Upcoming Retreat

The weekend after next, June 25-27, Upavana will hold it’s first meditation retreat. The retreat will be held in person for a small group, and also available online for those who want to participate in real-time or run the retreat according to their own timezone. Those who would like to attend in person should contact info@upavana.org, while the online info will be posted sometime next week.

The program will start Friday night with the usual Uposatha program – meditation at 8pm EDT, chance to take the Refuges and Precepts, and a talk outlining the schedule and theme by Tahn Pamutto. The theme for this retreat will be: “Anapanasati and Developing Samadhi”. There will be no extended meditation after the talk like other Uposatha’s.

Saturday the program will run from 9am – 8pm EDT, and Sunday from 9am – 5pm. There will be a Q&A session Saturday evening during tea time, and the opportunity to check in with a teacher on Sunday.

The ongoing mission of Upavana is the development of community and practice, and retreats are an important facet! Periodically stopping the outward movements and activity and moving inward is essential to preserving the integrity of our aspiration for peace. If your schedule allows, give it a try!

Best Laid Plans

There is no force in nature like desire!

It’s been over a week since Upavana’s new wheeled dhamma center arrived at the Bamboo Grove. Nearly every day has brought another visit from friends with offerings, snacks, and chances to meditate together. Getting the salvaged camper habitable has been a chore but many hands made it light work. The encouragement was appreciated and a warm sign that others feel welcome and want to take part. A temple, after all, belongs to the community.

Between the visits, though, it’s been a test of patience. Day and night, mice come scampering out of the knotweed fields and climb the exterior walls or undercarriage of the camper. Truly, their tenacity is something to behold. They can go six hours at a stretch if they don’t find an easy entrance. And unfortunately, they are on occasion getting in.

When I stayed with Tan Santi at the Indonesian Vihara in NYC, he would often remark on how little wildlife there was in the house. No ants, no cockroaches, no mice. We both spent years in the forest and the unwelcome sounds of critters were so familiar we struggled to contemplate how a structure could stand on planet earth without them. Have you ever heard a mouse in a wall? It thrashes around so enthusiastically you’d swear it was a five-pound squirrel, but when it finally emerges inside it’s hardly the size of a ping-pong ball.

Once inside I’m not sure if they were disappointed – after all, I have no food or fluffy couches to nest inside. It’s been a very hot week and when they showed up in the main compartment they would usually just join me on the cool laminate floor of the shrine area. We would stare at each other, exasperated. Me, because I couldn’t sleep or travel on account of their incursions. Their expressions, though, seemed to say, “Ugh. It’s hot. You actually live here?!”

With a sigh I would pick them up (the animals here are remarkably docile) and toss them underhand out the front door. Slaves to their nature they would be back gnawing at the walls in less than a minute. On one occasion of tossing, the frustration got to me. “Hey! Can’t you see somebody’s already here!” Despite my annoyance, a sober voice in the back of my head responded, “You know, that’s probably what they were saying when their field was mowed.”

I stood on the doorstep, watching the mouse scamper off and contemplating the moment. There’s a lovely, melancholy Scottish poem that recreates this scene. It’s told in the voice of a farmer coming across a field mouse’s nest while he is mowing his field for hay. He pauses his task to commiserate with the mouse. The farmer, also bound by his nature, must harvest the hay to keep his animals alive through winter, but that doesn’t mean he’s ignorant to the plight of the mouse. His parting words are famous, and the inspiration for the title of a book by John Steinbeck – “Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men, so often gone awry …”

You might be surprised that I just set the mice free when I catch them. Like most of my culture, I grew up with the unchallenged notion that the appropriate response to a spider or mouse in the house was to kill on sight. Fly buzzing? Swat it. Ants at the picnic? Kill. It wasn’t overnight that I shook myself from that pattern of thought, but once I did the mindstate started to strike me as incredibly obscene. Why, out of the nearly infinite list of responses, would murder be the default? We all agree that to kill someone because they took our parking spot or grabbed the last package of toilet paper right in front of us would be too much. So why, when the being standing in the way of our plans is so small, do we see the need to smite it? It’s as if we’re saying, “I can get things exactly the way I want … if you don’t exist!”

