Beginner’s Mind: Māgha Pūjā – A Day With Dukkha

Beginner’s mind is a special project published by BDG bringing together insightful essays written by American college students who have taken courses based on experiential learning related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify themselves as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with Buddhadharma. All share their thoughts and impressions on what they learned, how it impacted their lives, and how they could continue to engage in teaching.

Gus Nordmeyer wrote this essay for his Buddhist economics course at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Gus will graduate in 2023 with a double major in economics and Chinese. Gus calls Madison, Wisconsin home and in his spare time he rows and fishes.

Māgha Pūjā – A day on the side Dukkha

On the morning of Māgha Pūjā, I started my day with a run. Adopt the eight precepts of Ovādapātimokkha sermon – one of which is to refrain from listening to music – I crawled apprehensively out of bed and tied my shoelaces in silence. Greeted by the crisp, cold air, I quickly fell into a rhythm, concentrating on my breathing and the crunch of my feet against the icy sidewalk. On any other day, my wireless headphones would have transported me to a nightclub in Ibiza, providing a punchy bass to help drown out any pain or unpleasant thoughts I might feel while running. Today the birds and morning sounds of Williamstown were my soundtrack.

Participating in the Buddhist festival of Māgha Pūjā was a difficult undertaking, but it proved to be invaluable. Engaging in the practice not only made me more aware of dukkha (Pali. dissatisfaction) by direct confrontation, leading to a greater degree of introspection around the Four Noble Truths; it also convinced me of my own ability to apply the Buddha’s teachings – exercised through the saṅgha – to my own life.

The restrictions outlined in the Eight Precepts caused me to experience a variety of strong emotions throughout the day, and I reflected on this journey as a necessary step in solidifying my understanding of dukkha and the khandas, the five aggregates of attachment. Going through my day without the normal comforts of music, social media, and mindless food consumption has made me feel vulnerable at times. Being forced to confront my thoughts and the sounds around me, instead of stimulating my mind to distract me from the cravings I feel, has helped reveal the cyclical nature of dukkha. Peter Harvey articulates this type of dissatisfaction, this unstoppable desire that is rooted in dukkha: “[Craving] propels people into one situation after another that are open to pain, worry, and upheaval. (Harvey, 63)

If you really want to turn off the cycle of dukkha and reach nibbāna, the craving must be faced. An avoidance of envy simply breeds more envy, and my experience of undertaking the eight precepts of Ovādapātimokkha sermon showed me, if only for a day, that there can be some peace found if one leaves desire unanswered. While I was hungriest at dinnertime – my mind foggy and yearning for a meal – my hunger gradually waned as the evening wore on, and I was reminded of the ever-changing nature of the khandas.

My undertaking of the Māgha Pūjā practice has helped me demonstrate the applicability of Buddhist teachings to my own life. Reluctant to take an overtly Western view of what I experienced, equating it with helping me achieve an end goal, and borrowing bits and pieces from Buddhist culture, I was genuinely surprised at the direction in which precepts have guided me. Although I was not as fully invested as those in the saṅgha, I found the intentionality of the experience and my commitment to the Buddha’s teachings to be powerful. It is easy to study the Buddha’s teachings and conclude one of two things: 1. I am unable to apply any of these teachings to my life, so it is not worth trying; or 2. I am ready to undertake the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings at this time and achieve nibbāna. What I experienced on Māgha Pūjā was the “middle way” of these two feelings: “. . . the general deterioration of society can be reduced by the teaching of this Buddha, which frees the mind from greed, hatred and ignorance. (Leave, 211)

On the evening of Māgha Pūjā, I ended my day with a pizza. To clarify, I ended my day sipping tea and watching others eat pizza for a close friend’s 21st birthday. I sat while my drunken friends consumed slice after slice. I recognized dukkha and enjoyed my tea.

References

Harvey, Peter. 2013. An introduction to Buddhism: teachings, history and practice, Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lay, Tin Tin. 2014. “Building Peace and Harmony through Buddhism: The Pragmatic Values ​​of Ov¯da Pātimokkha” 199-213: http://www.icdv.net/2014paper/ws4_13_en__Building_up_of_Peace_and_Harmony_through_Buddhism_841041173.pdf

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