Portland Friends of the Dhamma Grand Opening

IMG_2575This weekend, I had the good fortune to be able to attend the grand opening of the new Portland Friends of the Dhamma centre, which recently relocated into the former zendo of Dharma Rain Zen Center. A number of prominent monks from the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah came for the ceremony, including Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Viradhammo, and Ajahn Sona. It was like the Buddhist equivalent of hanging out with a bunch of old school rock legends. Sort of.

IMG_2563Friday night, the weekly mediation and Dhamma talk was led by Ajahn Viradhammo, one of Ajahn Chah’s early Western students and current abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Canada. Saturday, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah’s first Western student and former abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England, led a day-long of meditation and Dhamma reflections. And Sunday, Ajahn Pasanno, abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California and the second-most senior Western student of Ajahn Chah, led the grand opening ceremony, which consisted of chanting, some reflections by Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Sona, Sakula, and other members of the community, and a Thai-style water blessing.

IMG_2564Not only was it great to sit with and listen to the reflections of monks who have been practicing longer than I’ve been alive, but it was great to see how the PFoD community has grown over the years and for them to finally have a permanent home. A lot of people worked very hard, and gave generously of their time and financial resources, to make this grand opening a reality. When the building they were previously in was sold, and they had trouble finding another suitable (and affordable) location, there was some worry that the group might have to disband. But thanks to all that generosity and hard work (and maybe a bit of luck too), PFoD still has a spiritual home in Portland.

IMG_2538The entire experience was extremely auspicious, and I know it meant a lot to the whole community to have so many venerable monastics present, including Ajahn Sumedho. I know it definitely meant a lot to me. I think it’s safe to say the weekend was a success, and PFoD’s new home will continue to act as both a ‘landing pad’ for visiting monks and nuns and a place of training for the lay-community, being a welcoming sanctuary for anyone interested in trying to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice.

Being a Buddhist doesn’t mean renouncing social engagement.

Surprisingly, a large number of the Buddhists I’ve spoken with in past few years take the position that engaging in ‘worldly’ issues is something that we, as Buddhists, should seek to renounce. Samsara is imperfect and it can’t be fixed, so why bother? Part of the reasoning for this is the Buddha’s discouragement of monks and nuns from discussing certain unsuitable or ‘bestial’ topics: i.e., “conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not” (AN 10.69).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upasika Day in White Salmon

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

Photo2041The next morning was covered in a blanket of mist, the setting moon peeking through on its way towards the horizon, and I found myself looking forward to the coming day. Scott and Joan from Portland Friends of the Dhamma were kind enough to pick me up on the way from their home in Lake Oswego to the hermitage, and the three of us set out into the October fog a little before 9am. We talked a bit on the way, and by the time we got close to the hermitage, the mist had cleared revealing a perfect fall day, brisk yet sunny, the colours of autumn painting the Columbia Gorge with a vibrant spectrum of green, yellow, orange, and bright red.

Photo2047We arrived at the hermitage just after 10am, which is nestled in a beautifully forested and relatively secluded area along the Jewlett Creek. We unloaded the food we brought for the meal offering and then offered to help with anything that needed to be done around the hermitage. A few people, including a couple of the monks, spent the next hour raking leaves, while I was conscripted to mow a portion of the grounds since the Vinaya, the monastic rules of discipline, doesn’t allow monks to damage or destroy plants (although it’s technically only a minor offense entailing a confession to another monk). Afterwards, we gathered in the hermitage to cleanup and offer the daily meal. I ate my meal outside with Charla and Alistair (also from PFoD) and a family of quails.

Photo2060Once the meal was over and everything was cleared away, we migrated to Yoga Samadhi in downtown White Salmon for the half-day retreat. I took the opportunity to walk from the hermitage to Yoga Samadhi with Alistair along the same path through the woods that the monks take on their alms round, and as we walked, he showed me some points of interest (like the monk’s kutis and adjoining walking paths and the two rock formations that one of the monks humourously named Moggallana and Sariputta) and told me a bit about the land and the hermitage’s history. We arrived at Yoga Samadhi a little after 1pm, just in time for the formal requesting of the precepts and morning chanting.

