The Errant Abbot

Oct 2

The Heart of Monasticism

At its heart, monasticism is a commitment to accepting the entire universe as a teacher, that is, as a mirror to gaze directly into the nature of mind as we seek to continually clear a pathway for that reflection to shine into the world by means of our interactions with it, clear, bright and still.


Oct 1

“Enlightenment by the Gigabit: Spirituality Beyond Walls”


A talk delivered by the Ven. Dr. Sunyananda Dharma, Abbot of the Dharmakaya Buddhist Association on September 30th 2014 for ”Heaven and Ale” a contemporary theology series sponsored by St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City. 

Good evening everyone,
It’s really an honor to be here amongst all of you, so thank you for sharing your presence with all of us this evening. And thank you to Fr. Marcus and the entire St. Andrew’s community for putting together this really innovative event.

Last month, Mother Megan Castellan spoke to us on the theme of “Twitter and the Communion of Saints”, especially with regards to the liberating qualities of the internet in giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless, and I’d like to continue somewhat in that vein of exploring liberation theology this evening, addressing “the search for spirituality in the information age”, through the lenses of my own primary spiritual tradition, which is that of Zen Buddhism.

So the title of this installment of “Heaven and Ale” is “Enlightenment by the Gigabit: Spirituality Beyond Walls”, which sounds a little more enticing, perhaps, than “Facebook as Spiritual Practice”. None-the-less, I would be remiss if I didn’t clarify the title a bit.

I think most people today have heard at least of Buddhism, with the advent of meditation within the stream of popular culture and even contemporary Psychology as “mindfulness based cognitive therapy”, and still there’s not a terrible depth of knowledge of this spiritual tradition spread widely, which brings me to my point of addressing what we Buddhist’s sometimes refer to as “the E word”, that is, the concept of enlightenment, which if anyone has a buzzword that they associate with Buddhism, that’s usually it.

And, seeing as that’s the word associated with the would-be pinnacle of this tradition, I think we have to ask ourselves, especially before we explore its relationship to gigabits and social media, what is it, really?

Well to begin, honestly, in spite of the “e word’s” commonality it’s a bit of a misnomer, and to preface that somewhat, it may be helpful for me to give you a quick overview of Buddhist philosophy, which really begins with the life of a man named Siddhartha Gautama, whom would eventually come to be known widely as “the Buddha”.

In short, Sidhartha Gautama lived about three-thousand years ago in what is now modern day Nepal. He was born the son of a chieftain of a relatively large nomadic society, and, as the mythology of our tradition goes, a holy man prophesied that the newborn Siddhartha would invariably become either a great Warrior-King fit to inherit his fathers kingdom, or rather conversely, he would renounce his inheritance in favor of the life of a wondering aesthetic, destined to become a great Sage and knower. Hearing this, Sidhartha’s father, the ruling chieftain, was quick to put into play a plan of action to help to mold his son into a proper warrior-leader, and shield him from anything that might arise as a genesis for his seeking of the holy life of a mendicant monk.


Sidhartha was therefore showered with the finest offerings that the Shakya clan had to offer in education, and lifestyle, whilst simultaneously being kept all but entirely ignorant of what he would later in his life as “the Buddha” come to define as the “Three Marks of Existence”, namely impermanence, insubstantiality (non-self) and dissatisfaction.
But, as you might imagine this way of life wasn’t at all sustainable, and as the young Siddhartha neared the age of adulthood wherein he would be required to begin assuming some of the duties of the role he was set to inherit from his father. Out of necessity he had to be brought beyond the confines of his lavish lifestyle and into contact with the people he was on track to serve and thus, with their rather ordinary lives, marked by sickness, old age and death.

As the mythology goes, inevitably the young Buddha-to-Be came into contact with the sick, aged and yes, even recently dead of the society he lived at the helm of, and was thrown into a deeply introspective state, leading to his almost immediate exit from his lavish and stately life to that of a lowly beggar monk. And, alas, with but a few sharp strokes of his side blade, shaving off his royal hairdo, and shedding his fine garments for discarded bits of funeral cloth the deed was done, and he wondered from his kingdom into the unknown, seeking reason, rhyme and meaning to this thing we call life.

