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.


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

Great Debates and a Flag

Recently we hung a Buddhist flag in the meditation room in Shelburne.  Surprisingly, not everyone was familiar with it!  Though the Buddhist flag officially comes from the country of Sri Lanka, it is now a recognized international symbol of the buddhist faith.  This is because it was adopted at a very important time for modern Buddhists.  Up until that point, the European powers were working very hard to suppress local cultures in their asian colonies, and Christian missionaries were aggressively denouncing other religions.  Without violence but with logic, truth, and by standing firm, the Buddhists won recognition as one of the world’s great religions at a time when they were relatively unknown.

Last Tuesday our Shelburne study group took some time to look at the famous Panadura Debates that led to the resurgence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the designing of the flag.  If you aren’t familiar, here is some info from Wikipedia and a link to the text itself.  A very fascinating piece of Buddhist history!

The Panadura Debate | PDF | Gautama Buddha | Nirvana (scribd.com)

Panadura Debate

All [the previous] debates culminated in the most notable, the “Panadura debate”, which was held two years after the Gampola debate in 1873. The cause for the debate arose when Rev. David de Silva delivered a sermon on the soul at the Wesleyan Chapel, Panadura on 12 June 1873.[5] Gunananda Thera delivered a sermon a week later criticizing the points raised by de Silva. The two parties signed an agreement on 24 July 1873 to hold another debate at Panadura. However, this was not the only cause of the debate.[3]

The Christians may have thought that the Buddhists were not educated and hence could be easily defeated in debate.[3] However, the Buddhist monks were familiar with Pali and Sanskrit texts like Nyaya Bindu written by Dignāga and Tarka sastra by Dharmakirti, which were written on the art of debating, and were not hesitant in accepting the challenge of debating in public.[3]

The debate was held on 24 and 26 August 1873 on a property owned by Jeramias Dias near the Rankot Vihara.[1][5] The ablest debaters were summoned on the side of the Christians. Gunananda Thera was the debater on the side of the Buddhists while de Silva and Catechist S.F. Sirimanna represented the Christian side. The debate revolved around topics ranging from the nature of God, the Soul, and resurrection, to the concept of KarmaRebirthNirvana and the principle of Pratītyasamutpāda or dependent origination.[1]

Dr. K.D.G. Wimalaratna, Director of National Archives wrote:

“Rev. David de Silva, a fluent speaker in Pali and Sanskrit addressed the audience of around 6000-7000 – but only a very few understood him. In complete contrast was Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera who used plain language to counter the arguments of his opponents.[5]

Dr. Vijaya Samaraweera in his article “The Government and Religion: Problems and Policies c1832 to c1910”, stated:

“The Rev. Migettuwatte Gunananda proved himself to be a debater of a very higher order, mettlesome, witty and eloquent, if not especially erudite. The emotions generated by this debate and the impact of Migettuwatte Gunananda’s personality had lasting effects on the next generation of Buddhist activities. Migettuwatte Gunananda’s triumph at Panadura set the seal on a decade of quiet recovery of Buddhist confidence. In retrospect, the establishment of the ‘Society for the Propagation of Buddhism’ at Kotahena, and the Lankaprakara Press at Galle would seem to mark the first positive phase in this recovery.[5]

At the end of the second day of the debate, the crowd chanted “sadhu, sadhu”,[1] displeasing the Christians. When the atmosphere became heated, Gunananda Thera raised his voice and ordered: “Everybody should be silent”. After that remark, the crowd was dispersed without making any further commotion.

