Mind vs Meditator

Our friend Laura has been sketching during talks and Wednesday tea times, using the inspiration of the dhamma to fuel a line of comics and illustrations.  She’s very prolific!  These comics are being gathered in a shared folder, though from time to time they are certain to show up on the website as she has given full permission to share them.

They can be found at:

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1mTaqG9Tc8JJmVejPBP_Wzq5OQlpLUJL5?usp=sharing

First Fundraising Goal Met

A little over one year ago, Tahn Pamutto set off for the woods of Western Massachusetts with the hope of developing resources and community from scratch.  There was no temple to go to, nor kitchen to supply daily alms-food.  There wasn’t even a place to store extra gear out of the rain.  But there was a vast network of kind friends and supporters and plenty of people thirsty for dhamma.  Though it might take years, Tahn decided the best way to gather momentum would be to be on the ground practicing, teaching, and connecting.

We can never know how things will turn out, so it was with a vague notion of what was possible and needed that Upavana set the first fundraising goal at $5000, considered enough to support a monastic teacher for several months in a rented apartment or office.  Though summer came before the funds arrived, a camper was purchased to shelter in, a pair of grassy fields were offered to camp on, and a steady stream of generosity kept not one but three monastics fed, clothed, and bathed through a long, hot, rainy summer.

Now, after a year, that first fundraising goal has been met!  It came not through one act of giving but from dozens of sources all over the world, the majority though coming from people right in the local area supporting their neighborhood buddhist group.  Anumodana to all our friends in the dhamma!

Through faith and practice, the shelter this goal was meant to provide has come by other means, meaning much of the funds are still available to keep moving forward with programs and are ready to support ongoing projects and growth.  Because in dhamma-practice success is often a function of being able to meet opportunities when and where they arise, there’s no way of knowing what the next fundraising goal will be.  Stay tuned, as there are bound to be plenty more opportunities to practice and grow this summer!

Seven Factors of Enlightenment Talks

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment daylong retreat was a success with many friends taking the time to spend their Saturday together in dhamma practice.

There were two talks and a Q & A session, of which the two talks were recorded from morning and afternoon.  These recordings can be found on the Innovative Dhamma youtube channel:

Family Group: Mudita

This week for the family group, we stepped sideways from the list of the ten perfections to cover an important wholesome emotion that doesn’t always get so much press: Mudita. Mudita is described as the feeling of joy we get upon perceiving happiness in ourselves or others. This emotion is one of the four brahma-vihara’s, along with Mettā, Karunā, and Upekkhā, but isn’t included as one of the ten paramī. While the other three emotions are wonderful antidotes to ill-will and resentment, Mudita has a different function. It occurs when we let go of jealousy, envy, and competition.

We began with a guided meditation. Pick someone in the room, and imagine it is their birthday. You’ve been saving up and planning and have arranged to give them a very special gift. This gift can be whatever you want and it doesn’t matter if it is expensive or rare or even if it doesn’t really exist. Just imagine the person you chose receiving the gift and delighting in it. Imagine their face, and how they act, and picture them enjoying the gift. We can notice how easy it is to feel happy for them on their special day and just let go of any need to put ourselves in the scenario.

We can’t help it: we live in a very competitive society. There are rich people and poor people, popular people and unpopular, successful and unsuccessful. The games we play have winners and losers, and in every form of politics and business it feels like people are competing to get to the top of the pile. It’s understandable then that these feelings trickle down into our everyday life and interactions, and that from the youngest age we deal with questions of value and fairness. When we see something nice or delightful, we inevitably start wondering who is going to get to possess it, and for how long.

We played a short and very funny clip: https://youtu.be/meiU6TxysCg

This video shows how some capuchin monkeys were rewarded with food for doing a basic task. When both monkeys are rewarded equally with simple cucumber there are no problems. But when one monkey is rewarded instead with tasty grapes, the other monkey rejects its cucumber reward and begins to throw a fit!

There’s a lot to see in this simple display. Humans are not so different from monkeys, and we have the same reaction when something seems unfair. But the solution is not to try to be sure everyone gets the same thing – that’s just not feasible on a world scale. Instead, Mudita is the source of happiness that is unlimited and inexhaustible. As the Dalai Lama said, “When you focus just on your own happiness, this provides limited opportunities. But when you get your happiness from seeing other people happy – sooo many more opportunities for happiness!” With some mudita, the cucumber-eating monkey could have delighted in his companion’s good fortune. And with mudita, the monkey who got the grapes might have realized how nice it would be to share with its friend!