And through a rather long series of events, the young Prince Siddhartha did indeed find what he was looking for, he realized the “e word”, that of “enlightenment” and became “the Buddha” (which is a title meaning roughly something to the effect of “one who is awake, liberated, and free”).

The man who we now venerate as the Buddha spend the rest of his life building a spiritual community based around prati-moksha (literally ethical codes of conduct leading one toward liberation), teaching that profound understanding of impermanence, insubstantiality and unsatisfactoryness, the very things he was shielded from in his royal life can lead one to liberation from those things, and therein rests the nature of this thing called enlightenment.

The Buddha formulated the essentials of our theology or philosophy with four main points (which we term the Four Noble Truths) which namely are:

1.) Life involves to some degree, unsatisfactory-ness
2.) The origin of the unsatisfactory-ness, which arises from our ignorance of self and reality, leading us to A.) attach to things that are impermanent as if they were permanent, and to B.) crave for things not present in this very moment.
3.) That cessation of that unsatisfactoryness is possible through cultivating the
4.) Eightfold Path consisting of Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

As a Buddhist teacher I often remind my students that of these eight spokes on the wheel of Buddhist teaching, the root to which the others connect is that of Right View. This is the number one prescription that the Buddha acting as a physician of mind tried to instil in his pupils.

In other words, to quote my friend and mentor Lama Surya Das, our path is to “see things as they are, not as they ain’t!” It’s about seeing through the man behind the curtain as it were, it’s about getting outside of our self-professed conceptual identities and patterns of habitual behavior, and realizing the universe and our shared world as it exists beyond our own small narratives- outside of the walls of our homes, workplaces, temples, churches and even localities. And that’s where it becomes skilfully possible to be enlightened by the gigabit!

Today, all of human knowledge is enfolded in most of our pockets and/or purses, accessible literally to a tap of our thumbs. As Mother Megan so eloquently pointed out last month, the internet and especially social media profoundly connects us in ever expanding ways. Indeed, we almost cannot help but to realize the nature of our interdependence by simply logging onto the web and scrolling through our various news feeds. And that interdependence which is an aspect of Correct View, of which Buddha instructed that moment-to-moment contemplative experience through concentrated awareness, facilitates a deep-rooted transformation in our world view, which births experiential wisdom, that is, the way out of our habitual experience of the cycles of suffering and elation. And in that, I dont think it gets terribly much more concentrated than the world filtered through a 5.5” screen, unless you’re taking about the new Apple I-Watch, which is something like to the tune of only 47 milimeters, but we wont go there.

In our shared modern era, we have a mass of perspective pushed before our eyes from multitudes of sources, both professional news outlets and common individuals alike, widening our view of the world and our profoundly interconnected place in it. We can chat in real time with friends around the globe, not only with our voices, nor typed letters, varied fonts and emoticons, but also with live streaming video feeds which certainly seem to close the gap between individuals.

We have a new ease with which we can broadcast our opinions, both to affirm and build up, as well as to condemn and tear down. We can do with mere clicks and thumb taps, everything from tracking down criminals before even law enforcement authorities are able to do so, (as evidenced with the internet community’s recent identification of, and the subsequent arrest of the three individuals charged with assaulting a gay couple in Philadelphia last week) to reviving Betty White’s career, to creating new Taco Bell menu items, and resurrecting nostalgic products and foods from years gone by, like Surge soda, which has made a recent re-entry into production thanks to a Facebook campaign.

Indeed, the internet and our various networks and modes of interaction can serve to magnifiy the greater world and it’s joy, sorrow, elation and despair, to which we would otherwise be likely quite ignorant of, and perhaps even, content in our own shells of “I, my, me” experience.

There’s little to no shielding on the internet, today. Much akin to Buddha’s early princely life, no matter how hard we try, we really can’t hide behind funny cat photos, cute cartoons and affirming memes indefinitely. Inevitably the dissatisfaction and suffering, often arising from our simple ignorance, to our more ominous ego identification and conceptual polarization of “us and them” finds its way before our eyes. And then, does it lead us to seek the holy life of service to our interdependent world, of non-attachment from views and opinions and do we allow it to affirm our upkeep of business as usual, keeping the course of our inheritance as it were, in spite of the suffering around us?

