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Gifts Greater Than the Oceans With Ayya Dhammadipa

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Ayya Dhammadipa is a Buddhist nun and teacher with a unique background: Before becoming a nun, she got an MBA, worked in investment banking, and was a devoted mother. For twenty years, she studied in the Zen Buddhist tradition, but now practices the earlier Buddhist lineage of Theravada. In this episode, she talks about these interesting turns in her life, where mindfulness fits into a complete path of self-development, how to balance motherhood with practice, and the misunderstood benefits of giving and receiving.

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Ayya Dhammadipa Bio

[00:00:00] Scott Snibbe: I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Ayya Dhammadīpā is a Buddhist nun and teacher with a unique background: Before becoming a nun, she got an MBA, worked in investment banking, and was a devoted mother. For twenty years, Ayya Dhammadipa studied in the Zen Buddhist tradition, but now practices the earlier Buddhist lineage of Theravada. In this episode, she talks with me about these interesting turns in her life, where mindfulness fits into a complete path of self-development, how to balance motherhood with practice, and about the joys of giving and receiving which she writes about in her recent book Gifts Greater Than the Oceans, which is available now freely on her website.

The girl in the sunflower hat, from Chapter 1 of “Gifts Greater Than the Oceans”
The girl in the sunflower hat, from Chapter 1 of “Gifts Greater Than the Oceans”

Ayya Dhammadipa Interview

Scott Snibbe: Ayya Dhammadipa, it’s a pleasure to have you on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment and I’m so grateful you agreed to speak with us. Thank you for joining us today.

[00:00:54] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes, thanks for having me on.

[00:00:57] Scott Snibbe: You have an extremely interesting background. You’re an ordained nun, a teacher and interfaith chaplain. Before that you got an MBA, you worked in finance and investment banking, and you also became a mother. So there’s a lot to talk about there. What brought you to Buddhism and then convinced you to ordain from all those other backgrounds? 

Encountering Buddhism

[00:01:19] Ayya Dhammadipa: I actually encountered Buddhism in my early twenties and as many Westerners do, I encountered Buddhism through a book. It was funny, I was reading a survey of religion, I don’t even remember who the author was but

They said Buddhism is different from other religions. And I thought, oh, different, that’s good for me. That’s good for me. I had left behind my Catholic roots many years before and turned away from that way of thinking about the world. 

So by karmic consequence, I suppose, I went right out to the bookstore and ended up going home with a book by Robert Aitken Roshi called Taking the Path of Zen.

It just so deeply resonated with me. I tell people it’s like the way that the bell must feel when we strike it. That’s how I felt reading this book, so I ran right out and had somebody help me learn how to meditate. And I just kept going. 

I was very fortunate to encounter Buddhism while I was still a lay person, because it gave me an opportunity to think it through, to see what it meant to my life, to really value also having some guidance and a teacher. And that’s ultimately how I ended up coming to San Francisco Zen Center was because I was looking for a teacher.

San Francisco Zen Center
San Francisco Zen Center

Another one of those funny stories, my boyfriend’s dog-walker at the time was a young woman who had, a little resume for being a dog-walker. And at the bottom of her resume, it said she is Buddhist. I said, oh, that’s great. Do you know, I’m looking for a place to practice and maybe even a teacher and she looked at me and she said well, you know, San Francisco Zen Center is like two blocks down the street here.

And I didn’t know, actually, but you know, step-by-step over the course of many years, I just got more and more intimate with my practice and really more and more interested in leaning into the transformational possibilities of the practice. And that’s what really drove me. Then I met my root teacher, Sekkei Harada Roshi and it was something like I’d been exploring the four corners of the earth, in a sense, and then it was like being shot off in a rocket.

It was just a completely different dimension of practice, of vastness of practice that I hadn’t experienced before. And so my confidence in him, after many years of being involved in Zen Center and being a practitioner and a mother and all of those things, my understanding that I could give my whole life’s energy to this and still be whole and still have all those other aspects of my life.

I asked him to ordain and Roshi said, “It’s not impossible,” as Zen masters have the tendency to do. And we went from there because it wasn’t a no.

Why is Buddhism Different?

[00:04:34] Scott Snibbe: You said you were attracted to Buddhism because it was different. In what way did you find Buddhism to be different as you first started encountering it? 

