Saturday, January 17, 2015

the contemplative vehicle

On today, a university student doing some research for an essay regarding contemporary Buddhism asked, Why does Buddhism appeal to you? My answer to such questions changes depending on the day, with certain aspects taking the forefront in my mind, and today was no different. Since recently starting Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, some of the things mentioned in the introduction and foreword have given me a new appreciation for what the Buddha taught from an evolutionary standpoint.

According to people like Dawkins, for example, there are two kinds of units in natural selection, the gene (as replicator) and the organism (as vehicle). And while the vehicle may be more or less altruistic, doing things out of compassion, generosity, love, etc., the genes are decidedly 'selfish.' In this context, deceit is arguably fundamental in animal communication, therefore, as Robert Trivers points out, "there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray - by the subtle signs of self-knowledge - the deception being practiced" (The Selfish Gene, xx).

Here we see that some of our motivations, influenced by a subtle form of selfishness (original sin?), lay hidden within us. This is akin to the Buddhist teaching that many of our actions are conditioned/coloured by greed, aversion, and delusion (i.e., selfishness and self-deception); and one of the Buddha's insights was that we can master these mental processes of conditionality in such a way as to 'go against the stream' of craving (tahna, which here can be seen as the influence of genetic selfishness on human psychology) and ultimately transcend craving altogether. As Dawkins puts it, "Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes" (xiv); and the Buddha was one of the greatest revolutionaries in this regard.

So looking at it from the perspective of evolutionary biology, I'd say that it's the contemplative aspects of Buddhism that appeal to me the most. Although other religious traditions have their own forms of robust contemplativism, Buddhism has a very thorough and explicit form that I think cuts straight to the heart of the human condition. By practicing things like mindfulness meditation and constantly observing our actions via MN 61, we begin to remove this evolutionary veil of ignorance or avijja ('not knowing'), allowing us to see within the hidden depths of our psyche so that we can begin to condition changes in our behaviour and perception that lead to fuller awareness, self-knowledge and control, and liberation via transcendence of our genetic programming.

Today, Buddhism comes in all shapes and sizes, arising out of a peculiar Indic culture, replete with its own religious traditions and worldview, and further shaped by the diverse cultures in which it's taken root, giving rise to numerous schools and approaches. Much of it may appear to be outdated and superstitious to the scientifically minded; but I think the underlying goal, as well as the various practices and insights that characterize 'Buddhism,' have a lot to offer us in terms of understanding and transforming ourselves.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

recognizing the dhamma

Yesterday, instead of going out with friends, I went to PFoD to see Ajahn Thanissaro, who's visiting from Wat Metta. The night followed the general schedule when monks visit: tea, casual discussion, meditation, Dhamma talk and Q and A. Being Halloween, the topic of the talk was fear, but with a Buddhist twist. Rather than being afraid of things outside, like ghosts, goblins, zombies, or even wild animals, we should really fear the unskillful things that come up in the mind and how acting on those things harms ourselves and others.

At one point, he said that one of the reasons zombies are so popular right now is because of our culture and how we're afraid, unconsciously or otherwise, of consumerism and other memes infecting us and turning us into zombies. He compared these things to the parasites in nature that infect other animals and make them do things that aren't in their best interest, but are in the best interest of the parasite. In the same way, things like greed, hatred, and delusion, or the things in society that arise out of and prey upon the greed, hatred, and delusion in our minds, make us do things that aren't in our best interest. When walking down a grocery store aisle, what makes us grab the things that we know aren't good for us?

In a sense, our minds can be our own worst enemies, and it's within our minds that real suffering arises. To help counter the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion, as well as to distill fear, Buddhism offers four guardian meditations to put the mind in the present, nourish it, and help it discern which ideas are worth listening to and which aren't: recollection of the Buddha, goodwill, foulness of body meditation, and recollection of death. From a transcript of a similar talk given at Wat Metta:

There's a series of meditations called guardian meditations, which are very helpful in using skillful perceptions to get the mind in the right mood, in the right attitude, with the right understanding, as you come into the present moment. You'll often find, as you're sitting here meditating on the breath, that the problem is not with the breath. It's with the mental baggage you're carrying with you. So you want to open up the bags and throw out all the unnecessary weight. There's an image they have in Thailand of the old woman who carries around a huge bundle of straw on her back. She's always bent over because she's carrying so much straw. People ask her why she doesn't put it down, and she says, "Well, someday this straw's going to come in handy, so I'm carrying it for the day I'll need it." So she carries it wherever she goes. Of course there are many other things she could be carrying, but she can't because the straw is such a huge bundle, and of course it's pretty useless.

