Reverend Abbot Monshin Paul Naamon and his wife, Reverend Shumon Tamami Naamon, founded the Karuṇā Tendai Dharma Center in 1997, and oversee its growing number of officially recognized Sanghas.
Revs. Monshin and Shumon trained for six years in Japan under Rev. Abbot Ichishima Shōshin, Professor Emeritus of Taisho University and Abbot of Tamon-in Temple in Chiba Japan. The Tendai Buddhist Institute works closely with Rev. Ichishima and Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei, the head temple of the Tendai Buddhist tradition, to promote Tendai Buddhism internationally.
The authorization to teach and take students was granted in 2002, being designated the New York temple a Betsuin, indicating branch temple status, of the head temple on Mt. Hiei. This designation permits the NY Betsuin to train and ordain practitioners who have demonstrated a serious commitment, understanding, and an advanced level of practice.
Ask Alexa for “Why Meditate?”
A Transcription of our Conversation:
Hello today. I’m talking to Reverend Monshin Paul Naamon Abbot of the tendai Buddhist Institute out of East Chatham, New York and welcome. Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate you giving me the time. I’m just going to jump right into it and.
The question the first question is why meditate?
Yes. I think there’s a there’s a couple of ramifications to the question, but I’ll just go answer most directly. I think that we meditate. And let me preface everything that I say that I’m speaking as a Buddhist monk, you know, I as you know, I’ve taught at University at Albany and I’ve taught at Bard College Simon’s Rock for many years old.
Oh now I’m retired and in that situation, I might answer it a little bit differently, but I’m going to answer as a Tendai Buddhist monk and we meditate first of all too. Dispel some of the sufferings that we all experience in our lives second of all to make ourselves more human to make ourselves a greater contributor to our society meditation isn’t just about oneself.
It’s about oneself in relation to other sentient beings the Earth Etc. And if we think that we can make things better by meditating that means just the meditation itself is going to make us feel better. We can’t do that without changing the world around us at the same time, right? That’s what makes us feel better.
That’s what makes the world a little bit better and that’s ultimately what reduces human suffering overall. I mean that’s a pretty direct answer to address. Right right. That’s that and that’s what I’m looking for because I want the guy I’m looking at differences between each of the reach of everybody.
Like everyone has a little bit of a different answer to the question. Sure. The other the next thing is how do you define mindfulness and how would it look like to live a mindful life? Mindfulness is, to begin with, I think you know, there’s the found the four foundations of mindfulness were the first are considered.
One of the first discourse is given by the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. And the four foundations of mindfulness talk about recognizing the body as the body the sensations as Sensations and then the emotions which arise from Sensations and then the thoughts that arise from the emotions so that it all goes back to the body and remember that’s the four foundations of mindfulness.
So taking you. From you know, the founder of Buddhism is the mouth. And so mindfulness is to live purposely with an understanding that all that we do is ultimately through our corporeal being which then causes there to be Sensations. Which in turn causes emotions which in turn causes thoughts and now many people would say no that’s wrong because I have thoughts without thinking anything about the body.
Well, I think in fact if they look at it more closely, they’ll realize that many of their thoughts are related to their body IE. I’m hungry. That’s a thought that arises but it arises because the body is dictating that. And The Sensation leads to the to the emotion which leads to the thought so when we talk about mindfulness, we’re talking about living purposefully with the understanding of the underlying conditions by which we need to do that and to go a step further when I say purposefully do we choose to live purposefully with what set of assumptions.
That we make those assumptions that have to do with how to reduce suffering or is the Assumption I want to get rich is the Assumption. I want to experience Bliss for myself or do we want to recognize that in order to experience that then we have to have a foundation in a relationship with others.
That it doesn’t it doesn’t happen just as a self-awareness that certainly I think enters into it, but it it’s a self-awareness in relation to and so to me, that’s what the line fulness. That’s the kind of side benefits of it. Well, I think I think that the I think that what we often view as the benefits of mindfulness I refer to as collateral benefit in other words if you’re living if you’re living mindfully.
If you’re living mindfully properly, then you will have a clearer understanding of the nature of the world around us. You’ll have greater spilling of Peace on the other hand being mindfully being mindful also means when we are appropriately sad we are appropriately sad we experience a sadness. We don’t just spell it.