Impact of the debate[edit]

The impact of the debate was phenomenal, both locally and internationally. Locally, it was the principal factor behind reviving the identity and pride of Sinhala Buddhists.[1] Internationally, it was instrumental in raising awareness of Buddhism in the west.[6] The editor of Ceylon Times newspaper, John Cooper, arranged for Edward Perera to write a summary of the debate; thousands of copies of which were published. This translation was also published as a book, Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face by J.M. Peebles in the United States with an introduction in 1878.[7] After reading a copy of the book, Henry Steel Olcott, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, came to Sri Lanka on 17 May 1880.[1] With the arrival of Colonel Olcott,[8] the activities of the revival movement accelerated. Olcott described Gunananda Thera as: “The most brilliant Polemic Orator of the Island, the terror of the missionaries, with a very intellectual head, most brilliant and powerful champion of the Sinhalese Buddhism.[4]

Rev. S. Langden, who was present when Gunananda Thera spoke in the Panadura debate, remarked:

There is that in his manner as he rises to speak which puts one in mind of some orators at home. He showed a consciousness of power with the people. His voice is of great compass and he has a clear ring above it. His action is good and the long yellow robe thrown over one shoulder helps to make it impressive. His power of persuasion, shows him to be a born orator.[4]

Gunananda Thera continued work to revive Buddhism in the country and published many Buddhist periodicals, including RiviresaLakmini Kirana and Sathya Margaya.[4] He also served on the committee that designed the Buddhist flag in 1885.

Kamma / Karma

Lately in our family group we’ve been going through the list of the ten parami’s. These qualities are considered perfections of character and heart that are the attributes of a fully awakened Buddha (samma-sambuddha). Such a being is capable of not only attaining enlightenment without the aid of an existing teacher, but they have the wisdom and compassion to teach others in how to attain that same enlightenment. Such a being as a Buddha is not a pre-existing condition or miracle. The qualities known as the parami’s must be cultivated and developed over time until they are perfect. Thus the being known as the bodhisatta is one who has set out on such a quest to perfect themselves before attaining enlightenment so it can be of the highest possible benefit. It’s a quest that lasts a very, very, very long time, and spans innumerable births.

Many of the best stories for showing the exercise and mastery of the parami’s come from the jataka tales, a collection of stories that reportedly portray some of the Buddha’s past lives during his quest. Traditionally there are a lot of ideas that are so interwoven in the narrative they aren’t even explained – ideas of karma as cause and effect, ideas of rebirth and of other realms. Sometimes the main characters are powerful angelic beings; other times they are squabbling and petty talking animals. Most cultures were already warmed up to these ideas when they told these stories to their children.

This week our family group decided to take a little break from studying the ten parami’s in order to cover an important topic: kamma. This topic is so essential to Buddhist thought that it has to be covered at some point, and yet it is so essential it’s hard to know where to start. Luckily, upon consideration during the week before the group, it started to become clear that we weren’t addressing a topic that would be new to anyone. We were just applying a new word to a force that everyone kinda already suspects exists.

We started with a question: “Do you know what the word karma means?” It’s important to ask first, because you never know! As it turned out, neither of the children had much of an idea of karma, though they did know the song ‘Karma Chameleon’ from Culture Club!! You never know with modern culture! The lyrics are a little vague, but the music video shows a thief pickpocketing and eventually getting caught, and comically being made to ‘walk the plank’. That works!

We started our meeting with a meditation, and cultivated the quality of quiet observation. During our group we focused on good and bad kamma, but there is also the third kind: non-resultant kamma. It provides benefit and insight but doesn’t produce a consequence that will have to be experienced later. Meditation is often this third kind of kamma and helps us find freedom. Any action involving observation, empathy, consideration, reflection, understanding … all fall in this third category. We’ll definitely talk more about this in the future.

This was our very organic family group meeting:

Start with a question: “Do you know what the word karma means?” It’s very important to check, and everybody deserves a chance to give their perspective! It should become clear pretty quick that everybody has some idea of the concept, but there might still not be much agreement. It’s okay if the ideas differ. We’re here to cover the idea in Buddhism.

We can explain that in every culture there is some idea of cause and effect. If we do something, we will get a consequence or result. It can be useful to check if everyone knows what consequence means. In some cultures and religions it is believed that a god or angels are watching over us, and if we do good things the god rewards us and if we do bad things the god punishes us.