[00:04:43] Ayya Dhammadipa: Certainly there isn’t in Buddhism this understanding that one needs to appeal to some external being, at least not the Buddhism that I encountered early on, that one needs to appeal to some external being for one’s liberation or forgiveness or some other, spiritual wellbeing.

[00:05:05] Scott Snibbe: So if you don’t appeal to some other being, who are you appealing to from the Buddhist perspective?

[00:05:10] Ayya Dhammadipa: I think that the Buddha would say no appeal is necessary, actually. 

It’s more this wonderful sense of discovery and unfolding and willingness, a willingness rather than an appeal.

[00:05:27] Scott Snibbe: That’s very nice. Can you talk a little bit about how being a mother has affected your practice and your Buddhist views? I think it’s somewhat unique. in your own path, I know a number of, ordained nuns, but very few of them who have been a mother. 

How Being a Mother has Impacted Her Path

[00:05:44] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yeah, somebody said that to me recently as well. It’s true. It’s an unusual series of karmic events. A lot of my teaching stories actually come from parenting, various aha moments that were either ‘ahas’ at that time, or have later become really beautiful demonstrations of dharma.

But I will say that the strongest influence that being a mother has had is on my Metta practice, my unconditional love for my daughter and especially those early months. You know, they just uplift my heart so much that they are always a really great source of sparking some Metta meditation.

[00:06:28] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I would agree with you so much in that. Because I have a 10 year old daughter and that’s definitely the nucleus of trying to generate loving kindness is thinking about my love for her. That one’s easy.

[00:06:39] Ayya Dhammadipa: Beautiful. 

Advice for Parents on the Path

[00:06:41] Scott Snibbe: What advice would you have to parents, especially mothers, who can get frustrated with at least in some of the traditions I’m familiar with, the sense that you need to spend a lot of time on the cushion. And then the contradiction of trying to do that with the time you need to dedicate to your children. Could you talk about that? How does contemplation and service align as you’re being a Buddhist mother? 

[00:07:03] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes. Well, certainly time limitations for parents in general, right? Whether it’s for practice or for their hobbies or any number of other things. I think that really, for me, I couldn’t be the mother that I am, unless I were practicing, there’s just no way. Especially now I look back and I think, wow, I certainly learned a lot through the practice and that’s benefited her, and balance as a parent is one of the most difficult things that we have to find, particularly now as well, when most parents are working outside the home or working in jobs that are based outside the home. It’s very easy to get a little bit too far away. And so we really need to give them the time. 

That said, kids are very resilient, very resilient. I went to Japan while my daughter was in high school and I had a little tiny cell phone and I would sneak out in the morning before breakfast because of the time differences and call her, and she would ask me her homework questions on the phone. and then a senior administrative monk found out that I was doing that and he totally gave me a hard time about it. And threatened to take the phone away, but they never actually did take the phone away. So I just kept at it. I think that’s key, is that no matter what we’re doing, that we’re finding a way to tell our kids that we care about them, that we do love them, and that we are thinking about them and taking care of them in all kinds of ways.

[00:08:51] Scott Snibbe: That time away is also a way of nourishing them and nourishing the family. Yeah. What would you say to a mother that’s struggling, trying to find time on the cushion in that busy day?

[00:09:04] Ayya Dhammadipa: Well, I would say open up your ideas about what practice is. So maybe there’s a chanting practice that you can do or a walking meditation practice or some kind of visualization. There’s any number of different kinds of practices that you can do that aren’t requiring you to be sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed, right?

And the kids can join in various ways. Being careful, of course, to allow them the opportunity to also say no, right? Not forcing your kids to be practicing Buddhism if that’s not what’s calling them.

[00:09:40] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so there’s more engaged forms of Buddhism. My teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche once said that in our tradition we have these preliminary practices, you’re supposed to do certain mantras and rituals. And he said, if you’re a mother, you could substitute changing diapers. 

[00:10:00] Ayya Dhammadipa: Alright. I wouldn’t go that far. Not that you couldn’t change diapers mindfully, but certain formalities of practice are supportive. 

The Importance of the Formality of Practice

[00:10:11] Scott Snibbe: That’s really important to hear, can you talk a little bit more about that? What’s the importance of the formality of practice? 

