that wisdom gradually develops. That this
development can only happen if the right conditions are present. It can’t
occur because of wanting or forcing or pretending to ourselves that "we"
are making progress. However, understanding will gradually grow if there
are the right conditions. It is anatta, not controllable by any self.
You write exclusively within
the Theravada tradition. What is your feeling about other Buddhist traditions?
Khun Sujin's explanations are based
on the scriptures and commentaries of the Theravada teaching. But we do
not have to name it Theravada, that is just a label .We should consider
whether the teaching helps us to understand whatever reality is appearing
at this moment. That is the test of truth – this very moment.
This is from a talk that Lodewijk gave in India in 2005. He was travelling with Nina and Khun Sujin and many Thai and foreign friends, and was invited to give this talk to a group of venerable bhikkhus.
On behalf of this group of Thai and foreign pilgrims under the spiritual
leadership of Acharn Sujin Borharnwanaket and the practical leadership of
Mr. Suwat Chansuvithiyanant , I wish to thank you for giving us this
opportunity to perform Sangha Dana and to pay you our deep respect. Your
community of monks reminds us of the vital importance of the Sangha, the
third of the Triple Gem, now and in the future.
Last week, my wife Nina and I celebrated my eightieth birthday by paying
respect to the place Kuru in New Delhi, where the Lord Buddha preached the
Satipatthåna Sutta. Nina recited the text to me and I was, again, struck by
the power of this Sutta and its significance for our daily life.
This morning, I received the most precious birthday present one can wish
for: the honour to carry the relics of the Lord Buddha.
The two most important and happiest events in my life were marrying Nina and
our encounter with Buddhism through the hands of Acharn Sujin who, ever
since, has guided us on the Path and who, during this tour, tirelessly
explained the Dhamma to us, wherever and whenever possible.
Looking back on my life, I feel distressed by the amount of accumulated
akusala committed in the past.
I feel distressed by dukkha, by the burden of the five Khandhas of grasping,
so well explained in the teachings: rúpa khandha, vedanå khandha (feeling),
saññå khandha (remembrance), sankhåra khandha (mental formations) and
I feel distressed by the destructive power of the five hindrances, so
forcefully put forth in the teachings, which are: desire of sense pleasures,
aversion, restlessness and worry, sloth and torpor and doubt.
And yet, I understand at least in theory, that regret of the past makes no
sense, that there is no self in the past, and that it is understanding of
the present moment that counts.
And, in fact, I have every reason to be grateful.
Every day, I am encouraged and inspired by Nina¹s tireless efforts to
understand the Dhamma and to help others to understand it.
I was inspired by the courage of Nina¹s father who recently passed away at
the age of hundred and four and who, despite his incapacities of body and
mind, never gave up and always looked towards the future.
And above all, who should be distressed when he hears the voice of the Lord
Buddha: 'Abandon evil, O monks. One can abandon evil, O monks. If it were
impossible to abandon evil, I would not ask you to do so. But as it can be
done, therefore, I say: Abandon evil!', and similarly on cultivating the
On our long journey towards wisdom, we need the support and the inspiration
of the Sangha and therefore, I urge you, venerable monks, to persevere in
your task of preserving and propagating the teachings.
We thank you for giving us this opportunity to perform Sangha Dåna and as a
token of our thanks, I wish to present to you, Venerable Head Monk, Acharn
Sujin¹s book, A Survey of Paramattha Dhamma, translated from Thai by Nina
and recently published in Bangkok. It is a masterful, all encompassing
treatise on the Dhamma and I hope that it will be of use to your community.