In Hinduism there is an idea of karma like a bank account. When we do good actions we get good karma, like points, and when we do bad actions we get bad karma points. If we have too much on one side or the other we’re going to start to get good or bad results respectively. Part of this belief is that experiencing a good or bad result helps balance the karma.

In Buddhism karma comes from the word kamma, which means action. The Buddha taught that kamma is not a bank account and nobody does it to us. Kamma is a law of nature like gravity. It works no matter what. When we do an action there will be a result. If it’s a good action, there will be a good result. If it’s a bad action there will be a bad result. Sometimes the result comes immediately, but it can also happen long after. So we are always receiving the results of things we did in the past, and how we are in the present will change what we experience in the future. We don’t get to choose when it happens though! So good things might happen to bad people and bad things to good people, but the more good we do, the more likely good results will come, and the same with bad. Our choices matter!

We can demonstrate how common this idea is. Have you ever heard a story or seen a movie about superheroes? Who usually wins in the end? The hero right? Why? Who usually loses in the end? The villain, right? Why? Isn’t it true that because the hero does good we expect things to work out for them, and because the villain does bad we expect them to fail? Sometimes it takes the whole story to find out, but it almost always ends that way.

It’s the same in life! Sometimes it might seem like people get what they want by doing bad things, but if you watch them long enough you see they create a lot of misery for themselves and others by their actions! Likewise everyone tends to cheer for the hero. Even if they have difficulty, we want them to win because they are doing good things.

ACTIVITY: We can actually use superheroes to show a lot about kamma! Let’s invent a superhero and name them. Now let’s invent a villain and name them. What is our hero like? What sorts of things do they do? We write them on a board and draw them. Now, what sorts of things does the villain do?

Now let’s consider what happens because of the actions they take. Our hero was often compassionate and saving people. So people trusted them, and built a statue of them, and gave them money. The villain liked to smash buildings and steal cookies. So people were afraid of them and the police were always trying to punish them.

To help understand Kamma and its effects, the Buddha divided it three ways. What three? Thought, Speech, and Bodily Action. What kind of thoughts does each character have? How do they talk? What things do they do? Now, let’s consider what other people think about them. What do they say about these characters?

One of the widest categories is thinking about the way our physical situation reflects our karma. This is a big part of buddhist culture and the stories in buddhism. Our intention and our mind state actually changes our whole world!

What does the hero look like? How do they live? How much free choice do they have? And now the villain – how do they look, live, and do they have as much freedom? We might see that our hero is strong, popular, and glows, while our villain is dark, bent, and brooding and hides in the dark places. They never have any peace. We already know that the quality of our thoughts and actions affects our whole life if we think about it.

Most stories are about karma really. We were lucky enough to have:

STORY: What Should Danny Do? By Ganit and Adir Levy

In the story, Danny goes through his day making choices, which affect how the story plays out. We went through it once keeping track of the outcome, then asked which choice we might have wanted to change the most. We went back and made a different choice there, and the whole story was different! Our choices really do matter.

In the end, we talk about Kamma to prepare the way for a lot of discussions to follow. The idea of cause and effect is so important! It’s good to be sure that if anyone has any questions they get to ask them. That way we can all move to understanding together!

Talk: Kamma and Rebirth

In this Uposatha reflection Tahn Pamutto goes up against the notion that you have to believe in Karma and Rebirth to be a Buddhist – where the idea comes from and what exactly the Buddha talks about as essential in the understanding of karma.

Reclaiming Renunciation

This last Sunday our family group had the chance to take a field trip to the town of Wendell, the hilltown where Tahn Pamutto and company spent the summer months living in a tent and walking almsround. There the topic of the day, the parami of Nekkhamma or Renunciation, was made real by seeing different ways of life. Wood stoves, oil lamps, hand pumps for water, and composting toilets were just some of the wonders found there, where people are trying to live apart from the hustle and bustle of modern life. These things were commonplace a century ago but now require a conscious act of renunciation!

