Reclaiming Renunciation

This last Sunday our family group had the chance to take a field trip to the town of Wendell, the hilltown where Tahn Pamutto and company spent the summer months living in a tent and walking almsround. There the topic of the day, the parami of Nekkhamma or Renunciation, was made real by seeing different ways of life. Wood stoves, oil lamps, hand pumps for water, and composting toilets were just some of the wonders found there, where people are trying to live apart from the hustle and bustle of modern life. These things were commonplace a century ago but now require a conscious act of renunciation!

Renunciation often gets a bad rap. Many people living with the comforts of modern life feel it is a criticism or a call to become monastics. Even in the Pāli dictionary nekkhamma is equated with the Going Forth, but as a perfection it is something far more important and pervasive. Renunciation is necessary for any practice of the spiritual life.

How could we make a change if we weren’t willing to give up our old ways of doing things? How could we find time to meditate if we didn’t let go of the things that fill up our schedule? How could we afford to be generous if we spend every cent we make on all the luxuries that come our way?

Renunciation is the ability to forego an immediate want or pleasure. Sometimes this is for a known result, like when we go on a diet to lose weight. But other times it is for its own sake. We don’t know what we’ll spend our money on when we hold off on buying the newest gadget the second it comes out. But that’s just the thing – once we’ve restrained ourselves we have infinite possibilities for how we spend that money. Likewise with time and energy and all the things in life that are constantly running out. When we practice renunciation, we create space. And it’s not until we create space that something new can arise.

We had two activities to practice renunciation. The first was a gift exchange with a catch – we were to give someone a gift without buying anything. We had to think of something we had that someone else could use, and let it go. It turned out to be pretty fun!

The second activity was to think of an unskillful thought, verbal pattern, or action we habitually do that we might want to let go of. We wrote these down on pieces of paper and ceremonially tossed them into a fire. As we watched our bad habit burning up, we got to contemplate nibbana! When we let go of something that causes us suffering, the possibilities for new skillful behaviors to fill the void are endless!

Finally, we got to act out the story of Temiya. Temiya was one of the lifetimes of the Bodhisatta as he was practicing the perfections to become a Buddha. The Bodhisatta practiced the renunciation of becoming a hermit or ascetic many, many times – after all, he was dedicated to purity of mind and wanted to spend as much time working on it as possible! But in his life as Temiya, he had to be willing to let go of everything to move towards his goal:

THE STORY OF TEMIYA

Characters: NARRATOR, Temiya, Father, Mother, Sunanda

NARRATOR: This is the story of a lifetime of the Buddha when he was still a Bodhisatta, meaning he was not enlightened yet. He was still trying to master the parami’s and become a really good person. In one lifetime he was born as a king in a very rich and powerful country. In that life the Bodhisatta took it easy and enjoyed himself. He made lots of bad karma as a king because his country was always at war. He had to use violence and steal from other countries to stay in power.

When he passed away from that life he had to leave all the money and power behind. He realized he had made a big mistake! He hadn’t gotten any closer to being enlightened and he had done a lot of bad things. He suffered for a long time because of all the bad kamma he had done.

After a long time, though, he was ready to be born a human again. At that time there was a rich and powerful business family. They had no children, which was a problem because there was nobody to pass the family business to.

MOTHER: Oh, I really want a child!

NARRATOR: The mother of the family was actually a good person for the most part, and eventually her wish came true. The bodhisatta was born as her son. She named him Temiya.

Temiya’s father was not a very good person. He was in charge of a powerful corporation and he made his money in many bad ways. He was very rough and violent towards his competitors, he sold his products at an unfair price, and he would tell lies. He even sold things that hurt people like weapons and drugs.

When Temiya was little he heard what business his father was in and realized it was a lot like the kingdom he had had in his past life. When he grew up he would be expected to do many bad things and hurt people. When he understood this he became very scared.

TEMIYA: I don’t want to be rich and powerful. I want to be a Buddha! I have to think of a way to not be given the family company!

NARRATOR: Temiya tried to think of a way out, but he was very scared of doing bad things. When we are scared it’s hard to think straight. He knew if he ran away his father would send someone to find him. There was only one way – he had to pretend to not be able to see, hear, or speak. If his family believed the act, they would decide not to give him the company when he got older. Then he could live a peaceful life.

So Temiya stopped looking, and stopping responding to his name, and stopped talking. His mother had to feed him with a spoon, and their butler Sunanda had to get him dressed every morning and bathe him at night.