So you want to look into your baggage to see how much straw you're carrying around, so that you can lighten your load. Then you can replace it with better things, things that really will be useful. And the guardian meditations are a good way of sorting things out in your baggage.

The first guardian meditation is recollection of the Buddha, keeping in mind his Awakening, reflecting on it as a central event in the history of the world. The fact of his Awakening shows that through human effort true happiness can be found. It's an important point to keep in mind because so much of our modern culture tries to say, "Hey. You can't have an ultimate and deathless happiness, but you can have the happiness that comes from our eggbeater with an MP3 player built right into the handle," or whatever. In other words, they keep you focused on what you can get out of buying their stuff, which is all pretty miserable. How many articles in The Onion are based on this: "Woman discovers that buying that new mop did not deliver the fulfillment that she hoped it would bring to her life." In other words, our culture keeps us aiming pretty low: "Go for the quick fix. Go for something that doesn't require any effort or skill on your part, just money." They dress it up, make it sound like you'll be really happy if you buy their stuff.

So it's important to keep in mind that there was someone in the past who found true happiness and it was through his own efforts. And, as he said, it wasn't because he was a special god or anything. It was simply through developing qualities of mind that we can all develop — man, woman, child, lay or ordained: ardency, resolution, heedfulness. We all have these qualities to some extent. It's simply a matter of developing them. The same with virtue, concentration, discernment: These are things we all have to some extent. It's simply a matter of learning how to make them all-around.

So when you're tempted to go for the quick but short happiness, remind yourself, "The Buddha says that true happiness is possible, and that it can be gained through human effort." Do you want to live your life without exploring that possibility? Or do you just want to write it off?

In this way, keeping the Buddha's Awakening in mind is an important perception, an important perspective, to bring to all of your experiences. And there are many other things that you can gain by thinking about the Buddha's life: the sort of person he was, his last message to be heedful. He was the sort of person who had already found true happiness. He didn't need to gain anything from anyone else, but he went out and he taught for 45 years, walking around Northern India. Wherever there was someone who was ready to be taught, ready to benefit from his teachings, he would walk there. That's the kind of person who taught this Dhamma. Not someone who was running a retreat center and needed to bring in cash, and who was willing to say anything to attract clientele, but someone acting totally out of pure motives, pure compassion. So that's the kind of practice we're practicing as we follow his path. And it's ennobling for us to practice in that lineage.

So these are good perceptions to hold in mind. Especially when you're getting discouraged or tempted to give up on the practice, or if you think, "Well, maybe I'm not up to this": Remember that the essential qualities for Awakening are qualities that everybody can develop. But we have to develop them ourselves. We can't depend on anyone outside to come and do it for us. That's the other part of the message of the Buddha's life, the part that keeps you on your toes.

The second guardian meditation is goodwill. You want to bring an attitude of goodwill to everybody around you. When the Buddha talked about goodwill in the brahma-viharas, it wasn't ordinary, everyday goodwill. It was goodwill all around, without limit. That's not easy. It doesn't come naturally to us. We tend to have goodwill for certain people, and not so much for other people. As a result, our actions very easily turn unskillful. It's very easy to do harm to the people we don't care about or who aren't on our list of people who deserve to be happy. And it's also easy to drop people from the list when the mood strikes us, to treat even the people we love in unskillful ways.

So to protect yourself from that kind of unskillful action, you've got to learn how to make your goodwill all-around, 24/7. That doesn't mean creating a cloud machine that sends out billowing clouds in all directions to hide your lack of goodwill. When you start spreading thoughts of goodwill, first you spread it to people who are easy — the people you already love and like — and then to people who are harder. Even though you don't like them, you can ask yourself: "Why would I not want this person to be happy?" After all, when people aren't happy, they can do cruel and miserable things. The world would be a better place if everyone could find true happiness inside, regardless of whether you like them or not, or whether they've been good or not, or whether they're on your list of the "deserving." And besides, who made you the National Bureau of Standards? Why should your likes and dislikes rule the world? In this way, goodwill meditation is meant to be a challenge for you to really think through why you'd want to limit your goodwill, and to remind yourself of why it's good to have goodwill for everyone. You can't act on harmful intentions if your goodwill is all around. This is why it's called a guardian meditation.

