Saturday, February 6, 2016

Last Call


“We hope for more non-conformists among you, for your sake, for the sake of the nation, and for the sake of humanity.”  —Paul Tillich, at a university graduation ceremony in 1957

     This is going to be a tricky one to write. I intend to write what may be called my final offer to the Western World. I have been advised, though, that calling it a “final offer” sounds overly dramatic, and that nothing is really “final” anyhow. But some things really are final, or so it seems to me. Funerals, cremations, and lost virginity are pretty much irrevocable, for example. The main trickiness comes in making the offer in such a way that some people seriously consider it, and are motivated by it, while I remain honest while writing it! I’ve made numerous attempts in the past, adopting various approaches, including cheerful optimism, cynical criticism, joking, teasing, taunting, and even some virtual double-dog daring; and thus far nothing has really worked. So this is challenging. One thing I do know is that even though a positive, friendly attitude has not been really effective in this particular case, it is still much better than a negative one, if only for me personally. But the felt necessity of being strictly factual may result in the general tone being no better than affectively neutral. All we can do is the best we can. And the offer itself is a positive one.
     A big reason why I make this offer is that, simply stated, Western civilization as it is, is not conducive to genuine happiness, or to wisdom. Two reasons for this are that the Western perspective deals mainly with the superficial appearances of things, with society rarely encouraging anyone to penetrate past the surface; and that Western culture is heavily based upon desire, which according to Buddhism is the cause of all suffering. It’s practically the same as suffering. So it could be invaluable to Western people to question the authority of the West and to gain a working understanding of some fundamental Eastern wisdom, which can allow a better understanding of mental clarity and happiness; and it could be helpful and very interesting to have a nonconformist philosopher around to point at what is really beneath the surface. I consider myself to be extraordinarily qualified for this, at least in some respects. I encourage, and can teach, enough detachment from the system that people are less entangled in it, more “empowered,” and more able to make wise choices with regard to the strange tangle Western life has become. It is very difficult to improve a situation when you are entangled in it. It’s like trying to fold your clothes while the clothes, and you also, are going around and around inside the dryer. From a more holistic or “touchy-feely” point of view, I feel that teaching Dhamma/Dharma in the West would be most conducive to a “positive flow of energy,” for the benefit of everyone.
     Anyway, the offer is this: I would be happy, possibly even overjoyed, to stay in the West and teach Dhamma/Dharma under the following conditions. First, that a person or group of persons (ideally more than one individual) provide an empty house, an empty building, or an empty apartment, preferably with no furniture at all except maybe for a table, with a bathroom that works, for at least one month. There should be one room large enough to accommodate everyone who wants to meditate with me, or listen to talks, or discuss Dhamma/Dharma. Also I would require someone to offer one bowlful of food at least six mornings a week. During this time I would be happy to meet with people and teach or discuss what is of interest, presumably with an emphasis on Buddhist meditation and philosophy. We could have group meditation sits, with instruction beforehand for beginners if necessary, and days or weekends of more intensive practice. And once per month we could have an intensive meditation retreat, the discussion of which deserves its own paragraphs.
     Here’s my idea—The retreat would be 15 to 21 days long, with everyone participating full time, from the first day. For the most part it would be intensive Vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, similar to, say, the Mahasi tradition of Burma, but without much traditional Burmese Theravada Buddhist ideology being emphasized as interpretation. We would be there to discipline ourselves, meditate, and experience whatever happens in the moment, not to attain some goal described in a book, with less theory and perhaps more “meta-theory” (i.e., detached examination of whatever theory comes up). There would be interviews, preferably group interviews, with the instructor (me) at least twice per week, and every day if the meditator likes, with “emergency interviews” available if called for. I consider myself to be qualified for facilitating this sort of process. What would make it more interesting and more useful, though, would be the first day and the last few days of the retreat, which would be largely for the purpose of helping everyone to integrate Dhamma practice into worldly life, helping us to take what we gain home with us.
     Most intensive retreats in an orthodox Theravadin context require the meditators to keep silent and mind their own business, not even looking at each other any more than is necessary. Intensive introspection pretty much requires it; and that is what we would be doing most of the time. But on the first day everyone would introduce themselves, explaining concisely who they are and why they are there, and we would have a rather personal group discussion for clarifying what we as a group are doing, and where we are at. So although for most of the retreat we’ll be indulging in minimal interaction, the first day will help to establish a feeling of “us,” a lingering reminder that we are all together in the same boat, so to speak. Although we’ll be turned inward, there should be a context of mutual support, or community, or “tribe.” 
     Also, the last few days will be dedicated in part to mindful interaction. I have some ideas for this, and hopefully others can give input to help shape the practices involved. For example, before the end everyone at the retreat would practice eye contact meditation with everyone else there, meditating while looking directly into the other’s eyes, for at least one session of, say, twenty minutes. There would be no artificial mettā meditation, but more opportunities for spontaneous, genuine mettā. There would be more sharing of personal experiences during these last few days. There would not necessarily be any actual physical touching, except maybe for optional mindful hugs at the closing ceremony. I feel it could help to bring mindfulness and deep compassion out of the empty building and into society, where it is much needed.
     One possible complication is that such intensive interaction might be too much for some Westerners to handle. One time a married couple came to me and were telling me of their troubles together, and I advised them to try my brand of eye gazing meditation, which can be really beautiful; and although the wife was quite willing, the husband couldn’t manage it. It was too intensely personal for him, even with his own wife! For that matter, the intensive retreat itself, including the more traditional mindfulness practice (walk, sit, walk, sit, for many hours a day) may not be for beginners. Buddhist practice can be challenging, with the more radical stuff being not for everyone, but it’s well worth it, even invaluable.
