Thai Meditation for Trying Times

By Steven Libowitz   |   April 9, 2020
) Courtney Purcell and Ajahn Khamjan (ABMT head monk) at the temple in 2017

As recently as early March, Courtney Purcell’s Santa Barbara Buddhist Meditation Meetup had a full slate of events on its calendar, with gatherings all over town, from the American Buddhist Meditation Temple on Orchid Drive near More Mesa to the foothills and beaches of Montecito, a leap year forest retreat in the expanse at La Cumbre peak to an annual celebration at the Goleta Valley Community Center.

Courtney Purcell at his master’s temple in Las Vegas last year during his temporary ordination period

Then came the coronavirus.

So Purcell – who has been practicing Buddhism for more than 20 years and studying various traditions over that span before settling on the Thai Forest tradition – has had to find a way to adapt, coming up with some new practices – including meditation and interviews with monks – to maintain contact and connection with the community. Meditation sessions are taking place every Tuesday evening over Zoom, while Purcell is doing one-on-one Q&As with monks from all over the country via the online platform every Friday evening.

Purcell, who with his wife settled in Santa Barbara in 2017 after both had retired from a career in the Las Vegas school system, talked about his practice, why he was drawn to Buddhism, and how the spiritual practice can be especially helpful during the current COVID-19 crisis.

Q. What is it about the Thai Forest tradition that appeals to you?

A. It’s a very austere approach focused on trying to live a way of life as closely as the Buddha himself is thought to have lived, to really emulate that exact approach. It’s very into an intensive meditation practice, a letting go approach to everything, relinquishing not only material possessions but also any sort of emotional attachments. It requires an extremely strict adherence to rules meant to promote mindfulness as well as a sense of restraint, virtue, and morality. It really spoke to me because it matches my personality. It’s very easy for me to follow rules and be very disciplined, rigid and strict.

How does that fit into daily life?

My wife thought that I might want to be a monk, which she said would fully support. I would love to do that. The Buddha developed a lifestyle that is meant to put one in the position to maximize the benefits of the fruits of the tradition. The monastic path sets that up in the best way, and I’d love to have that opportunity. But I also have a beautiful marriage, a great relationship. So at this point I’m balancing the spiritual life with the worldly one.

Many of your events have been held at the American Buddhist Temple, which I’d never even heard of before I started seeing your Meetup events, even though it’s been here for 24 years. How did you get connected?

The vast majority of these Thai temples around the U.S. are insulated, with only Thai and Lao people attending. They’re funded nearly 100 percent by that community and geared to those cultures. When I came here I had an existing practice, but wanted to learn more about theirs, which is very similar. I quickly realized I was the only American that ever went there. Over time I became the English-speaking liaison, and we started inviting others into the community. Now I’m actively involved as an unofficial secretary to the head monk, generating content in English and facilitating all the mediation programs.

What’s happening over there now with the shelter in place situation?

They are live streaming, at first only to their community but it’s accessible to anyone. I’ve been encouraging him to post other content and recently he did a mini walk around the avocado grove near the temple on Facebook Live, a mini retreat walking meditation underneath the trees to show people that you don’t have to come to the temple to practice. You can go out to your background or find a park and sit underneath a tree and meditate (just as the Buddha did). You can practice any place, anytime, anywhere.

What is the purpose of the Meetup group, to draw visitors to the temple, or other events?

I am trying to provide a way that to continue to be part of the ABMT community and help develop their program while also offering something from the Thai Forest tradition. In trying to be creative, I came up with all those events, just dabbling to see if people would respond and enjoy them. I just want to expose people to the practice. One of the things that Buddha taught us is to develop mindfulness in every activity. It’s great to be in retreat at the monastery spending a whole or half day practicing. But we also need to develop these skills in everything we do. So hiking a mountain in Montecito or walking on Butterfly Beach is an opportunity to engage people, share how we can practice mindfulness in that moment.

Now of course, the gatherings are online.

Tuesday is the virtual version of what I was doing at an Ayurveda center in Ventura, which has been the most flourishing community, standing room only since the first event, so I’m just keeping that going. As I’ve seen people get incredibly creative in generating content online, I came up with the idea of doing a series of interviews with Buddhist monks. I’ve traveled enough to know many who I thought would be interested in talking with me and doing live Q&As. We started last Friday with the abbot of a Thai temple in Tucson, and this Friday (April 10), it’s an American man who lived for decades as a zen practitioner in Japan before finding his way to the Thai tradition and monastic path. So he’s still in training. I imagine we’ll bring out some wonderful things from his history.

Next week (April 17), I’ll talk with the abbot of a Vietnamese zen monastery in Baton Rouge, where I’ve done retreats, because the world should hear more about his approach, not only in practicing Buddhism but also the monastic life, which is very reminiscent of Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. On April 24, I’ll interview Ajahn Khamjan Khrueasui, the head monk at ABMT. Then on May 1, I’ll talk with a monk who is living at a monastery in Florida, which will be my first opportunity to interview someone from my Thai Forest tradition. I plan to continue for at least the next six weeks, or longer if we’re still isolating.

Before we go, can you offer your own idea of the Buddhist perspective on what’s happening with the virus?

The Buddha ultimately teaches us that we should work to let go of absolutely everything, not only pleasant things. It’s not that we have aversion to what’s happening, but we accept it as what it is. We let go by recognizing our lack of control, relinquishing our need to control. With this situation, it behooves us to listen to the most reliable information about how we can take care of ourselves and help the community, and make good choices, but also recognize that the situation will play out as it will.

The Buddha taught us in his famous four noble truths – the first one is that there’s suffering in the world, which we are seeing very directly now. The second one is that the problem is in our minds, in our attachment to the outcome and what happens when we fail to recognize where we have no control and become frustrated. So (the virus) is a phenomenal opportunity for us to get to know the nature of what it means to be stressed out, anxious, worried, and panicky and how to approach these experiences not with a sense of dread or aversion but instead seeing it as an opportunity to see our own reactivity and our relationship to the world. I have been using this time to amp up my own practice even more. For me it’s been a sublime period of intensive practice, with all kinds of opportunities to be with my fear and worry. One minute my mind is upset and anxious and the next minute it’s calm and peaceful. It’s a chance to look at why that is happening.

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