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.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

portland friends of the dhamma could use your help: a chance to make some merit and give to a worthy cause

Calling all kalayana-mittas! Portland Friends of the Dhamma (PFoD) is at a critical juncture in their 13-year history and needs all the support they can get.

For those who may be unfamiliar with PFoD, it's a nonprofit lay-group/Buddhist centre affiliated with Abhayagiri Monastery and the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah located in Portland, Oregon. They hosts a number of regular, weekly sitting and study groups, and act as a venue for visiting monastics to teach. PFoD was also instrumental in helping to establish the Pacific Hermitage. Since it's inception, PFoD has been a growing beacon of Dhamma in the Pacific Northwest, operating largely on a shoe-string budget.

Recently, however, PFoD had to move out of their long-time location because the building they've been renting space in for the last 8 years was sold. Currently, they're renting out space at the Dharma Rain Zen Center (DRZC). Unfortunately, this building is also being sold as the Zen Center is going to be moving into a newly constructed building at the beginning of 2014, and it seems there's already a prospective buyer (a neighbor) eager to swoop it up as we speak. The board of directors just wants it sold ASAP; but the abbot, Kyogen Carlson, would really like PFoD to purchase the property and keep it a dharma centre and is willing to fight to try and get the board to sell the property to the PFoD community. And PFoD does need a new (and more permanent) home. It seems like a match made in heaven. The only problem is, PFoD doesn't quite have the financial backing to attempt to make an offer or apply for mortgage at this point.

The PFoD community has been discussing the idea of purchasing the building for the last few weeks now, and with the news that another buyer is already in the running, they've decided that while it's a long shot, they shouldn't let this potential opportunity go by without at least making an attempt. As it stands, they have an extremely short window to raise enough monthly commitments (kind of like public radio's 'sustaining circle') and donations to go to the DRZC's board, make an offer, and try to make this beautiful space their new home.

To help them achieve this goal, they held a special daylong event today, attended by Ajahn Pasanno and the Pacific Hermitage monastics, to act as a kind of benefit and/or fundraiser to help solidify the level of financial support needed for PFoD events and to see if they can really make this seemingly perfect facility their new home. They've already got about 50% of what they estimate they'd need a month to make this work, as well as a few sizable contributions towards a down payment if they make it past the first hurdle, but they could use a lot more help. Obviously, this is mainly directed towards anyone in or near the Portland area who personally benefits (or could benefit) from having a space to practice in and a community to practice with; but I'm sure any support would be appreciated immensely.

If anyone reading this happens to feel inspired to donate anything they can, no matter how little, towards this cause, or would like more information about the specifics (e.g., finances, estimates, etc.), I urge you to contact PFoD ASAP.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

upasika renewal trip

Our caravan to Abhayagiri for the Upasika Renewal Day left around 4:45am Friday morning, a motley crew from all over the Pacific Northwest gathered together for this special occasion. Irv, the driver of our car, for example, was from Pullman, Washington, and had driven to Portland the day before. We all met at the old Portland Friends of the Dhamma hall, organized our luggage and seating arrangements, and began the twelve hour journey to Abhayagiri before the sun started its own daily migration across the sky.

We made a brief stop near Eugene early on to grab some coffee, tea, and water at one the innumerable Starbucks that dot the universe, like some kind of ley line nexus points tying together all things, and then hurried towards the California border, eager to meet up with two monks on tudong in time to offer their daily meal, which has to be eaten before midday. Along the way, we passed the time by discussing everything from Dhamma to archaeology, anthropology, ecology, and the conditionality underlying geopolitics.

Close to 11:30am, we arrived at the Mystic Forest RV Park in Kalamth, California, just in time to offer the meal to the two tudong monks walking from Abhayagiri to the Pacific Hermitage in White Salmon, Washington, as well as the three that were driving down to Abhayagiri with us.

Afterwards, the group paid for their campsite for another night, Denise, the event organizer, arranged their meal the following day at the nearby Forest Cafe, and we all took a short hike to Hidden Beach to enjoy the beautiful landscape and fresh ocean air before saying goodbye to Ajahn Naniko and Tan Thitabho and continuing on to Abhayagiri. We arrived at Abhayagiri just as the sun was setting in Redwood Valley, paid our respects to Ajahn Pasanno, and settled in for the night.