We can be enlightened by the gigabit or simply jaded by it, the choice is ours. Aside from magnification to a scale of handheld microcosm from seemingly infinite macrocosm, the whole of the internet, especially social media can become as a mind-mirror. How do we react when we’re our news feeds are confronted with suffering and pain, often of multitudes of people around the world? How when we scroll to vitriolic and divisive statements and ideologies, or simply views that don’t mesh with those we prize as our own? Can we scroll to and then scroll through with well wishing? Or do we scroll through with a dismissive and discontented attitude, or even further do we engage in freely tapping out our reactions to prove the superiority of our opinions?

How do we react when we’re confronted with justice and joy, with socially edifying and uplifting stories and news? Do we merely notice only that which influences our immediate realm, or from time to time do we truly perhaps, utilize this new and expanding level of communication for the cultivation of compassion and love; for the empathetic experience of both shared joy and pain, and the together transcendence of our “I’s” that exclude most everyone else, into the realization of the me that finds its fulfillment only in the we.

Yes, we have a choice, in multitudes of additional interactions to reflect and respond, rather than simply perceive and react, and I believe that choice is rooted in understanding the power of our inter-connection. Truly with thumb taps and fingertip clacks we can utilize social media to widen our world view for continual and deeply rooted change on behalf of all people. Through realizing knowledge and accumulating experience of our interdependent nature, we uncover the plethora of opportunities, extra to our normal day-to-day in person interactions that we have to see through our own narratives and follow the advice of so many great sages, not only the Buddha who reminded us in the Nikayas that “Spiritual friendship is the whole of the Way”, but also the likes of Mahatma Gandhi who advised us to “lose ourselves in the service of others” and the great Mother Teresa who spoke of loving until it hurts, for then there can be no more hurt only more love.

In closing, I’m reminded of the lyrics to a song by a contemporary Christian recording artist named Tobymac that seems quite applicable to this age of gigabits and the freedom we have to use it for the benefit or bane of all people:

“Some days, life feels perfect.
Other days it just ain’t workin.
The good, the bad, the right, the wrong
And everything in between.

Though it’s crazy, amazing
We can turn a heart with the words we say.
Mountains crumble with every syllable.
Hope can live or die…

Some days the tongue gets twisted;
Other days my thoughts just fall apart.
I do, I don’t, I will, I won’t,
It’s like I’m drowning in the deep.

Well it’s crazy to imagine,
Words from our lips as the arms of compassion,
Mountains crumble with every syllable.
Hope can live or die.

So speak Life, speak Life.”


As We Nigh the Nimbus Nights

To relish the past,
and embrace the present,
while stewarding the future’s unfolding-
not reflecting in beatification,
nor holding with ownership,
or presencing with demands.
If words were to be applied,
maybe these could aspire to the post,
of Buddhaness.
And still,
there is no realization to be had,
no thought to fight nor embrace,
no demon to befriend nor slay-
for one cannot choose to be free,
without exercising in choosing,
that projected eventuality.
For we speak about conceptuality,
framing our reality,
and its damning to duality,
yet where else have we to be?
To find the place of no you and no me,
whether to be found within or beyond the we,
it’s all a vision found in the clouds,
as we look upward and float aimlessly through life’s great sea.
When we’re children,
it’s all cumulus cats,
and in adulthood,
nothing but serious stratusness,
“…a cloud is but a cloud you see!”
And as we nigh the nimbus night,
we seem to relax into being,
letting it all free,
the cirrus circus it’s always been,
for when a cloud’s a cat,
a cat it be.


The Merits of Merit

Several of my students, in recent interviews, have dealt with the concept of merit, alongside other, shall we say more difficult facets of traditional Buddhist culture and practice. Contemplating the need for clarity on this, I’ve come to define it as follows:

"Merit is the fulfilment and satisfaction that naturally arises from service and generosity freely rendered and given to others, the truest beholding of which, is too, found in its dedication to others. Merit is a primary factor that stewards the conditions of our rebirthing from one moment to the next, the presence of which tends toward nirvanic peace, the absence of which tends toward un-satisfaction."


