The question which brought Bodhi&Bass into existence was: “How do we fully and authentically embody the truths that we’ve learnt on the spiritual path in everyday life?” Bodhi&Bass was created as a place to explore Buddhism, arts (every occupation is a kind of art) and the place where they intersect.
What if we stopped trying so hard to defeat uncertainty? We use concepts, ideas, philosophical and semantic structures in the hope of pigeon-holing the seemingly frightening truth of the complete fickleness of existence into submission. And yet every time we invariably find out that it was a totally futile quest.
In these past few months I’ve been going through a steady process of having the carpet pulled out from under my feet. Through the curious play of life, the onion layers of my identity, which I hold oh-so-dear, are being peeled away by the ever-changing waters of existence. Mind you, there’s nothing especially spectacular going on. It’s the usual growing up / adulting stuff of life. Financial insecurity, a new professional direction, moving to a different continent and other such usual “meat & potatoes” of adult life.
At the same time, from a spiritual point of view, something very interesting started to take place. My usual compulsive habit of chowing down tons of spiritual resources as a kind of inspiration-fuel for my practice has started to grow extremely boring. What previously amounted to a kind of spiritual binge, consuming endless books, films, lectures and podcasts about the spiritual journey in general, and the Buddhist path in particular, suddenly stopped fulfilling its intended purpose – inspiring me to practice.
And yet, incredibly, my practice itself steadily continued. But the conceptual and intellectual mind games that I always played with myself have lost their taste. What came instead is something which seems to be much more valuable. An actual interest in my situation, in each new moment of now. Dropping all the BS from the practice, even the most subtle conceptual underpinnings of the very structure of my psyche, have brought me to the reality of my experience as it is right now. No fireworks, no “breakthroughs”.
All this reminded me of a passage I read by the Japanese Zen Master, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi:
“The most important point to bear in mind here regarding the Buddhadharma is the expression mantoku enman, or perfect harmony. To have goodness emanating naturally from your character is living more truly by Buddhism than having had some so-called Kenshō or Satori experience. There should be no doubt that living out your life, acting and being in perfect harmony, is indeed living out the life of the Self. A Satori which is unrelated to your personal character is nothing more than a kind of drunkenness. It is no more than the elation you might get from taking drugs. Needless to say, this has nothing to do either with religion or with the Buddhadharma.”
So, even though there is still much work to be done, and there are many important experiences to be had and discoveries to be made, at least the vale of “spiritual materialism” seems to finally be lifting. And in the face of the experience of utter uncertainty that inevitably replaces it, I once again find how the Perfection of Forbearance, the most underrated of all spiritual perfections, is actually, in many ways, the most significant one to cultivate.
So let’s see – what is it that lies beyond the known? What indeed…
It is my great pleasure to announce that my teacher, Ven. Master Guohan, will be holding a Chan Week (7 day Chan intensive retreat). The retreat will take place on the 17-24 August 2019 in Groot Leven op Hoeve Wetermans, Olst, Netherlands.
The spaces are quite limited, so please make sure to reserve spaces in advance!
As an appetizer, here’s a short teaching by Master Guohan:
Two Chan Gongans (koans):
1. When Master Dayi Daoxin was fourteen, he visited the Third Patriarch Jianzhi Sengcan and asked, “Venerable Patriarch! Please be compassionate and guide me as to how to attain liberation.” The Third Patriarch asked, “Who binds you?” Daoxin replied, “Nobody binds me.” The Third Patriarch said, “Why then do you seek for liberation?” At the moment of that statement, Daoxin was enlightened.
2. One day, a monk asked Chan Master Shitou Xiqian, “What is liberation?” Xiqian said, “Who binds you?” The monk asked again, “What is the pure land?” Xiqian asked, “Who defiles you?” Then the monk further asked, “What is nirvana?” Xiqian asked again, “Who gives you birth and death?”
How to attain sudden enlightenment?