His family was very surprised by the change. They got together one night to talk.

FATHER: I don’t understand. Why doesn’t Temiya respond to us?

MOTHER: He didn’t get sick or hit his head. This is very strange!

SUNANDA: Maybe he is just acting?

FATHER: That’s it! It’s just an act. We must find a way to snap him out of it.

SUNANDA: When a young boy or girl is throwing a temper tantrum, sometimes you can get them to stop by offering them a candy or toy. All we need to do is offer Temiya something he can’t refuse. Then he will give in and respond to us.

NARRATOR: The family got together and planned. They thought of three things that Temiya really liked, and planned to get trick him into revealing he was acting.

[At this time, the group brainstorms to think of three things to try to tempt Temiya with. When they have them, one by one a family member will act out offering the thing to Temiya. Temiya can’t move a muscle, not to look or respond in any way!]

NARRATOR: They tried and tried for years, even as Temiya grew up. In the end it worked. It took a long, long time, but after sixteen years of trying to tempt Temiya the family decided it was impossible. Temiya really was blind and deaf and couldn’t talk. He would never be able to run the company. Father decided it would be a waste of time to keep Temiya around. He knew Mother would never let him go, so one day he ordered Sunanda to take Temiya into the forest – and bury him! That way Mother would never find out.

Sunanda put Temiya in a bag and drove him far away into a forest. Sunanda then dug a hole. When Temiya heard Sunanda working he understood what was happening, and even though he was sad he would be leaving his mother and family, he was very happy that he wouldn’t have to do bad things. He began to cry tears of joy.

SUNANDA: Master Temiya – are you crying? Why?

TEMIYA: Friend Sunanda, it is true. I have been acting all this time. I am crying because I am so happy. My family has finally decided not to give me the company. This is better than doing many bad things that I would regret. My life was short, but I am proud of myself. I was able to get closer to my goal of being a Buddha!

SUNANDA: Master Temiya, you are amazing! It is true, I also don’t like doing bad things. You’ve inspired me to let go of my bad work and try to live a more peaceful life. I’m not going to bury you!

NARRATOR: And so Sunanda and Temiya built a little cabin in the woods and lived there happily and peacefully. One day Father and Mother came to see what happened, and when they saw Temiya so happy and free, they were also inspired. Temiya taught them about Renunciation, and they were able to give up their bad business and live happily for the rest of their days.

The Many Faces of Mettā

The focus for today’s family gathering was very timely – Mettā. Not only as a perfection of character, but also as a life skill, it’s hard to find a buddhist teaching as fundamental as Goodwill. But explaining this skillful emotion or it’s underpinning is deceptively hard.

The reason for this is that while we often know the feeling of mettā when we experience it, in its practice and display in the world it takes so many different forms. Mettā comes from the pāli word Mitta, or friend, and at it’s core it’s the state of wishing the best for another being: sincerely desiring their welfare. Sometimes this takes an active form, like Generosity, Kindness, Encouragement, Assistance, or Teaching. At other times, it shows a more passive aspect, as in Love, Appreciation, Gratitude, or Forgiveness.

Many know of the practice of Mettā bhavana as a sort of guided meditation. We use our mind to bring up joyful and appreciative thoughts as an antidote to ill-will. This is incredibly useful and supportive for meditation, as it cleanses the mind of many basic obstructions. Our Perception of the world is unfortunately biased – we’re either seeing things in a positive light or a negative. While neither perspective is inherently true, knowing when it is skillful to favor one perception over the other gives us the ability to balance and brighten our minds.

Once the mind is balanced, however, Mettā is not simply a mental posture. We cultivate appreciation, gratitude, and goodwill not just for the feeling. The actions of body and speech that result from these mindstates are just as important. They will engender harmony, build supportive relationships, and heal damage from our misdeeds. It is the expression of mettā that we speak of in every day life.

Not only is Mettā the underlying cause for dozens of skillful ways of being, but it can give us tremendous strength in trying times. Our story for this pāramī was The Brave Little Parrot (Jataka Tales, and The Brave Little Parrot – Inquiring Mind ). When we think in terms of ourselves it’s like we grow smaller, but when we keep others in mind it’s amazing the things we can do.

We also had a simple activity. We started by gathering in a circle. One person had a ball of yarn, and chose to express something they appreciated about someone else in the circle. As they did they would pass the ball while hanging onto the yarn that was being fed out. Each person chose someone else in the circle to appreciate and very quickly we had a big and intricate web of yarn connecting each other in all directions.

