Upavana Blog

Upavana Teachings and News

Upavana posts regularly through Facebook. These posts include dhamma reflections, updates on online and in-person events, and links to recorded talks by various teachers. The posts also appear here.

Mahasiddha Nyingmapa Center - Tahn Pamutto May 30, 2021

This weekend has been cold and rain has bucketed down. I’ve always spoken well of the rain deva’s (in animistic cultures, spirits said to affect the weather - either friends or enemies of the dhutanga monk) and feel they have been kind to me yet again - for by seeming coincidence they chose to break their weeks of draught during a time when I was visiting my friend Paul living beside the Mahasiddha temple in Hawley. I had the entire holiday weekend for personal retreat, practicing Anapanasati listening to the steady rain and rushing mountain streams.

Happily, several friends came to offer Dana through the weekend, and got to share in the beautiful natural setting.

“I’ve lived my whole life 3 miles down the road, and I had no idea this was here.” This was said recently by one Buckland resident, and it’s a sentiment echoed repeatedly by American Buddhists about the quiet and enduring institutions in their midst. The Mahasiddha Nyingmapa Center is one such easily-missed temple.

Nestled in the hills of Hawley, MA, the temple is the American seat of the Tibetan master Dodrupchen Rinpoche. He is the fourth incarnation, meaning that he has been confirmed through a traditional process as having reincarnated three times since his original life as an esteemed Buddhist teacher in Tibet. If you can see the benefits coming from monastics who have been in the robes even a few years, imagine multiplying that by two centuries and you will have a sense of his esteem in Tibetan culture.

With the fall of Tibet to the Chinese in the 1950’s, Dodrupchen Rinpoche was invited to establish himself in the nearby kingdom of Sikkim. It was there that in the 1970’s a group of free-spirited hippies from Conway, MA, met him and developed faith in his teachings. When they returned home they sent him a simple letter asking him to come and give them and their friends the refuges and precepts.

This humble, two-minute ceremony, which we repeat every lunar day for the Uposatha, is the simplest act of undertaking the Buddhist path: expressing confidence in the Buddha, his teaching, and the community, and undertaking a basic set of moral precepts. Despite being abbot of a thriving monastery, Dodrupchen Rinpoche didn’t overlook the request. Instead he stored the letter carefully away.

When Dodrupchen Rinpoche was invited to visit the United States, he was immersed in a strange political landscape of charismatic and controversial Tibetan lama’s courting rich donors and building lavish monasteries. In 1973, Rinpoche managed to navigate all of this and, without really explaining it to anyone, eventually arrived in the humble rural town in western Massachusetts. By getting people to make a few phone calls, he located the group who had made the original request. “I’m the Fourth Dodrupchen Rinpoche, lineage holder of the Longchen Nyingtik.” he said. “I’ve come to give the precepts.”

That first meeting and giving of refuges and precepts planted the seed of what was to become an enduring multi-generational Buddhist community. A piece of land was donated in Hawley and a temple built. Dodrupchen returned to his monastery in the east but has continued to come and give teachings almost every year, the last in 2018. He is quite elderly and no one can say for sure whether he can make another trip, COVID notwithstanding, or whether a fifth incarnation will arrive in the future after his passing to continue the teachings.

Nevertheless, his teachings live on in his western disciples, a group of which still gather faithfully every Saturday and Sunday for chanting, mantras and visualization meditation. The order is fairly specific and dedicated to Rinpoche, but their weekend programs are still open to attendance for anyone with an interest in learning more.

You can find all their info at www.mahasiddha.org, and about Rinpoche at Dodrupchen Rinpoche - Rigpa Wiki

Recollecting the Buddha - Tahn Pamutto May 27, 2021

This Wednesday was the Vesak Full Moon, and the Uposatha gathering was centered around the Recollection of the Buddha. This is a reflection said to cure all dukkha, so we sat together reflecting on the Buddha's wholesome qualities and on a deeper level, what it was that made him the symbol of liberation.

Upcoming Vesak - Tahn Pamutto May 25, 2021

This Wednesday is the Full Moon of May, the Vesak Moon. If you're Buddhist or even just live near a temple, you are probably already aware this is one of the main holidays in the Buddhist calendar - Vesakha Puja.

This day is the officially recognized anniversary of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana - all on the same full moon. It's the traditional day devoted to recollecting the Buddha and his many accomplishments. Already since last Sunday there have been many gatherings and dhamma talks, and we'll join in with our own Uposatha Observance.

The program will be the same Uposatha format, online and now also in-person in the area of Shelburne, MA. It begins at 8pm EDT and includes group meditation, precepts, and a dhamma reflection from Tahn Pamutto. There will be time after the talk to continue sitting together.

