Uposatha Talk: Spiritual Growth

For the Uposatha Tahn Pamutto is joined by Tan Santi at Vihara Parivara Dhamma Acala for a joint dhamma reflection on the subject of Spiritual Growth. The ability to change, to discern what is for our benefit and detriment, and to develop powerful and wholesome responses to life’s challenges is essential to the ‘Why?’ of Buddhist practice.

Talk: Taṇha – Craving for Existence

We had a lot of friends join for the Uposatha program last night. Marking the occasion, Tahn Pamutto offered a reflection on one of the central aspects of the Buddha’s definition of what causes stress in our lives: Taṇha, or Thirst. Starting at the reality of our lives and the tangible experience of loss, he tracks it back through the steps of Dependent Origination to the place where it arises, namely, the craving and identification with experiences that are pleasant, painful, and neutral.

Mettā Week

The recordings of the mettā weeklong working retreat can be found on the ‘Innovative Dhamma’ YouTube channel.  Each session is an hour long, including an opening homage, 45 minute meditation, and a reflection.

Please note – the first one or two recordings may have occasional glitches due to technical difficulties.  It was resolved after that.

Talk: Seeing Views

On the Uposatha, Tahn Pamutto discusses attachment to views, what that looks like and how we might try to chart a course through the world without relying on them. While Taṇha or Craving gets a lot of press in the Buddha’s teachings, it’s actually the outflow of Views, or Diṭṭhāsava, that was the major stumbling block in the lives of early Buddhists. Seeing our viewpoints and expectations as impermanent is the gateway that everyone must pass through to chart a course for true freedom.

How? First it’s important to recognize what suffering views are!

Keeping the Fire Lit

“Oh, the one who first taught you

the Buddha’s dhamma and his ways –

like brahmins keep a sacred fire lit

Ever give them thanks and praise!”

Dhammapada v.392

Winter is both here and not quite here yet. Evening temperatures dip below freezing and the first snow of the season threatens with every storm, but as yet the days are still warm. Managing heat inside the small space of the mobile temple during these shifts has become something of an art form. As anyone who has used a wood stove in such a space knows, getting the right heat is a constant balancing act: too much wood and the fire makes it a sauna; too little wood and the fire dies out.

Mastering constant heat is about coming to an understanding … it’s not about the fire. It’s about the embers, the glowing coals after a burn that keep the stove warm and ready. If the embers go out the stove has to be lit again from scratch, but if they are properly tended and nursed along restarting the fire is as easy as tossing on more fuel.

This is very much like our dhamma practice. There are times when we are on fire. We sit, we study, we go on retreats and burn with enthusiasm. But at other times, and sometimes as a consequence of overheating through our fervor, the fire goes out and we enter a period of drifting. We will struggle to sit and despite our best intentions we’ll neglect our practice. Days, weeks, months go by. When we finally do get back on track is almost like starting things from scratch.

As we go along, a wisdom arises: it’s not so much about the periods of intensity or periods of drifting as it is about nurturing the glowing coals of Faith and Wisdom through our day to day life. If we keep in contact with these – our reasons for practice, with the teaching, and with a community of dhamma friends – then whenever there is time and fuel our practice will light up again.

This is even more the case here in America, with many people practicing dhamma but living very separate and individual lives. The country is not one but a multitude of frontiers, with many practitioners dozens or even hundreds of miles from a temple or retreat center of their lineage. There might be a sitting or study group nearby, but these often meet too infrequently to keep us active by themselves.

We find here that we have to be diligent to stay the path. Continuity of practice is often more the case of nurturing daily expression – maintaining an altar, supporting a dhamma community, sitting, reading, chanting. Some little daily effort or reminder to keep the embers alive goes further than a few big exertions.

One of the best ways to stay the course, and know what we need to nurture, is to keep in touch with what inspired us to begin spiritual practice in the first place. Chances are we didn’t find that inspiration from reading a paperback or hearing about a temple somewhere or meeting someone who goes on meditation retreat every now and then. Even if that has become the content of our spiritual lives, it’s not where we started. If we look back to where we first developed our faith we will probably see a moment of intense personal growth, or a mind-altering teaching, or a meeting with a deeply devoted and inspiring practitioner.

