The Beauty of Sangha

When I first embarked on the spiritual journey I had all sorts of ideas about what it would be like. My first inspiration was to put on a backpack and try walking across the country from east to west. In my mind the land was full of good and wise people and teachings would be flowing from every direction. It didn’t take too long before I realized I was wholly underprepared for the journey and full of intense desires and emotions that were preventing me from being at peace, or really learning from what was happening to me.

So I went to Asia, and now my image shifted. I thought that, just like in the stories, I would arrive in the Delhi airport and my ‘guru’ would tap my shoulder and say ‘What took you so long?’. Everything I had heard suggested I needed a great teacher and if I found one, everything would work out.

I searched high and low, from one country to the next, and you know what I found? Not the teacher I was looking for, and most of my experiences were about disappointment and having missed the obvious. But I did find something I didn’t expect. There was no great teacher I would devote my life to but there was a glimmer of hope – I experienced firsthand the wonders of a Buddhist country. It was possible to meditate, to develop in my keeping of the precepts, and there were a number of teachers who, while they weren’t my lifetime guru’s, would be able to help me along the way. Most importantly, I saw the contentment and sense of order and purpose that came from having a teaching that encouraged personal responsibility and growth.

Last night during the tea time chat, the group of us were comparing experiences about being far from monasteries and strong sangha’s to support our practice. Thankfully the blossoming of video conferencing has made it possible to connect where before we were forced to practice alone and wait for vacation time to do a retreat. Everyone was grateful for the opportunity to meet, compare notes, and practice together. It struck me that this is the beauty of sangha. When community works right, every member is grateful and feels they are getting something from it.

We start out, necessarily because of our worldly upbringing and our natural ignorance, thinking in terms of people and roles. I thought I would travel the world and teachings would leap out from behind every tree. And then when I put myself in the role of the student it was all up to the teacher to masterfully guide me to enlightenment. Over the years, both of these thoughts have softened. There is much to learn as we move about the world, but the universe isn’t conspiring to reveal its nature. We have to consider and investigate and be aware. And though I have had many teachers and been profoundly supported and benefited, it wasn’t a one-way interaction. The teacher only gave me the inspiration, direction, and tools. I was the one who did the work so at the end of the day I could sit beside them and our knowledge would be the same.

In the beginning we might work hard to find a community, and at some point try to find our place in it. We might even think we are leading it or providing its core. But the real beauty of sangha is that sooner or later, we stop putting ourselves in the story. We’re just grateful for friends on the path: for those further along who show us the way and for those just starting who give us the opportunity to lend assistance. There are no more gurus, no more students. No self, and no world. Just the heart, and the practice to brighten it.

3 Fetters

Last night for the Uposatha, Tahn Pamutto offered a reflection on the first three of the Ten Fetters, the tendencies of mind that bind us to samsara. Detailing each fetter, he gave real world examples, and provided advice on how to contemplate and overcome these fetters in our practice.

The talk can be found here.

Desire and Goal Setting

For this Uposatha evening talk Tahn Pamutto discusses the matter of desire. Being free of desire is the well known goal of the Buddhist path, but less well known is the way the word is used and that being free of ‘Taṇha’ does not mean being without goals or motivations. Tahn Pamutto explains how seeing the difference between a wholesome motivation and a desire born of a mind of lacking and want helps us find our way on the path.

 

The Thing About Energy

Last night I had what would objectively be called a rough night – I was out in the forest, sleeping on the ground with just a thin tarp beneath me and just my robes for warmth. I fell asleep late and tossed and turned until the break of dawn when I packed my gear and departed.

Yet the thing that is hard to anticipate when one is living in a warm, padded shelter, is how I felt when I awoke. The night was long but the sounds of the forest were enchanting. The air was cool but after months of oppressive heat and humidity it was invigorating. And though I tossed and turned my body felt loose and awake as I stretched and got to packing. Some people pay hundreds of dollars for a personal massage to work the kinks out of their muscles. The roots and pebbles gave me the same treatment for free.

Out beyond the Five Precepts, which are basic standards for human conduct, we have three more precepts often referred to as ‘renunciant precepts’. They limit our intake of food, our indulgence in entertainments, our attempts to beautify the body and hide its realities, and the pleasure to be gained from sleep. From the outside these precepts must seem like attempts to make us more stoic and less attached to the world. But curiously, once we get to living this life, we find quite the opposite. Nobody enjoys a shower more than the person who has been in the woods for five days straight. Nobody tastes their food like the person who gets one meal per day. And nobody sleeps as soundly as the person of consummate virtue who can lay down anywhere and sleep – because they are actually tired.

