Energy – Viriya

Last Sunday for the Uposatha Tahn Pamutto gave a reflection on the topic of Viriya or Energy. Reflecting on this and learning to tell the difference between ideas of energy and the reality of our ability and willingness to apply our minds is essential to progress on the spiritual path.

 

Uposatha Tomorrow

Tomorrow (Sunday, August 22 at 8pm), as local friends are taking shelter from the landfall of Hurricane Henri, Upavana will be hosting its bimonthly Uposatha gathering in person at the Wendell Senior Center in Wendell, MA. What good fortune to have a stable shelter to practice on a stormy night!
Inclement weather can sometimes provide wonderful opportunities to stop what we are doing and pay attention to the forces at work around us.
For those not able to attend in person, the event is also broadcast via Zoom (provided power and internet are not lost). You can find the link at:

Refuge and Robes

I made a new friend on almsround today. He’s been in Massachusetts working for the summer, and was due to return back out west in a few days. On the eve of his departure, he noticed me talking with a friend outside the country store and approached. He showed extraordinary good instincts for a young man, and after talking for a bit asked, “If you had just one piece of advice for me to take as I go, what would it be?”

There are those out there who are young and old, learned and unlearned, wise and foolish. This question could be pitched to any of them, and they’d each have an answer. There’s no wrong answer either, but as a dhamma practitioner one feels a sense of responsibility. There’s a saying in Thailand that every tiger is karmically fated to encounter a buddhist monk at least once in its life. Likewise, if this would be this young man’s one opportunity to meet a buddhist monk, what would he take away from the experience?

“The Buddha said,” I responded, “that good friendship is the whole of the holy life.” And so it was that the best I could think to send him off with was the encouragement to incline towards spiritual friends, those devoted to the cultivation of the heart. “When we don’t have comforts, we work hard to attain them, and when we do have comforts we relax. Such is human life, and it goes round and round. Whether we succeed or fail in that, it ends in death. But the spiritual life is for the purpose of developing those qualities of heart which we take with us. Then, whether we are comfortable or not, we can be at peace with it.”

I could have encouraged him to read dhamma books, or give money to charity, or start a meditation practice. And if he does any of those things, that would be for his benefit. But if I really want him to succeed, then I’d say he should incline towards the people who do these things. If he does something once that will be nice, but if he sees it done a thousand times it’s much more likely to stick.

I’ve come to accept the fact that nothing I say will change someone’s life. I’ve had thousands of conversations on the dhamma, and while I may have inspired, delighted, or informed, I never feel I’ve been the agent of change. People don’t change from a conversation or an idea; they don’t change just from making a point or even from having a particular experience. I’ve known people to go on months-long retreats or barely survive an encounter with death, and still return to their same practices a short time later. Our habits have incredible inertia. Change is truly, truly hard.

Yet if there’s one thing I have put my faith in, I can say it is change. Despite the difficulties the opportunity to change and learn is one of the most fundamental truths of spiritual practice. It is the Refuge in Buddha, the faith in the possibility of enlightenment. But when we begin we are utterly dependent on others to reveal it to us. They point us in the right direction and their confidence gives us stability when times are hard. A good friend hears our struggles time and time again and never judges us. They just shine the light of mindfulness on the source of our problems and encourage us to look. Over and over they teach us the principles of change.

Once the Buddha admonished his attendant Ānanda for neglecting his meditation practice, and Ānanda became annoyed. The Buddha saw the annoyance and Ānanda’s attachments, but like a good friend and teacher he bore the brunt of the annoyance and projections. He didn’t try to change Ānanda or set down rules against the things he was using as distractions. Instead he continued to instruct and encourage as he always had, for the path forward hadn’t changed even if Ānanda’s feelings towards it temporarily had. “I will not grab you and mold you like the potter does his wet clay,” the Buddha said compassionately. “By repeatedly restraining you, by repeatedly admonishing you, that’s how I’ll train you. Your sturdy core can stand the test.”

The calm, wise guidance of those who walk the path is the best condition for growth we can find in this human realm. Nevertheless, neither the Buddha nor any wise teacher intends for the student to be dependent on them. The restraining and admonishing only deals with those unwholesome states which have arisen or will arise. As for those states which are wholesome and pleasant, those are the property of the person themselves, and when there is nothing left to restrain and only wholesome states, there is no longer a need for admonishment or guidance. No longer a need for a guide even.

