Derek's Dharma Blog

A blog about meditation, Dharma and activism

Depression, meditation, friendship

One of my closest friends from Buddhist seminary school was telling me about being on retreat recently.  In the group discussion that followed the end of the retreat she mentioned that she had been depressed. But she almost didn’t mention it because as a long-term meditator she was so embarrassed to admit to being susceptible to depression.  “We’re all supposed to be past all that; all ‘fixed’ up; but that’s not how I feel,” she said. “And somehow this makes me feel like I’ve failed.”

The teacher thanked her for her bravery in speaking up.

He admitted that he had also struggled with depression and that he’d found it extremely difficult to find dharma folks to talk to about it; because depression is one of the biggest taboos in dharma circles.

I was in the magazine store in Ottawa yesterday when this tiny article from the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine jumped out at me. A short beautiful piece by Hozan Alan Senauke, called “In the Darkest Moments”. Alan is a priest and vice-abbot at the Berkeley Zen Center, and he writes with naked honesty about depression and its antidotes: what works and what doesn’t.  Alan concludes that meditation works, but if meditation can’t help, then friendship works best.

A slightly longer version of his piece appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Inquiring Mind.

Here t’is….

“Tangled Up In Blue” by Hozan Alan Senauke


As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation I have come to no great enlightenment. I haven’t seen the cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free and joyful at times. But freedom is momentary. I appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t stay there, and that is okay with me. That’s a loaded word—”stay.” In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere. But I digress.

What I mean to say is that I have come to think that given my propensity toward depression—biochemical, hereditary, or karmic—the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in just sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me. There is a phrase I love from Eihei Dogen, in our Zen tradition: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” That is, the very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations, is a manifestation of Buddhanature itself. Everything is broken. No regrets.


Over the years I have tried to ‘deal with’ (that means get rid of) depression in various ways. I have done talk therapy and acupuncture. I’ve sampled organic remedies like St John’s wort, SAME-e, homeopathy, and most recently, Vitamin D. I have been on and off a modest amount of fluoxetine (Prozac).  Actually, Prozac seemed to work for a while.  When I began to take it—twenty years ago, on the advice of my therapist and in consultation with a psychiatrist—it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared. It was a great and joyous relief. But the relief seemed to be only temporary.


So I return to what I trust, meditation—and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated. Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression usually lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I will take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly toward myself.

The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I keep in mind E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howards End: “Only connect.” In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true. So I leave my room and seek a friend. In depression, friendship is an alkahest—the alchemist’s universal solvent that brings forth light and energy. It’s the best remedy.

Thank you Alan.

Joan Tollifson has been writing recently on her facebook page about depression and dharma.

Wonderful posts and reflections.

She apparently stumbled onto Alan’s piece too. Here’s part of what she says…

“I found (Alan’s) article deeply enlightening. Enlightening because it offers no big, splashy promises of a life filled with continuous bliss and flashing blue lights, but instead, something so simple and real. I loved Alan’s honesty, his humility, and his settledness in the ordinary (which is truly the extraordinary). The Zen practice he embodies is about being right here with life as it is.”

“It makes me very happy to see that more and more teachers seem willing to openly acknowledge and reveal their own humanness and brokenness—their on-going struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction, jealousy, anger, or whatever it might be. We tend to idolize and idealize spiritual teachers, wanting to believe that they are perfect and that maybe someday we will be perfect. Disillusionment is often a hard lesson, but it can be the greatest lesson of all, when we discover the teacher’s imperfections and understand that no one else can save us. […]”

“I wish we could all get beyond the Final Enlightenment Mythology and the Awakened Person Mythology in which we imagine that we (or others) have crossed some finish line and arrived at some final place where all problems have been permanently solved. …”

Amen Sister.

And one more story….

Several years ago, I went down to Berea, Kentucky to a small Christian College, to meet Ivan Illich. Illich gave a public talk to maybe 200 students and activists from the area. Illich had abandoned the podium and climbed down from the stage. He said he refused to use the microphone because it privileged one voice above the many and thus this technology was inherently anti-democratic.  Preferring instead to speak with his unamplified voice, he stood and spoke to us from the first row of seats in the auditorium. We all moved in closer to hear him.

