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This blog is created by a Buddhist living in Singapore. He embraces the Mahayana spirit of Bodhicitta, deeply respecting all Buddhist Traditions as expressions of Kindness guiding us on the path towards human perfection ~ Buddhahood.

He likes to post stuff that he had read or think is good to share here, sometimes he adds a little comments here and there... just sometimes..

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“Sariputra, if there are people who have already made the vow, who now make the vow, or who are about to make the vow, ‘I desire to be born in Amitabha’s country,’ these people, whether born in the past, now being born, or to be born in the future, all will irreversibly attain to anuttarasamyaksambodhi. Therefore, Sariputra, all good men and good women, if they are among those who have faith, should make the vow, ‘I will be born in that country.’”

~ Amitabha Sutra

When I obtain the Buddhahood, any being of the boundless and inconceivable Buddha-worlds of the ten quarters whose body if be touched by the rays of my splendour should not make his body and mind gentle and peaceful, in such a state that he is far more sublime than the gods and men, then may I not attain the enlightenment.

~ Amitabha Buddha's Thirty-Third Vow

Sunday, February 28, 2010

大堪布貢噶旺秋仁波切 在獄中二十一年每天唸誦的發願文

大堪布 貢噶旺秋 仁波切 口述

張惠娟居士 翻譯






















~End of Post~


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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Please call me by my true names

This poem by Thich Nhat Hanh embodies the essence of what he calls "interbeing," the innerconnectedness of all things.

From: Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

In Plum Village, where I live in France, we receive many letters from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It is very painful to read them, but we have to do it, we have to be in contact. We try our best to help, but the suffering is enormous, and sometimes we are discouraged. It is said that half the boat people die in the ocean. Only half arrive at the shores in Southeast Asia, and even then they may not be safe.

There are many young girls, boat people, who are raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries try to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continue to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself.

When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.

After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The tide of the poem is "Please Call Me by My True Names," because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, "Yes."

Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the
surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes,
arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the
clear water of a pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who,
approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly
weapons to Uganda.

~End of Post~


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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Path of Concentration & Mindfulness

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
© 1997–2010

Many people tell us that the Buddha taught two different types of meditation — mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation. Mindfulness meditation, they say, is the direct path, while concentration practice is the scenic route that you take at your own risk because it's very easy to get caught there and you may never get out. But when you actually look at what the Buddha taught, he never separates these two practices. They are both parts of a single whole. Every time he explains mindfulness and its place in the path, he makes it clear that the purpose of mindfulness practice is to lead the mind into a state of Right Concentration — to get the mind to settle down and to find a place where it can really feel stable, at home, where it can look at things steadily and see them for what they are.

Part of the "two practices" issue centers on how we understand the word jhana, which is a synonym for Right Concentration. Many of us have heard that jhana is a very intense trance-like state that requires intense staring and shutting out the rest of the world. It sounds nothing like mindfulness at all. But if you look in the Canon where the Buddha describes jhana, that's not the kind of state he's talking about. To be in jhana is to be absorbed, very pleasurably, in the sense of the whole body altogether. A very broad sense of awareness fills the entire body. One of the images the Buddha used to describe this state is that of a person kneading water into dough so that the water permeates throughout the flour. Another is a lake in which a cool spring comes welling up and suffuses the entire lake.

Now, when you're with the body as a whole, you're very much in the present moment. You're right there all the time. As the Buddha says, the fourth jhana — in which the body is filled with bright awareness — is the point where mindfulness and equanimity become pure. So there should be no problem in combining mindfulness practice with the whole-body awareness that gets very settled and still. In fact, the Buddha himself combines them in his description of the first four steps of breath meditation: (1) being aware of long breathing, (2) being aware of short breathing, (3) being aware of the whole body as you breathe in and breathe out, and then (4) calming the sensation of the breath within the body. This, as the texts tell us, is basic mindfulness practice. It's also a basic concentration practice. You're getting into the first jhana — Right Concentration — right there, at the same time that you're practicing Right Mindfulness.

To see how Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration help each other in the practice, we can look at the three stages of mindfulness practice given in the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta. Take the body as an example. The first stage is to keep focused on the body in and of itself, putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. What this means is taking the body as a body without thinking about it in terms of what it means or what it can do in the world. It could be either good or bad looking. It could be strong or weak. It could be agile or clumsy — all the issues we tend to worry about when we think about ourselves. The Buddha says to put those issues aside.

Just be with the body in and of itself, sitting right here. You close your eyes — what do you have? There's the sensation of "bodiness" that you're sitting with. That's your frame of reference. Try to stay with it. Keep bringing the mind back to this sense of the body until it gets the message and begins to settle down. In the beginning of the practice you find the mind going out to grasp this or that, so you note it enough to tell it to let go, return to the body, and hold on there. Then it goes out to grasp something else, so you tell it to let go, come back, and latch onto the body again. Eventually, though, you reach a point where you can actually grasp hold of the breath and you don't let go, okay? You keep holding onto it. From that point on, whatever else that happens to come into your awareness is like something coming up and brushing the back of your hand. You don't have to note it. You stay with the body as your basic frame of reference. Other things come and go, you're aware of them, but you don't drop the breath and go grasping after them. This is when you really have established the body as a solid frame of reference.

As you do this, you develop three qualities of mind. One is mindfulness (sati). The term mindfulness means being able to remember, to keep something in mind. In the case of establishing the body as a frame of reference, it means being able to remember where you're supposed to be — with the body — and you don't let yourself forget. The second quality, alertness (sampajañña), means being aware of what is actually going on in the present. Are you with the body? Are you with the breath? Is the breath comfortable? Simply notice what's actually happening in the present moment. We tend to confuse mindfulness with alertness, but actually they are two separate things: mindfulness means being able to remember where you want to keep your awareness; alertness means being aware of what's actually happening. The third quality, ardency (atappa), means two things. One, if you realize that the mind has wandered off, you bring it right back. Immediately. You don't let it wander around, sniffing the flowers. Two, when the mind is with its proper frame of reference, ardency means trying to be as sensitive as possible to what's going on — not just drifting in the present moment, but really trying to penetrate more and more into the subtle details of what's actually happening with the breath or the mind.

When you have these three qualities focused on the body in and of itself, you can't help but settle down and get really comfortable with the body in the present moment. That's when you're ready for the second stage in the practice, which is described as being aware of the phenomenon of origination and the phenomenon of passing away. This is a stage where you're trying to understand cause and effect as they happen in the present. In terms of concentration practice, once you've got the mind to settle down, you want to understand the interaction of cause and effect in the process of concentration so that you can get it to settle down more solidly for longer periods of time in all sorts of situations, on the cushion and off. To do this, you have to learn about how things arise and pass away in the mind, not by simply watching them, but by actually getting involved in their arising and passing away.

You can see this in the Buddha's instructions for dealing with the hindrances. In the first stage, he says to be aware of the hindrances as they come and go. Some people think that this is an exercise in "choiceless awareness," where you don't try to will the mind in any direction, where you simply sit and watch willy-nilly whatever comes into the mind. In actual practice, though, the mind isn't yet ready for that. What you need at this stage is a fixed point of reference for evaluating the events in the mind, just as when you're trying to gauge the motion of clouds through the sky: You need to choose a fixed point — like a roof gable or a light pole — at which to stare so that you can get a sense of which direction and how fast the clouds are moving. The same with the coming and going of sensual desire, ill will, etc., in the mind: You have to try to maintain a fixed reference point for the mind — like the breath — if you want to be really sensitive to when there are hindrances in the mind — getting in the way of your reference point — and when there are not.

Suppose that anger is interfering with your concentration. Instead of getting involved in the anger, you try simply to be aware of when it's there and when it's not. You look at the anger as an event in and of itself — as it comes, as it goes. But you don't stop there. The next step — as you're still working at focusing on the breath — is recognizing how anger can be made to go away. Sometimes simply watching it is enough to make it go away; sometimes it's not, and you have to deal with it in other ways, such as arguing with the reasoning behind the anger or reminding yourself of the drawbacks of anger. In the course of dealing with it, you have to get your hands dirty. You've got to try and figure out why the anger is coming, why it's going, how you can get it out of there, because you realize that it's an unskillful state. And this requires that you improvise. Experiment. You've got to chase your ego and impatience out of the way so that you can have the space to make mistakes and learn from them, so that you can develop a skill in dealing with the anger. It's not just a question of hating the anger and trying to push it away, or of loving the anger and welcoming it. These approaches may give results in the short run, but in the long run they're not especially skillful. What's called for here is the ability to see what the anger is composed of; how can you take it apart.

One technique I like to use — when anger is present and you're in a situation where you don't immediately have to react to people — is simply to ask yourself in a good-natured way, "Okay, why are you angry?" Listen to what the mind has to say. Then pursue the matter: "But why are you angry at that? " "Of course, I'm angry. After all..." "Well, why are you angry at that?" If you keep this up, the mind will eventually admit to something stupid, like the assumption that people shouldn't be that way — even though they blatantly are that way — or that people should act in line with your standards, or whatever the mind is so embarrassed about that it tries to hide from you. But finally, if you keep probing, it'll fess up. You gain a lot of understanding of the anger that way, and this can really weaken its power over you.

