Men’s Study Weekend 29-31 October. Brought to you by Leif!

The weekend started with dinner on Friday night. The women had vacated the premises in order to do a gardening/study event down the hill.

After the meal, Shantikara – who would be leading the study sessions – gave us an introduction to the Sigalovada sutta. In it, the Buddha meets a young man engaged in the practice of venerating the six directions (the compass points plus up and down). He uses this as a framework to deliver a teaching, broadly on social responsibility.

We finished the day with a short dedication ceremony, to help set the focus for the weekend. The shrine room, it has to be said, is not terribly large. Fitting more then eight of us might have become a squeeze. But it was a good end to the day. And so dear reader, to bed – more or less.

The next day started at 7.00am with two 45 minute meditations in the shrine room, led by Satyajit – who facilitated all the meditations sessions. Then breakfast and a session of staring each other out until someone cracked and agreed to cook dinner.

10.30 saw us settling for a couple of hours study –  once we had gotten over Sean’s arrival in slinky lycra (he’d cycled in from home). Having fanned ourselves vigorously, we got down to looking at the sutta.

The first section covers the Buddha meeting Sigalaka while he’s worshipping the six directions and receiving his request to be instructed in the correct way to do it. The immediate point which Shantikara drew out of it was that the sutta is heavily imbued with the cultural context of that time and place (Northern India around 500BCE).

Moving on, the text listed four impure actions to be avoided-

  • Harming living beings
  • Taking what is not given
  • Sexual misconduct
  • False speech

The first four precepts in their traditional form and then another list of four causes of harmful deeds (also to be avoided)-

  • Desire
  • Hatred
  • Delusion
  • Fear

The first three form another traditional list called the three poisons.

A point came up around whether the Buddha was giving this teaching because he had recognised Sigalaka as someone in danger of falling into unskillful conduct. The basic teaching being, act in accordance with where you want to be. All familiar – but slippery – territory around karmic comsequences and conditionality (in its broadest sense, saying that phenomena arise dependent upon conditions). Suck on that.

Next the Buddhaa listed six ways of squandering wealth and then six dangers associated with each. This is where the cultural context really started kicking in – and that the suttas were orginally composed to be passed down orally (lists within lists are a common feature). This section caused a lot of smiles, but also serious questions about whether the Buddha meant only material wealth – and why – and how the lists related to our own experience.

Eventually, we drew the session to a close in order to have a short meditation before lunch.

After some free time in the afternoon, we reconvened for a couple of hours more study. The next section listed four kinds of true friends and four kinds of bad companion, and their characteristics. This had a lot in common with the earlier lists – hardly surprising. bearing in mind conditionality – covering the appropriate use of wealth and an exhortation to “gather wealth in harmless ways”.

Again stuff came up about cultural context, whether this was that actual word of the Buddha – texts were certainly added while passing down the centuries – and what which parts have a bearing on current circumstances. It’s all a bit academic, otherwise.

Another break for meditation, then dinner and a bit more free time. We ended the day with a puja – recitation of traditional verses and mantras in order to encourage devotional feeling (particularly in a group context). No music. Buddhafield is associated with wacky musical pujas but it isn’t par for the course when we are at home. I like them quiet, most of the time, anyway.

The next day followed the same routine. We spent both study sessions on the last part of the sutta. This is where the Buddha gives the teaching on the correct way to worship the six directions. Clearly he is using it to present the teaching which Sigalaka needs.

The Buddha identifies each direction with a particular relationship –

  • Parents
  • Secular teachers
  • Partner and children
  • Friends and colleagues
  • Workers and servants
  • Ascetics and Brahmins

For each, he lists five ways in which respect is shown toward them and five ways in which they respond positively to such treatment. Following this advice is presented as a path to happiness. Again, the material needs to be seen in the context of the time and place in which it was being given. The sutta ends with Sigalaka asking the Buddha to accept him as a lay-follower.

So dinner and a puja, then the weekend officially came to a close. The womenfolk arrived back sometime after I’d gone to bed – hardy souls.

Making time for single sex activities is held to be important within the movement and I have previously found it a helpful space to work with. Possibly because I was doing it at home this time, mostly with a group who also live here, my main impression around it was of the house being half empty. But this is not even a quibble. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity for intensive study – especially with material taken for the Pali canon.

I think we were unanimous in agreeing that we need to do it again. I expect that, next time, we’ll leave the house and the women will have the house for a bit. Camping in January anyone?


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