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.

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!

Family Group: Compassion

This week with the family group, we covered the paramī of Karunā, or Compassion. One of the benefits of using the paramī’s as a basis for our first meetings is that we get to cover such an important topic directly.

We started with a guided meditation. We rang the bell and gave everyone a minute to settle. Then we brought up the image of our beloved cat mascot, Luna. Luna is very interested in going outside when she is inside and going inside when she is outside. Sometimes it’s possible to lose track of where she is. So we started by imaging Luna the cat going outside. But nobody noticed.  Now everyone has gone to bed, and she is stuck outside.

We imagine her feeling lonely and scared, and imagine what that feels like. We imagine her trying to find a warm spot to curl up in, and trying not to get lost in the night. Because we care about Luna, we have feelings of wanting her to be okay, to be safe, and to feel loved and cared for. These feelings are the basis of compassion. As the feeling of compassion starts to fill our hearts, we can think of someone else or ourselves who, in the past week, has had some kind of difficulty. We now see how the compassion can be felt for that person and situation as well, and that the emotion and a lot of the thoughts are the same.

After the guided meditation we talked about the experience, and how Compassion feels for each person. There is no right answer, but there are a lot of similarities for different people. Compassion often has us wanting to comfort or protect someone, or at the very least stay with them and show our support.

STORY: Siddhartha and the Swan

This short story comes from the Buddha’s final life, when he was the young prince Siddhartha. He was part of a warrior family and was trained to use the bow and arrow. His cousin, Devadatta, was also trained to use the bow and arrow, and always walked around shooting at things. He was very proud of his skill.

One day Siddhartha and Devadatta were walking in the gardens when Devadatta saw a swan. He pulled out his bow and quickly fired an arrow which struck the swan in the wing. The swan was surprised and in pain. He couldn’t fly away with it’s injured wing, so it panicked and flapped around on the ground.

When Siddhartha saw the swan in pain he felt a great rush of compassion. He knew if Devadatta caught the swan he would probably mistreat it or even kill it. So as Devadatta rushed to go catch the swan, Siddhartha raced ahead and got there first. He grabbed the swan and protected it, removing the arrow and calming it down.

Devadatta got very upset. He demanded that Siddharta give him the swan. After all, this was the rule of hunters, that whoever shot a wild animal was the owner. But Siddhartha recognized the swan was a living being, not a trophy, and refused. The matter became a big argument in the kingdom! Siddhartha’s father, the king, called everyone together to discuss the matter so that it wouldn’t create trouble between the kingdom’s families.

Both Siddhartha and Devadatta presented their arguments. Nobody was sure who was right. But at that time a wise holy man came to visit, and he was asked to give advice. The holy man listened to both stories, then turned to the king.

“Oh king, what is the most prized possession of all living beings?”

The king thought about it. “Well, isn’t their life the most prized possession?”

“Exactly, Great King! Life is every being’s most prized possession, we all value our lives most. If this swan could choose, it would choose the one who would protect it’s life, because that’s what matters. Thus, the true owner is Siddhartha, who would protect this swan’s life.”

As so it was decided that Siddharta would look after the swan until its wing was healed. When it was, everybody watched as Siddhartha released it and it happily flew away.

———————-

We got to have a little fun with our new projector. We played a YouTube video of a man who decided to buy a grocery store lobster and instead of eating it, keep it as a pet. This is a practice in many Buddhist countries – people wanting to do a good deed will purchase an animal destined for slaughter and instead set it free or take care of it with compassion.

This video is very sweet and G-rated.

Family Group: Viriya

This weeks Santigāmā family group was a chance for everyone to take a look at the parami of Energy, or Viriya.  It was interesting to note that as we tried to approach the topic we had to distinguish it from Vayama, or Effort/Striving, which is a part of the Noble Eightfold Path.  Viriya is something much more basic and essential, involving our willingness and ability to work towards a task.

We started with a discussion about energy, and the difference between high and low states.  Low states were pretty obvious, as we all demonstrated just lying around not wanting to do anything.  But high states are more elusive.  It can seem like having a lot of energy means we’ll be bouncing off the walls, but that’s actually a low energy state from the perspective of getting things done.  Most of our effort will be wasted.  Instead, high energy could be better described as balanced energy.  When our energy is aroused and balanced, we can do anything we put our minds to.

Luna, the family cat, was able to provide a great example of this.  Like most cats, she divides her time pretty evenly between lounging and restlessly zipping around and exploring every crevice in the house.  Unbalanced energy at work.  Contrast this with the house mice that were making their presence known in early january.  They worked steadily and there was almost know time when they weren’t heard if they were present.  They explored, open new tunnels, found food, had babies.  There is no more amazing force in the world that the mouse’s tooth – the size of a mustard seed but diligently applied, it can level anything.

Our story for the session involved the Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, getting out of a tight situation.  We followed it up with a similar activity requiring balanced energy and thinking: an escape room crafted with parami clues!