This is the curious difference of the friendship of noble beings. The more we value Sangha, the community of good people, the more we incline towards associating with those people who walk the path. But our goal and our aspiration is always that we grow to a state of independence of each other, that we learn to walk the path and to practice ourselves.

I have faith that when someone encounters a monk, they see the practice behind the robe. “It instantly conveys a sense of trust,” a friend said today. The robe is not just clothing – it symbolizes the aspiration towards purity, and those who’ve seen us walking down American roads have often commented how just the sight of a monastic leaves them feeling just a bit lighter, just a bit happier. A moment’s association with a monk is a moment of good friendship and a moment of associating with Sangha. But it takes more than one meeting to lay the groundwork for someone to practice and grow and change by their own volition. And so, more and more these days, as one overt Buddhist in a vast and diverse country, the wholesome condition I try to inspire in others is to seek that next meeting. Find a good friend and draw closer. A teacher, a mentor, a peer, a friend. The more that happens, the more likely they are to see truth for themselves.

Friendship is not limited to spiritual practice; people the world over take refuge in friends. They pray to all sorts of figures to help them when times are tough. What’s different is that people in the world look to their friend to help them get through a problem. They see the problem as outside themselves. But the true refuge comes at that point of spiritual maturity when we see the true problem is within us, and that’s where the work will need to be done. At that point the refuge changes – we’re not seeing the friend as salvation, but as a companion to help us work salvation out for ourselves.

How does this work in real life? The other day I saw a long-time friend turn to another monastic and ask them a dhamma question they previously would have waited to ask me. It’s as simple as that and filled me with joy to behold. At last!, I thought, I am not needed! When the trust and confidence is placed in the robe and in the practice, rather than the person, then wherever that person goes they will succeed in finding the help they need. This is taking Refuge in Sangha.

Meal Offerings / Visiting Venerables

While there’s not as much seclusion as when wandering, having an easily accessible campsite does have its perks – friends have been visiting regularly to offer food, supplies, and support.  See here is Bhante Sumano with Lusiana and her son Justin.  They even brought the table the food was offered on!

We also received a two day visit from Tan Santi, who is traveling before spending vassa at the Indonesian Buddhist Family vihara in Queens, NYC.  He and Tahn Pamutto overlapped there during the pandemic, and he has also spent time with everyone while at Empty Cloud Monastery in NJ.

A Refuge for Love

The other day on almsround I was stepping up in front of the local country store and was greeted by a friend. He’d just suffered a blow – a breakup with his girlfriend of some months. “It’s happened before but this time feels more final.” he said. Still, he was curiously upbeat. “I’m feeling a weight lifted off me! It was so chaotic. I feel good! I woke up and said, hey, I’m single!”

A week earlier he had been introducing himself as a man in love, so, sensing this circumstance might also change, I thought to soften the blow by pointing out he would probably feel differently in a day or two. It would be then, when he’d had time to process, that the lack of his girlfriend and the space she had filled in his life would become apparent. Whatever underlying condition or lack had drawn him into the relationship despite its ups and downs would again resurface. The old hunger for affection, which had been seemingly removed, would return again. Just as sure as that no matter what great meal we eat today, we’ll wake tomorrow thinking of breakfast, so the hungry heart will never be eternally sated by the love of another.

So it was that when Anagarika Drew and I came by on almsround the next day our friend sat down beside us with a huff. “I’m hurting,” he said, and the cause didn’t need to be spoken. We were three men familiar with love and loss.

How quickly we can go from the joy of freedom back into bondage, or at least a yearning for some engagement? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that I think all relationships are born from neediness and dependency. An image comes to mind of the comic spy of the early 2000’s cinema, Austin Powers, after he found out his new wife was actually just a cyborg. The movie has him break into a tap-dancing Broadway musical, frolicking down the street with the joy of being single. Yet not half an hour of screen time later, buoyant with joy and a sense of invincibility, he’s already neck deep in wooing the next Mrs. Powers.

