Sunday, March 13, 2011

Visitor's Guidelines

Hey, Everybody!

AMBMS, the Ariya Magga Buddhist Missionary Society, maintains Ariya Magga Vihara, an “abode” of the Noble Path, located at 123 S. Center Street, in Sioux City, Iowa, USA. As a Noble Path Abode, the vihara is a place of instruction and practice, where everyone is welcome, whether for meditation practice, to learn a bit about practicing the Noble Path, to learn about the many paths called Buddhism, or just to visit. We note that, while some social functions take place here we not a social gathering hall. We try to keep the atmosphere at the vihara quiet and relaxed, and we ask that you help us in that effort. Please enter quietly, turning off cell phones, pagers and any other devices which might make a disturbing noise. If others are “sitting” in the Buddha Hall, speak as little as possible, and speak softly when you must.

Our practice falls within the family of disciplines called "Buddhist," but despite what you might have read, or heard, or might be anticipating, when visiting Ariya Magga Vihara you will not be required to bow, to chant, to participate in meditation or to do other things which are unfamiliar or uncomfortable. At Ariya Magga Vihara we follow certain customs and traditions, and we do ask that you be respectful of them. If you are not sure of what would be respectful, please ask.

One thing that stands out for some people is that as they enter the vihara, the entry room is sometimes full of shoes. This is due to the custom of removing one’s shoes when entering a vihara building, and especially before entering a Buddha Hall. There are lots of different explanations for this practice, some of which seem more plausible than others. One explanation is that for centuries in Asia people removed their shoes before entering any building, as their shoes were usually dusty or muddy or otherwise “dirty.” So it was both hygienic and respectful to leave the dirt at the door. Another explanation is rooted in ancient mythology, which held that impish and/or evil spirits or beings lived in the earth. Walking outside in shoes disturbed them and they would subsequently cling to the shoes’ soles. Carrying these imps/spirits into one’s house, business or temple was just bad form. Another explanation is derived from logical reasoning. Shoes are dirty. Wearing shoes indoors brings dirt indoors. Indoors we sit on the floor. We don’t want to sit in dirt. Ergo, we don’t wear our shoes indoors. For some people removing the shoes is an action which assists them in making the mental transition from a noisy “outside” world to the more peaceful atmosphere of the vihara. Removing one’s shoes is the first preparatory step toward their practice. And finally, people who practice the Noble Path frequently sit on the floor with their legs crossed in either a “full-lotus” or “half-lotus” position. It is very uncomfortable to sit in either of these positions wearing shoes. So we leave them at the door as we come in.

We encourage the custom of removing shoes at the door, but if there is some reason you would rather not, we can live with that, too. And if you are more comfortable in a chair, we have those too. Please don’t let these customs deter you from coming for a visit or a sitting. You might find our vihara a refuge from the “sturm und drang” of our modern world.

Ehi passiko! Come and see!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some thoughts on Kamma

I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations lately about “kamma” – do I believe in it, and if so, what do I believe about it.

As with any discussion of “things Buddhist” we must consider a few basic principles, such as the Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of Things, and so forth. One of the most basic guiding principles is that we do not speculate on “things metaphysical.” Such speculations are without merit.

So, do I believe in kamma, and if so what do I believe? Well, yes and no. I do not “believe” in the sense of taking something on faith, but I do have confidence in the evidence which supports the concept of kamma. So, what is “kamma?” Kamma is a Pāli word (“karma” is the Sanskrit) which means literally ‘action.’ The “law” of kamma is a principle that states that for every action there is an effect, or consequence, or outcome of that action. And in the orthodox Buddhist traditions, kamma indicates “intentional” actions – that is actions which result from our choices. And we do not need to resort to metaphysical speculation in order to understand that kamma is at work in our lives.

Kamma is a principle, not a “thing” or a “stuff.” So Kamma does not accumulate like dust accumulates. But it does shape our lives as follows: We come to an intersection of two roads. We have a number of possible choices: straight ahead, right, left, back, or just stop. Our immediate future is contingent on whichever of those choices we make and act upon. A “left” choice puts us in a different place that a “straight ahead” choice. As we move down our path in life we are constantly making such choices, thus leading us in one of a multitude of directions.

Another example of kamma – intentional action and the consequences – is in my interactions with other people. If I am direct in my speech, honest in my speech, clear and concise in my speech, I will have far better communication (and relationships) than if I am coy, gamey, cutsie and insinuative in my speech. If I act with benevolence, compassion, joy in the successes of others and, with equanimity towards others, my relationships will be much more enjoyable than if I act needy, selfishly, and with emotional instability.

It is important to note that we can not always predict the results of our decisions, the full consequences of our actions. As a Dhamma teacher, I point out dukkhā and the workings of kamma in people’s lives, with the intention of facilitating their mindfulness and expanding their awareness, and encouraging them to practice. But some people take umbrage at these efforts, and respond with anger or hurt feelings.

It is important to note that kamma is not the sole determinant of place on the path of life. There are other people acting in ways that affect me, and there are natural forces and events which play a part in who, what and where I am. For example, I was on a path which I hoped would lead to me being a rock star. I was performing on weekends and studying music in college, when I got a letter over the signature of President Nixon, beganing something like:

You have been selected by your friends and neighbors to serve in the armed forces of the United States of America."

It was a life changing event! Eight years later, I was well on my way to becoming a psychologist with a commitment to living the noble path. No more thoughts of being a rock star. While I am responsible for the consequence of the decisions I made which took me down that path – kamma – there were many, many, many events over which I had no influence or control, but which affected the “trajectory” my life path followed.

Kamma does not explain my birth circumstances, nor my DNA makeup. Kamma is not determinative of anyone’s life. But it is an important principle we should be aware of and make our choices with due consideration. Kamma is a shorthand way of saying “What we do matters.”

Struggle on! But don’t suffer.