Renunciation often gets a bad rap. Many people living with the comforts of modern life feel it is a criticism or a call to become monastics. Even in the Pāli dictionary nekkhamma is equated with the Going Forth, but as a perfection it is something far more important and pervasive. Renunciation is necessary for any practice of the spiritual life.

How could we make a change if we weren’t willing to give up our old ways of doing things? How could we find time to meditate if we didn’t let go of the things that fill up our schedule? How could we afford to be generous if we spend every cent we make on all the luxuries that come our way?

Renunciation is the ability to forego an immediate want or pleasure. Sometimes this is for a known result, like when we go on a diet to lose weight. But other times it is for its own sake. We don’t know what we’ll spend our money on when we hold off on buying the newest gadget the second it comes out. But that’s just the thing – once we’ve restrained ourselves we have infinite possibilities for how we spend that money. Likewise with time and energy and all the things in life that are constantly running out. When we practice renunciation, we create space. And it’s not until we create space that something new can arise.

We had two activities to practice renunciation. The first was a gift exchange with a catch – we were to give someone a gift without buying anything. We had to think of something we had that someone else could use, and let it go. It turned out to be pretty fun!

The second activity was to think of an unskillful thought, verbal pattern, or action we habitually do that we might want to let go of. We wrote these down on pieces of paper and ceremonially tossed them into a fire. As we watched our bad habit burning up, we got to contemplate nibbana! When we let go of something that causes us suffering, the possibilities for new skillful behaviors to fill the void are endless!

Finally, we got to act out the story of Temiya. Temiya was one of the lifetimes of the Bodhisatta as he was practicing the perfections to become a Buddha. The Bodhisatta practiced the renunciation of becoming a hermit or ascetic many, many times – after all, he was dedicated to purity of mind and wanted to spend as much time working on it as possible! But in his life as Temiya, he had to be willing to let go of everything to move towards his goal:


Characters: NARRATOR, Temiya, Father, Mother, Sunanda

NARRATOR: This is the story of a lifetime of the Buddha when he was still a Bodhisatta, meaning he was not enlightened yet. He was still trying to master the parami’s and become a really good person. In one lifetime he was born as a king in a very rich and powerful country. In that life the Bodhisatta took it easy and enjoyed himself. He made lots of bad karma as a king because his country was always at war. He had to use violence and steal from other countries to stay in power.

When he passed away from that life he had to leave all the money and power behind. He realized he had made a big mistake! He hadn’t gotten any closer to being enlightened and he had done a lot of bad things. He suffered for a long time because of all the bad kamma he had done.

After a long time, though, he was ready to be born a human again. At that time there was a rich and powerful business family. They had no children, which was a problem because there was nobody to pass the family business to.

MOTHER: Oh, I really want a child!

NARRATOR: The mother of the family was actually a good person for the most part, and eventually her wish came true. The bodhisatta was born as her son. She named him Temiya.

Temiya’s father was not a very good person. He was in charge of a powerful corporation and he made his money in many bad ways. He was very rough and violent towards his competitors, he sold his products at an unfair price, and he would tell lies. He even sold things that hurt people like weapons and drugs.

When Temiya was little he heard what business his father was in and realized it was a lot like the kingdom he had had in his past life. When he grew up he would be expected to do many bad things and hurt people. When he understood this he became very scared.

TEMIYA: I don’t want to be rich and powerful. I want to be a Buddha! I have to think of a way to not be given the family company!

NARRATOR: Temiya tried to think of a way out, but he was very scared of doing bad things. When we are scared it’s hard to think straight. He knew if he ran away his father would send someone to find him. There was only one way – he had to pretend to not be able to see, hear, or speak. If his family believed the act, they would decide not to give him the company when he got older. Then he could live a peaceful life.