Find out more at www.upavana.org/events

Wat Kiry - Quiet but not Empty - Tahn Pamutto May 23, 2021

Even after all these years, many people in the Pioneer Valley know nothing about the generous and well-connected Cambodian Buddhist temple in their midst, Wat Kiry Vongsa Bopharam (www.templenews.org). This is in part because of the language barrier – it’s possible to walk the facilities or sit in during the meal or even join the yearly summer meditation retreat, but almost all functions are conducted in the Khmer language.

The founder of Wat Kiry was actually a very important figure in Cambodian Buddhism – Pre-ah Māhāghosananda. He was a monk who fatefully survived the genocide known as the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s by being in Thailand at the time. He returned afterwards to a devastated Sangha and broken people. He spent the rest of his life rebuilding the community and working to heal the deep trauma of his country. During that time, he became friends with other powerful Buddhist figures such as the Dalai Lama and Nichidatsu Fujī, the founder of the Nipponsan Myohoji sect of Japanese Buddhism. Māhāghosananda was known for his long, dangerous Peace Walks through Cambodia to restore faith for the people, a practice very similar to the walks performed by Ven. Fujī-san.

When Ven. Fujī-san’s disciples began work on a massive stupa on a hill in Leverett, MA, Māhāghosananda inquired about using a piece of the land for a forest monastery. Instead he learned that the land at the base of the hill was for sale. It was purchased, but in the early years there was very little money for development. A few white-robed nuns moved on to the property and began practicing in earnest despite the rustic conditions. When one teacher saw them meditating on the hill he commented on how they looked like white flowers in bloom, and Wat Kiry Vongsa Bopharam got it’s name – the Temple of the White Flowers on the Hill.

Māhāghosananda visited the temple and even spent the last years of his life frequently there. It’s grown into a well-established facility now housing three monks full-time and hosting yearly meditation retreats attended by cambodians from across the country. Nevertheless, few locals realize it is a totally different order from the visually stunning Peace Pagoda up the hill.

I came to know Wat Kiry by accident, after coming to visit the Peace Pagoda. I was going back down the hill with my almsbowl out and was seen by the temple president, who ushered me into his office. The presence of a Theravada Buddhist monk on his property couldn’t be a coincidence, so he assumed I was coming to stay! Still, he and the only other resident monk, Dakun Ponh Phep, struggled to make sense of what I was. The idea of an American ordaining was almost entirely foreign to them, and yet I produced a wealth of evidence that not only was I a real monk, but that I came from a long line of western teachers (I had photos!). They gaped at the copy of the Dhammapada I carried in Pali and English text, and Ponh Phep’s eyes fogged over with long-lost memories as I chanted the monk’s rules in Pali – something very few members of the revived Cambodian sangha can do but which is still impossible (or pointless) to fake.

They regretfully informed me I couldn’t stay (to my surprise!) because I didn’t speak Khmer and they didn’t speak much English (they do, but they are shy). They have though provided me with aid and inspiration over the years, asking nothing in return. I’ve been given occasional shelter, bowls of food, the chance to perform monastic functions with the monks, and I’ve been able to join their delightful summer retreats despite the dhamma talks all being incomprehensible. If anything, I was a frustration to them, as I frequently walked away from their overflowing offerings of money, shelter, and requisites to keep up my bizarre dhutanga practice.

It was my great joy to return in 2021 to see Dakun Ponh Phep still well and joined by two younger monks who came in 2018. They’ve quietly sheltered through the pandemic. The moment I arrived they didn’t miss a beat setting me a place and grabbing some extra food. Not too much has changed. Time will tell whether this will be the year of their emerging to resume normal operations.

Visitors can come at any time. During daylight hours the meditation hall is open, but be sure to go past the temple up the walkway to a giant Parinibbana Buddha on the hill. While the Peace Pagoda up top has always been the place to go to offer prayers, do yoga, or beat some drums, when I want to meditate I prefer the calm, shady hemlock groves of Wat Kiry, resonating with the flutey calls of Woodthrushes.

The Perfect Time - Tahn Pamutto May 22, 2021

There’s no handbook for living the dhutanga lifestyle - there’s just a list of 13 ascetic practices and centuries of praise for those who undertake them. But that’s not to say there are no guiding principles to be found. They just must be discovered as you go. Nothing about the holy life makes sense from a warm, cozy, comfortable living room. But when you are living it, the maxims of practice, technique and lifestyle arise spontaneously.

