Monday, August 25, 2014

renunciation

Both Jesus and the Buddha encouraged their followers to renounce the world. This doesn't mean, of course, that one must literally run away from the world and go hide in a cave. It's primarily a kind of attitude, a shift in the focus of one's life. To renounce the world is to play by a different set of rules, to go against the current of selfishness and craving, and live a life that others may not understand.

To live in the world is to be fully immersed in sensuality, to live for the sake of experience and pleasure and according to the whims of worldly opinions. To live in the world is to be moved by the eight worldly winds of gain and loss, status and disgrace, censure and praise, pleasure and pain, to be swept away by the passions of the world. To live in the world is to seek happiness and satisfaction in the conditioned, that which is impermanent, subject to change and dissolution.

The Buddha said that life is uncertain, that death may come at any moment, so we should practice heedfulness, the way to the Deathless, and freedom from the yokes of sensuality, becoming, views, and ignorance. In the Bible, too, one can find this kind of exhortation to live a life against the current of worldly passions and concerns for the sake of a greater happiness, to live heedfully and with wisdom:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: "He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us"? But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. (James 4)


It is the craving for sensual desires that give rise to greed, hatred, and delusion, leading to quarrels and conflict. To live by the whims of these passions, one 'makes a friend of the world' and turns away from the noble life, from truth and peace and the Deathless. Our actions and intentions must be cleansed, purified. We must give up some of the short-term happiness and pleasure we experience from following our passions because they lead to long-term harm and suffering; and we must do what might initially be difficult for us to do because it will ultimately lead to our long-term welfare and happiness. We must be honest and practice right speech. And above all, we must not be heedless.

Although many have escaped into the forests, mountains, caves, and other remote places of the earth to help them renounce the world, which can be helpful, 'the world' itself goes with them. One can't escape the world simply by fleeing from civilization. Renunciation, then, is ultimately an internal turning away from our craving and desire once we begin to discern the drawback of sensual pleasures and the limitations of feeding our hunger for pleasant feelings and experiences.

Unfortunately, renunciation is often perceived as a negative word, especially in the West—a word that implies depriving oneself of something essential to living a full and happy life. But in the Buddha's dispensation, as well as in the teachings of Christianity, renunciation actually means the opposite of this—it's a word implying the relinquishment of something unessential to living a full and happy life.

One of the main reasons I find monasticism so appealing, I think, is that it's a way of life specially designed to help foster this kind of internal renunciation on the external level. Monastic life is like a spiritual training ground for those who either have trouble cultivating this spirit of renunciation while living a worldly life (like me) or who simply desire to devote themselves fully to a life of renunciation.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

five days at our lady

Thursday morning, I awoke to a bright, blue sky and a dull headache nesting behind my right eye, excited and at the same time somewhat anxious about my five-day guest house retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey. I'd written to Brother Chris about a month prior during one especially 'dark night' asking about their monastic life retreat, as well shorter guest house stays, and had received an encouraging reply suggesting that I schedule a guest house stay and go from there.

I've been drawn towards monastic life for what seems like most of my life (I don't remember it myself, my mom told that when I was very young, she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her a recluse). But most of my experience had up to that point been with Theravadin Buddhist monasticism. However, due to the influence of various films and books and conversations with others over the past few years, I'd found myself growing increasingly more curious about Christian monasticism, particularly that of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or as they're more commonly known, Trappists.

I think the first thing that drew me towards the Trappists was their distinctive habits, white tunics with contrasting black scapulars. I know it may sound silly, but something about them is just so aesthetically pleasing and inspiring to me. The second thing that indirectly attracted me to them was Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert, which I found had a lot in common with the wisdom of many of the Thai Forest ajahns, whose ascetic lifestyle in many ways mirrors that of the early Christian monks and nuns who lived contemplative lives in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. And later on, what further deepened that interest is their contemplative approach to prayer, most notably what they call 'centering prayer.'

When I first wrote to Br. Chris, I'm not sure what I really wanted or expected, but I was at least conscious of the vague, reoccurring dissatisfaction with worldly life and desire to connect with both spiritual people and a deeper, more profound level of reality I often feel spurring me on. Although I'm admittedly skeptical of the existence of something more, something transcendent and beyond intellectual understanding, deep down I want there to be, and I seem to be predisposed to searching for it within the quiet depths of my own soul, whether it be in the meditation halls of Buddhist temples or the guest house of a Trappist abbey.

Arriving at the abbey, however, my mind was overflowing with doubts and worries, and I began to second guess my decision to come. For one, I was completely unfamiliar with Catholicism, and Christianity in general. I started to worry that I'd offend someone and/or make a fool out of myself due to my lack of familiarity and general ignorance of proper etiquette. And as open-minded as I know some within the Catholic Church can be, it can't be denied that there's also a very rigid orthodoxy, and I sensed the potential for conflict, both internal and external.

There are aspects and dogmas of Christianity I'm not sure I could ever fully accept, assuming, of course, I found myself pursuing that spiritual path; and even my belief in God — personal, pantheistic, or otherwise — is shaky. I value the idea of God, although I'm not sure how much faith in God I truly have, if any. I think Jesus was a revolutionary spiritual teacher; but I have a difficult time understanding him as God and our relation to him. And yet here I was, about to spend five days at a Catholic monastery, led here by a myriad of conflicting circumstances and desires I didn't fully understand.

But despite my many misgivings, the abbey was quite inviting and peaceful. Instead of having to give any sort of account of myself or my beliefs, I was immediately given the opportunity to let the peaceful, serene atmosphere at once become a part of my retreat experience.