The third guardian meditation is of the foulness of the body. A lot of people don't like this one. If we took a poll of meditators here in the West, we'd probably find this at the bottom of the list of popular meditation topics, yet it's very useful. Some people say, "Hey, I've already got a negative body image. Why do you want me to make it even more negative?" Well, there's healthy negative body image, as well as an unhealthy one. Unhealthy is when you see that your body is ugly, but other people have beautiful bodies. Healthy is when you see that we all have the same garbage inside ourselves: Nobody's liver would win the Miss Universe contest. This contemplation is helpful because it's a guardian. It protects you from inappropriate lust. There are so many people out there you could feel lust for, but if you acted on it you'd create a lot of trouble. Even if you're not practicing celibacy, you need a way to guard yourself against that kind of vagrant lust. So the next time you see an attractive person, instead of weaving all sorts of narratives from the ideas and associations you've developed around beauty, it's good to teach yourself other narratives, other associations. Right under the skin, what have you got? You've got all these blood vessels and nerves and uck! And as you go deeper, it's gets more uck! And what do you gain out of lusting for that? Why would you want it?

This sort of contemplation really goes against the grain, which is one of the reasons why it's useful to reflect on over and over and over again. Ajaan Maha Boowa keeps making the point: Don't count the number of times you've reflected on the foulness of the body. Just keep doing it until it's done its job. After all, our lusting after the human body is what led us to be born. This is what keeps us wanting to come back, and it makes us do really stupid things. So this contemplation is a useful tool to have in your arsenal. It's a useful new set of perceptions to develop. Our perceptions of beauty are dangerous, so it's good to learn how to see that beautiful bodies are not really beautiful. All you have to do is look inside a little bit and you see all kinds of stuff that can kill the lust if you really allow yourself to look at the body as a whole, and not just at the few parts you tend to focus on as being attractive.

The fourth guardian meditation is recollection of death. For most people this is pretty disturbing and depressing, but it's meant to be used in a way that's inspiring, that helps us to follow the path beyond death to the deathless. Remind yourself that we've got this practice that allows us to prepare for death and transcend it. Have you fully developed it? Are you really prepared? And the answer is almost always No. Okay, then, you've got work to do.

This is a good antidote for laziness. There's a great sutta where the Buddha talks about eight reasons for laziness and eight reasons for being diligent, and for both lists the external conditions are the same. You can be lazy because you're feeling sick; you can be lazy because you are about to go on a trip; you can be lazy because you've just gotten back from a trip; you can be lazy because you just recovered from an illness; you can be lazy because you haven't eaten enough; you can be lazy because you've eaten too much. But you can also use those circumstances to remind yourself: "I don't have much time." When you just recover from an illness, instead of saying, "I'm still weak, I'm not quite well yet, let me rest," you remind yourself: "I could get sick again. I could have a relapse, but at least now I've some strength, let me give this strength to the practice." If you haven't eaten enough, remind yourself, "The body is light; I'm not spending all that time and energy digesting my food, so I've got more energy now for the practice." You've got the right conditions for sitting very quietly, very still.

So your attitude is what's going to make the difference between whether the circumstances you've got right now are reasons for laziness or reasons for diligence. When you remind yourself that you don't know how much time you've got, it should stir you to action — so that when the time comes, when you really do have to go, you're ready, prepared. You've got the concentration, you've got the power of discernment, you've got the strength of mind to deal with whatever comes your way.

If you sit around saying, "Please may I not die, please may I not die," someday you'll still have to die no matter how much you plead. A wiser attitude would be: "Please may I be ready when the time comes. May I have the strength to deal with any difficulty that might come my way." Then you realize that this is something you have in your power: to work on those strengths. After all, we've got the example of how the Buddha died. This is why these two recollections — recollection of the Buddha and recollection of death — go well together. The Buddha shows you how you can prepare. You look at the way he died: one last trip through all the jhanas. He died with no suffering at all and gained total release. It's possible for a human being to do this. If you think that comparing yourself to the Buddha is too much of a stretch, think about the members of the Sangha. You can read the verses of the elder monks and the elder nuns. Some of them were pretty miserable, total losers in meditation at first, and yet they were able to pull themselves together. They could do it; you can do it.