That’s the tragedy and lie of desire: the belief that it’s getting exactly what we want that makes us happy. Only in a sterile laboratory or a math-based computer simulation do plans actually work out as intended. Out here in reality, almost every plan we make runs into the plan of someone or something else. There’s no getting around it. We need plans and goals to get through life – we couldn’t get out our front door without them. But if we want not to suffer over unforeseen obstacles, we have to learn to hold the plans themselves lightly. The results of any endeavor are only going to be part up to us – the universe will always have its say.

The farmer must hay his field despite the plans of the mice to live there. But he doesn’t need to do it with a mind of violence. His somber realization of the interweaving destinies of him and his little tenants is what elevates the moment out of conflict and into an acknowledgment of higher purpose. This time he succeeds, but in the future it’s his own plans that might go awry. After all, a mouse’s tooth is a millimeter wide but, properly wielded, it can destroy a building.

I could be upset. After all, I hadn’t planned on spending the week dropping everything and guarding the camper against a wave of curious rodents. Or did I? Zooming out, I see that my plan had been to create a dhamma center ‘close to nature’. Though unexpected, didn’t I get an appropriate result from my intention? And, what luck, I got the spiritual lesson for free.

Sagely seeing all this on my doorstep doesn’t solve the problem of the mice. No, for that I’ll need chicken wire, aluminum flashing, duct tape and a comparable measure of tenacity. But in having a heart free from aggression, a fruit of keeping the moral precepts, one can approach the point of non-suffering. As one teacher put it: “Spiritual practice doesn’t solve our problems. It dissolves them.”

The place where conflict ends, and interacting with unforeseen challenges IS part of the plan, will always be in the heart.

What is Faith? What is Refuge?

Following the gathering at the end of May commemorating the Buddhist holiday of Vesak, there’s been a lot of interest and questions on the topic of Faith. What is it? How does one develop it? How does one practice recollecting the primary objects of Faith and Refuge – the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha?

In this follow-up talk given on the New Moon night, Tahn Pamutto offers reflections on what Faith actually means, and points out the way the term is used in popular culture might not actually be the thing we’re trying to grow in.

As it turns out, there’s a difference between Faith and Belief. In terms of mindstates, one blind belief is not much different from any other. We’re gambling that the thing we believe is true. This is the danger of blind faith. A deeply devoted believer in a particular religion is no different in this way from a mentally disturbed individual convinced that something is true even if everyone around disagrees. It’s the same faculty of mind at work.

Instead, the Buddha exhorted his students to not cultivate blind faith on any grounds – as in the Kalama Sutta (AN 3:65): – “Don’t believe on the grounds of oral tradition or strength of teaching lineage, not by hearsay or book learning, by logic or inference, not by working it out for yourself, not because the speaker seems competent or even because you think, ‘This person is my teacher.'”

The Faith we cultivate in this spiritual practice is the confidence in those things that we can prove to ourselves – based on things we have seen proven true again and again. This is the kind of Faith that grows stronger and bears fruit; the faith that allows us to overcome obstacles not by mere prayer but by an internal confidence in reliable processes of mind and nature.

Tahn Pamutto goes on to describe the Triple Gem, and how these are not objects of blind faith by spiritual principles we help us work past three of our biggest obstacles in life: Pain, Fear, and Illness.

What is Faith? What is Refuge? – YouTube

New Moon Uposatha

Today is the Uposatha, meaning this evening there will be our online program starting at 8pm EDT with meditation, precepts and dhamma talk. Enthusiastic meditators can stay after for additional informal meditation until midnight EDT.