In terms of the positive qualities like mindfulness, serenity, and concentration, it's a similar sort of thing. First, you're aware of when they're there and when they're not, and then you realize that when they're there it's much nicer than when they're not. So you try to figure out how they come, how they go. You do this by consciously trying to maintain that state of mindfulness and concentration. If you're really observant — and this is what it's all about, being observant — you begin to see that there are skillful ways of maintaining the state without getting all tied up in failure or success in doing it, without letting the desire for a settled state of mind actually get in the way of the mind's settling down. You do want to succeed, but you need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that you can learn from them. Nobody's keeping score or taking grades. You're here to understand for your own sake. So this process of developing your foundation of mindfulness or developing your frame of reference is not "just watching." It's more a participation in the process of arising and passing away — actually playing with the process — so that you can learn from experience how cause and effect work in the mind.

Once, when I was in college, I wrote home complaining about the food, and my mother sent me a Julia Child cookbook. In the book was a section on dealing with eggs in which she said that the sign of a really good cook is knowing eggs. And so I took an egg out. You can watch an egg — you can learn certain things just by watching it, but you don't learn very much. To learn about eggs you have to put them in a pan and try to make something out of them. If you do this long enough you begin to understand that there are variations in eggs, and there are certain ways that they react to heat and ways that they react to oil or butter or whatever. And so by actually working with the egg and trying to make something out of it, you really come to understand eggs. It's similar with clay: you really don't know clay until you become a potter and actually try to make something out of the clay.

And it's the same with the mind: unless you actually try to make something out of the mind, try to get a mental state going and keep it going, you don't really know your own mind. You don't know the processes of cause and effect within the mind. There has to be a factor of actual participation in the process. That way you can understand it. This all comes down to being observant and developing a skill. The essence of developing a skill means two things. One, you're aware of a situation as it is given and, two, you're aware of what you put into it. When the Buddha talks about causation, he says that every situation is shaped from two directions — the causes coming in from the past and the causes you're putting into the present. You need to be sensitive to both. If you aren't sensitive to what you're putting into a situation, you'll never develop any kind of skill. As you're aware of what you're doing, you also look at the results. If something isn't right, you go back and change what you've done — keeping at this until you get the results you want. And in the process, you learn a great deal from the clay, the eggs, or whatever you're trying to deal with skillfully.

The same holds true with the mind. Of course, you could learn something about the mind by trying to get it into any sort of a state, but for the purpose of developing really penetrating insight, a state of stable, balanced, mindful concentration is the best kind of soufflé or pot you want to make with the mind. The factors of pleasure, ease, and sometimes even rapture that arise when the mind really settles down help you stay comfortably in the present moment, with a low center of gravity. Once the mind is firmly settled there, you have something to look at for a long period of time so that you can see what it's made up of. In the typical unbalanced state of the mind, things are appearing and disappearing too fast for you to notice them clearly. But as the Buddha notes, when you get really skilled at jhana, you can step back a bit and really see what you've got. You can see, say, where there's an element of attachment, where there's an element of stress, or even where there's inconstancy within your balanced state. This is where you begin to gain insight, as you see the natural cleavage lines among the different factors of the mind, and in particular, the cleavage line between awareness and the objects of awareness.

Another advantage to this mindful, concentrated state is that as you feel more and more at home in it, you begin to realize that it's possible to have happiness and pleasure in life without depending on things outside of yourself — people, relationships, approval from others, or any of the issues that come from being part of the world. This realization helps pry loose your attachments to things outside. Some people are afraid of getting attached to a state of calm, but actually, it's very important that you get attached here, so that you begin to settle down and begin to undo your other attachments. Only when this attachment to calm is the only one left do you begin work on loosening it up as well.

Still another reason why solid concentration is necessary for insight is that when discernment comes to the mind, the basic lesson it will teach you is that you've been stupid. You've held onto things even though deep down inside you should have known better. Now, try telling that to people when they're hungry and tired. They'll come right back with, "You're stupid, too," and that's the end of the discussion. Nothing gets accomplished. But if you talk to someone who has had a full meal and feels rested, you can broach all kinds of topics without risking a fight. It's the same with the mind. When it has been well fed with the rapture and ease coming from concentration, it's ready to learn. It can accept your criticisms without feeling threatened or abused.

So. This is the role that concentration practice plays in this second stage of mindfulness practice: It gives you something to play with, a skill to develop so you can begin to understand the factors of cause and effect within the mind. You begin to see the mind as just a flux of causes with their effects coming back at you. Your ideas are part of this flux of cause and effect, your emotions, your sense of who you are. This insight begins to loosen your attachments to the whole process.

What finally happens is that the mind reaches a third level of mindfulness practice where the mind comes to a state of perfect equilibrium — where you've developed this state of concentration, this state of equilibrium to the point where you don't have to put anything more into it. In the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta this is described as simply being aware — if you are using the body as your frame of reference, being aware that "There is a body," just enough for knowledge and mindfulness, without being attached to anything in the world. Other texts call this the state of "non-fashioning." The mind reaches the point where you begin to realize that all causal processes in the mind — including the processes of concentration and insight — are like tar babies. If you like them, you get stuck; if you don't like them, you get stuck. So what are you going to do? You have to get to the point where you're not really contributing anything more to the present moment. You unravel your participation in it. That's when things open up in the mind.

Many people want to jump right in and begin at this level of not adding anything to the present moment, but it doesn't work that way. You can't be sensitive to the subtle things the mind is habitually adding to the present until you've consciously tried to alter what you're adding. As you get more and more skilled, you get more sensitive to the subtle things you didn't realize you were doing. You reach a point of disenchantment, where you realize that the most skillful way of dealing with the present is to strip away all levels of participation that cause even the slightest bit of stress in the mind. You start dismantling the levels of participation that you learned in the second stage of the practice, to the point where things reach equilibrium on their own, where there's letting go and release.

So it's important to realize that there are these three stages to mindfulness practice, and to understand the role that deliberate concentration practice plays in taking you through the first two. Without aiming at Right Concentration, you can't develop the skills needed for understanding the mind — for it's in the process of mastering the skill of mindful concentration that true insight arises. Just as you don't really understand a herd of cattle until you've successfully herded them — learning from all your failures along the way — you can't get a sense of all the cause-and-effect currents running through the mind until you've learned from your failures and successes in getting them to gather in a state of concentrated mindfulness and mindful concentration. And only when you've really understood and mastered these currents — the currents of craving that cause suffering and stress, and the currents of mindfulness and concentration that form the Path — can you let them go and find freedom from them.


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One Tool Among Many - The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
© 1997–2010

What exactly is vipassana?

Almost any book on early Buddhist meditation will tell you that the Buddha taught two types of meditation: samatha and vipassana. Samatha, which means tranquillity, is said to be a method fostering strong states of mental absorption, called jhana. Vipassana — literally "clear-seeing," but more often translated as insight meditation — is said to be a method using a modicum of tranquillity to foster moment-to-moment mindfulness of the inconstancy of events as they are directly experienced in the present. This mindfulness creates a sense of dispassion toward all events, thus leading the mind to release from suffering. These two methods are quite separate, we're told, and of the two, vipassana is the distinctive Buddhist contribution to meditative science. Other systems of practice pre-dating the Buddha also taught samatha, but the Buddha was the first to discover and teach vipassana. Although some Buddhist meditators may practice samatha meditation before turning to vipassana, samatha practice is not really necessary for the pursuit of Awakening. As a meditative tool, the vipassana method is sufficient for attaining the goal. Or so we're told.

But if you look directly at the Pali discourses — the earliest extant sources for our knowledge of the Buddha's teachings — you'll find that although they do use the word samatha to mean tranquillity, and vipassana to mean clear-seeing, they otherwise confirm none of the received wisdom about these terms. Only rarely do they make use of the word vipassana — a sharp contrast to their frequent use of the word jhana. When they depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying "go do vipassana," but always "go do jhana." And they never equate the word vipassana with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may "gain" or "be endowed with," and that should be developed together. One simile, for instance (SN 35.204), compares samatha and vipassana to a swift pair of messengers who enter the citadel of the body via the noble eightfold path and present their accurate report — Unbinding, or nibbana — to the consciousness acting as the citadel's commander. Another passage (AN 10.71) recommends that anyone who wishes to put an end to mental defilement should — in addition to perfecting the principles of moral behavior and cultivating seclusion — be committed to samatha and endowed with vipassana. This last statement is unremarkable in itself, but the same discourse also gives the same advice to anyone who wants to master the jhanas: be committed to samatha and endowed with vipassana. This suggests that, in the eyes of those who assembled the Pali discourses, samatha, jhana, and vipassana were all part of a single path. Samatha and vipassana were used together to master jhana and then — based on jhana — were developed even further to give rise to the end of mental defilement and to bring release from suffering. This is a reading that finds support in other discourses as well.

