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Tathālokā Therī

Dear friends, All Hallow's Eve & Dia de los Muertos greetings, in the love of the Dhamma. Some of you have mentioned that i haven't written a new Dhamma reflection in a long time... So, in response to one of your notes today on Halloween and "The Day When the Veil Between the Living and the Dead is Thinnest," in combination with an email from Sravasti Abbey today on the co-contemporary Tibetan Buddhist holiday "Lhabab Duchen" (Tibetan version of the Thai Theravada "Devo Rohana"), i thought to write. Most Buddhist traditions, as well as most world cultural traditions, have a day of the year on which there is something special enacted, passed down from our ancestors, to bring our attention to our mortality, and to all those who have passed away. Often (but not always) these holidays happen in the autumn, when the harvest has been brought in and the earth is tending towards autumn/winter, and the visible signs of death in the natural world. And, as in ancient customs of revering our forebearers, often the fruits of the harvest are shared first with those who have gone before us, our departed loved ones, and ancestors--from whom, together with food, our own lives emerged and grew. Something of a combination of Halloween and Thanksgiving. In Buddhist traditions, there are several aspects. I will speak here first of the South and Southeast Asian Theravada. At the end of the vassa, in many places such as Thailand, Burma or Sri Lanka, Devo Rohana or Il Poya is celebrated (learn more). The ancient story, in Sanskrit called Deva Avatara, goes thus. One vassa, the Buddha disappeared, gone to the heaven where his deceased mother Maha Maya had reincarnated (she had passed away seven days after he was born, and the bodhisatta was raised by his maternal aunt). There, out of gratitude and compassion, he taught the profound Buddhist metaphysics of the Abhidhamma to her, until, at the end of the vassa, he returned to earth. Now here is where the story really gets legendary. He returns accompanied on either hand by both the great local and Vedic/Brahmanic gods, Sakka (Skt: Śakra, later Indra) and Brahma. And, as he returns on a staircase, not to but from heaven, all the worlds were, for that brief period of time, able to see each other. That is, the veil between the worlds and all the different realms of being was lifted, and all the vast audience of those who came to welcome him back were able to see other realms of existence, and thus know that they truly existed. Light is supposed to have come into even the very darkest realms, where by definition, no light shines.

{Uppalavanna and the Buddha front and center.

Deva Rohana image credit: fig. 10 p 362 of "In Search of Utpalavarna...}

I particularly know this story, because of studying it in my research of one of the Buddha's foremost leading women disciples Uppalavanna Theri--"Foremost in Spiritual Power," who was one of the two primary women leaders of his monastic community. The Buddha pointed to her as an exemplar, together with Khema of Great Wisdom, for all his community of bhikkhunis (AN reference). Because of this, it seemed important to learn something about her. Also because of this, in my study, and then writing what i'd found in "Amazing Transformations," i encountered the Deva Rohana story. For, it is in that defining moment, when the veil between worlds was lifted, that we find Uppalavanna (Sanskrit: Utpalavarna) most often depicted in Buddhist art. (Take a look at the article linked to above or the article "In Search of Utpalavarna in Gandhara Buddhism" if you'd like to see some more of the pictures.) I am particularly interested in this story for several reasons. One, because of the contemporary debate, in Western/International Buddhist circles about Karma & Rebirth {read a contemporary article on the subject}. In this story, not only those who were arahants (including Uppalavanna as a leading figure), but all those present were able to see that there really are different realms of existence. A knowledge which is reserved, generally, for those with a high degree of spiritual attainment. It's even called one of the "imponderables" because it is almost impossible to work out through rational thought--unlike many other aspects of the Dhamma, which are so rational, and propounded as rational. In this case, it is not something so easy to see and know for oneself--rather it is one of the tevijja (Skt: trividya), or "three superknowledges" of the arahant. This knowledge, the true seeing of conditional causation (of which volitional kamma is an aspect), is effective in the resolving and reconciliation of all things that is a part of coming to final peace with all things, through wise and knowing understanding. Seeing and knowing things as they truly are, bringing the ultimate healing of all wounds, the settling of all scores, and the end of all craving, attachment and dissatisfaction and desire for yet more and still more. Peace. Nibbana. The second related reason that i'm interested is the relationship between our Environment (with a capital 'E') and wise living, wise multi-generational, multi-life living, as well as living well in this one life, which recognizes and is aware of our human place in the big scheme of things which contains many "worlds" and many "realms of existence" which are in truth all interpenetrating and interconnected. And yet, in spiritual blindness, we do not see this. And we think of ourselves as isolated individuals. With regards to the Uppalavanna and Leading Women disciples story and history, over time, there were those who became gravely uncomfortable with both the role of "Woman of Wisdom" and "Woman of Spiritual Power." These roles were greatly suppressed in multiple traditions for several generations. And during this time, humanity has turned towards ways of living that do not honor and support the generations and are massively destructive on a scale perhaps never seen before in humanity. But now, hopefully, the cycle begins to turn back. From a Buddhist perspective, this would be a return to wisdom and to our spiritual power, not with one gender dominating the other, but all of us working together unitedly to support and help one another to grow in our birthright and human potential of wisdom and of deep insight into truth, in a way that is empowered, and, due to wisdom, is not afraid of power. With purification of intention, and training in the factors of right effort, knowing arises as to how to focus and apply our innate powers of the mind well & blessedly. This would be an enlightened perspective and way of life -- one that is open to us. The Buddha himself said "the Gates to the Deathless are Open." It seems sort of the opposite concept of the East Asian Buddhist Ullambana or "Ghost Festival," and "Day of the Dead" in which the gates to the hells or the gates to the world of the dead are thought to open. And yet, looking at death and the world of the dead square on is ever so important for our awakening and seeing into and through all of it. And it is ever so important for liberating our own power. By "power" here i mean our spiritual/mind/heart power, but also the power of our embodied lives. Our power gets suffocated and deadened when we spend a lot of time doing things that are meaningless to us, or things that are demeaning, or not acting effectively with regards to what is important to us. Our power gets diminished when we think of ourselves and each other in negative and demeaning ways. And our power gets greatly diffused and diverted when we live in ways that are scattered, distracted and fragmented in both our mental/heart and physical energies. Meditation helps us learn to bring all of the power of our minds and hearts together. It helps us to be able to see and know our own true meaning and real purpose in life. It helps us to be able to see honestly all things that we were not able to look at or see before. And from this, comes a clarification and realigning of our own values. Of mindfulness meditation, as the Buddha taught it, one main part is Maranasati (or Marananusati) Meditation--"Mindfulness of Death." (read more about this meditation here.)