After the hour-long talk, he said there was a time for a few questions…

An African-American woman in the third row stood up, “Given the difficulty of improving things in society, and given how often there is frustration and failure, how do we keep from despair? How do we keep going?” she asked.

Illich didn’t have a pat answer.

There was a long pause while he considered her question. Time passed.

We all waited quietly.

Then Illich motioned to Lee Hoinecki, his best friend, who was sitting in the front row.

Lee got up and went to stand beside Ivan.

Ivan gently leaned into Lee and put an arm around his shoulders.

He smiled at the woman who had asked the question.

Then he said one word:


March 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Q to HH the Dalai Lama: What was the happiest moment of your life?

From the Dec. 22, 2011 posting by the Ven. Matthieu Ricard at his blog:
et en francais:

Japanese researcher, specialist of laughter, took part in a meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of scientists and philosophers, organized by the Mind and Life Institute to which I belong. This distinguished researcher was scheduled to make his presentation on the fifth and final day of the meeting.
During the week he rarely intervened and hardly ever smiled. So we were all the more eager and curious to hear his presentation. It turned out that this scholar had a dry sense of humor. He explained that a group of a hundred people with diabetes were invited to attend a performance of one of the most popular comics in Japan. All had a good dose of laughter for over an hour. Blood samples taken at the end of the show showed a significant decrease in the level of a blood protein involved in the symptoms of diabetes.

The next day the same group of people were invited to hear a scholarly presentation by a university professor. When blood samples were taken at the end of the conference, it appeared that the level of the same protein had not decreased but had in fact increased slightly.

The Japanese scientist then delivered his verdict with great seriousness: “The conclusion of this study is: if you have diabetes, do not listen to an academic presentation! “ As Marcel Pagnol wrote: “Laughter is something that God gave men to console them from being intelligent.”

Then he ended with a question to the Dalai Lama: “Your Holiness, can you tell us what was the happiest moment of your life? “ A silence full of expectation fell in the room, composed of a dozen scientists, some Buddhist scholars and meditators, and a hundred guests. The Dalai Lama paused for a while, looked up in space, as if seeking an answer deep within himself, then suddenly, he leaned forward and said to the Japanese scholar in a resounding voice, “I think …. Now ! “
Everyone broke into a joyful laughter and the meeting was adjourned. Delighted, the Japanese scholar was himself laughing heartily.
From the recent photobook 108 Sourires

January 7, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

How Do We Look After One Another?

Dharma evenings with Derek in Toronto: Dec. 14 and 15, 7:30 pm.

How do we bring Dharma into our activism?

How do we bring activism into our Dharma?

How do we look after one another?

Let’s get together for a couple of nights and explore these questions.

The evenings are free – all are welcome. No prior meditation experience necessary.

Please call to let us know you’re coming (Tracy – 416 534-5726)

 Or Gelek (bgelek[at]

“There is nothing to be done. Now go and do it.” – Gandhi

(in the meantime, some excerpts from last week’s fantastic interview with Arundhati Roy….)

Arundhati Roy: “The People Who Created the Crisis Will Not Be the Ones That Come Up With a Solution”

Wednesday 30 November 2011

by: Arun Gupta, The Guardian UK

Arundhati Roy: The fact that in New York and other places where (Occupy movement) people are being beaten and evicted suggests nervousness and confusion in the ruling establishment. I think the movement will, or at least should, become a protean movement of ideas, as well as action, where the element of surprise remains with the protesters. We need to preserve the element of an intellectual ambush and a physical manifestation that takes the government and the police by surprise. It has to keep re-imagining itself, because holding territory may not be something the movement will be allowed to do in a state as powerful and violent as the United States.
Roy: We often confuse or loosely use the ideas of crony capitalism or neoliberalism to actually avoid using the word “capitalism”, but once you’ve actually seen, let’s say, what’s happening in India and the United States – that this model of US economics packaged in a carton that says “democracy” is being forced on countries all over the world, militarily if necessary, has in the United States itself resulted in 400 of the richest people owning wealth equivalent [to that] of half of the population. Thousands are losing their jobs and homes, while corporations are being bailed out with billions of dollars.
There’s something terribly wrong. No individual and no corporation should be allowed to amass that kind of unlimited wealth, including bestselling writers like myself, who are showered with royalties. Money need not be our only reward. Corporations that are turning over these huge profits can own everything: the media, the universities, the mines, the weapons industry, insurance hospitals, drug companies, non-governmental organisations. They can buy judges, journalists, politicians, publishing houses, television stations, bookshops and even activists. This kind of monopoly, this cross-ownership of businesses, has to stop.