Every kind act is like a string that connects us to someone else. But in forming a connection to others, we also connect to those they support. Even if we couldn’t think of an appreciation for someone else in the circle we were at most one person away from them in the web. And now, what would our own web of connection and relationship look like? Even if we think of someone we have difficulty with – could we be only one or two friends distant from kindness to them?

It’s also nice to see visually how supported we are. It’s very easy in the modern world to feel cut off or isolated, but just a few moments to think and appreciate others reveals the amazing amount of energy flowing between each of us!

The World Changes

Sad news is spreading the globe today as revered teacher Thich Naht Hanh has passed away. it is still never pleasant to behold the changing of the world and the passing of an era.

There are few Buddhists in America who would not have heard of Thich Naht Hanh. He rose into the public view during the Vietnam War era and was a visible figure for peace and civil rights, working alongside other great figures like Martin Luther King, Jr, the Dalai Lama, Somdet Māhāgosananda, and more. He’s become a household name, through dhamma books, interviews, and through founding buddhist communities worldwide.

His ongoing focuses on mindfulness, compassion, and harmony have been the inspiration for innumerable groups to come together and practice the dharma.

To participate in the ongoing ceremonies to remember and celebrate his life and works, search for a center near you or check out the site for his lineage main monastery in France, Plum Village. The Plum Village Tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Family Group: Developing Paramī

One of the joys of being stably in one spot as well as amidst a community of buddhist practitioners is the ability to have programs suitable for participants of all ages.  In Shelburne we had the first of our planned weekly family gathering today.  The theme was ‘Developing Paramī’.  We had the chance to contemplate what qualities we think are important for our own happiness and how we might practice them so they get stronger.

The whole topic of Paramī, or Perfections, is derived from the story of the bodhisatta’s quest to become a Buddha.  Just setting the intention for something is not enough – we have to consider what is needed for success and do the work.

We got to have a little fun acting the scene out too.  Have you ever heard the story?

FAMILY GROUP:  THE STORY OF SUMEDHA

NARRATOR: This is something that happened long, long ago, on a planet that was a lot like earth. On that earth in the country of India there was a great city so large and old that everybody thought the city would last forever, so they called it Amaravāti, the Deathless City.

At the edge of this great city there were some patches of forest. This is where meditators and holy people liked to live. One of these meditators was a man named Sumedha. He lived on his own in a little hut in the woods. Every day Sumedha would sit and meditate in the forest, developing his mental power. He had lots of special abilities like the ability to see and hear things far, far away, and the ability to move things with his mind. He was pretty sure he could do anything he wanted to if he put his mind to it.

One day Sumedha was disturbed from his meditation by a lot of people working on the path down the hill from his hut. He went down the hill to chase them away, but when he got there he was surprised by what he found. The people were smiling and happy, and working very diligently to clean the path. They were sweeping and clearing branches and filling in all the potholes with dirt. Some were even chanting while they worked. Sumedha went up to one of them and asked:

SUMEDHA: “What are you doing? Why is everyone cleaning this old path? And why are you all so happy?”

VILLAGER: “Oh great Holy Man, we are happy because this good news has spread: A Buddha named Dīpankara has arisen in the world! He left a rich family to go off and purify his mind, and has attained full enlightenment. He is kind and wise and holy. He teaches all who want to be taught the Dhamma of how to realize enlightenment for themselves in this very life. And – today he is traveling along this very road with a great big sangha of his monks and nuns. We are very honored to have him bless our neighborhood.”

SUMEDHA: “That sounds nice. I want to be a Buddha!”

VILLAGER: “Good sir, I hope you are successful in that! But you should know that it takes a lot of work to be a Buddha. It takes many, many lifetimes of practice to purify ones mind and heart to that great level, so that one can be of benefit to everyone.”

NARRATOR: When Sumedha heard this he looked at the people around him and suddenly he understood why they were so happy. Work! It had been a long time since he had had to work at anything, because his psychic powers were so strong. And he had never worked for anyone but himself. But these people were happily working out of respect and kindness for the coming Buddha.

So Sumedha asked if he could help prepare the path. A villager gave him a broom and he started sweeping. He picked up heavy branches and tossed them out of the way. There were even some acorns which hurt when they were walked on, so he picked them up one by one so no one would hurt their feet.

Even after all this work though, there was one thing that didn’t get done. A big pothole was in the middle of the path and it was filled with muddy water. Anyone who walked through it would get all muddy and dirty. Just then Sumedha saw the Buddha Dīpankara coming down the road, with a long line of monks and nuns walking single file behind him. The Buddha was dressed in bright golden robes and looked so peaceful and bright, it was like he was glowing. He walked very mindfully.

Sumedha didn’t have any time to think or use his psychic powers. He just lay down in the puddle so that the coming Buddha could walk over his back. When Dīpankara Buddha approached he understood what Sumedha was doing, so he walked across the puddle using Sumedha as a bridge!

When the Buddha walked over him, Sumedha had this thought:

SUMEDHA: Now that I see the Buddha I understand what it means to be enlightened. His mind is totally bright and pure of all mean thoughts. If I studied under this Buddha, I bet I could reach that same enlightenment – in one night if I really tried. But I would rather be a Buddha just like him, and make people everywhere happy and teach the dhamma! I will be a bridge so other people can reach the far shore of enlightenment!

NARRATOR: At that time the Buddha Dīpankara knew what Sumedha was thinking, and saw that he was able to work very hard at what he wanted.

DĪPANKARA: This holy man just decided to become a Buddha! And he will be successful. Many lifetimes from now he will be a Buddha named Gotama, and he will teach the Dhamma. He will help many people cross to the far shore.

NARRATOR: When this was said everyone around became very happy. All the villagers and even all the spirit beings like devas celebrated, because a Buddha arising is a very good thing.

All the rest of the sangha walked over Sumedha like a bridge. While he was lying there, Sumedha saw that he had a lot of work to do. He was actually not the nicest person! He was very self-centered, and he could be mean sometimes. He also held on very tightly to the things he loved.

When he thought about this, his mind became a little brighter. He realized that he was being Honest with himself, and Honesty was a good quality. So from that moment he decided he would work hard to always tell the truth, no matter what happened.

With Sacca, or Honesty, as his first quality, Sumedha then thought of a list of ‘Paramī’, or Perfections, that he would have to master in order to be a Buddha. A Paramī is a quality of a pure heart that good people have. There are a few different lists, but in the Theravādā tradition, there are Ten Paramī.

What are three qualities you think are the most important?

Now pick one and come up with a way you would practice this to get better at it.

Here is the list of Ten Paramī. Do any match the ones you picked?

Sacca – Honesty
Dānā – Generosity
Sīla – Virtue
Nekkhamā – Letting Go
Adhiṭṭhana – Determination
Viriya – Energy
Mettā – Goodwill
Karuna – Compassion
Upekkha – Equanimity
Pañña – Wisdom

New Venue, Same Mission

Tahn Pamutto has returned to Western Mass, and after a month of relative quiet Upavana is now back to having both in-person and online activities. The period away was a rich and fruitful time of visiting friends, encouraging communities, and reconnecting with traditional buddhism. It has allowed for a few transitions – namely, the offering of an apartment space for Tahn and for the hosting of modestly-sized sittings, sutta studies, and other activities.

Fellow Upavana board member Alex has helped greatly in getting together a rotation of friends in the area for a Dana calendar (Sangha – Upavana.org). Many locals are or have been affiliated with the Dhammadhara Vipassana Meditation Center, which is quite close. Tahn’s almsrounds will be to these local families, with enough gaps in the schedule for friends from further afield to grab a slot when interested.

The space is not only a very comfortable living space for a monastic but is also a great place to host the regular online offerings. Hopefully, it will also be welcoming venue for friends who would like to gather for meditation, chanting, and dhamma. The space was warmed up with an hour-long block of devotional chanting until midnight on New Year’s. From here, morning meditation and chanting will be a regular event open to friends, and perhaps more on the schedule in the coming weeks.

Many blessings to our friends who are graciously offering the space!

Back Online

Tahn Pamutto is back in the MA area, and the Upavana site and Facebook are likely to see more use after gathering a bit of dust over holidays. He’ll be settling down in a new space in Shelburne, MA, for the near future – more on that in the coming days.
Tonight, the weekly Tea & Meditation begins at 7pm EST as usual – all are welcome. Coming up this Sunday is the New Moon Uposatha. Both events are broadcast via ZOOM (see upavana.org for details)

Uposatha – “Spiritual Growth”

The biweekly Uposatha program will be hosted tonight from NYC and broadcast online through Zoom. Tahn Pamutto will be joined by Tan Santi for a discussion on the topic of “Spiritual Growth”. A fundamental difference between Eastern and Western philosophy is the idea of growth – that our character can be developed and honed towards a particular end. This is even more the case in Buddhism as we have a very clear goal for our development: Nibbāna, the perfect peace of a calm and pure heart.

