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Inexpressible

The deeper I go into the teaching of the Buddha, the more convinced I become that it is something quite unique and special. The most profound teachings of the Buddha are inexpressible in words; they cannot be described, only experienced. We don’t possess a proper ontological category for them.

The Buddha’s teaching is beyond being and non-being; beyond becoming and non-becoming; beyond self and not-self. This is the profundity of the Middle Path. When I contemplate it, I feel like I am surfing on a knife edge of energy. At any moment I could die; each breath, every heartbeat could be my last. Yet I emerge from these deep contemplations refreshed, with a feeling of renewal, a sense of having gone beyond.

Words have meaning, and their meaning is derived from etymology and ontology, which creates systems of terminology defined in terms of one another. As soon as I speak a word, I imply all that it is not. To say ‘white’ implies ‘not black’; to say ‘being’ implies ‘non-being’, and so forth. This dualistic aspect of language is inescapable.

Yet the Buddha’s teaching is not monism either. It is not about ‘oneness’, ‘becoming god’ or ‘merging with god’. Coming in to manifestation and going out of manifestation, creation and destruction, being and nonbeing are part of this teaching; but there is also something beyond them.

Sometimes people ask questions like, “Does the Tathāgata exist after death?” or “If there is no ‘self’, then what is reborn?” Questions like this are invalid, because they are based upon incorrect assumptions. There is a level beyond ‘self’ and ‘no-self’, beyond ‘being’ and ‘nonbeing’. This is inexpressible by definition, because it transcends the duality of language.

But it is possible to experience, and that is the point. When I write articles or make videos, sometimes I get the feeling that I am talking completely over people’s heads. Only one or two brave folks have the courage to discuss their impressions in the comments, so it’s hard to know how well I am getting through.

I am now at the point where I am directly seeing this condition beyond duality. It is quite awesome, and it kind of takes the wind out my sails. Even if I talk about it, I can only talk around it; the state is quite inexpressible in words. And although it is certainly possible to talk about the process that gives direct experience of this transcendent state—the Noble Eightfold Path—I feel that others have already done that in sufficient detail, especially the Buddha himself.

Any intelligent person with a good stock of pious activities and sufficient motivation can study the Buddha’s teaching and put it into practice for himself. There is a stream, a current of truth flowing from complete acceptance of the Buddha’s teaching to complete enlightenment. Once one enters this stream, he progresses inevitably to nibbāna. The current pulls and pushes him along; even when he is out of meditation, contemplation continues deep in the mind, ultimately revealing everything.

Maybe the best service I can provide is to encourage by saying, “It works!” There are many directions I could take my teaching work. But currently I feel rather disconnected from my audience. That makes it hard to decide what to talk about and how to present it.

As a monk in an obscure forest monastery high in the tropical mountains of Sri Lanka, I’m sure my daily concerns are vastly different from people just starting out on this path. I have tried various devices to stimulate feedback and discussion, but thus far they have not worked very well. So I think I’ll just sit here for a while and contemplate the inexpressible self-revealing transcendent beauty of the Buddha’s great teaching.

Kathinā Report

When Buddhism was first established in ancient India, there were few monks and nuns. The monks did not stay in temples but moved from one place to another. It was their mission to spread the teaching of the Buddha for the happiness and welfare of all living beings. In those days there were no paved roads, so the Buddha allowed his disciples to stop wandering and take up temporary abodes during the rainy season.

This season is called Vassā in Pali, meaning “Rains Retreat”. It begins in early July and continues through late October. This is a time of deep meditation and austerity, ending in a celebration where the congregation gifts new robes to the monks.

Nowadays, lay followers prepare robes for the monks, who benefit them by accepting offerings of robes and other necessities. The Kathina ceremony takes place during the month immediately following the full moon day of October. Today a number of customs and practices of a collective life, including the recitation of rules and the distribution of robes, became incorporated into the annual cycle of monastic life.

This historic ceremony, continuing through the ages, has evolved from culture to culture. Today in Sri Lanka, the Kathina ceremony provides one of the most popular occasions for merit-making. Buddhist people celebrate the robe-offering ceremony with profound respect and devotion to the monks, who have just spent three months in the monastery observing the Vassā. In rural Sri Lanka, everybody in a village participates in the Kathina ceremony at nearby temples as a community activity lasting from one to three days.

Among the Buddhist of Southeast Asia, there is a very grand festival at the end of the observance of the Rains Retreat. People offer food to the monks in monasteries and prepare the special robes that are offered to the Sangha. This special offering is called the Kathina Offering Ceremony. It is done only during the period of time starting from the end of Rains Retreat to the first day of the waning moon of the 12th Lunar Month.

Yesterday we celebrated Kathinā at our forest monastery in Sri Lanka. It was very beautiful, and a profound experience for me personally. Most importantly, I finally got to meet some of my superiors in the Order, and found the senior monks to be truly venerable and admirable beings.

I have been deeply involved in religious and spiritual organizations since childhood. I was raised in a Christian household, but left that because of its hypocrisy. That started a search for truth that has taken me all over the world, researching the roots of all the major faiths in their countries of origin.