For the purpose of attaining [of no attainment] sudden enlightenment, Chan practitioners have to maintain the “practical or down-to-earth mind of non-abiding awareness” at all times in every thought they give rise to, and every action they take in their everyday life. That is to say, in all their daily activities, whomever they interact with or whatever they do, they should let go of their self-referential discrimination and attachment that is imbued with greed, hatred, gain or loss; and simultaneously they should engage in various activities with a practical and realistic awareness, dealing with each matter according to the needs of the occasion. For instance, whether they chop wood, carry water, cook, eat, sweep, clean, read, work, or sleep, they should just put their effortless effort into it. Once they can always maintain the down-to-earth awareness of no self-centeredness, in the real moment the wisdom mind manifests with non-abiding in anything; then “Ordinary mind is Chan”, and they are definitely able to attain and manifest the sudden realization of “Everyday activity is itself Chan”.
May this retreat help all attain the ultimate realization of non-attainment, and help all beings be content and at peace!
My greatest difficulty in practice has been, for a long time now, my habit, my addiction, to thinking. The reason this habit has become ingrained in my psyche, similarly to so many others in our western culture, is probably the common idea encapsulated by that famous Descartes adage, “I think therefore I am”.
From the moment we start becoming self-aware as small children, and develop the amazing ability to use language to communicate, we also acquire the complimentary parasitic habit of narrating reality to ourselves. We constantly talk “to ourselves” internally, as if we’re reporting to some hidden headquarters, some sort of “HQ behind our eyes”, we could say.
Here’s one example I remember. A few weeks ago when visiting some friends, I came into a room where a selection of sweets was laid out on the table. I caught myself saying to myself, to my magical HQ, “oh good, there’s Oreo’s! I love those!” As I witnessed this internal monologue take place, it suddenly occurred to me, who is it that I’m telling? I’m right there, I can see the damn things with my own eyes! The monologue was completely redundant.
In his Discourse On The Two Sorts Of Thinking, the Buddha recounts that before he was enlightened, as he was meditating and paying attention to thoughts as the object of his meditation, he categorized all thinking “imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness” as unwholesome, and noted that it “leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.” Whereas thinking “imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness” he categorized as wholesome, and said that it “leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, & leads to Unbinding.”
However, the punchline of that discourse is what’s most interesting for our purposes here. Because as the Buddha was noticing that wholesome thinking has arisen in his mind, he realized that even “If I were to think & ponder in line with that even for a night… even for a day… even for a day & night, I do not envision any danger that would come from it,” and yet he adds, “except that thinking & pondering a long time would tire the body. When the body is tired, the mind is disturbed; and a disturbed mind is far from collectedness.”
So then, at this moment his practice takes a inspiringly logical turn, and he says, “So I steadied my mind right within, settled, unified, & focused it. Why is that? So that my mind would not be disturbed.”
And this is why I keep coming back to the realization that meditation is not a luxury. And it’s also not just a tool for Stress-Reduction or for any of the many other psycho-physical benefits that it can bring. Meditation is a basic necessity for a wholesome and good life. Just like knowing how to read and write, knowing how to tie your shoes, and knowing how to behave politely. It has to become something we learn as children and something that is considered fundamental and commonplace for all humans.
Because if you don’t know how to notice the content of your mind and how to act in accordance with what you find there, you are going to stay a slave to moods and stray thoughts. And anyone who’s experienced even a single moment of stillness of the mind, knows that the burden of being constantly lost in thought, forever carrying the million-ton backpack of ruminations and mental chatter, is the heaviest burden that one carries in this life. Putting it down, even for a single moment, is a relief unmatched by any other. Not to mention making a habit out of mental clarity, stillness, and the freedom to choose your reaction. But cultivating such a habit takes much more than just the perfection of meditation, so we’ll get to all that some other time.
In the meanwhile, to understand the incredible capacity of a mind freed from the slavery of uncontrollable thinking, here’s a story for you:
While on pilgrimage, Fa-yen stopped at Ti-tsang monastery as he was sidetracked by a snowstorm. The abbott there, known as Master Ti-tsang, asked Fa-yen, ‘Where are you going?’
Fa-yen said, ‘I’m going around on pilgrimage.’
Ti-tsang said, ‘What do you expect from your pilgrimage?’
Fa-yen said, ‘I don’t know.’
Ti-tsang said, ‘Not knowing is most intimate.’
At these words Fayan instantly experienced enlightenment.
