Saturday, July 26, 2014

Visiting a peaceful forest monastery

Amber Larson (ed.), Wisdom Quarterly; Courtney (; Elizabeth J. Harris
All photos of Dhammasala Forest Monastery by Courtney (
Small forest dwelling.
This small meditation hut (kuti) stands alone in the forest for peace and quiet.

I visited a Theravada Buddhist temple and forest monastery called Wat Dhammasala for the first time yesterday in Perry, Michigan. I brought along my 18-year-old cousin, but other than that the only soul we came across was a fluffy, white dog named Yim.
When I stepped out of my car the first thing to hit me was the vibrant solitude that I’ve always loved about the woods.

I could hear bells chiming from the roof of the temple, birds conversing with one another casually, the hum of bees, and the rustling of a million green leaves.

Everything smelled clean, and even though the sky was grey when we first arrived, all I saw were the vibrantly green leaves. More+PHOTOS
  • Yogini Courtney is the Web Editor of and a yoga instructor in the Lansing, Michigan area, who graduated in 2011 with a double major in journalism and digital media arts and technology.
Detachment and Compassion in Early Buddhism
Elizabeth J. Harris (Bodhi Leaves 141/Buddhist Publication Society/
The garden
To people looking at Buddhism through the medium of English, the practice of compassion and detachment can appear incompatible, especially for those who consider themselves to be socially and politically engaged.
In contemporary usage, compassion brings to mind outward-moving concern for others, while detachment suggests aloofness and withdrawal from the world.

Yet Buddhism recommends both as admirable and necessary qualities to be cultivated. This raises questions such as the following:
  • If compassion means to relieve suffering in a positive way, and detachment to remain aloof from the world, how can the two be practiced together?
  • Does detachment in Buddhism imply lack of concern for humanity?
  • Is the concept of compassion in Buddhism too passive, connected only with the inward-looking eye of meditation, or can it create real change in society?
An altar at Wat Dhammasala, Michigan
It is certainly possible to draw sentences from Buddhist writers that seem to support a rejection of outward concern for others. For example, [the early Western translator] Edward Conze has written, "The Yogin [self-controlled meditator] can only come into contact with the unconditioned [nirvana] when he [or she] brushes aside anything which is conditioned" (Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India, 1960, Ch.5).

Similarly, G.S.P. Misra writes, "In the final analysis, all actions [karma] are to be put to cessation... The Buddha speaks of happiness involved in non-action [the acts of an arhat, a full enlightened person, are not called karma but kriya], which he further says is an integral part of the Right Way or samma-patipada (G.S.P. Misra, Development of Buddhist Ethics, p. 44.)
Taken in isolation and out of context, these remarks can give the impression that the path to nirvana implies developing a lack of concern towards everything in samsara (the cycle of existence, rebirth, and suffering). But is this inference sound? I would argue that it is not.
This is an issue that touches on the whole question of transferring concepts across linguistic barriers, in this case [the exclusively Buddhist language] Pali and [the catchall universal language of commerce, culture, and empire] English. It calls not only for an understanding of how the concepts are used within the framework of the Pali Buddhist texts, but also for an awareness of how the English terms used in translation function and whether they are adequate.

Inevitably, a dialogical approach between two linguistic frameworks is necessary.
garden snake
What's that, Mr. Garden Snake? An offer?
Viveka and viraga are the two Pali words that have been translated as "detachment." The two, however, are not synonyms. The primary meaning of viveka is separation, aloofness, seclusion. Often physical withdrawal is implied. The later commentarial tradition, however, identifies three forms of viveka:
  1. physical withdrawal (kaya-viveka)
  2. mental withdrawal (citta-viveka)
  3. withdrawal from the roots of distress, disappointment, suffering (upadhi-viveka).
Kaya-viveka, as a chosen way of life, was not uncommon during the time of the historical Buddha. To withdraw or pull back from the household life, to renounce (give up interest in or control of) possessions, and adopt a solitary mendicancy was a recognized path.