The whole privatisation of health and education, of natural resources and essential infrastructure – all of this is so twisted and so antithetical to anything that would place the interests of human beings or the environment at the center of what ought to be a government concern – should stop. The amassing of unfettered wealth of individuals and corporations should stop. The inheritance of rich people’s wealth by their children should stop. The expropriators should have their wealth expropriated and redistributed.  […..]
The people who created the crisis in the first place will not be the ones that come up with a solution.

That is why we must pay close attention to those with another imagination: an imagination outside of capitalism, as well as communism. We will soon have to admit that those people, like the millions of indigenous people fighting to prevent the takeover of their lands and the destruction of their environment – the people who still know the secrets of sustainable living – are not relics of the past, but the guides to our future.

December 8, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Calm and pacify your own mindstream…” (advice from Mingyur Rinpoche’s Goodbye letter)

From Video

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, teacher and author of  The Joy of Living, and  Joyful Wisdom, departed retreat in Bodhgaya (India) this past June (2011).

In a 6 minute youtube video (link below), recorded at Garrison Institute NY in July, his brother Tsoknyi Rinpoche describes the circumstances, and the effect on their family. It is inspiring.

Here is the text of Mingyur Rinpoche’s letter that he left behind:

Letter from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche when Departing for Retreat

In early June, 2011, Mingyur Rinpoche left his monastery in Bodhgaya, India to begin a period of extended solitary retreat. He departed in the middle of the night without telling anyone. He did not take any money or belongings, just the clothes he was wearing. The day after he left, his close friend and attendant, Lama Soto, found this letter in Mingyur Rinpoche’s room.

“I write this letter to all the wise and pure-intentioned individuals who rely on me, both the monastic communities and lay practitioners throughout India, Nepal, and Tibet.

From a young age, I have harbored the wish to stay in retreat and practice, wandering from place to place without any fixed location. I also received an ocean of instructions from my glorious and kind root gurus. Though I have attempted to stay in retreat and practice, I have passed the rest of my time in laziness and diversions, letting my life come to nothing more than a distraction.

I have made a firm decision, based on the advice of the great masters of times past and my own heart’s desire, to, as the example goes, take the reins into my own hands. Our lives are as fragile as a bubble and the activities of this life are as endless as the waves of the ocean. Yet whatever we do, we should rely upon and place our hopes in the Buddha’s sacred and divine teachings. It is the Dharma that will benefit both us and other sentient beings. For this and other reasons, I have become disillusioned with the experiences of this life.

With genuine conviction in the lineage and instructions I have received, along with a motivation to be of benefit to others, various causes and conditions have prompted me to make the decision to wander alone, without fixed location, in remote mountain ranges. Though I do not claim to be like the great masters of times past, I am now embarking on this journey as a mere reflection of these teachers, as a faithful imitation of the example they set. For a number of years, my training will consist of simply leaving behind my connections, so please do not be upset with my decision.

As I have recommended before, throughout this period it is important to study, contemplate, and meditate. With a sense of harmony and pure discipline as a basis, it is important to study and contemplate the traditional scriptures of the Buddhist tradition, and [to learn] the traditions, practices, fields of knowledge, and other disciplines [taught in our lineage]. It is especially important to not always focus your attention outward, but to apply the teachings to your own mind. You should calm and pacify your own mindstream. It is important to bring benefit to the Buddha’s teachings and to your fellow sentient beings.

