Bhava Daylong recordings

The recordings for the online daylong around the theme of Bhava, or Becoming, is now up on the Innovative Dhamma YouTube channel.  There are two talks, one for morning and one for the evening:

A Visual ‘The Fire Sermon’

The Adittapariyaya Sutta, or Fire Sermon, is one of the three cardinal suttas of Theravada buddhism.  This sutta concisely lays out some of the most important concepts underlying the Buddha’s 45 years of teaching.

This came just as the Buddha, freshly enlightened, set out on said teaching career to find those with ‘little dust in their eyes’ who could understand the dhamma.  He was drawn to a commune of fire-worshiping ascetics who were skilled meditators.  However, they believed that their psychic powers were proof of enlightenment.

After unsuccessfully trying to wow them with his superior pyschic powers, the Buddha switched tactics.  He gathered them around and sprinkled them with wisdom, reframing the spiritual pursuit from the chasing of teja or heat, to seeking nibbana or coolness.  He pointed to the six sense-bases and objects — eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind — and the consciousness, perception, and feeling that arise in conjunction with these senses, and declared: all is burning.  Burning with what?  With craving.  Craving which leads to birth, aging, and death, thereby causing sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.

Just upon hearing this sermon, the monks understood and abandoned their craving.  And with that there were over a thousand more fully enlightened beings in the world.

The Fire Sermon

Essay: Beneath the Façade

The theme of the daylong yesterday was Clear Comprehension, or Sampajañña in Pali. This is a basic and important function of becoming aware, and is intrinsically linked to Sati, or Mindfulness.

Returning to Massachusetts after a month away, an amazing change has taken place. Before, the hillsides were lush and green with foliage spilling out in all directions. Now, though, they are dappled in dazzling color, and already many of the trees are bare. Going for a walk in the morning, the cool air is bracing, and already nature is turning inwards and going quiet. In that stillness a whole new landscape presents itself.

The biggest surprise is how houses and roads have emerged, not to mention stone walls and cell towers and reservoirs. Previously they were obscured by leaves and underbrush and it seemed as though one stood in a vast and unbroken forest. Now everything is visible and it’s clear where property boundaries lie and people live. One can see for miles to distant hills. These were always there and long-time residents will say ‘Of course!’, but a first time visitor will have had no idea. It’s a revelation.

This is much like our minds. There is a reality, a simple and cool reality, that so easily gets obscured by all the color and shape and activity of life. We could see through the foliage if we really tried – but how often do we try to get past our assumptions and see what lies beyond the obvious? How often do all the pretty surface elements seem like the more compelling reality? It’s only when they fall away by circumstance that we see that they were just a façade. To some degree, we only need this revelation once to have our ignorance shattered and our perspective on everything change. This is one way of looking at Sati, the root of which in Pali deals not with mindfulness but with a more basic function of remembering. At first we had no idea, so we have to have something pointed out to us. But from then on it feels much more like we’re remembering something we should already be aware of.

The greenery here is a metaphor for the stories and scenarios we develop as we move through life. We tell ourselves we are a leader, a parent, a citizen, a member of a team. We tell ourselves we are important and the things we do are relevant. We say where we are from and where we are going. We constantly tell ourselves these stories to reinforce them. And yet the stories can and do drop away in the quiet moments and times of loss and change, which means what lies beneath is a higher order of reality. Relationships fall away, jobs fall away, countries and residences fall away – but some aspects remain for the most part. We still have a body, we still have a breath, we still have activity, we have a mind. We exist in a conventional sense. It’s the meaning we force on everything that is the illusion.

Thus, simultaneous with Sati, is Clear Comprehension, or Sampajañña in pali. The Buddha mentions it often enough but there isn’t much in terms of elaboration. After all, what could be more basic than ‘Know what you are doing as you are doing it’? Again, in practice, it requires a fair bit of investigation. Yes, we’d obviously be better off if we were aware of what we are doing. But how do we it? How do we keep track of the moment when everything is in flux? It turns out there is a whole science to clear, effortless comprehension of the present moment.