After a short tour of the guest house area from a kind volunteer named Rhonda, I settled into my room, which was small yet comfortable enough, and was further reassured by a small, four-page pamphlet encouraging me (and all retreatants generally) to “enter into quietude,” listen with ears and heart, and allow my “inner self' to surface”—to be “revitalized in my spiritual life,” free from the anxiety and demands that often go hand-in-hand with ordinary, everyday life in our modern society. I took a few moments to sit in the rocking chair and allow what I'd just read to sink in and really begin my retreat.

Maybe thirty minutes or so later, I walked over to the church for Vespers. The church, like the rest of the abbey I'd seen so far, was simple and inviting, yet also inspiring a kind of reverence. The high ceiling and skylights gave it a bright, spacious feeling, and its simplicity was humble, practical, and in my mind, just right to put one into a contemplative mood.

After the service was over, which mainly consisted of a mixture of hymns, prayers, and scriptural readings as the monks alternated between standing, sitting, and bowing, I briefly met with Br. Chris, who introduced himself, asked if I had everything I needed, and suggested that we meet again the next day at 9:30am to talk about my stay, the monastic life retreat, and likely whatever else came up.

Right after Vespers was supper (lunch is called dinner), which I ate in the guest dining area with another guy who also there on retreat. The meal, which was simple, vegetarian, and quite good, was eaten in silence, although talking is permitted during supper. Two more ladies on retreat walked in as I was finishing; but they took their meal into another room to eat, while I took a cup of coffee and made my way out to explore the grounds, meandering around one of the man-made ponds behind the guest houses, full of frogs and some fish and frequented by all sorts of local wildlife.

Once my coffee was finished, I headed back and once again entered the church for the final service of the day, Compline. I tried to “enter into quietude” and truly listen, being mindful of the hymns and my reasons for being there, but I found it rather difficult as my mind's internal dialogue was unwilling to settle down and observe the same silence as my body. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant or unfruitful experience, though; and as I was exiting the chapel with a somewhat reverent attitude on my way back to my guest house to retire for the night, I ran into two deer leisurely wandering the grounds, grazing on the foliage, thus ending my first night of my first stay at a Trappist monastery.

However, sleep didn't come easily for me, even though I felt tired, and most of the night I tossed and turned and dreamed of things I quickly forgot upon waking. The air was stuffy and humid and I couldn't get comfortable. Then, just before 1am, I noticed flashes of light outside. At first, I was unsure of what it was; but as I went to the window I realized that it was lightening, so I got dressed, stepped outside, and watched through the tress as flash after flash arced across the sky, listening to the deep, low rumble of the thunder as it grew louder and louder the closer the storm drew to the abbey. Finally, it was upon us, and the rain began to fall. It was wonderful. I'd seen relatively few storms like that since leaving Michigan over ten years ago. I went back to bed and tried my best to let the sounds of the storm lull me back to sleep.

Vigils, the first service of the day, began promptly at 4:15am. I had a rather vivid dream just before my alarm went off at 3:55am that my phone, which I use as an alarm clock, froze during the night, and that I woke up late, slightly panicked and disappointed at the realization that I'd missed Friday's Vigils. Everything about the dream felt so real, especially the feeling of disappointment; and it was with both a sense of confusion and relief that I awoke for real when my alarm went off.

Although the rain had stopped by now, flashes of lightening could still be seen in the distance, and through the skylights of the church. Like Vespers and Compline the night before, Vigils was a mixture of hymns, prayers, and readings. I enjoyed the reading on prayer near the end from St. Alphonsus Liguori, but was curious about something that came before to the effect of 'God loves those who fear Him.' Why fear, I wonder?

The morning air was left damp and chilly from the storm, and I wished that I hadn't accidentally left my hoodie in Annie's car. The church itself was quite chilly for Lauds and Community Mass, the latter of which was a bit different from the masses I've attended at Orthodox churches. Less ceremony, but no less solemnity or celebration. I did feel a bit awkward at times, though, being the only non-Catholic there (everyone but me took communion); and some of the internal conflicts I was worried about the day before started to surface, such as my difficulty in understanding the concept of the Trinity (three distinct persons being a single divine entity), Jesus being the son of God (being wholly man) and God (being wholly divine) at the same time, and the ritual consumption of Jesus/God.

As much as I appreciated the service, I found myself doubting that I could ever believe in all the things that essentially make one Catholic. I could, of course, see and appreciate those concepts in a metaphorical sense, i.e., how the act of eating the sacramental bread and drinking the sacramental wine was a way of remembering and honouring Jesus as a spiritual teacher and the things he taught, as well as the importance of love and forgiveness (forgiving ourselves and others for our misdeeds, and allowing ourselves to be forgiven in return), and symbolically eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, the essence of life and salvation, connecting one to God, to nature, and to one another. But to see and understand these things literally seemed a bit beyond what I was capable of.

After breakfast, I met with Br. Chris by the pond and talked for a little over an hour. He asked me a bit about my past, and told me a bit about his, growing up in California, working in forestry, and becoming a monk. I learned he was continuing his education at Mt. Angel to eventually become a priest. We discussed literature, and he recommended Rumi, Dostoyevsky's Idiot, and Stranger in a Strange Land. And when talking about Christianity, he more or less said that it's ultimately all about Jesus and what he embodies—love and forgiveness. These two things are the essence of what Jesus taught, and hence what Christianity itself is really about, which is something I can appreciate. He also suggested that I go for a hike and mediate with the novitiates after Vespers.

Afterwards, the pessimist in me was hoping that I didn't make too big of a fool of myself and lamenting the fact that I'd actually said shit at one point during the conversation. But I really enjoyed our talk, and we agreed to meet again on Saturday so that he could take me on a tour of the monastery. I spent the rest of my time before Day Hour strolling around, taking some pictures and making friends with a particularly brave and seemingly curious frog who, unlike his fellows, didn't chirp and swim away as soon as I walked by, allowing me to get relatively close and even coming closer himself.