     Another practical consideration is that I do not like the idea of charging money for a retreat, or for Dhamma/Dharma. I consider what I have to offer to be priceless, and for anyone who wants it, completely setting aside the fact that it is against the rules of monastic discipline for me to charge money, or to consent to that. But if the space is already available, then the only issue would be food, plus maybe utilities. I suppose the issue of supplying the space, etc., would be taken care of by others before I arrive. 
     A more subtle one is that although I love and revere Dharma and am glad to share it, I am no evangelist. If people come to me, or invite me to their place, that’s great, but I have no desire to go door to door or to market or hype myself, in order to find people who can appreciate what I’m offering. And I tend to avoid being a chronically smiling, politically correct Dharma politician. Simply being as conscious as possible, and following one’s conscience, is good enough. I have been a reclusive contemplative philosopher type for many years, which is appropriate for a Theravada Buddhist bhikkhu. But I still think the empty house idea, with the monthly retreat, is a good one, and a bargain offer. I think it could even be fun.
     Anyway, if nobody accepts this offer by the end of February, approximately, then I will officially throw up my hands, give up on living in the West, and begin making arrangements to acquire a plane ticket back to Burma, in order to stay in my cave (yes, I live in a cave there) indefinitely. Even if I go back to Burma I wouldn’t be totally deaf to invitations, if, that is, they were substantial ones that were too good to turn down; but I will have stopped trying. It’s been years already.
     In 2011, after years of feeling that I should return to the West, I flung myself back into America, ready or not. It turned out that I was ready, more or less, but that America was not! I have been told, several times by several different enthusiastic people, that America, or the West in general, “needs” me. I can agree with that at a philosophical level; but if it is true, then America and the West have not yet realized the necessity. Even the good people who tell me this, most of them anyway, tend not to do much about it. 
     But the people of the West, as they become more and more committed to extraversion, materialism, and superficiality, become more and more stressed and unhappy. It seems that the best science can do to promote happiness (as opposed to superficial pleasure, comfort, and convenience) is to invent antidepressant medications. But the very purpose of Dhamma is happiness. The modern West invents extraverted sciences for figuring out and manipulating the world, while the ancient East invented profound introspective techniques for understanding what is inside, and keeping one’s mind clear and free. But the West is so invested in a non-dharmic world view that Dhamma/Dharma, and to some degree happiness itself, are dismissed or ignored, or else accepted in only very limited ways. But I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere.
     What I can appreciate now, which I hadn’t fully realized before my return in 2011, is that starting a career as an itinerant philosopher and empty house sitter in the urban West entails essentially diving into the proverbial shit storm. But, as Confucius is said to have said, contemplative philosopher types are most needed in shit storms. And although I’m introverted by nature and could appreciate going back to my Burmese forest and living in relative peace and quiet, with fresh air and more physical exercise, still I feel that the challenge of the West would be a better use of my abilities, and would be good for me as well. There are things I could learn from interaction with other Westerners that are hard to come by alone in a cave. Also I’d be participating in the retreats, which would be good practice for me. So I think everyone involved could benefit greatly, including me. So long as I am skillful enough not to be overwhelmed by a shit typhoon. But I like challenges. Trouble I can handle; but living without food or shelter is something else.
     I suppose all this talk of diving into shit storms deserves some clarification. I have lived my life in such a way that I just don’t suffer very much. That’s what Buddhism is all about: living your life so that you don’t suffer very much, ideally living your life so that you don’t suffer at all. It is only since coming back to America, ironically, that I have seen just how much unhappiness there is in the world. Most poor Burmese villagers are actually pretty happy people. So I know how to disintegrate unhappiness with Dharma, yet I have relatively little experience in dealing with really vehement cases of it. There have been times when I’ve been so miserable that I felt like I was dying, especially from seemingly endless, sweltering hot weather; yet there is always a detachment, a level of mindfulness, so that I don’t fully identify with it. Troubles are worldly phenomena, arising and passing away, as all phenomena do. Most of the suffering comes with vehemently identifying with suffering, really believing “I am unhappy,” even insisting upon it. And in the West there is quite a lot of this. Hence the storm. 
     The following may be bad salesmanship, but so what: Can you guess how many regular American supporters I have after all these years? By “regular American supporters” I mean U.S. citizens of European ancestry who offer some physical support, or at least offer to offer some, at least once every three months. Can you guess? No, c’mon, guess. The answer, my friends, is two. And an excuse for one of them is that he married an Asian woman, so he was introduced to a relatively unwesternized form of Buddhism. (I’m not starving, however—Asian Buddhist people supply my needs very generously.) Considering the obvious value of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and the aforementioned alleged need of the West for people like me, I have often wondered about this. It’s interesting. One theory I came up with in the shower a few days ago is that I have deviated so far from the Western mainstream that I have become like a ghost or sasquatch, living at the verge of materialist reality, with only a few people even able to see me, or like the legendary Spanish Conquistador ships that were invisible to Mayans standing on the shore, because they were so different from anything they had previously perceived. Whatever the reasons, maybe including my own obnoxiousness, I feel that Westerners are blowing a golden opportunity to be guided away from the mainstream, and into a deeper, more reflective, more satisfying life. Anyway, if you are sick and tired of my repeated offers, this is probably the very last one. Which I will now repeat.
     So here it is. If you, or someone else out there, provide me with an empty space with minimal furniture, a bowl of food approximately every day, and access to a bathroom, I’ll provide you with access to something invaluable, and a magnificent opportunity for deep Dharma practice with an experienced, intelligent, and somewhat radical teacher, and, ideally, a supportive group environment. And if it doesn’t happen relatively soon, I give up. Either way, be happy, because that’s what we’re here for.