We read a simple story from the book “Buddha at Bedtime”, about a wealthy man who taxed the villagers around him heavily and hoarded all his wealth. This miser lived this way for many years until one day he was caught on the road by some bandits and robbed of everything. He and his dog wandered cold and afraid through the countryside until they came upon a hut. There another man lived with his own dog, and though there was very little rice to share, the poor man shared it easily and happily. They spent the night together in the warmth of the hut, and by morning the miser realized that while he had amassed great wealth, what he had really been missing was the happiness the poor man had found in contentment. The four of them, dogs included, returned to the rich miser’s house the next day, and from then on were generous and supportive of all the villagers and a great source of happiness for their community.

When we look in the world we see sometimes that the poorest people are some of the happiest, and the people who have great wealth and opportunity are tremendously unhappy. While it doesn’t have to be this way, we see it time and again. The reason is how we use our mind. The poor person appreciates the things they do have, and that appreciation made a habit leads to satisfaction and contentment, even with the smallest things.

We finished up with a thought exercise. One of the reasons our games often end in arguments is because they are designed around a winner and loser. Both of our families actually have taken a lot of time to find board games that are cooperative rather than adversarial. But we don’t even have to invent a new game – sometimes we just have to change how we approach an old game. So we thought of a few games and how we might make them less about winning and losing and more about enjoying the playing together. One example was Scrabble. Imagine everyone playing working together to get the highest combined score? Or another is Monopoly – how long can you keep everyone in the game, by giving loans and leasing nice properties and holding fundraisers when players fall behind?

The big question – which is more like actual life? Does life have winners and losers, or is it more like the cooperative game?

Family Group: Death

This weekend with the family group, we took a pause from covering the paramī’s to open a conversation on the topic of Death. As we said when we were wrapping up, the conversation didn’t end – it was in fact the beginning of a larger, ongoing conversation that we could each have. Together we can experience and consider what it is like living in a world where all beings must eventually pass away. This is one of the real strengths of a religious tradition that embraces practical realities – it’s almost easier to begin talking about these things as a group, and by recognizing that we’re basically on equal ground concerning the unknowns of death and how to relate to it.

We started with a short three minute clip: https://youtu.be/Ku_GUNzXoeQ . It shows how wild elephants behave when they come upon a dead member of their herd. The scene actually wouldn’t be much different for human beings – they stop, they linger, they think, they examine the body, they even ‘cry’ from special glands by their temples. Even in the animal kingdom, the subject of death is a mystery.

Then we did a guided meditation. In adult groups, it’s usually possible to have a visualization by imagining our own body in front of us. But this time Tahn Pamutto laid down as a visual aid, staying deathly still for ten minutes. It helped spark conversation points as everyone got to consider what it would be like if Tahn laid down and never got up again. The children actually couldn’t resist giving it a try at the end, though they were slightly more giggly corpses.

We took some time to explore the mystery by listing things that we know and don’t know about death. We know that the body grows cold, stiff, and still. It can’t talk or eat or drink. It won’t be able to comfort loved ones or avoid harm. But we don’t know what death is like – don’t know what the conscious experience is because as living people, we haven’t yet died. We don’t know if it’s painful or what happens to the mind.

In between these two realities, we have the fear and stress around death, which adult and children alike were able to describe and conceptualize in different ways. Where does it come from? Well, the unknowns of course (we don’t know when we will die, or how, or where we go from there). But also from the loss that is experienced. The loss of possessions, of friends, or family, of our bodies and lives. Seen in that light of course it’s stressful! But in talking it out we were able to also see the limits of the stress. After all, not knowing the time of death also means we may have a lot of time.

To keep this opening discussion from being too heavy, we also worked in a nice scavenger hunt with clues around different rituals relating to the dead. Scouring the internet for a slideshow also revealed that a lot of funerals and day of the dead celebrations are pretty colorful affairs!

Looking at Sīla

This week our family group was studying the parami of Sīla.  We started by asking the question, “What is Sīla?”  The adults were able to chime in with a few ideas.  What do you think?  How would you describe Sīla to one who had never heard the word?