Right. If our pet dies whom we loved why should we why should we then try to dispel the grief that we experience as a result of our pet that died as an example sure. It has to be part of this overall notion. You know II don’t know that if that is you know, what is mindfulness but essentially to me at least and and and this is coming from Buddhist teachings, of course, o in recognizing that in Buddhism mindfulness is referred to as smear T.
And that’s the Sanskrit term here to there’s a separate term sake for the poly and butts Mercy is is really dealing with. When we are living our lives where life living Our Lives following Buddhist precepts and Buddhist premises. I think a person could be a Roman Catholic and be mindful but I think in that case the person would have to be following the cannon that they follow her if they’re Jewish following tour and to knock whatever, you know, Muslim following Quran because it’s not to empty the mind of everything.
Ropes, you know that practice that when we there are times in which that is very useful. Don’t get me wrong. There are times in which entering our mind totally and we’ll deal with that probably in a little while is very useful. But on your day-to-day interaction, it’s really necessary to bring all the forces.
That you have within you to the 4 and in order live mindfully means that I’m continually cognizant of the Buddhist teachings and I have to say doing a lot of interfaith work. I’ll often see something that I find is especially inspiring from another religious tradition and I’ll bring that into the mix.
It doesn’t have to be exclusively Buddhist. And I would argue, as a matter of fact, you know looking at various other Traditions that other Traditions speak to some of the same issues that I’m raising. Right. Well, that’s why I’m trying to twice. I am going to be Catholic priests and rabbis and we all set up for the future are to find these differences and similarities, you know, I think that celebrating the differences in realizing the symbol is campus all understand a little bit.
I wouldn’t even go so far as to celebrate the differences, but I would say we venerate the tradition for what it is. Whatever the tradition has to be. Right. That’s the Pacific, right? That’s great. That’s good that down till when we’re living in mind to Life in a Day two days in a day. What does that mean or what does that actually look like?
I mean I know we’re not walking mindfully through the through the supermarket buy all of our stuff very slowly and then that kind of thing like a lot of what people think. Yeah. Yeah. I think that let me let me just back up for a moment and give you a slightly different notion. What that means the Buddhist teachings the Mahayana Buddhist teachings are specifically although it’s not exclusive to Tendai but is that we live in the provisional World, which is you know, the world we live in get up get a brush.
Our teeth get dressed to go to work etc. And then we live in the absolute World which is the world of ideas in the world of what we’ve heard for tuition yata or NT up an empty of inherent meaning and. But we want those we live in those two worlds, like living in two Dimensions simultaneously, right and the provisional world that we live in when you go to the grocery store and I think that the idea of walking slowly was something I won’t go into the whole history of it, but it’s a miss.
Understood the application of one tiny piece of one tiny Traditions understanding of that but walking through the grocery store living mindfully means I look at the ingredients that are on there is this dishwashing liquid is this contributing to the environment or it’s not contributing to the environment?
He is it is it going to wash my dishes or is it going to pollute the rivers and or pollute the rivers? I should say if I’m if I’m dealing with the clerk, you know at the checkout am I dealing with that clerk in a way which is recognizing that for Humanity and recognizing who they are and treating them with respect and dignity or my just reading as someone who’s fulfilling a function at this moment.
Living mindfully means that everything that you do is advised by these basic premises that I outlined before and so, you know, it’s interesting when I was when I was teaching I would always start, you know, the first class of the semester. I would always start with them. Reveal that. Yes, and I taught not only Asian studies and that’s everything that I taught human biology.
So I taught osteology and biomechanics Lantern apology and death is a biocultural process etcetera and I would start I would start each class by saying I want you to know that I’m a Buddhist monk and that doesn’t mean that therefore I’m going to require you to do things in a Buddhist fashion, but.
Even if I had not done that many of my students would say to me at you know, we have evaluations at the end of the semester and many of them weren’t speaking to me. It was speaking to the administration, of course, and the evaluation would often say something about the fact that because I was a Buddhist monk they could detect a real difference in how I respected the students.
So I think that that’s and that’s not to say that any other professors didn’t respect your students of course, but they would detect a difference and I think the difference was because I was attempting to live mindfully as opposed to just treat the course and treat the contents of the course in a particular way.
I would always bring it back to how was this going to be beneficial to the people that I’m dealing with? Right. I think that’s how we live mindfully. What do we do that’s going to more enable people that’s going to provide people and again in the same way. As I said when we’re sad were sad and we have to experience that sadness.
We don’t try to dispel it. You know, there were times that I’m sure some of the students thought. That was a real SOB. Because I was talking about a particular issue but that because that’s what they needed at that time. They needed somebody to be Stern and say, you know if you don’t improve your writing you’re not going to fail you’re not going to pass this course, you know or whatever the situation might be of course Court.
Hopefully I would do it in a nice way, but nonetheless, I had to do it in an appropriate fashion. And I think that that’s important for mindfulness is appropriateness. How do we live appropriately? And how do we live with dignity? How do we enable others? It’s not to walk around all the time with a smile on her face is that it is it is to live in a way with a purpose that distinguishes each element of the day as an independent element that was treated at that moment.
It’s part of a larger context. Right you using the appropriate version and emotions for that situation if I were if I’m you know, if I’m dealing with as I do because you know, we live in the countryside and if I’m dealing with some of the farmers around here and one of the farmers Hayes our field for, you know his cattle and sheep and such.
Part of mindful living is to also recognize that when he’s thrashing the field to make the hay to feed the animals that there are Critters that are going to die in the threshing of that field people. We have to recognize that everything we eat on this Earth Bar None results in the death of. Running so I’m mindful of that when we do it that but I also recognize that if he doesn’t pay the field and those sheep and horses and cattle or whatever aren’t going to survive.
Perhaps part of mindfulness also, it’s it’s a look at what is the nature of reality? You know, I know to me that is but that’s the bottom line of what is the goal of Buddhism is to is to search for the nature of reality. So that’s that’s really that goes back to that original dictum by Shakyamuni Buddha regarding the four foundations of mindfulness.
We start with the corporeality of life, right and work our way up the work our way up the chain until we get to thoughts. And I don’t know if that explains what you what you’re looking for. I’m pulling it definitely does it definitely answers the question. The next question is what is the difference between meditation contemplation and prayer?
That’s an interesting question. The easiest answer that that’s what I have got that I’ve heard and I’m sure that many of what you read is that prayer is speaking to God in meditation is listening, but I think that the answer is more direct. And by the way, you know, my perspective is I’m a non-theist which is not the eightfold path, non-theist, which means that God.
May or may not exist in that’s independent, whatever of whatever I believe and but prayer will start with prayer first because meditation contemplation might take a little bit more examination when we deal with prayer is a way of recognizing. What our needs are what our wishes are? It is a speaking whether it’s silently or out loud.
It’s a way of speaking to those the very nature of our feelings of our desires of our wish for others. So when we pray, you know it we at the end of our service we often say are there any Joy’s are contemplations that we have? And people Express their Joys and will acknowledge those Joys, you know, they got a raise at work or you know, something isn’t right mundane is that or it can be something that is, you know, my spouses is now just discovered that he or she has a particular kind of cancer and we don’t know what it’s going to mean and we say you’re in our thoughts and prayers.
Then and by that we mean very literally it’s not that I’m petitioning the Lord with prayer quote that famous philosopher Jim worse people to its to acknowledge how that person’s life affects us and how we affect that person’s life and we are. Cognizant over a desire for a positive outcome in that case or desire to change a course of action, which is unfortunate that doesn’t you know is someone listening that depends upon your particular religious perspective, of course, if but at the very least we’re making those ideas through prayer.
We’re giving them a forum. Which advises each of us as we do the prayer. I think the prayer is as much for the person who’s making it as the person who would theoretically be receiving it and so it’s it’s a kind of resolution when we deal with meditation contemplation. Let me. Just go back a little bit meditation from attending.
Our perspective is made up of what’s called in Japanese Chic on in Chinese Chico on and the meditation is therefore to fold. It’s a schema and it’s a deposit. The schemata are defined as one of the definitions is concentration and the deposits Meta is contemplation. The other distinction is comi the schemata portion is calming the mind and the positive portion is Discerning the real and so a the schemata of meditation is.
What we think of often as meditation for Thought comes into your mind observe it and let it goes and there are many ways that we do this, you know, if you pounding the breaths or any number of different and I just refer to those as methods not really be something beyond that there are many different things in this they’re very useful.
You know, I’m not in any way. Being negative about them but they’re just but they are just methods on the other hand, but it’s so that’s calming the mind and that’s really important because when you do the pastina, you got to have a calm mind. You’ve got to have an open mind. You’ve got to have a clear mind in order to do that appropriately.
And pastina comes in many different forms within our tradition where and or an esoteric tradition, but it could be something like you’ve heard of. Metta meditation in which one visualizes one’s mother and a loved one and a someone with whom you have a relationship but you don’t have a caring relationship and someone with whom you don’t like and sending them taking away from them recognizing their suffering and sending to them compassion.