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

Upasika Renewal Trip

Photo0963Our caravan to Abhayagiri for the Upasika Renewal Day left around 4:45am Friday morning, a motley crew from all over the Pacific Northwest gathered together for this special occasion. Irv, the driver of our car, for example, was from Pullman, Washington, and had driven to Portland the day before. We all met at the old Portland Friends of the Dhamma hall, organized our luggage and seating arrangements, and began the twelve hour journey to Abhayagiri before the sun started its own daily migration across the sky.

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The Buddhist video game breaks conventions

The Buddhist video game

In nearly all aspects of our lives, we are taught that success comes through a linear progression. You “level up” in life, career, relationships, physical condition, and in many other ways. This is reinforced through entertainment such as video games, novels, and movies, where someone starts off “weak” and gets stronger as time progresses, challenges are overcome, and goals accomplished. In many cases, there is a final “enemy” to vanquish; an anti-hero.

A recent project from NYU students Bona Kim and James Borda is a video game called “The Buddhist“, and it seeks to challenge the very concept of linear progression by presenting the idea of non-attachment in a medium that is traditionally very linear.

Through “The Buddhist” we hope our audience gains some awakening. By confronting them with a “game” in which any attempt to control the story results in failure, we hope our audience will be brought into the present moment – to enjoy the here and now, free of the anxious search for happiness in some other place and time.

The game was available to play at the ITP Winter Show, NYU’s annual showing of its Interactive Telecommunications Program student projects.

The goal of the game is to observe, reflect, and be in the present moment. Any attempt to control the on-screen character or cause something to happen other than what is currently being displayed on the screen results in “game over”. As you succeed in doing nothing, the on-screen character will go to different environments to meditate. The scenery is pleasing to observe and this is the goal; to observe and enjoy.

Even though it seems silly, it’s a concept that can cause insightful thinking; why do we need to control this character? What kind of feedback are we hoping for by pushing levers and buttons? How is this somehow more appealing than sitting back, observing, and reflecting?

It’s a fascinating art project, and one that causes us to think—by any measure, that’s a success.

A Buddhist Thanksgiving

This year, I spent part of the day at Miao Fa Chan Temple, where they had a vegetarian Thanksgiving lunch. No turkey, but plenty of hot pots, pumpkin pie, and metta. Everyone who came pitched in, bringing and/or cooking food, setting up the eating area, taking out the garbage, washing dishes, and even cleaning toilets. It was definitely a nice way to spend Thanksgiving. Even though I hardly knew anyone there, I felt as if I were among old friends.

After the meal, Ajahn Fa Thai made a huge pot of soup to take down to one of the local homeless shelters for all the people who have nowhere to go and nobody to spend the day with. That simple gesture really touched me for some reason, maybe because so few of us would think to do something like that, being so caught up in our own, cloistered lives (myself included). Sometimes it’s the simplest acts of kindness that can inspire the deepest reverence.

My 3-day vipassana retreat experience at Wat Atam

I spent this past weekend at Wat Atammayantaram (Wat Atam for short) in Woodinville, WA, for a meditation retreat that was led by Ajahn Sudanto from the Pacific Hermitage (a branch monastery of Abhayagiri) in White Salmon, WA. While short relatively as far as retreats go, it was exactly what I needed. It’s been a few years since I’ve attended a meditation retreat at a Thai Buddhist monastery, and I forgot how much I enjoy spending time at monasteries and emulating the monastic life, even if for just a few days.

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Best defense? Don’t be there

“What’s the best defense? Don’t be there.” It’s a mantra my martial arts teacher repeats frequently. We practice side steps combined with soft blocks over and over until the movements are reflexive. When someone kicks or punches, you have three options: get hit (OUCH), use a hard block (bam!), or get out of the way. You use the hard block when you’re too slow to move. You get hit when you’re too slow to throw a hard block.