Here, we are presented with an alternative to the egoic, grasping, incessantly thinking mind. A “Don’t-Know Mind”, or what my teacher Master Guohan calls, “Ordinary Mind of Non-Abiding Awareness”. But of course, our ego, ever the resourceful trickster, makes us fear this almost more than anything in the world. A moment of silence. So until we are able to manifest such a miracle, we can use a different trick to help us manage our thinking, one suggested by the wonderful teacher, Joseph Goldstein, who says that when we notice ourselves thinking about the same unfortunate thing for the umpteenth time, we can simply ask ourselves, “Is this useful?”
Perhaps one day we’ll be able to answer, “I really don’t know.”
Want to try meditation? Go Here.
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On The Tip Of A Ripple: The Chan Discourses of Master Guohan
In celebration of my teacher Beishi Guohan’s birthday, I have compiled and edited a book of his discourses. This book is meant to serve as a guide to those who walk the path of Chan (Zen), beginners and seasoned practitioners alike. You can find out more about how this book came to be in the preface I wrote for it.
I’ve been working with a student who’s been dealing with much self-doubt and anxiety, so much so, it’s been paralyzing and debilitating to his ability to fulfill simple tasks. What has been very helpful is the metaphor of training the mind as the practice of cultivating our “mind’s garden” or as the Chinese called it: the Mind-Ground* (心地, Hsin-Ti).
In any task, from the most mundane – such as doing a work assignment or preparing dinner – to the highest of pursuits, like cultivating realization and liberation, we can never predict the outcome. Because of being completely habituated to worrying, we may feel to an extent that the anxiety and stress we feel are motivating us, and that without these emotions we might forget everything and not succeed at our task. Although, with any amount of reflection we can see clearly that this is a false assumption.
Let us take the metaphor of a garden. Let’s say we want to plant tomatoes.
We prepare the soil, supplement with compost, throw in some seeds, cover them carefully. We have fulfilled the “setting out” stage of the task. We took the first step.
Now, as we know, we must water the seedling and when needed, fertilize it. We need to check in and see what’s going on with it regularly. This is the second stage of “seeing through”.
After a while, we see signs of pests or a disease. We need to control the pests, preferably by using nonviolent, organic methods. We may need to adjust the pH of the soil, and apply a liming material. This is “adjusting to circumstances”, the third stage.
We may see that there are weeds in the garden taking over our tomato patch. We will then need to take care of those by removing them and throwing them in with the compost. This is the fourth stage – “Removing negative influence”.
Now, at the end of this process we might get our tomatoes, or we might not. For simplicity’s sake let’s say that if we follow the instructions, there’s a 50% chance of success. However if we don’t follow the instructions or if we decide to not even do it because we think, “but I might not even get any tomatoes at the end!”, we end up with an absolute certainty of failure. There’s a 99.9% chance (barring coincidence) that no tomatoes will come.
As you see, stress and anxiety, or in this case – standing there and screaming at the seedlings, “why won’t you damn things grow already?!”, has no part in the process. We can do only two things. Decide and act. Not thinking about the end result is what in Buddhism is called “not attaching to the fruit”.
This is very important- Thinking about what might or might not happen as a result of your labor is completely superfluous. It adds nothing. All you can do is decide you want to do something and then follow the instructions on how to do it. If you’re unsure you’re doing it right, there’s only one thing you can do: ask for help.
Sometimes, you’re going to need a seasoned gardener to take a look at your labor. This is someone who’s grown hundreds of successful tomato crops and can let you know how you’re doing. Sometimes you’ll be able to google your way out of a situation, but 9 times out of 10 you’re better off asking a veteran.
So let’s summarize:
Set out by deciding what you want to do, thus planting the seed in your mind-ground.
See it through, by following the instructions that you have on how to best fulfill your task.
Adjust to circumstances, by checking in as you’re working to see if there’s anything in your process that calls for course-correction.
Remove negative influence, by getting rid of any part of the process that you recognize to be damaging to it.
Throughout this process, from start to end, remember the two cardinal rules:
A. Do not attach to the fruits. Forget about the outcome, you can’t do anything more about it.
B. When in doubt, consult an expert. Ask for help from someone who’s done this before.
That’s it, your 50% tomatoes are complete. Enjoy each bite!