So Temiya stopped looking, and stopping responding to his name, and stopped talking. His mother had to feed him with a spoon, and their butler Sunanda had to get him dressed every morning and bathe him at night.

His family was very surprised by the change. They got together one night to talk.

FATHER: I don’t understand. Why doesn’t Temiya respond to us?

MOTHER: He didn’t get sick or hit his head. This is very strange!

SUNANDA: Maybe he is just acting?

FATHER: That’s it! It’s just an act. We must find a way to snap him out of it.

SUNANDA: When a young boy or girl is throwing a temper tantrum, sometimes you can get them to stop by offering them a candy or toy. All we need to do is offer Temiya something he can’t refuse. Then he will give in and respond to us.

NARRATOR: The family got together and planned. They thought of three things that Temiya really liked, and planned to get trick him into revealing he was acting.

[At this time, the group brainstorms to think of three things to try to tempt Temiya with. When they have them, one by one a family member will act out offering the thing to Temiya. Temiya can’t move a muscle, not to look or respond in any way!]

NARRATOR: They tried and tried for years, even as Temiya grew up. In the end it worked. It took a long, long time, but after sixteen years of trying to tempt Temiya the family decided it was impossible. Temiya really was blind and deaf and couldn’t talk. He would never be able to run the company. Father decided it would be a waste of time to keep Temiya around. He knew Mother would never let him go, so one day he ordered Sunanda to take Temiya into the forest – and bury him! That way Mother would never find out.

Sunanda put Temiya in a bag and drove him far away into a forest. Sunanda then dug a hole. When Temiya heard Sunanda working he understood what was happening, and even though he was sad he would be leaving his mother and family, he was very happy that he wouldn’t have to do bad things. He began to cry tears of joy.

SUNANDA: Master Temiya – are you crying? Why?

TEMIYA: Friend Sunanda, it is true. I have been acting all this time. I am crying because I am so happy. My family has finally decided not to give me the company. This is better than doing many bad things that I would regret. My life was short, but I am proud of myself. I was able to get closer to my goal of being a Buddha!

SUNANDA: Master Temiya, you are amazing! It is true, I also don’t like doing bad things. You’ve inspired me to let go of my bad work and try to live a more peaceful life. I’m not going to bury you!

NARRATOR: And so Sunanda and Temiya built a little cabin in the woods and lived there happily and peacefully. One day Father and Mother came to see what happened, and when they saw Temiya so happy and free, they were also inspired. Temiya taught them about Renunciation, and they were able to give up their bad business and live happily for the rest of their days.

Examining the Bases of Power

Following on from our talk in recent weeks of goals, character development, and the bases of power, it was surprising to receive a request to devote our Tuesday evening study group to a continuing look at the iddhipāda.

We cracked open the Samyutta Nikaya (Discourses Connected by Topic) and looked at the chapter devoted to the Iddhipāda, starting with unpacking the paragraph-long exposition of each factor in SN 51.11 (SN 51.11: Pubbasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net) ). But, having done this, it was impossible not to look ahead even a little bit and acknowledge that the iddhipāda are not simply about developing concentration. The iddhipāda-samyutta goes on in depth about developing psychic powers, the divine eye and divine ear, the ability to see past lives, and even to MāhāMogallana shaking palaces with his pinky toe. A few anecdotal stories are easy to write off as just relics of an ancient culture, but the pāli canon is absolutely stuffed with references to the powers of the mind. Iddhi

And so it was that a circle of grown adults had to be coaxed into seriously considering the question – “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”

The Buddha declares boldly that all the enlightened beings of the past, present, and future have mastered the bases of power. So this is not just a theoretical exercise. Most teachers in the modern world are quick to brush mention of these powers aside without giving due credit to the value of the exercise of developing a capability through effort. It’s not about the results. If someone were to ask, “So you have telekinesis, what good is that? What are you going to do, clean up your child’s room with your mind? Then what?” Actually, they have a point. Most superpowers are, by themselves, kind of dumb. Even in the Pāli canon, they were rarely used without created a lot of trouble for the user. But if something had to have a really important uses or we wouldn’t want it … how many people would no longer have dogs? Or cats? Or children? Isn’t the matter of usefulness secondary?