     




(Thanks to Eline for helping me to soften this up a little.)






Saturday, January 30, 2016

Appendix on Bhikkhunis and Equality


     In the previous post I discussed the phenomenon of Theravada Buddhist monks “strictly following a corrupt tradition,” that is, breaking the rules in the texts without acknowledging the fact by following later corruptions of those rules. In another recent post I mentioned having seen two of the somewhat controversial new bhikkhunis, the first two I’ve ever seen. And what I noticed is that these bhikkhunis were evidently conforming to the same kind of corruption of monastic discipline as the aforementioned “strict-ish” bhikkhus (for example, neither of them was wearing the regulation clothing of a bhikkhuni), in addition to simply ignoring some of the other rules specifically pertaining to bhikkhunis (for example, with regard to sitting in the presence of a bhikkhu). So this post is a kind of appendix to the previous one—a logical continuation of the same theme, although moving in a tangential direction. The big question herein is: Why revive an ancient order if those who revive it are unwilling to follow the code which defines that ancient order? 
     The following discussion may turn out to be very politically incorrect. I’m not deliberately trying to be politically incorrect, although I do freely admit that I consider political correctness to be insane bullshit. Furthermore, cutting through bullshit is one of my callings in life. So mainly I’m just trying to cut through some bullshit here, so that somebody might see a certain situation with a little more clarity, or at least from a different angle. *Fair warning*