There is no need to worry about me. After a few years, we will meet again and, as before, gather together as teacher and student to enjoy a feast of the Dharma. Until that time, I will continually pray to the Three Jewels and make aspirations on your behalf.”

Tulku Mingyur

Written on the 3rd day of the 4th month of the Tibetan calendar in the year 2011

August 15, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Passing of Sayadaw U Thila Wunta

Sayadaw and small meditation 'trainee'

Sayadaw and small meditation 'trainee'

The Teacher of my Teachers passed away on Thursday March 17, 2011; he was 99 yrs old.

He ordained my principal Teacher (Namgyal Rinpoche/Anandabodhi) in the late 1950s, and my senior Teacher (Sonam Senge/Bodhinanda) in the early 1980s.

I took students to his monastery in Burma to study with him in 2003, 2005+06.
He was an extraordinary being.

There is a gross misunderstanding that some Mahayana Buddhists have about Theravidin Buddhists, claiming that Theravadin Buddhism is focused too much on the individual attaining his or her own personal liberation (and forsaking the well-being of all).

Sayadaw was a living refutation of that view. Saying things like: “You students have little small greed, you have desire for a house maybe… but Sayadaw has Maha-Desire, Maha-Desire for all of you to have shelter, for all of you to attain enlightenment.”

Sayadaw’s Last Teaching

Here is my  last conversation with the Ven. Sayadaw U Thila Wanta; it took place on the balcony of his monastery in Burma in December 2006.  At that time I had spent almost two weeks near his monastery coming over with two other students to meditate on the grounds once a day and share in the daily meal offered to Sayadaw (which he then passed on to his 40 or so meditating cats–“Better meditators than you!” he sometimes said— and then to the Western visitors—in that order).

But all in all, very little appeared to be happening.

Truth be told I was a bit disappointed; I guess I kept expecting some kind of lightening bolt, a profound teaching from him to come out of the blue. But every day he just sent us off to eat his (and the cats’) leftovers….

On the final morning, as the taxi to the airport waited down below, we went up for a final goodbye.

At this point I remembered that I had promised Bodhinanda (my senior teacher, who had been ordained as bhikkhu by Sayadaw 25 years before) that I would pass on his best wishes to Sayadaw and specifically his wish that Sayadaw have a long life (Sayadaw was already 94 or so).

Smiling and expecting a simple exchange of pleasantries I repeated Bodhinanda’s request:

“Sayadaw, Bodhinanda asked me to wish you a long life.”

I was blindsided by Sayadaw’s response.
There was a pause as the translator passed on the message—and then Sayadaw’s frown deepened and suddenly he spat in his spitoon and he barked out (half in English and half in Mon, via the translator):
”Long life not important! Ha!”

He waved his hand dismissively,

“If want liberation for one person, for you, alone, then—short life good enough!”

Spitting again, he repeated,

“Short Life good enough—Ha!”

A pause, and then a long stare into my eyes–

“Long life only if wish liberation for all beings!”

“If, if want help all beings, then…. OK… Long life. OK.”




Here I’ve patched together some wonderful biographical notes about Sayadaw from a Kagyu website and from the ClearSky website:

Sayadaw U Thila Wunta (1912-2011)

U Thila Wunta, the teacher of Namgyal Rinpoche, came from the Mon State of Burma. He was born 28 June 1912. He began his training at a monastery school in 1919. At the age of 15 he took the vows of a monk. In May 1932 he received full ordination as a Bhikshu in the Theravada Order under the direction of Kyaw Sayadaw.1

U Thila Wunta settled for some time near the great Shve Dagon Pagoda, in Rangoon. It is generally believed by Buddhists that certain holy sites or “power spots” are especially conducive for progress in meditation. Experience has shown that meditation is not only easier, but that insight dawns much faster, when practice is carried out at such places. Further, because many beings over the centuries have themselves realized Enlightenment at these special holy sites, it is felt that a residue vibration of their presences remains there. The Shve Dagon Pagoda at Rangoon is one of the world’s most special power places.

In 1948, U Thila Wunta traveled to Popa to meet Bodaw Aung Min Gaung, a fully realized Burmese saint.

