Posts by Priyamitra

dharma-in-hellIn a sense we all live in a prison, but a life of literal confinement can force us to confront our existential situation — and our need for change — with unflinching honesty.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a collection of writings; of the nine chapters comprising the body of this text five appear to be written while the author was still in prison. A sixth chapter appears to have been composed within two weeks of his release. The remaining three chapters recount the nature and experience of the author in relation to practicing the Buddha’s path.

Chapter one carries the book’s title and also expands on the theme with the subheading “Practicing in Prisons and Charnel Grounds”. Here, the author compares the experience of living and practicing in prison with doctrinal reasons for and benefits of practicing in charnel grounds, a main point being that both prisons and charnel grounds thrust one directly into experience of mental poisons, that is, into direct contact with greed, anger, and ignorance. The chapter begins by explaining just what is a charnel ground, and by extension what charnel grounds represent. This makes it possible to explain, in Buddhist terms, what is a charnel ground practice, both traditionally and in contemporary terms. Lastly, the reader is given a glimpse inside Fleet Maull’s prison experience, showing just how the prison conditions, both external/physical and internal/psychological, provided him with the opportunity for charnel ground practice.

Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull

Dharma in Hell, Fleet Maull

In a sense we all live in a prison, but a life of literal confinement can force us to confront our existential situation — and our need for change — with unflinching honesty.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a collection of writings; of the nine chapters comprising the body of this text five appear to be written while the author was still in prison. A sixth chapter appears to have been composed within two weeks of his release. The remaining three chapters recount the nature and experience of the author in relation to practicing the Buddha’s path.

Title: Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull
Author: Fleet Maull
Publisher: Prison Dharma Network
ISBN: 0-9718143-1-7
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Chapter one carries the book’s title and also expands on the theme with the subheading “Practicing in Prisons and Charnel Grounds”. Here, the author compares the experience of living and practicing in prison with doctrinal reasons for and benefits of practicing in charnel grounds, a main point being that both prisons and charnel grounds thrust one directly into experience of mental poisons, that is, into direct contact with greed, anger, and ignorance. The chapter begins by explaining just what is a charnel ground, and by extension what charnel grounds represent. This makes it possible to explain, in Buddhist terms, what is a charnel ground practice, both traditionally and in contemporary terms. Lastly, the reader is given a glimpse inside Fleet Maull’s prison experience, showing just how the prison conditions, both external/physical and internal/psychological, provided him with the opportunity for charnel ground practice.

Chapter two looks at Buddhist practice in prison as a form of monasticism, particularly the author’s experience of taking and applying monastic vows in prison. First we get to see that Buddhist practice in prison is very different from its counterpart in a monastery. “Noise and chaos are a prison’s most pervasive qualities” (p.41). Eventually it becomes evident that while formal practice is very difficult the practice of mindfulness throughout daily life is crucial in prison.

See also:

Chapter three, like the previous chapter, is an edited excerpt of previously published material. It addresses “Money and Livelihood Behind Bars.” There is an economy in prison. Wages can be earned and trade does occur, and there is inevitably a black market where goods and services can be bought. While it is possible to live on very little, everything about prison life and western society at large tends to ensnare us in economic gain. With his pre-incarceration livelihood coming from drug smuggling, the author realized upon entering prison that it would be necessary for him to practice Right Livelihood, with its attendant honesty.

In chapter four the author considers “Death Without Dogma”. In this chapter Maull recounts his interaction with dying inmates while performing hospice work. The stories are very personal and give a real flavor of how he brought practice into his interactions with inmates of other faiths.

Chapter five speaks of the widespread phenomenon of depression. Although this problem is not specific to prison or charnel grounds, in this case prison is the framework for examining and understanding depression. And, although this is the shortest chapter of the book, the author makes quick work of explaining just how potent a steady meditation practice can be at dissolving the life-sapping darkness of depression and hopelessness.

In chapter six, “Rumblings from Inside,” we get a look at the psychology of the incarcerated. Emphasis is placed on considering the effects of penal methods (punishment vs. rehabilitation) for the inmate in terms of taking responsibility for his or her life. Negative mental states abound, and are structurally encouraged, in prison life. The author suggests that real change can come about when inmates learn to be of service to others. He also speaks of the value meditation offers in seeing inmates’ responsibility for their current conditions.

Chapter seven, “A Taste of Freedom” looks at the experience of stepping outside the role of prisoner for a three day unescorted furlough. The author has been in prison for thirteen years by the time we get to this chapter. The sudden shift to experiencing freedom outside of prison prompts the author to reflect on his years of prison conditioning, conditioning that he realizes can be met with mindfulness and emotional receptivity.

Chapter eight sees the author finally released from prison and embarking on life afterward, speaking to a Buddhist audience about “Transforming Obstacles into Path”, and explaining how he came to see that whatever difficulties encountered can be met without reactivity and used as fuel for practice. By this point in the book much of the material has been stated in prior chapters.