If we are telling ourselves a story – what is the simplest possible story we can tell? This is not an exercise in precision but a practical matter; we’re not looking for some sort of ultimate reality here. Proclaiming that there is nothing more than a lump of earth element sitting on the cushion is not more real than to say we are sitting there. After all, describing ourselves as lumps of earth doesn’t explain why the lump of earth from time to time gets up to get a glass of water element. Comprehending the reality of the moment isn’t purely about reduction but about finding the most harmonious description. A person sitting on a cushion does leave room for the transition to a person getting up, to a person walking, to a person sitting back down.

Because things change. It’s one thing to have a precise definition of what is going on at this moment – i.e., I’m driving to the store to get milk – but it’s quite another to have a simple definition that doesn’t need a lot of revision as time passes. ‘I’m driving to the store’ is true… until you take a wrong turn or get stuck in traffic. ‘I’m driving’ is a better description. And so, as the Buddha describes clear comprehension, he points to what is simple and readily obvious: I’m standing, I’m sitting, I’m walking, I’m eating.

How often do our descriptions of reality fail to embrace the moment? We could tell ourselves ‘I am a skilled meditator on a daylong retreat’. But do we see the entire day long before us, or just this one portion? Do we see the meditation? Do we see an ‘I’ and all that it wants to accomplish? Do we see the past; do we see the future? Or is it wayyy simpler than we are telling ourselves?

If someone else were to walk in, what would they see? Imagine someone coming upon you now with no extra knowledge and describing what they see. They might say there is a person sitting, and a room, with certain sounds or smells. That’s all. This what we mean by saying the Dhamma is ‘sanditthiko’, or ‘visible here and now’. Clear Comprehension is the partner of mindfulness that has us slow down and wake up to the simplest and most harmonious reality before us. It doesn’t negate the other realities of culture and profession and aspiration, it just helps us see that which is more stable and that which is less. When we gravitate towards the simple and readily apparent, the energy we save allows us to quickly adapt to changing realities. We still end up going through the same long, overarching processes and projects, but we’ve taken it one moment at a time.

When we do this, its a lot like finally seeing through the underbrush of our lives. We’ll get a lay of the land and an appreciation for what’s around us. At first it takes effort, but it won’t be long before we are old-timers who keep their orientation even when the foliage is up. We’ll know there’s a body, there’s a breath, there are ever-changing feelings; now I’m standing, now I’m sitting, now I’m letting go…

Talk: Monuments to the Dhamma

In this Uposatha reflection Tahn Pamutto relates the story of MN 89 – a sutta relating the last conversation of King Pasenadi, a devout follower of the Buddha, as he enumerates those things he sees in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha which inspire faith and confidence in him. These things, called the Monuments of the Dhamma, have stood the test of time.

MN 89: Dhammacetiyasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

Essay: Wanting to Be Free

There are many possible reasons to get involved with the lifestyle and practice of the Buddha’s teachings. For some it is something they are born into and gives a sense of cultural identity. For others it’s something they stumble on partway through life and seems to provide answers to questions they didn’t know they had.

The teachings themselves proclaim a path to complete liberation and enlightenment, but what does that mean? It’s hard to imagine someone showing up with that as their goal. In order for that to be possible, they must have had the goal before they knew about Buddhist practice. Could we really have conceived of enlightenment before we knew it was possible? Instead we usually take on the quest for enlightenment once we become familiar with the teachings. Which means there was some other reason we showed up, and along the way we decided liberation was the higher, nobler goal. As I always say – we come for the wrong reasons, but stay for the right ones.

This is natural, and normal. This is the way it has to be – coming from ignorance into awakening. Acknowledging that we are imperfect, unguided, unfulfilled … these are part of realizing the truth of suffering. We shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge we don’t really know what we are doing or what we are trying to get. That is, in fact, the whole reason we show up to practice! The growth of a practitioner in faith and wisdom can usually be charted by how much they are willing to admit they don’t know.

There’s no expectation that we just meditate and renounce and work through all of our mental hang-ups purely on faith that someday everything will be better. Instead we should work to understand the nobler goals of the holy life so that we can shift to them from our coarse and worldly goals. What do I mean by worldly goals? Maybe we want to be happy, or comfortable, or to reduce our stress. Maybe we see practice as healthy. Maybe it gives us a feeling of connection and community. These are the goals that have an object – goals around getting something.

