What is Vipassana? Daylong

During the last of the September Daylongs, Tahn Pamutto opens by reflecting on the theme of the day: Vipassana. This word has become ubiquitous in meditation circles but was not always so. While it’s an easy way to explain the process of freeing the mind, it was not a common or deeply expounded theme in the early discourses. What is Vipassana? We separate things into their components to see them clearly. When they come back together, we realize we’ve stepped out past Ignorance and Craving.

Coming to terms with Uncertainty

This last Wednesday we had a lively conversation around the topic of our mental landscape – small worldly concerns becoming massive mental hindrances.  Sometimes we make a decision and we don’t get to know if it was the right one, and we can agonize and worry and dwell on what could have been.  It’s amazing how for each voice that spoke up with a similar experience, the perceived difficulty of dealing with fear, anxiety, and doubt grew smaller and smaller.  Over time it becomes apparent that the things we all deal with the most are things we are all dealing with.  They are part of the mind, and are in fact the very reason we started down the path of meditation in the first place.

It’s inevitable, months or years down the line, when we encounter these obstacles as big and looming as the day we started, that we might ask ourselves if we are getting anywhere.  “Why Am I Doing This?  What is this for?”  It’s not an instantaneous path, or one with concrete this-for-that payoffs.  It’s reassuring when we reflect that these thoughts and doubts are not coming up because of our practice.  They are not a sign that we are doing anything wrong.  If we think back, long before we heard about meditation and precepts and dhamma, weren’t there already fears and doubts?  Sometimes it seems they have grown in severity, but it may just be that before we were led blindly around by them, and now we are looking right at them.

In the harder times, we grind away at our practice out of faith and habit.  It’s natural that questions arise.  People who don’t meditate question their lives too.  All the time.  What is different for the practitioner is that there are objective standards for if we are living skillfully.  We can know what was skillful, what was unskillful, and what is subjective.  We can delight in the skillful, make amends for the unskillful, and come to terms with questions of what was best we might never know for sure.

We can be active too.  The counterpoint to faith is wisdom, and questioning is actually its tool.  We can investigate the feelings of anxiety and doubt and really listen to what they suggest.  Do our doubts portray realistic expectations?  Are we expecting that because we sit a certain way or cultivate a certain thought that things will feel different or change?  If we’ve been living in anxiety all our lives should those feelings really disappear overnight?  It may well be that we are looking in the wrong place.  Maybe the fears still arise, but we know they are fears and respond to them as such.  Is that not the definition of mindfulness?  Sometimes we overlook the ways that we are getting exactly the results we cultivated, simply because we are looking for other results.

One of the great values of Sangha is to have examples of where the practice can eventually lead.  If there was one technique that solved all the problems of suffering, then dhamma teachers would just teach that.  Instead, there are faculties that are cultivated and skills that are developed – the skills to weather difficulties and investigate their source.  There may be no one ultimate technique, but with these faculties strong the thousands of little techniques that we develop can make a huge difference over time.  If we find that after years of practice we still have errant thoughts but that we are processing, learning, adapting and finding support – is that really the same dukkha we started with?  Or have we quietly become the very thing we wanted to be when we started out: masters of our own mind.

Goodbye to Shelburne, For Now

Since the first of the year, Tahn Pamutto has been in residence in a spacious and well-equipped apartment generously offered in the town of Shelburne, not far from the Vipassana Meditation Center.  During this time most of the online broadcasts have come from that location and there were many daylongs and even a weeklong retreat in person.  Tahn Pamutto has now moved on from this location, and is back to a period of wandering to help scout for new opportunities in Western and Central Massachusetts.

Our immense gratitude to the owners Jonathan and Carolyn and the friends and supporters who gathered around to provide for Tahn Pamutto’s needs so that Upavana could continue to offer free dhamma programs and grow!

The previously planned Days of Mindfulness every Saturday in September will now have an in-person location of Princeton, MA.  Please reach out if you are interested to join.  Other than that, the online programs will continue much as they have, broadcasted from whatever living room or wi-fi hotspot is available.