     How many new bhikkhunis sit crosslegged, say, when they meditate? Guess. Probably most if not all of them, right? I figure that’s probably the case. But did you know that it is against the code of monastic discipline for a bhikkhuni to sit crosslegged? She is required by the Pali Vinaya to sit with both feet tucked in to one side, the way Burmese women traditionally sit. Almost every Vinaya rule comes with an official explanation for why the Buddha established the rule in the first place, and the official reason for the prohibition on nuns sitting crosslegged is to prevent them from “consenting to the touch of the heel.” I. B. Horner, the translator of the Pali Text Society’s English rendering of Vinaya, included in her translation a quaint, innocent little note discussing the question of whose heel these nuns were consenting to. Based upon an ignorance of the lotus position and/or of human anatomy, combined with some old-fashioned maidenly naïveté, she concluded that bhikkhunis sitting in a group were causing distraction by having their protruding heels rubbing against other bhikkhunis. Personally, however, I don’t think her theory is correct. Long ago, before my ordination, a female friend told me that as a young girl she learned how to masturbate by sitting on her heel and rocking back and forth; and I’m pretty sure that that’s what “consenting to the touch of the heel” really means. So the rule which probably nobody follows is intended to prevent nuns from turning their meditation into a masturbatory experience. 
     It may be that most of the new bhikkhunis are simply ignorant of the existence of this rule, although ignorance is no excuse for breaking it. Even if they find out, I’d guess that they’ll continue to sit crosslegged, possibly without seeing it as an offense. It could be argued that the rule shouldn’t be followed because it discriminates against women: monks are allowed to sit crosslegged, and nuns aren’t. On the other hand, some rules are less strict for nuns than for monks, but that is not used as an excuse for monks to ignore their own rules. For example, masturbation itself is a much more serious offense for monks than for nuns; but monks don’t refuse to do penance for masturbation using this discrimination as an excuse. Besides, the rule against bhikkhunis sitting crosslegged is due in large part to the biological fact that female genitalia are designed differently from that of males; and there’s not much that can be done about that. So again, women want to be acknowledged as bhikkhunis, but they don’t want to follow the ancient discipline required of bhikkhunis. This strikes me as a serious stroke against the credibility of their cause.  
     It isn’t just “lesser and minor rules” either which may be seen as discriminatory against ordained women. Bhikkhunis have twice as many pārājika rules—the most serious rules, which result in automatic excommunication if broken—as bhikkhus have; and anyone who understands how Vinaya works knows that there’s no way in hell that that is going to be changed. It can’t be changed, unless maybe via some extraordinarily radical decree of an international Great Council of the Sangha, which is very unlikely to happen. Also, the ordination procedure discriminates against women, for example by the embarrassing personal questions asked of a woman before she is ordained; and changing these rules would no doubt be seen by many conservatives as simply rendering the ordination invalid, thereby worsening the situation.
     Many politically correct individuals, especially in the West, vehemently insist that the bhikkhuni order must be revived and immediately modified, not caring about such quibbles as technical validity or even democracy, for the sake of gender equality—despite the plain fact that inequality is built deeply into the system of the Bhikkhuni Sangha. In this case political correctness trumps obvious facts and also the will of the majority, the majority here being the majority of Theravada Buddhist monastics, almost all of whom are Asian. The whole situation is quite a dilemma.  
     So again, the big question is: Why go to the trouble of reviving an ancient system that pretty much nobody really wants to follow, and then immediately overhaul it so that it is no longer the ancient system, but is something else? Why try to reinstate an extinct order defined by Vinaya, and then reject much of the same Vinaya which defines it? The answer seems pretty obvious: Mainly what these folks want is the name, the official status, the worldly recognition of women being genuine bhikkhunis, which is largely a desire to make a political statement, to assert an idealized social principle. The trouble with this is that names, official status, and worldly recognition (let alone political statements) are part of the very same worldliness that a true renunciant is supposed to renounce. It has nothing to do with genuine Dhamma. It is a symptom of Western mentality that social issues, political correctness, and other superficialities take precedence over what is truly essential. What is truly essential often isn’t even on the radar. 
     I have suggested before (and I still think it is a good idea) that an obvious solution to the dilemma of reviving an ancient system that pretty much nobody wants to follow is to start a new order. Maybe two orders could be started—one for women, and one for men. The founding members could establish whatever rules they considered to be appropriate for a modern world, with female and male monastics being completely equal, so that presumably it would be a matter of seniority and nothing else that would determine who bowed to whom, and who got to go through the doorway first. Technically it wouldn’t amount to full ordination as bhikkhunis and bhikkhus, but so what; I do not believe that official ordination into a particular ancient tradition is necessary for enlightenment anyway, and enlightenment is supposedly the main purpose of the whole thing. Furthermore, this way would not amount to real schism, so long as the women and men were not claiming to be really ordained bhikkhunis and bhikkhus. The Japanese Buddhists and the Catholics already have something like this. I would guess that the officially ordained Theravadin Sangha would even allow the existence and affiliation of a kind of quasi-Sangha more suited to the West. Possibly the biggest problem with this scheme, if it were really to become manifest, is that politically correct Westerners might make a deliberate show of disrespecting the older monastic system as remaining incorrigibly sexist…which could then warrant dissociation from Theravada proper. We would then have a new sect—Navakavada, or “Doctrine of the Newcomers”—which might still manage to avoid the stigma of schism if its members just minded their own business and did not consider themselves to be officially ordained bhikkhunis and bhikkhus. They could call themselves anything else they liked, however. I think it could be a really good idea, and one more likely to be without sticky problems than reviving the official bhikkhuni order, or just controversially attempting to revive it, and then mutating it, in the face of opposition of the majority and lack of official recognition.
     But of course, this scheme would not provide what many appear to consider the essential point of the thing: the absurd crap of worldly status, which crap of course the new renunciants ideally should be renouncing. It’s the name “bhikkhuni” that seems to be the primary issue for some. Trying to reconcile Dhamma/Dharma with the Western point of view is really a dilemma. Dhamma just doesn’t fit into Western society without it being dismembered and the pieces that fit stuck in around the edges.
     In Buddhism it is taught that it is the inner state that is most important; the outward form of things is of secondary importance at best. Good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, are mental and volitional, not external, physical phenomena. And even the Pali texts show the Buddha freely admitting that women are the spiritual equals of men, being equally capable of enlightenment. So really, if women are not equal to men NOW, they never will be, unless maybe genetic engineering or some such changes one or both human genders. What is on the inside is what really matters, and what is on the outside is supposed to be mindfully let go of by a renunciant. If you think that artificial laws, social patterns, and political correctness will somehow make women equal, and that they are not equal already, then you are more worldly, superficial, and sexist than I am. But maybe more about this some other time.
     If there are any women who read this who want to be real bhikkhunis, then I respectfully suggest that you follow the real rules for bhikkhunis, and not an amputated, mutated version of same. On the other hand, if you don’t want to subject yourself to such discrimination, which is understandable, then please create something better. Something different. I know you are equal, and I’m really on your side, and am willing to help. At least I feel like I’m on your side. appamādena sampādetha.