But outside those occasions when we connect with someone through a meeting of joy and mutual interest, for many of us the seed of romantic relationship is the attempt to fill some sort of lack, and it was this lack that our friend was feeling mostly acutely now after the breakup. What made it agony was not just the feeling but the grim knowledge that any moment of weakness might find him plunging back into the same or another chaotic relationship to try to resolve this feeling. He could tell it wouldn’t work. We all know it won’t work. But, in a moment of weakness, down we all go.

“I’m just hungry for love.” he reflected. “Well, I love you.” I responded. He held a hand to his chest, but his wry smile signaled what we both knew – if that were enough he would have never gotten in this situation in the first place. A spoonful of sugar doesn’t do much for hunger pains.

“I just want a refuge,” he said, without a trace of knowledge of the customs and rituals of the two Buddhist monks beside him. For he was saying aloud what we all feel, what we are all really seeking – a refuge, a safe space, a true love. We’re not greedy, we say, we just want one person to love us, unconditionally, forever. Is that so much to ask?

Thousands of years ago, the Buddha pointed to this same tendency. People have always yearned for refuges. The places they look tend to change with the times, but the pattern does not.

Nevertheless, my offer to him stood. I will love you unconditionally. Not forever, but at least a minute or two. Can you make that enough? And it’s not just me – how many sources of love you have! Love of family, of friends, of teachers and students and peers. Any one person might not be able to fulfill all your needs for love, but that’s too much to ask of a temporary, mortal, changing person anyway.

We don’t get to eat one meal and be full forever. Likewise our need for appreciation and recognition can be sated for a bit but will arise again if our expectations are unrealistic. We can accept this, accept the changing nature of it, accept the hunger too. We can learn to be okay with less-than-perfect love from all the many sources. How much love we feel is only limited by our capacity to see it.

Our yearning for something permanent and happy, a perfect refuge, is burning our heart and forcing us into one disaster after another. Why not abandon it? Why not take refuge in the knowledge that the hunger, too, is impermanent?

Gradual Training Retreat

This month’s In-Person retreat, “The Gradual Training”, wrapped up this evening. It was wonderful having friends together in a comfortable space for two days of dedicated practice, and the first offering since monastics Bhante Sumano and Anagarika Drew arrived to spend the vassa in Western Mass. The retreat was themed around the Buddha’s method of gradually training new practitioners so that they developed in a fluid and linear way, all while minimizing difficulties from being asked to let go and take on new experiences.
The talks have been recorded on the ‘Innovative Dhamma’ YouTube channel. A playlist for the retreat is available at:
The opening talk on Friday night is presented here, though the camera couldn’t decide where to focus thanks to Tahn Pamutto’s enthusiastic hand motions!

The Path to Impermanence

This week the conversation both online and on the street has been around Impermanence. The ‘idea’ of impermanence is one that every person has at some point – realistically many times in their life. And yet the Buddha highlights it and returns to it again and again in his teachings. Clearly not a mere idea is intended but a profound and paradigm-altering depth of realization. What could this insight be, and how do we as practitioners get there?

Everything is already Impermanent, already changing all around us, so this is not something we need to do or add to our experience. Buddhism is not about adorning ourselves with a bunch of fancy philosophical ideas about how things come and go. If we were to take the most precise and eloquent reflection of impermanence and add it to our current state, that’s all we would be – a mass of everyday thoughts plus one more thought. As it turns out, that’s already what we’re getting nearly every single day. People are talking about change, singing about change, acting it out in theater and on a billion screens. Constantly talking about aging, about loss, about growth …

We already think about impermanence a lot. The only problem is that they are just thoughts, and a fraction of a second after we have these thoughts … they change too.

We could grab a string of mala beads to chant “Impermanent, Impermanent,” a million times, and we would get no wiser. Impermanence is not in the words or ideas. That’s not where it lives. It’s in the objects and circumstances of our lives, and that’s where we must look for it. To see impermanence we must find this quality in the things we love and hate, and that’s why the deeper insight stays mostly hidden to us, because by our nature that’s the last place we want to look for it.