One maxim of dhutanga life is also very useful for meditation practice in general. When one sets an intention to depart for wandering at a certain time, that is generally when they should leave. A storm might roll in, or news come in of a particularly good offering coming the next day; a recently washed robe might still be damp or one could have failed to get any sleep the night before. Nevertheless, they depart at the chosen time - sometimes into rain, sometimes with an empty belly, sometimes without useful supplies.

It’s not stubborness, nor is it blind faith, though it may seem so to the outside observer. It’s easier to understand in the context of meditation. We do everything we can to try to get the perfect environment to sit. We get enough sleep and try to eat healthy. We find a quiet space and a comfortable cushion. We silence our phone and clear our schedule. Finally, we sit. But as the bugs start to buzz, and cars rush by, and the hot sun emerges or a cold wind blows - at some point we have to let go. We will never get things perfect, and even if we did it won’t stay that way for long.

When we are planning for a project or the beginning of a journey, it’s very natural to want to get the conditions right. But if we focus too heavily on the physical conditions and the basic materials, we may overlook the spiritual conditions which are possibly more essential to our success. Our vision, our aspiration, and our willingness to work through challenges - this is what we should be safeguarding. Without this, even if everything else was perfect, we are likely to fail.

I can remember vividly half a dozen instances of ‘Going Forth’ when every sign was that I should stop and wait. I can recall the puzzled faces of other monastics as I stepped out into the rain to begin a journey at the appointed hour rather than wait. But I have seen time and again how the skies part not long after, and how I meet the right people on the road, and how everything works out. The perfect circumstances still arise — the difference is that I’ve gone out to meet them on the road.

All of this is to say, I’m looking forward to next month’s Anapanasati retreat - the first retreat I’ll be able to offer in Massachusetts since I first wandered here six years ago. There is no facility yet, or plan for meals, or participants or honestly any reason to think it should work out. Yet there is a date, and an idea, and an intention, and the willingness to find a way. It should be fun.

Sustained by Goodwill - Tahn Pamutto May 18, 2021

I set off walking last Friday with a bowl full of offerings from Lusianna, Alex, and a growing network of friends. But a mere two miles later, they couldn’t have found me if they tried. For many, the important features on a map are those with names and symbols. For one seeking peace, it’s everything else. The blank spots are far from empty. They are where we go to find ourselves.

As beautiful and bountiful as the meals I received in Shelburne were, inevitably on Saturday morning my bowl and belly were empty. I had walked many miles the day before, not settling until I found a suitable resting place, and my body was sore and hard to rouse. By the time I got going, the only prospect for alms round was a small gas station, and I’d only be able to stand for half an hour before midday.

Standing off in a corner, I realized this small waystation was in competition with a bigger one up the road - and losing. There was no business. For twenty minutes I stood there practicing acceptance. It wasn’t so hard! I had been nourished well during my time in Shelburne, and I could go without for a day. The weather was nice, and I could return to my previous campsite for the day’s abiding.

I remembered a story from the commentary to the Pali canon - one of a lone dhutanga monk who didn’t get food on almsround. He retired to the open field where he was staying and sat in meditation. “I have no food,” he thought. “What if I sustain myself on joy, like the radiant deva’s?” And so he sat in oy and contentment, practicing samadhi. That night, when the weather turned cold, he wrapped up in his outer robe and thought, “I have no shelter. But there are these divine abodes. What if I stayed in these?” And so he practiced goodwill, compassion, joy and equanimity, and his heart was warm all night.

I started chanting the metta sutta and preparing myself to step back into the forest. You don’t have to believe me, but it wasn’t three minutes before the pumps were packed and my bowl was full - offerings from two strangers who gladly paused what they were doing when they realized they could treat a fellow human being to a meal.

I sat and ate in a nearby cemetery, contemplating what to do with the extra. I had been given enough for two days. Anyone intent on solitary life would have stayed and ate the extra meal the next day. But the monastic rules have us relinquish ownership - we cannot eat food we have stored for ourselves. We greet each dawn content with whatever is offered that day.

If I stored food I would have a guaranteed meal. But that meal would only feed the body. A gift, on the other hand, feeds the heart, and its nourishment lasts much longer. Every day, a monastic eats food not just to sustain their body but also to provide an opportunity for goodness. This is something you can experience yourself. Think back to a time when someone gave you something nice, even something small. Now ... while you dwell on it, don’t you feel full?

“If you truly understood the benefits of giving,” the Buddha said, “You would not let a single meal go by without sharing something.” As a monk who rarely has physical things to share, my time and consideration are my wealth, and relinquishment of preference is the act of giving.