Reason and Empathy: A Call to Valuing Life

In Buddha Dharma we do not value life because of some intrinsic soul or self-nature that we are commanded to look upon as pure, sacred and thus invaluable. Rather we cherish and respect life out of the purest sense of reason and empathy. Reasonably, life itself is the least common denominator that we all share and fervently avoid losing (as a point of instinctual, biological truth and fact) and thus empathetically treasure and seek to prolong.  



We can’t even hang on to our memories, and yet we have the audacity to think that our ego selves have inherent identity. Changing, changing, changing.

When Something Is, Something Is: Taking Responsibility for Our Liberation

This morning I received a message with the following image and question: “Teacher, please tell me…is this correct understanding?” 


Regardless of what you believe, the universe is always demonstrating. How you choose to divide the eternally real is up to you, that is our unwavering, always present, attained and cultivated liberation.

Do you choose to affirm difficulty in your life, or do you choose to affirm reality with the seeming ease that the universe births all phenomena? The great way is beyond these mere dichotomies of good and bad, difficulty and ease, like and dislike, want and don’t want. Simply, when you’re hungry, eat! When you’re tired, sleep. When someone needs help, only help them. Moment after moment, what is this? And, this being the case, how can I help?

We’re always grasping for anything that can justify our patterns of thinking, for something outside of ourselves to which we can pass the responsibility for our experience, all while paying lip service to wanting freedom and wanting liberation, without the responsibility that comes with claiming that ever-present freedom and liberation.

To paraphrase the Buddha Shakyamuni in the first of the Twin Verses of the Dhamapada- all things are created by (and sustained by) mind, and mind alone- that includes our transcendence and our suffering, our happiness, elation, fulfillment and joy alongside our sadness, despair, craving and anger. The realization of liberation is congruent with the realization of our responsibility for its stewardship.


Pinging to Pong: Overcoming the Spiritual Rush

When it comes to the study of Buddhism, it’s important to not have a goal or eventuality too firmly in mind- goals tend to foster an environment of deadlines, competition and rush. Though we have something of a curriculum of fundamentals to study initially, this will exhaust itself quicker than you think. Though there may be scores of kong’an to engage, these will render themselves clear quicker than you think. And, though there may be libraries of commentaries and books written on the practice of Dharma, they all merge together in one taste, not requiring another comment from a teacher, and, eventually you’re left with the practice of simply being Buddha. What will you do then?

It’s best to invest your time in the cultivation of kalyana-mitra (spiritual friendship), rather than trying to rush through your studies. Relish your time with your teachers and dharma siblings, getting to know them, building avenues and pathways with which to both support and be supported by your dharma family, as the lotus of your life blossoms into being.

Remember life happens almost entirely between the pong paddles, slow down and enjoy it, rather than trying so earnestly to catch your next “ping”, “pong” or “ah ha”- every time you do, the ball is just going to bounce back across the board. Breath, relax, center and smile!


Giving Away Our Spiritual Practice

Probably my favorite part of daily morning liturgy is when we dedicate the merit of our spiritual practice to all beings. For many, getting up in the early morning to chant and meditate is rough business, even getting to weekly group practice is difficult for many, and so it seems easy to begin to feel some pride for just doing it, to feel an accumulation of some-thing…and, as soon as that arises we recite some verse in tune with the sentiment “I wish that all this merit be extended to everyone, that we, together with all beings, may gain the Buddha’s way”- a subtle reminder that this really isn’t about us, and with a nod toward our interdependence, the suggestion that as soon as we can stop thinking that it is, we can actually realize the direction of practice, that is losing the I the excludes everyone else, and finding the we that includes the me. Peace my friends!


A 9/11 Reflection

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 memorial monuments in NY, NY with my family. Truly a sobering reminder of both the capacity for human atrocity and too, transcendence. May this day serve as a call to continued and deepening, ever more honest reflection on how our words and actions affirm atrocity or transcendence. We all have the power to enact significant change in the world, for better or worse- just as the “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” so too do our words and actions, no matter how seemingly small and insignificant steer the course of our lives, and that of our world.