[00:10:17] Ayya Dhammadipa: Certainly in Zen tradition, I would say the ritualized nature of it and the community practice nature of it is critical, is key. It’s as part of the process of really starting to see practice as something that is not just about you and also a kind of mindfulness of body that happens in community and in ritual that is particularly unique, is particularly helpful, I think.

Also, I think that we value, interestingly, we can value things a little better in a slightly more formal setting. I think that’s particularly true of young folks. If it’s too casual or if it’s too person next doorish, then one doesn’t stop to think about the implications of what’s being offered. And it becomes something that isn’t really taken in with a lot of depth, is just not landing. Not landing.

[00:11:25] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, there’s another interesting element of your background is that you began your journey in Buddhism in the Zen tradition. And most recently you’ve been practicing in the Theravada tradition. Can you talk about what inspired that shift? 

[00:11:38] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes.

Why Shift from Zen to Theravada?

So I had been practicing metta meditation. It was actually recommended to me by my American Zen teacher, Shosan Victoria Austin there at San Francisco Zen Center back in 2005. And again, I just kept going. It just became very much a part of my daily experience and very helpful. And I saw the benefits. 

I think that was working on me very deeply, actually, that metta practice over the years was working on me very deeply. And parallel to that, I also started noticing that after many years what was happening was that I was more and more interested in setting things down. In Buddhist parlance, we would say I was becoming more renunciant, right. I was already practicing celibacy. I wasn’t eating a full dinner. I had set aside certain other aspects of my life. Because I found those to be supports. Because what I saw was that when I did those things, when I tried them out, they weren’t actually so much about the discipline as they were about really turning the energy and the focus back inward, back into the practice, back into the wisdom aspect.

So that was happening. There came a point at which I started to feel that I was out of alignment with mainstream American Zen, actually; that I wasn’t relating that well to the practice of my colleagues and that I felt that there were actually some misunderstandings that were being expounded by folks.

That’s not unusual. Different people have different expressions of dharma. I think one of the great things about having practiced at Zen Center was exactly that, seeing many different teachers with many different types of expression and knowing that’s all possible and good. But again, I felt like I had now migrated or shifted my personal practice in a different direction.

When I looked out at the landscape and I said, who is it that I do feel aligned with? Who is it that I do feel that is doing a practice that feels appropriate to the path that I’m on? It was the Theravada and it was my friends, the nuns in the Theravada community, who I’d also known for years at that point and visited and practiced with and so on.

But I think the real clincher actually, Scott, the real clincher was that, as I had been studying the Pali suttas for a long time, I started to see the way in which the Buddha was speaking directly to the process that I was experiencing. So I would pick up a sutta that I’d never seen before and I would read it. And the Buddha would say, there are these 10 steps or these 11 steps. And I would be yes, I saw step one, then led to step two, then led to step three. I totally had experienced that. And so it gave me an inspiration and a confidence in those Pali texts that I hadn’t had before, because then I could see, oh yes, if I’ve seen up to steps five or six, then I can have confidence in the other five. So all of that kind of came together. 

Pali SuttasPali
Photo Credit: https://bobthurman.com/pali-suttas/

It was a long thought process. I had to really consider, particularly because I was already a teacher at that point, And I had people who I felt were relying on me for the teachings as their guide in some way. I have taken those bodhisattva vows and received Dharma transmission, which means that I have a certain responsibility to Soto Zen lineage. So I had to think to myself, could I actually fulfill those commitments, those promises that I’d already made and be a Theravada nun?

Somehow I came to the conclusion that the answer to that was, yes. So that’s why I consider myself, that’s why I still talk about myself as a dual lineage teacher. And why, once a year I typically would offer a retreat or a class or a series of talks about Zen, even though my personal practice is almost exclusively Theravada now.

[00:16:22] Scott Snibbe: Oh, that’s amazing. So fulfilling your bodhisattva Mahayana vow by becoming a Theravadan nun. 

[00:16:28] Ayya Dhammadipa: Pretty interesting. 

[00:16:29] Scott Snibbe: I love it. 

I love it. It’s beautiful. I’m more familiar with the Mahayana Tibetan Buddhism. Can you talk a little bit about the Theravada view of the mind in particular and how you steer it toward its greatest potential? I mean, in one way that’s one essence of Buddhism, right, is how do we transform our minds? 