There's a passage, for instance, describing three ways in which samatha and vipassana can work together to lead to the knowledge of Awakening: either samatha precedes vipassana, vipassana precedes samatha, or they develop in tandem (AN 4.170). The wording suggests an image of two oxen pulling a cart: one is placed before the other or they are yoked side-by-side. Another passage (AN 4.94) indicates that if samatha precedes vipassana — or vipassana, samatha — one's practice is in a state of imbalance and needs to be rectified. A meditator who has attained a measure of samatha, but no "vipassana into events based on heightened discernment (adhipañña-dhamma-vipassana)," should question a fellow meditator who has attained vipassana: "How should fabrications (sankhara) be regarded? How should they be investigated? How should they be viewed with insight?" and then develop vipassana in line with that person's instructions. The verbs in these questions — "regarding," "investigating," "seeing" — indicate that there's more to the process of developing vipassana than a simple mindfulness technique. In fact, as we will see below, these verbs apply instead to a process of skillful questioning called "appropriate attention."

The opposite case — a meditator endowed with a measure of vipassana into events based on heightened discernment, but no samatha — should question someone who has attained samatha: "How should the mind be steadied? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated?" and then follow that person's instructions so as to develop samatha. The verbs used here give the impression that "samatha" in this context means jhana, for they correspond to the verbal formula — "the mind becomes steady, settles down, grows unified and concentrated" — that the Pali discourses use repeatedly to describe the attainment of jhana. This impression is reinforced when we note that in every case where the discourses are explicit about the levels of concentration needed for insight to be liberating, those levels are the jhanas.

Once the meditator is endowed with both samatha and vipassana, he/she should "make an effort to establish those very same skillful qualities to a higher degree for the ending of the mental fermentations (asava — sensual passion, states of being, views, and ignorance)." This corresponds to the path of samatha and vipassana developing in tandem. A passage in MN 149 describes how this can happen. One knows and sees, as they actually are, the six sense media (the five senses plus the intellect), their objects, consciousness at each medium, contact at each medium, and whatever is experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain based on that contact. One maintains this awareness in such a way as to stay uninfatuated by any of these things, unattached, unconfused, focused on their drawbacks, abandoning any craving for them: this would count as vipassana. At the same time — abandoning physical and mental disturbances, torments, and distresses — one experiences ease in body and mind: this would count as samatha. This practice not only develops samatha and vipassana in tandem, but also brings the 37 Wings to Awakening — which include the attainment of jhana — to the culmination of their development.

So the proper path is one in which vipassana and samatha are brought into balance, each supporting and acting as a check on the other. Vipassana helps keep tranquillity from becoming stagnant and dull. Samatha helps prevent the manifestations of aversion — such as nausea, dizziness, disorientation, and even total blanking out — that can occur when the mind is trapped against its will in the present moment.

From this description it's obvious that samatha and vipassana are not separate paths of practice, but instead are complementary ways of relating to the present moment: samatha provides a sense of ease in the present; vipassana, a clear-eyed view of events as they actually occur, in and of themselves. It's also obvious why the two qualities need to function together in mastering jhana. As the standard instructions on breath meditation indicate (MN 118), such a mastery involves three things: gladdening, concentrating, and liberating the mind. Gladdening means finding a sense of refreshment and satisfaction in the present. Concentrating means keeping the mind focused on its object, while liberating means freeing the mind from the grosser factors making up a lower stage of concentration so as to attain a higher stage. The first two activities are functions of samatha, while the last is a function of vipassana. All three must function together. If, for example, there is concentration and gladdening, with no letting go, the mind wouldn't be able to refine its concentration at all. The factors that have to be abandoned in raising the mind from stage x to stage y belong to the set of factors that got the mind to x in the first place (AN 9.34). Without the ability clearly to see mental events in the present, there would be no way skillfully to release the mind from precisely the right factors that tie it to a lower state of concentration and act as disturbances to a higher one. If, on the other hand, there is simply a letting go of those factors, without an appreciation of or steadiness in the stillness that remains, the mind would drop out of jhana altogether. Thus samatha and vipassana must work together to bring the mind to right concentration in a masterful way.

The question arises: if vipassana functions in the mastery of jhana, and jhana is not exclusive to Buddhists, then what is Buddhist about vipassana? The answer is that vipassana per se is not exclusively Buddhist. What is distinctly Buddhist is (1) the extent to which both samatha and vipassana are developed; and (2) the way they are developed — i.e., the line of questioning used to foster them; and (3) the way they are combined with an arsenal of meditative tools to bring the mind to total release.

In MN 73, the Buddha advises a monk who has mastered jhana to further develop samatha and vipassana so as to master six cognitive skills, the most important of them being that "through the ending of the mental fermentations, one remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release and discernment-release, having known and made them manifest for oneself right in the here and now." This is a description of the Buddhist goal. Some commentators have asserted that this release is totally a function of vipassana, but there are discourses that indicate otherwise.

Note that release is twofold: awareness-release and discernment-release. awareness-release occurs when a meditator becomes totally dispassionate toward passion: this is the ultimate function of samatha. Discernment-release occurs when there is dispassion for ignorance: this is the ultimate function of vipassana (AN 2.30). Thus both samatha and vipassana are involved in the twofold nature of this release.

The Sabbasava Sutta (MN 2) states that one's release can be "fermentation-free" only if one knows and sees in terms of "appropriate attention" (yoniso manasikara). As the discourse shows, appropriate attention means asking the proper questions about phenomena, regarding them not in terms of self/other or being/non-being, but in terms of the four noble truths. In other words, instead of asking "Do I exist? Don't I exist? What am I?" one asks about an experience, "Is this stress? The origination of stress? The cessation of stress? The path leading to the cessation of stress?" Because each of these categories entails a duty, the answer to these questions determines a course of action: stress should be comprehended, its origination abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed.

Samatha and vipassana belong to the category of the path and so should be developed. To develop them, one must apply appropriate attention to the task of comprehending stress, which is comprised of the five clinging-aggregates — clinging to physical form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness. Applying appropriate attention to these aggregates means viewing them in terms of their drawbacks, as "inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a dissolution, an emptiness, not-self" (SN 22.122). A list of questions, distinctive to the Buddha, aids in this approach: "Is this aggregate constant or inconstant?" "And is anything inconstant easeful or stressful?" "And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am'?" (SN 22.59). These questions are applied to every instance of the five aggregates, whether "past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle, common or sublime, far or near." In other words, the meditator asks these questions of all experiences in the cosmos of the six sense media.

This line of questioning is part of a strategy leading to a level of knowledge called "knowing and seeing things as they actually are (yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana)," where things are understood in terms of a fivefold perspective: their arising, their passing away, their drawbacks, their allure, and the escape from them — the escape, here, lying in dispassion.

Some commentators have suggested that, in practice, this fivefold perspective can be gained simply by focusing on the arising and passing away of these aggregates in the present moment; if one's focus is relentless enough, it will lead naturally to a knowledge of drawbacks, allure, and escape, sufficient for total release. The texts, however, don't support this reading, and practical experience would seem to back them up. As MN 101 points out, individual meditators will discover that, in some cases, they can develop dispassion for a particular cause of stress simply by watching it with equanimity; but in other cases, they will need to make a conscious exertion to develop the dispassion that will provide an escape. The discourse is vague — perhaps deliberately so — as to which approach will work where. This is something each meditator must test for him or herself in practice.

The Sabbasava Sutta expands on this point by listing seven approaches to take in developing dispassion. Vipassana, as a quality of mind, is related to all seven, but most directly with the first: "seeing," i.e., seeing events in terms of the four noble truths and the duties appropriate to them. The remaining six approaches cover ways of carrying out those duties: restraining the mind from focusing on sense data that would provoke unskillful states of mind; reflecting on the appropriate reasons for using the requisites of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine; tolerating painful sensations; avoiding obvious dangers and inappropriate companions; destroying thoughts of sensual desire, ill will, harmfulness, and other unskillful states; and developing the seven factors for Awakening: mindfulness, analysis of qualities, persistence, rapture, serenity, concentration, and equanimity.

Each of these approaches covers a wide subset of approaches. Under "destroying," for instance, one may eliminate an unskillful mental state by replacing it with a skillful one, focusing on its drawbacks, turning one's attention away from it, relaxing the process of thought-fabrication that formed it, or suppressing it with the brute power of one's will (MN 20). Many similar examples could be drawn from other discourses as well. The overall point is that the ways of the mind are varied and complex. Different fermentations can come bubbling up in different guises and respond to different approaches. One's skill as a meditator lies in mastering a variety of approaches and developing the sensitivity to know which approach will work best in which situation.