Sadly, spiritual life and community are in sorry shape on our planet at this time. Error, deviation and corruption are much easier to find than authentic versions of any tradition. For many years I followed the Vedic spiritual path, and while my personal spiritual master was an admirable personality, his organization was rife with phony renunciants into power politics and the worst kinds of hypocrisy. I could never feel at home in that organization; and even when I left and started my own, it never felt right.

I first encountered supposedly Buddhist teachings in America in the late 1960s. As a young man in search of truth, I naturally visited important places like Esalen, Tassajara Zen center and others. But something about the American ‘Buddhist’ teachings put me off. I wound up becoming a yogi, studying the Vedas in India and eventually becoming a guru myself.

That feeling has only increased with time. Now that I actually know something about the Buddha’s teaching, whenever I hear what is being taught as ‘Buddhism’ in the West, I have to cringe. It is unrecognizable as Buddha’s teaching, mixed up with all kinds of mundane knowledge, or so twisted in its social manifestation that it resembles a business or a fundamentalist church more than the Sangha as the Buddha conceived it.

One of my most severe doubts about accepting ordination as a Buddhist monk was that I would find the same nonsense here as well. I was fully prepared to spend the rest of my life as a recluse, rather than join another organization where the so-called ‘leaders’ are really wicked men posing as monks.

My first experience of Buddhist society was in Thailand, where I went to study meditation. However, I found the best teacher in the books of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, who unfortunately departed this world some time ago. The same corruption I experienced in India was quite prevalent in Thailand—jet-set monks showing up at the temple in chauffeured Mercedes, wearing Rolex watches and surrounded by pretty young boys. I’m sure there are some monasteries like that in Sri Lanka, but fortunately they are in the minority.

The Buddha predicted that the Dhamma would be preserved in Sri Lanka better than anywhere else. My experience confirms the truth of this. The upland forest tradition monks are genuine and very strict. However, they are reclusive and difficult for a Westerner to approach. There are some monasteries that offer meditation retreats to Westerners, but they are more like vacation hotels—not my cup of tea. I wanted authentic discipleship, a lifetime relationship with a traditional Buddhist community.

Luckily I got an introduction through a relative of a friend, and was able to visit a deep forest monastery high in the mountains. I stayed there for almost two months, forming a nice relationship with the Chief Monk. He introduced me to his primary student, who has an even smaller and more obscure monastery in a tiny mountainside village. I went there to visit at his invitation, and liked it so much that I have never left except for short journeys.

Since I moved here we have had two major festivals: Vesak at the end of April and now Kathinā. Vesak was beautiful and I have done a short video about it. But especially now that I am a monk, Kathinā seemed much more powerful and significant. There was so much wonderful devotion from the congregation, I was overwhelmed. You can see it for yourself in the video.

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Cup of Tea: Realizing No-Self, the Root Sequence

Counterfeit Dhamma

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On one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then Ven. Maha Kassapa went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “What is the cause, lord, what is the reason, why before there were fewer training rules and yet more monks established in final gnosis, whereas now there are more training rules and yet fewer monks established in final gnosis?”

“That’s the way it is, Kassapa. When beings are degenerating and the true Dhamma is disappearing, there are more training rules and yet fewer monks established in final gnosis. There is no disappearance of the true Dhamma as long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but there is the disappearance of the true Dhamma when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has arisen in the world. Just as there is no disappearance of gold as long as a counterfeit of gold has not arisen in the world, but there is the disappearance of gold when a counterfeit of gold has arisen in the world, in the same way there is no disappearance of the true Dhamma as long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but there is the disappearance of the true Dhamma when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has arisen in the world.[1]

“It’s not the earth property that makes the true Dhamma disappear. It’s not the water property… the fire property… the wind property that makes the true Dhamma disappear. It’s worthless people who arise right here [within the Sangha] who make the true Dhamma disappear. The true Dhamma doesn’t disappear the way a boat sinks all at once.

“These five downward-leading qualities tend to the confusion and disappearance of the true Dhamma. Which five? There is the case where the monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers live without respect, without deference, for the Teacher. They live without respect, without deference, for the Dhamma… for the Sangha… for the Training… for concentration. These are the five downward-leading qualities that tend to the confusion and disappearance of the true Dhamma.

“But these five qualities tend to the stability, the non-confusion, the non-disappearance of the true Dhamma. Which five? There is the case where the monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers live with respect, with deference, for the Teacher. They live with respect, with deference, for the Dhamma… for the Sangha… for the Training… for concentration. These are the five qualities that tend to the stability, the non-confusion, the non-disappearance of the true Dhamma.” — Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta

These days there is so much bogus Buddhism, counterfeit Dhamma. In fact there is so much, it drowns out and overwhelms the authentic Dhamma. One has to be very astute,  with sharp intelligence, to penetrate to the original teaching of the Buddha. Unfortunately people today are conditioned by schooling and social pressure not to think for themselves, but simply follow popular opinion and majority leaders.

Of course that will lead only to mediocre results. They will not be able to realize no-self (anattā) or attain samādhi or nibbāna. They will not be able to obtain release from suffering (dukkha) which is the goal of the Buddha’s teaching. Yet when we word hard to present the original teachings, they argue and abuse us in various ways.

