Pavārana

Autumn is now fully upon us, and we are quickly approaching the Kattika full moon of October. This moon is particularly significant for monastics. It marks the end of our three month rains retreat, a time when we commit to live in a shelter, often communally with the same group. Before this moon preparations are already underway for what will come after: the kathina festival is offered, cloth is gathered and made into robes, and then the group splits up. Monks depart for other monasteries or places to practice.

To mark this occasion, the community has the option to gather for a special observance – a formal offering of invitation for feedback on their conduct over the last three months. This invitation, called the ‘Pavārana”, reflects one of the core values of the monastic order so different from the ways of the world. In the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha’s, there is no greater failure than to be seen as uninstructable, and no greater punishment than for the community to refuse to admonish and teach one. As the Buddha puts it in the paṭimokkha: “For this is growth in this dispensation – namely, mutual pointing out of faults and mutual rehabilitation.”

There are relationships within the sangha where feedback and even criticism are inherently permitted, such as in the relationship of a teacher to a student, but for the most part the feelings of goodwill and harmony among fellow monastics is protected. Monks are not meant to just indiscriminately criticize each other but to determine if they have permission to offer feedback, and ask for it if unsure. So on the Pavarana night this channel for mutual reflection is ceremonially opened between all members of the community. Recognizing the group will soon split up, everyone seeks forgiveness, reconciliation, and growth, so that should they come together again in the future it will be in kindness.

The way of the world is to seek praise and avoid blame, even blame for misdeeds actually committed. But admonishment to a practitioner on the path is the catalyst for growth, and one who offers it is ‘like a guide to buried treasure’. Still, when we feel called to point out anothers faults, there is a further list of five criteria the Buddha encouraged us to reflect on first.

We should ask, “Is what I am about the say Factual? Will it be Beneficial? Can I speak with Goodwill? Can I speak Kindly so my words are heard? Is this the right time?”

Where is our criticism coming from? What exactly was done? All too often we feel slighted and a story starts to form in our mind, but if we go back to the facts of the matter we may see the response we felt was based on our own hang-ups and wounds rather than what was actually done. If we feel anger or resentment arising, or the urge to make the other experience some sort of punishment for the hurt we felt, its often a sign that the fault is not entirely in the other person. Carelessness is blameworthy, sure, but anger is much more so. Merely venting our grievances might feel good temporarily but ultimately won’t yield the results we desire.

Sometimes one of the most important factors is checking to see that our motivation is to benefit the other. Can we see a situation in which our feedback will help them grow? And is it a feasible vision or just a hope? If we do, then even if our words are difficult to hear they may be received with gratitude. But stopping to check this might inform us that the most beneficial thing to do is to not speak up right then. Maybe the person is stressed, or maybe they are holding a grudge that is closing their ears to us. We may be guilty of the same fault we are about to point out. Or we might simply not know enough about the situation to see what their motivations we in that instant.

The skillful giving and receiving of feedback is exquisitely hard, but like all other skills we don’t improve if we don’t practice. We needn’t be downhearted if we don’t get the response we were hoping for – sometimes it takes a long time to process and make a change. Most people have difficulty hearing criticism, but the wise will learn from it. The idea that we are all capable of change and growth is the very refuge in Buddha, refuge in Awakening, and the reason why cutting someone off is only used as a last resort. For those among us willing to train and grow, or at the very least not unwilling to hear or speak difficult truths from time to time, a Pavarana is a great chance to explore this rare skill. Start by considering whose feedback you would really value, and then set the conditions to open the dialogue and keep a receptive mind.

Talk: Patterns of Life

In this lively Uposatha session, Tahn Pamutto, Santi, Sumano, and Tānakāro were hosted by the community at Vihara Parivara Dhamma Acala. Tahn Pamutto addresses the group with a Dhamma reflection on how to see the world through a new lens, taking lessons from nature and not seeing static beings but patterns and cycles. This is how one arrives at peace. After the reflection the monastics answer questions and the two new monastics reflect on their journey and ordination.