Life’s the same way. Maybe they’re not punching you, but you get attacked a lot. Maybe it’s an abusive comment. Maybe it’s a bold lie, or just someone being disingenuous. Maybe it’s an attack on a relationship, your career, or your identity. You get to choose how you respond.

When you’re mindful and in control of yourself, you can move out of the way. Then you can decide how best to respond to defuse the attack. If you don’t have the habit of moving established, maybe you deflect it with sarcasm (a verbal “hard block”). If you don’t move at all, you get hit with the full weight of it and it cripples you.

It’s like this every time you respond to (or moderate!) a discussion or blog post, too. How you move in response to the energy will define everything about your interaction with a community. Do you have the reflex established to move, or does every blow land, making you angry? Every time you’re attacked is a new opportunity to change your habits.

New community tools for NewBuddhist

If you’re a NewBuddhist regular, you may have noticed some big layout changes today. This is part of our overall update to make NewBuddhist more engaging, more fun, and more welcoming to new members.

NewBuddhist badgesA few weeks ago we silently rolled out Badges. Badges are a way to show off your level of participation in your user profile.

The theory goes like this: The more you participate in the community, the more ultimately rewarding it is for you and for the rest of the community. Badges are a great way to give community members a “roadmap” of how to best participate in this community. If there’s a badge for something, chances are you’re going to find it a rewarding experience to earn it. We will have badges for things like sharing your photography, being helpful, and introducing yourself. Continue reading

RV Living – A step toward a minimalist lifestyle

Finding Buddha on the roadRVs should truly get some thought, if you want to take steps to minimizing your attachments to superficial and material things—and to some degree, people—especially if you want, but aren’t quite ready, to sell the homestead and go camp on a beach with a knapsack on a stick.
While writing this I am attempting to stay focused on the things I anticipate will be helpful in assisting me and my son in learning and practicing Buddhism. There is much more to living in an RV than just simply getting one and driving off to the nearest mountain to forever live a peaceful, lackadaisical, carefree life, however. Think of it more as a large step in that direction. Disclaimer: I do not currently nor have I ever lived in an RV, but I have spent a couple of months now researching the idea. I see many aspects that could coincide with what I know about Buddhism. Continue reading

Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the art of perfecting your craft

Jiro Dreams of Sushi reviewI don’t know if Jiro Ono is a Buddhist. I don’t know if Jiro is really even a very nice person. What I do know, after watching a movie about him, is that Jiro has attained a level of skill in his craft that most humans only dream of.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about a man and his sushi restaurant in Tokyo, Japan. Jiro, at the time of filming, was 85 years old. Every day except Sunday, he gets up and goes into work at Sukiyabashi Jiro. There, along with his son Yoshikazu and a handful of apprentices, he serves up what many consider the best sushi on the entire planet.

Sukiyabashi Jiro is in a subway station. It’s a tiny, 10-seat restaurant. It costs an exorbitant amount of money to eat there. There is no menu. There are no appetizers. You put your name on a waiting list that exceeds a month, you pay almost $400, and you eat what Jiro puts in front of you while he watches—and only then will you experience the highest state of sushi ever created.

Much of the film focuses on Jiro and his relentless pursuit of perfection. Every single piece of sushi he serves up is an attempt to make it better than the last. You can see, then, that being an apprentice under a man who is never satisfied would probably be extremely challenging.

Throughout the film, we see Jiro standing, sternly glaring at his apprentices, his son, or his customers (he watches his customers eat, which many find off-putting). He appears lost in contemplation; studying his customer’s faces as they eat, watching the body language of his apprentices, making sure his son is doing everything correctly. He is absolutely, at all times, focused on one thing and one thing only: the sushi.

