Self-Transformation through the Lam-rim Graded Stages
Morelia, Mexico, October 2008
Session Five: The Different Realms of Existence and Karma
Before we get into our discussion of karma, there was one point in the initial scope teachings that I sort of skipped over quickly, as many people often do. This is the discussion of the sufferings of the three lower realms, three worse realms I prefer to call them. Actually the Tibetan word for it is the three "bad" realms. So, "bad" is a bit heavy to say, so I call them "worse." There's no word there meaning "lower" realms. Let's not getting into a discussion of etymology. I will refrain.
Now, some people like to make a Dharma-lite version of the lower realms – the worst... now I said "lower"... of the worst realms and in fact make a Dharma-lite version of all the various six realms: We can accept that there are humans; we can accept that there are animals; some of us might accept that there are spirits or ghosts...not everybody, but some people in some cultures will... but other life forms are a bit difficult. And so the Dharma-lite version is that these realms are really talking about psychological states or mental states of humans. And there is an aspect of the teachings, a point of the teachings, which says that after rebirth in one of these realms then there will be a residue, a slight residue, of that type of experience in a human rebirth – if there is a human rebirth that follows then. So there's something similar in a human experience. But this is not the real-thing six realms. So, now we have to go to the real thing.
As we saw in our discussion of real-thing Dharma, everything is based on an understanding of mental continuum, mental activity with no beginning and no end. And if we examine the various parameters of what is experienced in terms of things like sights and sounds, and physical sensations, and happiness, unhappiness, etc., these are different parameters that can be experienced. These are parameters that affect our experience, that color our experience: interest, disinterest, attention, no attention. For each of these parameters we're talking about a whole spectrum. A spectrum from total interest to total disinterest; total attention to total no attention; total anger to no anger whatsoever. So we're looking at a spectrum and what we experience is somewhere on that spectrum.
So this is the case with sight, for example. There's a whole spectrum of light and with the hardware of a human being, a human body, we are only able to perceive a certain amount of that spectrum. So we're not able to perceive ultraviolet or infrared, we have to use mechanical hardware to perceive that. But the hardware of an owl, for example, is able to perceive sights that we can't perceive, for instance in terms of...for human hardware...too much darkness.
With the hardware of a dog's ears, a dog can hear sounds of higher frequency than the hardware of human ears can hear. With the hardware of a dog's nose, it can smell far more sensitive, delicate smells at a far larger distance than with our human hardware. So this is quite clear. So just because the hardware of a human body can't perceive a certain portion of a spectrum of sense information, doesn't mean that it's impossible for it to...beyond those borders...for those portions of the spectrum to be perceived. It just requires different hardware. Just because we can't see ultraviolet and infrared doesn't mean that ultraviolet and infrared light doesn't exist.
And if we think of our individual mental continuum which is not restricted to having one particular type of hardware that is connected with one type of body, then, why not? Mental activity – our individual mental activity – is capable of perceiving anywhere on these spectrums. So, if this is the case with the spectrum of sights and sounds and smells as we've just seen, why is there...is there any reason why this should not also be the case with the spectrum of pleasure and pain? If we speak in terms of tactile sensations those physical sensations..."tactile" isn't the right, the correct, word. "Physical" is much larger than just tactile. So with the human hardware, when the pain becomes too strong, then we automatically shut down, you become unconscious. That doesn't mean that greater amounts of pain don't exist. It's just that our hardware is incapable of perceiving it. It has a safety mechanism that shuts down.
The same thing is true...since we might, we're in this discussion we might as well speak about the other side of the spectrum in terms of pleasure – the opposite of pain – we're talking about physical; physical sensation of pleasure. Then if we analyze this objectively, we similarly have a mechanism in our hardware that destroys or stops pleasure when it also reaches a certain level. If you think in terms of the pleasure of a sexual experience, when it reaches a certain level one is drawn more quickly, and more quickly, and more quickly basically to end it with an orgasm. The same thing with an itch. If we analyze an itch objectively, an itch is intense pleasure. It's not painful, an itch. It's pleasure. But it's too pleasurable and we have to destroy it, we have to end it.