The Theravada View of Mind

[00:16:47] Ayya Dhammadipa: Very much so. Well, in Theravada Buddhism, and early Buddhism, which are not exactly the same thing but very close, what you see is the Buddha gave us a number of frameworks, right? These things that people often refer to as the lists, right? So you have the list of the twelve-fold chain of dependent causation, and you have the list of the five aggregates and you have the list of the four noble truths and so on.

But rather than think about it that way, I relate to those frameworks as the Buddha giving us the instruction to say, focus on this now. Focus on this aspect of your experience. Then focus on this aspect of your experience. Now have a look at this aspect and see where they are discrete and where they are interacting, or related and so on. What are the different interrelationships and conditional aspects there? 

So for me, for example, one of the frameworks that’s been the most helpful in terms of understanding the mind is the framework of the five aggregates, the five khandas or skandhas as we would say in Sanskrit. The Buddha saying, Yes, so there is some kind of contact that happens, and when that contact happens, then it sparks all these various aspects of mind, right? The vedana, the sort of feeling tone of it, the perception of what the thing is, the potentially Sankhara, some kind of plan as regards to that thing and the consciousness itself, which was the receptive field in which that contact happened.

And so being able to, in my experience, discern that there is, for example, consciousness as distinct from thoughts, or consciousness as distinct from the sort of underlying primitive sense of whether a thing is okay or not okay, right, the vedana. All of these ways of looking at the mind are very helpful to me because then I see numerous things. I see, one, the way in which some things are just plain optional. 

In my personal experience, I can see that Sankhara, that having some kind of storyline or some kind of willed thought about any contact is actually optional, right? So these kinds of ways of parsing it out, then lead to being able to break that chain.

And this is the key, right? So there are two points in the chain of dependent origination where the Buddha said we can break the link. One is right there at the point between where feeling becomes craving, right? And this is what he was also talking about in the noble truths. This kind of, we feel something.

There’s a wonderful story. Okay. I’ll tell you a story. Can I tell you this about when my daughter was young, she was at this preschool and it was time for her birthday and I thought, oh, that’s great. We’ll have all the kids together so we can have a little party for her birthday at the preschool. So I worked it out with the preschool teacher and I left work at lunchtime and I went to the ice cream store and I bought a little cup of ice cream for each one of the kids in her group.

So I show up at the preschool and I started putting out the ice creams right away because they’re melting already. And there was this one little boy seated at one end of the table who was actually very good friend of Kayla. He was like her hugging buddy, this little boy. And I put the ice cream down in front of him and right away, the preschool teacher came over to me and she said no, he can’t have that.

And she picks it up because he’s lactose intolerant. We didn’t have that whole conversation, but that’s what was happening. And the little kid burst out crying, of course. One moment he had an ice cream. The next moment he doesn’t. And he’s too little, they’re like two or three at this point. He’s too little to understand that ice cream is harmful for him. So he had this positive vedana, right? He has this positive feeling tone about ice cream. And when it gets taken away, he’s totally swept away by that. So much so that we went and brought him two of his favorite cookies before he was willing to stop crying. And you could see him, we brought him one cookie, still crying. We brought him the second cookie and you could see him make this calculation: is he going to be willing to set down his sadness and actually accept the goodness that’s in front of him?

This is about vedana. This is happening to us all the time. It’s not just little kids, right? We are swept away by our vedana, and the more that we can meditatively slow down enough and it doesn’t have to be on the cushion necessarily. But there is a way in which the meditation can show the mind these aspects, how getting close to them, getting intimate with those points of contact, will help you to unlock that being swept away. And that’s essentially, part of what we mean when we say an enlightened being: somebody who has absolute choice about whether and how to respond to any contact. 

[00:22:30] Scott Snibbe: I think what’s important there right, is that there’s nothing wrong with the feeling, right, and experiencing and being aware of that feeling, even going deeper into that awareness. But it’s that moment where it starts controlling you. And you move into craving and it’s a compulsive action.

Is that what you’re saying? 

[00:22:47] Ayya Dhammadipa: 

Well, it’s that moment when yes, when you’re swept away and you’re not aware of why you’re swept away. And also that moment of just as the kid, that little boy did, you have something better in front of you and you’re not willing actually to make that choice to accept what’s better in front of you because you’re still hung up on what happened before, Or your idea of what should be happening now. Does this ring a bell? This is, we’ve all experienced this in our lives.