Day Hour was a short service, followed by dinner, which this time included tuna salad and what looked like some kind of chowder. Even here, vegetarian really means pescetarian, but there was still plenty for me to eat. And with all the free time I had left, I contemplated my future.

Earlier, Br. Chris had asked if I'd thought about going back to school, and I told him the cost made me hesitant and that the things I was interested in — literature, philosophy, political science, etc. — weren't very practical things to get degrees in. But what I'm doing now isn't very fulfilling, and it hardly pays well; and being in a monastic setting, with the peace, simplicity, and wholesomeness of monastic life at the forefront of my consciousness, my longtime desire to ordain became ever more present. But that's a big commitment, and would mean equally big sacrifices that would be difficult to bear. I felt torn between these two choices, these two lives—one of the world and one apart from it. I longed for the joys and pleasures of both, even though I knew one day I'd have to make a choice. My heart was light and heavy at the same time.

I decided to take Br. Chris' advice to go hiking and clear my head, thinking that I'd take the easy route to the Hilltop Shrine, following major forest roads all the way. Instead, I ended up getting lost after taking a trail I thought would lead me straight there, then getting turned around after a couple of forks, having to backtrack a couple of times when whatever trail I was on became too overgrown and full of spider webs and poison oak for my taste. I was worried that I'd miss Vespers, but I eventually made it to the shrine and found my way back with time to spare. I'm glad I went. The shrine was quite nice, and reminded me of similar ones I saw on the trails at Abhayagiri.

I sat alone in their Zen-styled meditation hall, Bethany House, for about fifteen minutes or so before Vespers. It was almost like being back at Dharma Rain. Br. Chris told me that one of the previous abbots, Father Bernard, really wanted a place dedicated to meditation; but many of the older monks predated Vatican II and were less than enthusiastic about the idea, and it took him three votes before everyone eventually agreed and it was finally built. After Vespers, I tried to sit and practice centering prayer with three other monks, but had a hard time staying awake, and was constantly drifting off into those kind of spontaneous waking dreams that gradually seduce you into real sleep. It was only a 25 minute sit, but I guess the lack of sleep and two-hour hike really did me in.

I ate a light supper and ended the day with Compline. I think out of all the services, Compline is my favourite. It's much like the rest, with singing, praying, and readings; but they end this particular service by walking around the altar in the centre of the church, facing an image of Our Lady (Mary), and singing a hymn to her. Then the abbot blesses everyone with holy water as they exit the church for the final service of the day. I'm not sure if it's what they sing or the way they sing it that I enjoy so much, but it's a pleasant way to end each night.

Sleep came much easier this time, and before I knew it, my alarm was going off for Vigils. Vigils is always a serene experience. Every morning before dawn, you walk into the dark church at 4am, many of the monks already there, sitting or standing, in prayer and meditation. Then the service starts, with its particular set of hymns and prayers and readings; and even though I'm always tired, I find it an uplifting experience, much like morning chanting at Theravada monasteries.

Listening to and reflecting on some of the hymns or passages that were being recited, however, depressed me. One, detailing the history of Israel and how the people of Israel suffered under oppression in Canaan, reminded me of the current conflict in Gaza and how Israel is now the oppressor. It saddened me to think of this, and of all the pain and suffering there is in the world; and I found myself wondering whether it's the world that corrupts our good intentions or our 'good intentions' that corrupt the world. It brought to mind Dostoyevsky's novel, Demons, and how the demons that possessed people were the ideas and isms that obsess our thoughts, colour our perceptions, and blind us to all else. What can drive out such demons when we cling to them with all our might?

With these thoughts and others in mind, I sat again for another 25 minutes before Lauds and Community Mass. At the sound of the church bell, we made our way to church for the next service; and once again, I found myself pondering the Eucharist, the consecrated Host (bread and wine) of Christ, and what it represents—still unable to full appreciate its 'mysteriousness,' but at least appreciative of the sense of community and unconditional love it's meant to foster and celebrate, transforming offenses made and received into forgiveness, and uniting the many into a collective whole through a sacred bond that transcends all our differences. To me, at least, it's a spiritual experience that speaks directly to our nature as social creatures.

I napped after breakfast and felt better for it. The lack of sleep Thursday night and the early morning service was catching up to me. I awoke before the alarm I'd set, and spent some time reading by the pond before Day Hour. I saw some of the monks taking care of the grounds and got to thinking about the other things the monks do, e.g., forestry, book binding, making fruitcake, etc.

One of the biggest differences between Christian and Theravadin monasticism that I've noticed is the role of work. Theravada monks and nuns are mendicants and depend almost exclusive upon the generosity of the laity. They're prevented by their rules from working for money (they're not allowed to even handle money), and are only allowed to eat what's offered to them by the laity each day. They do 'work' by writing, taking care of the monastery grounds, building and maintenance projects, etc.; but work in and of itself isn't a part of their vocation proper. Christian monks and nuns in the Benedictine traditions, however, must labour to support themselves. They can't depend entirely upon donations. It's an explicit part of their vocation to work. But, despite this, both seem to acknowledge the need for prayer/meditation and study to be balanced by labour of some sort.

Day Hour came and went quickly. I read some more by the pond, then met with Br. Chris again, who took me on a tour of the cloistered area of the monastery. The tour lasted about an hour and half, and one of its main purposes was to show me around so I could get a better sense of what being a Trappist monk entailed and help both he and I to decide if their month-long monastic life retreat was something that might be good for me.

The tour began in the church, and he told me about the history of the construction, details about the design, and the people who helped with it all. I really liked symmetry, and was impressed to learn that the wood for the pews, altar, and monk benches was all local, most, if not all, coming from their land. I was then taken into the cloistered area, which is generally off limits to the public, and saw everything from their library, infirmary, and rectory to their dormitories, laundry room, and office space. The entire layout is incredibly nice and well thought out considering the construction took place in three stages. It mirrors the church in both its symmetry and simplicity. While not as austere as some of the Thai Forest monasteries I've seen, it was far from lavish and expressed a genuine contemplative atmosphere.