People in the western world also have a tenuous relationship with the word ‘striving’. It brings up images of puritanical self-loathing, destructive overworking, and tunnel vision. But how much of this is because of where western culture has come from and the destruction wrought by unchecked ambition? How different would our perspective on striving be if, like in the thousands of discourses of the Pāli Canon, striving was seen as a healthy willingness to work towards our goals?

There is in fact a healthy desiring, a yearning for progress which can be cultivated and mastered. The iddhipāda encourage us to make the first steps. The recurring message of the Pāli Canon, though never said overtly in these terms, is that the only sure way to fail is to never try, and that the only thing standing between us and what we want is – us: our own limiting beliefs and assumptions, which have to be purified out of the mind like a goldsmith removes impurities from gold. After all, in the beginning everything seemed impossible. Go a day without getting drunk? Not kill a tick on sight? Sit still for an hour straight? It’s impossible, until it’s so second nature we forget it was an accomplishment brought about through effort.

It’s important not to shelve the exercise of developing our mind because we don’t believe in psychic powers. After all, what is a superpower anyway? If everyone in the world could fly would flying be a superpower? The reality of the situation, plain and simple and staring us in the face, is that being willing to change IS a superpower. It is special and uncommon. One might sit down wanting to learn to light a candle with their mind (and admittedly, that’s not the most amazingly useful power in the era of the light bulb), but along the way develop all sorts of abilities they didn’t intend to. The ability to sit quietly, insight into heat and energy, an appreciation of their own body heat that gives them the ability to endure dramatic shifts in temperature … they might also learn how to not get swept up in anger when they are feeling hot under the collar. They might develop a tolerance to burning lust that could destroy a loving relationship. And when there’s an emergency that gets the adrenaline pumping they might stay cool and collected, or at least cool enough to see what needs to be done and do it.

These are the quieter superpowers that come along the way. Most importantly, the people who cultivate the iddhipada learn about willpower and energy. They learn about believing in themselves and trying. The most exceptional quality of all tends to be how they know how to stay on course.

The irony of the lists associated with psychic powers is that the real beauty of the mind comes about through the practice itself. We become enthusiastic, balanced, calm and inquisitive. We learn about cause and effect, and we learn when to step aside and let processes just happen. The powers of mind are a stepping stone to the most powerful insights on nibbāna itself. And as the Buddha said, anyone who reaches nibbāna would have come by this path. Maybe not lighting candles or flying, necessarily, but they set goals way beyond the scope of mundane life and are willing to strive.

So, how about it? If you could do anything, what would it be? And how are you going to get there?

The Many Faces of Mettā

The focus for today’s family gathering was very timely – Mettā. Not only as a perfection of character, but also as a life skill, it’s hard to find a buddhist teaching as fundamental as Goodwill. But explaining this skillful emotion or it’s underpinning is deceptively hard.

The reason for this is that while we often know the feeling of mettā when we experience it, in its practice and display in the world it takes so many different forms. Mettā comes from the pāli word Mitta, or friend, and at it’s core it’s the state of wishing the best for another being: sincerely desiring their welfare. Sometimes this takes an active form, like Generosity, Kindness, Encouragement, Assistance, or Teaching. At other times, it shows a more passive aspect, as in Love, Appreciation, Gratitude, or Forgiveness.

Many know of the practice of Mettā bhavana as a sort of guided meditation. We use our mind to bring up joyful and appreciative thoughts as an antidote to ill-will. This is incredibly useful and supportive for meditation, as it cleanses the mind of many basic obstructions. Our Perception of the world is unfortunately biased – we’re either seeing things in a positive light or a negative. While neither perspective is inherently true, knowing when it is skillful to favor one perception over the other gives us the ability to balance and brighten our minds.