a modern Western conception of female equality




APPENDIX TO THE APPENDIX: MASTURBATION RULES AND THE ORIGINS OF THE BHIKKHUNI MONASTIC CODE

     In the foregoing discussion I mentioned that the rules against masturbation in the pātimokkhas for monks and nuns differ between the sexes. There are more rules in place for preventing bhikkhunis from playing with themselves at all; yet masturbation all the way to orgasm bears a much stricter penalty for bhikkhus, requiring them to do six days and six nights of penance, followed by a large, inconvenient reinstatement ceremony. In fact nuns masturbating to orgasm is not mentioned in the Pali, and thus carries no stricter penalty than simply the insertion of a finger past the second knuckle. My explanation for "complete" masturbation being a saṅghādisesa offense for monks and only a medium-severity pācittiya offense for nuns is this: The puritanical celibate Elders who came up with the rules did not know that women are able to have orgasms! Otherwise, there can be little doubt that they would have penalized it severely.
     Now, I would assume that Gotama Buddha, being an extremely wise person, would at least be aware of this relatively important aspect of female sexuality. After all, he had lived a sensual life before he renounced the world, and had a wife, and maybe even a harem. Consequently I consider this masturbation rule business to be one of several bits of evidence that the Buddha himself did not devise the bhikkhuni pātimokkha—and possibly not the bhikkhu pātimokkha either. Some very ancient texts actually warn against a renunciant subjecting himself to systematized rules; and it is fairly clear that a primary purpose of the first Great Council, convened after the Buddha's death, was to formulate a monastic code. 
     There is circumstantial evidence in the Pali texts that some Elders did not like the idea of having a Bhikkhuni Sangha; and the texts themselves have the Buddha himself asserting that instituting it was a bad idea which would greatly shorten the lifespan of the Sāsana in this world. But that assertion, plus much of the negative discrimination, may have been added by the aforementioned unsympathetic Elders who participated in the formulation of official Doctrine. It may be that the Buddha really did allow an order of ordained nuns; but the extant monastic code for these nuns (and maybe for monks too) may not have been his idea.
     Therefore, I consider this to be another argument in favor of spiritually-oriented Buddhist women today simply creating a brand new order more sympathetic to the needs of women. In order for it to work, pretty much all that is required is to avoid that one contentious word “bhikkhuni,” since technically a bhikkhuni is defined by the same monastic code which is designed in part to drive women away from the Sangha, and possibly back into the arms of insensitive husbands who don’t even know that they can come.




Saturday, January 23, 2016

Technical Matters: Vinaya Rules Even Strict Monks Break


or: How to Follow Strictly a Corrupt Tradition

     First of all, I would like to specify that the kind of rule-breaking I intend to target in this post is not the kind in which a monk breaks a rule, sees the offense, confesses it, and expiates it. Most strict monks, and almost all “exemplary” ones, do break Vinaya rules in this way regularly, however, so I may as well discuss the matter a little before moving on to the target.
     There are very many Vinaya rules for monks, I’d guess somewhere between two and three thousand. Many of them are obsolete or otherwise difficult to break (e.g. offering food with one’s own hands to a naked non-Buddhist ascetic, using an alms bowl made from a human skull, eating lion meat); but there are plenty than can be broken easily, even by strict monks. For example, the rule against drinking alcohol is worded in such a way that even if the monk drinks something alcoholic accidentally, he still breaks the rule. Thus on one occasion long ago I was offered some herbal medicine stuff that I was assured contained no alcohol, but when I tried a sip of it, it tasted like it was about 80 proof. Or on a few other occasions I was offered some drink that, in the hot Burmese weather, had started to ferment spontaneously; I’d take a drink and the stuff would taste like wine. So in such cases one takes the hit and confesses it. 
     Also, some rules can easily be broken in a moment of careless unrestraint. For example, unnecessarily looking up in a public place (as monks are supposed to look down in public). Or making a humorous reference about somebody else while talking. Or using water while suddenly entertaining the doubt that maybe there are living creatures in it. Such offenses can occur rather often, especially if a monk is not Vinaya-obsessed, and again, the thing to do is simply to confess it, and the ecclesiastical reset button is pushed, clearing the offenses.