Sayadaw U Thila Wunta

Bodaw Aung Min Gaung was a great meditator in the Weizzer forest-tradition of Burma. In Burma “weizzers” are known as persons having wisdom, masters of Wisdom (Skt: vidya), or the “Wise Ones”. 2

Bodaw Aung Min Gaung was a master who not only knew how to teach meditation but one who had himself acquired full realization. He was a truly liberated being.

Meeting Aung Min Gaung brought about a radical change in his understanding. To fully focus on his practice, he went into solitary retreat in the forest, wandering from village to village for food but otherwise living entirely alone.

Upon U Thila Wunta’s eventual return to Rangoon, a pious layman named U Pho Nweh donated five acres of land in the hope that U Thila Wunta would restore an ancient, broken stupa (pagoda) on the property. Initially U Thila Wunta thought that this would distract him from his meditation practice, but his guru Bodaw Aung Ming Gaung advised him to go ahead and accept the gift.

Today, surrounding the reconstructed central pagoda, there are now some 174 smaller pagodas. Buildings for monks and lay meditators have also sprung up throughout the grounds. The original five acres has been transformed over the years into a thriving monastic complex, known as Dat Pon Zon Aung Min Gaung Monastery, firmly centered in the Weizzer meditation tradition.

U Thila Wunta spent 1950–55 in meditation at the base of a tree on the grounds of Dat Pon Zon Monastery.

Sayadaw U Thila WuntaAfter U Thila Wunta attained awakening, he began a number of extensive trips around the world. Starting in 1955 the venerable Sayadaw visited Thailand, Nepal, and India. In India he went to Lumbini, Sarnath, Jammu, Sravasti, Kusinara, Darjeeling, and again Bodh Gaya, the holiest site of all. At Bodh Gaya he performed an intensive 49 day meditation retreat. He then returned via Thailand to his native land. In the meantime his little monastery had grown to accommodate twenty monks.

In 1956, during the Buddha-Jayanti celebrations of 2,500 years of Buddhism, he visited the London Buddhist Society, where he met the young Canadian, George Leslie Dawson (Anada Bodhi/Namgyal Rinpoche), who was immediately drawn to the Sayadaw as his teacher.  The Sayadaw invited Dawson to follow him to Burma. Travelling overland to India that year, Dawson re-joined the Sayadaw in Buddhagaya where he received Novice ordination as Samanera Ananda. Continuing on to Burma, he received Higher Ordination at the Shwe Dagon Temple in Rangoon and was given the name Ananda Bodhi Bhikkhu. There he studied the Vinaya and Abhidhamma.

Under Sayadaw’s guidance, Ananda Bodhi received meditation training in all of the 40 classical Samatha practices  and later studied the Vipassana (insight) meditation system under Mahasi Sayadaw.  After more than 5 years of intensive training in the East, the Venerable Ananda Bodhi received the title of ‘Samatha-Vipassana-Kammathan-Acariya’ — teacher of both the calm and insight meditation practices — and he was given the red belt of a meditation master.

The Sayadaw U Thila Wunta dedicated his life to teaching the profound method of meditation that he learned under the compassionate guidance of Bodaw Aung Min Gaung.

His fame in Burma, where he was looked upon as a living Arhat, an enlightened Master, was very great indeed. Many miracles were attributed to him. The impersonal goodness, compassion and wisdom that radiated from his presence were tangible. Everyone who had the blessed fortune to meet U Thila Wunta felt that they were in the exceptional presence of an extraordinary human saint.

Namgyal Rinpoche’s teacher U Thila Wunta was an austere, old man of great presence and power. The depth of his wisdom was written all over his aged face, and the intensity of his love was like a tangible force.


1 The title Sayadaw (Skt: Upadhyaya, Tib: Khenpo) means “preceptor” or “abbot”. When one goes for ordination in the Buddhist tradition, of the five or more monks necessary for an ordination service, the two of most importance for the applicant is one’s Preceptor, or Upadhyaya, and one’s Teacher (Acharn or Acarya).