When we get down to the business of investigating Energy, we find that it works almost precisely opposite of how we think. The worldly idea is that Energy is like gas in a tank – you fill the tank with gas and then can run until the gas is depleted. But there is no gas for the mind. There is only an idea that says, “Actions have costs.” This and so many ideas slow us down when we are trying to apply ourselves. Reclaiming our Energy is not a process of obtaining some elusive power supply. It’s more a matter of removing the ideas and obstructions between us and doing what we intend to do. When the factor of Energy is fulfilled we never have the thought that we can’t do anything we apply ourselves to.

Deep down, there is some thought that we need some external condition to be happy. To grow in Energy is to understand that the more we apply ourselves, the easier applying ourselves become. Energy is not a gas tank – we need to use Energy to have Energy. It’s just like the muscles in our body. If we use them they become strong; if we don’t use them they become weak. And if we habitually do some activity long enough the activity becomes part of our definition of who we are. It takes no Energy at all.

If anyone finds themselves confused or listless as to what to do in their lives, I might say wait to eat their next meal until they are hungry. When we are hungry there is no question: we work to find food. When we are truly tired there is no question: we rest. It’s that simple.

Part of the spiritual path is playing with these basic motiviations and realities, the ones that can otherwise consume all of our energy and mental activity. What we do with that freed up Energy depends on our level of suffering and our amount of hunger for freedom. Do we want to be Happy, or do we want to be Comfortable? For those out there who aren’t sure what that question means, go out into the woods, put down a blanket, and lay down. You might be surprised the things that bring up Energy in the mind.

Wabisabi

Even in a town of 850 people: when one considers all the possible connections of family, relatives, friends, and coworkers, the reality of death is never far away. There are times when the pace of death and loss seem to increase, but for the most part it is only our sensitivity to its presence that is growing or shrinking. When it strikes close we inevitably feel it. Lately, people are communicating more and checking in on each other more, so it’s understandable that the normally quiet and isolated tragedies of life are out in the open.

As beings in samsāra, the wheel of rebirth, we are often caught in dualities. We see a beautiful sunset or have a lovely day on the beach. But when we return home we hear someone dear to us has passed away. Our day is ruined, our happiness destroyed. How could one find joy when things are crumbling around them?

Grief is a natural part of life. What isn’t natural is to see these processes and try to find some ultimate philosophy based on it. Some ask the question – “Which is it? Is life great and beauitful and joyful, or is life misery – an endless procession towards death?” To which one might respond, “Why does it have to be one or the other?”

Why should one reality cancel the other out?

It seems to me every landscape painting started with an artist catching sight of a beautiful natural setting. They were struck by it. “How beautiful!” they thought, and got out their brushes and paints. But at that very same moment, a deer was urinating or a hiker was tossing an empty bottle into the bushes. The scene they captured with their paints is indeed beautiful, but the beauty wasn’t in the scene itself. Beauty doesn’t reside in a stone or dirt or trees.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This old saying stands the test of time. The scene the painter saw was nothing special for the deer or the hiker, it just was. But the artist stopped, and breathed, and observed, and saw. “Behold! Beauty!” For it is the mind that is beautiful, not the landscape.

The fascinating thing about beauty is that when we put it in its proper place in the scheme of things, we see that beauty is not dependent on pleasure. Painful things can be beautiful. So can simple things, and complex things, big things and small things. Stable things, and transient things. The beauty of the mind is completely independent of whether or not something is pleasant.

There is an aesthetic in japanese called ‘wabisabi’. It is described as the beauty of something showing signs of age or imperfection. A rusting shovel, a creaking chair, a leaning old tree, a creosote-singed hearth. All have intense beauty – not despite their imperfections but because of them.

Perhaps the hardest thing in human life is not to dance between dualities and pit beauty against loss, joy against sorrow. Instead, perhaps we can learn to see the beauty in death, the purity in grief, and the joy in impermanence. It starts by not assuming a life is pointless because it ends in death. The more we truly see death, the more beautiful that life becomes.

Talk: Citta Saṇkhāra

This talk is given by Tahn Pamutto for meditators experiencing some success and the beginning of tranquility and bliss in meditation. The Citta Saṇkhāra is rarely spoken about in casual conversation but coming to understand it is coming to understand at a much deeper level why we do what we do and what we are really seeking.
What ideas and associations do we have around the experience of pleasure and pain? How do we react when we experience moments of relief and excitement? Coming to know this through investigation is to learn to drop these stories and associations altogether – and thereby release the full potential of the mind.