So these four contemplations are guardian meditations to bring wisdom into your perception of things, the labels and ideas you bring to your experience. The more you develop them, then the better the set of associations, the better the set of narratives you bring to, say, just the fact you're breathing, or the fact you're seeing, hearing, tasting, or touching things in the present moment. In other words, what you bring into the present moment is going to make all the difference.

Today, Ajahn Thanissro hosted a daylong on 'recognizing the Dhamma' based off of a study guide by the same name. The first half of the day was devoted to meditation, while the remainder was dedicated to covering the material. There were a lot of things covered throughout the day, and I've forgotten more than I remember, but the framework of the material was helpful. One of the strong points of Buddhist contemplativism, in my opinion, is the depth and structure with which the Buddha's contemplative practices and the ideas underlying them are laid out on the Pali Canon; and Ajahn Thanissaro is particularly skilled at collecting complementary teachings together in a clear, concise, and practical way.

The daylong both reaffirmed my appreciation for Buddhism and made me feel a bit discouraged by highlighting the sheer amount of work I still have to do. For me, the main thing I got from it all was that I really need to motivate myself more. Going through the passages in Recognizing the Dhamma, everything sounded so simple. But I know from experience that putting most of these things into practice is a lot easier said than done, and I felt a sense of shame in how lazy I've been in my practice. I feel like I've let myself down. And worst of all, I feel like I've let others down. I want to get serious about my practice, but at the same time, there are so many TV shows I need to catch up on and I can't stop thinking about what I'm going to do for breakfast tomorrow before mass. It seems like my life revolves around sensual pleasures and planning for the next pleasant experience.

Just about everything I do, in some shape or form, revolves around pleasure, even my suffering. It's not a novel thought by any means; but it's the first time I've really understood it on an intuitive level. Take something simple and innocuous like bike riding, for example. Riding in and of itself is pleasurable, especially on a nice day and a pleasant trail. Working out my body is pleasurable too, getting me in better shape — making me feel better about myself, which is psychologically pleasurable — and producing endorphins, which is both physically and psychologically pleasurable. But when biking ceases to be pleasurable, that absence of pleasure is a form of suffering. If I start to develop pain while riding, I suffer. If the trail is too busy, I suffer. If the weather changes for the worse, I suffer. My pleasure is interrupted or transformed into its opposite.

Same with just about anything, really. When I go out with my friends, it's with the expectation that their company is going to be pleasurable, as is the food we're going to eat, the beer we're going to drink, etc. But if the wrong people are around, or they don't have the particular kind of beer I like, suffering, unsatisfactoriness (a mild form to be sure). And when I decide to stay home, it's generally because I'm feeling depressed or generally just shitty and the thought of being around people at that moment in time seems like anything but pleasurable.

I used to think Epicurus' hedonist philosophy was overly simplistic, reducing everything to the pleasure principle; but the more I think about it, the more profound and pragmatic I find it to be, and I find a lot of similarities between the middle way of Buddhism (i.e., the middle way between the two extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence) and the hedonism of Epicurus.

Epicurus' philosophy, for example, was aimed at attaining ataraxia, peace of mind and freedom from fear, and aponia, the absence of pain, via a system of ethics, rational thinking/contemplation, and a secluded, moderate lifestyle. His hedonism wasn't so much unlimited indulgence in sensual pleasures as it was about balance. Epicurus himself held that the absence of pain was the highest pleasure (compare that to the idea of nibbana being the highest bliss a la Dhp 202-04), and he favoured static pleasure over dynamic pleasure. The difference is explained by Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy using hunger as an example:

Dynamic pleasures consist in the attainment of a desired end, the previous desire having been accompanied by pain. Static pleasures consist in a state of equilibrium, which results from the existence of the kind of state of affairs that would be desired if it were absent. I think one may say that the satisfying of hunger, while it is in progress, is a a dynamic pleasure while, but the state of quiescence which supervenes when hunger is completely satisfied is a static pleasure. Of these two kinds, Epicurus holds it more prudent to pursue the second, since it is unalloyed, and does not depend upon the existence of pain as a stimulus to desire. When the body is in a state of equilibrium, there is no pain; we should, therefore, aim at equilibrium and the quiet pleasures rather than the more violent joys. Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if it were possible, to be always in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to eat. (233)

This doesn't mean, of course, that you constantly stuff your face, but that you eat moderately, just enough to keep the body from experiencing the pain of hunger but not so much that it experiences the pain of overeating. In fact, Epicurus himself, contrary to popular belief, bordered on asceticism, renouncing sex and living off of little more than bread and cheese. The Buddha had a similar attitude towards food (among other things), as well. For example, from AN 4.37:

And how does a monk know moderation in eating? There is the case where a monk, considering it appropriately, takes his food not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, 'I will destroy old feelings [of hunger] & not create new feelings [from overeating]. Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort.' This is how a monk knows moderation in eating.