We don’t keep the embers of Faith and Wisdom glowing through being content and coasting along. We have to look back to what originally lit a fire in our hearts and got us believing we could change for the better. This will be different from person to person, but what will be the same is that whenever a person keeps in touch with the things that inspired them, they will not lose their way. There will still be ups and downs, but the fire will no longer go out. Exertion won’t be a merciless sweat and tending to life’s other chores won’t leave one feeling cold.

So if you find yourself drifting, take a moment and ask yourself. Where did you start? What keeps you warm? When you figure it out, then keep it going in your life. Let it be its own art form.

Talk: Path of Peace

In this Uposatha evening reflection, Tahn Pamutto draws from a Dhammapada reference to the path of practice as a ‘Path of Peace’. Though we begin by charting a course to particular goals and discriminating between different philosophies and types of practice, it is ultimately less about our destination than about the path we take to get there. Tahn Pamutto goes on to speak about the Five Faculties: five character traits the spiritual practitioner builds and employs which are the deciding factor in whether we make quick progress or slow. These faculties are not just the tools of the journey but are also a way of describing what we become through our efforts.

Daylong Retreat

We have just finished our daylong retreat, “Recollection of Death”.  The recordings are available on the ‘Innovative Dhamma’ YouTube channel.  We appreciate the great turnout and participation both online and in-person!

What Awaits?

The other day we were getting a ride from a friend when the topic of tomorrow’s online retreat came up, “Recollection of Death”. It starts at 6am EDT on Zoom and will run through the day. It’s easy for monastics to forget the sturdy taboo around this subject, as this is something that’s the bread and butter of our contemplative life whether its Halloween or not. So I was caught a little flat-footed when our companion said, “That’s too much for me! I don’t think I’m up for a whole day thinking about death.”
 
I thought about the statement a lot during the ride and the days that followed. It hasn’t just been on account of the upcoming retreat — there have also been a lot of memorials, so death has been on our minds. It’s been interesting to see the ups and downs as I’ve approached the topic at different times, and explored a variety of facets. Reflection on death isn’t just one thing. It doesn’t have just one emotion, nor are there any right answers. Death is a sort of puzzle for us; it’s a great unknown that humbles us and forces us to get outside of ourselves.
 
But this is something that goes for any contemplation. As we find out early in our attempts at meditation: the mind doesn’t like being told what to do. We can bring up the subject of death, but that’s about the extent of our control. The mind will resonate like a gong that’s been struck and then it will go where it will go. For me, this is the joy of being a spiritual practitioner. There are no predetermined answers. Each of us has a different past and will walk a different path to freedom because of it. We bring up the topics that need to be faced, and then we get to see what is waiting for us.
 
There’s a room with a seat where our deeper truths and reality awaits us. The greatest struggle of all is to just go there and sit.
 
For some the mere mention of death will bring up sadness and grief, and that’s okay. It may be that this retreat or some portion of it will serve as permission to let this come to the surface of the mind. For others the idea of death is more theoretical and they will find themselves grappling with questions and speculation. What does it mean? When will it happen? What will it feel like? That’s okay too. Maybe it’s all we can do just to imagine Death as a cloaked figure waiting behind us. If we can sustain that image, all the better. We can watch how it will change how much desire we feel and how attached we are to things. The recollection of death is meant to bring us out of our fantasies and delusions and into this moment, whatever this moment contains.
 
The thing about death is that it is stable. “Death is certain, life is uncertain. All people die, but not all people live.” Our mortality is a truth, a Noble truth, one that doesn’t move or change or cease. Ultimately the emotions, thoughts, and patterns of the mind around the topic are to be moved through until we can abide with the knowledge of our mortality at all times, when it is as natural as breathing. This doesn’t demand that the experience of reflecting on death be pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. Merely that however it feels, we are aware and accustomed to our response to it. We’re not just coming to know death. We’re coming to know ourselves in relation to the death. And in knowing, to become free.