What are nobler goals? Wanting to be carefree, wanting to be friendly, wanting to be light and unburdened, wanting to have a clear conscience. Wanting to not care who is right as long as things work out for the best. Wanting to have no loose ends when you die. These goals are nobler because they lack an object; they involve recognizing a burden and wanting to shed it.

The Buddha doesn’t say that we shouldn’t have worldly goals. He taught his disciples how to be happy, cordial, respectful and responsible. All of the dhamma’s which lead to a comfortable and harmonious life: these he taught. But he also taught not to settle just for these. These are the stepping stones. They allow us to relax our craving and anxiety long enough to ask the important questions. Do I want to be right, or do I want to be free? Do I really need that thing to be happy? Is this worth doing if it makes myself or others miserable?

The end goal is almost impossible for a run-of-the-mill person to visualize, so we don’t need to be worried if we don’t yet have the aspiration to ‘achieve enlightenment for the welfare of all sentient beings’. That will come in time if we stick with it. But it will be built on thousands of tiny enlightenments, tiny letting-go’s, and chances are we’ll get a lot of our physical and emotional needs met along the way as well. In fact, one could say that by the time the noblest of goals has arisen, it’s attainment is already assured. When what we aspire for most is to be free, something that we can have at any moment without adding anything, what could really stand in our way?

Meeting Points in the City

Yesterday Tahn’s Pamutto and Santi took part in a variety of activities in NYC, including an almsround and meal in Union Square Park and co-leading an afternoon practice session nearby at the Still Mind Zendo.

These activities were the meeting point of a number of social networks.  The almsround brought together monks from a number of Theravāda temples in NYC and their respective (mostly Thai) communities.  The monastics traded numbers and invitations to visit elders, join communal meals, and do prayer walks abroad.

The afternoon session was hosted by the Buddhist Friends group.  Originally started years ago with Buddhist Insights organizing and hosting gatherings and dhamma study sessions in different parts of the city, this group has been independently active for the last year: showing it is possible for even a few people to get together and make practice opportunities happen.  That was much the scene at the Zendo itself, where a number of different smaller (and even large and long-standing) groups are sharing the space to nurture their respective communities.  One such group, www.dharma-gates.org, came after and is centered around supporting young adults in finding their way to meditation.

 

Traps

Life is full of traps.

In order for a trap to be effective, it has to be appealing.  So it is with life.  The things that trap us tend to be attractive things – romantic love, wealth, fame, travel, excitement … These are the obvious baits.  There are less obvious ones too, like patriotism, responsibility, meaning, justice.  The objects or ideas themselves are not the problem, but they lead us into narrowing ourselves, judging others, and eventually boxing ourselves into suffering.  We could get out pretty easy if we only let go of the bait.

The character of Mārā in Buddhism is many-sided.  In some ways it’s a force of nature, the force of delusion that keeps being immersed in ignorance.  But in other tellings it is a station in the cosmos – the most powerful of all deva’s.  In this cosmology Mārā is the silent ruler of the sensual realm.  Mārā doesn’t outrank King Yāmā, the king of death, but frequently goes over his head to construct elaborate ruses to keep beings bound to suffering.  Like an advertising executive, Mārā’s power comes from keeping other beings craving and trapped.  How do you trap a mind though, something that has no form or location?  Only by convincing the being to trap themselves.

On Wednesday we talked about the trap itself – the idea of a permanent, substantial ‘self’.  A deceptively simple but utterly effective mechanism.  So effective, in fact, we’re almost guaranteed not to get out of it without a little help …

Sever Me Savagely 2

Blessedly, in this modern day fewer and fewer get severed limb from limb by bandits. We deal with more mundane severing, the the piecemeal flaying of taxes or the slow attrition of our car breaking down. But even if we were cornered and knew it was our last breaths, would we be able to accept our fate and hang on to love and gratitude in our hearts. After all, nobody can make us feel angry, and if we had the choice why would we die with anger?

So then, as one of the Buddha’s teachings (MN 21) elaborates, if it is possible to have goodwill even in such an extreme moment … then is it not just as possible to have goodwill in moments that are not so extreme?