On a more basic level, however, one needs strong motivation to master these skills in the first place. Because appropriate attention requires abandoning dichotomies that are so basic to the thought patterns of all people — "being/not being" and "me/not me" — meditators need strong reasons for adopting it. This is why the Sabbasava Sutta insists that anyone developing appropriate attention must first must hold the noble ones (here meaning the Buddha and his awakened disciples) in high regard. In other words, one must see that those who have followed the path are truly exemplary. One must also be well-versed in their teaching and discipline. According to MN 117, "being well-versed in their teaching" begins with having conviction in their teachings about karma and rebirth, which provide intellectual and emotional context for adopting the four noble truths as the basic categories of experience. Being well-versed in the discipline of the noble ones would include, in addition to observing the precepts, having some skill in the seven approaches mentioned above for abandoning the fermentations.

Without this sort of background, meditators might bring the wrong attitudes and questions to the practice of watching arising and passing away in the present moment. For instance, they might be looking for a "true self" and end up identifying — consciously or unconsciously — with the vast, open sense of awareness that embraces all change, from which it all seems to come and to which it all seems to return. Or they might long for a sense of connectedness with the vast interplay of the universe, convinced that — as all things are changing — any desire for changelessness is neurotic and life-denying. For people with agendas like these, the simple experience of events arising and passing away in the present won't lead to fivefold knowledge of things as they are. They'll resist recognizing that the ideas they hold to are a fermentation of views, or that the experiences of calm that seem to verify those ideas are simply a fermentation in the form of a state of being. As a result, they won't be willing to apply the four noble truths to those ideas and experiences. Only a person willing to see those fermentations as such, and convinced of the need to transcend them, will be in a position to apply the principles of appropriate attention to them and thus get beyond them.

So, to answer the question with which we began: Vipassana is not a meditation technique. It's a quality of mind — the ability to see events clearly in the present moment. Although mindfulness is helpful in fostering vipassana, it's not enough for developing vipassana to the point of total release. Other techniques and approaches are needed as well. In particular, vipassana needs to be teamed with samatha — the ability to settle the mind comfortably in the present — so as to master the attainment of strong states of absorption, or jhana. Based on this mastery, samatha and vipassana are then applied to a skillful program of questioning, called appropriate attention, directed at all experience: exploring events not in terms of me/not me, or being/not being, but in terms of the four noble truths. The meditator pursues this program until it leads to a fivefold understanding of all events: in terms of their arising, their passing away, their drawbacks, their allure, and the escape from them. Only then can the mind taste release.

This program for developing vipassana and samatha, in turn, needs the support of many other attitudes, mental qualities, and techniques of practice. This was why the Buddha taught it as part of a still larger program, including respect for the noble ones, mastery of all seven approaches for abandoning the mental fermentations, and all eight factors of the noble path. To take a reductionist approach to the practice can produce only reduced results, for meditation is a skill like carpentry, requiring a mastery of many tools in response to many different needs. To limit oneself to only one approach in meditation would be like trying to build a house when one's motivation is uncertain and one's tool box contains nothing but hammers.


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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Legends of Somdet Toh

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
© 2006–2010

Somdet Toh — his formal title was Somdet Budhacariya (Toh Brahmaransi) — was probably the most famous and widely loved monk in nineteenth century Thailand. A skilled meditator closely associated with the royal family, he was famous for many reasons, but his wide popularity rests on two things: Despite his rank, he was easily approachable to people on all levels of society; and he made amulets that — because of his meditative prowess — were reputed to be very powerful. He was also famous for his wisdom and wit. Since his death, in 1872, a cult has grown up around his memory, with many mediums throughout Thailand claiming to channel his spirit.

At the same time, many legends have grown up around his name. Here are a few of my favorites. I can't vouch for their accuracy, but they all carry a good lesson, which is why they merit passing on.

Somdet Toh was an illegitimate son of a nobleman who eventually became King Rama II. The story goes that one day in 1787 or 1788, when the nobleman was in northern Thailand cleaning up after the Burmese invasion, he happened to get separated from his troops. As he rode along on his horse, he came across a house with a young woman about sixteen years old standing in front. Thirsty, he asked her for some water. She went to the well, got a bowl of water — in Thailand in the old days, they would drink water out of a bowl, rather than out of a glass — and crushed a lotus flower over the bowl, sprinkling the stamens all over the surface of the water. Then she handed the bowl to him as he was sitting on his horse. He took one long look at the stamens on top of the water and then had to drink the water very carefully so as not to swallow them. As he handed the bowl back to her, he asked her, "Was that a trick?"

"No," she said. "I saw that you were so thirsty that you might gulp the water down and end up choking on it. So I figured this would be a good way to make sure that you drank slowly."

Well. He asked her, "Are your parents around?" So she fetched her parents. They didn't know who he was, but he was obviously a nobleman, so when he told them, "I'd like to have your daughter," they gave their consent. So she joined the king in the army camp, but as the campaign was ending he said to her, "I'm afraid I can't take you down to the palace with me, but in case you do have a child by me, here's my belt. Give the child my belt and I'll know that it's my child. I'll take care of him or her in the future." So he left her and went down to Bangkok.

Her whole family soon followed down to Bangkok when they discovered that she actually was pregnant. They moved onto a floating house moored on the bank of the Chao Phraya River in front of a monastery, Wat In. She gave birth to a son and named him Toh, which means "large." When he was old enough, he was ordained as a novice. A few years later, when the nobleman had become King Rama II, the family took Novice Toh to Wat Nibbanaram — currently Wat Mahathaad, a temple right across the road from the Grand Palace — and showed the belt to the abbot. The abbot took the belt to the king and the king said, "Yes, that's my son." So he later sponsored Novice Toh's ordination as a monk.

When Prince Mongkut — later Rama IV — was ordained as a monk, Phra Toh was his "older brother monk," the one who gave him his initial training in Dhamma and Vinaya. Soon after Prince Mongkut's ordination, his father died, and although by birth Prince Mongkut was next in line for the throne, the Privy Council chose one of his half-brothers to reign as Rama III instead. When this happened, Phra Toh decided it would be wise to leave Bangkok, so he went into the forest. Prince Mongkut stayed on as a monk for 28 years, until Rama III passed away. He was then offered the throne, so he disrobed and was crowned King Rama IV.

Soon after his coronation he sent out word to fetch Phra Toh back to Bangkok. Officials went into the forest, dragging back any monk they could find, and asking, "Is this the monk?" "No." "Is this the monk?" "No." Finally word got to Phra Toh, and he came out voluntarily. The king gave him the title of Somdet — which, next to the Supreme Patriarch, is the highest title a monk can hold — and put him in charge of Wat Rakhang, the monastery across the river from the palace.

Rama IV is remembered as a wise and humane king. Somdet Toh's own epithet for him — in a brief poem he wrote summarizing the history and prophesizing the future of the Chakri (Bangkok) dynasty — was that he maintained or embodied the Dhamma. And Rama IV's desire to have Somdet Toh near the palace is an indication of his wisdom. He knew that, as king, he would have trouble finding people fearless and selfless enough to tell him frankly when he was wrong, and so he wanted his former teacher nearby to perform this function.

But even as the king's former teacher, Somdet Toh had to exercise tact and skill in criticizing the king.

One story tells that one day early in his reign, the king — and remember, he had been a monk for twenty-eight years — was sitting out on the boat landing in front of the palace drinking with his courtiers. So Somdet Toh came paddling across the river in a small boat. The king, displeased, said to him, "Here I've made you a Somdet. Don't you have any respect for your title? How can you paddle your own boat?" The Somdet replied, "When the king of the country is drinking in public, Somdets can paddle their own boats." Turning around, he paddled back to Wat Rakhang. That was the last time the king drank in public.

Another time, Rama IV felt that since Thailand had been laid waste by the Burmese, many ancient Thai customs had disappeared, so new customs should be developed to replace them. So he decided, "Wouldn't it be nice if we had a boat parade at the end of the rains retreat? Every monastery in Bangkok will be responsible for decorating a boat, and we'll have a contest to reward the best-looking boat." So the royal decree went out that every monastery in Bangkok had to decorate a boat for the parade.

When the day for the parade came, a long line of beautifully decorated boats floated past the royal reviewing stand — except for one, a little canoe carrying a monkey tied to a leash with a sign on its back. The king's immediate reaction was anger: "Somebody's making fun of me." He had his officials check the roster to see which monastery was responsible for the boat, and it was Wat Rakhang, Somdet Toh's monastery.

So they took the sign off the monkey to see what it said. It said, "Willing to lose face in order to save cloth," which rhymed in Thai, but didn't make any more sense in Thai than it does in English. A few days later, the king invited Somdet Toh into the palace for a meal and a Dhamma talk, after which he asked him, "Suppose someone sponsored a boat with a sign like this on the back of a monkey. What do you think it might mean?" And the Somdet said, "Well, it might mean that monks don't have any resources of their own to decorate boats and it's certainly not appropriate for them to ask for donations from laypeople to decorate boats, so the only course left open to them would to have been to put their robes in the pawn shop. So they were willing to lose face in order to save their robes." That was the last time the parade was ever held.

