Family Group: Pañña, Wisdom

With summer vacations and COVID outbreaks cutting into our schedules, it’s been awhile since our last family group and it will be awhile still before the next one.  But it was a joy to come together for a special session dealing with a very special topic- one of the most important qualities we can develop to avoid pain and cultivate happiness.  That is, of course, Wisdom.

We started with some questions to help reach a common understanding:

What is Wisdom? Who is wise? What is the opposite of wisdom? What supports wisdom? What helps wisdom grow?

All the while we had some pictures up on the screen of wise figures from history and lore:  socrates, confucious, ghandi, hermits and yogis, the buddha, even yoda!  Though it’s not a normal line of conversation, we found that there was a lot of agreement.  We do, as individuals, understand what wisdom is.  So it’s good to make much of it, and understand what it’s for, where it is weak and strong, and how to grow through our lives.  It’s also good to reiterate that if we don’t know the solutions to a problem we face, we can always seek advice from someone we know to be at least more wise and calm than ourselves.

The highlight of the group is always the chance to act out a story from the Buddha’s own quest to develop the paramī’s, and this week we had a story about Mahosadha, or Great Wisdom, one of the ten last lives of the Bodhisatta and a beloved jataka tale of the ages.

 

The Story of Mahosadha

This is the story of one of the last ten lives of the Bodhisatta. The last ten are some of the most important stories because the Bodhisatta had been working on all ten paramī’s for a long time and was almost done. There were many lifetimes where the bodhisatta was developing his Wisdom, but in this life he was really put to the test.

Characters: King, Mahosadha, Sage, Kevatta the Warchief

This story takes place long ago in the great kingdom city of Vedeha. In this city there was a king who was a little foolish and tended to believe whatever he was told. But he tried hard to rule his kingdom the right way, so he found the four wisest sages in all Vedeha to be his advisers. These sages sometimes argued to try to win the position of chief sage, but generally they gave good advice and the kingdom of Vedeha prospered. Whenever he had a problem or decision to make, he would ask their advice.

One day the King had a very strange dream and rushed to the four sages to tell them.

KING: “I was sitting in the courtyard of the castle surrounded by four large bonfires. They were very bright and I could feel their warmth. Then next to me a little fire started, at first as small as a firefly. It started growing! I backed away as it grew larger and larger until it swallowed up all the other bonfires and spread light over the whole kingdom. Yet it wasn’t hot! It burned and yet it was very cool. What does this mean?”

The sages talked among themselves and then one said,

SAGE: “These four bonfires represent us four sages. We bring light and warmth to the kingdom. But it seems this dream tells the future – a fifth sage will arise that will grow to be the chief of us all. And they will bring peace to the land!”

The king was very happy with this dream, but soon forgot about it. He found out he was going to be a father! Nine months later his son was born. They knew this boy would be special because he was born holding a rare medicinal plant. His mother felt no pain during the birth and anyone who visited him was cured of any disease they had. Because of this they named the boy, “Mahosadha” or “Great Medicine”.

Mahosadha was smart and wise, and he had many talents. When he was just a boy he oversaw the construction of a palace with a large and peaceful garden where he would spend his childhood. Anyone who came to the garden felt peaceful and people came from all around to ask Mahosadha for advice with their problems. He listened to them calmly and gave good advice.

When Mahosadha turned 16, the King told the sages:

KING: I hear my son Mahosadha has become very wise. Please send for him and bring him to my palace. He will become my chief adviser!

But the Sages didn’t want to give up the power they had over the king.

SAGE: Great King! We will do this but it’s important we test the boy first! If he can’t pass our tests he is not ready to guide you yet.

KING: Oh? Well, if you think that’s best. I trust you to find out if he is ready.

The sages took turns coming up with puzzles and riddles to try to test Mahosadha. At first they were trying to prevent him from becoming the chief sage. But Mahosadha calmly worked through each riddle and puzzle, and over time the sages had to admit Mahosadha was much wiser than them. Finally, having passed all the tests, Mahosadha was invited to the main palace and became the head adviser for the King.

At this time there was a fierce warlord in the neighboring lands named Kevatta. Kevatta ruled with violence and fear, not with wisdom. He conquered other countries one by one and his army kept getting bigger.