*Hsin-Ti (Mind-Ground) was explained by Tan’g Dynasty Master Huai-Jang thus:
“You should understand the doctrine of the mind-ground, which teaches that this mind-ground is as if planted with seeds. When I expound the essentials of the Dharma to you, it will be like rain falling upon that ground. Because the circumstances of your make-up join with the rain, therefore you are able to see the Way.”
Image Credits: WikiHow
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It’s the miracle cure-all panacea. It’ll make your workers more productive, it’ll make your soldiers more efficient, it’ll cure your anxiety and phobia and probably give your grandpa an erection. Mindfulness.
Well… No. We really, really have to stop this nonsense. Now that new studies have been popping up showing that it’s not necessarily making workers more productive, but rather more vegetative-stupefied than previously advertised, and that some are having panic attacks from attempting mindfulness practice, it raises a very good question:
What’s this “mindfulness” anyway?
If you look at a so-called “secular mindfulness” organization’s website, chances are you’ll find descriptions like “the art of being aware of experience without judgment”, or “non-judgmental awareness”. Like I said, vegetative-stupefied. Of this kind of thing makes you want to stab the nearest hippie in the leg with your fork, you’re not alone. I too have to fight the urge.
So here’s the thing. When the Buddha spoke of mindfulness (Sati) he mentioned it in the context of remembering. In fact it probably comes from the root ‘Sarati’ which literally means: to remember.
In the context of Real Mindfulness, it carries the meaning of “remembering what needs to be remembered”.
Simply speaking, Mindfulness means to remember to observe how the mind’s attention moves from thing to thing.
It’s not about observing the objects/content of mind, or focusing on such an object to the (forceful) exclusion of everything else, but about observing the activity, the action, of the mind itself. We have to remember to observe. “Oh, I’m here to meditate, not think about lunch or admire the wallpaper.” That’s the true function of mindfulness. And that brings me to the next important point:
Mindfulness alone is not enough.
Mindfulness is the “driver” of our meditation car. It reminds us where we’re going, what we’re doing. But the practice itself consists of watching the mind, becoming familiar with its behavior and its activities. We cultivate skillful mental qualities by remembering (being mindful) to apply Real Effort, seeing how unskillful qualities arise in the mind and preventing them from doing so, and promoting the arising of skillful mental qualities.
In time, this practice allows us to see through to the mind’s fundamental reality, seeing clearly what it is and how it is. Seeing our own Nature, and resolving such fundamental questions as “Who am I?” and “What’s all this?”.
Of course, we can also practice in order to calm down a bit and to lower our anxiety to an extent. Or just to be better at using our attention. But these (and many more) are all fruits of correct practice anyway!
Only practicing this “non-judgmental awareness” stuff without anything else might indeed suppress your mental crap for a bit, but your vacant stare and smug hipster attitude will surely be to the detriment of your peers and loved ones. So say mindfulness to me once more, hippy. I dare you.
The holiday season is upon us, and I’ve been in Israel enjoying my grandparent’s Hanukkah latkes (google it. No really, google it). I’ve been here teaching some crazy talented kids, a true inspiration. Here’s something from last summer’s project:
The Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Shostakovich Symphony No 5 Conductor: Krzysztof Chorzelski - YouTube
In any case, this month’s newsletter is titled Host and Guest. This is because I’ve been a guest on a couple of different shows/blogs this past month, and this has been really enjoyable. (Also a piece on the nature of thinking called Host and Guest is in the works right now.)
Firstly, if anyone is curious about my history with Buddhism, I was interviewed on the Mindfulness and Meditation Podcast, by my good friend Christiaan Neeteson. You can listen to it here:
From Vipassana to Chan Buddhism with Mark Gilenson - SoundCloud (992 secs long, 60 plays)Play in SoundCloud
Now, there are some changes coming. I want to start moving to video based content, and I’ll be experimenting a lot in the coming weeks and months. There’s also a new podcast series entitled Face2Face with Bodhi&Bass which starts this Saturday on the Ordinary Mind Meditation Podcast. I’ll be chatting with many interesting people from the worlds of spirituality, music, arts and everything in between. I’ve always been fascinated by how people find meaning in their lives, and what role creativity plays in that. The first episode will feature my old friend, Avshalom Ariel, someone very dear to me, whose philosophical and aesthetic vision I’ve not always agreed with, but who is absolutely magnetic. You’ll hear more about him and from him this Saturday on the podcast.