That's not a joke, actually. I'm very serious. For a number of years, probably around five years, I had a chronic itch. My scalp and my forehead itched violently a great deal of the time. And doctors could not at all figure out what was causing it. So the only way to be able to deal with that, to live with that, was to recognize that this was pleasure and relax and enjoy it. Although that required a tremendous amount of mindfulness and concentration; when I was able to do it, then it was okay. I was not disturbed by the itch. But normally, if we have a mosquito bite then it's too much. We have to destroy that sensation. The body automatically shuts down.
So, why can't there be the hardware of a living being that is able to perceive further on the spectrum of pain and further on the spectrum of pleasure in analogy with: There is hardware of living beings that can experience further on the spectrum of sight, sound and smell? Why not? There is no logical reason why not. And the same thing for the spectrum of the mental factor of happiness and unhappiness. Don't confuse happiness and unhappiness with pleasure and pain, those are different. Happiness or unhappiness can accompany any type of physical experience or mental experience. We can experience the pain of a strong massage with great happiness because, ahhh, it's relieving the muscle. It hurts, but I'm happy. "If there's no pain, no gain." I'm happy that, you know, I'm getting this hard, painful massage. I'm not unhappy. I'm happy that I'm getting a massage.
So happy and unhappy, that's a different parameter from pain and pleasure. [But the two sets are similar.] Why? We get so unhappy, that we get depressed. If you really get unhappy what do you do? You kill yourself. So there are limits to the hardware of how much unhappiness we can take. So why can't there be greater unhappiness and greater happiness on either side of the spectrum beyond that which we, as human beings, can tolerate?
And if this is the case, that the limit...the further limits, the extremes of the spectrums...can be perceived by mental activity, then connected with that would be the appropriate hardware of a body, the appropriate type of body, that would be able to perceive it. And my mental continuum then has the capacity to be able to experience anything, any portion of these spectrums and generate the appropriate hardware for being able to perceive them. And just because with my human hardware I'm not able to perceive the hardware of a body that could experience extreme pain and extreme unhappiness doesn't prove that that type of hardware doesn't exist. It's just beyond the spectrum of what my hardware can perceive – my human hardware. So do these realms and the environments of these realms, do they exist in reality? Sure. They exist with as much reality as the human realm exists. It doesn't matter that we may not be able to perceive them. So what?
I don't want to get into the discussion of reality. What is reality and voidness and all of that. By the way, what I've explained is my own understanding; I haven't heard this from anybody or read this. But it makes sense to me and at least from my own experience helps me to take more seriously these other realms. Because what I'm looking at here is mental continuum of mental activity; and individual mental activity is capable of experiencing the entire spectrum of sight, sound, pleasure, pain, happiness, unhappiness. And the fact that there would be an associated, appropriate physical hardware for that is not really the main point of my understanding of this. Of course there has to be appropriate hardware, but that's secondary. So I wouldn't leave it in the realm of "imagination," that I could sit there and meditate and imagine feeling extreme pain.
That is actually quite hard to imagine, isn't it? For it to be as real as actually feeling that pain. So it would be nice we...y'know...well this is only talking about something that we could experience in meditation, the suffering of the different realms. But, who are we kidding? Try to remember or imagine what it was like to have your tooth drilled without Novocaine...most of us have experienced that. Try that for a moment......Does it hurt? NO?! Who are we kidding? So, come on. We're talking here about an actual experience of these extreme extremes on the spectrum of pleasure and pain. [ Not just imagining or remembering them.]
So this is I think a helpful way, I hope...at least helpful for me...of thinking of these different realms. See, this is a consequence...I'll explain what the word "this" means in my sentence. There's a consequence of really taking refuge, safe direction. If I really am convinced that Buddha was not an idiot and everything that he said was meaningful and meaningful for helping others to overcome suffering...he didn't say anything stupid or irrelevant...then that means that everything that I find in the teachings I take seriously. And if I don't understand it, then I try to figure out what in the world could this mean? So when Buddha was speaking about these different realms, he wasn't joking. So in terms of initial scope we would...you know, real-thing Dharma... really take seriously these worse rebirth states and I really don't want to experience that. And our being able to take it seriously is dependent on our understanding of what is mental activity, what is the mental continuum and what is going on forever? Okay? Fine. It's not an easy pill to swallow, I know.
