I’m back; with some sad news for sutta-lovers

I’ve been away on retreat for the past couple of weeks. I’m just catching up on things and will find some time for blogging in the next little while, I hope.

Meanwhile, I just noticed what is a sad day for the web: John Bullitt has announced he will retire from Access to Insight. He has built this site, mostly on his own so I understand, for 20 years, and it has always been the default home for Sutta translations on the web. Now he’s retiring and the site will not be developed further. It will remain solely as a static record, but no additions will be made.

I still remember the first day I saw the internet. It was at my sister’s office, here.

She showed me this thing called the “internet”. I asked if we could find any Buddhist suttas, and we immediately came across Access to Insight, and found some suttas there. I was blown away to think that the Buddha’s words could be found anywhere, by anyone!

I don’t know how many people have visited the site, or had the same experience. But it must be millions by now. It shows what an amazing thing can be done by the vision and energy of someone who truly loves the Dhamma. Congratulations to John for his remarkable achievement.

SuttaCentral update

We’ve just gone live with the new update for SuttaCentral. Check it out!

For this edition you won’t notice much change on the front end. But that is as planned. When we finished the newly designed site, our IT monks said, “Actually, now we know how to do it properly…” They (being Vens Jhanarato and Nandiya) found working with the previous incarnation, written in PHP, to be cumbersome, and they love Python. So once we finished, they started rewriting the whole thing in Python 3. This was a fantastic contribution, as it means the whole site is streamlined and optimized under the skin to a far greater degree. Running benchmarks on the full Samyutta Nikaya parallels table, we rendered the entire page on the old version in 38 seconds, while the new version stomps in at 1.5 seconds.

But it’s not just about speed. Python is the preferred language for natural language processing (NLP), and is heavily used by Google for that reason. This has already allowed us to create a fantastic, rich search engine: check it out! We already have title search, multiple full text searches, dictionary lookup, and even, for place names, automatic generation of locations on Google Maps. This is only the beginning of some powerful tools for analysis and comprehension of the texts.

More prosaically, we have resolved the former problems with Vietnamese fonts, and in fact have sponsored the design of a special version of Skolar font for Vietnamese. I’ve worked with the font designer, David Březina, to create the special Vietnamese diacritical marks. This is part of our push to use the highest possible standards of web typography in the demanding, multi-language environment of Buddhist texts. These are the words of the Buddha, and they deserve the best.

In addition, there are several new translations online, including additions to the Digha Nikaya and Samyukta Agama. However, our in-house translations are still limited. I hope to complete the corpus of original language texts this year, including Vinaya and Abhidhamma in all versions. Once this is done we can focus on gathering the translations.

Running a meditation group

Over the past few months I’ve been encouraging people at my classes to start their own meditation groups, at their workplace, school, or home. Mainly, of course, this is so that i don’t have to do so much! But I really believe that, in pretty much any context that you find yourself, there will be others who would like to meditate, but just need a bit of support and encouragement.

I was thrilled to hear that one of the students on my Early Buddhism course, Stuart Amoore, had started a meditation group at his place of work. I asked him if he could write up a how-to guide from his experience, and here it is. Thanks, Stuart!

In the comments, please let us know of your experiences with meditation groups at work or other places, and especially, tell us if this inspires you to start your own group.


Running a local meditation or Dhamma discussion group is a rewarding experience.

I have been a Buddhist for over twenty years and I have been running meditation groups for nearly as long.

The first meditation group I started was in 1992 whilst I was a student at a TAFE college. After that I went to university where, for 4 years I organised and facilitated meditation groups there as well.

Between 2008-10, I organised and ran a meditation group in my previous work place. Then, last month I started up another such group in my new workplace.

Bhante Sujato said recently that setting up a meditation or Dhamma discussion group is “…as easy as falling off a log.” I can attest to this – it is. After listening to a recorded talk by Bhante where he was encouraging people to set up a local meditation and/or Dhamma group I organised this most recent meditation group in my work place in just 4 days where 30 people turned up in the first week. All you need to set up such a group is three things:

  1. A suitable place to meet like a class room or meeting room.
  2. A means to promote the activity. I have approximately 2500 working in my building. I used a combination of group email and flyers which I placed on people’s desks.
  3. Someone (usually you, the organiser) to run the activity.

