Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

The Monk Who Got Addicted to His Phone

In the award-winning documentary Happiness (2014), acclaimed French filmmaker Thomas Balmès captures the life of an 8-year-old monk in Bhutan named Peyangki. With his new documentary Sing Me a Song, released on January 1, 2020, Balmès returns to Bhutan to follow the now-teenaged Peyangki and creates a nuanced portrait of a young man learning about the world beyond his monastery. 

Several years have passed since the Bhutanese government began lifting bans on TV and internet use in the country, and now the daily rituals of monastic life compete with the powerful lure of smartphones. Disinterested in study, Peyangki privately forms a relationship on social media with a singer from the capital city of Thimpu and aims to leave the monastery in search of “the one he dreams of night and day.”

While other documentaries like The Social Dilemma (2020) sound the alarm on social media manipulations and their real-world consequences, Sing Me a Song offers a unique perspective: that of a young monk’s coming of age in a new era of connectivity. Caught between tradition and modernity, Peyangki’s journey, occasionally crushing and painful, has universal resonance.

Tricycle caught up (virtually) with Balmès at his home in Normandy, to talk about the tension between technology and tradition, the impacts of connectivity on society, and the power of film to hold up a mirror to our addictions.

Peyangki at a night club in the city | Courtesy of Participant

In your documentary Happiness, Peyangki seemed to embody the Buddhist teaching about “child-mind”—approaching experience with a sense of wonder, without expectation.  When you returned for the new film, what differences did you observe? I have to say that when I came back to shoot Sing Me a Song, the first thing I observed was this scene of the young monks in the monastery, praying and playing [on their phones] at the same time. And I felt most of them had their brains turned off. The innocence that was there earlier, when shooting Happiness, that was lost. 

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Ram Dass in Review

Over the course of a nine-decade cultural mash-up, Ram Dass morphed from a member of Boston’s upper-class nobility named Richard Alpert into one of the world’s most iconic and widely read spiritual teachers. 

Being Ram Dass, published posthumously in January 2021, is his 17th and final book.

Being Ram Dass
by Ram Dass with Rameshwar Das
Sounds True, January 2021,
$29.99, 496 pp., cloth

His breakthrough title, Be Here Now, was written a half-century ago and has sold over 2 million copies. The counterculture work resonated with young people experimenting with a lifestyle inspired by Ram Dass and his partner in crime, psychedelia, and academia, Timothy Leary. From the ivy-covered towers of the Harvard Psychedelic Project, Leary admonished “Turn on, Tune In, and Drop out,” inspiring bands of young seekers to throw down limits and live life on its own terms. Richard Alpert joined the colorfully clad current; he hit the road on a spiritual search and ended up in the foothills of the Himalayas where he met his Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba who bestowed upon him the new moniker Ram Dass—“servant of God.”

When Ram Dass died in 2019, there were few stories about his vast and fascinating life that had not been told . . . and told . . . and told.

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Is Ram Dass Still Here Now? 

I knew Ram Dass for more than fifty years, longer than practically anyone in my life. He was my spiritual friend. There is a term for that in Sanskrit, kalyana mitra, which means more than a friend: a mentor, guide, inspiration for inner life.

I never knew Richard Alpert. I met him as Ram Dass at the first talk he gave when he returned from India in 1968. 

I was in my junior year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where Richard Alpert had earned his master’s degree around 14 years prior. I expected to hear about the annals of LSD from one of the members of the intrepid advance team of Timothy Leary and Alpert. Instead of the former Harvard professor, in walks a guy with a long beard in a white dress, barefoot in the frozen mud of New England in March. 

Forty or fifty people were sprawled around a lounge at the College of Letters. At 7:00 p.m., Ram Dass started speaking about his transformation in India. He had just spent six months learning yoga and meditation in the Himalaya foothills, keeping celibate, mostly in silence. Through those practices, he had built up a lot of spiritual energy. Ram Dass’s words and thoughts flowed like a spring freshet after snow melts and the ice breaks. The concepts he wove were exhilarating, like shooting rapids in a canoe. 

Ram Dass speaking to a weekend group at Willenrica, his family’s farm in Franklin, New Hampshire, 1969. | Photo copyright Rameshwar Das.

After a while someone turned out the lights, and there was just his voice coming out of the darkness, responding to questions. Ram Dass spoke until 3:00 a.m. Something shifted in me—the subtle sense of identity I had lived with since childhood, my self-image, my point of view. 

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Esoteric Theravada 

When a Buddhist hears the phrase “esoteric Buddhism,” they will most likely think of Tibetan Buddhism, or perhaps Japanese Shingon. Yet a new book uncovers a little known tradition of esotericism within the Theravada tradition, a lineage usually thought to eschew such practices. In Esoteric Theravada (Shambhala; December 22, 2020) Kate Crosby, a professor of Buddhist studies at King’s College, London, looks at a nearly forgotten Buddhist tradition in the Theravada world of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. 