So don’t forget to subscribe, wherever you get your podcasts. We’ve started a new series this month called Dharma Lessons, where I share little talks on philosophy that I hold on the Meditation and Mindfulness Discord. If you’ve wanted to dive into the rabbit hole of Buddhist philosophy, I invite you to listen in:
Now, if you’ve been enjoying the fruits of my labor as a prolific volunteer, I invite you to help out by contributing to the creation of content here by donating. There’s actually a whole page dedicated to this: Support Us.
As I continue working on providing more and better content all the time, your help is of utmost importance. Without it, I simply can’t dedicate the same amount of time to these projects. Thank you for you support!
December’s Teachable Moment:
“In the Surangama Sutra, Arya Ajnatakaundinya asks, “What is the difference between settled and transient?” He answers by giving the example of a traveler who stops at an inn. The traveler dines and sleeps and then continues on his way. He doesn’t stop and settle there at the inn, he just pays his bill and departs, resuming his journey. But what about the innkeeper? He doesn’t go anywhere. He continues to reside at the inn because that is where he lives. “I say, therefore, that the transient is the guest and the innkeeper is the host,” says Arya Ajnatakaundinya.
And so we identify the ego’s myriad thoughts which rise and fall in the stream of consciousness as transients, travelers who come and go and who should not be detained with discursive examinations. Our Buddha Self is the host who lets the travelers pass without hindrance. A good host does not detain his guests with idle chatter when they are ready to depart. Therefore, just as the host does not pack up and leave with his guests, we should not follow our transient thoughts. We should simply let them pass, unobstructed.”
– Master Xuyun (Empty Cloud).
For all your questions and comments, I’m always here!
Ksitigarbha, the Earth Store Bodhisattva pictured above, vowed many eons ago that as long as any beings remain in any of the hells, he will go there to save them and will not attain supreme enlightenment until he has emptied the hells. These days, as fire rains from the heavens over a tiny strip of land in the middle east, hell is a reality for many. There are those of us, who experience hell continuously, without pauses, and when the pressure cooker finally can take the pressure no more (and this happens every few years) – we all get to catch a glimpse into this hell realm.
Granted, most of us have the privilege of watching these events from a comfortable distance. And from this distance it’s very easy to make judgments to either side depending on your inclinations. Yes, I too become a political pundit and security expert each time the wars of those greedy, hungry ghosts that run things from up high suddenly penetrate into my daily life, through the TV screen, or through the window.
Master Hsuan Hua, when he came to the US to teach, before there was much Buddhism there, created a teaching specially for his American students, called The Six Great Guiding Principles and the first among them was “No Fighting”.
So what now, pacifism? Should we all just wrap ourselves in white and crawl to the nearest cemetery? Well, not quite.
“No Fighting” is one translation, but Rev. Heng Sure pointed out that the first principle can also be translated as “No Contention”. Our lack mentality, encouraged by the economy of greed and pain-numbing in our society, tells us: “I have to win. It’s me or them- there ain’t enough for both of us. Besides, they can’t be trusted – they’ll say anything to make us believe them. If I let my guard down, they’ll finish me. Homo homini lupus.” These, dear friends, are not the product of rational thinking as we would like to believe. These are thoughts brought on by one thing: fear.
Believe it or not, even a terrorist is just a person who wants to be happy, same as you and I. But this person’s karma, life’s circumstances – social, environmental, historical, genetic – have brought this poor person to such desperation that the only way this miserable being can come up with to put an end to the suffering is by “crushing the enemy”.
Anger-Fear, Antoine Stevens
All their fears, all the suffering and misery, all become embodied in this “enemy” and the aggression and frustration get taken out on this “perfect foe”. All in a miserable attempt to reduce the misery, to try and suffer less.
It is so easy to judge from afar, from our comfortable distance, but who will be the brave one who goes to the hells and rescue all the doomed souls therefrom, whose suffering seems to them to last for all eternity? “No Contention”. So yes, putting down the guns right now will result in each of our demises. An eye for an eye, they say, but even if we don’t take their eye, we’ll still have been left blind. But at the same time, can we perhaps, change the way we approach matters altogether? Today circumstances are what they are, that ship has sailed. But while we look for who’s to blame and who started it, we’ll be left with 11 people and a bunch of stray cats in a pile of dust and rubble.