That would be a Metta meditation. That would be an example. Of an of an of a poshi-ne meditation there five Classics that I was going through right now of those but then there’s many many more and within the esoteric schools such as ours. We also might contemplate the nature of let’s say the bodhisattva of compassion, right?
We might we might do a IG Khan meditation, which is to visualize. The letter of the Sanskrit character, which is a seed Sybil seed syllable and visualize that within a moon picture. So to speak illustration, whatever might be of a full moon and to place that within our hearts and to contemplate on what is the nature of that so the meditation.
Is broken I would argue is broken into two parts. There’s the part that deals with the schemata emptying the mind and then there’s the part which is the poshi-ne which deals more with activating the mind in a positive fashion and it and I would argue in addition to that within our tradition. There are other ways to do what is referred to as meditation for instance.
Calligraphy if you do calligraphy appropriately and of course, it’s a Japanese tradition, so we might be doing using Japanese characters, but you’re breathing in and as you breathe out you are inscribing the character with one breath, but all of yours. Is within the inscription of that particular character, then you go on to the next character one.
I mean there’s there’s many different forms chanting and take the form of a meditation because one become so absorbed with the Resonance of the sound within one that the mind is then free from thinking about do I need to change my tires. It’s over whatever Marine activities are like the involved in you know, or thinking about wait’ll I see my boss today wait’ll I tell my great idea?
No, no, your mind is totally devoid of that more mundane actuality, you know, and so the contemplation. No, the meditation for my perspectives really broken down into the idea of schemata and depositor. Now, there’s other there are other traditions, for instance, Transcendental Meditation and I would argue that their particular meditation.
Really brings them to what is referred to as the alpha stage, which is one of the basic rest-activity cycle stages that we experience when we sleep and when we’re awake they take about 90 minutes brings into the alpha in which they feel a sense of well-being when they’re finished. And then I think that’s a very nice thing on the other hand.
I think that the deeper meditations that. Longer and require more experience actually get into the Theta stage of the basic rest-activity cycle to sleep cycle the awake cycle that we go through every 90 minutes the becomes a problem-solving cycle it the Theta that says it’s where we solve problems.
It’s where we integrate. What we have experienced around us moment to moment day today and I would argue that in that case. We need both schemata and deposited do that effectively. I don’t know if that right a little bit too technical but no, I ‘m just I’m that was really a great answer. Thank you.
Thank you very much for that. The last one is how do we promote compassion in ourselves and the world around us? You know, it’s it’s it’s interesting because today is the day that our song gametes for it’s an as we’re talking about this. It’s a Wednesday and Wednesday evenings. We have a service that begins with a discussion followed by meditation service in which we do an actual set of rituals as well as a meditation followed by a potluck dinner.
And I refer to that as the three forms of Buddhism in America. We provide the intellect we provide the meditation and then there’s the gastronomic which it leads to New England. If you don’t provide a potluck dinner, you’re not going to get anybody to attend a religious ceremony. So there’s those of the but I refer to those the gastronomic notice but right today.
Is the discussion that we’re having tonight is what is Buddhist practice and I would our time I you know, I was I was working on this before we started speaking and the first thing that I tell everybody about Buddhist practices. People think of meditation as a Buddhist practice and they are absolutely flabbergasted to find out that most Buddhists in the world.
Do not meditate dress. That there were more people in per capita perhaps in America meditating than all the Buddhist countries and the because the basic practice of Buddhism is compassion meditation is a method by which we can increase our compassion but the practice itself. When people say oh my practices meditation or my practice is Nimble to reciting nominal me to boot boo Nana Boo Boo or some might say my practice is as chanting nam-myoho-renge-kyo just as an example and but underlying all of those is the practice of.
And the meditation or Nimbus Sue or demote you or whatever else we’re talking about our methods by which we increase the compassionate resides within us so that we can do it in everyday life. And so how do we promote compassion in the self and in our world is being. His is not sticking to one set of circumstances and say if I meditate I’m automatically going to be more compassion.
There’s some evidence that meditation might, in fact, increase compassion in the brain. I’m not clear that those are really good research designs, but we’ll leave that aside. But and let’s make for discussion say that’s true, you know, but. How do we promote compassion in the self and in our world is to live mindfully as I described it earlier, right?