This is why the Arahants of the Sri Lanka forest tradition remain apart from the general mass of people (puthujjana), preferring to remain alone in the mountains. That way the original teaching and ways of Buddhist life can be preserved, hopefully for better days. Fortunately there is a compromise: to remain physically isolated but reach out through the Internet, and inform the entire world of the original teaching of the Buddha. That is our mission.

 

Kathinā Celebration

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Kathinā celebration today and tomorrow. Many famous monks coming. Will have pix, videos and report later.

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Cup of Tea: Diluting Dhamma

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Cup of Tea: Empty Your Cup!

Dhamma Teaching Fellowship

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Entrance & Residence

Join us in the ecologically pristine rural highlands of Sri Lanka for a unique retreat combining total immersion in authentic Buddhist culture, deep study and practice of the Buddha-Dhamma and Theravāda Suttas, Dhamma teaching and media studies. Upon completion of the program you not only will have the tools you need to perfect your spiritual life, you will be capable of establishing a world-class Buddhist studies center anywhere in the world. Ordination as a Theravāda Buddhist monk is also an option. Limited enrollment ensures that you get lots of personal attention and careful guidance. Our faculty-student ratio is 1:1 or even greater! All teachers are ordained Theravāda monks.

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Location: A very small monastery of the Sayādaw branch of the Siam Pitaka lineage (only 6 monks) in rural Sri Lanka, about 4 hours from Colombo, a 1-kilometer hike from the nearest paved road. (The road is getting paved, um, soon.) At about 1000 meters altitude, near a major water source, the environment is so clean you can drink the water in the streams. Surrounded by rice fields and small farms.

Accommodations: Small but comfortable double rooms in new building, suitable for western men, all amenities except A/C (don’t really need it up here in the mountains). Two daily multi-course meals (breakfast and lunch) of spicy vegetarian Sri Lankan cuisine (mostly organically grown in household gardens) cooked and served by local temple devotees. Evening snacks by arrangement.

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Dhamma Studies: Deep personalized study of the Theravāda Suttas in the ‘Suttānta’ tradition similar to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ven. Ñāṇavīra, R.G. de S. Wettimuny, etc. guided by Ven. Ñāṇasāra. As much daily personal consultation and meditation as you need in your own time and space. The aim is to get the ‘Eye of the Dhamma’, an accurate and comprehensive view of the Buddha’s teaching.

Media Studies: State-of-the-art audio, video and online media training program, adapted to Buddhist philosophy and lifestyle. Includes access to latest cinema-quality video technology and software, writing and scripting, stage direction, lighting, editing and special effects. Online promotion, community development, web design, typography and graphics, etc. Mac background helpful.

Selection and Registration: Serious students of enlightenment with a strong desire to benefit others are welcome to apply. Candidates should contact us by leaving a comment below. Typically 3 months of online study is required preparatory to arrival in Sri Lanka to gauge your level of commitment, ability and method of exchange, work out your personalized program, arrange visa and get to know each other. We will have regular email correspondence, Skype calls and counseling etc. until space is available and you are ready. We have space available right now (mid-November 2013).

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Is Buddhism a Philosophy or a Religion?

Originally, neither.

There was the Buddha—a man who by very careful observation discovered a path to the cessation of suffering. Then, there was the Dhamma—a codification of those teachings into memorable chants (Suttas) that were passed on by oral tradition until they were written down hundreds of years later. Then, there was the Sangha—the community of monks and nuns who lived and exemplified the Buddha’s teaching. Then, there was the larger community of laypersons around the Sangha, who supported it and benefitted from the teachings.

So you see, things start out simple and then get complicated because of the interactions of people. The Buddha discovered a path to the cessation of suffering and shared it. Later on, other people added to it, embellished it with other teachings from other traditions and made it into a religion. Several different religions, actually, for the several different cultures that the teaching of the Buddha penetrated.

It’s no coincidence that Indian and later, Tibetan Buddhism came to resemble Vedic Brahmanism and mystic yoga. Or that Chinese Buddhism resembles Taoism and Confucianism. Or that newly-minted flavors of Buddhism in the West resemble Christianity, with the Buddha or his self-appointed representative playing the role of savior.

It makes things simple to keep in mind that the Buddha’s teaching is simply a path to the cessation of suffering. If you think, act and meditate according to the original teachings in the early Theravāda Suttas, you will experience a marked and tangible reduction is suffering almost immediately.

Of course, the problem is that almost no one can do that without some kind of preparation, and that’s where it gets complicated again. How do you bridge the gap from where you are to where you need to be to get the Buddha’s teaching, just as it is, without adding arbitrary complications due to cultural conditioning? That is the problem faced on a daily basis by every western student of Buddhism and their teachers.

The Dalai Lama has done a very good job of popularizing certain aspects of the Buddha’s teaching in the west. However, keep in mind that he is the primary exponent of Tibetan Buddhism, which is not the earliest or purest version of the Buddha’s teaching extant. You might want to check the Theravāda Suttas, which give a much earlier and simpler view of the Buddha’s original sermons to the monks.

 

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Cup of Tea: the Dhamma