The formation of the Buddhist monastic Sangha (community) was grounded in the belief that going forth from home to homelessness could aid in intensive, concentrated spiritual effort. Yet to equate the renunciation the Buddha encouraged with a physical withdrawal, which either punished the body or completely rejected human contact,  would be a mistake.
  • [Renunciation does not actually mean giving things up, so much as letting go of being controlled by them, to let go and let things be. This is much easier to do if one actually lets go, but even letting go of them physically does not mean we have really let go.]
The Buddha made it clear that the detachment of a noble disciple (ariya savaka) -- the detachment connected with the path -- was not essentially a physical act of withdrawal, let alone austerity.

Kaya-viveka was valuable only if seen as a means to the inner purging and mental transformation connected with the abandoning or destruction of craving. This is illustrated in the Udumbarika Sihanada Sutta in which the Buddha claims that the asceticism of a recluse who clings to solitude could lead to pride, carelessness, attention-seeking, and hypocrisy if not linked to the cultivation of moral virtues and the effort to gain insight through meditation (DN 25).
A further insight is given in the Nivapa Sutta, which weaves a lengthy story around the relationship of four herds of deer with a certain crop, representing sensual pleasure, sown by the hunter (the "tempter" Mara) to ensnare the deer.

The sign that welcomed us.
The sign that welcoming visitors
Both the ascetics who crave for pleasure and those who deny themselves any enjoyment in an extreme way are destroyed. Referring to the latter, the Buddha says: 
Because their bodies were extremely emaciated, their strength and energy diminished, freedom of mind diminished; because freedom of mind diminished, they went back to the very crop sown by Mara -- the material things of this world (MN 156).
The message of the sutra is that ascetic withdrawal can reduce the heart/mind's ability to discern. It can also lead to the repression of mental tendencies rather than to their rooting out and destruction.
The detachment of which Buddhism speaks, therefore, is not an extreme turning away from what normally nourishes the human body. Neither is it a closing of the eyes to all beauty, as is clear from the following:

"Delightful, reverend Ananda, is the Gosinga sal grove. It is a clear moonlit night; the sal trees are in full blossom. It seems deva-like scents are being wafted around... (MN 156).
This expression of delight is uttered by Sariputra, the Buddha's chief male disciple foremost in wisdom, an arhat, on meeting some fellow monks one night.
The temple or wat
One must look away from external acts and towards the area of inner attitudes and motivation for a true understanding of the role of detachment in Buddhism. Physical withdrawal is only justified if it is linked to inner purification of virtue and meditation.

In this light, citta-viveka and upadhi-viveka become necessary subdivisions to bring out the full implications of detachment within Buddhist spiritual practice. Upadhi-viveka, as withdrawal from the roots of suffering, links up with viraga, the second word used within Buddhism to denote detachment.
Viraga literally means the absence of lust/craving (raga) -- the absence of sense desire, lust, the craving for endless existence, as well as the craving for annihilation [all three are wrong views based on ignorance of the Three Characteristics of Existence]. It denotes non-attachment to the usual objects of raga, such as material forms or addictive pleasures of the senses.

Non-attachment is an important term here if the Pali is to be meaningful to English speakers. It is far more appropriate than "detachment" because of the negative connotations "detachment" possesses in English.

new friend

Raga is closely related to clinging, grasping (upadana) which, within the causal chain binding human beings to repeated births, grows from craving (tanha) and results in bhava -- the continued samsaric wandering in search of fulfillment, pleasure, meaning, and an end. The English word "non-attachment" suggests a way of looking at both of them.
The Buddhist texts refer to four strands of clinging and grasping: 
  1. clinging to sense pleasures
  2. clinging to views
  3. clinging to rules and rituals (as if they could ever in and of themselves result in enlightenment),
  4. clinging to doctrines of self.
All of these can also be described as forms of raga or desire. To abandon them or destroy their power over the human psyche, attachment to them is transformed into non-attachment. Non-attachment or non-clinging would therefore flow from the awareness that... More

No comments: