1 year an Upāsaka

Halfway through last year I described my year-long commitment as a lay devotee of Buddhism in the Thai Forest Monastery under Ajahn Sona. I completed the commitment at the end of December and was given the Pali name of Sanghapāla — “protector of the Sangha (the Buddhist community).” I use that name now when in Buddhist circles. Pali names are sometimes thought of as aspirational and I have taken that to heart. Protecting and supporting the Buddhist community is particularly necessary in the West. I have seen how Buddhist communities survive in different countries and cultures, so I know what is possible. (Although I am not sure of Ajahn Sona had this in mind when he selected the name, I can easily rationalize it! ). Community is something I already strive to build and protect, so I think the name is fitting.

Spending a year as a dedicated practitioner was certainly transformative. I gained a deep appreciation of the Buddha’s insightful Noble Eightfold Path through the structured study, and was able to work on my personal conduct. I definitely feel like I have made progress towards more moral living (even though I see the long road still ahead of me!). I hope others have seen this as well. There is so much in those eight insights! You could easily spend multiple lives trying to work through them.

Over the whole year I missed daily meditation only four times, due to bad planning or travel (ie when we moved to Japan in April). Importantly, I learned not to beat myself up about missing those kinds of things. Living under a self-imposed regime of renunciation, I learned how to be much more gentle with myself.

All of these are personal changes, but the best feature of the program was meeting and working with the support of so many kalyāṇa-mittā. The Buddha advised surrounding oneself with the wise.

So what now? Generally I am continuing on. There are 160+ upasikā program alumni living in 18 countries. Many of them have grouped together in online meditation and study groups. I have joined one doing a close reading of The Island. Each day I maintain the Five Precepts and meditate accordingly. I might slip now and again, but this is just how I live now — day-by-day.

The biggest change is Uposatha days, which it turns out were a hardship on my family last year. After discussing it with my wife, and being inspired by a man in Malaysia who told us about how they train young kids for Ramadan, we decided to do a sort of Uposatha-lite twice a month as a family. For the traditional full moon and new moon days I will commit to a more dedicated day of practice, and then as a family we will all just have a very light okayu (Japanese congee) dinner. This is how we have decided to have a couple of intentional days of reflection each month as a family. It is an experiment, but I hope it serves as a good example and opportunity for the kids.

To wrap up, I am very happy to have completed the program. I am satisfied to maintain my practice for now and am not feeling particularly ambitious to go on to the next level of renunciation. Some day, maybe, but for now I will continue to sit, keep building my knowledge, and refining my personal conduct. The obvious next step is doing more suttā study and thinking seriously about what it means to protect and support a community.

Best of 2022

At the very beginning of the year I created a Reading Schedule for 2022 note topped with: “Goal is 20 books. 5 Japanese books.”

As I looked over the snowy countryside in Canada last January, I was thinking about how I could maintain my connection to Japan and improve my language learning from afar. I thought I would set my reading goal a little low to account for the time I would need to read some books in Japanese. Little did I imagine I would be moving back to Japan in a mad rush just a few months later. Furthermore, as I engaged with my new work, I read more on distributed decision-making, organizational theory, computer history, and corporate strategy. Then there were a few literary novels I read as part of a small online book club I participated in. And of course, with trips to Portugal and Malaysia this year I just had to do a little background reading before traveling!

Needless to say, I veered heavily off course in 2022. But that’s okay! Goals are not laws.

Be that as it may, the book I started off the year with turned out to be the best nonfic book I read all year. I have recommended it countless times: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I reckon this book ranks up there with Debt in terms of potential impact. It shows just how narrow our political imagination has been these last 250 years when you look at how humans have organized themselves over the past 40,000 years.

The other book I read this year (recommended by one of the book club memebers! Shoutout!) which also acts as a good wedge to get people out of their complacency is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. This is the kind of speculative fiction that is a thought experiment run through to a logical conclusion. KSR takes a number of climate crisis disaster scenarios and solutions, and eschewing monocausal taxiphilia, runs them all at once. Thus the book weaves a complex story of how our society could come out the other end of our climate crisis.