He also explained that in their tradition, working to support the monastery is an important aspect of their vocation, and told me about the various things they do. The way it's set up, they have two accounts, one for the various jobs that support them financially, which is for-profit, and one for donations, which is non-profit and can be borrowed against when the former doesn't provide enough to support the monks' needs. Finally, I was given a fairly detailed tour of their book bindery, which, sadly, in the age of Kindles and iPads, isn't as busy as it once was.

At the end of the tour, Br. Chris gave me a gift, which was a hardcover copy of Benedicta Ward's English translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (where Merton gathered his favourite sayings from for his book, The Wisdom of the Desert) handcrafted and bound at their bindery. It was an extremely pleasant surprise. Not only because of the gesture, but also because I was eying a paperback edition of that very book in their bookstore. It couldn't have been a more fitting gift; and I took it as a sign that maybe I should give some serious thought to attending one of their monastic life retreats.

I also thought it rather humourous and intriguing that, when I returned to my room and opened the book to a random page to read an excerpt, it happened to be a story related by Abba Daniel about an inhabitant of Scetis who, out of his simple faith, thought, “The bread which we receive is not really the body of Christ, but a symbol”—the very thing I found myself thinking the past few days during mass, having trouble understanding it any other way.

As the story goes, two old men heard that he said this, and knowing of his outstanding way of life and that it was not said in malice but out of simplicity, went to see him and exhort him to change his position to one in conformity to the church, i.e., that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ. The man replied that, “As long as I have not been persuaded by the thing itself, I shall not be fully convinced.” So the two old men suggested they pray about this mystery throughout the whole week in the hope that God would reveal it to them.

At the end of the week, all three went to church together on Sunday, and as the priest placed the bread on the table, a child appeared to the three men alone. When the priest went to break the bread, an angel appeared with a sword and poured the child's blood into the chalice. When the priest cut the bread into pieced, the angel cut the child into pieces. And when they went up to receive the sacraments, the man alone received a morsel of bloody flesh and was afraid, crying out that he believed it was truly the body and blood of Christ, upon which the flesh immediately became bread. Then two men said to the third, “God knows human nature and that man cannot eat raw flesh and that is why he has changed his body into bread and his blood into wine, for those who receive it in faith.”

Suffice it to say that the story wasn't enough to fully convince me, and I imagine that as long as I haven't been 'persuaded by the thing itself,' I too, shall not be fully convinced.

The rest of the night was much like the one before: Vespers, meditation, supper, and finally Compline. Off and on, I imagined what it'd be like to live with the monks for a month and participating in each service, and I felt preemptively sorry for anyone that'd have to hear me mangle hymn after hymn because I'm so tone deaf. I don't think there's a rule against not being able to carry a tune, but that might change after they hear me try to sing.

Sunday, Vigils was longer than usual, and included a reading from Thomas Merton's The Living Bread, which focused on the mystery of the Eucharist and how it, and Christ's Church, are one mystery, not two. It seems I can't escape this theme.

Lauds was also longer, and on Sundays, starts forty-five minutes later as well. Afterwards, I ate breakfast and found a copy of Merton's Living Bread to read before the start of mass. One thing that I found interesting was his explanation of the importance of ritual sacrifice as a “response to a deep religious sense of the sacred, the 'holy,'” and that the “higher and purer the religion, the deeper is the meaning of the sacrificial act.”

He also speaks of us rising higher in the 'religious scale' (implying a type of historical, as well as individual, progressive spiritual maturity, I suppose); and as an example, he compares the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, which were rebuked by the prophet Isaias, with the “development of an idea of interior sacrifice in which man offers himself instead of offering victims” underlying the spirit of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the ideal man, Jesus, who is also, paradoxically, God—an “infinite propitiation for all offenses that have ever been committed against God [or divine moral law].”

And in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which I'd started reading a couple of weeks before, Merton writes of the importance of our mutual dependence on one another for our salvation, reinforcing the need for this spiritual, sacrificial union with God and each other in the form of the Mystical Body of Christ, quoting this passage: “You are the body of Christ and members of one another... And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not your help; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.... And if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; and if one member glory all the others rejoice with it.” For him and many others, this supernatural union is the only thing that has the potential to unite all of humanity together in a truly universal and salvific way.

Despite my own skepticism, all of this at least helped to impart to me the deep significance given by people of this faith to the act of taking communion; and as I sat through mass, I tried to keep that in mind and perceive it from their perspective—that the bread and wine they were accepting was God; and that God is love, so that they were all uniting in love with God and one another. As for myself, being non-Christian, I had to settle for my own communion of cookies and coffee when it was over.

Later, I headed down to the pond to do some reading and think about why I was there. On one level, I'm drawn towards the monastic way of life in general. It appeals to me for some reason; it always has. I tend to fell at home in places like this. On another level, I sometimes get this sense of a possible fulfillment to the spiritual search I think many of us are called to make to fill an otherwise unfulfillable hole in our hearts, and I'm naturally drawn towards religious people and places in the process, both for guidance and for inspiration. It's a deep, intuitive feeling of something more underlying life, a reality that transcends our temporal, subjective experience. At the same time, I fear that this feeling is only a mirage, a delusion, a psychological distraction, leaving me bewildered and lost in a proverbial desert of uncertainty.