Now, karma. We won't go into the great complexities of karma. Let's speak on a practical level. We think in terms of future lives. How seriously do we take future lives? And what are we doing that is going to ensure the quality of our future lives? So, take myself as an example...since I've been speaking a little bit within the framework of how I've been relating to this material... I've been working a lot on this initial scope. It's difficult, this initial scope. So I have made this enormous web site of Dharma material. So part of my motivation, my aim, of course, is to benefit others who might read this. But I must admit that part of my motivation is for my own benefit, because I'm thinking that if I put enough energy into this, I'm so strongly connected to this, that in future lifetimes I'm going to be very instinctively drawn to this as a child, if I may...you know, as a human being. And so I'm thinking...I'm preparing for future lives doing something that is going to help draw me back to the Dharma in my future lives at a very early age. I'm going to find this web site and, y'know...Wow!...just want to do that.
However, if I look at this, then I see that I am perhaps building up the causes for reconnecting quickly with the Dharma when I have another precious human rebirth. But am I really building up the causes for the precious human rebirth? Am I fooling myself? Am I doing a slight Dharma-lite version now of the initial scope, thinking that if I make this web site.....
So this is what we always have to examine with these three scopes. Am I really, do I really have this as my total type of person that I am, the scope of what I'm aiming for? Or, am I fooling myself and leaving out parts? As I said several times, to be a person of any of these scopes needs to be something that affects our whole attitude toward life.
So, we're back to the teachings: It says very clearly causes for a precious human rebirth, the main cause, is ethical self discipline. Restrain from acting destructively. There are many different forms of ethical self discipline. Ethical self discipline also to engage in constructive things, like meditation, ethical self discipline to help others. But here we're talking specifically about the discipline to refrain from acting destructively. Now we have a list of the ten destructive actions, I don't need go into a great degree of detail. I mean these are just...what should we say...the most significant destructive actions. There's plenty more.
So how seriously do I take these instructions about avoiding destructive actions? Now, we're not talking about becoming a fanatic about this...and so stiff and so on that you never do anything destructive whatsoever...and just imagining that you have to be a saint – not quite at that level yet. But, you know we need to develop, to observe what we're doing and when we start to act destructively, recognize the disadvantages of it and, on the basis of understanding the disadvantages of it – that we will bring unhappiness, the experience of suffering, of unhappiness to me. No guarantee what will be the effect on somebody else, but I can guarantee what the effect would be on me in the future, is unhappiness, and then not wanting to experience that, I refrain myself from acting destructively.
So, why don't I refrain from acting destructively? Well, it's because I am...the basic reason is that I'm not convinced on a deep level that unhappiness and suffering results from acting destructively. And if I'm experiencing unhappiness now, suffering, pain, etc...particularly unhappiness is what's specified here...then that is the result of having previously acted destructively. So if I don't want to continue experiencing that, I will refrain from any further destructive behavior. And we have to be convinced of the causal relationship between destructive behavior and unhappiness and the causal relationship between constructive behavior and happiness. That's not easy. That confidence, that conviction in the causal relationship here is the key factor, isn't it, for really becoming a person of initial scope. Then of course there's laziness, etc., even if we are convinced. But that's a further level.
So if we look at the texts, the way that this is explained is that our conviction...we can gain valid inferential understanding of this based on authority. In other words, if what Buddha said about how to develop concentration, how to develop understanding of voidness and that if we develop that it will eliminate our disturbing emotions and so on, if from our own personal experience of working with this we see that what Buddha said about all of this is true...if what Buddha said about voidness, teachings on voidness, that if I develop that I will get rid of my disturbing emotions, and so if I actually gain that understanding through my experience as an end to the disturbing emotions, and if the reason why Buddha was able to become enlightened and to know all of this was fundamentally compassion...the wish to benefit others...then there's no reason why Buddha would lie to us about karma. So Buddha is a valid source of information. We can infer that Buddha is a valid source of information about karma.
I don't know about you, but for me...although I can understand the logic here...it doesn't really convince me on the very, very deep level. I'd like to understand a little bit better. In other words, I'd like to understand something further about this so that it helps me to...what shall we say...really be convinced in terms of...what shall we say...the traditional textural way. I'm not really convinced of this inference.