The climate crisis is the number one problem that faces society today, and many tech workers that have been turned off by the last couple decades of optimizing ad revenue or perfecting the next SaaS business in the name of “changing the world” have started to think about how to make a real impact with their skills. Reading Ministry motivated me to join two communities to help me learn not only what is currently being worked on, but also where I might be able to put my skills. See:

Anyways, I read a lot of good books this year. It was a good one. You can see the whole list: Goodreads: Chad’s 2022 books by rating →

A quick note on Film and Television

It has not been a particularly good year for film, on the otherhand. I watched just 17 films, none worth 5 stars, and only one garnered a “like” on my Letterboxd.

I did dip into a few prestige television shows (and even a few Marvel and Star Wars ones) that were making the watercooler discussions online. Above and beyond them all was Andor, the slow-burn spy thriller that just happens to take place in the Star Wars universe. I was all-in on this show: watching it week to week, listening to recap podcasts, and watching YouTube breakdowns – very impressed with the all around quality, and very much looking forward to next season.

Concluding remarks

Although I hit my reading goals in purely numerical terms, and did read a lot of engaging things, I don’t feel like I read enough. I mean, this was a crazy year for me, so there is that. Also, I listened to about a billion podcasts this year. I delved deep into the backlogs of a number of new-to-me shows, most to do with work-related topics involving tech trends, critical tech analysis, remote work, etc. (f you are interested I can share, of course). The biggest impact on my reading has been my lack of a commute. For the past 6 months my commute has been just 5 minutes on foot! That has meant a lot less audiobook time than I am used to.

Saturday morning walks in Kyoto

In recent weeks, as the kids sleep in on the weekend, my wife and I have been taking early morning walks around the city, hitting temples and shrines before the tourists. We chitchat while strolling along, poking around areas of the city that we have not taken the time to explore. Sometimes we talk about memories from two decades before, when we lived in the city together. How the city has changed since then! Ironic since Kyoto is known for maintaining its twelve-hundred year old history. But that makes it such a fun city to explore on foot. Kept small, it is very walkable. Much of it is flat. The histories of the city are layered upon one another, just waiting to be peeled back for new discoveries at the same old places. Every street corner has been the site of some major historical incident. My wife’s grandmother lived in the city her whole life, was a proud Kyoto-jin. She claimed to need many more lives to know every part of the city.

As we stroll I take short vids and some photos and post to social media. I thought I would reproduce the last couple of excursions for you here.

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Traveling the familiar

When I was a kid there was a lakeside campground we went to each summer. Dad would load up the camper with beach toys and we would migrate south for a week. My cousins would met us there for a few days, but there were also these kids from other towns and cities that would come about the same time. I only ever saw these kids once a year, but we had wild fun on the water. Parents would cook together, play cards, drink, talk about old times. For the few weeks before the trip excitement would mount up in anticipation for meeting those kids: How much had they grown? What new interests/toys/hobbies did they have? What yearly accomplishments would we regale one other with around the campfire?

I had forgotten this comfortable feeling of slipping into an old community for a few days, picking up where everyone left off, before separating again for a year. Since those times every chance I have had to travel has been about exploring some place new. But last month I had a lovely experience reminding me of why sometimes it is good to visit some place old.

Back to the island

My daughters’ school has a week-long autumn break in October, so we decided to take the opportunity to return to Ikijima, the island where we lived in 2020-21 (see the FAQ). We intended to go in the summer but my father-in-law’s early death postponed that plan. However, the fall worked out well since the kids on Iki are all in school and not travelling elsewhere for summer holidays themselves. We smelled an opportunity for a caper 😄

We arrived on Iki via ferry before lunch on a weekday. We had communicated our plans to only a single person: the principal of the elementary school my kids attended. She was super game and cooked up a scenario to surprise the kids in school. We surreptitiously walked through town towards the hill. People started recognizing us and we flashed a 🤫 shush — quickly explaining we were about to pull off a big surprise at the school atop the bluff.

Crouching low, we snuck round the back of the school to a door that the principal left open for us. Once in, we moved under cover into the principal’s office whose blinds were all drawn. Meanwhile, the vice-principal had organized all the schoolchildren for an assembly on the second floor. A “storytime” event had been scheduled, and all the children sat on the floor facing away from the stairwell waiting for a story to be read. All of a sudden, music played over a speaker and — not-unlike a WWE entrance — my daughters alighted the stairs and swept into the room to cries of surprise and joy! The caper was successfully caped, and now we had a school of overly excited children. I love it when a plan comes together!