Just as we seem to instinctively avoid pain because it's unpleasant and causes us suffering (motivating us to be rid of it if at all possible), indulging too much in sensual pleasures can quickly become unpleasant, a source suffering. I eat too much of delicious food, my stomach hurts. I drink too much delicious beer, my head hurts. And it can even get more complicated when we derive pleasure from pain itself. But at the heart of it is our desire for pleasure, and boredom is one of our biggest enemies, forever driving us to seek new pleasures—an endless cycle of grasping at shadows to fill a primordial void that can't psychologically or physiologically be filled. Thinking about it this way, though, is a little depressing.

Sure, we may find new and entertaining things that give us some happiness and pleasure and to help time go by; but in the end, it's really the same old shit that never truly satisfies us. Not only do we have to endlessly consume food to keep our bodies alive, eventually getting bored of eating the same thing, and often eating things that might taste good but aren't particularly good for us (causing suffering in the future), we also have to endlessly consume experiences that eventually bore us and/or aren't good for us in the long run. And none of them, in the final analysis, are truly satisfying—we go on craving and consuming, craving and consuming, until our bodies/minds just eventually give out.

Our thirst for pleasure seems unquenchable, and realizing this on a deep, existential level makes me appreciate philosophies that try to steer the ship of our desires away from the rocky shores of sensual pleasure and towards a true and lasting happiness that isn't dependent on any conditions whatsoever. Pleasant experiences aren't evil in and of themselves, of course; but if we spend most of our time and energy planning for them and acquiring them rather than training our minds, we're ultimately setting ourselves up for disappointment, something I think consistent with the spirit of James 4.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

pah bah

Today, thanks to the generosity of two acquaintances, Paddy and Colin, I went to the Pacific Hermitage Pah Bah ceremony in White Salmon, WA.

Pah bah means 'forest cloth' in Thai; and the festival comes out of the ancient tradition of leaving cloth in the forest for monks to find for them to make their robes after the end of the three-month rains retreat. It's a time for the lay-community to 'draw close' and offer the monastic community gifts of cloth and other supplies they'll need for the coming year as they rely totally on the generosity of the lay-community.

This year's event was rather special in that both Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno were there. Both were students of Ajahn Chah, and both were at one time co-abbots of Abhayagiri until Ajahn Amaro was asked to take over Amaravati in England. It was a very auspicious reunion, and I'm glad that I had to opportunity to be there.

The day began with the afternoon meal, which was first offered to the monks, and then shared by everyone. Next was some traditional paritta (blessing) chanting followed by the actual alms giving and a Dhamma talk, which was split up. Ajahn Pasanno gave a short talk first, followed by Ajahn Amaro. The place was decorated in traditional Thai style, with saffron-coloured towel gibbons strategically placed all over as if in a forest.

One of the overarching themes was anumodana, which means 'rejoicing together' in goodness and generosity and/or offering encouragement. Gathering together and giving our time and support to one another produces a field of merit or goodness that brings happiness to everyone, those who give as well as those who receive.

Just as charity plays a big role in Christianity, the Buddha placed a lot of importance on dana or generosity as well. Generosity arises out of wholesome mental states, and gives rise to numerous benefits on its own. In addition, generosity is considered a requisite for spiritual development. I've always found it interesting that the Buddha begins most of his discourses on the gradual training with teachings on generosity.

After the ceremony, a group of us drove the short distance to the hermitage for a tour. The main building, a small house, has a kitchen, an office area, and a shrine where the monks gather for chanting and meals. Then there's a guest house, for the abbot or visiting monks, and a couple of small dwellings for the monks to sleep and meditate.

I felt bad that I missed mass in order to go to the Pah Bah, but I'm glad I went. It was a beautiful event. And in many ways, it felt kind of the same.

Friday, October 17, 2014

a visit from across the pond

Both Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno were at Portland Friends of the Dhamma tonight leading the Friday meditation and Dhamma talk. It was Ajahn Amaro's first visit to PFoD's new center, and my second time seeing him.