There are lessons to be learned from Jiro. Finding a craft that you’re passionate about and then uncompromisingly pursuing it is admirable. Is sushi important? It doesn’t matter. Does Jiro’s obsession with perfection affect his personal relationships? It doesn’t matter. Is Jiro loved? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It doesn’t seem to matter.

Despite the titular character and the focus on Jiro, however, the movie seems to be more about his son, Yoshikazu. Here is a man who is in his 50s, and for his entire life he has been working under his father’s strict and uncompromising control. He didn’t go to college. No wife or children were mentioned. We see a long scene in which Yoshikazu is talking to the filmmakers as he methodically roasts sheets of nori, the seaweed used to wrap sushi rolls. During the entire scene, he talks about doing the same thing over and over again, about learning something so thoroughly that it becomes your nature, and about finding peace with this type of lifestyle. During the entire monologue, the camera is focused on Yoshikazu’s hands. He never loses a beat, he never falters—it’s as if he is a robot, perfectly programmed for this one simple task.

Yoshikazu seems extremely happy in his life. He goes to the market, he forges friendships with fish and rice experts, and yet he proudly boasts of his father’s work, of his father’s awards, of his father’s achievements.

Jiro admits to being a rather bad father. Throughout his sons’ childhood, he was not present, since he was always at the restaurant. He does show moments of tenderness, though, even as he claims he is extra strict with Yoshikazu and his other son Takashi. Takashi opted to move out of his father’s business and open his own sushi restaurant (with his father’s blessing). However, when Takashi moved out, Jiro told him “You have no home to return to.” In this way, Jiro was making sure Takashi understood that he absolutely had to succeed. Failure was not an option.

Yoshikazu says, throughout the film, that he will never be as good as his father. A prominent food reviewer says, “Yoshikazu could be twice as good as his father and only then will they say he is as good as Jiro. He won’t have it easy.”

Yoshikazu and the apprentices (the ones that make it for more than a day or two, anyway) are paragons of patience and dedication. There is a scene in which one of the apprentices talks about spending four years working on perfecting tamagoyaki (egg sushi). Every day, for four years, he would make tamagoyaki and have Jiro tell him what was wrong with it, how bad it was, and to do it again. Finally, one day, Jiro tasted the tamagoyaki, said, “It’s good. That’s how it should be done.”

The apprentice broke down in tears. He had achieved a small bit of enlightenment.

One glaring omission from this film is any mention at all of Takashi and Yoshikazu’s mother—presumably Jiro’s wife. Jiro does talk about his parents and childhood a bit (it was bleak), but he never mentions anything about his love life. It’s as if Takashi and Yoshikazu were hatched from eggs and specifically groomed for sushi. They may as well have been born in the restaurant.

This movie makes you think about what you do. It makes you want to buckle down and practice your craft. It’s a shining example of what passion and focus can achieve, but there are also lessons about life and love to be had.

Perhaps only through this level of determination and mindfulness can perfection be achieved. Jiro is a man who was ready and willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to achieve perfection. Whether you like him or not is irrelevant. Perhaps that’s what we’re meant to take from this.

Sacred Mountain Monastery in Warren, Michigan

A  few years ago, I was as shocked as anybody when a Vietnamese sangha bought an old Salvation Army building and turned it into a Buddhist Monastery in extremely blue-collar Warren, Michigan. Warren is a factory town, known mostly for automotive plants and high-tech manufacturing and engineering. It’s a very, well… “white” town. The area where this monastery went up is in south Warren, which is a working-class area with liquor stores, check cashing shops, and a few bars. It was like a bloom of flowers in the desert, both literally and figuratively (they planted colorful flowers everywhere, and if you know Vietnamese Buddhists, you know they love their flowers!)