VIRIYA – ENERGY

STORY: The Caravan Leader

CHARACTERS: NARRATOR, BODHISATTA, Everyone Else

Once upon a time, the Bodhisatta was born in a city at the edge of a vast, hot desert. The people of the city were merchants, meaning they made their living by trading. Most of the people of the city liked to play it safe and traded things that were easy to get around where they lived. But the really adventurous traders would cross the great desert to trade with a city on the other side.

It was a dangerous journey because the desert was so big. It took seven long weeks of travel to cross. A caravan of wagons could only barely carry enough water to make it across, and if anything happened after the third week there wouldn’t be enough water to turn around and make it home. Many traders died of thirst trying to cross the desert.

The Bodhisatta in this life was an adventurous trader. He had made the journey several times and was becoming wealthier. He was now in charge of a caravan of ten wagons with oxen and people to drive them. One day when the time was right for a journey, he gathered everyone up to cross the great desert.

At the beginning of their journey everything went well. It was hot but they had plenty of water. The ox-drivers started drinking extra because of their thirst, but the Bodhisatta stopped them.

BODHISATTA: Be careful how much you drink! If we use too much water now, we won’t have enough for the end of the journey. The trick to success is to drink the same amount every day even if you feel thirsty. Don’t be fooled!

Everyone followed his advice and things went smoothly the next two weeks. Even though people were thirsty they carefully watched what they drank.

But during the third week disaster struck. The lead ox-driver fell asleep in the night, and his ox started turning slightly. Nobody else noticed. When they woke in the morning they were still in the desert so the lead ox-driver thought everything was fine. He fell asleep the next night, and the next. But then they woke up one morning and saw wagon tracks and hoof prints ahead of them.

They realized they had been walking in one big circle! They had wasted almost a whole week. Now they were in deep, deep trouble. They didn’t have enough water to return home, and they didn’t have enough water to reach the far city.

Everyone cried in fear when they realized what had happened. They all lay down sulking and had no energy to go any further. What was the point? They knew they wouldn’t make it. Their water would run out and they would die of thirst in the desert.

The Bodhisatta watched them all give up, but he didn’t give up. He tried to think of a plan that would save everyone. He looked at the wagons, and the oxen, and the people. Then he looked out across the wide desert.

As he was looking, he saw something in the distance. It was a certain kind of plant that grew in the desert. The Bodhisatta knew this plant only grew in a place where there was water under the surface.

BODHISATTA: Come everybody! It’s time to get to work!

The Bodhisatta brought everyone to where the plants were and handed out shovels. He told them to start digging, that water was under them. At first people dug a little, but quickly gave up.

EVERYBODY: It’s too hot!

BODHISATTA: I know it’s hot, but we have to keep digging!

They dug some more, but then started putting down their shovels.

EVERYBODY: This is pointless! We don’t see any water! We will die of thirst digging.

BODHISATTA: It’s true you don’t see water yet, but that’s because you haven’t dug deep. Success only comes to those who work.

They dug a little more. Now the hole was getting deep, but still no water.

EVERYBODY: We can’t go on!

BODHISATTA: But you must! Listen – if you give up and stop digging you will die of thirst here. Or you can try to travel to one city or the other but die of thirst on the road. If you keep digging it is true, there might not be any water. But if you keep digging there MAY be water. Using your energy and digging is the only option where you live. So why not try?

The Bodhisatta was able to convince them to keep trying, and just then they reached a buried pocket of water. It started to bubble up, and as the sand shifted became a big rush of water. It quickly filled the hole they had dug and became a big pool.

Everyone laughed and celebrated. They drank deep, and splashed, and filled all their water containers. Then they let their oxen drink and bathe. Finally, refreshed, they set off again in the direction of the far city. With all the extra water they made it with no problems. And, selling their goods, they became rich. They lived happily for the rest of their lives, celebrating the amazing energy of their leader the Bodhisatta.

Talks: Samaññaphala Retreat

Our latest weeklong retreat has concluded in Shelburne, MA.  The retreat and visit of NYC resident Tahn Santi brought quite a surge of interest in the small gathering space, with 16 different friends visiting over the course of a few days.  But for the most part it was a quiet, in-house venture.  The evening sit included group readings of DN 2:  The Fruits of the Holy Life, as well as a reflection given by either Tahn Pamutto or Tahn Santi.  The sixth talk was a combined Q&A session with both monastics.

You can find the recordings in a playlist on the Innovative Dhamma youtube channel at:

Innovative Dhamma

 

Talk: Equanimity – Upekkha

In this Uposatha reflection, Tahn Pamutto discusses the vital quality of Equanimity or Upekkha. This quality shows up in a number of lists of wholesome qualities to be cultivated, notably always at the end or as the culmination. By explaining the various ways the term is used, it’s possible to move towards a definition of what this subtle and sublime quality is and how it might be developed.

Upavana Foundation info@upavana.org

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