[00:23:15] Scott Snibbe: Oh, of course. I still want to be angry at my wife, even though she’s so sweet and kind and apologized for whatever trivial thing I got upset by. You get attached to that, even anger, which is so sad. 

[00:23:29] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes, exactly. So that’s how we get hooked. We get hooked by the feeling tone. 

[00:23:37] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. And what was the other place in the 12 links where you can stop that chain? 

[00:23:42] Ayya Dhammadipa: Ah, yes. So the other place is at the point of ignorance, right? So we can have a visceral experience. The Buddha talked about the body or using the body as an instrument, that the literal instrumental is the form of that word. So it means having a visceral experience of the experience of impermanence, right? The experience of dukkha, how unsatisfactoriness is related to that, and the experience of non-self. Non-self meaning, for shorthand conditionality, the absolute conditionality of everything. 

So when we have that visceral experience of that, even little tiny flashes, it’s a huge change to your life, right? It’s a huge change.

[00:24:48] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. My understanding, Robert Thurman talks about how the word self in Sanskrit is a verb. It’s not a noun; it’s selfing. Is that the case in the Pali also where it’s a process and not an object?

[00:25:02] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes. What the Buddha said was the self was something like a mirage, like the mirage is my favorite. He says all perception actually, but particularly the perception of self, but all perception is like a mirage, right? 

So there is some phenomena happening. Some physical phenomena, like you look out at the road and there’s heat and there’s air moving and there’s this visual thing. And yet, once you get closer, you see there’s no water there. There’s absolutely no water there. 

So the water is both there and not there in the sense that, again, there’s this phenomena, but it’s– we put some kind of overlay, some kind of idea onto that phenomena, which is the self.

[00:25:53] Scott Snibbe: And when the Buddha says it’s like a mirage, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t entirely not exist. It isn’t literally a mirage, but it’s like a mirage. Right. So what’s that difference? 

[00:26:02] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes, that’s right. So the Buddha doesn’t posit an absolute, in early Buddhism anyway, we don’t posit an absolute denial of the material, physical, energetic world. On the contrary, just as I was saying, right? So the five aggregates starts with body, with form. 

So it’s more like that. It’s more like those things, those phenomena are in process and they’re in process according to the laws of impermanence, karma and so on. But that process, this thing, body and mind, process doesn’t belong to us. He says, it’s not mine. It’s not me. It’s not myself. So it’s not a thing, exactly. 

And that’s one of the things that he says over and over again. It’s interesting that for many people early Buddhism has this flavor of nihilism or something because of that arhat ideal of not coming back, not taking any further rebirth.

But if you understood that there wasn’t something there in the first place, something eternal, something defined, then it cannot be destroyed. It’s a mistake to say that it’s destroyed or annihilated in any way.

[00:27:28] Scott Snibbe: It didn’t exist in the way we thought to begin with. 

[00:27:30] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yep. It’s just like that water, it looks like water, but it’s not. 

[00:27:37] Scott Snibbe: Yeah.

I would love to talk to you about mind and emptiness actually for hours, but I want to ask you about your book. A recent book you wrote is about giving, Gifts Greater Than the Oceans. Can you just talk about just briefly what you’d like readers to take away from that book? 

Generosity as a Path to Understanding Interdependence

[00:27:53] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes. So Gifts Greater Than the Oceans is a book that is structured according to the three, what we would call in early Buddhism, the unwholesome roots, or in Zen often they’re called the poisons. So greed, hatred, and delusion, or in this case of the book, non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion. And I did that because I had wanted for years to share these stories and some of these teachings that came out of formal practice of receiving dana in both the Zen and the Theravada traditions.

And the more that I thought about why these stories were important to share is because we hear a lot about how giving or generosity is a counter to greed. That’s the obvious teaching, I would say. But there’s more to it than that. There’s so much more to it than that. It helps us, I believe, to encounter a kind of intimacy and a kind of interdependence, which is also addressing, let’s say hatred, right? Which is oftentimes based in a sense of separation or inability to relate to the other person and delusion. The delusion that we are somehow completely separate beings from each other. The delusion that we can resolve anything that is presented to us karmically through analysis. These are the kinds of things that actually giving is teaching us.

[00:29:32] Scott Snibbe: So generosity as a path towards interdependence and understanding interdependence. 

[00:29:37] Ayya Dhammadipa: Very much so. 