Energy – Viriya

Last Sunday for the Uposatha Tahn Pamutto gave a reflection on the topic of Viriya or Energy. Reflecting on this and learning to tell the difference between ideas of energy and the reality of our ability and willingness to apply our minds is essential to progress on the spiritual path.

 

Refuge and Robes

I made a new friend on almsround today. He’s been in Massachusetts working for the summer, and was due to return back out west in a few days. On the eve of his departure, he noticed me talking with a friend outside the country store and approached. He showed extraordinary good instincts for a young man, and after talking for a bit asked, “If you had just one piece of advice for me to take as I go, what would it be?”

There are those out there who are young and old, learned and unlearned, wise and foolish. This question could be pitched to any of them, and they’d each have an answer. There’s no wrong answer either, but as a dhamma practitioner one feels a sense of responsibility. There’s a saying in Thailand that every tiger is karmically fated to encounter a buddhist monk at least once in its life. Likewise, if this would be this young man’s one opportunity to meet a buddhist monk, what would he take away from the experience?

“The Buddha said,” I responded, “that good friendship is the whole of the holy life.” And so it was that the best I could think to send him off with was the encouragement to incline towards spiritual friends, those devoted to the cultivation of the heart. “When we don’t have comforts, we work hard to attain them, and when we do have comforts we relax. Such is human life, and it goes round and round. Whether we succeed or fail in that, it ends in death. But the spiritual life is for the purpose of developing those qualities of heart which we take with us. Then, whether we are comfortable or not, we can be at peace with it.”

I could have encouraged him to read dhamma books, or give money to charity, or start a meditation practice. And if he does any of those things, that would be for his benefit. But if I really want him to succeed, then I’d say he should incline towards the people who do these things. If he does something once that will be nice, but if he sees it done a thousand times it’s much more likely to stick.

I’ve come to accept the fact that nothing I say will change someone’s life. I’ve had thousands of conversations on the dhamma, and while I may have inspired, delighted, or informed, I never feel I’ve been the agent of change. People don’t change from a conversation or an idea; they don’t change just from making a point or even from having a particular experience. I’ve known people to go on months-long retreats or barely survive an encounter with death, and still return to their same practices a short time later. Our habits have incredible inertia. Change is truly, truly hard.

Yet if there’s one thing I have put my faith in, I can say it is change. Despite the difficulties the opportunity to change and learn is one of the most fundamental truths of spiritual practice. It is the Refuge in Buddha, the faith in the possibility of enlightenment. But when we begin we are utterly dependent on others to reveal it to us. They point us in the right direction and their confidence gives us stability when times are hard. A good friend hears our struggles time and time again and never judges us. They just shine the light of mindfulness on the source of our problems and encourage us to look. Over and over they teach us the principles of change.

Once the Buddha admonished his attendant Ānanda for neglecting his meditation practice, and Ānanda became annoyed. The Buddha saw the annoyance and Ānanda’s attachments, but like a good friend and teacher he bore the brunt of the annoyance and projections. He didn’t try to change Ānanda or set down rules against the things he was using as distractions. Instead he continued to instruct and encourage as he always had, for the path forward hadn’t changed even if Ānanda’s feelings towards it temporarily had. “I will not grab you and mold you like the potter does his wet clay,” the Buddha said compassionately. “By repeatedly restraining you, by repeatedly admonishing you, that’s how I’ll train you. Your sturdy core can stand the test.”

The calm, wise guidance of those who walk the path is the best condition for growth we can find in this human realm. Nevertheless, neither the Buddha nor any wise teacher intends for the student to be dependent on them. The restraining and admonishing only deals with those unwholesome states which have arisen or will arise. As for those states which are wholesome and pleasant, those are the property of the person themselves, and when there is nothing left to restrain and only wholesome states, there is no longer a need for admonishment or guidance. No longer a need for a guide even.

This is the curious difference of the friendship of noble beings. The more we value Sangha, the community of good people, the more we incline towards associating with those people who walk the path. But our goal and our aspiration is always that we grow to a state of independence of each other, that we learn to walk the path and to practice ourselves.

I have faith that when someone encounters a monk, they see the practice behind the robe. “It instantly conveys a sense of trust,” a friend said today. The robe is not just clothing – it symbolizes the aspiration towards purity, and those who’ve seen us walking down American roads have often commented how just the sight of a monastic leaves them feeling just a bit lighter, just a bit happier. A moment’s association with a monk is a moment of good friendship and a moment of associating with Sangha. But it takes more than one meeting to lay the groundwork for someone to practice and grow and change by their own volition. And so, more and more these days, as one overt Buddhist in a vast and diverse country, the wholesome condition I try to inspire in others is to seek that next meeting. Find a good friend and draw closer. A teacher, a mentor, a peer, a friend. The more that happens, the more likely they are to see truth for themselves.