So before we doom this little piece of land in the middle east for the sake of “being right”, maybe we can stop trying to come out on top, stop trying to “win”. And then, maybe we can look around and see that all around us we’re surrounding by a bunch of suffering beings, just like ourselves, who are just trying to be happy and free from suffering, and whose circumstances push them, just like they do us, to search for this happiness in the most idiotic, ridiculous ways. So before trying to lay down the guns in vain once again, this time let’s start by fixing our own mind, our own thinking. And then continue from there, and take another step. And then another.
If you’re brave enough, make this aspiration with me:
May all beings be free from suffering, and until they do, may I not attain supreme enlightenment, and come back again and again, until all the hells have been completely emptied!
The Three Poisons (or Roots) that form the basis for all that is unwholesome, that which propels us through life with so much discomfort and suffering, are rendered in English as Attachment, Aversion and Ignorance, or as Greed, Hatred and Delusion. In this Buddhist Bit, I offer three antidotes for dealing with the poisons. These little reminders can be brought to mind with three deep breaths, wherever you might be, and can aid greatly in relieving the grasping, clenched feeling that plagues us so often.
In The Mula Sutta (Discourse on Unskillful Roots), the Buddha elaborates on the three poisons:
“Monks, there are these three roots of what is unskillful. Which three? Greed is a root of what is unskillful, aversion is a root of what is unskillful, delusion is a root of what is unskillful.
“Greed itself is unskillful. Whatever a greedy person fabricates by means of body, speech, or intellect, that too is unskillful. Whatever suffering a greedy person — his mind overcome with greed, his mind consumed — wrongly inflicts on another person through beating or imprisonment or confiscation or placing blame or banishment, [with the thought,] ‘I have power. I want power,’ that too is unskillful. Thus it is that many evil, unskillful qualities/events — born of greed, caused by greed, originated through greed, conditioned by greed — come into play.
“Aversion itself is unskillful. Whatever an aversive person fabricates by means of body, speech, or intellect, that too is unskillful. Whatever suffering an aversive person — his mind overcome with aversion, his mind consumed — wrongly inflicts on another person through beating or imprisonment or confiscation or placing blame or banishment, [with the thought,] ‘I have power. I want power,’ that too is unskillful. Thus it is that many evil, unskillful qualities — born of aversion, caused by aversion, originated through aversion, conditioned by aversion — come into play.
“Delusion itself is unskillful. Whatever a deluded person fabricates by means of body, speech, or intellect, that too is unskillful. Whatever suffering a deluded person — his mind overcome with delusion, his mind consumed — wrongly inflicts on another person through beating or imprisonment or confiscation or placing blame or banishment, [with the thought,] ‘I have power. I want power,’ that too is unskillful. Thus it is that many evil, unskillful qualities — born of delusion, caused by delusion, originated through delusion, conditioned by delusion — come into play.”
there are a few updates to the website I’d like to point out, for you to check out and enjoy.
Our new logo reflects the spirit of our Hermitage, as well as our main affiliation, the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha (Zen Order of Hsu-Yun):
First of all, there’s a new landing page. So if you’ve ever stumbled on an article or something else you liked but felt a bit lost beyond that, Now there’s a place to start: The aptly named “Start Here”.
Secondly, there’s a new page about Buddhist Practice, to serve as a starting point for all the other resources and practices presented on the website. Check it out: Practice ://: Resources.
Thirdly, there’s a whole new section dedicated to exploring the lineage of this fine establishment. If you want to know about our history, check it out: Our Lineage
Finally, if you enjoy the content made available through this website, such as the many articles and the podcast, there’s a way for you to support this work! Check out the brand new Dāna Corner! Even if you’re not able to contribute, there’s still interesting information about the Buddhist practice of generosity on there. Importantly, all Buddhist teachings are always going to be available for free. Support the content if you can, but you will still have access to it even if you can’t. Your support is deeply appreciated!
That’s it. Keep an eye out for an article about the current war in Gaza coming very soon, and a new Buddhist Bits episode coming tomorrow.