When Mahosadha learned of Kevatta, he knew they must prepare Vedeha to face him. He designed strong castle walls and defenses himself and managed the construction. He also sent spies to live with Kevatta’s army so he would know what the warlord was doing. When Kevatta prepared to attack Vedeha, Mahosadha knew he was coming.

As the enemy army approached Vedeha, they were shocked to hear not screaming and terror but the sounds of a great festival.

KEVATTA: These people aren’t worried at all! No wonder, their walls are so high and thick. Soldiers, surround the city! We will starve them out!

He ordered his army to dam all the rivers and cut off the water supply trying to make them thirsty. But Mahosadha had built deep wells, and he let fountains pour over the castle walls. Kevatta tried to block food from coming into the city, but Mahosadha had the guards on the walls toss fruit and bread down to Kevatta’s army, claiming they had too much and wanted to share. Kevatta then thought they would prevent all wood from getting to the city so nobody could cook or heat their homes, but in response Mahosadha had giant bonfires lit every night to brighten up the sky.

KEVATTA: This Vedeha will never fall to a seige! They have enough supplies to last for years. That makes me want to conquer them even more!! I will devise a special plan to defeat them using trickery.

Kevatta sent a messenger to offer to meet Mahosadha at the city gate. Kevatta knew that in Vedeha it was a custom when people first met for the younger person to bow to the older. Kevatta wanted to use this. He told his army that when Mahosadha bowed to him, it would mean they had surrendered the city. The army should charge forward through the gates without fear.

MAHOSADHA: This Kevatta is offering to meet me, but I hear his is a very violent and sneaky person. I think I see what he will try to do. I am much younger than him, and he will try to use our customs of paying respect to elders against me.

SAGE: Great Prince! Don’t go!

KING: Yes, let’s hide behind our walls! He can’t stay there forever!

MAHOSADHA: Don’t worry everybody, I have a plan.

Mahosadha fetched the most beautiful jewel in the kingdom, a giant topaz the size of an orange, and had it in his pocket. When the time came Mahosadha went to meet Kevatta at the city gate. But just when Mahosadha was supposed to bow in respe ct, he let the gem slip from his pocket.

Kevatta saw the gem and in his greed he bent down quickly to pick it up. Mahosadha put a hand on Kevatta’s shoulder.

MAHOSADHA: Oh please, don’t bow to me! I’m younger than you.

But when Kevatta tried to stand Mahosadha’s arm prevented him. The soldiers in the back of Kevatta’s army saw him bowing to Mahosadha and thought Kevatta was the one surrendering! They all ran away in fear of being captured. With Kevatta’s army running he was left alone, and he was captured and disgraced.

In this way, Mahosadha overcame all obstacles and returned peace to the land. He used his wisdom and intelligence to see danger coming and find the best solution to his problems.

Talk: What is Wisdom?

On the Uposatha, Tahn Pamutto reflects on the faculty of Pañña, or Wisdom. We know what it is in a conventional sense, we know when to seek it and have some basic grasp of how it develops. But the power of the Buddhist tradition, one that focuses on Wisdom above almost all else, is that the quality is revered, known, explored, and the specifics of its development are available to us. This reflection offers some conventional and higher wisdom as a prompt to help in your own exploration.

Talk about Training

On the Uposatha Tahn Pamutto reflects on the talk ‘Winter Camping’ by Ajahn Sona, which presented a variety of principles he was able to take with him while wandering. This becomes a reflection on the principle of training itself, and the way our ability to learn from experience and adapt to our weaknesses can make us independent in practice and ready for anything.

The talk for ‘Winter Camping’ can be found at:  Winter Camping (Vintage 2008 Talk) | Ajahn Sona – YouTube

This is a transcript of the talk:  winter camping ajahn sona

Talk: Realizing Nibbāna

Tahn Pamutto leads the Uposatha session remotely while travleing. Despite the lower quality, the talk is important and vital – an attempt to describe and point to the quality of Nibbāna alluded to in the Third Noble Truth. By turning towards and awakening to the quality of peace all around us, it becomes possible to abandon limits and move into a field of infinite potential.

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?

Talk: The Four Duties

On the Uposatha night, a sick Tahn Pamutto gives a reflection on how we can come to understand the ups and downs of life in a buddhist context. We do this by considering the four noble truths, and specifically cultivating the ‘duty’ to each of these truths.

Suffering is to be understood, Craving is to be Abandoned, Nibbāna is to be realized, and the Path is to be cultivated. Knowing this much, we can find the right relationship to anything that we might experience.