Here’s a picture of the statue in front of the chùa (temple):

Chùa Linh Son temple in Warren, Michigan

Right Speech is difficult, but so necessary

For the last year, my intention has been to focus on a specific spoke in the wheel of the eightfold path—Right Speech. Almost immediately after I set this intention, I experienced big challenges and big failures. The lessons learned were painful but utterly necessary to truly take Right Speech to another level. Through the process it has been easy to see how the spokes are related to one another—Right Intention and Right Speech are intertwined at every level.
Dhamma Wheel

My first lesson came in the form of a deep intuition of a long friendship. It was clear to me that the stories some friends had of me were not how I saw myself or my current story. I felt this disconnected undercurrent as I struggled in my new and stronger self, one that left any trace of victim aside. The new self was one that others could not recognize, and one that showed significant growing pains through repeated mistakes. Continue reading

Tolerant Christians. They do exist.

First Christian Church of OrangeA few years back I got invited to a wedding in California. A very good friend of mine was marrying his love—who just so happened to be a pastor at a Christian Church.

I went to their wedding, which was small, touching, and beautiful. While I was there I met some of their friends and I learned a lot about their church—the First Christian Church of Orange.

One thing that struck me immediately was that Olivia, the bride, went out of her way to make sure that she respected and understood my Buddhist beliefs, and wanted to make sure that I was comfortable at her Christian wedding—something no Christian in my experience had ever done for me. I was quick to ensure my friend and his bride-to-be that there wouldn’t be any issues. I was totally awestruck at the fact that they even considered my feelings in the matter. It was very humbling and a striking turn of tables, as generally Buddhists in America have to make sure to explain or apologize to their Christian friends and ensure their comfort in awkward situations like weddings and funerals.

I tell you that anecdote to set the stage for the kind of church that Olivia presides over. Over the time I spent in Orange with the newlyweds, I came to have a great deal of respect for their church. They were openly tolerant of everyone, regardless of race, background, and (most strikingly) sexual orientation. They had many openly gay congregants.

The church doesn’t just pay lip service to being “open”, either. In getting to know my friend’s new wife, she used her convictions and biblical knowledge to explain exactly why her church believes that Jesus Christ was, above all else, a tolerant and loving man. Their mission was only to share Christ’s love of everyone.

One of the friends I met while in Orange was Michelle. She is also a member of the church. She writes a blog about being a single Christian mom and today’s post, on Valentine’s Day, really struck me as capturing the spirit of the church.

The post is called “Be Loud in Love“. Reading it brought me back to my trip to Orange and was a refreshing reminder, in a world that is filled with news of hatred, violence, and intolerance, there are indeed loving and kind Christians out there. This particular passage struck me:

There are some Christians who “love the sinner, hate the sin.” This seems to me like a backhanded insult, that the Christian does not love the whole person, but instead they love who they, the Christian, want the ”sinner” to be. You can’t only love someone’s potential, you have to love their reality, too. That’s like saying “I love the thin person inside of you.” This idea is not love, it is simply tolerance.

I know a lot of Buddhists have, if not outright hostility, a general distaste for Christianity—in a pushy Christian society like America, it’s not hard to see why. Just try to remember our own philosophy of loving kindness and let’s try to practice a little tolerance of our own.

Must be the full moon

I’m not exactly sure what has crawled up everyone’s ass lately, but I’ll say this:

NewBuddhist is a light-hearted community. We laugh. We don’t take things too seriously. We are here for people who are reaching out to Buddhism to answer some question or fill some gap in their lives. We have compassion for those who are new to Buddhism. We are not jerks.

If you have trouble with taking things far too seriously, or you are by nature an angry person, or it bothers you when people are “wrong on the internet”, or if you feel the need to be correct all the time, NewBuddhist is probably not a great place for you. There are, I’m certain, other Buddhism-centric communities that appeal to advanced practitioners or embrace the drama.

But drama? NewBuddhist ain’t it. Lincoln and I (the two guys who run this site) are just normal, happy dudes. We chill. We drink bourbon once in a while. We joke. We laugh. And we believe, with all our hearts, that practicing lovingkindness and compassion in an online space is entirely possible, appropriate, and so very, very modern.