 

Talk: The Second Noble Truth

In this Uposatha reflection, Tahn Pamutto discusses in depth the Second Noble Truth – that of the Origin of Suffering, namely Craving. It takes wisdom and investigation to see how this seemingly innocuous force in our daily lives, the gross or subtle wanting that drives us into situations, is in fact the requisite condition for our suffering. Tahn Pamutto discusses two ways of looking at this noble truth – with or without talking about rebirth. He also encourages an ongoing study of the topic in order to experience the peace of freedom from craving.

Family Group: The First Noble Truth

Meditation: We started with a meditation. First we calmed ourselves, slowing down from the activity before. Listening to the house we were in, and getting quiet enough to hear it creak and gurgle. Things are always changing! Then we suggested a few scenarios that were a little silly but would be dukkha for someone in the group – maybe a bottlecap collection got recycled, or there was a worldwide shortage of flour for baking bread, or the last unicorn just passed away and now they are extinct. These meant something to one person, but then we asked: how does it feel for you if that wasn’t important to you? The things that would be dukkha for us … how are they related to the things we care about and hold to?

We got out the whiteboard and scribbled a few ideas about what Dukkha might be. We were specific that we were trying to think of experiences of dukkha that everyone might have, or we would run out of space on the board! But it’s still important to talk through what everyone thinks of what you come up with, because everyone has a personal experience of dukkha. During our group, someone wanted to put aversion on the list. It is dukkha, but we were asking – is it something everyone experiences? Could someone NOT experience aversion?

In the traditional list, these are things all people are susceptible to: old age, death, getting things we don’t want, not getting things we want, losing the things we like. Sickness made some lists but not others, because actually some people get through life without major illness, but it made our own list as well as getting hurt.

We also talked about how since these things are natural, it doesn’t mean if something bad happens that we did anything wrong. Some parents talked about how when they were growing up there was the idea that if bad things happened, god was upset with them. But for us dukkha will just be a normal part of life, which means we don’t have to try to run from the kinds of pain that are to be expected. We can learn to accept and live with them, which turns the frown of dukkha into a source of connection. We all said something that might be dukkha for us (a business meeting, buying expensive gas at the pump, getting stung by a bee…), and showed how because we had all felt dukkha, we could understand what someone else was going through even if we didn’t have that same experience.

CRAFT:  On the comics page, Laura drew up a simple quick activity, all it takes is a ball of yarn.  You can make yourself a little ball of dukkha.  All tangled in a knot and miserable.  Now, how do you feel towards your little dukkha ball?  Don’t you want to be kind and compassionate to it?

STORY: The Bodhisatta and the four signs

CHARACTERS: Gotama, Channa the Chariot Driver, Old Person, Sick Person, Dead Person, Monk/Narrator

NARRATOR (Monk): This is a story that may or may not have happened – it was told many years after the Buddha passed away. But it has become a popular story nonetheless, and something similar happened in the Bodhisatta Gotama’s life before he left the palace to seek enlightenment.

When Gotama was born, everyone knew he was special. His father had holy men brought to the palace to examine him. Most said either Gotama would rule the world, or would leave it and become fully enlightened. One of the holy men, the oldest and wisest, said there was only one path – Gotama was certain to become a buddha.

His father, though, wanted the prince to rule the world, not shave his head and wander around without any money. So he built three palaces for the hot season, cold season, and rainy season. The prince would spend each season in one of the palaces and the king made sure the prince never saw anything that would upset him – only young, healthy, happy people singing and dancing.

If you’ve ever played games and listened to music all day, you know that eventually you get bored. One day, when Gotama was bored, he decided he would go outside the palace and look around for something new.

GOTAMA: Channa! Let’s go to town! Get the chariot ready!

CHANNA: Yes, Prince. But where are we going in town? The park?

GOTAMA: I’ve already been to the park. Let’s go to the market.

CHANNA: Ummm… you’re father won’t be happy!