2 The term “weizzer” derives from the Pali word “vijja” meaning wisdom or awareness, according to L. Olmstead. It was the weizzer tradition that Bodaw Aung Min Guang passed on to the venerable Sayadaw U Thilawunta.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


Often at the entrance to a meditation center there will be a donation bowl, sometimes with the Pali word “Dana” over it, and maybe it’ll also have a sign saying that the center or the teacher rely on donations so please donate to support the teaching.

This is fine, and perhaps it is a necessary explanation for Westerners, but this is not Dana.

This is exchange or a form of payment.  This is the way we Westerners approach all services, with a requirement of reciprocity, “I get so I give and I give so I get”—this is the equation dominant in our minds.  And this equation is fine and dandy.  On the face of it, there is no problem at all, but this equation is not Dana.

The Pali Dictionary (on page 318) gives the Vedic roots for the word Dana: da (davati = to give), to deal out, distribute.  Dana is a charitable gift to the sangha, a meritorious act, (to give to virtuous people), giving to a Bhikkhu.

It took doing service for my teacher before I finally began to figure out what Dana meant.

My principal teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche, had a senior student who served as attendant preparing all of the teacher’s food, handling travel arrangements and so on.

One day, early on in my Dharma training, I was asked to replace the attendant for a day.  I was in awe of Rinpoche and so I was nervous about doing things right as I took on the responsibility of cooking for him during the day.

The first meal was lunch and Rinpoche was quite easy on me.  When I asked what he wanted, he suggested perhaps a ham sandwich with mustard.  I went digging in the fridge for the mustard.

He said, “It’s on the left side.”

In my nervousness, my dyslexia kicked in, and I kept looking on the right side of the fridge.

He asked, “Are you looking on the left side?”

Convinced that I was, I said, “Yes” and kept shuffling the bottles on the right side, trying to find the mustard.

After a few minutes of this, Rinpoche got off the couch, came to the fridge, reached over my shoulder and pulled the mustard off the left shelf, right in front of my face.

He put the mustard on the counter top next to the ham and bread and he quietly said, “I’m quite capable of making a sandwich you know.  If you want to make this sandwich, you can, but you don’t have to. Do you want to make lunch for me?”

And he waited.  He was smiling and calm.

I said, “Yes, please let me make the sandwich.”

The way the sandwich was made, proportion of mustard, probably would have been more to his liking if he’d made it himself.  But out of compassion, he allowed me to prepare him some lunch.

If a bowl says, “Fee for teaching” that’s one thing, but if the sign says “Dana” it has the same connotation as offering food.  Making that sandwich was an opportunity for me to give.  I was not doing it to get something in return, to receive a teaching or to pay my teacher.  In the same way, if we choose to put money in the Dana bowl, it’s as if we are hearing the teacher say, “I’m quite capable of doing things myself, but if it would benefit you to give in this manner, then I will accept it, out of compassion.”

Making that sandwich was supposed to be (and it was) good for me.  Putting Dana in a Dana bowl is also good for me so long as the teacher is willing to accept it.  If I want to put Dana in the Dana bowl then I should do so whether the teacher is offering a class or not.

For a teacher rooted in this tradition, if you offer them a glass of water and if they have a deep understanding of the dynamics of Dana, even if they are not thirsty they will at least touch the glass to indicate their acceptance of the gift and to convey that your generosity has been recognized, acknowledged.  They may not necessarily drink the water, they may not eat the sandwich, they may not spend the money in the bowl, but, in order to confer a benefit on you, they will give some sign (if you are looking) that your generosity is acknowledged.

Can you see how this is completely different than paying for a service?  These are two totally different types of activities, two totally different dynamics.  Just to repeat, there’s nothing wrong with paying for a service, but that is not what Dana means.

If you go to Burma today, and if you’re willing to get up at 6am or so, you’ll see the monks carrying their bowls, accepting alms from the laity just like they did 2500 years ago in the time of the Buddha.  Both my teachers were ordained as monks in Burma and talked about the importance of understanding this tradition of alms round if you wanted to understand the dynamics of Dana.

Namgyal Rinpoche use to say: “Don’t call it a ‘begging bowl’—the Buddha didn’t ‘beg’—he provided an opportunity for others to accumulate merit.”