Family Group: Adhitthāna

This week for the family group we covered the paramī of adhitthāna. This is a quality which like Khanti straddles the definitions of a few english words with its meaning and scope. One aspect is the ability to determine or resolve upon doing something, but the willpower and persistence to stay with our goal despite challenges also comes into play.

It wasn’t hard to think of a dozen examples where this paramī is applied in our daily lives. Whenever we go on a diet, or start an exercise program, or give up a bad habit, or practice to develop a skill – we are making and developing adhitthāna. Perhaps it comes up so often because so many of the things that are really meaningful for our well-being take time and commitment to ripen?  This is something meditators know very well.

We’ve already covered one canonical example of this paramī in action with the story of the ascetic Sumedha, who determined to become a fully enlightened Buddha and eventually succeeded to become our own Buddha. One of the most remarkable things is that this determination was so strong and pure it persisted through lifetime after lifetime, for thousands and millions of lifetimes. Many of our aspirations are lucky to last a few weeks, or in the case of many diets, a few days. It’s not to say Sumedha instantly knew exactly how to get to be a Buddha from the beginning, but he at least had seen the goal in the Buddha Dipankara and was determined to work through all the difficulties along the way.

Learning to bear up through difficulties is part of succeeding in our adhitthāna’s. We have to be ready to adapt and appreciate how mistakes can be part of learning. We read a popular children’s book: Bubble Gum Brain – YouTube . The book describes two children, one with a flexible and malleable ‘bubble gum’ brain and another with a blockhead. Sometimes in life we find we are naturally good at some things and bad at others, and we feel like playing it safe and staying with what comes easily. But one of the best skills is the ability to see how we can improve in any task.  Even the blockheaded child learns to start to stretch in the end.

We tried this out with a task that few people have diligently cultivated: the ability to solve a maze. We printed out some challenging mazes and then worked through all the mindstates that came up as we got better. A helpful chart of ‘Growth Mindset’ thoughts was close at hand so we could point out defeatist thinking and turn it to constructive thinking.

Talk: Four Foundations of Mindfulness

In this Uposatha talk, Tahn Pamutto provides encouragement in developing mindfulness, an essential component of the eightfold path, and describes the Buddha’s framework of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness which helps guide that effort and make it fruitful.

Family Group: Patience

Our family group this week covered the paramī of Khanti. In the Pāli language, khanti is a word that covers a whole range of activities in English: Patience, Tolerance, Forebearance, Endurance. The common thread that all of these things have together is that they deal with our ability to be with a challenging or unpleasant experience.

The Buddha said that Khanti is the ‘foremost spiritual training’. It’s not just a cultivated trait we either have or don’t have. It’s a faculty we can always turn to and engage in any difficult situation. Whether it’s enduring some unkind words, or waiting patiently for some upcoming event, or even sticking with a task when the going gets rough – the chances we have to turn towards Khanti are almost limitless.

We read from the book ‘Bedtime with the Buddha’, a story from the jataka’s about ‘The Whatnot Tree’. One rendition can be found at: The Whatnot Tree (Prudence) (buddhanet.net) This story is a little less violent than the canonical story of the Bodhisatta perfecting his own patience (a story which involves some dismemberment). What it deals with mostly, though, is using patience to work against greed.

We followed this up with a famous psychology experiment. Both children were given a bowl with an M&M candy in it. They were told they could eat the candy at any time, but for each ten minutes they waited, they would get another candy. The famous and somewhat controversial experiment this replicated tried to measure the ability of ‘delayed gratification’, which could be said to be a kind of Patience. The children in that experiment were in a room all alone, so it was a very challenging task! But for our group, we took the time to consider why waiting to eat the candy is hard, and why this form of Patience is the same as Tolerance. The secret is a fundamental Buddhist concept: Greed is painful. Often, we give in to our greed simply to be rid of the discomfort of craving. This might relieve us for a little while, but if we were to overcome the greed itself that would relieve us permanently.

Our final game was a ‘slowest person’ race. Last one to the finish line wins! It was a really close race!

As it turns out, our family group children are Patience pros. One of the real benefits of setting aside an hour to talk about this topic is the way that it seeds future conversations. The rest of the day was filled with illuminating examples of all the ways Patience and Tolerance can be applied in our daily lives.

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