Undestanding Vipassana and Samatha

Last night Upavana hosted it’s first in-person Uposatha session, with a great turnout both from online regulars and friends in the area of Shelburne, MA. The Uposatha is the traditional time for Buddhist laypeople and monastics alike to gather, commit to their precepts, and share dhamma. It will be one of the first main in-person offerings for Upavana during this time while Tahn Pamutto is floating around, and will be hosted in a variety of places until a location is found for a center for the summer.

To mark the occasion, Tahn Pamutto gave a very informative and descriptive talk on Vipassana practice as it is experienced in meditation, and how understanding its relationship to samatha or calming meditation allows us to take it to its conclusion.

Following the talk is about 15 minutes of questions and answers from the group.

 

First In-Person Uposatha

New Moon Uposatha

Tonight Upavana will be hosting it’s first in-person Uposatha session from 8-12 pm. Because of COVID the gathering will be of limited attendance, but anyone who would like to join online can do so with Zoom.

The session begins at 8pm EDT with a 45 minute meditation. There will then be a chance to take the Refuges and Precepts, followed by a talk by Tahn Pamutto entitled “Understanding Vipassana and Samatha” at 9pm.

All Zoom information can be found at: http://www.upavana.org/events

Back Home

“Even before I arrived in Massachusetts, fragments of my previous time of wandering were starting to come back: Dhammapada verses I use to study at first light, tips and tricks with my gear, maxims of walking and interacting with people. It was the feeling of coming home … not to a place, but to a way of life. The goal of returning this time is not just to wander like I did before. Nevertheless, it is always an option for a forest monk – and a wonderful way to awaken energy and share the dhamma.

A few days ago I set off walking through the countryside again, and it wasn’t long before the experience started touching on some deep memories. I’ve traveled these ways before, and I had the feeling I knew a story for each house along the way. Less than an hour of walking and a couple drove up who had been to Upavana’s online Uposatha a few weeks back – when I was still in New York city. Such impossible coincidences are commonplace when one trusts their intuition. No matter what happens, be it fortunate or challenging, if one has the right frame of mind it is exactly what they or someone else needed at that moment.

On Saturday I met a young man who offered to show me a small cabin he was building in the woods – always an interesting prospect to a forest monk – explaining that it was on the other side of a rushing mountain-fed stream. Looking at the frigid water he was wading into, I needed to take a long moment to build up my courage. But what luck to have an opportunity to face a fear! I steeled my nerve and walked in after him. After a minute it was over and we were both on the other bank where the cabin was.

The dhutanga monk’s life is like this. Be it a day without food, or a long walk in the sun, or having a tent flood in the rain – every situation one encounters helps them find another thing that isn’t really as bad as it seems. Our anticipation of a disaster is often far worse than the itself. In the beginning there is fear, and then to face it there is courage. Finally, there is fearlessness, and like the enterprising young man we just wade into cold water without thinking about it. We know we’ll be fine.

The next night when said tent was filling with water and soaking my robes, forcing me to sit upright four hours until dawn, I was surprised at the equanimity. “It’s just water.” I thought. Nowhere’s near as cold as that stream.

The experience had me reflecting on a treasured Dhammapada verse:

“Those mindful ones exert themselves, not attached to any home;

Like swans who fly from a lake, they leave place after place behind.” (Dhp 91)

People like to claim a house or apartment; even squirrels choose a tree and guard it jealously. But the home of a swan is not any particular lake – their home is the water itself. And this is the situation of one who commits wholeheartedly to dhamma practice. Over time their attachment to worldly circumstances fall away, and the stilling and training of the heart becomes their abode. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing, if they have the chance to learn and grow and seek their freedom, they are at home.

First Steps

On Sunday, Tahn Pamutto arrived in Massachusetts. It’s been two and a half years since he was last a wandering forest monk, traveling up and down the country roads sharing dhamma, friendship, and the occasional cup of coffee. For the first two days of his return, the unfailingly hospitable Indonesian community found their perfect ambassador in the north – Lusiana and her mother Lauw. And Tahn led the chanting and meditation morning and evening.