Rinpoche told a story from his time as a young monk in Burma, in order to describe the interaction of the giver and the receiver of Dana.

One day, while Rinpoche (then known as Anandabodhi) was on alms round, a woman from a very poor family came forward to offer alms.  She piled his alms bowl full with rice, actually with too much rice, because it’s against the rules of the order for the recipient monk to spill any of what the laity has offered.  But when Rinpoche made the sign that he wished to continue on, to indicate “that’s enough”, she kept piling rice into his bowl, until it was overflowing.

When he went back to the monastery with this overflowing alms bowl some of the rice fell out of the bowl onto the floor of the hallway of the monastery… At which point one of the senior members of the order jumped on his transgression, and criticized the young Canadian monk for breaking the rule, saying he was committing a “sin”.

And Rinpoche replied:

“It is not my sin, it is her glory.”

Sonam Senge likes to cite another story, from the Visuddhimagga, that also sheds light on this dynamic of Dana.

One time an elderly monk was nearing death; he had not eaten in several days, and he sat near a road, under a fruit tree, with his alms bowl, to wait for someone to offer food.  As he was waiting, a piece of fruit fell from the tree, nearby.  And so he was forced to ponder: what would be the best course of action to take to benefit all beings?

If he ate the fruit, he took away the possibility of someone gaining merit from offering him the fruit.  He didn’t want to deny someone that opportunity; so he continued to wait.  More time passed and he got weaker.  Eventually a layman came by and noticed the bhikkhu, and picked up the fruit and put it in his bowl; but by this point the monk was too feeble to eat it.  So the layman picked up the monk and carried him toward his home, where he hoped he could take care of him.

The monk died while he was being carried.  And at the moment of death the monk attained Arahat, the fourth (final) stage of sainthood.

The layman carrying the monk attained the first stage of sainthood: Sotapanna.

A member of the order accepts offerings out of compassion, in order to allow the giver to benefit. This is obviously completely different than how ‘Dana’ is usually explained in Buddhist circles in the West.  Western Buddhists usually talk about Dana as if it is just another word for “donation bowl/fee for teaching”. As if Dana belongs to the same set of dynamics as cash payments, ticket sales, and market relations.

It does not.

November 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dharma Teaching: the Highest Form of Dana

In the Buddhist tradition, Dharma teaching used to be offered completely free, as Dana.  Teaching traditionally was freely given by a Dharma teacher, completely outside of the dynamics of exchange.  Again, please let me be clear, I’m talking about tradition.

Traditionally, Dharma teaching was not considered a service.  It was (it is) a gift.  In fact, Dharma Teaching was considered the highest gift one could offer.

Now, today, with market relations colouring almost everything we encounter, it’s no surprise we make the mistake of thinking that a Dharma class is a service that we ought to pay for.  In fact, a Dharma class may be so moving and enlightening that if we were to view it as a service, we might even feel it is worth more money than we can give.

But the class is not a service, it is a gift.

At least this is the traditional way.

Namgyal Rinpoche once was leaving the rural meditation center 2 hours north of Toronto, and in the parking lot he stopped and asked us, “Do you know where I could have been this weekend?  A leadership seminar group asked me to give a workshop at a fancy hotel in Toronto for $600 per person per day.  Instead, here I am, giving the Dharma freely.”

I don’t think we appreciate how powerful and helpful Dharma teaching is.  I don’t think we appreciate that it is priceless.

In fact, IF it is given freely, to Westerners like us who only really understand market relations, then we tend to devalue it.  It’s for this reason that some teachers have started to charge fees in order to impress upon students how valuable Dharma teaching is.  This may be the way Dharma teaching evolves in the future.  But I kinda hope not.

I hope that some teachers and students continue to preserve this rare and completely different activity called Dana which is so thoroughly misunderstood in the West today because Dana is a different plant, a different species, than exchange-relations.  And Dana contains something that exchange-relations do not.  Dana has the potential to liberate the giver.  Dana is an enlightenment activity.  For the sake of awakening, we should keep the Dana tradition alive.  Even though it is very difficult for buy-and-sell-Westerners to understand it.

November 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments