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.

The Perfect Time

There’s no handbook for living the dhutanga lifestyle – there’s just a list of 13 ascetic practices and centuries of praise for those who undertake them. But that’s not to say there are no guiding principles to be found. They just must be discovered as you go. Nothing about the holy life makes sense from a warm, cozy, comfortable living room. But when you are living it, the maxims of practice, technique and lifestyle arise spontaneously.

One maxim of dhutanga life is also very useful for meditation practice in general. When one sets an intention to depart for wandering at a certain time, that is generally when they should leave. A storm might roll in, or news come in of a particularly good offering coming the next day; a recently washed robe might still be damp or one could have failed to get any sleep the night before. Nevertheless, they depart at the chosen time – sometimes into rain, sometimes with an empty belly, sometimes without useful supplies.

It’s not stubborness, nor is it blind faith, though it may seem so to the outside observer. It’s easier to understand in the context of meditation. We do everything we can to try to get the perfect environment to sit. We get enough sleep and try to eat healthy. We find a quiet space and a comfortable cushion. We silence our phone and clear our schedule. Finally, we sit. But as the bugs start to buzz, and cars rush by, and the hot sun emerges or a cold wind blows – at some point we have to let go. We will never get things perfect, and even if we did it won’t stay that way for long.

When we are planning for a project or the beginning of a journey, it’s very natural to want to get the conditions right. But if we focus too heavily on the physical conditions and the basic materials, we may overlook the spiritual conditions which are possibly more essential to our success. Our vision, our aspiration, and our willingness to work through challenges – this is what we should be safeguarding. Without this, even if everything else was perfect, we are likely to fail.

I can remember vividly half a dozen instances of ‘Going Forth’ when every sign was that I should stop and wait. I can recall the puzzled faces of other monastics as I stepped out into the rain to begin a journey at the appointed hour rather than wait. But I have seen time and again how the skies part not long after, and how I meet the right people on the road, and how everything works out. The perfect circumstances still arise — the difference is that I’ve gone out to meet them on the road.

All of this is to say, I’m looking forward to next month’s Anapanasati retreat – the first retreat I’ll be able to offer in Massachusetts since I first wandered here six years ago. There is no facility yet, or plan for meals, or participants or honestly any reason to think it should work out. Yet there is a date, and an idea, and an intention, and the willingness to find a way. It should be fun.

Sustained by Goodwill

I set off walking last Friday with a bowl full of offerings from Lusianna, Alex, and a growing network of friends. But a mere two miles later, they couldn’t have found me if they tried. For many, the important features on a map are those with names and symbols. For one seeking peace, it’s everything else. The blank spots are far from empty. They are where we go to find ourselves.

As beautiful and bountiful as the meals I received in Shelburne were, inevitably on Saturday morning my bowl and belly were empty. I had walked many miles the day before, not settling until I found a suitable resting place, and my body was sore and hard to rouse. By the time I got going, the only prospect for alms round was a small gas station, and I’d only be able to stand for half an hour before midday.

Standing off in a corner, I realized this small waystation was in competition with a bigger one up the road – and losing. There was no business. For twenty minutes I stood there practicing acceptance. It wasn’t so hard! I had been nourished well during my time in Shelburne, and I could go without for a day. The weather was nice, and I could return to my previous campsite for the day’s abiding.

I remembered a story from the commentary to the Pali canon – one of a lone dhutanga monk who didn’t get food on almsround. He retired to the open field where he was staying and sat in meditation. “I have no food,” he thought. “What if I sustain myself on joy, like the radiant deva’s?” And so he sat in oy and contentment, practicing samadhi. That night, when the weather turned cold, he wrapped up in his outer robe and thought, “I have no shelter. But there are these divine abodes. What if I stayed in these?” And so he practiced goodwill, compassion, joy and equanimity, and his heart was warm all night.

I started chanting the metta sutta and preparing myself to step back into the forest. You don’t have to believe me, but it wasn’t three minutes before the pumps were packed and my bowl was full – offerings from two strangers who gladly paused what they were doing when they realized they could treat a fellow human being to a meal.

I sat and ate in a nearby cemetery, contemplating what to do with the extra. I had been given enough for two days. Anyone intent on solitary life would have stayed and ate the extra meal the next day. But the monastic rules have us relinquish ownership – we cannot eat food we have stored for ourselves. We greet each dawn content with whatever is offered that day.

If I stored food I would have a guaranteed meal. But that meal would only feed the body. A gift, on the other hand, feeds the heart, and its nourishment lasts much longer. Every day, a monastic eats food not just to sustain their body but also to provide an opportunity for goodness. This is something you can experience yourself. Think back to a time when someone gave you something nice, even something small. Now … while you dwell on it, don’t you feel full?

“If you truly understood the benefits of giving,” the Buddha said, “You would not let a single meal go by without sharing something.” As a monk who rarely has physical things to share, my time and consideration are my wealth, and relinquishment of preference is the act of giving.

The abundance in my bowl was an opportunity to share with a friend living nearby, Brenda, and when we connected we drank coffee, shared stories, and then I showed her how to do walking meditation on a path in the forest. She kicked off her shoes and took to it like a pro.

All of this came from not storing a day’s feast; came from a stranger’s generosity; came from a blessing chant; came from leaving a warm dry shelter and walking into the unknown.

When we understand what really feeds us, we step off from hunger and thirst. We learn to nourish ourselves on goodwill, like the dhutanga monk in the story, and we find that a feast is always prepared for us. You don’t have to be an ascetic to make each meal an offering. Just ask yourself – which is more important: eating, or being nourished?