If we’re doing those things then we are in fact acting more compassionately and. And it’s important to recognize that the compassion is extended not just to the other not just of the clerk in the in the grocery store that we discussed earlier, but it’s also the self that’s not to let ourselves off the hook, but it is to that is the same we all do crappy things.
And and you know any, you know our tradition we do a morning sir and a daily service in the morning. Usually, we do it here around six o’clock. The first thing we do is a penitence a repentance. I realize that yesterday I screwed up. You know, I’m not thinking of each of those ways that I might have screwed up although I might depending upon a day, but if we don’t recognize.
The ways in which we sort of Veer off course, then we can’t stay on the course and so we start with a penitence and so how do we promote compassion and self? First of all is to recognize that we’re all. Subject to human filthy going back four foundations of mindfulness. We’re all going back to the body as the body the senses as expenses Etc.
And so promoting compassion is to recognize that every one whom with whom we come in contact and I should extend that Beyond just human beings to animals to the to the Earth itself that we have to. Recognize that inherent in our daily Behavior. There is a degree of selfishness for this body and to shake through that selfishness and to act in a way which recognizes the suffering of others and then, in turn, we can feel their difficulties and assist them and in so doing we assist.
You know it one of the sure Robert Bellah who died a few years ago was a sociology of religion taught sociology of religion. And one of the things that he argued for is that there’s a disc a distinction between spirituality and religion and one of the distinctions that he noted is that.
What we think of as spirituality today is really an offshoot of a monetized world in which we view ourselves as the author of our own spirituality and religion, by contrast, is something in which we as human beings share this planet with others and we have to act in relation. To that sharing process that our spirituality is not our own the spirituality is what we share with all other sentient beings and with the universe as well as our world our planet and so right acting compassionately means to be aware that the world that we are part of the world.
We do not sort of an inner world into ourselves. Cities is a larger network of how we as individuals are part of this larger. The context that we refer to not just the society but as the universe around us, it’s Asuma Sensei. My master would love love to pull off a piece of his skin his hand and point to this and say, you know, this skin is as old as the universe and it’s not different from the universe.
It’s part of the universe and we should be acting as though we are part of the universe not distinct in autonomous. So I think that’s that’s how we promote compassion in ourselves and in the world. Is felt to be part of each other and to work to be part of everything that is around us. Yeah, right.
I’m also the Abbot of California Tendai Monastery which burned down. Back several years ago and sorry to hear that the fire in Lake County burned down the temple housing Etc. There are two people that are going out there right now while one is going out the end of this month to live there in the other is finishing medical school.
One person is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist the other. Is finishing her medical degree will be doing her residencies in the area. And eventually, those two will be reforming the monastery and part of the purpose of that is exactly what we’re talking about is how do you promote compassion and self in the world and it’s not coincidental that one is a medical doctor and the other Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology because we’re dealing with.
An area in which the Earth itself has been ignored and treated poorly and the people, therefore. That live in those areas because Lake County, as you may know, is a very poor county in California think it might be the poorest county in California. I think of it and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, but I think of it as the Appalachian of California in the sense that the poverty level much exceeds the rest of California, and so in order to look at Compassion, we had to recognize that healing takes.
Takes place at different levels. And so they are both Buddhist priests. They are going to be working there to actually bring a sense of completeness and compassion to that area. And working also with the Native Americans who live in that area. So they’re going to be working with Native Americans and other people that we think of as disenfranchised primarily as the mission of the monastery of California.
Tendai Monastery. I don’t know if that was too far as a tangent, but there it is. That’s that’s a good temple with that. That’s it. That’s those are all the questions I have. So how did this for this session and I just really appreciate the time banana and the discussion it was it was really brilliant.
I thank you very much. Well, it was it’s a pleasure to do it and you know you and I have known each other for how many years now 15 20 years. Yeah, that’s like that. And so I miss I miss seeing you this year. I miss being back there. Yeah. Well, maybe I can get up to them thinking about that because it’s not that far away.
Yes. It’s about 24 hours North of San Francisco. Right? And you know, I mean, that would be great to spend some days up there and get some help and and and I’m I’m usually out there now once or twice a year to sort of check on things and see how things are going. Well, thank you very much, and this is the end and I will talk to you soon, and and I’ll call you offline to talk to you about the monastery because I would like to help okay, not if they’re great to thank you.
Thank you very much, and I will talk to you soon. Thank you and a blessing to everyone. Thank you. Bye. Bye.