Look Inside an Ordination

MOVIE: CHANTING            MOVIE:  CHANTING

Tahn Tanakaro and Bhante Sumano began their journey in Empty Cloud monastery last year, but even though they found themselves ordaining in Wat Thai Thavorn, wherever a monk is ordained in the Theravada world the procedure is exactly the same. It has all been laid out in the monastic vinaya. It’s surprisingly pragmatic as far as ceremonies go!

First, candidates are given the novice ordination (Bhante Sumano already had this). This means they take the 10 precepts, are given a basic meditation technique, and put on the brown robes. From here, they are ready to request a senior monk to be their ‘preceptor’, who will vouch for them in the sangha. The preceptor then requests the sangha consider the candidates for ordination.

Not everyone can ordain – their are disqualifying factors like terminal illness, great debt, filial obligations, and government service. (You also have to be human!) The candidates are taken outside the group in order to be questioned about these factors, as well as prepared for their part in the ceremony. When they return they are formally questioned, then asked their names and the name of their preceptor.

Off to the side, some paperwork is being done. The names and times of the ordination are being recorded, along with the status of the preceptor, so that the candidates will be officially recognized in Buddhist countries like Thailand and Burma. Ajahn Tawin, the abbot of Wat Thai Thavorn, also made sure that Tan Santi and Tahn Pamutto were ready to be good ‘parents’ for the candidates! After all, Bhante Sumano and Tānakāro Bhikkhu will be growing up in the American tradition, rather than in a Thai Wat.

Finally, a legal motion is made three times to recognize the candidates, giving each monk in good standing a chance to object. Following this three announcements are made. Bhante Sumano and Tānakāro Bhikkhu are now bhikkhus!

The preceptor fulfills a further duty, immediately training the new monks in the four parajika, or defeats. Committing these four offenses results in immediate expulsion from the sangha. Other than these four things or disrobing, the monks can maintain their ordination as long as life lasts, and none can take it from them. They are then turned to face the lay community, who will support them in their journey of spiritual freedom. The combined sangha blesses the occasion with special chanting. Sadhu sadhu sadhu!

Uposatha Tonight

Tea with Tahn is cancelled tonight in favor of the Uposatha observance, being held online from where it first began in January at Vihara Parivaravihara Dhamma Acala. The program starts at 8pm.

Journey Continues

Back in May, Tahn Pamutto was just returning to Massachusetts and beginning the process of reconnecting with friends and Buddhists throughout the pioneer valley. It had only been a few weeks when he was contacted by Bhante Sumano and Anagarika Drew, who had left Empty Cloud monastery but were still wanting to continue their monastic education and seek ordination.

It was a precarious time to be a monastic without a temple, as COVID lockdowns were still in effect and many orders were not accepting any more members. Tahn Pamutto had experienced the similar lack of options the year before when he had sought to get reordained after his recovery from Lyme Disease. He had met Bhante Sumano and Drew on that journey and decided that he would provide what assistance he could.

Nevertheless, Upavana was still in its infancy. Tahn Pamutto could provide guidance and instruction in etiquette, the monastic vinaya precepts, teachings on dhamma and the skills of being a forest monk – but ultimately it would be the lay community of western Massachusetts who would decide whether there was room for two more monks. Could small American towns support a full monastic community appearing almost overnight?

The answer was a resounding yes, and they have seen it through to ordination. Bhante Sumano is now fully ordained, and Drew has become Tahn Tānakāro.

Though nothing came easy. The trainees had to be willing to live in the tradition of some of the most austere of Buddhist monks. They slept against the ground in tents with little space to themselves. They walked almsround in the village and learned to be content with a single meal per day. They endured torrential rains, blistering heat and humidity, and have transitioned to frosty nights. They have done it without complaint. In fact, if you asked, they would say they kinda dig it.

Checking in with young monks in other traditions, they were surprised. Very few get so much personal time with a teacher, and some are ordained for years before they get much detailed instruction in the monastic vinaya. For Tānakāro and Sumano, their dwellings and belongings are simple but they are blameless. With so little to go around everything is shared, even down to dividing a bagel or piece of fruit three ways. And yet when something is needed, there is enough.

Why would one practice in this way? What could be the benefit? Traditionally, the ‘dhutanga’ austerities are optional practices used to develop contentment. To understand this, consider the future for Tahn Tānakāro and Bhante Sumano. Wherever they go the beds will be softer than they are used to, the food will be more plentiful. They will get to bathe and do laundry more often. Every abode after their time in Massachusetts will be more comfortable than they need, and they can walk away from any temple without fear of discomfort or starvation. They have started in a position many monastics in wealthy monasteries long for – the simplicity of having so little there is nothing to be attached to.

As the winter approaches, Tahn Pamutto is preparing Upavana’s resources to support him in staying through the snows. He will continue to grow the organization so in the future more monks can be seen roaming the forests and practicing at the outskirts of small American towns. Bhante Sumano and Tānakāro will likely depart for warmer climates, but they take a wealth of lessons from their time. Be sure to check in with them while you have the chance, for like birds who have only their wings as burdens, they are likely to fly far with their new freedom!

City Pilgrimage

After a brief burst of travel, the Upavana monastics have arrived in New York City, and are staying with the Indonesian Buddhist Family in Queens. They have made the journey to seek full ordination for Bhante Sumano and Anagarika Drew. It will happen on Tuesday, Oct 5 in the early afternoon, at Wat Thai Thavorn, Elmhurst.

There is no self-ordination in Buddhism. You can’t just put on robes and call yourself a monk, even if you have faith and wisdom and practice diligently. Ordination has to be given by a community of at least 5 monks. The lineage of Buddhist monastics is passed from one to the next and is unbroken all the way back to the Buddha.

One of the challenges in America is that even with the allowance to ordain with just 5 monks in foreign lands (it takes 20 in India!), it is still hard to pull together the resources to give full ordination.

We are very fortunate to have so many friends in the city! Once ordained, Bhante Sumano and Drew can return to Massachusetts and continue practicing until the Vassa season ends on October 21.

True Distinction

There is no distinction to be found in the world of having. No matter how much you have, you could always have more. No matter how many people you exceed in wealth there will always be those who are wealthier. If not now, then previously, or in the future, for wealth does not stay in one place. The richest person will be overthrown sooner or later.

In the world of renunciation there is distinction. There is a limit to what can be given up and relinquished, and so it is a scale by which noble people can truly be measured.

It is not a scale of quantity like with the pursuit of wealth. Someone who gives up a million dollars and someone who gives up ten dollars stand as equals if that act leaves them penniless. They both have no money.

The renouncing of material items is not the limit of this kind of distinction, for those two people are both still full of many things even as all their money is gone. They are full of want, full of grief, full of hopes and dreams and sorrows and regrets. Full of ego; full of ideas. Full of desire, as it turns out.

Our most pernicious attachments are not to the things we have but to the things we do not. The chance of striking it rich, the chance of finding our perfect partner. The chance of being liked. The chance of being influential. The mere chance of these things can drive us from the moment we first breathe until our dying day. But these things are even more fickle than material wealth. Opportunities rise and fall like the flickering of a candle flame, and they are just as insubstantial. Try to grab ahold of them and you find they have no substance. Only heat and turbulence.

The things we yearn and pine for are not real things. They are a promise of happiness somewhere in the future, but they come at the expense of a happy present. Would you seek the perfect partner if you loved being in your own company? Would you need others’ praise if you were secure in the knowledge of goodness you’ve done? Do you really care about riches in that fleeting moment of relief when you sink into a comfortable chair after a long day at work? Even if that chair was purchased at a yard sale, it would be more valuable to a tired person than a giant gilded throne.