Info at:

https://www.upavana.org/events

Upavana now has a property for meditations and events, but no internet or electricity there. We really are close to nature! In order to reach the whole community on this day of practice, the session will be broadcast on Zoom with no in-person component. But stay tuned as this is a work in progress. If you would like to support getting us hooked up off-grid, check out the wish list or donation options on:

https://www.upavana.org/support-upavana

The Bamboo Grove

Upavana now has a piece of property to take root in, a camper which can be a meeting place and shelter for monastics through the summer, and has already seen much in the way of its mission of building community. Though much of this has come about seemingly all at once, it is the fruition of a strong, clear intention, a bit of faith, and some hard work.

“When you ask the universe for something,” a friend said recently, “you should be very sure what it is you want. And be ready! — you just might get it.”

That simple advice has been resonating a lot recently. Part of returning to western mass and the wandering monk way of life was setting a very strong intention for a community – thinking of a place, some basic services to provide, and thinking of structures to start with. At the beginning of May, Upavana had its first online ‘open house’ to discuss some of these points and get word out.

For several weeks it wasn’t clear that anything was happening, but that’s the way it goes. Checking out rental units, searching online lists for campers and pop-up tents. Then, last Wednesday, everything came together. Like most things that come from Faith and Hard Work, the results have been better and more accurate to the original intention than could reasonably be expected.

A good friend, Rich, has offered a piece of property in Leverett, MA, until it sells or until Upavana can arrange to buy it. The land is four acres of level field with a clean, gushing well and some of the healthiest, tallest Japanese Knotweed I’ve ever seen. The property, lush with the bamboo-like plant, has been lovingly named Veluvana – “The Bamboo Grove”, in remembrance of the first monastery given to the Buddha.

The camper was a bit of a mess, but American monks have to do a lot of renovation, and a trained eye could see through the grime that the base was good. It came with more open space than most campers – perfect for a shrine and chanting/meditation.

The Bamboo Grove is not yet a public site available for drop-in, but friends are welcome to arrange to visit. The first group meditation was held on the day of arrival with the delivery of some chairs for outside, the second meditation also brought the first meal offering. Tomorrow, the first almsround will leave from the site into the surrounding town.

Many blessings to all who have joined in making this possible!

Box Practice

And now for something a little different – an answer to the question nobody asked – “What does a forest monk do in the rain?” The answer may or may not surprise you. We sit.

This weekend I had wonderful accommodations – a fully furnished, clean, warm retreat apartment at a house next to a tibetan monastery. The surrounding hills and forests are gorgeous, but it was raining almost the entire time, so I committed instead to doing a self-guided breath meditation retreat. Without really intending to, I planted myself on a 6×10 foot rug in front of a Buddha image – and that’s w closed) box and spend up to three years there. Monasteries who do this practice often have monastics on rotating schedules. Some are in retreat, some are looking after retreatants’ basic needs, and some are out taking care of the facilities. Time passes, and they alternate.

I tried to find a license-free image of such a box, but this cat picture is all I got. Hopefully it helps a little to visualize what this would be like.

Whether or not the things that enclose us are a prison is up to us. The real prison, it turns out, is in the mind. If we rage against our boundaries we will always be unsatisfied. But if we accept them and see them as protecting us, guiding us, and focusing us, then the narrative flips.

That might seem like an odd sentiment for a forest monk who, like a deer, wanders in and out of buildings and woods alike as if he doesn’t see boundaries at all. But something one recognizes when they study nature is that when the conditions aren’t right to act – animals stay put. They wait. Imagine a spider sitting on a web for hours, for days, silently attentive to the slightest motion on the webstrings. It’s not because of some miraculous powers of concentration. They are just conserving energy in their life or death struggle for survival. But we, as human beings, have the ability to train our minds to let go of the external and focus on just what is right here – the webstrings of our own body, and our breath.

Just a thought for consideration.

Mahasiddha Nyingmapa Center

This weekend has been cold and rain has bucketed down. I’ve always spoken well of the rain deva’s (in animistic cultures, spirits said to affect the weather – either friends or enemies of the dhutanga monk) and feel they have been kind to me yet again – for by seeming coincidence they chose to break their weeks of draught during a time when I was visiting my friend Paul living beside the Mahasiddha temple in Hawley. I had the entire holiday weekend for personal retreat, practicing Anapanasati listening to the steady rain and rushing mountain streams.