And lastly, chapter nine discusses the “Path of Service”. Here Fleet Maull explains how service to others in prison benefited him, allowing him to get beyond his own personal drama. He also explains how he thinks that service to others is offers healing to those still in prison. Getting out of the endless loops of our mind by helping others makes it possible to let go of our own self-perpetuated suffering. As is stated in the opening verse of the Dhammapada:

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.”

Life in prison can easily be seen as life in hell, but as Fleet Maull illustrates it need not be so.

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“To Buy Or Not To Buy,” by April Lane Benson, PhD

To Buy Or Not To Buy. April Lane Benson.A new book offers help to those caught up in the painful compulsion to over-shop, from advice on how to untangle the financial mess that results from living beyond one’s means, to exercises for uncovering the unmet needs that drive the addiction to over-consume.

“For every Imelda Marcos — who fled the Philippines leaving behind more than three thousand pairs of shoes — there are countless unknown overshoppers: a businessman whose collection of fountain pens has grown obsessive; a language teacher whose closets are stuffed with unworn, still-tagged garments; a waitress who’s succumbed to the Jewelry Television Network.”

April Lane Benson, PhD has written a self-help book that could quite easily be transposed to other addictions. But, this book is written specifically for the overshopper who is motivated to change their own addictive behavior. To Buy Or Not To Buy is more of a workbook than simply an explanation of overshopping. As such, there are specific exercises to follow, journaling, and a healthy dose of honest self-reflection required for the reader hoping to finish this text. Benson also points out that a significant measure of patience with the effort and with oneself is necessary.

Title: To Buy Or Not To Buy
Author: April Lane Benson, PhD
Publisher: Shambhala/Trumpeter Books
ISBN: 978-1-59030-599-7
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

Right from the beginning the reader is asked to take on some substantial work; there are questions to consider/answer, there are shopping myths to examine, and there are shopping behaviors to identify — all with the aim of helping the reader identify traits they may be unaware of. This work is intensified in the second chapter by looking at emotional/psychological triggers for overshopping and the fallout that inevitably results. Inventories, matrices, and journaling exercises lead the reader to better understand the mechanisms at work in their own overshopping behavior. The third chapter ties this work together by having the reader sketch a portrait of their overshopping self-image, really asking that a close look be taken so as to see and understand that the behavior is not the person, it is a behavioral profile. With this identity groundwork laid out the text turns to ways of changing.

 Right from the beginning the reader is asked to take on some substantial work  

Chapter four digs into the often delicate matter of sorting one’s financial tangle, the wreckage that usually accompanies overshopping. In some ways this chapter is the most straight-forward, and for many will provide the first outwardly visible change others close to the overshopper will see. As with prior chapters there are exercises and journaling work to help the overshopper move forward. Putting one’s finances in order can be both liberating and exhilarating, feelings that are generally noticeable by anyone paying attention.

Now we come to the heart of the matter, dealing with unmet needs, the root of the overshopping behavior. For many this will be a delicate subject requiring much sensitivity and kindness, compassion even. But, readers who have come this far and done the work prescribed earlier will have started to develop the understanding and patience that fosters momentum. Chapter six turns the magnifying glass away from the reader for a moment to look at how society is permeated by and buys [sic] into consumerism, how marketing aims specifically at luring us all into spending money. This chapter also draws upon the self-knowledge developed in earlier chapters in order to de-magnetize the places and feelings that repeatedly snare the overshopper. This sets the reader up to consider shopping more mindfully and with greater intentionality.

 The heart of the matter [is] dealing with unmet needs  

Chapters eight and nine dive back into the space of personal experience, looking in detail at what the body, heart, mind, and soul are doing/not doing when overshopping is occurring, and considering the consequences for living more fully in the present moments that make up our lives. The work here continues with the aim of building a vocabulary for identifying and describing our experience, in itself valuable for everyone not just overshoppers. Lastly, there is a chapter to brace the reader for overshopping lapses and/or relapse. Included are preventative exercises and journaling methods to prepare for the likelihood of resolve slipping or being overwhelmed by unforeseen circumstances.

Weaknesses of the book are few and relatively minor. They include the author, early on, citing a study that men are as likely to be overshoppers as are women, but failing to use a balance of examples to back the assertion. The first chapter lists six gendered examples of overshopper types, five of which are female. As the text progresses this ratio evens out at close to 7:1 making the reading easier for women than for men. The cover also is designed to appeal more to women than men. Another weakness — perhaps glitch is a better term here — is that the author offers the reader seductively easy access to obtaining a shopping journal, buying a ready made journal from the author’s website, ‘if they prefer.’ This seems ill-advised for one trying to help others curb an overshopping habit.

In spite of these two very minor complaints, To Buy Or Not To Buy is well thought out, well written, and contains a great deal of useful, sensible, and wise advice. More than that, it offers an effective and personal method for grappling with the very modern problem overshopping has become. More than thirty years ago Erich Fromm wrote To Have Or To Be, pointing out the alarming trend of materialism in Western culture. Today, April Lane Benson, PhD, provides the very necessary tools each of us can take up to regain our sense of self and worth in the face of this maddening materialism that is overshopping.