Added to this, there are a few supporting factors required to make the activity successful:

The ability to give guided meditation (for a meditation group) or direct conversation (for a discussion group). This responsibility usually rests upon the shoulders of the person that sets up the group; so if you do not feel comfortable or confident in this sense then you may have a hard time maintaining interest in the group. People who turn up to these activities look to someone who is orchestrating the proceedings. If they see that it is disorganised or there is no one taking the lead, people will not have the opportunity to develop confidence in the activity in which they wish to participate. You need to be prepared to take a lead. If you know someone who is willing to run things then this is fine. If you can’t find such a person and you are of a shy disposition or you just don’t feel confident running such an activity, then you may try other things like listening to pre-recorded classes, such as pod casts of a guided meditations. There are numerous such resources available on the internet. But whilst this can be good, you still need someone to introduce the topic, give a preamble, answer questions and bring the meetings to a close. Recorded teachings can be good, but having done this before, I have also been told by the people attending the group that they prefer a real person in the room to be doing the talking as it is much more personal. It also gives them confidence that there is someone there who knows what to do, especially say, if the CD you brought along to listen to is scratched and doesn’t work. In a situation like this there needs to be someone who can run the activity without external aids.

Commitment. You must be able to turn up to every meeting and if you can’t be there, you must have contingency plans.

A steady number of people who come to every meeting. Although these may not be the same people, it is good to have regular attendance. This gives you confidence that the group can ‘survive’. It gives people a sense that there is some continuity to the activity. It can be discouraging to you, as the organiser, if no one turns up. It can be discouraging to the people turning up if there is only one or two people present because they may not feel like they are part of something regular, but instead part of something that is ad hoc and that really doesn’t have much support.

A risk assessment. Yes. You heard it correct. For the current meditation group that is running in my work place I was required to do a risk assessment. While on one hand this may seem ridiculous, the intent of such an assessment is usually to satisfy those endorsing or approving the activity that you have done your due diligence. The risk assessment I prepared identified only 3 risks and took only an hour to prepare but it gave a level of assurance to the building management team that I had considered the safety of the participants. The result of the risk assessment eventuated in the meditation group being given access to a room that had no tables because they deemed that moving furniture in the meeting room I had previously booked was an unacceptable Work Health and Safety risk. They decided that rather than attempt to manage this risk, they would find me a suitable space that did not have tables. This was a benefit for our group because the room we were given is much better and I don’t have to rearrange furniture each week.

A good practice guide. This is only a recent idea and not one that I have pursued as yet, but it is something that I realise I probably need to develop for my meditation group. The intent the guide would be to explain what meditation is, the type of meditation that is being taught and practiced and the rationale for running such an activity. The reason I see this as necessary is because meditation is a non-regulated activity. There is no governing body that certifies meditation teachers. There is no government accreditation. Even in religious circles, those meditation teachers who are endorsed by a higher religious authority may not be widely recognised themselves. Anyone can set up a meditation group, however, with so many different types of meditation practiced in the world, it would be good to explain what type(s) of meditation practice are acceptable in a public spaces such as, in a work place. By acceptable, I mean, the meditation practice should be inclusive to all and clear and easy to grasp. People should be able to understand the how to do the meditation and the results that should be expected. As I work for a government department, I have an APS (Australian Public Servant) Code of Conduct and set of values to which I must adhere. My meditation group is not above these codes of conduct or values and therefore must fall into line with them. As such, the meditation activity must be conducted with integrity so that anything that might damage the department’s reputation must avoided. It may sound impossible that teaching and practicing meditation could bring disrepute to a government department, however, if I was to use the meditation group as a platform to push my own beliefs and agendas, this could have a damaging effect not only for myself but for others in my department as well (not to mention effect it could have on my career!). A good practice guide would explain how the meditation group will operate in a way that is open, honest and free of agendas. It should be embrace values such as equity and diversity and be free of sectarian views or beliefs. If certain views or beliefs are to be shared, the good practice guide should explain how the person(s) putting forth such ideas must first declare their sectarian affiliations before discussing them. (The last thing you want in running a meditation group is to be accused of trying to convert people). Unless you are openly setting up a group that is specifically affiliated with a religion or movement such as Buddhism where it is understood that Buddhist meditation will be practiced, then you cannot be creating a perception that you are trying to use covert methods to push certain ideas. If the meditation you are practicing is from a particular tradition, you should make this known before teaching it. The whole idea is about being honest with people.