From their porch on Monday night, Upavana hosted its first ‘online open-house’ to address the prospects of starting a center in the area. Half a dozen dear friends showed up throughout the evening to learn about the project and share suggestions, and notably not one Zoom window opened from residents of the same town. For three years, Tahn Pamutto wandered and met good people throughout the area, joining their communities and supporting the many styles and traditions he found already flourishing. It will be interesting to see how things unfold as he settles down and begins sharing his own style of practice, of the forest tradition, with others.

The tea time conversation on Wednesday focused on the idea of control. In the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha asks the monks, “Monks, can you say to your body – “Be this way, Don’t be that way?” With this question he was pointing out a subtle but undeniable fact. We have apparent control – we can move our limbs and style our hair – but when it comes to aching limbs or a sudden flu that can’t be avoided with any quantity of Vitamin C, we are shocked back to the reality that we are also passengers along for a ride.

Neither the perspective of being in control or the perspective of having no control is ultimate reality. Control isn’t a fact, it’s just a concept to describe our ability to influence a situation through our choices. We unerringly receive the effects of past decisions, but our present and future is built on the decisions we make now. So part of the Middle Way is knowing when to focus on the things we are in control of, like actions of body, speech, and mind, and when to focus on letting go.

Setting off on a journey can be daunting if we try to figure out how it will all go. But the end result is not something we can know at the outset. The point of greatest control is not the end – it’s just the very next step. That’s where our energy is best spent.

A Field of Merit

In the early years of the sangha, cloth was scarce and monks patched together whatever they could find to cover their bodies. But as the Buddha’s renown grew, there came to be enough cloth to choose a pattern for robes. One day Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, offered to make him a new robe and asked, “How should it look?” The Buddha was reportedly standing on a hill overlooking rice paddies at the time and said with a smile, “The fields of Magadha are beautiful, are they not?” Ananda understood. Since that time, the rice field design has been the symbol of Buddhist monks across traditions, and the connection between the order of monastic renunciants and the common people who support them undeniable and true.

The Buddha referred to the Sangha as ‘a field of merit for the world’, and this is the reality every man and woman is born into when they don the robes. They let go of who and what they were before and become a field in which the seeds of many good deeds can be sown. While food given will sustain the monk and cloth will keep them warm, the goodness generated by each act of generosity, kindness, and respect will support the giver for a long time to come.

Tahn Pamutto’s last days in NYC were a wonderful reminder of the many seeds sown over the last nine months and the many people who take part in the life of every practitioner – friends and supporters from his time at Empty Cloud, the enormously generous Indonesian Buddhist Family, and the monks and laypeople who were at his ordination last year, including his preceptor.

May they all enjoy happiness and good fortune as one time comes to an end and a new one begins! As long as people gather to do good things and honor what is worthy of honor, there will not cease to be a field for the growing of one’s own happiness and freedom in the world!

What is Tudong?

Today, most monastics live in temples and monasteries. Some of these are grand, purpose-built institutions, while others are rented houses or apartments on average city streets. The monastery serves as a place to pool resources, gather for practice, and is easily accessible to the communities that support it.

Recognizing that the mind easily acclimates to comfort, the Buddha also allowed monks and nuns to follow special ‘dhutanga’ practices, or austerities. These involve developing contentment with the basic standard of support – alms food gathered in the begging bowl, living in the forest, and having nothing more than the robes and gear one can carry. Rather than taking the monastery as a support, these practitioners take the dhutanga’s themselves as a support, and travel freely in search of whatever conditions are most beneficial for liberation.

In Thailand, when a monk leaves the shelter of a monastery to practice the dhutanga’s and live independently, they are said to be ‘going tudong’, a thai form of the word dhutanga. They might practice this way for a few days or for years, and forest monasteries often closely model themselves after the lifestyle of these austere individuals.

The Buddha himself gave special audiences to monks who practiced the dhutanga’s, as he said they were inspiring. So too, whether in Thailand or in the West, those monastics who dare to leave the shelter of a monastery often find they have access to resources and teachings they never would have known about otherwise. Everywhere they go, they get to spread enthusiasm for dhamma.

The Buddha didn’t require anyone to practice the dhutanga’s. They are optional practices, and those who attempt them are often hard to find. But should you meet a tudong monk on the road one day, consider yourself lucky! Such reminders of the path of the enlightened beings are rare in our world.