GOTAMA: Why?

NARRATOR: But Channa didn’t say anything. All the palace staff knew they weren’t supposed to let the prince see things that would make him want to leave the world. If they got sick they were supposed to stay home, and when they got old they had to work somewhere else. And if someone died, the prince was told they had been ‘promoted’ and sent away.

But Channa did as he was asked and the two of them rode the chariot into town. As they approached the market, they saw an old person with a cane on the side of the road.

GOTAMA: Channa – stop! What is that?! That person is all twisted out of shape. They are bent over so far they need a stick to keep them standing. And their hair is falling out!

OLD PERSON: What’s that son? I can hear you, you know! My sight might be gone, but my ears still work. It’s not nice to make fun of old people.

CHANNA: Prince, that person is old. They have lived a long life.

GOTAMA: Wait wait wait – old?! People get old? You mean they stop getting stronger and healthier the longer they live?

CHANNA: Yes, prince. Children grow up and get stronger, but once they are adults they will eventually go gray and waste away like this person here.

OLD PERSON: HEY!!

NARRATOR: Gotama was deeply upset by this. How could he enjoy being young and strong if he knew someday he was going to be weak and old? He told Channa to keep driving, but it wasn’t long before he saw something else – a person who usually worked at the palace. They were sitting in a corner coughing and sick.

SICK PERSON: <cough cough> All hail Prince <cough> Gotama!

GOTAMA: You there – what is going on?

SICK PERSON: Oh Prince, don’t get too close. I have a disease in my lungs. <cough> I’m very sick and can’t work.

GOTAMA: But you were at the palace – you were healthy just the other day!

SICK PERSON: Yes, prince. But bodies can get sick at any time, and when they do we become weak and can’t take care of ourselves, much less others. We need to be looked after until we recover – if we do.

GOTAMA: What do you mean, IF?

CHANNA: Okay! Time to go! Get well soon! Bye~~~~!

NARRATOR: Now Gotama was really upset. He was usually so healthy, but at any time he could get sick? This was terrible. Once when he was young he had a headache and a runny nose, but everyone had told him it was a lucky sign that his brain was growing very big and smart. Now he knew the truth, he had been sick.

They started driving but just around the corner there was a parade of people walking and crying.

CHANNA: Oh no…

GOTAMA: What is going on? Why are they crying?

The parade was a funeral procession – the family was carrying someone who had died on a wooden stretcher. They were taking the body to where it would be cremated.

(DEAD PERSON LIES DOWN STILL)

GOTAMA: Stop! Everyone stop! Hey, you there on the stretcher! I know you! Is this the job you got promoted to? Why are you sleeping during this parade?

CHANNA: Uh Prince ….

GOTAMA: Answer me! Wake up!

(DEAD PERSON) …..

NARRATOR: Everyone looked at the prince very sadly.

CHANNA: Prince, they weren’t promoted. This person was bit by a poisonous snake. They are dead. They will never get up again.

GOTAMA: Dead? What does that mean?

CHANNA: All people die, prince. Our bodies wear out, or they get sick, or hurt, and eventually they stop. Nobody lives forever. And when we die we can no longer talk, or act, or eat, or dance. Our body stops working and we lose everything we have.

GOTAMA: All people die?

CHANNA: Yes Prince, everyone. All animals and plants too. Everything dies.

GOTAMA: Ahh! You mean I’m going to die some day?! Why didn’t someone tell me – I’ve just been partying all the time! This is terrible!

NARRATOR: With this GOTAMA ran off away from the chariot and the crowd. He ran down one street and then the next. Eventually he stopped and sat down to think. When he did, he noticed someone sitting nearby meditating. The person was wearing a simple robe and had a bowl next to them.

GOTAMA: Excuse me – are you sick too? Do your eyes hurt? Or are you dead?

MONK: Hmm? Oh, hello Prince Gotama. No, I am well, thank you.

GOTAMA: What were you doing just now?

MONK: I was meditating. I have given up the pursuit of worldly pleasure to find peace within.