The first time I saw Ajahn Amaro was about eight years ago on Magha Puja, the day tradition holds that 1,250 arahants spontaneously gathered at Veruvana Temple, Rajgarh city. It was a pretty amazing experience, and I still remember it fondly. This time around, the circumstances were less unexpected, but they were no less meaningful.

After tea and some casual discussion, we all requested the refuges and precepts, and Ajahn Pasanno gave a short talk before meditation about the precepts and what we're taking refuge in: the Buddha, who personifies the qualities of awareness, wisdom, compassion, and purity; the Dhamma, which is the nature of truth, the nature of reality; and the Sangha, the realization of that nature, and the arising of those qualities within us.

My meditation was better than I expected from not having done much since the retreat at the end of September, and the talk helped. Instead of taking refuge in my daydreams or complaining mind, I attempted to take refuge in awareness. Whatever came up, I tried not to grasp it and get carried away by it, but simply stay grounded in the present moment. Afterwards, Ajahn Amaro gave the Dhamma talk, which mainly focused on the nature of things as they are, using the five subjects of frequent reflection as a foundation.

A few of the things that stood out to me during the night were: the precepts seem restrictive, but they're meant to free the heart; we take refuge in things that are insecure, courting disappointment; all things are nature, Dhamma, and wisdom or enlightenment is waking up to that nature—you don't gain anything, you simply realize what's already there; if you don't own anything (through non-clinging and the cessation of self-identification, not in a conventional sense), then you have nothing to lose or to cause you suffering.

Both Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno are inspiring teachers, and it was wonderful having them here tonight. I'm so fortunate to be here, now, in this place and have the opportunity to be near so many wise spiritual teachers in this tradition.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

noble friendship, part deux

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend my third retreat at Wat Atam, and the second led by Sakula, the spiritual director of Portland Friends of the Dhamma. The theme of the retreat was based around the threefold practice of virtue, concentration, and discernment, and how they're all integral to a successful practice.

The first night, when everyone attending was encouraged to observe the eight precepts while at the retreat, she talked about importance of virtue, which on the negative end consists of things we should refrain from doing, i.e., not harming living beings, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, not lying or using harsh speech, and not indulging in intoxicating drinks and drugs that lead to carelessness. But on the positive side, they encourage us to be kind and compassionate towards living beings, to be generous, to have safe and healthy relationships, to be honest and thoughtful in our speech, and to live in a clear and mindful way.

Besides helping to protect ourselves and others from the results of our unskillful actions, virtue is important because it acts as the foundation for our practice. For one, it helps to provide the meditator with a mind that's free from remorse and regret; and a mind that's free from remorse and regret is better able to develop deep states of concentration, which are difficult to develop when the mind is consistently worried or agitated (AN 11.2). And one thing Sakula had us do was to think of something skillful we did and delight in how good it made us feel.

(Believe me, a mind that's happier and lighter is a lot easier to observe and train. I know from experience. It's hard to meditate when you've done a lot of things you regret; they're the first things that pop up when the mind starts to get quiet.)

For most of the second day, the focus shifted to concentration. Often, living according to our desires, we develop habits that aren't necessarily good for us. We instinctually grasp for what's pleasant and push away what's not, rarely being fully aware of our intentions or what even we're doing. The problem is, in doing so, we suffer when that changes and we're separated with what's pleasant or come face-to-face with what isn't (SN 56.11). We may also do something because it gives us a short-term pleasure, only to end up suffering a great deal later on because of it. And this happens because our minds are untrained in restraint, mindfulness, and wisdom. To strengthen these tools, we need to first develop our virtue and then develop our powers concentration.

Just like a body that isn't used to exercise finds relatively intense physical activity difficult, if not impossible, a mind that isn't 'exercised' has difficulty turning inwards and being aware of the subtle mental activities and habits that give rise to suffering. We tend to take it for granted that what we're doing or thinking is the 'right' thing, but oftentimes what we're really doing is feeding our suffering. As Sakula mentioned, unpleasant thoughts and feelings will arise, but they'll also soon cease, unless of course we feed and sustain them, not being mindful of how feeding them can actually cause more problems than the initial thoughts and feelings themselves. We simply can't let them go.

We spent most of the day alternating between walking and sitting meditation, trying to focus on the breath or the soles of our feet while also trying to be aware of how our minds were reacting to thoughts and feelings and sensations, and when possible, letting them arise without pouncing on them and turning our attention away from our object. I had a lot of trouble with that, though, and found myself easily distracted.