     Then there are rules that even a serious monk may break deliberately, considering not breaking the rule to be more objectionable than breaking it. For example, it is against Vinaya for a monk to practice medicine on laypeople. The purpose of this is partly to prevent monks from working for a living like “householders who enjoy pleasures of the senses,” with people going to them for health issues rather than Dhamma (with such monks consequently practicing Dhamma less and teaching it less), and another reason is that, if the monk messes up and the person gets worse or dies, then people may blame the Sangha for it. Anyway, when I was living in a remote forest area of Burma a supporter of mine, really a good guy who I liked as a friend, told me that his daughter had had malaria for several months. (Malaria is endemic in this area, and potentially deadly.) I had some state of the art malaria cure; so, even though it was against the rules I considered it to be better to break a minor rule than let a person remain very ill and possibly even die. So I gave him the pills for his daughter, and she got better. Another example of arguably “righteous” rule-breaking occurred long ago when a young and very serious American man wanted to be ordained as a bhikkhu under venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw, but he didn’t have the permission of his parents to be ordained, as they were devout Christians who disapproved of such a course. Taungpulu Sayadaw ordained him anyway, saying, “The Sangha is willing to make the sacrifice.” That is, they were willing to break the minor rule of ordaining a man without his parents’ consent, for the good of helping him to live the Holy Life. Afterwards they confessed the offense.
     Then again, there are rules the breaking of which is practically unavoidable. For example, it is against Vinaya to enter a toilet with one’s upper robe on; one should strip to the waist before entering an outhouse. At the same time, it is against Vinaya to remove one’s upper robe in a public place. So any monk who has to use the toilet at a public place just has to choose which rule he prefers to break by taking the pee, since he breaks one either way, yet his back teeth are floating, he has to pee so bad. So in all these cases, when a monk breaks a rule, he just makes confession to another monk, in accordance with other Vinaya rules designed to deal with the situation. It’s all built into the system. Almost all monks break rules like this. There are a very few bhikkhus who are so conscientious, or fanatical, or whatever, that they would actually let a girl drown rather than break a rule by swimming out and saving her, or who never unnecessarily look up in public for that matter. Such are rare specimens.
     But, as I say, this kind of rule-breaking, with the monk committing, seeing, and expiating the offense (as I notoriously did in a big way a few years ago), is not the kind of rule-breaking that I intend to discuss here. The kind I intend to discuss is with regard to rules broken chronically and habitually, sometimes even as a matter of monastery policy or venerated tradition, with no acknowledgement of the offense, and consequently no confession or other expiation. Because of this phenomenon even many strict and “exemplary” bhikkhus never have a single day of pure Vinaya restraint or pure morality in the entire course of their life as a monastic. 
     This sort of thing is common in religious systems, I think. It’s common in the human race. Conformity is seen as essential, even if it is conformity to a corrupt tradition. The idea seems to be, “If everyone else is breaking the same rule, then it’s all right”—but this is essentially a bovine herd instinct, and not Dhamma. 
     The issue of conformity arose at the second Buddhist great council, in ancient times. Monks had started handling money and breaking other rules, and one topic of debate at the council was whether it was right to follow one’s teacher with regard to Vinaya interpretation and practice. The Theravadin side argued that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t—implying that following one’s teacher is valid only if one’s teacher’s conduct is in harmony with real Vinaya. The Theravadin side won the debate. So regardless of whether breaking certain rules is justified and universal in a tradition, technically it’s still breaking rules. Following are some examples.