Upaya – Skillful Means

We dust off the shrine, light a few candles, chant some words of veneration, bow in the direction of the altar … and then we sit and begin the practice of meditation. We might have the idea that our practice doesn’t begin until we reach the cushion, but would we do the rituals if they didn’t contribute to the overall experience? If these rituals settle the mind and warm the heart, perhaps they are as much the practice as following our breath.

The topic of skillful means is broad and general. In short, anything we do which encourages wholesome mindstates and diminishes unwholesome mindstates is a valuable accessory to our growth on the path. There’s no one right answer or perfect ritual. We are given free license to experiment and explore until we find what works best for us.

Last night during the uposatha, Tahn Pamutto offered a reflection on skillful means, and how we can judge our strategies and techniques against a framework like the Four Noble Truths to determine if we’re on the right track.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQjTW3DPQWw

Blessings and Prayer

On Sunday Bhante Pamutto gave the talk ‘Fear and Prudence’ for the Vipada Indonesian Buddhist Family. The recording is at:

We live in a world of risks and statistics. If we watch the news it could seem like it’s too dangerous even to go outside sometimes.

We probably don’t even realize that we’re being bombarded with this view of the world every day, but it’s there and it’s oftentimes overwhelming. How do we find the right way forward when everything we do seems to be fraught with hidden dangers?

As Bhante Pamutto explained, nothing has changed about the world from the time of the Buddha. There has always been a chance of illness and death, and by those same statistics our chances of survival have actually gone up considerably. So why are we so much more concerned? Why don’t we all just walk down the street trusting in our karma?

That’s not exactly the prescription, though understanding cause and effect is part of getting out of the trap of fear. We can take precautions, and alter our conduct based on circumstances. But the important factor is not eliminating risk — the harder we try, the more we introduce new risks of stress and alienation. Truly understanding cause and effect is to understand that the most important factors start in the mind. Being prudent is knowing how to balance caution with wholesome mindstates. We’ve got to start questioning the worldview being put forward, and learning to see things a little different.

The talk is followed with Q & A including Tan Santi further developing the ideas of fear, courage, and self-compassion.

Heart of the Community

On Sunday, Tahn Pamutto and Tan Santi joined fellow monastics with Wat Thai Thavorn in visiting their Albany branch temple – along with a large contingent of of the Indonesian Buddhist Family.

The purpose of the trip was to inter the ashes of friend and family member Robby Mulyadi, as well as three others, at the base of freshly planted trees. The afternoon, from the generous potluck meal to the gathering of friends to the planting of the trees, was a wonderful example of how many facets of life are tied together by a temple.

The land was donated only a few years ago, and has needed work and donations to be ready to receive guests and host both laypeople and monastics for meditation. But, wanting to give charity, where better than the place where you and your family can go to get out of the city? Children played and adults shared stories, all in the peace of the quiet country neighborhood. When nobody is visiting, the resident monks use it as a quiet retreat for practice.

Looking around, one can’t find anything that doesn’t have someone’s fingerprints on it, and they’ll be able to reflect on their part in getting the place running for years to come. Most importantly for the task of the day, when loved ones come to remember those who have passed, they’ll be combining it with the support of community and activities they enjoy.

Transitions

On May 2nd, after over four months staying with the Indonesian Buddhist Family of NY, Tahn Pamutto will be departing and heading back to the woods of Massachusetts. Not enough can be said about the kindness and generosity of the community in NYC! This has been a wonderful experience and Tahn’s only regret is that he’ll be leaving just as the community is getting vaccinated and is beginning to think about gathering in person again.

The Vihara’s Sunday online event will be cancelled this week to allow for a community gathering in Albany, NY, but will resume again on Apr 25.

With the transition from the city back to the forest, the flavor of Upavana’s posts and offerings will begin to shift towards it’s original goal – to support the founding of a practice community in the Theravada Forest tradition style. Tahn will begin May by returning to the practice of wandering in order to meet local practitioners and establish lines of communication. The online offerings are expected to continue, though they are going to be accompanied with in-person sittings wherever Tahn might be – until a more stable location for the summer is found.

Expect to see more photos of the transition and journey and feel free to join the online offerings every Wednesday, Friday, and Lunar Observance – the best support is your practice!