Once the mind is balanced, however, Mettā is not simply a mental posture. We cultivate appreciation, gratitude, and goodwill not just for the feeling. The actions of body and speech that result from these mindstates are just as important. They will engender harmony, build supportive relationships, and heal damage from our misdeeds. It is the expression of mettā that we speak of in every day life.

Not only is Mettā the underlying cause for dozens of skillful ways of being, but it can give us tremendous strength in trying times. Our story for this pāramī was The Brave Little Parrot (Jataka Tales, and The Brave Little Parrot – Inquiring Mind ). When we think in terms of ourselves it’s like we grow smaller, but when we keep others in mind it’s amazing the things we can do.

We also had a simple activity. We started by gathering in a circle. One person had a ball of yarn, and chose to express something they appreciated about someone else in the circle. As they did they would pass the ball while hanging onto the yarn that was being fed out. Each person chose someone else in the circle to appreciate and very quickly we had a big and intricate web of yarn connecting each other in all directions.

Every kind act is like a string that connects us to someone else. But in forming a connection to others, we also connect to those they support. Even if we couldn’t think of an appreciation for someone else in the circle we were at most one person away from them in the web. And now, what would our own web of connection and relationship look like? Even if we think of someone we have difficulty with – could we be only one or two friends distant from kindness to them?

It’s also nice to see visually how supported we are. It’s very easy in the modern world to feel cut off or isolated, but just a few moments to think and appreciate others reveals the amazing amount of energy flowing between each of us!

The Mind’s Ideal

In this Uposatha reflection, Tahn Pamutto discusses how getting a vision of the reason we practice and what we would like to develop can serve as a foundation for the work we actually do in cultivating the eightfold path. He also discusses the list of four known as the iddhipāda, which are factors we can bring to our efforts to improve our chance of success.

Family Group: Developing Paramī

One of the joys of being stably in one spot as well as amidst a community of buddhist practitioners is the ability to have programs suitable for participants of all ages.  In Shelburne we had the first of our planned weekly family gathering today.  The theme was ‘Developing Paramī’.  We had the chance to contemplate what qualities we think are important for our own happiness and how we might practice them so they get stronger.

The whole topic of Paramī, or Perfections, is derived from the story of the bodhisatta’s quest to become a Buddha.  Just setting the intention for something is not enough – we have to consider what is needed for success and do the work.

We got to have a little fun acting the scene out too.  Have you ever heard the story?


NARRATOR: This is something that happened long, long ago, on a planet that was a lot like earth. On that earth in the country of India there was a great city so large and old that everybody thought the city would last forever, so they called it Amaravāti, the Deathless City.

At the edge of this great city there were some patches of forest. This is where meditators and holy people liked to live. One of these meditators was a man named Sumedha. He lived on his own in a little hut in the woods. Every day Sumedha would sit and meditate in the forest, developing his mental power. He had lots of special abilities like the ability to see and hear things far, far away, and the ability to move things with his mind. He was pretty sure he could do anything he wanted to if he put his mind to it.

One day Sumedha was disturbed from his meditation by a lot of people working on the path down the hill from his hut. He went down the hill to chase them away, but when he got there he was surprised by what he found. The people were smiling and happy, and working very diligently to clean the path. They were sweeping and clearing branches and filling in all the potholes with dirt. Some were even chanting while they worked. Sumedha went up to one of them and asked:

SUMEDHA: “What are you doing? Why is everyone cleaning this old path? And why are you all so happy?”

VILLAGER: “Oh great Holy Man, we are happy because this good news has spread: A Buddha named Dīpankara has arisen in the world! He left a rich family to go off and purify his mind, and has attained full enlightenment. He is kind and wise and holy. He teaches all who want to be taught the Dhamma of how to realize enlightenment for themselves in this very life. And – today he is traveling along this very road with a great big sangha of his monks and nuns. We are very honored to have him bless our neighborhood.”