Another purpose that a good practice guide could serve is to avoid situations where some people may wish to have their own agendas or ideas introduced to the group. The risk is that such agendas or ideas may not be holistic or inclusive. For example, one person in a meditation group I organised requested that a regulated breathing-yoga meditation be practiced by following a Youtube video of a teacher giving such instruction. This is not a meditation with which I am familiar. That is not to say that I do not accept that practicing this meditation does not have benefits, but that before introducing this technique to the group, certain things should be covered off. The good practice guide could document the strategies for how ‘non-mainstream’ meditations might be practiced, if at all, within the group. Such strategies may involve the person preparing short paper that describes what the meditation is about, how it is practiced, etc. Then if people agree that they would like to try this meditation, then they may do so, and the meditation could be given a go. Afterwards, feedback should be sought as to whether people found this meditation beneficial and whether they would like to do it again. The idea here is not to discourage people from introducing new practices and ideas, but to introduce them in such a way that people are given sufficient information first before they try the technique so that later people cannot protest that they are being taught something that is damaging to their health or well-being.

A few things I have learnt in setting up and running meditation groups:

Being the “meditation guy” at work means you have to watch your p’s and q’s every minute of every day at work. It puts a bit of pressure on you. You can’t talk about peace, kindness and gentleness at the meditation group then lose it with a work colleague later that afternoon!

Be prepared for those that will knock you. There are some people that believe that things like meditation do not belong in the workplace and/or that you are up to no good. I have, on occasion, been teased (all be it in a very light hearted way) and other times been berated and threatened. However, I have never needed to defend myself as to do so would be contrary to the values meditation teaches and develops. People soon forget and move on. Workplaces are dynamic environments and things don’t stay the same for very long. The person that complained about receiving an unsolicited email about meditation may, in 6 months time, be in a different role which may have changed their whole perspective of things.

It’s hard to know how much benefit you are. You get thanks and the occasional bit of praise, but most of the time you don’t know whether what you’re saying resonates. Some people don’t say much but just keep coming, week after week. It is not until some time later that you find that they have been getting something really good out of the meditation group that works for them, yet because they don’t say much, you really had no idea. Conversely, some people heap praise and thanks on you to such an extent that you think they will be coming to the group every week without fail and then, for whatever reason, you never see them again, let alone get any explanation as to why they seem to have had an apparent change of heart.

Cost. People ask me how much it costs but it’s free. The best Dhamma teachings I’ve received were free and I just want to pass it on, but maybe some people think there has got to be a catch. I think it helps if you are aware of this.

Pali/Sanskrit keyboard for Ubuntu 12.10

A few years ago Galia Shy (Mahacitta) designed a method for easily inserting Pali/Sanskrit special characters in Ubuntu. Since then Ubuntu has changed a few things, and the old instructions do not work. I have revised the instructions to work with a fresh install of Ubuntu 12.10. (It may work with 12.04, but I haven’t tested it).

You can download the file and instructions from here.

Let me know if this works for you. Needless to say, no guarantees!

Fairwell

It’s time, once more, to bid fairwell to my dear blog friends. I’m leaving my Dad’s place tomorrow, and will be moving about for some time. I will be back when I get settled a bit more. In the meantime, keep on going!

My vassa

Hi all,

Just a voice from the wilderness here. I’m at my dad’s place in Coffs Harbor, enjoying the quiet and lack of stuff! I haven’t got much to say at the moment, so here’s a few photos.

The back yard

Chandra fixes stuff.

Dad, Stanley, and Nisu on the back porch.

A little update

Dear bloggists,

You may (or may not) have noticed my absence from the blog for a couple of weeks. No, I wasn’t abducted by aliens. I was very busy, with a sudden death in the family, two trips to Perth, and various other events to keep me occupied. On the writing front, I’ve been working on a long essay on Buddhism and psychotherapy. Also, I’ve finally got around to writing something on marriage equality, a topic I’ve wanted to address for ages. See below!

Thanks for all your comments. I’ll read them as soon as I get the chance, and as always will try to respond as best I can. If, over the next week or so, I haven’t responded to your comment and you still want a response, please help me out by reposting your comment.