At the end of the second day, as well as the last, she touched on wisdom. Wisdom is what can ultimately cut the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion. It's the aspect of our mental faculty that's capable of judging which of our intentions are skillful and unskillful, and more importantly, of abandoning what's unskillful. It dives through our desires and the narratives that we create, allowing us to see the deep and subtle way the mid works and giving us the ability to to really go against the flow of our craving. With wisdom, we can enjoy the pleasant without indulging in it and getting carried away by it; and we can endure the unpleasant without having to become overwhelmed by it.

One of the similes she gave that I really liked was of a person walking on some train tracks who's completely distracted by all the sights and sounds around them, unmindful of the train coming up behind them. The person is our mind, the sights and sounds are all the pleasant things we instinctually grasp, and the train represents both the unpleasant things in life and the changing nature of phenomena that tends to barrel us over. Concentration is what helps us turn around and see the train coming; wisdom is our ability to step off the track and watch it pass by rather than let it barrel us over unawares or to try and stop it in its tracks.

The last day was a special treat for me since it was not only Thai Vegan Day, with Wat Atam's community of lay-followers providing a feast of vegetarian Thai food for everyone to share, but one of my old teachers, Ajahn Prasert from Wat Buddhanusorn, was visiting to help raise a fund for sick and injured monks in the US.

Admittedly, I had a hard time meditating or really cultivating any wisdom this weekend. I did gain a deeper appreciation of virtue, however, especially that of others, and felt a lot of gratitude the whole time for all the kindness and generosity that made this retreat even possible for me, from Ajahn Ritthi for hosting it and Sakula for leading it, to Greg and Alistair for lagging behind and braving the I-5 rush-hour traffic so I could carpool with them and Phil and Marie at work who gave me an extra hand so I could get out of work on time and actually catch my ride.

There was a lot more to the retreat, but those are a few things that stuck with me the most. It was disheartening to realize how much I've slacked on my meditation practice and how I was luck if I could be truly mindful of three breaths the entire weekend, but it was equally as heartening being surrounded by such encouraging and supportive people.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

prepare to die

Yesterday a friend and I went to sit with the Friday PFoD group, which was notable for two reasons. The first was that Kyogen Carlson, the abbot of the building's previous community, Dharma Rain, suffered a massive heart attack and passed away unexpectedly the day before. The second was that, being the third Friday of the month, the Pacific Hermitage monks were in Portland to lead the meditation and Dhamma discussion. Due to the news of Kyogen's passing, the monks did some traditional Pali paritta chants before the meditation session, and the talk afterwards focused on death and dying.

Neither death nor dying are something that most people want to think about, but in the Buddhist tradition, these reflections are an important part of the practice. One reason is that they help give one a sense of urgency. Knowing that our time here on Earth is finite and relatively short, with death itself often being unexpected, we're motivated to use the time we do have wisely and develop the tools we'll need to confront death with a stable footing when our time comes. Another reason is that such reflections help remind us of the inconstancy of conditioned things, like our minds and bodies, and how little control we truly have over them:

Aniccà vata sankhàrà.
Uppajjitvà nirujhanti.
Tesaü våpasamo sukho.

Impermanent are all conditioned things.
Of a nature to arise and pass away.
Having arisen, they pass away.
Their calming and cessation is true bliss.

There's a lot of good we can accomplish in our lifetime. There's a lot of joy and happiness to be had as well. But by living heedlessly and ignoring the nature of reality, we run the risk of confronting death unprepared, whether that of a loved one or our own. Because we are born, death is inevitable, but we rarely seem to plan for it. All of the things we accumulate throughout life, wealth, possessions, status, relationships, etc., can't go with us; and yet our lives are almost solely focused on acquiring rather than letting go, so when it comes time to part with that which we hold dear, we sorrow, grieve, lament, beat our breast, and become distraught.

We all must face death numerous times in our life, and countless times if you believe the teachings on rebirth. For that reason alone it's worthy of our attention. From the Buddhist point of view, it's only with the cessation of birth that there's the cessation of death; and being mindful of death leads one to heedfulness—to developing mindfulness for the sake of ending the effluents of the mind. When mindfulness of death is developed and pursued in the proper way, it gains a footing in the deathless, and has the deathless as its final end. And even when our minds and bodies fall apart, there will be peace in the heart.

Monday, August 25, 2014


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.