Friendship is not limited to spiritual practice; people the world over take refuge in friends. They pray to all sorts of figures to help them when times are tough. What’s different is that people in the world look to their friend to help them get through a problem. They see the problem as outside themselves. But the true refuge comes at that point of spiritual maturity when we see the true problem is within us, and that’s where the work will need to be done. At that point the refuge changes – we’re not seeing the friend as salvation, but as a companion to help us work salvation out for ourselves.

How does this work in real life? The other day I saw a long-time friend turn to another monastic and ask them a dhamma question they previously would have waited to ask me. It’s as simple as that and filled me with joy to behold. At last!, I thought, I am not needed! When the trust and confidence is placed in the robe and in the practice, rather than the person, then wherever that person goes they will succeed in finding the help they need. This is taking Refuge in Sangha.

A Refuge for Love

The other day on almsround I was stepping up in front of the local country store and was greeted by a friend. He’d just suffered a blow – a breakup with his girlfriend of some months. “It’s happened before but this time feels more final.” he said. Still, he was curiously upbeat. “I’m feeling a weight lifted off me! It was so chaotic. I feel good! I woke up and said, hey, I’m single!”

A week earlier he had been introducing himself as a man in love, so, sensing this circumstance might also change, I thought to soften the blow by pointing out he would probably feel differently in a day or two. It would be then, when he’d had time to process, that the lack of his girlfriend and the space she had filled in his life would become apparent. Whatever underlying condition or lack had drawn him into the relationship despite its ups and downs would again resurface. The old hunger for affection, which had been seemingly removed, would return again. Just as sure as that no matter what great meal we eat today, we’ll wake tomorrow thinking of breakfast, so the hungry heart will never be eternally sated by the love of another.

So it was that when Anagarika Drew and I came by on almsround the next day our friend sat down beside us with a huff. “I’m hurting,” he said, and the cause didn’t need to be spoken. We were three men familiar with love and loss.

How quickly we can go from the joy of freedom back into bondage, or at least a yearning for some engagement? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that I think all relationships are born from neediness and dependency. An image comes to mind of the comic spy of the early 2000’s cinema, Austin Powers, after he found out his new wife was actually just a cyborg. The movie has him break into a tap-dancing Broadway musical, frolicking down the street with the joy of being single. Yet not half an hour of screen time later, buoyant with joy and a sense of invincibility, he’s already neck deep in wooing the next Mrs. Powers.

But outside those occasions when we connect with someone through a meeting of joy and mutual interest, for many of us the seed of romantic relationship is the attempt to fill some sort of lack, and it was this lack that our friend was feeling mostly acutely now after the breakup. What made it agony was not just the feeling but the grim knowledge that any moment of weakness might find him plunging back into the same or another chaotic relationship to try to resolve this feeling. He could tell it wouldn’t work. We all know it won’t work. But, in a moment of weakness, down we all go.

“I’m just hungry for love.” he reflected. “Well, I love you.” I responded. He held a hand to his chest, but his wry smile signaled what we both knew – if that were enough he would have never gotten in this situation in the first place. A spoonful of sugar doesn’t do much for hunger pains.

“I just want a refuge,” he said, without a trace of knowledge of the customs and rituals of the two Buddhist monks beside him. For he was saying aloud what we all feel, what we are all really seeking – a refuge, a safe space, a true love. We’re not greedy, we say, we just want one person to love us, unconditionally, forever. Is that so much to ask?

Thousands of years ago, the Buddha pointed to this same tendency. People have always yearned for refuges. The places they look tend to change with the times, but the pattern does not.

Nevertheless, my offer to him stood. I will love you unconditionally. Not forever, but at least a minute or two. Can you make that enough? And it’s not just me – how many sources of love you have! Love of family, of friends, of teachers and students and peers. Any one person might not be able to fulfill all your needs for love, but that’s too much to ask of a temporary, mortal, changing person anyway.

We don’t get to eat one meal and be full forever. Likewise our need for appreciation and recognition can be sated for a bit but will arise again if our expectations are unrealistic. We can accept this, accept the changing nature of it, accept the hunger too. We can learn to be okay with less-than-perfect love from all the many sources. How much love we feel is only limited by our capacity to see it.