SUMEDHA: “That sounds nice. I want to be a Buddha!”

VILLAGER: “Good sir, I hope you are successful in that! But you should know that it takes a lot of work to be a Buddha. It takes many, many lifetimes of practice to purify ones mind and heart to that great level, so that one can be of benefit to everyone.”

NARRATOR: When Sumedha heard this he looked at the people around him and suddenly he understood why they were so happy. Work! It had been a long time since he had had to work at anything, because his psychic powers were so strong. And he had never worked for anyone but himself. But these people were happily working out of respect and kindness for the coming Buddha.

So Sumedha asked if he could help prepare the path. A villager gave him a broom and he started sweeping. He picked up heavy branches and tossed them out of the way. There were even some acorns which hurt when they were walked on, so he picked them up one by one so no one would hurt their feet.

Even after all this work though, there was one thing that didn’t get done. A big pothole was in the middle of the path and it was filled with muddy water. Anyone who walked through it would get all muddy and dirty. Just then Sumedha saw the Buddha Dīpankara coming down the road, with a long line of monks and nuns walking single file behind him. The Buddha was dressed in bright golden robes and looked so peaceful and bright, it was like he was glowing. He walked very mindfully.

Sumedha didn’t have any time to think or use his psychic powers. He just lay down in the puddle so that the coming Buddha could walk over his back. When Dīpankara Buddha approached he understood what Sumedha was doing, so he walked across the puddle using Sumedha as a bridge!

When the Buddha walked over him, Sumedha had this thought:

SUMEDHA: Now that I see the Buddha I understand what it means to be enlightened. His mind is totally bright and pure of all mean thoughts. If I studied under this Buddha, I bet I could reach that same enlightenment – in one night if I really tried. But I would rather be a Buddha just like him, and make people everywhere happy and teach the dhamma! I will be a bridge so other people can reach the far shore of enlightenment!

NARRATOR: At that time the Buddha Dīpankara knew what Sumedha was thinking, and saw that he was able to work very hard at what he wanted.

DĪPANKARA: This holy man just decided to become a Buddha! And he will be successful. Many lifetimes from now he will be a Buddha named Gotama, and he will teach the Dhamma. He will help many people cross to the far shore.

NARRATOR: When this was said everyone around became very happy. All the villagers and even all the spirit beings like devas celebrated, because a Buddha arising is a very good thing.

All the rest of the sangha walked over Sumedha like a bridge. While he was lying there, Sumedha saw that he had a lot of work to do. He was actually not the nicest person! He was very self-centered, and he could be mean sometimes. He also held on very tightly to the things he loved.

When he thought about this, his mind became a little brighter. He realized that he was being Honest with himself, and Honesty was a good quality. So from that moment he decided he would work hard to always tell the truth, no matter what happened.

With Sacca, or Honesty, as his first quality, Sumedha then thought of a list of ‘Paramī’, or Perfections, that he would have to master in order to be a Buddha. A Paramī is a quality of a pure heart that good people have. There are a few different lists, but in the Theravādā tradition, there are Ten Paramī.

What are three qualities you think are the most important?

Now pick one and come up with a way you would practice this to get better at it.

Here is the list of Ten Paramī. Do any match the ones you picked?

Sacca – Honesty
Dānā – Generosity
Sīla – Virtue
Nekkhamā – Letting Go
Adhiṭṭhana – Determination
Viriya – Energy
Mettā – Goodwill
Karuna – Compassion
Upekkha – Equanimity
Pañña – Wisdom

Talk: Developing Faith in the Triple Gem

In this Uposatha reflection, Tahn Pamutto reflects on the ‘Homage to the Triple Gem’, a sort set of verses that are among the most commonly chanted pāli phrases in theravāda buddhism. These phrases are known as the epithets of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and are a great reflection on what it means to grow in confidence and joy as we practice.

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