Saturday began at 4am for Shad, one of the drivers, and I. We'd been offered a room at a guest house across from Abhayagiri that was about a ten minute drive up a rather rugged slope, and so wanted to make sure we weren't late for morning puja, which started at 5am. We chanted both the traditional Pali and the English translation, and then we meditated as the sun rose. Morning puja was followed by a short work period and a light breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, both of which were heavenly.

My heavenly bliss was soon interrupted by the main work period, however, and I was sent to rake one of the many winding paths that weave their way through forested property that makes up Abhayagiri, mindfully avoiding the copious amounts of poison oak that also help to make up the monastery grounds. The work wasn't unrewarding, though. Many of the paths offered their natural beauty and a sense of tranquility in return. We worked our way down towards the main house, making sure to finish in time to clean up before the start of the Upasika Day events.

By 10:30am, the meditation hall was filled with people, both lay and ordained. Upasika Day commenced with those of us taking the precepts with Ajahn Pasanno for the first coming up one by one with a traditional offering of candles, incense, and flowers, bowing three times, and requesting to take the three refuges and five precepts. Then we all took the refuges and precepts as a group, chanting in both the traditional Pali and the English translation that we undertake the training rules to refrain from taking the life of any living being, refrain from taking that which is not given, refraining from sexual misconduct, and refraining from indulging in drink and drugs that lead to carelessness.

Lunch followed. After the meal offering, Ajahn Pasanno and a number of his senior students spent the rest of the day explaining many of the monastic rules and ceremonies, not only to help educate the laity about monastic life in general, but also to help relate how some of these practices can be incorporated into our lay practice. Talking about the ins and outs of monastic life was inspiring; it filled some of us with a sense of longing. I couldn't help fantasizing about what it must be like in being robes and surrounded by such skilled and dedicated monastics. At 7:30pm, after the informal tea period, Ajahn Sudanto led the evening puja and gave a Dhamma talk on the importance of spiritual friendship (kalyana-mitta) as a source of support on the path.

Sunday was slightly different since it was Wan Phra or 'Monk Day,' which is kind of like the Thai Buddhist equivalent of a sabbath day. There was no morning puja, so we all met up just before breakfast around 6:30-7:00am. Many of the monks went on alms round in the traditional style, some being dropped off in town while others simply walked along Tomki Road, with people placing food offerings into their bowls, while the lay people did their best to help out around the monastery. Since everything seemed to be taken care of, and I was mostly just getting in everybody else's way, I decided to hike the two-and-a-half mile Cool Oaks trail that wraps around the monastery grounds, arriving back as the monks were returning from their alms round.

After the meal, the monks began to prepare for the ordination ceremony taking place at 4pm as the laity cleaned up from lunch, filling the remaining time however they felt the most appropriate. I spent most of it talking with Irv and Shad, checking out some of the books in the main house, and sitting in the meditation hall. Around 2:30pm, I started up the Cool Oaks trail, taking the long way around to the ordination platform. Others took the shorter route, or else caught a ride up the relatively steep mountainside.

Tan Sudhiro's ordination ceremony lasted about two hours, all throughout which Ajahn Pasanno explained what was happening in detail as he acted as preceptor. The ceremony seemed especially auspicious as it had a full quorum of ten monks — double the number of monks needed to perform it outside of the Ganges valley (ten vs. five), illustrating the growing strength of Buddhism in the West — was attended by three senior monks and seven novices from the City of 10,000 Buddhas, and was performed on Father's Day/the 18th Anniversary of Venerable Master Hua's Entering Nirvana. I was happy for Tan Sudhiro and jealous at the same time.

The night ended with a quick clean-up of the ordination area and an informal tea period. The Pacific Hermitage monks took this time to catch up with some of the monks from Abhayagiri, while the group from Portland and some of the other upasikas took the opportunity to spend time with Ajahn Pasanno in the meditation hall, talking and asking questions about the practice. At the end of the night, we paid respects to Ajahn Pasanno and took leave, which is traditionally done in the monastic community by ceremony of Asking for Forgiveness (although we did this informally).

Monday began much like Friday and Saturday, at 4:00am before the first rays of dawn. We all congregated at the main house, packed the cars, and commenced the long drive back to Portland just before 5am. Along the way, we stopped to eat at the Forest Cafe, and then took short a break at the half-mile Stout Memorial Grove trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park to stretch our legs, the trees as amazing and wonderful as the last three days. We arrived at the rendezvous point near Shad's just after 7:00pm, and said our final farewells as the group disbanded and we went our separate ways.