     Clothing (including shoes, hats, etc.): With regard to robes, I may write someday a more technical article than this discussing the originally correct manner of sewing and wearing robes, as well as their correct size, although here I’ll skip the manner in which robes are made, the proper materials, etc., and will just mention one thing about size. According to the 92nd pācittiya rule of the bhikkhu pātimokkha, a monk may not wear a robe as big as or bigger than the Buddha’s upper or outer robe, which was nine handspans by six, according to the size of the Buddha’s own hand. The Vinaya commentarial tradition has decreed that the Buddha’s handspan was 3½ times the length of an ordinary man’s handspan, thereby causing the rule to mean that a monk may not wear a robe more than seven meters in length, which of course is no rule at all, since nobody would even want to wear a robe that big. Assuming that the Buddha’s hand was not much bigger than that of the average monk, and certainly not three and a half times as big, then the size of the average monk’s robe nowadays is about twice the allowable size. If one reads the texts one may see that in the Buddha’s time monks wore relatively small robes; and two of the most influential Vinaya texts in English, the Vinayamukha translation and Ajahn Ṭhanissaro’s The Buddhist Monastic Code, point out this very fact that monks’ robes should be much smaller than the ones usually worn. But if you see a picture of either of the venerable authors of these two books you will see that, more than likely, they also are wearing big robes which they admit are in violation of the rules of Vinaya. Why? Conformity. But that doesn’t make it any less against the rules, even though the author of the Vinayamukha was a Thai Sangharāja.    
     The ironic thing about this for me is that monks living in the temperate zone, like in Western countries, continue to wear robes in conformity with a corrupt South Asian tradition, which then serves as a justification for breaking more rules. They continue to wear robes suitable for a hot, tropical climate, with thick cloth being too thick to wear in the peculiar Asian way, especially in the Thai manner with the robe wrapped around one arm most of the time. So this difficulty is seen as a sufficient reason for breaking the rule against keeping and wearing extra clothing also.
     According to the first nissaggiya pācittiya rule of the pātimokkha a monk is allowed to own and wear three robes (lower, upper, and outer), with any clothing in excess of this to be relinquished (given or thrown away) within ten days of acquiring the excess. Any piece of cloth larger than eight finger widths by four finger widths (according to the Buddha’s hand again) is counted as robe cloth, i.e. clothing, unless determined for some other use, such as a towel or bed sheet. Thus the rule includes not only robes, but also underwear, shirts, sweaters, coats, socks, stocking caps, and Mahayana Buddhist pajamas. All of this technically is against Vinaya, yet almost all monks living in the West, including the “exemplary” ones, violate the rule without compunction, and do not confess it—which wouldn’t work anyway unless they relinquished all the extra clothes beforehand, which they do not want to do. The stocking caps, underwear, socks, etc. are also layman’s clothing, the wearing of which is in violation of another rule. 
     One important point to bear in mind, it seems to me, is that, according to the Pali texts, it was during the coldest time of year in the ancient Ganges Valley that the Buddha decided that three robes are enough for any monk. It is stated that at this time of year (in ancient times before the greenhouse effect kicked in) the temperature got down to around freezing. Also, allowed in the Vinaya texts is a kind of woolen felt blanket called a santhata, also called a pāvāra or pāvuraṇa, which may be worn as a cloak. I can assert from my own experience that three small, thick robes and a felt blanket are plenty for staying warm in environments that are freezing cold. Western monks dressing like Eskimos in temperatures above freezing is simply a case of bovine conformity, weakness, or both. At temperatures well below freezing, however, some “righteous” rule-breaking may be in order. But still it would probably count as breaking rules, and something to be confessed. 
     One way that ostensibly strict monks avoid the rule about extra clothing is by determining all extra clothes (and sometimes the regulation three robes also) as “accessory cloth,” i.e., cloth not used as clothing, but kept for other uses. But what the hell is that, if not lying? There are two ways in which a monk may determine cloth for this or that use: by speech and by physical action. It is stated that if a monk determines a robe to be accessory cloth by physical action, he just holds it and waves it around a little while mentally determining it as whatever. But what more obvious way of determining a robe physically than by just putting it on and wearing it! If one wears it as a robe, then it’s a robe. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…. Seriously. By refusing to acknowledge that they are in fact breaking rules, monks creep into the realm of dishonesty, or just following and believing corrupt nonsense, refusing to see the obvious. 
     This very same approach could be used to avoid all sorts of rules. Want to drink whiskey? Call it medicine, or “accessory liquid.” Want to use money? Call it “accessory paper.” Don’t want to admit that something is what it is? Call it something else! It wouldn’t count for diddle at a real trial at a real law court, as such reasoning is obviously bogus, but no matter. The situation reminds me of the old Burmese monastic saying, “If one is skillful in Vinaya one may kill a chicken.” Skillful in all the lame loopholes, that is.  
     With regard to shoes, only certain kinds of sandals which leave the toes and heels open are allowable. Some strict-ish monks break this one in the temperate zone, but most of them break a different one: A monk is not allowed to wear shoes at all in public places, unless he is unwell. The danger of frostbite in subzero weather would presumably count as a valid reason for wearing shoes in town, but that usually is not a present danger. Again, bovine conformity and weakness prevail over Vinaya.