During Day Hour, they opened the tabernacle, revealing the Eucharist. I sat and stared at it for a long time, even after the service was over and most everyone else had left and were eating dinner. Part of it was just enjoying the moment; but I suppose part of me was also hoping for some sort of sign or vision or something. (It was quiet and serene, but nothing I'd call miraculous happened.) At Vespers, they did a special ceremony where one of the ordained monks censed the Host from the tabernacle and took it out to bless everyone before closing it back up. At Compline, I felt sad knowing tomorrow was going to be my last day here

I awoke Monday morning with the faint memory of some strange dream. I attended Vigils, which included a reading from St. John Vianney on how prayer stretches the small heart of a small (finite) creature all the way to God (the infinite), and then sat with Br. Paul in the meditation hall for about an hour as the sun rose. After mass, Br. Chris came by, asked if I had a good stay, and told me to think about attending the monastic life retreat, which I think is something I eventually want to do.

As I finish writing this on my last day, I don't know what kind of lasting affect this time (or any future time) at Our Lady of Guadalupe will have on me, if any. I don't know if I'll ever find God or become Catholic or both and one day enter a Trappist monastery. Conversely, I don't know if it'll strengthen my conviction in my Buddhist practice, or throw me altogether into even deeper uncertainty.

Living a spiritual life can be difficult, especially for those with faith in something that's vague and undefined. Often, there's no guiding star, no clear map, no obvious road signs pointing the way. How do you reach a destination if you're not even sure where you're going, let alone the way there? Is it God I'm searching for? Is it some kind of enlightenment? Both? Neither? Sometimes I think it'd be so much easier to just 'stay put' and live a thoroughly worldly life and simply forget about such things; but as much as I try, my restless heart continues to push me onwards in spite of myself.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

pfod grand opening

This weekend, I had the good fortune to be able to attend the grand opening of the new Portland Friends of the Dhamma centre, which recently relocated into the former zendo of Dharma Rain Zen Center. A number of prominent monks from the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah came for the ceremony, including Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Viradhammo, and Ajahn Sona. It was like the Buddhist equivalent of hanging out with a bunch of old school rock legends. Sort of.

Friday night, the weekly mediation and Dhamma talk was led by Ajahn Viradhammo, one of Ajahn Chah's early Western students and current abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Canada. Saturday, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah's first Western student and former abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England, led a day-long of meditation and Dhamma reflections. And Sunday, Ajahn Pasanno, abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California and the second-most senior Western student of Ajahn Chah, led the grand opening ceremony, which consisted of chanting, some reflections by Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Sona, Sakula, and other members of the community, and a Thai-style water blessing.

Not only was it great to sit with and listen to the reflections of monks who have been practicing longer than I've been alive, but it was great to see how the PFoD community has grown over the years and for them to finally have a permanent home. A lot of people worked very hard, and gave generously of their time and financial resources, to make this grand opening a reality. When the building they were previously in was sold, and they had trouble finding another suitable (and affordable) location, there was some worry that the group might have to disband. But thanks to all that generosity and hard work (and maybe a bit of luck too), PFoD still has a spiritual home in Portland.

The entire experience was extremely auspicious, and I know it meant a lot to the whole community to have so many venerable monastics present, including Ajahn Sumedho. I know it definitely meant a lot to me. I think it's safe to say the weekend was a success, and PFoD's new home will continue to act as both a 'landing pad' for visiting monks and nuns and a place of training for the lay-community, being a welcoming sanctuary for anyone interested in trying to put the Buddha's teachings into practice.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

rules to live by: context matters and always cite/review source material

Two important things that I've learned over the years discussing Buddhism and other topics on the internet that I can't stress often enough are context matters and always cite/review source material. A great example of why these are so important occurred the other day.

During a discussion about literalism and where to draw the line on NewBuddhist, certain things the Buddha said were being examined and criticized. OK, fine. The first quote in question was, "Worthless man! It would be better to put your penis into the mouth of a Black Viper than into the vagina of a woman." Yikes!

Out of context, some take this passage to mean that the Buddha had a low opinion of women. And while the wording admittedly seems rather harsh and startling, in context, I understand the meaning to be, "It would be better to put your penis into the mouth of a black viper than to break your vow of celibacy," not that women are bad. The monk in question did just comeback from a romp in the woods with his former wife, after all, and the rebuke is found in a back story in the Patimokkha, the monks rules of discipline.

It should be noted that nothing like this is ever said to lay-followers, male or female, who haven't take vows of celibacy. Moreover, the Buddha seems to have had a very high/strong opinion about the benefits of the celibate holy life (brahma-cariya) for those who do decide to 'take the going forth.' Part of this, I think, is due to the efficacy of the holy life in attaining the goal. Another part, in my opinion, is due to the Buddha trying to protect both his monastic community and his lay-followers from potential misconduct, abuse, and scandal. That's why intentionally breaking the vow of celibacy entails a defeat for monastics—it was that serious of a danger in his eyes. (I'm sure he wasn't any more lax with nuns in this regard.)

Later on in the discussion, apparently keeping with the whole 'the Buddha seemed to have a lowly opinion of women' theme, the same poster asked, "And what of this from the Samyutta Nikaya 4: 'Women with their two-fingered wisdom (i.e. limited) cannot fully understand my teachings'"? I'd never seen that quote before, so I googled it to see if I could find the exact sutta in question and found a number of places that said the same thing, albeit without any further elaboration. I thought, "Damn, that's pretty harsh. Is this legit?"

None of the online sources I found, however, such as the women wikiquote page, referenced the exact sutta, nor any other additional info, so I had to do some more digging. The Samyutta Nikaya is a large, two volume collection of discourses attributed to the Buddha and his disciples after all, and chapter 4 in Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation contains 25 suttas over 25 pages. After some searching, though, I found the sutta in question, which I think further illustrates just how important both context and reviewing sources are.

Turns out that the Buddha is wrongly quoted as saying, "Women, with their two-fingered wisdom, have a difficult time understanding what I teach." This paraphrase, plastered all over the internet, is taken completely out of context; and if one were to read the sutta in question, SN 5.2, one would see that this is a line from Mara (the Buddhist equivalent of the Devil I interpret as representing Soma's doubts) who, desiring to make a bhikkhuni named Soma 'fall away from concentration,' voices an ancient bias, saying:

That state so hard to achieve
Which is to be attained by the seers,
Can't be attained by a woman
With her two-fingered wisdom"


But Soma's response not only shows her wisdom, but expertly counters the bias that women are intellectually and spiritual inferior by replying:

"What does womanhood matter at all
When the mind is concentrated well,
When knowledge flows on steadily
As one sees correctly into Dhamma.

One to whom it might occur,
'I'm a woman' or 'I'm a man'
Or 'I'm anything at all' —
Is fit for Mara to address."


A rejoinder that's, in the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi, "a forceful reminder that enlightenment does not depend on gender but on the mind's capacity for concentration and wisdom, qualities accessible to any human being who earnestly seeks to penetrate the truth." Not only did the Buddha not say this, the sutta in question is actually saying the opposite of what the misattribution is implying.

So to reiterate, the moral of the story is, try not to accept everything you hear or read at face value, especially if it's from a secondhand source. Take the extra time to research things and remember that context matters and always, always cite/review source material.

Monday, November 4, 2013

being a buddhist doesn't mean renouncung social engagement

Surprisingly, a large number of the Buddhists I've spoken with in past few years take the position that engaging in 'worldly' issues is something that we, as Buddhists, should seek to renounce. ("Samsara is imperfect and it can't be fixed, so why bother?")

Part of the reasoning for this, I think, is the Buddha's discouragement of monks and nuns from discussing certain unsuitable or 'bestial' topics: i.e., "conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not" (AN 10.69).

If we live a worldly life, however, I think we, as 'householders,' have some responsibility to engage in worldly issues. While the Buddha clearly discouraged the monastic community from engaging in worldly activities such as politics, I think it's a mistake for lay-followers not to be. For one, politics affects almost every aspect of our lives, and being engaged in our communities and being a part of the political discussion, not to mention being active in broader social and political movements, is what makes our society and political systems function more effectively, and how progress, however slow it may sometimes be, is made.

To these these kinds of activities and decisions solely in the hands of others, some of whom are slaves to their defilements, isn't wise, in my opinion. And if we choose to live in the world, then I think we share some responsibility for shaping it; and it makes sense to have people motivated by things like non-greed, non-aversion, and non-delusion add their voices to the mix, not to mention helping do what they can to fix things like inequality and injustice as long as it's done with a spirit of compassion and harmlessness. The greatest danger of the practice of renunciation, in my opinion, is the tendency of practitioners to ignore the world around them while seeking their own happiness (which is one of the things that give non-Buddhists the mistaken impression that Buddhism is a selfish religion).

All too often in my experience, Buddhists fall back on teachings like 'all processes/conditioned things are inconstant, unsatisfactory, and not-self' (AN 3.134) while neglecting teachings such as "I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir" (AN 5.57).

Moreover, just from a practical standpoint, not addressing many of the material conditions giving rise to and supporting society's suffering ultimately serves to help maintain their continued existence (when this is, that is), which can negatively affect our practice, as well as that of others. If the society one lives in isn't conducive to practicing Buddhism, for example, then it does matter what kind of society one lives, so we should naturally try to make it as conducive for ourselves and others as possible. As the Buddha said in Khp 5, "To reside in a suitable locality, to have done meritorious actions in the past and to set oneself in the right course — this is the greatest blessing." To help illustrate what I mean here, I'll give two example.

A general example is that a society that's not only consumerist, but also politically and economically geared more towards the idea that greed and self-interest is the highest good, will potentially be less supportive culturally of monastic communities that live entirely in an economy of gifts (e.g., in comparing Eastern cultures, in which alms-giving and gift exchanges characteristic of 'human economies' regulated by custom and reputation and based more on co-operation have historically been more prevalent, to Western culture, where market-based economies based more on competition have been the norm, I noticed that Eastern monastics often receive more lay support as opposed to Western monastics, who often have to produce goods like beer, chocolate, coffee, wine, etc. to sell in order to support themselves).

A more specific example is the ecological impacts of logging in Thailand. The Buddha praised the wilderness and the benefits of practicing in the forest. The Thai Forest tradition grew out of a movement among monastics to return to this way of practice. In the past few decades, however, much of Thailand's forests have disappeared, making this more difficult. Being involved in conservation efforts and trying to find better farming techniques and/or other ways of raising revenue is one way of trying to help preserve remaining forests in order to help keep this tradition alive.

The point is that, if the world is ruled by conditionality, doesn't it make sense that working towards contributing positive conditions for the benefit of ourselves and others is a skillful thing for householders to do? It'd be great if everyone were free from greed, hatred, and delusion, and everyone treated everyone else with kindness, compassion, and generosity—if the world was free from all forms of exploitation, privation, and gross inequalities. But the world isn't a perfect place, and we're not all saints; and one of the ways we can help alleviate some of the world's suffering is by trying to materially change it for the better. And from this point of view, it's not about making Buddhism political, but about applying the ideals of Buddhism in all that we do, which for me includes being socially and politically active.

Update: A friend of mine gave me a book for Christmas called No Beginning, No End, and I think the first three paragraphs of the foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully sum up what I'm trying to say here:

It has been said that the twenty-first century is going to be a century of spirituality. If it is not a century of spirituality, there will be very difficult times ahead for all of us and for the generations to come. If we are not able to stop and look more deeply at the suffering in ourselves, how will we be able to address the suffering in the world around us? In order for us to transform our own suffering, we must do something radical.

The first radical thing we can do to transform the suffering in ourselves is to practice stopping (shamatha). We stop in order to return to ourselves, to become calm. When we are calm, we have a better chance to see our suffering more clearly. The second radical act is to look deeply inside ourselves and see our suffering, be with our suffering, in order to understand and transform it. This is also true for the suffering in the world. We as entire nations need to stop and look deeply at the suffering in the world in order to see it more clearly without prejudice and understand how to transform it.