Talk: Times of Transition

In this Uposatha talk, Bhante Sumano offers thoughts on the completion of the three-month rains retreat and the change of season and perspective by moving into autumn. Natural processes are at work, encouraging us to transition and reflect on the year we’ve had, and allow ourselves to experience the necessary emotions that come with these reflections.

Pavārana

Autumn is now fully upon us, and we are quickly approaching the Kattika full moon of October. This moon is particularly significant for monastics. It marks the end of our three month rains retreat, a time when we commit to live in a shelter, often communally with the same group. Before this moon preparations are already underway for what will come after: the kathina festival is offered, cloth is gathered and made into robes, and then the group splits up. Monks depart for other monasteries or places to practice.

To mark this occasion, the community has the option to gather for a special observance – a formal offering of invitation for feedback on their conduct over the last three months. This invitation, called the ‘Pavārana”, reflects one of the core values of the monastic order so different from the ways of the world. In the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha’s, there is no greater failure than to be seen as uninstructable, and no greater punishment than for the community to refuse to admonish and teach one. As the Buddha puts it in the paṭimokkha: “For this is growth in this dispensation – namely, mutual pointing out of faults and mutual rehabilitation.”

There are relationships within the sangha where feedback and even criticism are inherently permitted, such as in the relationship of a teacher to a student, but for the most part the feelings of goodwill and harmony among fellow monastics is protected. Monks are not meant to just indiscriminately criticize each other but to determine if they have permission to offer feedback, and ask for it if unsure. So on the Pavarana night this channel for mutual reflection is ceremonially opened between all members of the community. Recognizing the group will soon split up, everyone seeks forgiveness, reconciliation, and growth, so that should they come together again in the future it will be in kindness.

The way of the world is to seek praise and avoid blame, even blame for misdeeds actually committed. But admonishment to a practitioner on the path is the catalyst for growth, and one who offers it is ‘like a guide to buried treasure’. Still, when we feel called to point out anothers faults, there is a further list of five criteria the Buddha encouraged us to reflect on first.

We should ask, “Is what I am about the say Factual? Will it be Beneficial? Can I speak with Goodwill? Can I speak Kindly so my words are heard? Is this the right time?”

Where is our criticism coming from? What exactly was done? All too often we feel slighted and a story starts to form in our mind, but if we go back to the facts of the matter we may see the response we felt was based on our own hang-ups and wounds rather than what was actually done. If we feel anger or resentment arising, or the urge to make the other experience some sort of punishment for the hurt we felt, its often a sign that the fault is not entirely in the other person. Carelessness is blameworthy, sure, but anger is much more so. Merely venting our grievances might feel good temporarily but ultimately won’t yield the results we desire.

Sometimes one of the most important factors is checking to see that our motivation is to benefit the other. Can we see a situation in which our feedback will help them grow? And is it a feasible vision or just a hope? If we do, then even if our words are difficult to hear they may be received with gratitude. But stopping to check this might inform us that the most beneficial thing to do is to not speak up right then. Maybe the person is stressed, or maybe they are holding a grudge that is closing their ears to us. We may be guilty of the same fault we are about to point out. Or we might simply not know enough about the situation to see what their motivations we in that instant.

The skillful giving and receiving of feedback is exquisitely hard, but like all other skills we don’t improve if we don’t practice. We needn’t be downhearted if we don’t get the response we were hoping for – sometimes it takes a long time to process and make a change. Most people have difficulty hearing criticism, but the wise will learn from it. The idea that we are all capable of change and growth is the very refuge in Buddha, refuge in Awakening, and the reason why cutting someone off is only used as a last resort. For those among us willing to train and grow, or at the very least not unwilling to hear or speak difficult truths from time to time, a Pavarana is a great chance to explore this rare skill. Start by considering whose feedback you would really value, and then set the conditions to open the dialogue and keep a receptive mind.

Upavana Foundation info@upavana.org

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