So it's clear that just through regular inference based on logic, that one cannot prove that unhappiness results from destructive behavior. That it says very specifically in the texts...and you're not able to see it with bare perception – straightforward perception. So what this draws me to do is to investigate more deeply to try to get more information to try to understand the relationship between destructive behavior and unhappiness. How can I connect the two? As His Holiness always says, I need to approach this like a scientist. So now we investigate more deeply.
So we have the teachings of abhidharma, Special Topics of Knowledge. There are slightly different versions of it given in the different schools of Indian Buddhism. We have text from the Vaibhashika tradition, that's the Hinayana tradition, by Vasubandu. And we have a Mahayana version of abhidharma by Asanga. And we have a Theravada, which is also Hinayana, version of this by Anuruddha. So when we look up in each of these textual traditions and commentaries, what is a destructive action? How would we define destructive behavior? I'm going to be nonsectarian about this and the approach is that each of them shed...each of these different analyses...sheds light on this topic; they're not contradictory. So we have lists of different mental factors that always accompany destructive behavior. We look at these mental factors, we put it together from these different presentations and see, “If I have these mental factors, is that a happy state of mind or an unhappy state of mind?”
Let me go through...not exhaustively but...some of the main features on the list of what are the mental factors that are present with destructive behavior. This gives us a better...a clearer picture...of what are we talking about here when we're talking about destructive behavior. It's not just the action, it's also the state of mind that's with the action. In other words, what makes the action destructive? It may be destructive, but here it's not just that it produces unhappiness, but there are these various mental factors connected to it.
So, we have...we'll go through some of these factors:
No sense of values. This means a lack of respect for positive qualities or people possessing them. Something we can understand, isn't it? There are some people who have no respect for law, for anything positive, for people who are positive or doing good...no respect. [They don't value it.]
Next one is no "scruples" I translated it as. Which means a lack of restraint from being brazenly or openly negative; this means basically, "I don't care about what I do." No restraint about being openly negative. "I don't care what I do!" Is that a happy state of mind or an unhappy state of mind? Seems to tend...y'know I can understand that if we add these type of attitudes, we wouldn't be very happy people.
Naivety. Here specifically not knowing or accepting that gross suffering and unhappiness follow from acting destructively. So, "Hey, I can act destructively; I can do whatever I want and there are no consequences of it." We're naive.
We can also have attachment and hostility. But those don't necessarily have to be there, but they can. But we know, when we're very, very attached and clinging and so on, is not a terribly happy state of mind. Neither is when we're very angry and hostile. "I have to have it! I have to have it! I have to have it!" That's not a happy state of mind. Or, " Don't ever leave me! I can't live without you!" That's not a happy state of mind either, is it?
Then, we go further, no moral self-dignity, no sense of moral self-dignity. "I don't have any sense of pride in myself." Low self esteem and these sort of things. "I have no sense of dignity about myself." This we find in sociology as well. If you tell people that you're no good and you never allow them to have a sense of self-pride or self-dignity, then they feel, "Well, I could become a suicide bomber because I don't value myself. You've convinced me that I'm a piece of crap." There's no sense of self-dignity. The worst thing you can do to an oppressed people is to take away their sense of self-dignity. So it's not hard to see. You have no sense of self dignity. We think we're worthless.
And then the next one is not caring for how our actions reflect on others. This is perhaps a very Asian mentality, but in Asian mentality if I act poorly, this reflects on my family, on my caste, on my social group, etc. So I don't care about that. What would accompany acting destructively is, "I don't care how this reflects on my family; I don't care how this reflects on my nation or my gender, or whatever.”
And another factor which is added by Anuruddha is a sense of restlessness. This is the opposite of being content and at peace with yourself. Our mental state is unsettled, is uneasy. That also is when we are with a destructive behavior, we're not at ease; uneasiness. This restlessness.
So if we learn about all these different types of mental factors that would accompany destructive behavior, then...although I can't infer from that logically that unhappiness results from that...I can see a little more clearly the relationship between this destructive behavior, this type of destructive behavior in general characterized by these mental factors and unhappiness, the association makes much more sense. Then I can go back to what's given in the text; Buddha's a valid source of information about the relationship.
Now, just for the sense of completeness, although we're past our closing time, but if you commit another ten minutes, let's look at the mental factors that accompany a constructive state of mind or constructive type of behavior to see its relationship with happiness. There we have a longer list, actually, putting together the information that we gain from these three different abhidharma sources:
So, first we have "belief in fact." So belief in that happiness comes from restraining from destructive behavior; unhappiness from destructive behavior, from a destructive state of mind, an unhappy state of mind, that doesn't believe anything. You present facts, you present what's true and, "I don't believe it!" That's not a very nice state of mind. Here, if we're presented with something which is a fact, which is true, we believe it.
Next, we care about the consequences of our behavior on ourself and others.
And I have a sense of "fitness." This means that I have a good feeling about myself and that I'm able to restrain myself from from hurting somebody, for example. If we have a good feeling about ourselves and our ability to control ourselves, with self-control, it's a happier state of mind, isn't it, than one that feels, "Aaa-aaa, I'm completely out of control." We're completely full, there's one more piece of cake left on the table and so if we have, you know, no sense of control, then well, I'm going to eat it. And then afterwards you feel bad about yourself. Then you feel a bit unhappy. "Oh, I'm really stuffed now. I don't feel very well." But if we are able to restrain from taking that poor lonely piece of cake that's out on the table, then you feel pretty good about yourself, like, "Well, I was able to control myself and not become like a pig." That's the state of mind, isn't it?
Then the next one is "serenity." This is an interesting one. This is a state of mind that is free from flightiness and dullness. When we are restraining from acting destructively and yelling at somebody, our mind is not wandering all over the place. And it's not that we're so dull that we don't know what we're doing. So the mind is clear and serene. We know what we're doing.
Then we have a sense of values, respect for those who have positive qualities and for positive qualities in general.
And we have scruples, we care about what we do, so we will restrain from acting openly negative.
And we have detachment, "I'm not attached that I have to say this. I have to yell. I have to act destructively."
Lack of hostility.
Joyful perseverance. We're going to persevere in acting constructively. What does that mean? That means that no matter how hard it is to not eat that last piece of cake, I'm going to not eat it. Just say, "No, thank you. I've had enough." [So all of these gives us a flavor of a happy state of mind, doesn't it?]
Anuruddha has even more mental factors.
Balance of mind sets us free of attachment and repulsion.
And we have mindfulness; mindfulness like a mental glue that keeps us on a certain, in a certain state of mind.
Buoyancy. Buoyancy is the opposite of being foggy-minded or sleepy. In colloquial English we say a feeling of being “up.”
Flexibility. This is the opposite of basically stubbornness; it removes stiffness, unstubborn. "I've got to eat this cake." "It doesn't matter that it's going to hurt your feelings, I've got to say what an ugly dress you're wearing." We're stubborn. So this is the opposite of that, that we are flexible. Also the opposite of arrogance. Arrogance is that, "I'm right. I have to say what I want to say."
Serviceability. Serviceability means a fitness and readiness for being able to apply ourselves to something beneficial. It's the opposite of having mental blocks. ...Ready to do whatever has to be done. "I'm ready to put my hand in the toilet even though it is soiled, the toilet is soiled, in order to take out the fly that is in the toilet and drowning. I don't have a mental block about that." That's what we're talking about. Right? If you have no mental blocks, this is a much happier state of mind. If you have mental blocks, then you're afraid, insecure...that's not a happy state of mind. You know, "What's the big deal, what's in the toilet? I can wash my hands afterwards. The life of this fly is more important."
[Laughter from the audience.]
Alex : What's she saying?
Translator : She's saying, "And on top of that, it's your own poop." But I said, not necessarily.
Alex: It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter whose it is.
Another example...my sister always accuses me of using extreme examples but... Somebody has drowned and can't breathe and we need to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but this person is ugly or they are the same gender as we are or whatever. If I have a mental block against putting my mouth against this person's mouth, then that would prevent me from helping this person. If I had no mental block, then here's a person injured and drowning and I give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. So it's a feeling of being fit and ready to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to anybody who needs it. I don't have mental blocks about it. That's what we're talking about. By the way,"I" here, I'm not talking about me specifically, I'm talking about an attitude.
And then a sense of proficiency. This is the opposite of a lack of confidence.
Uprightness, which is being honest. Not pretending that we have qualities that we don't have and not being hypocritical and hiding our weak points.
