Talk: Times of Transition

In this Uposatha talk, Bhante Sumano offers thoughts on the completion of the three-month rains retreat and the change of season and perspective by moving into autumn. Natural processes are at work, encouraging us to transition and reflect on the year we’ve had, and allow ourselves to experience the necessary emotions that come with these reflections.

Wednesday Uposatha

This Wednesday will be the Pavāraṇa Uposatha, the final Full Moon marking the end of the rains retreat. ‘Tea with Tahn’ will be cancelled in favor of our regular uposatha gathering, both In Person in the town of Wendell and Online via Zoom.

The program begins at 8pm EST with a 45 minute meditation. Then Refuges and Precepts will be given. Bhante Sumano, now fully ordained as a bhikkhu, will be offering the evening dhamma reflection at 9pm.

Online Uposatha

Season of Connection

The ‘Kathina’ season is a particularly busy time for Buddhist monastics. After having spent three months in one location for the monsoon season, there is now a flurry of activity as travel resumes. Each monastery where monks have resided has the opportunity to hold a kathina festival, and it’s not uncommon for monks and laypeople alike to travel from one kathina to the next to interact with each temple and community.

The season of kathina hasn’t even arrived yet, and already the monastics are beginning to network and connect with the other communities of the Pioneer Valley. After months of seclusion extra potent because of COVID, the three Upavana monastics got the chance to walk to and visit the community at the New England Peace Pagoda and join in their morning puja ceremonies.

On Sunday, Tahn Pamutto, Sumano, and Tānakāro joined the Cambodian community at Wat Kiryvongsabopharam, in Leverett, in memory of their abbot for fifteen years who passed away June 21st this year. Dakun Phaep ‘Tejapañño’ came from Cambodia to run the temple, often being the only resident for long stretches. It was here that Tahn Pamutto met him in 2015, and over the years he was always kind and hospitable to his fellow forest monk. Often the language barrier was insurmountable, and they seemed to share more Pāli than either English or Khmer. But not being able to communicate was never an obstacle to sharing mettā and enthusiasm for dhamma.

The Wat Kiry sangha was very gracious to be joined by their American brothers in the holy life. Two monks are now at the monastery full time.

Anumodana!

Many blessings to all our generous benefactors, both local and abroad, who’ve provided funds, material and skills to get Upavana ready for the coming winter. Thanks to our local friends Rich and Jonathan, the mobile temple has a new woodstove installed and wood donated to ward off the coming cold. Our indonesian friends got together and made a collection to rent a portable toilet service for that space, certainly to benefit visitors in the coming weeks. And an offer has been extended of an apartment space for monastics to shelter during storms, bathe and do laundry. All of these things together mean that even when the snows fly, the practice can continue.

Even though they are practicing to be content with whatever comes their way, supporting three monks day after day is no easy task. Unlike many monasteries that overcome the uncertainty of almsround by running a kitchen, the monks are living together with no support staff. Gratitude to our many meal donors and friends in the town of Wendell who have consistently filled our bowls on almsround. We have not gone hungry!

Special thanks to the Indonesian Buddhist Family of NYC, the Wat Thai Thavorn sangha and community, the Cambodian community of Leverett, and our many friends on Facebook and Upavana.org who have made financial contributions! Last but not least, thank you to everyone who has been watching the wish list and donating needed items, often only days after they are posted.

Pavārana

Autumn is now fully upon us, and we are quickly approaching the Kattika full moon of October. This moon is particularly significant for monastics. It marks the end of our three month rains retreat, a time when we commit to live in a shelter, often communally with the same group. Before this moon preparations are already underway for what will come after: the kathina festival is offered, cloth is gathered and made into robes, and then the group splits up. Monks depart for other monasteries or places to practice.

To mark this occasion, the community has the option to gather for a special observance – a formal offering of invitation for feedback on their conduct over the last three months. This invitation, called the ‘Pavārana”, reflects one of the core values of the monastic order so different from the ways of the world. In the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha’s, there is no greater failure than to be seen as uninstructable, and no greater punishment than for the community to refuse to admonish and teach one. As the Buddha puts it in the paṭimokkha: “For this is growth in this dispensation – namely, mutual pointing out of faults and mutual rehabilitation.”

There are relationships within the sangha where feedback and even criticism are inherently permitted, such as in the relationship of a teacher to a student, but for the most part the feelings of goodwill and harmony among fellow monastics is protected. Monks are not meant to just indiscriminately criticize each other but to determine if they have permission to offer feedback, and ask for it if unsure. So on the Pavarana night this channel for mutual reflection is ceremonially opened between all members of the community. Recognizing the group will soon split up, everyone seeks forgiveness, reconciliation, and growth, so that should they come together again in the future it will be in kindness.

The way of the world is to seek praise and avoid blame, even blame for misdeeds actually committed. But admonishment to a practitioner on the path is the catalyst for growth, and one who offers it is ‘like a guide to buried treasure’. Still, when we feel called to point out anothers faults, there is a further list of five criteria the Buddha encouraged us to reflect on first.

We should ask, “Is what I am about the say Factual? Will it be Beneficial? Can I speak with Goodwill? Can I speak Kindly so my words are heard? Is this the right time?”

Where is our criticism coming from? What exactly was done? All too often we feel slighted and a story starts to form in our mind, but if we go back to the facts of the matter we may see the response we felt was based on our own hang-ups and wounds rather than what was actually done. If we feel anger or resentment arising, or the urge to make the other experience some sort of punishment for the hurt we felt, its often a sign that the fault is not entirely in the other person. Carelessness is blameworthy, sure, but anger is much more so. Merely venting our grievances might feel good temporarily but ultimately won’t yield the results we desire.

Sometimes one of the most important factors is checking to see that our motivation is to benefit the other. Can we see a situation in which our feedback will help them grow? And is it a feasible vision or just a hope? If we do, then even if our words are difficult to hear they may be received with gratitude. But stopping to check this might inform us that the most beneficial thing to do is to not speak up right then. Maybe the person is stressed, or maybe they are holding a grudge that is closing their ears to us. We may be guilty of the same fault we are about to point out. Or we might simply not know enough about the situation to see what their motivations we in that instant.

The skillful giving and receiving of feedback is exquisitely hard, but like all other skills we don’t improve if we don’t practice. We needn’t be downhearted if we don’t get the response we were hoping for – sometimes it takes a long time to process and make a change. Most people have difficulty hearing criticism, but the wise will learn from it. The idea that we are all capable of change and growth is the very refuge in Buddha, refuge in Awakening, and the reason why cutting someone off is only used as a last resort. For those among us willing to train and grow, or at the very least not unwilling to hear or speak difficult truths from time to time, a Pavarana is a great chance to explore this rare skill. Start by considering whose feedback you would really value, and then set the conditions to open the dialogue and keep a receptive mind.

Talk: Patterns of Life

In this lively Uposatha session, Tahn Pamutto, Santi, Sumano, and Tānakāro were hosted by the community at Vihara Parivara Dhamma Acala. Tahn Pamutto addresses the group with a Dhamma reflection on how to see the world through a new lens, taking lessons from nature and not seeing static beings but patterns and cycles. This is how one arrives at peace. After the reflection the monastics answer questions and the two new monastics reflect on their journey and ordination.

Look Inside an Ordination

MOVIE: CHANTING            MOVIE:  CHANTING

Tahn Tanakaro and Bhante Sumano began their journey in Empty Cloud monastery last year, but even though they found themselves ordaining in Wat Thai Thavorn, wherever a monk is ordained in the Theravada world the procedure is exactly the same. It has all been laid out in the monastic vinaya. It’s surprisingly pragmatic as far as ceremonies go!

First, candidates are given the novice ordination (Bhante Sumano already had this). This means they take the 10 precepts, are given a basic meditation technique, and put on the brown robes. From here, they are ready to request a senior monk to be their ‘preceptor’, who will vouch for them in the sangha. The preceptor then requests the sangha consider the candidates for ordination.

Not everyone can ordain – their are disqualifying factors like terminal illness, great debt, filial obligations, and government service. (You also have to be human!) The candidates are taken outside the group in order to be questioned about these factors, as well as prepared for their part in the ceremony. When they return they are formally questioned, then asked their names and the name of their preceptor.

Off to the side, some paperwork is being done. The names and times of the ordination are being recorded, along with the status of the preceptor, so that the candidates will be officially recognized in Buddhist countries like Thailand and Burma. Ajahn Tawin, the abbot of Wat Thai Thavorn, also made sure that Tan Santi and Tahn Pamutto were ready to be good ‘parents’ for the candidates! After all, Bhante Sumano and Tānakāro Bhikkhu will be growing up in the American tradition, rather than in a Thai Wat.

Finally, a legal motion is made three times to recognize the candidates, giving each monk in good standing a chance to object. Following this three announcements are made. Bhante Sumano and Tānakāro Bhikkhu are now bhikkhus!

The preceptor fulfills a further duty, immediately training the new monks in the four parajika, or defeats. Committing these four offenses results in immediate expulsion from the sangha. Other than these four things or disrobing, the monks can maintain their ordination as long as life lasts, and none can take it from them. They are then turned to face the lay community, who will support them in their journey of spiritual freedom. The combined sangha blesses the occasion with special chanting. Sadhu sadhu sadhu!

Uposatha Tonight

Tea with Tahn is cancelled tonight in favor of the Uposatha observance, being held online from where it first began in January at Vihara Parivaravihara Dhamma Acala. The program starts at 8pm.

Journey Continues

Back in May, Tahn Pamutto was just returning to Massachusetts and beginning the process of reconnecting with friends and Buddhists throughout the pioneer valley. It had only been a few weeks when he was contacted by Bhante Sumano and Anagarika Drew, who had left Empty Cloud monastery but were still wanting to continue their monastic education and seek ordination.

It was a precarious time to be a monastic without a temple, as COVID lockdowns were still in effect and many orders were not accepting any more members. Tahn Pamutto had experienced the similar lack of options the year before when he had sought to get reordained after his recovery from Lyme Disease. He had met Bhante Sumano and Drew on that journey and decided that he would provide what assistance he could.

Nevertheless, Upavana was still in its infancy. Tahn Pamutto could provide guidance and instruction in etiquette, the monastic vinaya precepts, teachings on dhamma and the skills of being a forest monk – but ultimately it would be the lay community of western Massachusetts who would decide whether there was room for two more monks. Could small American towns support a full monastic community appearing almost overnight?

The answer was a resounding yes, and they have seen it through to ordination. Bhante Sumano is now fully ordained, and Drew has become Tahn Tānakāro.

Though nothing came easy. The trainees had to be willing to live in the tradition of some of the most austere of Buddhist monks. They slept against the ground in tents with little space to themselves. They walked almsround in the village and learned to be content with a single meal per day. They endured torrential rains, blistering heat and humidity, and have transitioned to frosty nights. They have done it without complaint. In fact, if you asked, they would say they kinda dig it.

Checking in with young monks in other traditions, they were surprised. Very few get so much personal time with a teacher, and some are ordained for years before they get much detailed instruction in the monastic vinaya. For Tānakāro and Sumano, their dwellings and belongings are simple but they are blameless. With so little to go around everything is shared, even down to dividing a bagel or piece of fruit three ways. And yet when something is needed, there is enough.

Why would one practice in this way? What could be the benefit? Traditionally, the ‘dhutanga’ austerities are optional practices used to develop contentment. To understand this, consider the future for Tahn Tānakāro and Bhante Sumano. Wherever they go the beds will be softer than they are used to, the food will be more plentiful. They will get to bathe and do laundry more often. Every abode after their time in Massachusetts will be more comfortable than they need, and they can walk away from any temple without fear of discomfort or starvation. They have started in a position many monastics in wealthy monasteries long for – the simplicity of having so little there is nothing to be attached to.

As the winter approaches, Tahn Pamutto is preparing Upavana’s resources to support him in staying through the snows. He will continue to grow the organization so in the future more monks can be seen roaming the forests and practicing at the outskirts of small American towns. Bhante Sumano and Tānakāro will likely depart for warmer climates, but they take a wealth of lessons from their time. Be sure to check in with them while you have the chance, for like birds who have only their wings as burdens, they are likely to fly far with their new freedom!

Upavana Foundation info@upavana.org

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