Another story concerns a funeral in the royal palace. Funerals in the palace could go on for a hundred days before the cremation. Every night they'd invite four monks to chant. The famous, high-ranking monks would chant toward the beginning of the hundred days, and by the end of the period they were getting down into the ranks of the junior monks. One night toward the end of this particular funeral they invited four young monks who had never seen the king before in their lives. And this was back in the days when if the king said, "Off with your head!" it was off with your head. So they were nervous about their performance. After all, the king had been a monk for 28 years. He would know if they made any mistakes in their chanting.

Finally the king entered the room, followed by his entourage. Now, Rama IV had a rather stern and fearsome appearance, and as soon as the monks took one look at him they went running behind a curtain. This infuriated the king. "What is this? Am I a monster? An ogre? What is this? Disrobe them immediately!" So a royal decree was written up and sent over the river for Somdet Toh to disrobe the monks. He happened to be sitting at a writing table, next to a small altar where incense was burning. Taking one look at the royal decree, he placed it over a stick of incense, burned three holes in it, and sent it back across the river to the palace. The king, of course, had studied Buddhist doctrine; he knew what the three fires were: the fire of passion, the fire of anger, and the fire of delusion. The Somdet's message was, "Put them out." So the monks didn't have to disrobe. That's how you criticize a king.

Once, however, Somdet Toh didn't get away with criticizing the king. There is a tradition recorded in the Apadanas that the Buddha's clan, the Sakyan clan, started from a time when the sons and daughters of a particular king had to leave their country. They took up residence in Kapilavastu, the area that eventually became the Buddha's home. After building their city and settling in, they looked around the area for spouses but couldn't find anyone who was high-born enough for them to marry. So the brothers ended up marrying their own sisters. That's the tradition recorded in the Apadanas to explain the name of the Sakyan — "One's Own" — clan.

One day Somdet Toh was giving a talk on this topic in the royal palace, and after discussing this point he continued, "Ever since then it's become a custom among royal families. Uncles go running after their nieces, cousins go running after their cousins..." Now, Rama IV's major queen was his niece, so again he was furious. "You cannot stay in this country!" he said. So Somdet Toh was banished from Thailand. Now, in Thailand the civil law does not extend into the sima, the territory immediately around ordination halls. For instance, if a thief goes running into a sima, the police have to get the abbot's permission before they can go into the sima after him. So the Somdet returned to Wat Rakhang and moved into the ordination hall. For about three months he didn't set foot outside the sima.

Meanwhile, the king had forgotten all about the banishment order, and one day he said, "We haven't had Somdet Toh over for a talk in a long time. Let's invite him over." So the invitation went across the river to the monastery, but word came back, saying "I cannot set foot in this country, remember?" "Oh," the king said, "I forgot." And he lifted the banishment order.

So it wasn't an easy thing to criticize kings in those days. Even if you were his personal teacher, you had to be careful.

Of course, not all of Somdet Toh's comments about the king were critical. After all, the respect he felt for the king was what had inspired him to leave the forest to be of help in the first place.

One of the most famous stories about their relationship concerns a Dhamma talk Somdet Toh gave in the palace. Palace Dhamma talks were highly ritualized affairs. The talk was expected to be long and literary, preceded with and followed by many elaborate chants and other formalities. Once Rama IV invited Somdet to present such a talk and had prepared an especially large pile of offerings to be presented to the Somdet after the talk — a sign that he was looking forward to an especially long and learned disquisition, to test the Somdet's knowledge of the Dhamma. After the beginning formalities, however, Somdet Toh said only one sentence: "The king already knows everything there is to know." Then he chanted the ritual passages to conclude the talk and returned to his seat on the dais, quiet and composed. Immensely pleased, the king presented him with the offerings, commenting that that was the best Dhamma talk he had ever heard. (Ajaan Lee tells the story that later another monk tried the same trick, but with different results: The king was so offended that he had the monk stripped of his ecclesiastical titles.)

At another, similar event at the palace, Somdet Toh began the closing blessing with the standard chant:
Yatha varivaha pura
Paripurenti sagaram
Evameva ito dinnam
Petanam upakappati...

Just as rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
Even so does that given here benefit the hungry ghosts...

As he reached this point in the chant, the king in a very unusual breach of Buddhist etiquette called out, "Why are you giving all the merit to the hungry ghosts? What did they do to deserve it?"

Somdet Toh, without missing a beat, backed up to change the last line:
Evameva ito dinnam
Sabbam rañño upakappati...

Even so does everything given here benefit the king...

The king, who was fluent in Pali himself, was delighted with the Somdet's ability to think on his feet.

There are many other legends concerning Somdet Toh that don't deal with the king. Ajaan Fuang, my teacher, especially liked to tell a story of how Somdet Toh dealt with high-ranking lay people who would visit monasteries and waste the monks' time in idle conversation.

Somdet Toh ate his meals in a small open pavilion in front of his dwelling. If a stray dog wandered past, he would toss a little food to the dog — which meant that, over time, a whole pack of dogs would regularly come to sit around him at his meal time, waiting for food. This meant that if any high-ranking lay people wanted to come pay their respects and chat with him while he was eating, they'd have to bow down to the dogs as well. As a result, only the people who weren't too proud to bow down to the dogs got to talk to him during his mealtime.

Another story concerns a wealthy layman who wanted to invite Somdet Toh to his house for a meal and a Dhamma talk. Events like this would often be fairly public, with the donor inviting many friends and relatives to participate in the meal offering and to hear the talk. So the layman sent his servant to convey the invitation to Somdet Toh, saying that he wanted Somdet Toh to give a talk on a lofty topic, the four noble truths. Now, it so happened that the servant wasn't familiar with the term, "four noble truths" — which in Thai is ariyasat. To him, it sounded like naksat, or zodiac. So he told Somdet Toh that his master wanted to hear a Dhamma talk on the zodiac. The Somdet knew that this couldn't possibly be right, but the servant's mistake amused him, and he decided to use it as an opportunity to make a Dhamma point — and have a little fun at the same time.

When the day for the talk arrived, he went to the layman's house and, after the meal, got up on the sermon seat and began the talk by saying, "Today our esteemed host has invited me to deliver a Dhamma talk on the zodiac." He then proceeded to describe the twelve houses of the zodiac in a fair amount of detail. Meanwhile, the master was staring daggers at the servant. After finishing his description of the zodiac, the Somdet then added, "But, regardless of what house of the zodiac people are born into, they are all subject to suffering." With that, he switched to the four noble truths — and probably saved the servant's job.

Another time some Christian missionaries came to visit the Somdet. One of the missionary strategies in those days was to show off their knowledge of science so as to dazzle the heathens, win their respect, and possibly win converts. With Somdet Toh so closely associated with the king, perhaps they thought that if they could convert him, the king might be converted as well. So they discussed various scientific topics with him, and finally touched on the fact that they had proof that the world was round. The Somdet, instead of being surprised, said, "I know. In fact, I can show you where the center of the world is." This surprised the missionaries, so they asked him to show them. He got up, took his staff, went out in front of his hut, and planted the staff firmly on the ground, saying, "Right here."

"But how could that be?" they asked him.

He answered, "If the world is round, it's a sphere, right? And any point on the surface of the sphere is as central as any other point on the surface."

After that, the missionaries left him alone.

On the final day of the Rains retreat in 1868, Rama IV passed away. His eldest son, Prince Chulalongkorn, who was now Rama V, was only fifteen years old. As a result, the running of the government was placed in the hands of a Regent — Chao Phraya Sri Suriyawong (Chuang Bunnag) — who was to hold this office until Rama V reached maturity. (In a later reminiscence, Rama V stated that during this period he lived in constant fear of being assassinated.) Shortly after the Regency was instituted, Somdet Toh — who was now 80 — appeared at the Regent's palace in the middle of a sunny day, carrying a lit torch that he held aloft with one hand, and a long, narrow palm-leaf Dhamma text that he carried at a backward-sloping angle under his other arm. After he had walked through the palace halls in this way, word reached the Regent. The Regent respectfully approached Somdet Toh and asked him to take a seat, after which he assured him that he understood the Somdet's message: He would not allow his deliberations to be overcome with the darkness of defilement, and he would hold to the Dhamma as a rudder while steering the ship of state.

Four years later Somdet Toh passed away.


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Monday, February 15, 2010

Jhana Not by the Numbers

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
© 2005–2010

When I first went to study with my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, he handed me a small booklet of meditation instructions and sent me up the hill behind the monastery to meditate. The booklet — written by his teacher, Ajaan Lee — began with a breath meditation technique and concluded with a section showing how the technique was used to induce the first four levels of jhana.

In the following years, I saw Ajaan Fuang hand the same booklet to each of his new students, lay and ordained. Yet despite the booklet's detailed descriptions of jhana, he himself rarely mentioned the word jhana in his conversations, and never indicated to any of his students that they had reached a particular level of jhana in their practice. When a student told him of a recurring meditative experience, he liked to discuss not what it was, but what to do with it: what to focus on, what to drop, what to change, what to maintain the same. Then he'd teach the student how to experiment with it — to make it even more stable and restful — and how to judge the results of the experiments. If his students wanted to measure their progress against the descriptions of jhana in the booklet, that was their business and none of his. He never said this in so many words, but given the way he taught, the implicit message was clear.