three ways of wearing robes

     Food: Non-strict monks may break all sorts of food rules, such as eating food that wasn’t properly offered (which includes a monk touching a huge table that he couldn’t lift while laypeople intending to offer the food on the table also touch it or group-lift it), eating food stored at the monastery, eating before dawn (possibly going with some chart that claims dawn has dawned when meanwhile the sky remains totally dark), eating food that they cooked themselves, and so on. But strict monks from Thai traditions notoriously eat cheese and dark chocolate in the afternoon…which on the face of it appears to be eating food at an unallowable time. Now, there is nothing inherently immoral in eating a piece of cheese in the afternoon. What is at least verging on immorality, however, is the cheesy justifications given for breaking the rule by eating it. Venerable Ajahn Ṭhanissaro, in his first book on monastic discipline, actually suggested that eating cheese in the afternoon is all right because cheese is not substantial food, but is actually a kind of butter, which is allowed as a medicine. Almost needless to say, this strikes me as blatant sophistry of a rather base sort. (I call it “backwards logic”: starting with the conclusion one wants to arrive at—that eating cheese in the afternoon is allowable—and then working backwards, cooking up the most plausible rationalization for it.) Of course cheese is substantial food; it is a meat substitute for vegetarians, right? It’s almost pure curd…although it can’t be called curd by the monks who want to eat it, because curd is considered to be substantial food in Vinaya and thus must not be eaten in the afternoon. So they can say what they like, but strict-ish monks who eat cheese in the afternoon are doing it because of 1) conformity and 2) weakness or else a simple desire to eat something. The only Burmese monks who would eat cheese in the afternoon would also eat rice and curry in the afternoon—and I admit there are quite a few of those. 
     Dark chocolate is a slightly more subtle issue. One argument I have heard is that dark chocolate (with no milk, as milk is considered to be substantial food) is actually a kind of congealed juice, and juice is allowable in the afternoon. What to me sounds more plausible is that dark chocolate is not substantial food, and is medicinal in some way. Even if it is congealed juice, because it contains a significant amount of sugar in solid form it is to be treated as medicinal. (Yes, sugar is medicinal. It’s good for you.) So only monks who are unwell are allowed to eat it in the afternoon. Unfortunately, however—or fortunately, depending on how one chooses to look at it—the medieval commentarial tradition states that a monk who is tired or just hungry may consider himself to be unwell. So a monk can’t eat chocolate in the afternoon as food, but he can eat it because he’s hungry. My question here is, What’s the difference? How many people think things like, “I’m not hungry right now, but I want to eat this in order to replenish depleted nutrients,” eh? Not very many. And even if they do, they’d probably be more likely to eat spirulina than chocolate in such a case. It’s just more traditional corruption and sophistry which is very convenient for monks to follow. I’ve been told that at Wat Pah Nanachat the monks pass the afternoon treat tray around the sangha three times, with the monks sitting there eating the most expensive designer dark chocolate, “like householders who enjoy pleasures of the senses.”
     This condition that medicinal substances like sugar be eaten in the afternoon only if a monk is not feeling well applies not only to chocolate of course, but also to hard candy and other treats. But the main reasons why it is indulged in are conformity, weakness, and a borderline-dishonest desire for it not to be against the rules. Unless you sincerely believe that feeling hungry is the same as being unwell.
     Money: There is one Vinaya rule concerning money that may be virtually impossible to follow correctly, with very few monks succeeding, especially in the West, and that is the rule prohibiting monks from handling the stuff. The thing is that a monk is not only prohibited from handling it, he is prohibited even from consenting to someone else keeping it or handling it on his behalf. The rule states that if someone expresses the intention of having some money kept in a fund for a monk’s benefit, if the monk doesn’t like the idea at all he may remain silent, thereby allowing it to happen, but if he likes the idea he is required to tell the person not to do it. If they stubbornly persist after he forbids them, then it is allowable. I have found that the most viable way to follow this rule is to live in some remote forest area of tropical Asia where people have little money, and to avoid monasteries; or at the very least to live in a deeply Buddhist culture where monks are supported, and to avoid having anything at all to do with money. But in the West especially it can be damn near impossible.
     Some strict-ish monks don’t actually touch money, but they not only consent to it being kept for them, they also tell supporters or monastery attendants what to do with it. Endorsing a check is a similar case: although technically it may not be handling money, it is still endorsing an order to “pay to the order of,” which is still handling money indirectly. So that also is against the rules, and an extremely convenient one to break for abbots running a monastery especially. Much of this kind of rule-breaking is by monks conscientiously trying to follow rules but being unaware of all the technical complications in Vinaya. It requires careful study to avoid breaking rules, and most monks, even most conscientious ones, don’t do enough of that. And even if they do, conformity to the corrupt tradition is considered to be more important than conformity to the original rule, which behavior is totally in conformity with human nature.
     Some Miscellaneous Ones: The bogus measure of the Buddha’s allegedly giant hand results in several other broken rules even among strict monks: for example, a monk’s bed may not be more than eight finger widths above the floor, or about 15cm. Also, quilted bedding, like sleeping bags, are against the rules. Some rules with regard to human females are very easily broken, especially in non-Buddhist countries, and are broken by many “exemplary” monks, such as traveling by arrangement with them or sitting alone with them (and whether or not a door is open is irrelevant, as a rule is still broken if no other male can see and hear them). Even using a full-length toothbrush is technically against Vinaya, as there is a rule that a monk may not use a tooth-cleaning stick longer than eight of his own finger widths (or shorter than four). I still have a habit of cutting off part of the handle of my toothbrush, which I have retained from my extremely strict days. So again, almost all monks, including strict ones, are breaking Vinaya rules all the time, generally without acknowledging them or confessing them. And, as I pointed out in a previous post on Vinaya, even the way they confess their offenses is usually against the rules. 

     Towards the beginning of Ajahn Ṭh.’s first book on Vinaya he called for reform…and then throughout the rest of the book he pretty much ignored genuine reform and endorsed an amazing quantity of lame loopholes from the medieval commentaries and Thai tradition, as well as cooking up a few new ones. That was disappointing, especially as my hard-ass strictness was going full blast in those days. Really, though, Western Theravada Buddhist monasticism seems to be blowing a golden opportunity for some really beneficial reform, since there is really no call for importing traditional Asian corruptions along with Dhamma/Vinaya. But not only have the old corruptions been maintained, new corruptions (like the arctic expedition gear unnecessarily worn by so many bhikkhus) are being added. And this in addition to the almost mandatory luxury of life in modern Western civilization. 
     If Western monks really do not want to follow ancient Vinaya rules, it seems to me that one obvious choice is to develop a new order of renunciants in the West, not officially bhikkhus but something else, with rules adjusted to fit a new world order. This would also allow for a genuinely equal order of nuns to be established—although that will be a topic for the next post.
     Which is better: breaking a rule, acknowledging that one has broken it, and expiating the offense in accordance with Vinaya itself, or breaking it and refusing to admit that one has broken it at all, and furthermore justifying the act with absurdly flimsy rationalizations? Or in other words, which is better: to be straightforwardly lax, or to rig the game so that one can consider oneself to be strict? The first option may seem more shameless, but it is also more honest, with oneself as well as with others. But do as you like. That’s what I do too. (I laugh)