GOTAMA: What do you mean peace?

MONK: Prince, you have many things that please you. Fine food, fine music, fine palaces. But if you are old or sick or dead you cannot enjoy them. These things can grow old and die, and the pleasure from them grows old and dies. All things in this world grow old and die someday. We lose everything we love. So I am seeking that which never dies- the Deathless. I have left the flow of the world. If I can be at peace with the changing nature of the world, I will always be happy. That happiness will never die.

NARRATOR: Gotama thought about this long and hard. Living in the palace he was very busy and always surrounded by people. But he had not found permanent happiness. It had all been temporary, and no matter how good it was he would lose it someday. It made him want to leave the world too, and find the deathless. He had many questions for the monk about how to find happiness, so he vowed to come back and ask.

GOTAMA: You know, I think being a monk is a good thing!

NARRATOR: And so just like the wisest holy man had said, Gotama ended up leaving the palace to become a Buddha. But that’s another story entirely!

Talk: The First Noble Truth

On the Uposatha with a group online and in-person, Tahn Pamutto reflects on the First of the Four Noble Truths. These foundational teachings are not just true, in that they apply to all people, but they are ennobling – they allow us to be better, happier, and to suffer less. The first noble truth is the most clear example of this: simple realities of pain and loss, totally natural experiences, that once understood cease to become disasters but important lessons for living a mortal life skillfully.

The Chocolate Hindrance

(This story and reflection come from a session of Upavana’s online “Lay Sangha Chat”, held on the first and last quarter Moon, open to all and hosted by Upavana sangha members.)

 

“So I bought the chocolate bar. And ate it.” He shrugged his shoulders with a good-humored expression of “I tried not to, but didn’t quite make it.”

The handful of sangha members chuckled and nodded in solidarity and tossed helpful bits of advice. We reassured one another for having experienced similar chocolate bar defilements ourselves.

But the story is not one of failure on the path or disregard of the teachings of Buddhism.

“I had a craving for chocolate. I wanted a chocolate bar. I really wanted it and I thought about it and kept trying not to want a chocolate bar. I thought about other foods that I would rather have, foods that were wholesome and wise choices. I thought of fruits piled in the grocery store, mangoes, pineapples, bananas, coconuts… Even these bountiful mind formations did not appease the craving. Determined, I left my rooms and went to the market. I went directly to the fruit, piled as high as I had imagined and equally fruitful and a variety beyond compare. I stayed in the fruit market for some long time. Then I bought a chocolate bar. And I ate it.” He shrugged and beamed a smile to the sangha.

The intensity and persistence of this man’s struggle and thought processes intrigued me. This is practice. This is when the teachings consume parts of your daily decision making and direct you to reevaluate your actions, motivations, and the basic reasons why you are craving. This is when the Path has become firm and unambiguous.

End of story? No, it is a slightly shorter chapter in the same story. Every time the Chocolate Hindrance occurs, this fellow will square up to it and resolve it. Again and again, until the Actual Time Required to distract and convince himself that he does not want the chocolate becomes so negligible that he realizes he no longer supports the craving. By this time the Chocolate Hindrance has lost its importance, become a fond joke, a pleasant memory, an indifference.

As Tahn Pamutto points out, we always have a choice. Even in, and especially in, our habits, we have a choice. Habits are the myriad tiny repeated behavior patterns we perform with our minds and our bodies.

The Chocolate Hindrance did not exist until the man made a choice to limit or exclude the object [chocolate] from his habits.

Making the choice to limit the object sets a new boundary. Becoming watchful of chocolate as an expression of hindrance means becoming incrementally more watchful of one’s behavior.

Each encounter with the idea of chocolate becomes practice. Each “failure” to resist the craving of chocolate becomes practice. The tiny but measurable decrease in time and effort to resist the Chocolate Hindrance becomes apparent over time… Once upon a time, the man would not hesitate to buy the chocolate bar straight away, with nary a wave to the fruit market tables. Now, he struggles. Now, he works at the solution. Now he practices. And now, each time he is confronted with a Chocolate Hindrance, he is fully familiar with it. And each time he is more skilled at disengaging himself from the craving. Even if he gets to eat the chocolate bar in the end.