As were the implicit reasons for his attitude. He had told me once about his own experiences as a young meditator: "Back in those days you didn't have books explaining everything the way we do now. When I first studied with Ajaan Lee, he told me to bring my mind down. So I focused on getting it down, down, down, but the more I brought it down, the heavily and duller it got. I thought, 'This can't be right.' So I turned around and focused on bringing it up, up, up, until I found a balance and could figure out what he was talking about." This incident was one of many that taught him some important lessons: that you have to test things for yourself, to see where the instructions had to be taken literally and where they had to be taken figuratively; that you had to judge for yourself how well you were doing; and that you had to be ingenious, experimenting and taking risks to find to ways to deal with problems as they arose.

So as a teacher, he tried to instill in his students these qualities of self-reliance, ingenuity, and a willingness to take risks and test things for themselves. He did that not only by talking about these qualities, but also by forcing you into situations where you'd have to develop them. Had he always been there to confirm for you that, "Yes, you've reached the third jhana," or, "No, that's only the second jhana," he would have short-circuited the qualities he was trying to instill. He, rather than your own powers of observation, would have been the authority on what was going on in your mind; and you would have been absolved of any responsibility for correctly evaluating what you had experienced. At the same time, he would have been feeding your childish desire to please or impress him, and undermining your ability to deal with the task at hand, which was how to develop your own powers of sensitivity to put an end to suffering and stress. As he once told me, "If I have to explain everything, you'll get used to having things handed to you on a platter. And then what will you do when problems come up in your meditation and you don't have any experience in figuring things out on your own?"

So, studying with him, I had to learn to take risks in the midst of uncertainties. If something interesting came up in the practice, I'd have to stick with it, observing it over time, before reaching any conclusions about it. Even then, I learned, the labels I applied to my experiences couldn't be chiseled in rock. They had to be more like post-it notes: convenient markers for my own reference that I might have to peel off and stick elsewhere as I became more familiar with the territory of my mind. This proved to be a valuable lesson that applied to all areas of my practice.

Still, Ajaan Fuang didn't leave me to reinvent the dharma wheel totally on my own. Experience had shown him that some approaches to concentration worked better than others for putting the mind in a position where it could exercise its ingenuity and accurately judge the results of its experiments, and he was very explicit in recommending those approaches. Among the points he emphasized were these:

Strong concentration is absolutely necessary for liberating insight. "Without a firm basis in concentration," he often said, "insight is just concepts." To see clearly the connections between stress and its causes, the mind has to be very steady and still. And to stay still, it requires the strong sense of well being that only strong concentration can provide.

To gain insight into a state of concentration, you have to stick with it for a long time. If you push impatiently from one level of concentration to the next, or if you try to analyze a new state of concentration too quickly after you've attained it, you never give it the chance to show its full potential and you don't give yourself the chance to familiarize yourself with it. So you have to keep working at it as a skill, something you can tap into in all situations. This enables you to see it from a variety of perspectives and to test it over time, to see if it really is as totally blissful, empty, and effortless as it may have seemed on first sight.

The best state of concentration for the sake of developing all-around insight is one that encompasses a whole-body awareness. There were two exceptions to Ajaan Fuang's usual practice of not identifying the state you had attained in your practice, and both involved states of wrong concentration. The first was the state that comes when the breath gets so comfortable that your focus drifts from the breath to the sense of comfort itself, your mindfulness begins to blur, and your sense of the body and your surroundings gets lost in a pleasant haze. When you emerge, you find it hard to identify where exactly you were focused. Ajaan Fuang called this moha-samadhi, or delusion-concentration.

The second state was one I happened to hit one night when my concentration was extremely one-pointed, and so refined that it refused settle on or label even the most fleeting mental objects. I dropped into a state in which I lost all sense of the body, of any internal/external sounds, or of any thoughts or perceptions at all — although there was just enough tiny awareness to let me know, when I emerged, that I hadn't been asleep. I found that I could stay there for many hours, and yet time would pass very quickly. Two hours would seem like two minutes. I could also "program" myself to come out at a particular time.

After hitting this state several nights in a row, I told Ajaan Fuang about it, and his first question was, "Do you like it?" My answer was "No," because I felt a little groggy the first time I came out. "Good," he said. "As long as you don't like it, you're safe. Some people really like it and think it's nibbana or cessation. Actually, it's the state of non-perception (asaññi-bhava). It's not even right concentration, because there's no way you can investigate anything in there to gain any sort of discernment. But it does have other uses." He then told me of the time he had undergone kidney surgery and, not trusting the anesthesiologist, had put himself in that state for the duration of the operation.

In both these states of wrong concentration, the limited range of awareness was what made them wrong. If whole areas of your awareness are blocked off, how can you gain all-around insight? And as I've noticed in years since, people adept at blotting out large areas of awareness through powerful one-pointedness also tend to be psychologically adept at dissociation and denial. This is why Ajaan Fuang, following Ajaan Lee, taught a form of breath meditation that aimed at an all-around awareness of the breath energy throughout the body, playing with it to gain a sense of ease, and then calming it so that it wouldn't interfere with a clear vision of the subtle movements of the mind. This all-around awareness helped to eliminate the blind spots where ignorance likes to lurk.

An ideal state of concentration for giving rise to insight is one that you can analyze in terms of stress and the absence of stress even while you're in it. Once your mind was firmly established in a state of concentration, Ajaan Fuang would recommend "lifting" it from its object, but not so far that the concentration was destroyed. From that perspective, you could evaluate what levels of stress were still present in the concentration and let them go. In the initial stages, this usually involved evaluating how you were relating to the breath, and detecting more subtle levels of breath energy in the body that would provide a basis for deeper levels of stillness. Once the breath was perfectly still, and the sense of the body started dissolving into a formless mist, this process would involve detecting the perceptions of "space," "knowing," "oneness," etc., that would appear in place of the body and could be peeled away like the layers of an onion in the mind. In either case, the basic pattern was the same: detecting the level of perception or mental fabrication that was causing the unnecessary stress, and dropping it for a more subtle level of perception or fabrication until there was nothing left to drop.

This was why, as long as your awareness was still and alert all-around, it didn't matter whether you were in the first or the fourteenth jhana, for the way you treated your state of concentration was always the same. By directing your attention to issues of stress and its absence, he was pointing you to terms by which to evaluate your state of mind for yourself, without having to ask any outside authority. And, as it turns out, the terms you can evaluate for yourself — stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation — are the issues that define the four noble truths: the right view that the Buddha says can lead to total liberation.

~End of Post~


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The Economy of Gifts

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
© 1997–2010

According to the Buddhist monastic code, monks and nuns are not allowed to accept money or even to engage in barter or trade with lay people. They live entirely in an economy of gifts. Lay supporters provide gifts of material requisites for the monastics, while the monastics provide their supporters with the gift of the teaching. Ideally — and to a great extent in actual practice — this is an exchange that comes from the heart, something totally voluntary. There are many stories in the texts that emphasize the point that returns in this economy — it might also be called an economy of merit — depend not on the material value of the object given, but on the purity of heart of the donor and recipient. You give what is appropriate to the occasion and to your means, when and wherever your heart feels inspired. For the monastics, this means that you teach, out of compassion, what should be taught, regardless of whether it will sell. For the laity, this means that you give what you have to spare and feel inclined to share. There is no price for the teachings, nor even a "suggested donation." Anyone who regards the act of teaching or the act of giving requisites as a repayment for a particular favor is ridiculed as mercenary. Instead, you give because giving is good for the heart and because the survival of the Dhamma as a living principle depends on daily acts of generosity.

The primary symbol of this economy is the alms bowl. If you are a monastic, it represents your dependence on others, your need to accept generosity no matter what form it takes. You may not get what you want in the bowl, but you realize that you always get what you need, even if it's a hard-earned lesson in doing without. One of my students in Thailand once went to the mountains in the northern part of the country to practice in solitude. His hillside shack was an ideal place to meditate, but he had to depend on a nearby hilltribe village for alms, and the diet was mostly plain rice with some occasional boiled vegetables. After two months on this diet, his meditation theme became the conflict in his mind over whether he should go or stay. One rainy morning, as he was on his alms round, he came to a shack just as the morning rice was ready. The wife of the house called out, asking him to wait while she got some rice from the pot. As he was waiting there in the pouring rain, he couldn't help grumbling inwardly about the fact that there would be nothing to go with the rice. It so happened that the woman had an infant son who was sitting near the kitchen fire, crying from hunger. So as she scooped some rice out of the pot, she stuck a small lump of rice in his mouth. Immediately, the boy stopped crying and began to grin. My student saw this, and it was like a light bulb turning on in his head. "Here you are, complaining about what people are giving you for free," he told himself. "You're no match for a little kid. If he can be happy with just a lump of rice, why can't you?" As a result, the lesson that came with his scoop of rice that day gave my student the strength he needed to stay on in the mountains for another three years.