Mindfulness of Death is one of the great ways to bring ourselves to see the truths of the objects of Insight Meditation: anicca, dukkha & anatta--"impermanence, suffering & non-self." It is one of the great ways to grow, not only in insight and wisdom, but to grow in heart~mind~spiritual power. For, it is in the clarification of values (and priorities) that occurs, that our power is unbound and comes together. It comes together in a way that has integrity--personal integrity. This is an integrity that is not external or coming from anyone else's belief systems, but one that is 100% true and right for us, in a way that we ourselves absolutely know its truth. This makes for both wise, and gentle, and strong, and powerful human beings; human beings who are able to do great things for humanity, just by their way of being; human beings, who in whatever they choose to do, in however they choose to live and to act--from the smallest to the largest thing -- everything being relative. This is the true aim of the Buddha's Dhamma and the Sangha: to so liberate us. This is our integrity, our gentleness and strength, and our wisdom and understanding. If you are not practicing Maranasati yet in your mindfulness practice, i would strongly recommend introducing it. Let the "Day of the Dead" be a portal to deeper wisdom and understanding, not being further drugged. Do Steven Levin's A Year to Live. Attend a Death Cafe even before you or a loved one receive a terminal diagnosis, or if you have. Attend a local Buddhist/meditation group or retreat on this subject, or start one. Learn what the Buddha taught about this, and access the benefits for yourself. Mindfulness is not only how to eat your cake, empty your bowels, put out the compost, and smell the flowers with full awareness.

It goes far deeper than that. It goes deeper in the body: into the flesh and bones and down into the bone marrow--down even into the tiniest particles of physical existence. {link to "inner universe" youtube} Deep into our emotional processes, being able to see and know them as they are, and understand how they happen (or don't happen). Deep into our minds, and what makes them expansive or contracted, exhalted and sublime, or heavy and dull. And deep into the Dhamma: including Mindfulness of Death, Conditional Causation, and the seeing of the Noble Truths (including the Path and End of Suffering) for oneself. Last, in all seriousness, i share with you some Dhamma fun. This is a poster for Halloween Carnival at the Buddhist Society of Western Australia (where Ajahn Brahm serves as Spiritual Director/aka Guiding Teacher):

I love this contemporary Buddhist-style Halloween Carnival. It looks at the tough subjects, as in so many of the cultural forms surrounding the meaning of these days, in a way that makes them accessible. For all those who are Buddhist teachers and leaders, sangha members and Dhamma friends, who are reading this--i want to invite you to think and see how to do what Buddhists have effectively been doing for millenia, in this very context. Take the raw material of our culture and world, and personal experiences, and apply them to the deep and liberating teachings of the Dhamma, liberating and profound. Of course, i am talking to myself as to you, as we are in the house of mirrors, whether the "Halloween Fun House" or Indra's Net, in which we see all things in profound relation. When light spreads through one "world" it spreads and penetrates all worlds, a heart's movement of joy passing through them -- for all beings. Ayya Tathālokā Bhikkhunī, with metta ~ ❧ ❧ ❧ ~ October 31, 2015


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"The Day the Veil Between the Worlds is Thinnest" Reflection on All Hallow's Eve & Dia de los Muerto

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