The practice of mindfulness in these troubled times is more important than ever. If we as individuals do not take the time to practice mindfulness, not only will it be difficult to transform the suffering in our own lives, but it will be difficult to transform the suffering in the world. It is vital to ourselves, our children, and the Earth that we have a practice that helps us to be mindful, that lets us come back to ourselves and dwell in the present moment in order to transform suffering in ourselves and others around us.


In other words, the practice and social engagement can go hand-in-hand and are entirely compatible.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

upasika day in white salmon

I finally managed to work up the courage Friday night to ask someone if I could catch a ride with them to the Pacific Hermitage in White Salmon, WA, and make my first (and very long overdo) visit. After a rough few weeks and what seemed like auspicious timing (it not only being a full moon observance day, but Pavarana, the full moon marking the end of the monastic rains retreat, as well), I made the determination to attend the Upasika Day retreat at Yoga Samadhi. My hope was that spending the day meditating with monks would help me get out of the dark mental cave I've found myself in recently.

The next morning was covered in a blanket of mist, the setting moon peeking through on its way towards the horizon, and I found myself looking forward to the coming day. Scott and Joan from Portland Friends of the Dhamma were kind enough to pick me up on the way from their home in Lake Oswego to the hermitage, and the three of us set out into the October fog a little before 9am. We talked a bit on the way, and by the time we got close to the hermitage, the mist had cleared revealing a perfect fall day, brisk yet sunny, the colours of autumn painting the Columbia Gorge with a vibrant spectrum of green, yellow, orange, and bright red.

We arrived at the hermitage just after 10am, which is nestled in a beautifully forested and relatively secluded area along the Jewlett Creek. We unloaded the food we brought for the meal offering and then offered to help with anything that needed to be done around the hermitage. A few people, including a couple of the monks, spent the next hour raking leaves, while I was conscripted to mow a portion of the grounds since the Vinaya, the monastic rules of discipline, doesn't allow monks to damage or destroy plants (although it's technically only a minor offense entailing a confession to another monk). Afterwards, we gathered in the hermitage to cleanup and offer the daily meal. I ate my meal outside with Charla and Alistair (also from PFoD) and a family of quails.

Once the meal was over and everything was cleared away, we migrated to Yoga Samadhi in downtown White Salmon for the half-day retreat. I took the opportunity to walk from the hermitage to Yoga Samadhi with Alistair along the same path through the woods that the monks take on their alms round, and as we walked, he showed me some points of interest (like the monk's kutis and adjoining walking paths and the two rock formations that one of the monks humourously named Moggallana and Sariputta) and told me a bit about the land and the hermitage's history. We arrived at Yoga Samadhi a little after 1pm, just in time for the formal requesting of the precepts and morning chanting.

Chanting was followed by alternating periods of sitting and walking mediation for the next five hours. I sat. I walked. My mind ran the gambut of mental states like a monkey swinging through a forest wilderness, rarely resting on one branch for very long before swinging off the next. A good lesson on annica. My body hurt here, then there, then here and there. A good lesson on dukkha. And during the Dhamma discussion, Ajahn Sudanto mentioned that our main strategy to the experience of dukkha is to try to control and manipulate things to be other than their nature, but that's a trap. A good lesson on anatta.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

'birth has ended': literal or metaphorical?

In the Suttas, one of the stock phrases whenever someone achieves awakening is: "Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world." The question often arises whether this refers to the literal end of birth (as in future lives) or the end of birth in a more metaphorical, psychological sense.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that, assuming the causes of a mindstream are solely afflictive*, it potentially means both, i.e., the end/cessation of rebirth (punabhava, literally 'again becoming') in both the cosmological and the psychological sense.

On one level, rebirth and kamma deal with the framework of morality and ethical conduct in general. In this sense, I understand rebirth to signify the Buddha's observation that there's a type of continuity that underlies experience in the form of our actions and their results — one that doesn't necessarily end at death — and kamma to represent the intentional element of our psyche that goes into experience. This corresponds to what the Buddha called "right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]" (MN 117).

Here, morality and ethical conduct are associated with intentional actions and their corresponding results — which aren't just limited to those within the present lifetime — and the continuous cycle of birth and death.

On another level, rebirth and kamma deal with the framework of what I'd call psychological processes, which corresponds to what the Buddha called "noble right view, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path" (MN 117). Here, rebirth still signifies the Buddha's observation that there's a type of continuity that underlies experience in the form of our actions and their results, and kamma still represents the intentional element of our psyche that goes into experience, but they're placed within the context of the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path.

In this context, the emphasis is on things such as recognizing and understanding the mental processes by which we construct our sense of self, in what the Buddha called the process of 'I-making' and 'my-making' (ahankara-mamankara), as well as how to utilize those processes in more skillful ways. And if we can learn to be more aware of these mental processes, we can learn to master them through a combination of mindfulness training and other contemplative techniques.

The point where I think the cosmological and psychological models or processes primarily converge is becoming (bhava). In SN 12.2, for example, becoming is defined as "sensual becoming, form becoming, & formless becoming." In AN 3.76, however, becoming is treated slightly differently, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes at the bottom of his translation that:

Notice that the Buddha, instead of giving a definition of becoming (bhava) in response to this question, simply notes that becoming occurs on three levels. Nowhere in the suttas does he define the term becoming, but a survey of how he uses the term in different contexts suggests that it means a sense of identity in a particular world of experience: your sense of what you are, focused on a particular desire, in your personal sense of the world as related to that desire. In other words, it is both a psychological and a cosmological concept. For more on this topic, see The Paradox of Becoming, Introduction and Chapter One.