Giving food to another person in need.

The Gift of Giving the Opportunity for Generosity

[00:29:40] Scott Snibbe: Something you talk about a little is the guilt that people can feel when they’re asking for something from others. you talk about the other side of generosity, of asking for generosity and how that, I think people often feel very burdened or guilty about asking for something from someone else.

You’re a nun who relies on the generosity of others. Can you talk a little bit about developing and maintaining that attitude of asking for generosity as an opportunity for others to be generous? That was kind of an interesting point. 

[00:30:08] Ayya Dhammadipa: So one thing is I see it more as giving others the opportunity. So I’m glad that you used that word. I think that, in fact, the Buddhist understanding of it would be something like that, that we have an infinite number of opportunities that are presented to us day to day in which we can actually be giving, be generous. Whether it’s with our time, our attention, our financial resources, our material resources, our connections, so many different ways. So it’s very clear that people have the opportunity to say no, or to just ignore.

That’s one thing that you see in the book, that the way that the opportunity is presented is not forcing someone’s hand. So that’s important, right, when we want to ask someone for help or for generosity. 

And the other thing I would say is for example, my chaplaincy experiences really showed this, giving someone else the opportunity to support you, to take care of you, to be helpful, to show how they care about you, or about what you stand for, or your community, or the people that you are helping. It’s this kind of bigger picture that is actually what makes it beautiful. 

This is what often happens. So I was a home hospice chaplain for some time, short time.

I would talk to the folks who were taking care of folks who were dying. And they would often say that it was one of the most challenging roles they ever had. And yet they also saw that it was, for them, an incredible gift also. To be able to have taken care of their loved one in this way was something that was a gift they wanted to be able to give. And some people would even talk to me about how frustrated they were that they wanted to give that gift more, or that they wanted to help in other ways and that folks won’t accept.

So I think it’s not Pollyanna to say that person is also receiving a benefit, whether you believe in the karma of it or not, just the interpersonal aspect.

[00:32:37] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. That someone is giving you the opportunity to be generous by asking for something. It’s amazing sometimes how guilty people feel, you know, I’m in a grocery line sometimes when a person doesn’t have any money, you know, in front of you, they forgot their wallet, and you give someone a dollar and it’s like, you’ve saved their life.

They’re so grateful. They’re trying to get your email address, your phone number, just no it’s okay. It’s fine. But don’t you think that’s so much the case in our society? People feel very uncomfortable asking.

[00:33:09] Ayya Dhammadipa: People feel very uncomfortable, I think because there is this transactional idea about it, right? This misunderstanding about the nature of giving, that it’s a tit for tat somehow, and this makes sense. I mean, we get a lot of this kind of messaging and society, that it’s a transaction and it needs to be, fair. And actually, giving doesn’t necessarily need to be fair in that way. And that way of understanding it as a perfectly balanced, financial transaction. I can say that now having given up my perfectly balanced financial transactions a number of years back.

What Would the Buddha Say About Effective Altruism?

[00:33:56] Scott Snibbe: So here’s another thing I think people struggle with is this idea of effective altruism, where if you have a hundred dollars, you want to optimize that. Oh, I could send it across the world with a click of a button and buy mosquito nets that maybe save 10 people’s lives.

But you talk a lot about the importance of giving as this in-person, intimate, connecting experience. So how do you balance that? Trying to give, putting the money where it’s most needed with the power of face-to-face local giving that builds real life relationships.

[00:34:29] Ayya Dhammadipa: Well, certainly, there are people with a tremendous amount of need in the world. In addition to starting my own new community, Dasannaya Buddhist Community, I’m also on the board of Buddhist Global Relief. And that’s part of what we do is we work with partner organizations around the world, feeding folks who are incredibly hungry or impoverished or oppressed in various ways. So sometimes that is what’s needed. 

Charity walk for Buddhist Global Relief

There’s a beautiful story where the Buddha knows that there’s a certain person who is going to come to his talk that day. And that person is the person who’s going to benefit the most, who has the most chance of waking up by virtue of his talk that day. But that person happens to have lost his cow that morning. So he’s out in his field chasing around after his cow and the monastics have already had their meal and everything, set everything aside. And they’re waiting for the Buddha to give a talk, and the Buddha’s waiting for this person to arrive. 