For a monastic the bowl also represents the opportunity you give others to practice the Dhamma in accordance with their means. In Thailand, this is reflected in one of the idioms used to describe going for alms: proad sat, doing a favor for living beings. There were times on my alms round in rural Thailand when, as I walked past a tiny grass shack, someone would come running out to put rice in my bowl. Years earlier, as lay person, my reaction on seeing such a bare, tiny shack would have been to want to give monetary help to them. But now I was on the receiving end of their generosity. In my new position I may have been doing less for them in material terms than I could have done as a lay person, but at least I was giving them the opportunity to have the dignity that comes with being a donor.

For the donors, the monk's alms bowl becomes a symbol of the good they have done. On several occasions in Thailand people would tell me that they had dreamed of a monk standing before them, opening the lid to his bowl. The details would differ as to what the dreamer saw in the bowl, but in each case the interpretation of the dream was the same: the dreamer's merit was about to bear fruit in an especially positive way.

The alms round itself is also a gift that goes both ways. On the one hand, daily contact with lay donors reminds the monastics that their practice is not just an individual matter, but a concern of the entire community. They are indebted to others for the right and opportunity to practice, and should do their best to practice diligently as a way of repaying that debt. At the same time, the opportunity to walk through a village early in the morning, passing by the houses of the rich and poor, the happy and unhappy, gives plenty of opportunities to reflect on the human condition and the need to find a way out of the grinding cycle of death and rebirth.

For the donors, the alms round is a reminder that the monetary economy is not the only way to happiness. It helps to keep a society sane when there are monastics infiltrating the towns every morning, embodying an ethos very different from the dominant monetary economy. The gently subversive quality of this custom helps people to keep their values straight.

Above all, the economy of gifts symbolized by the alms bowl and the alms round allows for specialization, a division of labor, from which both sides benefit. Those who are willing can give up many of the privileges of home life and in return receive the free time, the basic support, and the communal training needed to devote themselves fully to Dhamma practice. Those who stay at home can benefit from having full-time Dhamma practitioners around on a daily basis. I have always found it ironic that the modern world honors specialization in almost every area — even in things like running, jumping, and throwing a ball — but not in the Dhamma, where it is denounced as "dualism," "elitism," or worse. The Buddha began the monastic order on the first day of his teaching career because he saw the benefits that come with specialization. Without it, the practice tends to become limited and diluted, negotiated into the demands of the monetary economy. The Dhamma becomes limited to what will sell and what will fit into a schedule dictated by the demands of family and job. In this sort of situation, everyone ends up poorer in things of the heart.

The fact that tangible goods run only one way in the economy of gifts means that the exchange is open to all sorts of abuses. This is why there are so many rules in the monastic code to keep the monastics from taking unfair advantage of the generosity of lay donors. There are rules against asking for donations in inappropriate circumstances, from making claims as to one's spiritual attainments, and even from covering up the good foods in one's bowl with rice, in hopes that donors will then feel inclined to provide something more substantial. Most of the rules, in fact, were instituted at the request of lay supporters or in response to their complaints. They had made their investment in the merit economy and were interested in protecting their investment. This observation applies not only to ancient India, but also to the modern-day West. On their first contact with the Sangha, most people tend to see little reason for the disciplinary rules, and regard them as quaint holdovers from ancient Indian prejudices. When, however, they come to see the rules in the context of the economy of gifts and begin to participate in that economy themselves, they also tend to become avid advocates of the rules and active protectors of "their" monastics. The arrangement may limit the freedom of the monastics in certain ways, but it means that the lay supporters take an active interest not only in what the monastic teaches, but also in how the monastic lives — a useful safeguard to make sure that teachers walk their talk. This, again, insures that the practice remains a communal concern. As the Buddha said,

Monks, householders are very helpful to you, as they provide you with the requisites of robes, almsfood, lodgings, and medicine. And you, monks, are very helpful to householders, as you teach them the Dhamma admirable in the beginning, admirable in the middle, and admirable in the end, as you expound the holy life both in its particulars and in its essence, entirely complete, surpassingly pure. In this way the holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for the purpose of crossing over the flood, for making a right end to suffering and stress.

— Iti 107

Periodically, throughout the history of Buddhism, the economy of gifts has broken down, usually when one side or the other gets fixated on the tangible side of the exchange and forgets the qualities of the heart that are its reason for being. And periodically it has been revived when people are sensitive to its rewards in terms of the living Dhamma. By its very nature, the economy of gifts is something of a hothouse creation that requires careful nurture and a sensitive discernment of its benefits. I find it amazing that such an economy has lasted for more than 2,600 years. It will never be more than an alternative to the dominant monetary economy, largely because its rewards are so intangible and require so much patience, trust, and discipline in order to be appreciated. Those who demand immediate return for specific services and goods will always require a monetary system. Sincere Buddhist lay people, however, have the chance to play an amphibious role, engaging in the monetary economy in order to maintain their livelihood, and contributing to the economy of gifts whenever they feel so inclined. In this way they can maintain direct contact with teachers, insuring the best possible instruction for their own practice, in an atmosphere where mutual compassion and concern are the medium of exchange; and purity of heart, the bottom line.


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Sunday, February 14, 2010

No Strings Attached - The Buddha's Culture of Generosity

Thanissaro Bhikkhu
© 2009–2010

“How can I ever repay you for your teaching?”

Good meditation teachers often hear this question from their students, and the best answer I know for it is one that my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, gave every time:

“By being intent on practicing.”

Each time he gave this answer, I was struck by how noble and gracious it was. And it wasn't just a formality. He never tried to find opportunities to pressure his students for donations. Even when our monastery was poor, he never acted poor, never tried to take advantage of their gratitude and trust. This was a refreshing change from some of my previous experiences with run-of-the-mill village and city monks who were quick to drop hints about their need for donations from even stray or casual visitors.

Eventually I learned that Ajaan Fuang's behavior is common throughout the Forest Tradition. It's based on a passage in the Pali Canon where the Buddha on his deathbed states that the highest homage to him is not material homage, but the homage of practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. In other words, the best way to repay a teacher is to take the Dhamma to heart and to practice it in a way that fulfills his or her compassionate purpose in teaching it. I was proud to be part of a tradition where the inner wealth of this noble idea was actually lived — where, as Ajaan Fuang often put it, we weren't reduced to hirelings, and the act of teaching the Dhamma was purely a gift.

So I was saddened when, on my return to America, I had my first encounters with the dana talk: the talk on giving and generosity that often comes at the end of a retreat. The context of the talk — and often the content — makes clear that it's not a disinterested exercise. It's aimed at generating gifts for the teacher or the organization sponsoring the retreat, and it places the burden of responsibility on the retreatants to ensure that future retreats can occur. The language of the talk is often smooth and encouraging, but when contrasted with Ajaan Fuang's answer, I found the sheer fact of the talk ill-mannered and demeaning. If the organizers and teachers really trusted the retreatants' good-heartedness, they wouldn't be giving the talk at all. To make matters worse, the typical dana talk — along with its companion, the meditation-center fundraising letter — often cites the example of how monks and nuns are supported in Asia as justification for how dana is treated here in the West. But they're taking as their example the worst of the monks, and not the best.

I understand the reasoning behind the talk. Lay teachers here aspire to the ideal of teaching for free, but they still need to eat. And, unlike the monastics of Asia, they don't have a long-standing tradition of dana to fall back on. So the dana talk was devised as a means for establishing a culture of dana in a Western context. But as so often is the case when new customs are devised for Western Buddhism, the question is whether the dana talk skillfully translates Buddhist principles into the Western context or seriously distorts them. The best way to answer this question is to take a close look at those principles in their original context.

It's well known that dana lies at the beginning of Buddhist practice. Dana, quite literally, has kept the Dhamma alive. If it weren't for the Indian tradition of giving to mendicants, the Buddha would never have had the opportunity to explore and find the path to Awakening. The monastic sangha wouldn't have had the time and opportunity to follow his way. Dana is the first teaching in the graduated discourse: the list of topics the Buddha used to lead listeners step-by-step to an appreciation of the four noble truths, and often from there to their own first taste of Awakening. When stating the basic principles of karma, he would begin with the statement, “There is what is given.”

What's less well known is that in making this statement, the Buddha was not dealing in obvious truths or generic platitudes, for the topic of giving was actually controversial in his time. For centuries, the brahmans of India had been extolling the virtue of giving — as long as the gifts were given to them. Not only that, gifts to brahmans were obligatory. People of other castes, if they didn't concede to the brahmans' demands for gifts, were neglecting their most essential social duty. By ignoring their duties in the present life, such people and their relatives would suffer hardship both now and after death.

As might be expected, this attitude produced a backlash. Several of the samana, or contemplative, movements of the Buddha's time countered the brahmans' claims by asserting that there was no virtue in giving at all. Their arguments fell into two camps. One camp claimed that giving carried no virtue because there was no afterlife. A person was nothing more than physical elements that, at death, returned to their respective spheres. That was it. Giving thus provided no long-term results. The other camp stated that there was no such thing as giving, for everything in the universe has been determined by fate. If a donor gives something to another person, it's not really a gift, for the donor has no choice or free will in the matter. Fate was simply working itself out.