Becoming, then, is a mental process that has the potential to lead to "renewed becoming in the future," which can be understood in both a psychological and cosmological sense, i.e., acting as a condition for the birth, ageing, and death (or arising, changing, and disappearance as per AN 3.47) of the conceit 'I am,' which occurs innumerable times throughout one's life (think of the imagery of SN 12.61), as well as a condition for birth, ageing, and death in the broader sense.

According to the texts, a beginning point to samsara (literally 'wandering on') isn't evident (SN 15.3). The way I see it, this can be interpreted two ways — that a beginning point to the continual cycle of death and rebirth of beings isn't evident, or that a beginning point to the continual cycle of death and rebirth of the conceit 'I am,' the self-identification that designates a being (satta), isn't evident — and they're not mutually exclusive. In fact, they're entirely compatible, and I don't see how cosmological rebirth is possible without this underlying layer of moment-to-moment rebirth to facilitate it.

It's true that when it comes to dependent co-arising specifically, most of the descriptions appear to be more geared towards the cosmological or life-to-life model in the Suttas; but there are place like MN 140 where I think both are illustrated in tandem, with the psychological aspects of becoming (the arising and ceasing of self-identity view) being placed within the broader, cosmological framework:

"'He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.' Thus was it said. With reference to what was it said? 'I am' is a construing. 'I am this' is a construing. 'I shall be' is a construing. 'I shall not be'... 'I shall be possessed of form'... 'I shall not be possessed of form'... 'I shall be percipient'... 'I shall not be percipient'... 'I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient' is a construing. Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace.

"Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long? It was in reference to this that it was said, 'He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.' Now, monk, you should remember this, my brief analysis of the six properties."


Or an alternate translation from the appendix to P. A. Payutto's Dependent Origination: The Buddhist Law of Conditionality:

"The deep-grained attachment to the feeling of self does not arise for one who is endowed with these four conditions (pañña, wisdom; sacca, integrity; caga, generosity; and upasama, calm.). With no perception of self clouding one's consciousness one is said to be a muni, a peaceful one." On what account did I say this? Perceptions such as 'I am,' 'I am not,' 'I will be,' 'I will not be,' 'I will have form,' 'I will not have form,' 'I will have no form,' 'I will have perception,' 'I will not have perception,' 'I will neither have nor not have perception,' monks, are an affliction, an ulcer, a dart. By transcending these perceptions one is a muni, a peaceful one.

"Monks, the muni is not born, does not age, does not die; he is not confused, nor does he yearn. There are no longer any causes for birth in him. Not being born, how can he age? Not aging, how can he die? Not dying, how can he be confused? Not being confused, how can he be desirous? "The deep-grained attachment to the feeling of self does not arise for one who is endowed with these four conditions. With no perception of self clouding one's consciousness, one is a muni, a peaceful one" -- It was on this account that this statement was made.


The reason I think the psychological aspects are so important, and why I tend to stress them rather than the cosmological, is because that's where the work of the meditator is done, where we can observe these processes taking place in the present. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it in "A Verb for Nirvana," "Samsara is a process of creating places, even whole worlds, (this is called becoming) and then wandering through them (this is called birth). Nirvana is the end of this process." And this process (along with the that of the continuous arising and ceasing of suffering) is primarily a mental one.

So, in the end, I think that the attainment of nibbana, of awakening, entails both the end of future births on the cosmological level and the end of the psycho-physiological clinging to the aggregates that act as a cause for future births on the psychological level.

- - - - - - - - -


* It should be noted that, from the Mahayanin perspective, there's nothing stopping a Buddha from 'popping back' into samsara, especially considering that, for them, the distinction between samsara and nibbana/nirvana is little more than an illusion when viewed from the ultimate standpoint of the Dharmakaya. Moreover, their conception of causality allows for the continuation of the mindstream after the breakup of the body. As Namdrol, from the now defunct E-Sangha, once explained it to me:

If the causes of a mindstream were solely afflictive, then with the exhaustion of the karmic share that sustains the life force of the body, and thus the life of a Buddha or an arhat, I might be inclined to agree that the mind stream of a Buddha or an arhat would cease at death, since all causes for its continuance would be exhausted too. However there is a slight problem with this: if the mindstream's causes were solely afflictive, why does the mind not cease with nirvana in toto? Why does the mind continue after the eradication of all afflictions in a Buddha and an arhat? And if the mind continues after the eradication of the afflictions of a Buddha, etc., why could it not continue after the breakup of the body of a Buddha, etc., albeit in a non-afflicted state? In fact, Peter Harvey's interesting book, The Selfless Mind, makes this very suggestion on page 250 where he summerizes all of his arguments and findings.


In other words, not only does bodhicitta act as a cause to help keep a bodhisattva on the path to buddhahood throughout their innumerable lives, it acts as a positive, non-afflictive cause for the continuation of the enlightened being/mindstream as well. And this is perfectly logical and consistent within Mahayana's own understanding of itself, which includes certain terms that Theravada understands differently.

For example, the Theravada standpoint is that the cause of said mindstream (as well as the body) is kamma, both skillful and unskillful, although I'm not entirely sure if this corresponds to afflictive and non-afflictive in Mahayana. Nevertheless, in the Pali Canon, the noble eightfold path is said to be the kamma that leads to the ending of kamma (AN 4.235).

When it comes to the standard explanation of why the mind and body don't [always] cease with that attainment of nibbana, it's said that as long as the lifespan of the aggregates isn't completely exhausted — which itself depends upon the amount of input remaining from past kamma — the mind and body of an arahant will continue. When this input from past kamma is exhausted, there's said to be complete cessation of both mind and body.

A Mahayanist would probably disagree with this in an ultimate sense, however, saying that this is only how it appears from the point of view of samsara (think relativity here), but not from the point of view of high-level bodhisattvas and fully enlightened buddhas.