And this person arrives, but then he hasn’t eaten his lunch. So the Buddha says, please give this person lunch because he won’t be able to actually take in the teaching unless he’s had some nourishment, some actual bodily nourishment, which is beautiful. You can picture this right, the entire assembly is seated there waiting. But the Buddha says, no, he needs his nourishment.

So sometimes those are that’s the right thing to do is to put money to these very basic fundamental needs. And I think that one of the things you have to ask yourself is, how is it that this giving will go beyond this person? That is the key difference between giving to support Buddhism and giving to support other things, in my opinion. 

That you can see that this giving then has this other effect in the world of being a positive force, being a force for ethics, being a force for understanding the mind better, being a force for a more considered approach, perhaps. So there are these other aspects. There’s other benefits that again are not necessarily so quantifiable.

[00:36:55] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it was actually one of the first things I was really struck by in Buddhism too, from another nun, Venerable Robina Courtin, who talked to me about giving to the homeless. And she said, how dare you try to control where they spend their money? The point of giving is to make a connection with another person and to show that you care and to show kindness to them.

And that’s influenced my life a lot. The Buddhist idea of giving that isn’t. So it’s not a table or a spreadsheet, it’s about the heart. 

[00:37:25] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes. Very much, very much and when you uplift somebody like that, then they go on, right, to uplift others in their lives. 

Going Beyond the Western Fixation on Mindfulness

[00:37:32] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit about the Western approach to Buddhism. As especially lately, Buddhism is getting more popular. At least meditation is getting more popular in the west, but that’s often now boiled down to mindfulness meditation, which, as you point out in your writing, and this whole podcast was actually founded around expanding beyond just that one practice, that mindfulness meditation is just one small, but critical component of the path that the Buddha laid out. 

So there’s a story, actually, I wanted to see if you could comment on of this meditation teacher from the east who came to the US after observing Westerners trying to meditate without changing other elements of their lives. And he said it was like watching somebody trying to vigorously row a boat while the boat was still tied to the dock. I like that image a lot, actually. So can you talk about how we cut the rope so that we develop our inner qualities, go beyond mindfulness alone. 

[00:38:31] Ayya Dhammadipa: Yes. There are two things. First of all, I’m going to say, if we look at the whole of the path in terms of the three basics, right? Sila, samadhi, panna: ethics, meditation or the cultivation of the mind if you will, and wisdom, right? So focusing just on mindfulness is potentially getting stuck only in that second aspect of the path, right?

So one aspect is ethics. And oftentimes people don’t want to hear about this. But it’s not in Buddhism a matter of controlling people. It’s actually that until you’re living an ethical life, your mind is going to be agitated to a degree that is going to impede other kinds of progress. 

This is the thing that’s tying you to the dock. One of the things; that inevitably you will have different repercussions that are coming from an unethical life. And those things are just making it impossible to actually see with any kind of clarity, right? It’s if you have a glass of water full of mud and it’s constantly stirred up, then you can’t see the transparency of the water. You have to let it settle. 

So that’s one aspect is the ethical aspect. And the other side of it is the panna, right? The wisdom. And the wisdom teachings, and this is where we need a really good metaphor. I like to tell, I’m going to tell you one more story about my daughter actually. 

Because the wisdom teachings I would propose are trying to explain, or perhaps not explain, but reveal aspects of your experience that are both universal and particular to you. That’s how we know a wisdom teaching. That’s how we recognize a wisdom teaching. 

The thing is that you’re not seeing them, you’re not experiencing them. So it’s a little bit like this story that I love to tell about teaching my daughter how to float. 

Child floating in water

So we had the enormous privilege to be moving into a house that had a pool, and I wanted her to know how to float in case she fell in because she didn’t know how to swim at that point. And so there I was, and I was telling her, okay, just relax. the water will carry you. The water will hold you. You just put your head back, and just relax and what, that’s not true to her experience, right? Her experience is, if she drops a rock in the pool, or if she jumps in the pool, she goes to the bottom.

But the water has that attribute. So at some point, by putting her head back, by trusting in what instruction I was giving her, by just relaxing into the nature of water, then she was able to float. She was able to float, and this is not magic. This is just the way the water is. 

In the same way, I would say If we listen to the dharma, the dharma is saying, you can float. And you’re saying, But that’s not in my experience. And I’m saying, that’s the whole point. You wouldn’t need to practice if it were already in your experience, then you’d be teaching it! 