Friday, May 24, 2013

a place of peace

The meditation group I sometimes sit with on Fridays is moving this weekend, and tonight was the last Friday sit at the Sellwood Methodist Church. Being shy and deathly afraid of public speaking, I don't usually say anything when they have the 'check-in' portion of the evening, but I figured I'd say something since it was kind of a special night. So when my turn came, I mentioned that, listening to everyone speak, the theme of the night seemed to revolved around reference points in our lives, gratitude for the space and the community, and the blessings of having a place to practice with others in, and it reminded me of the Mangala Sutta (Highest Blessings), especially the verse, "Living in places of suitable kinds, with the fruits of past good deeds, and guided by the rightful way: these are the highest blessings." I added that 'places of suitable kinds' wasn't just limited to our external surroundings, like the building the Portland Friends of the Dhamma have met in for over eight years, but also includes our internal spaces, our minds, where the practice really takes place and what helps make us and the places around us a refuge for others—like an island in the midst of life's turbulent waters. And I was pleasantly surprised when they chose the Mangala Sutta to be the last thing the Friday night group chanted at their old location. I thought it was a fitting way to close out the night.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

dalai lama environmental summit panel

I had an awesome time at the Environmental Summit Panel today. The discussion was interesting, the Dalai Lama was funny and inspiring, and the Red Hot Chili Pepper's set was pretty rad. And the best part was, I got to share the experience with a few of my really good friends.

One of the things that I think would've made the panel better, though, was including a Marxist ecologist to help connect some of the dots for them. (Speaking of 'Marxist,' it was great to see the audience, who applauded just about everything the Dalai Lama said, squirm and the silence that followed when he said, "Perhaps I am socialist. As far as social economy is concerned, I am Marxist.")

Most of the panelists, not including the Dalai Lama who openly stated that he's Marxist when it comes to social-economic theory, agreed that we need to rethink our economic structure in some way, but they never really touched upon how doing so within the context of capitalism is problematic to say the least. For one thing, they all seemed to agree that an economic system that depends on continued and uninterrupted expansion (i.e., indefinite growth) isn't an environmentally sustainable system, particularly when the drive for profit is the bottom line.

However, nobody really dealt with the problem that capital only functions when it grows and reproduces itself (i.e., creates surplus value and profit) in a process that arguably requires amplifying consumption, particularly to overcome the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and a shrinkage in the absolute mass of profit created via commodity production. And further exacerbating the problem, which was briefly mentioned, is the fact that, within the context of this system, negative externalities can actually contribute to economic growth.

Another thing that wasn't really touched upon was that if we truly want to change our collective behaviour in more environmentally sound ways, on an individual level as well as on the broader level of global production and distribution, we need to critically assess and rethink the current system that underlies our material reproduction and coerces our economic and consumptive behaviour.

Simply recycling and reusing clothes on an individual level isn't going to reduce our CO2 admissions from 400ppm to 350ppm since most of the pollution is produced by large industries, industrial farming, the military, the harvesting and processing of fossil fuels, etc., not to mention the fact that less consumption by consumers means a slowing and even collapsing capitalist economy (especially in the US, where consumption accounts for about 70% of GDP).

This, I think, also ties into the problem of conflicts between various industries and public interest when it comes to combating things like pollution and environmental degradation. For one, more environmentally sound policies would potentially make things more expensive, and could also cut into profits and restrict growth; and the companies we're trying to 'persuade' to further limit pollution have powerful lobbying power and put pressure on politicians (if they don't just outright buy them), and attempting to regulate them via legislation often results in inadequate compromises (e.g., weak cap and trade laws).

So the solution can't just be shifting to more individual 'green' activities, nor can it solely be through political reforms and regulations (i.e., laws), although both can be useful tools; it has to include a fundamental shift in the way we approach production, distribution, and even consumption. And one of the ways to achieve this is through better education and honest, open dialogues about what we all agree on and how to move forward in the direction we want to go—which hopefully includes taking care of our collective home.

I think that was one of the main points made by the Dalai Lama, which he returned to again and again. Changing our behaviour begins with becoming more educated, about ourselves and our environment, continually adjusting our worldview based upon the things we learn, strengthening our affection and compassion for others, realizing our potential as human beings, and then going out into the world and acting on that knowledge from a place of concern for the well-being of both ourselves and others.

All in all, it was a great way to spend the day and I'm glad that I was able to go. If nothing else, it inspired me to get back into my meditation practice and motivated me to continue trying to do what I can to make myself and the world a better place using all the tools at my disposal.