The abundance in my bowl was an opportunity to share with a friend living nearby, Brenda, and when we connected we drank coffee, shared stories, and then I showed her how to do walking meditation on a path in the forest. She kicked off her shoes and took to it like a pro.

All of this came from not storing a day’s feast; came from a stranger’s generosity; came from a blessing chant; came from leaving a warm dry shelter and walking into the unknown.

When we understand what really feeds us, we step off from hunger and thirst. We learn to nourish ourselves on goodwill, like the dhutanga monk in the story, and we find that a feast is always prepared for us. You don’t have to be an ascetic to make each meal an offering. Just ask yourself - which is more important: eating, or being nourished?

Undestanding Vipassana and Samatha - Tahn Pamutto May 12, 2021

Last night Upavana hosted it's first in-person Uposatha session, with a great turnout both from online regulars and friends in the area of Shelburne, MA. The Uposatha is the traditional time for Buddhist laypeople and monastics alike to gather, commit to their precepts, and share dhamma. It will be one of the first main in-person offerings for Upavana during this time while Tahn Pamutto is floating around, and will be hosted in a variety of places until a location is found for a center for the summer.

To mark the occasion, Tahn Pamutto gave a very informative and descriptive talk on Vipassana practice as it is experienced in meditation, and how understanding its relationship to samatha or calming meditation allows us to take it to its conclusion.

Following the talk is about 15 minutes of questions and answers from the group.


Back Home - Tahn Pamutto May 11, 2021

"Even before I arrived in Massachusetts, fragments of my previous time of wandering were starting to come back: Dhammapada verses I use to study at first light, tips and tricks with my gear, maxims of walking and interacting with people. It was the feeling of coming home … not to a place, but to a way of life. The goal of returning this time is not just to wander like I did before. Nevertheless, it is always an option for a forest monk – and a wonderful way to awaken energy and share the dhamma.

A few days ago I set off walking through the countryside again, and it wasn’t long before the experience started touching on some deep memories. I’ve traveled these ways before, and I had the feeling I knew a story for each house along the way. Less than an hour of walking and a couple drove up who had been to Upavana’s online Uposatha a few weeks back – when I was still in New York city. Such impossible coincidences are commonplace when one trusts their intuition. No matter what happens, be it fortunate or challenging, if one has the right frame of mind it is exactly what they or someone else needed at that moment.

On Saturday I met a young man who offered to show me a small cabin he was building in the woods – always an interesting prospect to a forest monk – explaining that it was on the other side of a rushing mountain-fed stream. Looking at the frigid water he was wading into, I needed to take a long moment to build up my courage. But what luck to have an opportunity to face a fear! I steeled my nerve and walked in after him. After a minute it was over and we were both on the other bank where the cabin was.

The dhutanga monk’s life is like this. Be it a day without food, or a long walk in the sun, or having a tent flood in the rain – every situation one encounters helps them find another thing that isn’t really as bad as it seems. Our anticipation of a disaster is often far worse than the itself. In the beginning there is fear, and then to face it there is courage. Finally, there is fearlessness, and like the enterprising young man we just wade into cold water without thinking about it. We know we’ll be fine.

The next night when said tent was filling with water and soaking my robes, forcing me to sit upright four hours until dawn, I was surprised at the equanimity. “It’s just water.” I thought. Nowhere’s near as cold as that stream.

The experience had me reflecting on a treasured Dhammapada verse:

“Those mindful ones exert themselves, not attached to any home;

Like swans who fly from a lake, they leave place after place behind.” (Dhp 91)

People like to claim a house or apartment; even squirrels choose a tree and guard it jealously. But the home of a swan is not any particular lake – their home is the water itself. And this is the situation of one who commits wholeheartedly to dhamma practice. Over time their attachment to worldly circumstances fall away, and the stilling and training of the heart becomes their abode. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing, if they have the chance to learn and grow and seek their freedom, they are at home.

First In-Person Uposatha - Tahn Pamutto May 11, 2021

New Moon Uposatha

Tonight Upavana will be hosting it's first in-person Uposatha session from 8-12 pm. Because of COVID the gathering will be of limited attendance, but anyone who would like to join online can do so with Zoom.

The session begins at 8pm EDT with a 45 minute meditation. There will then be a chance to take the Refuges and Precepts, followed by a talk by Tahn Pamutto entitled "Understanding Vipassana and Samatha" at 9pm.

All Zoom information can be found at: http://www.upavana.org/events

First Steps - Tahn Pamutto May 6, 2021

On Sunday, Tahn Pamutto arrived in Massachusetts. It’s been two and a half years since he was last a wandering forest monk, traveling up and down the country roads sharing dhamma, friendship, and the occasional cup of coffee. For the first two days of his return, the unfailingly hospitable Indonesian community found their perfect ambassador in the north – Lusiana and her mother Lauw. And Tahn led the chanting and meditation morning and evening.