When we did this, a lot of definitions involved the word ‘rules’. In fact, sīla is a special kind of ruleset. Our sīla involves rules we voluntarily take on for the sake of peace for ourselves and others. It involves letting go of activities we know to be harmful. The result is greater peace, confidence, and security.

A great example of the results of Sīla is to look at the two realms of existence where sīla is most important: the Human Realm and the Animal Realm. The main difference between these two realms, besides amounts of hair and numbers of legs, is that in the Human realm most beings voluntarily follow rules in order to fit in society. In the Animal realm there is no sīla. It is a realm where beings kill each other, take each others things, and have a pretty difficult life for the most part.

As humans we get to have our own house or room and we don’t worry much about having our stuff taken. We can store food and be comfortable when the weather is bad. We can talk with each other and have long conversations because we trust the other person isn’t lying or trying to manipulate us.

We can look at the differences between the two realms and see how this small change in kamma, to follow rules, makes for a big change in quality of life. There are many rules, but the five most important are the Five Precepts.

  1.  Not to kill
  2. Not to steal
  3. Not to cheat in relationships or break friendships
  4. Not to lie or use insults
  5. Not to take drink or drugs which cause us to lose control

Our story this week is one of the ‘Dasa Jataka’ or Ten Famous Births.  It is one of the longest stories in the collection of Jataka stories, and one of the most famous.  It details a time late in the Bodhisatta’s quest to become a full Buddha.  The portion we looked at with the group was just a portion of it, designed to address some of the parts most relevant to Sīla.

STORY: BHURIDATTA

Characters: Bhuridatta, Hunter, Snake-Charmer, Sudassana, King

NARRATOR: This is the story of one of the great lives of the Bodhisatta while he was trying to develop the parami’s. It is a story about Sīla. In this life the bodhisatta was born as the son of the Nāgā king and was called Bhuridatta. Nāgā’s are a kind of dragon. They are long and thin like snakes, and prefer to live in watery places like rivers, lakes, and the ocean. There they have magical powers and can fly, or change size, or make things appear.

But even though being a dragon sounds cool, it is not all good. Dragons are still considered to be part of the animal realm, and life for an animal is not easy. Most of the time you are hunting for food or trying not to get eaten. When dragons leave their kingdom they become vulnerable. There are flying birds called Garuda’s that eat them, and even powerful animals can be captured or controlled by regular human beings.

The worst part about being an animal is how hard it is to develop the parami’s. This is because animals are very bad at keeping Sīla, like the Five Precepts. Even as a Prince, Bhuridatta saw it was almost impossible to keep the Five Precepts as a Nāgā. The first precept was to not kill, but nāgā’s hunt fish and deer for food! How could he keep that precept?

Also, animals are always taking things from each other. One dragon might try to take another dragon’s things, or their lair, or their partner. When they go on dry land it is very dangerous, so they are always wearing disguises and telling lies.

QUESTIONS: What things make is easier for you to practice the Five Precepts? What things make it harder?

BHURIDATTA: It would be too hard to keep the Five Precepts every day for me! I would die from hunger or lose everything I own. But if I don’t try, I will never have a peaceful life like humans and deva’s. In the human realm they have a practice called the Uposatha. This means they follow the precepts for one day every two weeks. Maybe I can do that?

NARRATOR: So Bhuridatta decided to start keeping the Uposatha and taking the Five Precepts on that day. Because the Nāgā realm was so noisy, he would go to dry land and sit on an anthill all day. He couldn’t eat without hunting, so he would spend the day trying to meditate and think about keeping the precepts.

One day a hunter was out gathering food and discovered Bhuridatta.

HUNTER: AHHHH! A giant snake!!

BHURIDATTA: Good sir, today is the Uposatha. I’m trying hard not to kill or steal or tell lies. So I won’t hurt you. You should know I look like a snake, but I’m really a powerful dragon. Please leave me in peace. Don’t tell anyone I am here.

NARRATOR: For a while Bhuridatta and the Hunter had an agreement. Bhuridatta showed the Hunter and his son the Nāgā world, and the Hunter kept Bhuridatta’s secret.

But one day a Snake Charmer came to town. The Snake Charmer had been trained in using a special spell to capture Nāgā’s and control them. He had a gem he had taken from a Nāgā once. The Hunter recognized the gem from his time in the Nāgā world and knew it granted wishes. He really wanted it!

HUNTER: Oh Snake Charmer – that is a dragon gem. It’s very dangerous! Maybe you should give it to me. I’ll take it and throw it away for you.

SNAKE CHARMER: That’s strange, you say it is dangerous but you look like you really want it for yourself. I don’t believe you! I know this dragon gem is valuable. But how do you know about dragon gems? You are just a simple hunter!

HUNTER: I know these gems because I have seen a Nāgā.

SNAKE CHARMER: If you take me to that Nāgā, I will give you the gem. Deal?

QUESTIONS: Did the Hunter get what he wanted by lying to the Snake Charmer? When we lie do we usually get what we want or does it make things harder?

QUESTIONS: The Hunter promised Bhuridatta he would keep his secret. Is breaking a promise telling a lie? When might breaking a promise be a lie and when might it not be a lie? If you can’t keep a promise you made, what might you do to help the situation?

NARRATOR: The Hunter had begun to think of Bhuridatta as his friend, but when he saw the gem he forgot all about his friendship. He started reminding himself that Bhuridatta was just an animal. Most human’s don’t respect animals and this Hunter was no different. He agreed to the deal and led the Snake Charmer to the anthill. When Bhuridatta came the next day for the Uposatha, the snake charmer was there waiting.

SNAKE CHARMER: I have you now! I will cast a spell to control you! UMA DUMA NAGA LAGA!

BHURIDATTA (to himself): Young dragons are easy to control and are very afraid of spells. This spell is making my scales itch, but that is all. I have been practicing the precepts. I know I am always in control of my actions! I would normally just bite this snake charmer to break his spell, but today is the Uposatha. I have taken the precept not to kill. This must be an opportunity to practice. I will try not to get angry.

NARRATOR: The snake charmer brought out a basket and commanded that Bhuridatta shrink down and get inside. Bhuridatta did. When he was inside the Snake Charmer threw the dragon gem to the Hunter as a reward, but the Hunter dropped it and it disappeared in the sand.

HUNTER: Nooooo!

NARRATOR: The Snake Charmer took the basket and Bhuridatta to the city, where he started a show. He would play a flute and Bhuridatta would come out to show people he was under the snake charmer’s control. Bhuridatta thought that once the snake charmer made some money he would become happy and let him go. But the more money the snake charmer made, the more greedy he got! His shows kept getting bigger and bigger. All this time Bhuridatta tried to practice the parami’s, like Khanti (Patience), Nekkhama (Renunciation), and especially Sīla. He was getting very hungry, and weaker by the day. But he kept trying because he wanted to master keeping the precepts.

QUESTIONS: Animals have much less choice than humans. What are some ways that humans control them or take things from them? Imagine you were an animal – is there any job you would be willing to do for people?

Bhuridatta’s family was very worried about him. Even though it was dangerous, his brothers and sisters all split up to search different places on Earth. His brother, Sudassana, was the one picked to search the beaches. There he found the hunter digging in the sand trying to find the gem. The Hunter panicked when he saw this new Nāgā, but Sudassana roared and cornered him. The Hunter started crying and told all about what he had done. Sudassana got very angry. He changed into a human form to disguise himself then forced the Hunter to lead him to the city.

On this day the Snake Charmer was giving his biggest show ever. Even the King was there. The Snake Charmer played his flute and made Bhuridatta do tricks and fly through the air. That was what was happening when Sudassana arrived. When Bhuridatta saw his brother, he became embarrassed and hid back in the basket. He had been trying to do the right thing, but sometimes that’s hard and he knew his brother wouldn’t understand.

At first Sudassana was so angry smoke came from his ears, but when he stopped to think he realized Bhuridatta must have a good reason for not breaking free. He knew his brother wanted to practice the precepts, but that shouldn’t mean letting someone taking advantage of you. He wondered if there was some way the Nāgā’s could stand up for themselves without being violent.

Sudassana went up to the king.

SUDASSANA: Great King! I see you are letting this Snake Charmer harm a great being for fun. You probably didn’t realize this is no ordinary Nāgā – it is a Prince of the Nāgā Kingdom! Are you trying to start a war?

KING: Who are you to accuse the King? I swear I just came for the show!

SUDASSANA: I am this Nāgā’s brother and also a Prince! You humans have built your cities and polluted our rivers. Because we don’t want to make bad kamma, we have left you alone. But capturing one of our family is going too far! We Nāgā’s don’t have many weapons, but we do have strong magic. We deserve your respect!

NARRATOR: Then, Sudassana pulled a frog out of his hat.

SUDASSANA: This is not a frog, it is my sister transformed to look like a frog. She has a special power in this form! When she gets sad she cries, and her tears are radioactive! If they land on the ground, all plants there will die. If they go in the water, that water will be undrinkable. If they are scattered in the air the air will be poisonous for seven years. Good King! When my sister sees now what you have been doing to her brother, she is going to cry!

KING: Oh no! What can we do?!

SUDASSANA: You should quickly dig a deep hole to contain the tears!

NARRATOR: So the King ordered his guards to dig quickly. As the Princess Frog looked at the basket with Bhuridatta, a tear formed in her eye. The guards finished the hole just in time. Sudassana held his sister over the hole and the single tear fell in. When it hit the ground it went BOOM! so loudly it scared everyone in the crowd. The King came down and knelt next to Sudassana and his sister.

KING: Oh Princess of the Nāgā’s, we humans are sorry to have made you cry! When we mistreated your brother we didn’t know what harm we were doing. I see now your brother could have hurt us at any time but restrained himself. Please forgive us! We will release him immediately, and from this day forth all Nāgā’s in the kingdom are to be treated with kindness and respect!

NARRATOR: When Bhuridatta heard this, he burst out of the basket and grew to his full size, shining with a bright yellow light. He knew his Sīla had helped his kingdom greatly. Everyone cheered to see Bhuridatta happy.

Then Sudassana turned angrily towards the Hunter who betrayed Bhuridatta.

HUNTER: Uh-oh.

SUDASSANA: All of this started because you were a bad friend! I think we should drag you back to the ocean and punish you!

BHURIDATTA: Brother, there is no need. There is no punishment we could give him that would be worse than what this Hunter already feels. He has lost his friend, he lost his gem, and now nobody will trust what he says. Let him stay and live as a reminder of how important it is to live by the Precepts!

The End!

Indian snake charmer and dancing cobra

Upcoming Retreat

Next week, from Sat, Feb 19 until Sat, Feb 26th, we’ll be having a full retreat schedule here at the Shelburne, MA apartment.  It will begin at 6am with morning puja and conclude with an evening sit.  During the day there will be regular times for group meditation as well as scheduled breaks.  There may be talks or reflections given which can be recorded.

If you live in the area and would like to participate in some capacity, send an email to info@upavana.org for more information.

New Venue, Same Mission

Tahn Pamutto has returned to Western Mass, and after a month of relative quiet Upavana is now back to having both in-person and online activities. The period away was a rich and fruitful time of visiting friends, encouraging communities, and reconnecting with traditional buddhism. It has allowed for a few transitions – namely, the offering of an apartment space for Tahn and for the hosting of modestly-sized sittings, sutta studies, and other activities.

Fellow Upavana board member Alex has helped greatly in getting together a rotation of friends in the area for a Dana calendar (Sangha – Upavana.org). Many locals are or have been affiliated with the Dhammadhara Vipassana Meditation Center, which is quite close. Tahn’s almsrounds will be to these local families, with enough gaps in the schedule for friends from further afield to grab a slot when interested.

The space is not only a very comfortable living space for a monastic but is also a great place to host the regular online offerings. Hopefully, it will also be welcoming venue for friends who would like to gather for meditation, chanting, and dhamma. The space was warmed up with an hour-long block of devotional chanting until midnight on New Year’s. From here, morning meditation and chanting will be a regular event open to friends, and perhaps more on the schedule in the coming weeks.

Many blessings to our friends who are graciously offering the space!

Back Online

Tahn Pamutto is back in the MA area, and the Upavana site and Facebook are likely to see more use after gathering a bit of dust over holidays. He’ll be settling down in a new space in Shelburne, MA, for the near future – more on that in the coming days.
Tonight, the weekly Tea & Meditation begins at 7pm EST as usual – all are welcome. Coming up this Sunday is the New Moon Uposatha. Both events are broadcast via ZOOM (see upavana.org for details)

Upavana Foundation info@upavana.org

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