Wednesday, November 28, 2012

So Where Exactly is John?

I've been receiving a few emails recently where it's come to my attention that people might be a little confused as to where I'm currently residing and/or where I'm going next. So here's a quick update about me...

Back in October, I visited Abhayagiri monastery for two weeks. Most of these posts I have been writing have been about the two week trip. Mostly I did this because Internet access is not generally allowed while at the monastery. (If I stayed for a longer period of time, then I would be permitted some Internet time here and there.)

Since November, after I got back from Abhayagiri, I've been staying with my mother in Los Angeles. The reason is simple, Abhayagiri is booked up until April 2013 to guests. Wat Metta, the other monastery I was considering studying at near San Diego, is also booked up until January 2013. So I've been trying to figure what I'm going to do next.

So what I decided to do, given all this, was plan a trip to Australia! After all, isn't that what everybody else does when their plans get derailed?

Actually, there is a less whimsical reason for me going to Australia. When I first thinking about which monastery I wanted to study at, my first inclination was to go study with Ajahn Brahm.

Ajahn Brham receiving alms on Kathina day
Ajahn Brahm is the abbot of Bodhinyana Monestary in Western Australia near Perth. He's also well known for providing very accessible and humorous Dharma talks. For other reasons, mostly having to do with being close to my mother, I decided to try Abhayagiri in northern California instead of going there. So given that's not really a possibility right now, I'm going with my first inclination.

So, just before the new year, I'll be heading over to Australia for three months. In the meantime, I've been spending a lot of time with my mother and she lives in Los Angeles. But, I'm currently in Berkeley, California. With my mother. Confused? I'll explain more in my next post...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Work at Abhayagiri

This is my last post regarding my 2-week trip to Abhayagiri where I'll talk a little about what doing work at the monastery was like.

One morning I was working with Tan Pesalo to stain a large tinder box which would be used to store scrap wood to burn during the cold season. While we making preparations to stain, he stopped and reminded me that while it was our a job to stain the tinder box, our real purpose was to be mindful while we were doing it.

Mindfulness is one of those words that's used a lot these days. You see it a lot now in the popular culture, and being "mindful" is considered a very good thing. Sometimes it gets expressed as awareness or being present.

From my experience, mindfulness, in the context of the Buddha's teachings, is a very dynamic quality that encompasses a lot more than just being aware or present. From the suttas (recorded words), the Buddha and his followers spoke about right mindfulness and wrong mindfulness, the former being is conducive to the teachings and the latter going against it. One of key aspects of mindfulness, from my experience, is that its a mental skill of keeping to what we set out to do. There's also an aspect of keeping in mind where we're going or what we're looking to cultivate or let go of.

So there's a immediate job of staining the tinder box. But there's also keeping in mind the far more important things, like keeping our precepts (training rules) and getting along with others in the community. This gives things a very different flavor with how things are often done (or at least encouraged) in my worldly life.

Regular jobs, for me at least, can often take on a very different bottom line. For example, completing the project on schedule can take precedence over everything else. In doing so, with keeping this priority at the top of the list, I can end up doing like say or do insensitive or hurtful towards others, compromise my own health and take on really negative emotional states like rage or depression when things don't go the way we think they should go. While often a work environment can encourage these mal-adaptive bottom lines, I have, more often than not, found that they come into fruition from my own directives.

So even though I am far from an office setting, these habits came raging through while in the middle of a quiet forest setting. "I like using this type of stain!" "It has to be applied in this way!" "We should use this amount of it!" "I should be doing that!" "He should be doing that!" Oh, why is he doing it that way? That doesn't make any sense!"

Of course, because of a different kind of momentum, the momentum of being at a monastery, of making the commitments I did, and even help from friends like Tan Pesalo who make really explicit reminders. Yes, there was also another train moving in a different direction, and sometimes I hopped on it. Is doing things that way really that important? What happens when the most important thing in life staining the tinder box on time? What happens when we do the best we can while maintaining an atmosphere of good will and harmony?

And so, that's what a lot of my work was like at Abhayagiri.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Day at Wat Metta

I'm taking a slight detour from writing about my experiences at Abhayagiri last month to write about my visit to the Wat Metta monestary last night.

I woke up around 4am and headed out a little before 5am. Wat Metta is out by Pauma Valley which is sort of in-between Los Angeles and San Diego. It took about 2 and half hours to arrive (with no traffic). Towards the end of the drive involved a lot of turns and winds. I passed by a couple monks who were doing alms-rounds in the neighborhood which was impressive because they had to walk quite a long distance to do so!

Eventually I got on the Wat Metta property after having saw the welcome sign which was a welcome relief not being sure if I had made the right turns. After parking I found a few of the lay residents working in the kitchen. The night I had before I had made a platter of Inarizushi as offering for the daily meal and so I placed that on the serving cart. I then joined the rest of the lay people and helped finish the morning meal.

At around 8:40am, the monks came down the road for a traditional rice offering. The first minute or so of the following video gives an idea of what this rice offering is like...

After the rice offering, the monks left for the main hall (Sala) and the lay residents and a few other young people who were there for the daily offering followed along with the rest of the food on a big cart, which I helped push.

After arriving at the top of the hill, people took different responsibilities to unpacking the food, laying out the food, and bringing it into the main hall to offer the monks. After all the food and drink were offered, most of the people went into the hall for the chanting and blessing of the meal. After the blessing, we went back down the hill with the cart and the remaining food and had our meal at the lay kitchen/dining area. Like at Abhayagiri, there was a lot of food to choose from as there were many dishes prepared as well as many other dishes brought in from people coming in for the daily meal.

After the meal, we did kitchen cleanup. I think more than food, washing a lot of dishes with others is one of the experiences that is so similar in almost any family and communal living situation. Hot water, dirty water, drying, putting away. Lots of random conversations, questions about where things go, things occasionally breaking.

After the kitche cleanup, one of the residents (Saulo?) gave me a brief tour of the local area. Wat Metta is basically located on a number of Avocado groves. Both the lay residents as well as the monks live on platforms/tents or more permanents huts underneath or besides avocado trees. I took the following pictures while I was there to give you an idea of what it looked like...

The typical vegetation in the area

A tent for a lay resident
Avocados - not quite ripe yet!
A meditation platform in a grove of avocado trees
I spent most of the afternoon doing meditation practice, both sitting and walking meditation. Later, at around 4pm, I went with other lay residents to gather at the main hall to speak with the Abbot, Ajahn Geoff.

A picture of Ajahn Geoff giving a talk at a different event
We all got a chance to ask questions about practice. I asked him about worldly winds, and in particular, how I would often get blown around by the praise and blame winds, and if I had any suggestions. He replied that this is common and that practice is about training our minds to understand that this is going to happen and respond appropriately when it does. For example, if we get criticized or blamed for something (which happens to everybody, even the Buddha!), we can look at it and see if it's true. If it is true, then we can thank the person for pointing out something we did not see. If it's not true, we can understand that this is just about the other person and it has nothing to do with me.

After the question and answer period, there a short work period where I helped out a monk with a fellow lay resident hall some gravel to smooth out a driveway. By the time the work period ended, it was getting dark so I went back to the kitchen to get some tea and chocolate, and then do some meditation practice for about before the final evening gathering at 7pm.

The final evening gathering was like Abhaygiri's puja, which consisted of chanting and meditation. Ajahn Geoff couldn't be there so a short recording of a talk he gave earlier was played for us to help us during meditation. We left the hall at 8:30pm and said goodbye to the friends I had made that day and left back from mom's place in Los Angeles, another 2 and half hour drive. Tired, sleepy, I went to bed at around 11:30pm.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Forests at Abhayagiri

This is the third update of my 2-week trip to the Abhayagiri monastery.

The monks who live at the monastery at Abhayagiri practice what is known as the Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhist monasticism. Thus, a remote forest (or jungle) in which to dwell alone is a very important part of a monk's training.

To accommodate this, Abhayagiri includes 280 acres of land, most of which is very steep and hilly. If you're not in reasonably in shape, spending a week or so will get you there pretty quickly!

From what I understand, the monks (and guests) live in fairly isolate kutis (dwellings) that are mostly isolated from one another.

Most of the dwellings are small and simple which allow for an ease and simplicity. (The bigger the dwelling, the more cleaning and upkeep you have to do!)

Well maintained paths cut through the forest to give access to the different dwellings on the land. (Unlike what's depicited below, a large percentage of the paths are steps because the terrain is so steep.)

A good chunk of work I did while up at Abhayagiri was helping clear the paths of encroaching tree branches or clearing leaves that are piling up besides the roads (that stop-up draining during rains).

The main hall and kitchen are located at the bottom edge of the monastery near the entrance. This is where most of the non-monk specific community functions are held.

There is also a few, remote meeting places just for monks, including a sauna!

There is a loop trail that goes around the monastery property which takes about a 60-90 minutes to complete. I found a couple graves along the way, including one of Henry Denison, or Ruth Denison's husband.

I first learned meditation many years ago through a 10-day course one of S.N. Goenka's meditation centers in California, and Goenka and Ruth had the same teacher. Small world!

In the next post, I'll write about my work and practice experiences at the monastery.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Meal Time at Abhayagiri

This is the second update of my 2-week trip to the Abhayagiri monastery.

One of thing that really struck me about being at monastery was an atmosphere of generosity and mutual support. It's hard to describe why I felt this way so I'll try to describe some of the basics.

Buddhist monks in this tradition cannot grow nor prepare their own food. Any food they eat must be given to them by a lay person (or Anagarika). In addition, they must receive their food between dawn and noon. In a very real sense, the monks are dependent on the lay people, otherwise they would have to leave (less they starve)! Similarly, the lay people come to the monastery, in part, to be around the monks. For me, a lot of it was for inspiration, curiosity, guidance, or just a sense of brotherly connection of those walking the same journey. Without the monks the monastery would be little different than a stretch of forest (perhaps a great place spend time and hike, but one without the community of like-minded friends).

So the monks and the lay people form a dependent relationship around generosity and trust. Without the monks sincere effort in living an upright life in pursuit of their goal, the lay people would lose their confidence and interest. Without the lay people's generosity and interest in the teachings, the monks could not sustain themselves.

The noon meal time was a pronounced time that this relationship came into full effect. I spent a number of days in the kitchen helping to prepare the meal. More experienced lay people or Anagarikas would lead the charge with the others chiming away to do what we could to make enough food. Every day there was a big pot of rice (and sometimes Thai-style sticky rice) and some sort of basic protein (like some sort of egg scramble). But there was always much more than that. We would make new dishes based on what was going old in the pantry so as to minimum food waste. If there were left-overs from the previous day, we would always use that too (unless it went bad). Many days lay people would bring in additional dishes like stir fries or other dishes. By the time the meal was served, we usually had on the order of 15+ dishes, arranged neatly on a bed of attractive serving dishes.

In addition, we had a number of other plates of food like salads, fresh fruits, soups, and desserts (lots and lots of desserts) also available to eat. On bigger days, we needed two or even three tables to lay out all the food. It was challenging balancing making enough food for everybody (monks and lay people) yet not making *too* much where things would have to go to waste. Drinks were a mish-mash of freshly-made apple juices to teas to donated cans of soda or even energy drinks.

More often than not, as the time approached 11am (when the meal was supposed to be finished), the pace would quicken and the tempo would step up as people would race to try to finish things as quickly as possible. Long ago, a very wise and kind person had taped the word "calm" over the kitchen clock, which helped me personally on a number of occasions. One day when there wasn't enough food, and the lead Anagarika ordered "PB&J!" which was code for a basket of bread and peanut butter and jelly jars. From my understanding, the monks really liked PB&J so it actually wasn't a bad thing at all.

Once the food was done, prepared, laid-out and the kitchen was reasonably clean, two of the kitchen workers would ring the two different bells signaling that lunch was ready. As explained in the previous post, two to three monks would come in and lay people would offer them each plate to be completely explicit that all the food and drink was offered to them.

After the monks received the food, the other monks (who were in the hall at the time) would come in single file, ordered by seniority, and place the food of their choosing in their alms-bowl. The Anagarikas, who are usually training to be monks to themselves, would file right after the monks. (The alms-bowl were actually pretty nice, donated stainless-steal which were kept rigorously clean by their owners. The alms-bowl were one of their few personal possessions.) While the monks and Anagarikas were getting their food, the lay people would grab a seat in the main hall. Monks would come in, one-by-one, into the hall with the food that they had taken and close the lid and wait patiently for the rest to arrive. All this was done in silence.

After all the monks returned to the main hall with their food, the lead monk would start a blessing chant. This was a really positive time for me especially after working hard in the kitchen because I got a chance to reflect on what I had just done, and I could genuinely feel that the blessing chant was, in part, for me. Afterwords, the monks would take off the lids off their alms-bowls, inspect the food and then recite the following together:
Wisely reflecting...I use alms-food. not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, but only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the holy life. Thinking thus, I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.
After this, the monks would then start eating in silence. The lay people would leave the hall and begin helping themselves to the food that was remaining (which was always way more than what we could possibly eat). Often their was a feeling of camaraderie and high spirits amongst the lay people having worked so hard to prepare this meal, we could take the food into our own plates or bowls, relax, and settle down for our meal of the day. Some lay people went off to eat quietly by themselves, but most people enjoyed the company of the others to chat and eat, perhaps on the porch or courtyard if was warm and sunny, or in the indoor annex by the kitchen if it was cold and rainy.

In the next update, I'll describe some of my experiences with the forest itself.