So we can understand, if I'm calm, acting self confident, I'm fit, I don't have mental blocks, and I care about what I do and I have a sense of values and so on, this is certainly a happier state of mind. So, it is by this type of investigation that then we start to have more and more confidence in the most basic law of karma, which is that destructive behavior leads to unhappiness and constructive behavior leads to happiness. And it's not that way – that causal connection is not that way – because of Buddha made it up, made up the law, because he created everything and made up the law that unhappiness comes from destructive behavior and happiness comes from constructive behavior. And it's not that happiness is a reward for acting constructively and unhappiness is a punishment for acting destructively. But we understand in a much more reasonable fashion the connection between the type of behavior that we have and our experience of happiness and unhappiness.
And when we understand the mechanism whereby the karmic aftermath – these tendencies and potentials and so on, from our behavior – how they can carry on into future lives, from lifetime to lifetime in terms of their relation with the clear light mind, then we can start to have confidence that when we behave in this lifetime it is going to affect what we experience in future lifetimes. So this topic of how these tendencies and so on, how the continuity of that goes on into future lives, we'll speak about that tomorrow.
But just to summarize and conclude this initial scope: To really be a person to have transformed ourself into a person of initial scope is no small accomplishment. We are fully convinced of our mental continuum going on without any end, lifetime to lifetime. And we're fully convinced that the way that I behave now is going to affect what I experience in future lives. And now I have a precious human rebirth, which means that my behavior is not ruled almost exclusively by instincts like a carnivorous animal that is just instinctively drawn to hunt and kill in order to eat, or the way a dog acts when it's in heat and just jumps on any other dog. But I have the human ability of intelligence to be able to discriminate between what is beneficial and what is harmful and the ability to act on that. And that opportunity of having that type of intelligence is not going to last forever; in other words, I'm going to lose it when I die.
And after I die...for sure...I will continue exist. And I could exist based on destructive behavior in life forms in which I don't have that capacity to discriminate what's helpful and what's harmful and I would just act instinctively destructively again and again. And I'd just build up more unhappiness and suffering. And I have the safe direction that's indicated by true stoppings and true pathways of mind. So there's this indication of a direction of getting rid of all suffering and its causes. I want to go in that direction and it's going to take a long time to achieve this. So I have to continue ensuring that I have precious human rebirths.
And although I'm aiming to get rid of disturbing emotions and unawareness and all this other stuff that is there on my mental continuum...the tendencies are there. Although I'm aiming to achieve a true stopping of them, as an initial step...since I can't get rid of greed and hostility and anger and so on...at least there's an initial step. When they arise I'm not going to act them out. I'm not going to act destructively. I have this ability to discriminate what's beneficial and what's harmful. So anger comes up, the impulse to yell at you comes up, but I discriminate: that's not going to be helpful, that's going to cause me to continue to experience unhappiness. Therefore I refrain from acting it out.
This is the basic mental framework of a person of initial scope. Then if we want to add on top of this various causes for completing the conditions of having a precious human rebirth, then, as indicated in the texts, we need to be generous, persevering and patient and so on. And as I was explaining in terms of my own experience, having a strong connection with your spiritual teachers, having a strong connection with the Dharma, etc. so that when we have a precious human rebirth these...the tendencies and impressions that are made from those factors – a close relation with the teacher and so on – will also ripen in the conditions of that precious human rebirth.
Plus prayer, which is talking about dedication that whatever positive force, we want to direct it toward this goal of precious human rebirth, etc.. And there are plenty of these prayers,"May I be protected and safeguarded by precious gurus in all my lifetimes." This is where these fit in. So if in this lifetime we can actually achieve being a person of initial scope, we will have a tremendous spiritual progress on the Buddhist path.
Don't think that this is such a trivial, easy thing. I'm talking about when it's sincere and heart-felt that we have this scope, this motivation, this understanding, this conviction. It's completely non-artificial, it's totally sincere and integrated. This is a great accomplishment. And as we said earlier, we are the best...the main witness to judge and evaluate am I sincerely like this or am I just kidding myself, or leaving out parts of it that I don't particularly like?
We end here with a dedication to think whatever understanding, whatever positive forces come from this, may it act as a cause for actually achieving and attaining these graded pathways of mind from a person of initial scope, intermediate scope, advanced scope and actually attain enlightenment for the benefit of all.
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