From their porch on Monday night, Upavana hosted its first ‘online open-house’ to address the prospects of starting a center in the area. Half a dozen dear friends showed up throughout the evening to learn about the project and share suggestions, and notably not one Zoom window opened from residents of the same town. For three years, Tahn Pamutto wandered and met good people throughout the area, joining their communities and supporting the many styles and traditions he found already flourishing. It will be interesting to see how things unfold as he settles down and begins sharing his own style of practice, of the forest tradition, with others.

The tea time conversation on Wednesday focused on the idea of control. In the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha asks the monks, “Monks, can you say to your body – “Be this way, Don’t be that way?” With this question he was pointing out a subtle but undeniable fact. We have apparent control – we can move our limbs and style our hair – but when it comes to aching limbs or a sudden flu that can’t be avoided with any quantity of Vitamin C, we are shocked back to the reality that we are also passengers along for a ride.

Neither the perspective of being in control or the perspective of having no control is ultimate reality. Control isn’t a fact, it’s just a concept to describe our ability to influence a situation through our choices. We unerringly receive the effects of past decisions, but our present and future is built on the decisions we make now. So part of the Middle Way is knowing when to focus on the things we are in control of, like actions of body, speech, and mind, and when to focus on letting go.

Setting off on a journey can be daunting if we try to figure out how it will all go. But the end result is not something we can know at the outset. The point of greatest control is not the end – it’s just the very next step. That’s where our energy is best spent.

A Field of Merit - Tahn Pamutto May 4, 2021

In the early years of the sangha, cloth was scarce and monks patched together whatever they could find to cover their bodies. But as the Buddha’s renown grew, there came to be enough cloth to choose a pattern for robes. One day Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, offered to make him a new robe and asked, “How should it look?” The Buddha was reportedly standing on a hill overlooking rice paddies at the time and said with a smile, “The fields of Magadha are beautiful, are they not?” Ananda understood. Since that time, the rice field design has been the symbol of Buddhist monks across traditions, and the connection between the order of monastic renunciants and the common people who support them undeniable and true.

The Buddha referred to the Sangha as ‘a field of merit for the world’, and this is the reality every man and woman is born into when they don the robes. They let go of who and what they were before and become a field in which the seeds of many good deeds can be sown. While food given will sustain the monk and cloth will keep them warm, the goodness generated by each act of generosity, kindness, and respect will support the giver for a long time to come.

Tahn Pamutto’s last days in NYC were a wonderful reminder of the many seeds sown over the last nine months and the many people who take part in the life of every practitioner - friends and supporters from his time at Empty Cloud, the enormously generous Indonesian Buddhist Family, and the monks and laypeople who were at his ordination last year, including his preceptor.

May they all enjoy happiness and good fortune as one time comes to an end and a new one begins! As long as people gather to do good things and honor what is worthy of honor, there will not cease to be a field for the growing of one’s own happiness and freedom in the world!

What is Tudong? - Tahn Pamutto May 1, 2021

Today, most monastics live in temples and monasteries. Some of these are grand, purpose-built institutions, while others are rented houses or apartments on average city streets. The monastery serves as a place to pool resources, gather for practice, and is easily accessible to the communities that support it.

Recognizing that the mind easily acclimates to comfort, the Buddha also allowed monks and nuns to follow special 'dhutanga' practices, or austerities. These involve developing contentment with the basic standard of support - alms food gathered in the begging bowl, living in the forest, and having nothing more than the robes and gear one can carry. Rather than taking the monastery as a support, these practitioners take the dhutanga's themselves as a support, and travel freely in search of whatever conditions are most beneficial for liberation.

In Thailand, when a monk leaves the shelter of a monastery to practice the dhutanga's and live independently, they are said to be 'going tudong', a thai form of the word dhutanga. They might practice this way for a few days or for years, and forest monasteries often closely model themselves after the lifestyle of these austere individuals.

The Buddha himself gave special audiences to monks who practiced the dhutanga's, as he said they were inspiring. So too, whether in Thailand or in the West, those monastics who dare to leave the shelter of a monastery often find they have access to resources and teachings they never would have known about otherwise. Everywhere they go, they get to spread enthusiasm for dhamma.

The Buddha didn't require anyone to practice the dhutanga's. They are optional practices, and those who attempt them are often hard to find. But should you meet a tudong monk on the road one day, consider yourself lucky! Such reminders of the path of the enlightened beings are rare in our world.