In these practices, which Crosby calls boran kammatthana, or “the old practice,” initiated practitioners aim to create an “enlightened body” through the manipulation of visionary experiences. Esoteric Theravada outlines the process of meditative self-transformation in this tradition as well as the circumstances of the tradition’s near disappearance, and serves as a requiem for a unique expression of Buddhist meditation that Crosby feels should be recorded for posterity—and maybe even revived. Tricycle recently spoke to Crosby about the book and how it might enhance our modern-day understanding of the Theravada tradition. 

What is boran kammatthana? How do people practice it? In some texts this is referred to as “building a Buddha within the practitioner’s womb.” The practitioner starts by cultivating states of concentration that give rise to nimitta, or internal experiences of light, then incorporating the nimitta—sometimes in combination with visualized sacred syllables—into their body to build a Buddha. In some cases, the practitioner trains herself to visualize a series of crystal bodies representing different levels of attainment. Different Abhidhammic mental factors [cetasika], such as piti (rapture) and sukha (ease), are “invited” to arise in the body. The practitioner invokes her mental factor as if she were invoking temple gods, and addresses them like distinct and honored beings so as to transform body and mind, or in some cases to gain access to other words and occult beings. 

You write that boran kammatthana was suppressed in the 20th century. People in Southeast Asia felt threatened by colonial incursion and wanted to strengthen Buddhist religious practice, but they also internalized the disembodied, rationalist, text-focused bias of the colonizers, which led them away from the more esoteric practices. In some cases it was actually suppressed. The reformer Prince Mongkut of Thailand (1804–1868), for example, sought to disempower a practice tradition that he himself had been trained in. Yet it was also about changes in culture. The previous technologies of alchemy and folk medicine based on Ayurveda [the ancient holistic medical tradition of India] changed with the introduction of Western medicine and science. After that backdrop fell away, there wasn’t the supportive, resonating cultural sphere for practices like boran kammatthana anymore. There was also a brief time when traditional medicine was made illegal, which cut off the livelihood of esoteric medical practitioners. 

When [the] Vipassana [movement] came in from Burma, it presented meditation as a rationalistic practice, and promised a method to vivify Buddhism in the face of colonialism. Mainstream Theravada meditation guides were based on the model that one cultivated very deep states of concentration—jhana—and then used that tranquil, lucid mental state to study the nature of one’s experience with an eye to ridding oneself of delusion and attachment. Monastic seclusion was thought best for cultivating such deep meditation. The Vipassana movement, in contrast, cultivated only a minimal degree of the ability to focus the mind and then used various simple techniques to observe the body and mind and give rise to insight (which is what “vipassana” means). This was thought to be accessible to anyone, including laypeople. The processes in boran kammatthana are quite complicated and involved; they are also time-intensive and require initiation and personal attention from a teacher. So they are harder to popularize. All of these factors came together to cause the fading of boran kammatthana.

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Remembering Sojun Mel Weitsman

With great sadness, the sangha of the Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) announces that Hakuryu Sojun Mel Weitsman peacefully passed from this world to the Pure Land of buddhas and ancestors at home on Thursday, January 7, 2021. He was 91 years old.

Hakuryu Sojun (“White Dragon/Essence of Purity”) Roshi’s clear and steady leadership made BZC a beacon for Buddhist practitioners and other spiritual seekers in California’s East Bay and more widely in the US. With a strong circle of dedicated Zen students and as guiding teacher and abbot at BZC for 53 years, Sojun created a place where rigorous daily sitting practice was integral with people’s life of family, work, and service. He often spoke of BZC as a kind of “one room schoolhouse,” where each person could find the necessary teachings for their position in life. Anyone could knock on Sojun’s office door, and he would readily invite them in.

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Born in Los Angeles in 1929, Sojun Roshi’s broad life experience included a stint in the Marines, years of art study and abstract expressionist painting, augmented by work as a house and boat painter, cab driver, and teacher. His life work was transformed when he met his teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. He began his Zen practice at Suzuki Roshi’s San Francisco Zen Center in 1964, embracing the practice of zazen meditation and the task of sustaining the dharma of Zen.

At the instruction of Suzuki Roshi, Sojun founded Berkeley Zen Center in 1967. He was ordained a year later in the attic zendo he had established on Dwight Way in Berkeley. Suzuki Roshi died in 1971.  In 1984, Sojun received dharma transmission from Suzuki Roshi’s son, Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi, abbot of Rinso-In Temple in Japan. Sojun Roshi was installed as BZC’s first abbot in 1985. In declining health, he stepped down as abbot in October 2020, assuming the position of Founding Dharma Teacher.

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