Why the Suffering, Mate?

Hanging out with Buddhist monastics is not always what one might consider uplifting. The conversation will start amicably enough, the weather or what so-and-so said, but it’s really just a matter of time before it wanders into areas where most casual conversations abruptly die. Aging, sickness, death, and loss. Inevitably, the conversation will move to and embrace the topics of suffering that too often people are avoiding or ignoring. What is suffering? Where does it come from? Why is it important?

I remember once having been invited to sit and talk with a woman who had just reached the end of a years-long battle with Lymes disease and regained her strength. She talked about the struggle, the fear, the bitterness towards her doctors. But the moment I pointed out and started talking about suffering, she threw up her hands. “Why do you monks always want to talk about suffering?!” I was stunned into silence. I thought that’s what we had been talking about the whole time.

But why is dukkha the theme of so many talks, so many meditations, so many retreats? Why does it come up again and again in so many forms? Our tea time talk last night inevitably touched on the topics, as one participant revealed a serious medical diagnosis and the very real contemplation on death that he was working with. If you had come to the tea time hoping to talk about generosity or devas or states of meditation you might roll your eyes, but anyone who paid attention long enough would likely realize the topic of conversation wasn’t merely about death. It was about life.

What happens when we contemplate sickness? We realize how special it is to be healthy. How rare and fragile and beautiful. The health of our body is something so basic we categorically overlook it until those moments when it fails us, and then we experience shock and loss. But to turn towards this contemplation in the good times, to consider how sickness could come at any moment, is to polish off the dust of apathy from the choices about how we spend our time. We breathe a little deeper, and maybe step away from the computer into a sunbeam. Why don’t we go for a walk? While we still can!

It’s the same with aging, and with death. Turning towards these things is to ask of ourselves – if I knew I was going to die tomorrow, would I still be doing this task right now? It’s one of my favorite contemplations of death, because done properly it is a celebration of a life skillfully lived. When every activity we find ourselves doing, even the seemingly mundane and trivial ones like brushing our teeth or cleaning up after ourselves, is something that we would do regardless of whether we will live for one more day or a hundred, then we know we are living our best possible life. It doesn’t matter so much the activities. Just the mindfulness and joy we bring into them. We breathe, we relax, and we do.

Monastics and dedicated practitioners, for all their talk and contemplation of suffering, are some of the most up-beat, energetic people I’ve met. They’ve cultivated their lives and their minds like gardens towards the harvest of what’s beneficial and lasting, and have pulled all the weeds of indolence and indulgence. They live every moment to the fullest and never regret all the places they haven’t seen or cuisines they haven’t tasted. There’s nowhere they would rather be than right here, right now. That’s the path of the Buddha’s teaching, and it’s practice, and it’s goal all in one. He talked about suffering for 45 years straight, but go look at your nearest statue of him and you’ll see – 2500 years and he’s still smiling.

Cemetary Contemplation

A brief 360 degree video transporting you to Mt. Zion Cemetary in Brooklyn, NYC. Sitting among generations of the departed, one is close to the heart of what it means to be a human in a transient world.

 

Sickness and Health

Vihara Parivara Dhamma’s weekly Sunday morning program. This week’s topic: “Sickness and Health” by Bhante Pamutto.

“I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness.” This is something the Buddha encourages us to reflect upon every day, to develop wisdom into the realities of life. Yet how do we do this, and what insights can we expect to find? This talk, with questions and answers after, explores the topic and guides the audience through various ways of contemplating this theme.

 

Unwavering Support

Lots of gratitude to the generous and devoted community here at Parivara Dhamma. Even in the midst of a blizzard that has otherwise closed the city down, the monks were able to eat and maintain the strength for another day and night of practice.

Where better than your local temple to spend a snow day?

January Update


For most of my monastic life, January has been a time of moving inward. Many monastic communities see this as the necessary time for deep retreat; with cold temperatures and long nights the conditions seem perfect for lots of formal practice.

So it’s been a pleasant break from the norm to see the birth of community and the movement towards growth amidst the long dark of winter’s midpoint. Little by little we’ve been adding something new, and people have been showing up. Out of a collection of separate practitioners, a community is arising.

At the beginning of the year Upavana began hosting Zoom meetings for meditation, personal interviews, dhamma ‘tea times’ and monastic discipline studies. While their time in NYC overlaps, Bhante Pamutto and Bhante Jayasāra have been combining their efforts to encourage practice. Together with the online MaggaSekha group, this makes for a pretty full week of dhamma options.

The foremost goal has been to support Buddhist practice, and in turn the shows of support keep coming back. The Indonesian Buddhist Family of New York have been fantastic hosts to Bhante Pamutto and Jayasāra, offering abundant food, shelter, and technical support – making it possible to be productive despite the pandemic and the inability to establish a physical location until conditions improve.

As for moving towards a center, Tahn Pamutto and Santi have their first offers for places to stay once they arrive in Massachusetts, probably sometime in May. The application for federal non-profit status has been submitted, and when word comes back it will be possible to take advantage of all the varieties of fundraising tools available to charity organizations. It won’t take that much capital to kick things off, though, and both monastics are happy to work with what they have when the time comes. There’s excitement at the prospect of starting something new.

February is sure to continue the interesting trends and bring fresh ideas and growth! Stay tuned!

The Refuge of Dhamma

Following on from Bhante J’s talk last Sunday (link coming soon) on the Qualities of Dhamma, Vihara Parivara Dhamma has produced professionally captured and edited dhamma talks to share.

Tahn Pamutto speaks on the Dhamma, beginning with an introduction to the Theravada Pali Canon and culminating in an explanation of the higher dhamma we wake up to through our practice.