Just down the street from the house we lived in last year is a hotel. We stayed there and basically just let the kids run wild and free with their friends like old times. They came home on their own at the chime like everyone else. On the Friday, while the other kids were in school, we drove around to some of our favourite spots but made sure to be back for after-school adventures.

I was filled with a warm feeling as everyone just welcomed us back. The kids, all grown tall since we saw them last more than a year ago, played well together, picking up where they left off. Parents and neighbours too were very welcoming. When we left the island suddenly in summer of 2021 I think many suspected we would never come back. Plus, when we originally arrived on Iki it was the early days of corona. We could not do many of the normal events which would integrate us into the community. Regrettably, we were only loosely connected to our neighbours. Now here we were, returned to the island and promising to return next summer for swimming and beach parties. Suddenly the bonds were stronger.

Sometimes “no plan” is the best plan

Other than the caper we had not planned anything for our return, just to be there and see people. It could not have been more perfect. Unbeknownst to us the village had planned a “Halloween March” for the Saturday and invited us to participate. All the kids of our little fishing village dressed up and walked down the main street, yelling “TRICK OR TREAT!” at each participating house and shop. Afterwards there were activities for hours. The bright island sun shone brightly on smiling, painted faces.

Then on Sunday we had another surprise: the island-wide kids futsal tournament was being hosted in our village! Hundreds of kids from all over the island descended on the football ground beside AEON (yes, the one with the sheep pen behind the goal posts!) and we joined everyone from the school to cheer our schoolmates. We had three teams to support, and my head (and camera) were spinning between courts. One of our teams got first place for their division! It was awesome to be able to stand on the sidelines and cheer them on, and witness a memorable win.

More memories to talk about for next time we are there.

Kids lined up on a soccer pitch, parents on the sideline. In the background 3 sheep lay down in their pen watching. Behind them a large pink building with an AEON sign on top.

We left that afternoon by jetfoil. More than a dozen people turned out to see us off. We promised we would let everyone know before we come next time so plans could be made properly. We also invited everyone to visit us in Kyoto. Since then we have already had two guests from Iki visit us here in Kyoto!

For my kids Kyoto was always the place we would come to visit Jiji and Baba. They don’t really have friends around here. Iki is more like their “hometown” in Japan. I hope to keep strengthening the bonds with our friends on the island, returning periodically. It would be amazing if in the future, after my daughters grow up, that they go to Iki on their own (maybe even with their own kids!) and have people there excited to see them again.

Impressions of Lisbon

My first trip to Europe was pretty easy. Not the getting there — that part was actually pretty difficult. I flew through Heathrow, but leaving Haneda the plane flew east over the Pacific Ocean, north between Kamchatka and Alaska, through the Bering Straight and then over the Arctic. In order to avoid Russian airspace four hours are tacked for the “Northern Route” that passes over northernmost Canada, Greenland, and Iceland before arriving in London more than fourteen hours after take-off. Six hours eating fish and chips in a packed (and nearly maskless) Heathrow, and I was off to Lisbon. Door-to-door it took almost thirty-three hours from my condo in Kyoto to my hotel room in Lisbon, from the eastern edge of Asia to the westernmost edge of Europe.

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Visiting the Kyoto State Guest House

A few years ago one of the members of Writers in Kyoto shared a broadcast from NHK’s Core Kyoto S05E02 Kyoto State Guest House: Hospitality Imbued with Beauty and Craftsmanship. This is a special compound located in the Kyoto Imperial Palace but run by the Cabinet Office. It is where the Japanese government receives foreign dignitaries on state visits. Presidents, ministers, and royalty have stayed here, taking exquisite meals and performances, enjoying the most refined of Japanese culture in a singular setting.

Luckily tours are open to the public, so was able to get in!

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6 months an upāsaka

Bronze buddha statue beside a glass vase with some wilted sunflowers

At the beginning of the year I undertook a commitment to take my Buddhist learning to the next level by becoming an upāsaka, or “lay devotee.” Last fall I applied to and was accepted into the upāsikā program at Birken, the Thai Forest Monastery near Kamloops where I have attended a couple of different meditation retreats (for example see this and this ). It has been six months into the commitment, so I thought I would share a bit about the program here at the halfway point.

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