But there are these universal principles that are at work in our lives. And we can start to experience them by listening to folks who have experienced them themselves. And that’s the wisdom side of the equation. It requires trust. And again, this is why the non-delusion in the book, because we need to start to establish a relationship. We need to start to establish a sense of trust.

Or like I said about the Pali Canon, right? Reading the sutta and being able to relate to part of it, and then saying, Okay, so then based on that, am I able to have the confidence to try to experience the rest of this? Try this practice on for myself and experience the rest of this.

[00:42:49] Scott Snibbe: It’s worth reiterating what you were saying about — the Dalai Lama talks about this a lot as a practice for lay people, the three higher trainings of ethics, concentration, and wisdom, and that they come in order, you know. Just to re-emphasize what you’re saying that, and so that’s very, I think it’s very important what you’re saying that you can’t concentrate, you can’t have mindfulness until you have some foundation of ethical behavior, and then it’s difficult to have some sense of wisdom, of interdependent nature of reality without that ability to focus, to concentrate.

[00:43:22] Ayya Dhammadipa: Agreed. Yes.

[00:43:24] Scott Snibbe: What a nice thing, to bring up the three higher trainings. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we talk a little bit about the meditation that you hopefully have time to lead. 

[00:43:33] Ayya Dhammadipa: Nope. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground already, actually.

Next Week’s Guided Meditation

[00:43:36] Scott Snibbe: Fantastic. Yeah, so if you don’t mind, could you talk a little bit about what that meditation is? If you’d like to, if you want it to be spontaneous, that’s fine.

[00:43:46] Ayya Dhammadipa: Sure, I can give a little background. So I was hoping to offer a meditation on mudita and mudita is usually translated as empathetic joy. It’s joy that is sparked by other folks’ joy, other beings actually, it doesn’t need to be people, other folks’ wholesome joy specifically. Cause that’s what we’re trying to resonate with, not with unwholesome things, but with wholesome things. 

And it’s a beautiful practice in part, because again I think that it takes us a little bit beyond ourselves and it gives us an opportunity to see that if joy only arises in my life when I get what I want, that’s a much more limited experience. It’s a much more limited playing field if you will, than if joy can arise in my life because it’s arising in other people’s lives. So then there’s this whole other opportunity, exponentially greater opportunity actually for experiencing joy in our lives. 

So mudita is the third of the four brahmaviharas and brahmaviharas mean something like the heavenly dwellings, heavenly in the sense of being quite blissful, actually, very uplifted states of meditation.

And there are two main forms, two main ways of practicing this. One is by reciting phrases. And it’s a very, very simple way of evoking it. That’s how I actually started with the brahmaviharas, with the loving kindness meditation was by chanting the phrases, which I still do daily. 

Then the other form of meditation is the way that’s described in the Pali suttas is something that is usually referred to as like radiating these beautiful mind states. I like to imagine them as being like a light or like a sound or an energy wave that’s going out.

You’ll see in the meditation that it’s basically working with the breath and with our intention to take what is a mundane experience of these states, of the state of loving-kindness or the state of compassion, or in this case the state of empathetic joy. And the fourth one is equanimity. But taking these states and making a mundane experience of them into something that is vast, and that really doesn’t even require us to be able to relate to individual beings, but just have the experience of this expansive, bright mind that’s pervaded by that quality.

[00:46:40] Scott Snibbe: Beautiful. Well, I’m looking forward to that. So, Ayya Dhammadipa, thank you so much for joining us to talk about the Dharma today with A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. I really enjoyed this very much. And if you’re interested in reading Dhammadipa’s books and so on, we’ll have links on the website for this episode.

[00:46:58] Ayya Dhammadipa: Great. 

Thank you so much, Scott. It’s been a pleasure having the conversation with you.

[00:47:04] Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for our conversation with Ayya Dhammadipa. To find a free copy of her book, Gifts Greater Than the Oceans: Benefits of the Buddhist Practice of Giving and learn more about becoming involved in her community, visit her website at dassanaya.org.

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider making a donation to our podcast. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is a nonprofit organization supported entirely by donations that keep all our content free and ad free. To support us now, visit our website at skepticspath.org. We accept cash, credit, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies and your donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.


Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
Digital Production by Jason Waterman
Social Media by Isabela Acebal


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