That answer of course is no, but nevertheless we persist in our seeking and yearning. Thus the scale of renunciation exists to show the true distinction among human and celestial beings. Great are those who can let go of material wealth, and far greater are those who can put down the heavy baggage of eternal wanting.

There are many levels of distinction here. We tread the path not all at once but one step at a time, learning to do without fickle security, then finer material comforts, then further still we wean ourselves off of the attraction and aversion that keep us forever roaming sasāra. We relinquish pride, we give up conceit, we subdue restlessness. We dispel all ignorance of the world and it’s traps.

The greatest distinction is that of the enlightened being. Whether they have ornate material possessions or wear rags and eat scraps, they too stand as equals at the greatest rank of those who dwell with spotless hearts. There is no going further, and they can never be unseated. To be fully free is the attainment that can never be stolen or surpassed.

It is worthwhile to honor those who have achieved true distinction in this world, who have truly set themselves apart. To do even that much is an act of renouncing the world! It shows that we understand true wealth, and all good things are born from understanding. Let this be our first act of renunciation – one that won’t cost us a cent. Give up the world’s bait.

The Beauty of Sangha

When I first embarked on the spiritual journey I had all sorts of ideas about what it would be like. My first inspiration was to put on a backpack and try walking across the country from east to west. In my mind the land was full of good and wise people and teachings would be flowing from every direction. It didn’t take too long before I realized I was wholly underprepared for the journey and full of intense desires and emotions that were preventing me from being at peace, or really learning from what was happening to me.

So I went to Asia, and now my image shifted. I thought that, just like in the stories, I would arrive in the Delhi airport and my ‘guru’ would tap my shoulder and say ‘What took you so long?’. Everything I had heard suggested I needed a great teacher and if I found one, everything would work out.

I searched high and low, from one country to the next, and you know what I found? Not the teacher I was looking for, and most of my experiences were about disappointment and having missed the obvious. But I did find something I didn’t expect. There was no great teacher I would devote my life to but there was a glimmer of hope – I experienced firsthand the wonders of a Buddhist country. It was possible to meditate, to develop in my keeping of the precepts, and there were a number of teachers who, while they weren’t my lifetime guru’s, would be able to help me along the way. Most importantly, I saw the contentment and sense of order and purpose that came from having a teaching that encouraged personal responsibility and growth.

Last night during the tea time chat, the group of us were comparing experiences about being far from monasteries and strong sangha’s to support our practice. Thankfully the blossoming of video conferencing has made it possible to connect where before we were forced to practice alone and wait for vacation time to do a retreat. Everyone was grateful for the opportunity to meet, compare notes, and practice together. It struck me that this is the beauty of sangha. When community works right, every member is grateful and feels they are getting something from it.

We start out, necessarily because of our worldly upbringing and our natural ignorance, thinking in terms of people and roles. I thought I would travel the world and teachings would leap out from behind every tree. And then when I put myself in the role of the student it was all up to the teacher to masterfully guide me to enlightenment. Over the years, both of these thoughts have softened. There is much to learn as we move about the world, but the universe isn’t conspiring to reveal its nature. We have to consider and investigate and be aware. And though I have had many teachers and been profoundly supported and benefited, it wasn’t a one-way interaction. The teacher only gave me the inspiration, direction, and tools. I was the one who did the work so at the end of the day I could sit beside them and our knowledge would be the same.

In the beginning we might work hard to find a community, and at some point try to find our place in it. We might even think we are leading it or providing its core. But the real beauty of sangha is that sooner or later, we stop putting ourselves in the story. We’re just grateful for friends on the path: for those further along who show us the way and for those just starting who give us the opportunity to lend assistance. There are no more gurus, no more students. No self, and no world. Just the heart, and the practice to brighten it.

3 Fetters

Last night for the Uposatha, Tahn Pamutto offered a reflection on the first three of the Ten Fetters, the tendencies of mind that bind us to samsara. Detailing each fetter, he gave real world examples, and provided advice on how to contemplate and overcome these fetters in our practice.

The talk can be found here.