Are there things in our lives we don’t want to change? Are there things we feel couldn’t change fast enough? Both help reflect to us what this contemplation is really for. Whether or not we understand Impermanence, still all things that arise will cease. But its the fact that we struggle with this change, that we get burned by loss or refuse to tolerate something’s existence – that is why we contemplate.

Take something dear to you and say, “Will it change?” Then, “In what way?” “Will I feel differently about it later?” “Is the change inevitable?” “How do I try to force or resist this change?”

On the subject of deeper realization, this is perhaps a place to illuminate the terms in Buddhism we call Path and Fruit – or Magga and Phala. Both are powerful alterations in the process of thought, often initiated by a profound insight, which occur only in those who have sincerely and personally undertaken spiritual practice.

Before Path arises, we are of the mass of beings roaming saṃsara, the round of existence. Even if we become religious figures, or poets, or philosophers, and even if we see that things are arising, changing, and ceasing, still we don’t know what to do about it. We are like stargazers taking in the vastness of the cosmos above only to be humbled and dumbfounded.

True Magga, or Path, arises as a response to suffering. It’s not merely that we see something change – we see our reaction to it. We see pain, hesitation, and fear. We follow these emotions to their source and we realize with a gasp that the suffering we are experiencing has attachment as its source. We don’t want things to change, and because they will despite our feelings on the matter our protest itself is the burning we feel.

Path arises in that moment if we alter the script. Impermanence is real, it’s universal, it’s natural even if it can be vexing. We decide to embrace it and to abandon the attachment instead. If impermanence isn’t going anywhere, we determine to find a way to be at peace with it (or even like it!). There will be some work involved, but we know what has to be done and we get to it.

So what is Fruit? What is the goal, the attainment of this profound insight, in pursuit of which we start analyzing and dissecting every aspect of our lives to reveal attachment and abandon it? The curious thing about the Fruit of practice is that it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect the exact nature of the work that was done. It’s not about addition. Fruit isn’t a matter of Person plus the perception of impermanence. It’s about Person minus the delusion of permanence. When that delusion is gone and a person is freed, they love fully and let go in the same breath. They buy a new car knowing it will fail them someday, or wash and tune an old car glad it might get them to work even one more time. They look in the mirror not aghast to see wrinkles and gray hairs, but fascinated by the new face that is continuously looking back at them.

This is the curious trajectory we are following in doing this work of contemplating impermanence. Before we begin there is no work, just wandering and suffering. Then there is Path, and we know the work and get to it. We try hard to understand, and each breakthrough powers us onward. Then, with the attainment of Fruit, there is no longer any suffering, and no longer any work.

After all, the work is not coming from Impermanence but from our suffering and the attachment that generates it. It is our own delusion that creates the work, and is the work, and is the obstacle to work. If we seek an end to the work we must seek an end to the delusion. When we have found the refuge at the end of that path, however, what is left is just us. Loving, living, letting go. Whether we have the ‘idea’ of Impermanence or not, it will be there with us every breath.

Retreat starting Friday

Tomorrow, our weekend retreat “The Gradual Training” will begin with an extension of the normal Friday meditation session on Zoom, at 8pm EDT. After the meditation there will be the opportunity for participants to take the Refuges and Precepts, and then at 9pm Tahn Pamutto will offer a talk outlining the theme for the weekend.

This retreat is being offered In-Person in Shelburne, MA, but the reflections given will be available on the ‘Innovative Dhamma’ YouTube channel either as they happen or in the coming days.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Last Friday night, for the Full Moon, the monastics were able to host their Uposatha gathering in the town of Wendell, where they will be spending the three month Vassa season. This is a time of stability, where wandering is reduced and monastics commit to staying in a particular community for the duration.
Whether at a hermitage by themselves or in the thick of a bustling monastery community, monks are often assessing whether or not their situation is conducive to spiritual progress. How do we assess? What factors are most important? Is it our level of comfort, our enjoyment, or the quality of our peers? Access to spiritual texts? Popularity with the townsfolk?
As always, the Buddha’s encouragement is direct and unambiguous. Are we surviving, and are we attaining insight and freedom not previously attained? This simple formula is applicable to a wide variety of situations we face in life, whether in our jobs, our relationships, our living situations. When we focus on spiritual growth, even difficult situations can be seen as edifying.