Reflecting on Spontaneity

This talk by Tahn Pamutto was given on the Uposatha in New York City, September 2022:

Namo tassa bhagavato, arahato samma sambuddhassa

Namo tassa bhagavato, arahato samma sambuddhassa

Namo tassa bhagavato, arahato samma sambuddhassa

So I’ve been thinking about the third noble truth, thinking what I could say about it. But then reflecting on the bus on the way in, it’s like, well, I didn’t really sleep much last night and I’ve been on a bus most of the day and nothing was coming up. And it’s this curious experience of, um…what is it like when nothing comes up?

You know, when there’s no inspiration… when it’s, you’re just, you’re just like, “ah,” and you got nothing.

And I think, in worldly terms, results are more important than intention. So you just fake it. You just do something, get something done, and it doesn’t matter. But in Dhamma terms, intention means more than the results.

So sometimes you just got nothing. Sometimes the intention is the most important thing. And so how can you, if you don’t feel inspiration, if you don’t know what you’re gonna talk about, what would you do? Well, it’s the same. You don’t feel inspiration. How are you gonna do something Buddhist? Right. Well, maybe I’ll just log in and maybe something Buddhist will happen. Maybe I’ll get lucky and I’ll find my inspiration along the way.

But actually there’s a pretty quick way.

How do you get to the wholesome intention if you’re not feeling inspired? One of the simplest ways is to be honest, one of the simplest ways is to be humble. One of simplest ways is to just take whatever you’re given. Even if it’s everybody looking at you and being like, “Really? You don’t got anything?”

Because in some ways, the Precepts that we just chanted are not just trying to guide us to “do this or get this bad result”.

Yeah. It’s not just “Thou shalt”. Or, I should be better. I should be nonviolent. I should be happy with whatever I’m given. Actually what the precepts are kind of pointing to is the lifestyle. Of being honest, of being humble, of being gracious, of being non-violent. And when you understand that, it becomes a lot simpler.

You know, it’s one of the easiest things in retrospect, but one of the hardest things for the average person to do is to just say, “I don’t know.”

“I… I dunno, I have no idea. I don’t know anything about that.”

But when it comes to even some very trivial things and somebody’s willing to say, “well, I wish I could give you an answer, but I just dunno,” it seems like an amazing thing, to just be honest.

“I have nothing,” or “I’m open to whatever you think is best.”

Right. So, I don’t know if this is ringing any bells. I don’t know if any of you have been in this situation where you’re tasked to give a dhamma talk and, well, here’s a little bit of a story time.

There was once an Anagarika, a guy in white robes named Carl. And he showed up at the Buddhist monastery and really didn’t know much about Buddhism at all, but he knew that he wanted to be some sort of renunciant. And he had been to a meditation retreat in Thailand and he had a really good experience as soon as he heard the chanting. And he did some meditation and during the meditation he had this image of himself in monk’s robes and it just made him so happy. And so Carl decided to go and live at a Buddhist monastery because he had gotten addicted to precepts.

You know, five precepts was really good. And then he tried eight and that was even better. And he’s like, wow, let’s just skip ten and go straight to two hundred and twenty seven! Yeah. But then Carl was at the monastery for a couple of months and they had this practice at the end of the Rains retreat, which was the senior monks who are normally the ones giving the talks would get to take the night off.

And they would fill the meditation bell with little scraps of paper with people’s names on it. Everybody who didn’t normally give a talk would give a talk that night, a brief ten minute Dhamma talk. And it just so happens that having been at the monastery just a few months, just long enough to be put into white robes, that Carl’s name was the first one to be pulled that Uposatha night. Yeah. And, um, uh, he got up on the dhamma seat, he’s the most junior person in the community and he’s just looking out at everybody and nothing came to him.

And he is just like, this doesn’t seem fair, but it took about a minute, and then he stumbled through a Dhamma talk about the suffering of being an Anagarika, which is what Anagarikas do. They talk about life working in the kitchen, and the suffering of having to drive and having to get used to not eating dinner and all these things. And then he got up off the seat and he went back.

But he reflected on that. He didn’t give another Dhamma talk until the next year and the next year he showed up at the dhamma seat, and again, his name was pulled first out of the bell, and he got up and he is like, it still doesn’t seem fair, this can’t be right.

But for a minute, he’s just searching around. He didn’t know what to say. And then finally he just started talking about something that he had been thinking about during the day and it worked out. And before you know it, 10 minutes were up.

And then the third year, again, his name was the first one called, and there was no fourth year. Like he left that monastery and spent a year away after that. But it’s something that’s developed. So all these years, and you see this with Dhamma teachers, eventually they learn it.

You can’t prepare for being in line with the Dhamma.

You can’t think your way into it. You can’t get ready for it.

What you can do is try to get the conditions to be right.

And this is what we do, so we meditate every day.

You know, it’s not that we’ll need that mindfulness and clarity and serenity necessarily. But the thing is, we don’t know when we will need the serenity. Yeah. We don’t know when the crisis will happen.

So we meditate every day so that we’re practiced and we’re ready.

We can set the conditions so that the conditions are as good as they can be, but whether or not Dhamma comes out or it’s just a complete blah, or defilements just run wild…

…It’s gonna be causes and conditions. So it’s something, it’s something to think about. And this is one of those non-linear, non-traditional kinds of Dhamma themes to kind of throw out there, imagining yourself as a sort of missionary, as you go about in the world.

We were talking about how when some people hear the first noble truth, they’re like, “Yes! There is suffering!” And then they go and they talk to the person next to them who says, “I’m not suffering.” You’re like, “what do you mean?”

When the dhamma really clicks with someone, the second they hear that, it’s a revelation. It’s like, “finally we get to talk about this thing that I’m experiencing.” But for 98% of the people on the planet, it’s more like, “I’m not suffering. That thing is wrong.

It’s a completely different perspective on the world, right? Sometimes we’re presented with situations and we don’t have an inspiration. There’s nothing in the back of our mind that says the Buddha would do this, and then we do that and we’re good. But imagining that we’re sort of roaming about and we’ve got the causes and conditions that we’ve been trying to cultivate, and then we’re seeing, we’re humbly kind of seeing what comes out.

Imagine seeing life not as you’re gonna try to get this Dhamma thing right, but rather you’re going along for the ride. And so you’re gonna try to do as well as you can, but what comes out, if you’re willing to be honest with it, you’re willing to look at it, if you’re willing to be humble around it, then intention trumps results.

It will be for your benefit. When you look at the precepts, this is maybe something you can start to see.

You might approach a situation saying, “Okay, I’m a good Buddhist, I’m not gonna kill, I’m not gonna kill the mouse, I’m not gonna kill the insect. I’m not gonna do anything violent.”

You can say instead, “How can I be just harmless? How can I be friendly in this situation?”

And let’s just see what happens. It’s funny that you would arrive at the same result, right? You’d arrive at the same result, you wouldn’t kill anything.

But are those two different states? One is coming from a like, “I’m going to restrain this unwholesome state of killing”, but over time we transition to a totally different one and it’s, “I’m gonna be nonviolent,” and the faith starts to get exponential that it will work out.

So likewise, young silly Carl sat down on the dhamma seat and just sort of blabbed and trusted that nobody was gonna get angry at him. And many other people said after his ten minute forced Dhamm talk that “no, it was great. It was great. Yeah. You just, you talked Dhamma.” Nobody held it against him. And why not? Well, because he didn’t tell anybody that he was enlightened. He didn’t tell anybody he was an authority, you know?

In fact, he said quite the opposite. He’s like, “I’m not, I should not be up here, I just moved in.” But that’s why everybody got something out of it.

It’s inspiring when somebody is honest. It’s inspiring when somebody is humble. It’s inspiring when somebody’s gracious. Right. So what if you were to lead with these qualities?

So this is a reflection that just kind of popped out and I was just thinking about on the bus.

“I don’t have anything to talk about and I don’t even know I’m gonna make it on time. But if I do make it on time, whoever is still in the room, I’m just gonna humbly present myself to them. And I’m gonna say, well, what do you wanna talk about ?”

And here we are. So instead of a formal dhamma talk, sometimes conditions conspire to say, let’s just have a time, a conversation.

We got together, we got some precepts, we got a little bit of time, and you can check out whenever you want.

NYC 9/2022