Because no one said you can’t have the chocolate. It is only suggested that it can be enjoyed without attachment.

Without the agony of not-being-allowed-to-have-chocolate, the pain of eating-chocolate-and-feeling-bad-after, the disappointment of having succumbed to buying the darned thing, the emptyness of physical surrender to an “object”, the perception that one has Broken The Rules…..it can be enjoyed without attachment.

Only, by the time you have achieved separation from the Power of Chocolate…

It’s possible you won’t care about chocolate.

Indifferent.

Neutral.

And released.

————————————————-

*The Five Hindrances are sense desires, ill will, sloth (& torpor), restlessness (& worry), doubt

Respectfully submitted by Laura

Introduction to the Four Noble Truths

The family group has collectively decided to take a look at one of the quintessential buddhist teachings: the Four Noble Truths. This is not an easy topic to cover, and even those who have devoted their whole lives to buddhist practice have not exhausted their exploration of the topic. But at its core the Four Noble Truths are not just philosophy – they deal with the very nature of truth and reveal to us things and processes happening in everyday life. So that’s where we started, by looking at What is Truth?

It’s not enough to say that these four things are truths. There are thousands of things in the world claiming to be truth. And many of them have an aspect of truth to them. But to really appreciate what the Buddha pointed out, we have to distinguish between things that are true sometimes or in certain situations, and things that are universally true – true all the time to all people.

ACTIVITY: To begin we did an activity where everyone closed their eyes and held out their hands, and one person gave each a different object. A watering can, a lighter, a pair of scissors, a measuring tape, a timer, etc. They got to feel the object but couldn’t look at it. Then they put the object down behind them and everyone opened their eyes. The rest of the group could see their object but they couldn’t, and they had to describe it. Most were able to figure out what their object was, but some couldn’t because they had never experienced anything like it.

What we all really wanted was to know what the object was. That’s called Perception, or having a label and story for an object. But if we aren’t able to get that, then we have to just feel it and describe it’s characteristics – it’s long, it’s stringy, it’s cold to the touch, it seems to have something inside … this is like many things in life. If we have only partial information, we can only partially understand something.

A great story to help illustrate this is the timeless fable from ancient india:

The Blind Men and the Elephant

https://youtu.be/Vn9BUfUCL4I

We asked the group – can you describe an elephant? Some statements about elephants are only kinda true – elephants are big, elephants eat plants, elephants are grey. All of these statements fit some elephants, but a baby elephant is small and drinks milk, whereas an albino elephant is all white. So to best describe something, with the most truth, we can’t just say what something IS based on what we are used to. The truest statements deal with patterns and cycles. Elephants are small when they are young and get bigger, and they CAN be the biggest land mammals. They nurse milk but as they grow will eat grass and leaves. They can be a variety of colors but they have skin and hair – never scales or feathers! They are warm blooded and breathe air.

We looked at the members of the group. They were all different ages. We could say certain things about someone, but certain other things we couldn’t say. We could say that the little ones would grow up, and the middle aged ones would grow old, and even that the little ones would grow old. But the old ones wouldn’t grow young. We could say the ones with dark hair might go grey, but not that the ones who were bald or with grey hair would start growing dark hair again. If we described someone now, that definition might not fit in a few years. But we COULD describe what would normally happen, and aging moves in one direction. With some statements we could describe everyone in the room even though they were all very different.

The Buddha was a prince who became deeply unhappy when he learned about aging, sickness, and death. How could no one have told him about this?! So he went off in search of why he was unhappy, and how he could get a happiness that he wouldn’t eventually lose. The four truths he found about the nature and cause of unhappiness and how to be free of it are the Four Noble Truths that we will start looking at: starting with the truth of nature. Next week we will look at Dukkha, or the nature of unhappiness for all people.