Happily, several friends came to offer Dana through the weekend, and got to share in the beautiful natural setting.

“I’ve lived my whole life 3 miles down the road, and I had no idea this was here.” This was said recently by one Buckland resident, and it’s a sentiment echoed repeatedly by American Buddhists about the quiet and enduring institutions in their midst. The Mahasiddha Nyingmapa Center is one such easily-missed temple.

Nestled in the hills of Hawley, MA, the temple is the American seat of the Tibetan master Dodrupchen Rinpoche. He is the fourth incarnation, meaning that he has been confirmed through a traditional process as having reincarnated three times since his original life as an esteemed Buddhist teacher in Tibet. If you can see the benefits coming from monastics who have been in the robes even a few years, imagine multiplying that by two centuries and you will have a sense of his esteem in Tibetan culture.

With the fall of Tibet to the Chinese in the 1950’s, Dodrupchen Rinpoche was invited to establish himself in the nearby kingdom of Sikkim. It was there that in the 1970’s a group of free-spirited hippies from Conway, MA, met him and developed faith in his teachings. When they returned home they sent him a simple letter asking him to come and give them and their friends the refuges and precepts.

This humble, two-minute ceremony, which we repeat every lunar day for the Uposatha, is the simplest act of undertaking the Buddhist path: expressing confidence in the Buddha, his teaching, and the community, and undertaking a basic set of moral precepts. Despite being abbot of a thriving monastery, Dodrupchen Rinpoche didn’t overlook the request. Instead he stored the letter carefully away.

When Dodrupchen Rinpoche was invited to visit the United States, he was immersed in a strange political landscape of charismatic and controversial Tibetan lama’s courting rich donors and building lavish monasteries. In 1973, Rinpoche managed to navigate all of this and, without really explaining it to anyone, eventually arrived in the humble rural town in western Massachusetts. By getting people to make a few phone calls, he located the group who had made the original request. “I’m the Fourth Dodrupchen Rinpoche, lineage holder of the Longchen Nyingtik.” he said. “I’ve come to give the precepts.”

That first meeting and giving of refuges and precepts planted the seed of what was to become an enduring multi-generational Buddhist community. A piece of land was donated in Hawley and a temple built. Dodrupchen returned to his monastery in the east but has continued to come and give teachings almost every year, the last in 2018. He is quite elderly and no one can say for sure whether he can make another trip, COVID notwithstanding, or whether a fifth incarnation will arrive in the future after his passing to continue the teachings.

Nevertheless, his teachings live on in his western disciples, a group of which still gather faithfully every Saturday and Sunday for chanting, mantras and visualization meditation. The order is fairly specific and dedicated to Rinpoche, but their weekend programs are still open to attendance for anyone with an interest in learning more.

You can find all their info at www.mahasiddha.org, and about Rinpoche at Dodrupchen Rinpoche – Rigpa Wiki

Recollecting the Buddha

This Wednesday was the Vesak Full Moon, and the Uposatha gathering was centered around the Recollection of the Buddha. This is a reflection said to cure all dukkha, so we sat together reflecting on the Buddha’s wholesome qualities and on a deeper level, what it was that made him the symbol of liberation.

 

Upcoming Vesak – Tahn Pamutto

This Wednesday is the Full Moon of May, the Vesak Moon. If you’re Buddhist or even just live near a temple, you are probably already aware this is one of the main holidays in the Buddhist calendar – Vesakha Puja.

This day is the officially recognized anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana – all on the same full moon. It’s the traditional day devoted to recollecting the Buddha and his many accomplishments. Already since last Sunday there have been many gatherings and dhamma talks, and we’ll join in with our own Uposatha Observance.

The program will be the same Uposatha format, online and now also in-person in the area of Shelburne, MA. It begins at 8pm EDT and includes group meditation, precepts, and a dhamma reflection from Tahn Pamutto. There will be time after the talk to continue sitting together.