Priyamitra
Priyamitra was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2005.

He lives in Spokane, Washington where he is active as a prison Dharma volunteer. Previously, he worked in a variety of jobs, as diverse as software-tester and hanglider test-pilot.

In February and March 2009 he fulfilled a life-long ambition of going on pilgrimage in south Asia.

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“Sons of the Buddha,” by Kamala Tiyavanich

Sons of the Buddha, Kamala TiyavanichIn Sons of the Buddha Kamala Tiyavanich shows how the early experiences and upbringing of three Thai boys led to their developing into powerfully influential figures in the Theravadin world.

All Buddhist masters were once children, just like you and I. In Sons of the Buddha Kamala Tiyavanich shows how three prominent Thai Buddhists of the 20th century — Ajahns Buddhadasa, Panya, and Junmien — were shaped by the social, religious, and political standards of their youthful years.

Using their own words and other source material (listed at the end of the text) Tiyavanich crafts three parallel stories to provide readers with an engaging portrait of southern Thai Buddhism before the modernization and Westernization of Thailand. The introduction sets the stage by providing a significant view of each Ajahn’s (Bhikkhu’s) impact on the modern state of Thai Buddhism. We see how each became an active teacher, took a stand for greater morality, and how each reinvigorated the use of everyday experience in teaching the Buddha-Dhamma.

Starting with Ajahn Buddhadasa, likely the most well known 20th century Thai bhikkhu to those of us in the West, we learn of his parents, their place in society, his childhood in the village, and something of the social structure of that period on the southern Thai peninsula.

  Junmien’s father insisted he practice meditation while still a young boy, intent on teaching him the mental discipline he believed necessary for success in life   

As an infant Buddhadasa was named Ngaum (“cave high up on a mountain”) by a respected monk. We learn that young boys often spent a significant amount of time at the local Wat (monastic temple) and often lived there for a significant amount of time, working to help maintain the Wat by cooking and cleaning. This was often the boys’ first opportunity to get any formal education. It was only later, when Ngaum had become a Bhikkhu that he was given the name Buddhadasa (servant of the Buddha). As with most young men at the time Ngaum entered the monastery for a temporary period at age 20. Yet, because of his parents being shopkeepers and having books, Ngaum was already well read and practiced in debating Dhamma when he entered the monastery. He found life as a monk suited him, and his Dhamma talks were very well received by the elder residents.

Ajahn Panya (boyhood name Pan) was still a young monk when he came to Ajahn Buddhadasa’s forest monastery for the rains retreat in 1936. The two bhikkhus became friends and maintained their friendship until Buddhadasa’s death in 1993. His boyhood was filled with stories told by his grandmothers, and in this way he learned a great deal of “folk wisdom” which, at that time was full of tales illustrating morality (sila). As a young man he tried making his fortune in the world outside his village and wherever he would find work he would quickly learn that this was not for him. Time and again his path would lead him to the local monastery of the region. Eventually, he learned that the life of a monk was what best suited him.

The author does not indicate that Ajahn Junmien’s life path crossed that of Buddhadasa or Panya except in that his story shares many parallels with that of the others. Junmien’s father insisted he practice meditation while still a young boy, intent on teaching him the mental discipline he believed necessary for success in life. He also taught Junmien many gathas (invocations) that could be used to see the him through difficulties in life. Because of his father’s strong influence Junmien developed great courage and ability at whatever he undertook. At one point the author relates that Junmien was singled out by his parents from his five siblings, for they felt he had the greatest potential of all their children. Their expectations of him where much higher and they pushed him much harder than the other children. From age eight Junmien began studying any books available at the local monastery, eventually working his way through much of the Tripitika before becoming ordained.

  There is humor, sadness, and an abundance of lessons in this seemingly simple narrative.   

The stories are engaging, and while reading Sons of the Buddha the pages flew by. I was continually brought to consider my own rural boyhood, to compare my early experience with that of Ngaum, Pan, and Junmien. Their family relations, their trials, and their mischief are all related to who they became as Buddhist monks. I too find that in looking back to my boyhood there were formative conditions and experiences that are still producing fruit now that I’m walking the Buddhist path.

Sons of the Buddha is not an overtly didactic book. There is humor, sadness, and an abundance of lessons in this seemingly simple narrative. Kamala Tiyavanich weaves three life-stories together, not always gracefully or with the polish of a seasoned storyteller, but effectively showing the salt and grit of three boys’ rough-and-tumble experience. It is an enjoyable read pointing to the value of reflecting on one’s upbringing — pointing to the Dhamma that is in each of our lives if we take the time to look and consider how we’ve come to be who we now are.

Title: Sons of the Buddha: The Early Lives of Three Extraordinary Thai Masters
Author: Kamala Tiyavanich
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, 2007
ISBN: 0-86171-536-5


Priyamitra
Priyamitra was ordained in the Western Buddhist Order/Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana in 2005.

He lives in Spokane, Washington where he is active as a prison Dharma volunteer.

In February and March 2009 he will be fulfilling a life-long ambition of going on pigrimage in south Asia.

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