Our yearning for something permanent and happy, a perfect refuge, is burning our heart and forcing us into one disaster after another. Why not abandon it? Why not take refuge in the knowledge that the hunger, too, is impermanent?

The Path to Impermanence

This week the conversation both online and on the street has been around Impermanence. The ‘idea’ of impermanence is one that every person has at some point – realistically many times in their life. And yet the Buddha highlights it and returns to it again and again in his teachings. Clearly not a mere idea is intended but a profound and paradigm-altering depth of realization. What could this insight be, and how do we as practitioners get there?

Everything is already Impermanent, already changing all around us, so this is not something we need to do or add to our experience. Buddhism is not about adorning ourselves with a bunch of fancy philosophical ideas about how things come and go. If we were to take the most precise and eloquent reflection of impermanence and add it to our current state, that’s all we would be – a mass of everyday thoughts plus one more thought. As it turns out, that’s already what we’re getting nearly every single day. People are talking about change, singing about change, acting it out in theater and on a billion screens. Constantly talking about aging, about loss, about growth …

We already think about impermanence a lot. The only problem is that they are just thoughts, and a fraction of a second after we have these thoughts … they change too.

We could grab a string of mala beads to chant “Impermanent, Impermanent,” a million times, and we would get no wiser. Impermanence is not in the words or ideas. That’s not where it lives. It’s in the objects and circumstances of our lives, and that’s where we must look for it. To see impermanence we must find this quality in the things we love and hate, and that’s why the deeper insight stays mostly hidden to us, because by our nature that’s the last place we want to look for it.

Are there things in our lives we don’t want to change? Are there things we feel couldn’t change fast enough? Both help reflect to us what this contemplation is really for. Whether or not we understand Impermanence, still all things that arise will cease. But its the fact that we struggle with this change, that we get burned by loss or refuse to tolerate something’s existence – that is why we contemplate.

Take something dear to you and say, “Will it change?” Then, “In what way?” “Will I feel differently about it later?” “Is the change inevitable?” “How do I try to force or resist this change?”

On the subject of deeper realization, this is perhaps a place to illuminate the terms in Buddhism we call Path and Fruit – or Magga and Phala. Both are powerful alterations in the process of thought, often initiated by a profound insight, which occur only in those who have sincerely and personally undertaken spiritual practice.

Before Path arises, we are of the mass of beings roaming saṃsara, the round of existence. Even if we become religious figures, or poets, or philosophers, and even if we see that things are arising, changing, and ceasing, still we don’t know what to do about it. We are like stargazers taking in the vastness of the cosmos above only to be humbled and dumbfounded.

True Magga, or Path, arises as a response to suffering. It’s not merely that we see something change – we see our reaction to it. We see pain, hesitation, and fear. We follow these emotions to their source and we realize with a gasp that the suffering we are experiencing has attachment as its source. We don’t want things to change, and because they will despite our feelings on the matter our protest itself is the burning we feel.

Path arises in that moment if we alter the script. Impermanence is real, it’s universal, it’s natural even if it can be vexing. We decide to embrace it and to abandon the attachment instead. If impermanence isn’t going anywhere, we determine to find a way to be at peace with it (or even like it!). There will be some work involved, but we know what has to be done and we get to it.

So what is Fruit? What is the goal, the attainment of this profound insight, in pursuit of which we start analyzing and dissecting every aspect of our lives to reveal attachment and abandon it? The curious thing about the Fruit of practice is that it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect the exact nature of the work that was done. It’s not about addition. Fruit isn’t a matter of Person plus the perception of impermanence. It’s about Person minus the delusion of permanence. When that delusion is gone and a person is freed, they love fully and let go in the same breath. They buy a new car knowing it will fail them someday, or wash and tune an old car glad it might get them to work even one more time. They look in the mirror not aghast to see wrinkles and gray hairs, but fascinated by the new face that is continuously looking back at them.

This is the curious trajectory we are following in doing this work of contemplating impermanence. Before we begin there is no work, just wandering and suffering. Then there is Path, and we know the work and get to it. We try hard to understand, and each breakthrough powers us onward. Then, with the attainment of Fruit, there is no longer any suffering, and no longer any work.

After all, the work is not coming from Impermanence but from our suffering and the attachment that generates it. It is our own delusion that creates the work, and is the work, and is the obstacle to work. If we seek an end to the work we must seek an end to the delusion. When we have found the refuge at the end of that path, however, what is left is just us. Loving, living, letting go. Whether we have the ‘idea’ of Impermanence or not, it will be there with us every breath.