So when the Buddha, in his introduction to the teaching on karma, began by saying that there is what is given, he was repudiating both camps. Giving does give results both now and on into the future, and it is the result of the donor's free choice. However, in contrast to the brahmans, the Buddha took the principle of freedom one step further. When asked where a gift should be given, he stated simply, “Wherever the mind feels inspired.” In other words — aside from repaying one's debt to one's parents — there is no obligation to give. This means that the choice to give is an act of true freedom, and thus the perfect place to start the path to total release.

This is why the Buddha adopted dana as the context for practicing and teaching the Dhamma. But — to maintain the twin principles of freedom and fruitfulness in giving — he created a culture of dana that embodied particularly Buddhist ideals. To begin with, he defined dana not simply as material gifts. The practice of the precepts, he said, was also a type of dana — the gift of universal safety, protecting all beings from the harm of one's unskillful actions — as was the act of teaching the Dhamma. This meant that lavish giving was not just the prerogative of the rich. Secondly, he formulated a code of conduct to produce an attitude toward giving that would benefit both the donors and the recipients, keeping the practice of giving both fruitful and free.

We tend not to associate codes of conduct with the word “freedom,” but that's because we forget that freedom, too, needs protection, especially from the attitude that wants to be free in its choices but feels insecure when others are free in theirs. The Buddha's codes of conduct are voluntary — he never coerced anyone into practicing his teachings — but once they are adopted, they require the cooperation of both sides to keep them effective and strong.

These codes are best understood in terms of the six factors that the Buddha said exemplified the ideal gift:

“The donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is inspired; and after giving, is gratified. These are the three factors of the donor…

“The recipients are free of passion or are practicing for the subduing of passion; free of aversion or practicing for the subduing of aversion; and free of delusion or practicing for the subduing of delusion. These are the three factors of the recipients.”

— AN 6.37

Although this passage seems to suggest that each side is responsible only for the factors on its side, the Buddha's larger etiquette for generosity shows that the responsibility for all six factors — and in particular, the three factors of the donor — is shared. And this shared responsibility flourishes best in an atmosphere of mutual trust.

For the donors, this means that if they want to feel glad, inspired, and gratified at their gift, they should not see the gift as payment for personal services rendered by individual monks or nuns. That would turn the gift into wages, and deprive it of its emotional power. Instead, they'd be wise to look for trustworthy recipients: people who are training — or have trained — their minds to be cleaned and undefiled. They should also give their gift in a respectful way so that the act of giving will reinforce the gladness that inspired it, and will inspire the recipient to value their gift.

The responsibilities of the recipients, however, are even more stringent. To ensure that the donor feels glad before giving, monks and nuns are forbidden from pressuring the donor in any way. Except when ill or in situations where the donor has invited them to ask, they cannot ask for anything beyond the barest emergency necessities. They are not even allowed to give hints about what they'd like to receive. When asked where a prospective gift should be given, they are told to follow the Buddha's example and say, “Give wherever your gift would be used, or would be well-cared for, or would last long, or wherever your mind feels inspired.” This conveys a sense of trust in the donor's discernment — which in itself is a gift that gladdens the donor's mind.

To ensure that a donor feels inspired while giving a gift, the monks and nuns are enjoined to receive gifts attentively and with an attitude of respect. To ensure that the donor feels gratified afterward, they should live frugally, care for the gift, and make sure it is used in an appropriate way. In other words, they should show that the donor's trust in them is well placed. And of course they must work on subduing their greed, anger, and delusion. In fact, this is a primary motivation for trying to attain arahantship: so that the gifts given to one will bear the donors great fruit.

By sharing these responsibilities in an atmosphere of trust, both sides protect the freedom of the donor. They also foster the conditions that will enable not only the practice of generosity but also the entire practice of Dhamma to flourish and grow.

The principles of freedom and fruitfulness also govern the code the Buddha formulated specifically for protecting the gift of Dhamma. Here again, the responsibilities are shared. To ensure that the teacher is glad, inspired, and gratified in teaching, the listeners are advised to listen with respect, to try to understand the teaching, and — once they're convinced that it's genuinely wise — to sincerely put it into practice so as to gain the desired results. Like a monk or nun receiving a material gift, the recipient of the gift of Dhamma has the simple responsibility of treating the gift well.

The teacher, meanwhile, must make sure not to regard the act of teaching as a repayment of a debt. After all, monks and nuns repay their debt to their lay donors by trying to rid their minds of greed, aversion, and delusion. They are in no way obligated to teach, which means that the act of teaching is a gift free and clear. In addition, the Buddha insisted that the Dhamma be taught without expectation of material reward. When he was once offered a “teacher's fee” for his teaching, he refused to accept it and told the donor to throw it away. He also established the precedent that when a monastic teaches the rewards of generosity, the teaching is given after a gift has been given, not before, so that the stain of hinting won't sully what's said.

All of these principles assume a high level of nobility and restraint on both sides of the equation, which is why people tried to find ways around them even while the Buddha was alive. The origin stories to the monastic discipline — the tales portraying the misbehavior that led the Buddha to formulate rules for the monks and nuns — often tell of monastics whose gift of Dhamma came with strings attached, and of lay people who gladly pulled those strings to get what they wanted out of the monastics: personal favors served with an ingratiating smile. The Buddha's steady persistence in formulating rules to cut these strings shows how determined he was that the principle of Dhamma as a genuinely free gift not be an idle ideal. He wanted it to influence the way people actually behaved.

He never gave an extended explanation of why the act of teaching should always be a gift, but he did state in general terms that when his code of conduct became corrupt over time, that would corrupt the Dhamma as well. And in the case of the etiquette of generosity, this principle has been borne out frequently throughout Buddhist history.

A primary example is recorded in the Apadanas, which scholars believe were added to the Canon after King Asoka's time. The Apadanas discuss the rewards of giving in a way that shows how eager the monks composing them were to receive lavish gifts. They promise that even a small gift will bear fruit as guaranteed arahantship many eons in the future, and that the path from now to then will always be filled with pleasure and prestige. Attainments of special distinction, though, require special donations. Some of these donations bear a symbolic resemblance to the desired distinction — a gift of lighted lamps, for instance, presages clairvoyance — but the preferred gift of distinction was a week's worth of lavish meals for an entire monastery, or at least for the monks who teach.

It's obvious that the monks who composed the Apadanas were giving free rein to their greed, and were eager to tell their listeners what their listeners wanted to hear. The fact that these texts were recorded for posterity shows that the listeners, in fact, were pleased. Thus the teachers and their students, acting in collusion, skewed the culture of dana in the direction of their defilements. In so doing they distorted the Dhamma as well. If gift-giving guarantees Awakening, it supplants the noble eightfold path with the one-fold path of the gift. If the road to Awakening is always prestigious and joyful, the concept of right effort disappears. Yet once these ideas were introduced into the Buddhist tradition, they gained the stamp of authority and have affected Buddhist practice ever since. Throughout Buddhist Asia, people tend to give gifts with an eye to their symbolic promise of future reward; and the list of gifts extolled in the Apadanas reads like a catalog of the gifts placed on altars throughout Buddhist Asia even today.

Which goes to show that once the culture of dana gets distorted, it can distort the practice of Dhamma as a whole for many centuries. So if we're serious about bringing the culture of dana to the West, we should be very careful to ensure that our efforts honor the principles that make dana a genuinely Buddhist practice. This means no longer using the tactics of modern fundraising to encourage generosity among retreatants or Buddhists in general. It also means rethinking the dana talk, for on many counts it fails the test. In pressuring retreatants to give to teachers, it doesn't lead to gladness before giving, and instead sounds like a plea for a tip at the end of a meal. The frequent efforts to pull on the retreatants' heartstrings as a path to their purse strings betray a lack of trust in their thoughtfulness and leave a bad taste. And the entire way dana is handled for teachers doesn't escape the fact that it's payment for services rendered. Whether teachers think about this consciously or not, it pressures them subtly to tell their listeners what they think their listeners want to hear. The Dhamma can't help but suffer as a result.

The ideal solution would be to provide a framework whereby serious Dhamma practitioners could be supported whether or not they taught. That way, the act of teaching would be a genuine gift. In the meantime, though, a step in the direction of a genuine culture of dana would be to declare a moratorium on all dana talks at the end of retreats, and on references to the Buddhist tradition of dana in fundraising appeals, so as to give the word time to recover its dignity.

On retreats, dana could be discussed in a general way, in the context of the many Dhamma talks given on how best to integrate Dhamma practice in daily life. At the end of the retreat, a basket could be left out for donations, with a note that the teacher hasn't been paid to teach the retreat. That's all. No appeals for mercy. No flashcards. Sensitive retreatants will be able to put two and two together, and will feel glad, inspired, and gratified that they were trusted to do the math for themselves.


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