Find out more at www.upavana.org/events

Wat Kiry – Quiet but not Empty

Even after all these years, many people in the Pioneer Valley know nothing about the generous and well-connected Cambodian Buddhist temple in their midst, Wat Kiry Vongsa Bopharam (www.templenews.org). This is in part because of the language barrier – it’s possible to walk the facilities or sit in during the meal or even join the yearly summer meditation retreat, but almost all functions are conducted in the Khmer language.

The founder of Wat Kiry was actually a very important figure in Cambodian Buddhism – Pre-ah Māhāghosananda. He was a monk who fatefully survived the genocide known as the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s by being in Thailand at the time. He returned afterwards to a devastated Sangha and broken people. He spent the rest of his life rebuilding the community and working to heal the deep trauma of his country. During that time, he became friends with other powerful Buddhist figures such as the Dalai Lama and Nichidatsu Fujī, the founder of the Nipponsan Myohoji sect of Japanese Buddhism. Māhāghosananda was known for his long, dangerous Peace Walks through Cambodia to restore faith for the people, a practice very similar to the walks performed by Ven. Fujī-san.

When Ven. Fujī-san’s disciples began work on a massive stupa on a hill in Leverett, MA, Māhāghosananda inquired about using a piece of the land for a forest monastery. Instead he learned that the land at the base of the hill was for sale. It was purchased, but in the early years there was very little money for development. A few white-robed nuns moved on to the property and began practicing in earnest despite the rustic conditions. When one teacher saw them meditating on the hill he commented on how they looked like white flowers in bloom, and Wat Kiry Vongsa Bopharam got it’s name – the Temple of the White Flowers on the Hill.

Māhāghosananda visited the temple and even spent the last years of his life frequently there. It’s grown into a well-established facility now housing three monks full-time and hosting yearly meditation retreats attended by cambodians from across the country. Nevertheless, few locals realize it is a totally different order from the visually stunning Peace Pagoda up the hill.

I came to know Wat Kiry by accident, after coming to visit the Peace Pagoda. I was going back down the hill with my almsbowl out and was seen by the temple president, who ushered me into his office. The presence of a Theravada Buddhist monk on his property couldn’t be a coincidence, so he assumed I was coming to stay! Still, he and the only other resident monk, Dakun Ponh Phep, struggled to make sense of what I was. The idea of an American ordaining was almost entirely foreign to them, and yet I produced a wealth of evidence that not only was I a real monk, but that I came from a long line of western teachers (I had photos!). They gaped at the copy of the Dhammapada I carried in Pali and English text, and Ponh Phep’s eyes fogged over with long-lost memories as I chanted the monk’s rules in Pali – something very few members of the revived Cambodian sangha can do but which is still impossible (or pointless) to fake.

They regretfully informed me I couldn’t stay (to my surprise!) because I didn’t speak Khmer and they didn’t speak much English (they do, but they are shy). They have though provided me with aid and inspiration over the years, asking nothing in return. I’ve been given occasional shelter, bowls of food, the chance to perform monastic functions with the monks, and I’ve been able to join their delightful summer retreats despite the dhamma talks all being incomprehensible. If anything, I was a frustration to them, as I frequently walked away from their overflowing offerings of money, shelter, and requisites to keep up my bizarre dhutanga practice.

It was my great joy to return in 2021 to see Dakun Ponh Phep still well and joined by two younger monks who came in 2018. They’ve quietly sheltered through the pandemic. The moment I arrived they didn’t miss a beat setting me a place and grabbing some extra food. Not too much has changed. Time will tell whether this will be the year of their emerging to resume normal operations.

Visitors can come at any time. During daylight hours the meditation hall is open, but be sure to go past the temple up the walkway to a giant Parinibbana Buddha on the hill. While the Peace Pagoda up top has always been the place to go to offer prayers, do yoga, or beat some drums, when I want to meditate I prefer the calm, shady hemlock groves of Wat Kiry, resonating with the flutey calls of Woodthrushes.