Once we’ve established there is a goal and we understand where we are in relationship to that goal, it becomes possible to foresee both supports and obstacles to our success. A whole world of possibilities for growth and learning open up before us. Tonight we hope to share in the exploration of these possibilities and what it means to be moving forward and growing in the spiritual life.

Finding a Retreat

Winter is a good time for formal practice. The days are short; the nights are long. The weather is cold and encourages us to find cozy spaces to settle in. There is a natural momentum towards long sits in dark rooms, or finding ourselves getting up at odd hours and being wide awake. Traditionally, meditators have found this time to be a fantastic for formal practice.
 
We’ll naturally find ourselves in a quiet mood. Every time we sit by a windowsill or curl up on the couch might be cause for an hour to fly by in reverie. But we can also be more intentional with our practice. The rhythms we set up early can support us throughout the long winter and keep our resolve from weakening before spring arrives. And doing a formal retreat is a great way to set rhythms.
 
Few places have as many options for doing structured meditation retreat as the Pioneer Valley. In terms of institutions, Dhammadhara in Shelburne and the Insight Meditation Society in Barre are known internationally and are some of the oldest such centers in the West (at dhamma.org and dharma.org respectively, they CLEARLY got in the game early). The former offers heavily structured 10 day meditation courses completely free of charge, while the latter has three facilities offering a diverse array of programs at a range of costs. You can go for a weekend or a year.
 
Both of these organizations are in high demand, and booking as far in advance as possible is a good idea. But there are also many groups posting events on more short notice. Insight Western Mass in Easthampton and Vermont Insight in Brattleboro are smaller branches of the insight tradition that are constantly running programs. Our friend Mark Hart with Bodhisara has also been leading meditations and retreats in the area for decades, with many online and now in-person retreats through the pandemic. His latest upcoming posting is for a retreat the weekend of January 7th.
 
Our final option is to set aside time to practice and just go for it. If you’re taking this option, it’s best to be as clear as possible if we want solid results. Set a schedule and try to keep to it. Give yourself the best chance you can to be free of distractions. Actually turn the phone off. If you can gather a group for the same program, or if there is an online program you can follow, it can help to have accountability with other meditators. If at all possible, book a chat with a trusted teacher or mentor for mid-retreat to help clarify the questions that are likely to come up.
 
Tahn Pamutto’s time in NYC has already been very busy. Communities there were pretty sleepy during the height of lockdowns but there is a lot of enthusiasm for gathering and growth. After New Year, he returns to Shelburne, where a new space is waiting for living and offering practice opportunities. Until then, Happy Holidays!
 

Drawing Sangha Together

Tahn Pamutto is in NYC this month. This means that while all Upavana’s regular online programming will continue, there aren’t plans for any in-person meditations or retreats for our friends in Western Mass. The option is open, but chances are things will remain quiet until the New Year.
This evening, on the occasion of the Half-Moon, we’ll be having our biweekly Lay Sangha Chat. (https://upavana.org/events/lay-sangha-chat/) It will be at least from 7-9pm EST, or later depending on who is around. This gathering started some weeks ago, when Tahn Pamutto was unable to make it to the regular Wednesday Tea Time. Instead of immediately disbanding, the group stayed and had a long involved dhamma conversation. Our friend Ryan stepped forward willing to facilitate a regular biweekly meeting for lay practitioners to gather and talk about practice and life. And Adrianna helped organize the event listings.
If you have some free time tonight, consider dropping in for some portion. There are a million things we can do with our spare time, but how many of these guarantee us the chance to interact with other buddhists and dhamma enthusiasts?
Meanwhile, Tahn Pamutto is doing the same on the ground in NYC, reconnecting with friends from earlier in the year and dropping in on a new sitting group they’ve put together. This is even on top of all the wonderful interactions with the Indonesian Buddhist Family and Wat Thai Thavorn communities. Beyond just gathering for formal practice, part of the joy has been getting together for tea beforehand or going for walks in the city. When there is Sangha, we should draw close!

Upavana Foundation info@upavana.org

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