Saturday, June 16, 2012

Fast, Big Lessons in America

     My experiences on coming back to the USA after many years alone in Burmese forests have often been amazing and invaluable, and sometimes rather painful…largely due to forgetting how to be an American. I was originally ordained in California (at Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, near Santa Cruz), but during my almost two years there the interactions were primarily with Burmese monks (I was the only American-born monk there) and Burmese supporters of the monastery, as relatively few Westerners came to the place. Over the years I visited my parents in Aberdeen, Washington on a few occasions, but I stayed in my father's house pretty much the whole time, and made few forays out into the Western World; in fact I felt very self-conscious and somewhat intimidated walking down an American sidewalk with my brown monk's robes and bare feet. So when I finally left Burma and went out on the limb of Being the Only Bhikkhu in Bellingham, I found myself plunged into a brave new world that I was not entirely prepared for as a monk.
     For starters, Theravada Buddhism originated in ancient India, and the canonical texts caution monks not to be too friendly with laypeople (although at the same time to be compassionate), always to have downcast eyes and behave in a very detached, restrained manner in public, and generally not to act like "householders who enjoy pleasures of the senses." The spiritual ideal of the world that the Buddha lived in involved radical introversion and detachment from worldly affairs---while of course the ideal of a Good Person in the modern West is very much more directed toward extraversion and being outwardly helpful to others. Thus a conscientious, strictly-practicing monk who follows the ancient texts could be seen by many in this part of the world as cold and unfriendly, and possibly useless besides. Although at the time I showed up in Bellingham I was not 100% strict in my following of the texts, still I was rather too serious to play well with others.
     More importantly, I had spent almost all of my monk life immersed in Burmese culture, which is possibly the most devoutly Buddhist culture on earth. In the Burmese language the word for "human being" is not used for monks; monastics are not considered to be human, but superhuman, and literally worshipping them is standard practice for a Burmese Buddhist. Furthermore, the Burmese are embarrassingly generous to monks and monasteries---partly because since childhood wise-guy monks have drilled it into their heads that for enthusiastically making offerings to the Bhikkhu Sangha they will skyrocket straight into Heaven, or at the very least they will be born into their next life rich and beautiful for it. Consequently, monks in Burma are exposed to the danger of being spoiled absolutely rotten. This is especially true of famous monks, and I was slightly famous in northwestern Burma for various reasons, not the least of which being that I was practically the only foreigner in the area.
     And to top it all off, I have a natural tendency toward arrogance anyway (not to mention faultfinding and occasional ingratitude), which was not kept well in bounds by reasonable feedback for many years. Simple-hearted people who are literally groveling on the ground before you tend not to be very critical in their comments to you. They are much more likely to agree with anything you say, plus maybe ask for some water you have blessed. In such a situation one tends not to be fully exposed to one's own blind spots and shortcomings, allowing one to drift in unskillful directions, and to become set in one's ways. Thus I came back to America with a self-image of the Tough Forest Ascetic, and very used to being treated like a king, or at least a knight, with what should have been easily predictable results.
     I already knew that Americans in general have little use for shaven-headed fellows in brown robes, but one of my first surprises was that many if not most American Buddhists have little use for shaven-headed fellows in brown robes. I seem to have elicited straightaway a wide spectrum of responses among local Buddhist groups in Bellingham, from enthusiastic respect to scowls, with the mean being somewhere in the neighborhood of polite standoffishness. Much of this last was simple shyness around a rather strange stranger, I think, but I certainly wasn't expecting it, and my pride and spoiledness didn't like it much. But in addition to bruised pride at the lack of respect toward me personally, there was also a fair (or unfair) amount of indignation at lack of regard for monks in general. After all, Theravada is traditionally a system directed first and foremost toward monks! For more than 2000 years Theravada has been, so to speak, a spectator sport, with renunciants being the professional athletes and the laypeople being fans supporting their favorite team. The image of lay meditators living relatively unrestrained lives and calling themselves Sangha, which in Asia is a word referring to monks, or a layperson sitting on a chair teaching Dharma while a monk sits in silence on the floor, would have many Asian Buddhists gasping in horror, and doing the Buddhist equivalent of Roman Catholics crossing themselves, whatever that may be. From the traditional Burmese point of view it would be the road to Hell---and I had just spent most of my adult life in Burma. To make a long story medium length, rather than being respected on sight I was being judged by egalitarian American standards of whether or not I was a Good Person, and at that I didn't do very well. By American standards I was not all that Good of a Person. To tell you Good People the truth, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
     All of a sudden I started being beaten over the head with the plain fact that I had to treat everyone as my equal and be not just polite, but positively friendly. I had to express gratitude, even though traditionally monks aren't supposed to say such things as Please and Thank You. I lost my social status and was required to be just another person---one dressed in weird clothing, but just another person nevertheless. 
     I had to start taking a crash course in Interpersonal Relationship; and although I learn rather quickly I had a long way to go just to catch up with the average teenager. I began seeing the vital importance of friendliness, humility, and gratitude in a world where I was not taken for granted as a superhuman being. I'm still working on that.        
     The way I see it, in very ancient times monks were homeless wanderers living in a spiritual but not overwhelmingly Buddhist culture, not knowing where their next meal was coming from, and exposed to all sorts of experiences, some of them at the hands of cruel antagonists. In other words they had a great variety of experiences and had plenty of opportunity to be "triggered" in various ways. But the life of most monks nowadays tends to be rather isolated, usually in a cloistered, protected environment, so that monks often have few stimuli to try them, to test their mettle. Presumably many monks do not require such a challenge-rich environment, but I apparently did, especially since I didn't have an enlightened teacher looking into my mind and prodding me when needed. In Burma I lived a simple life and was assured of support; I had challenges like heat, rats, and malaria, but some trying experiences that I needed were much more available here in Bellingham, and I am grateful for them.
     Closely related to this is another great lesson I have learned, which was rather a heartening surprise. Because in Burma I was assured of support I was not required to have sufficient faith in Dharma (or as a Theist would say, in God) to really throw myself upon the mercy of the world---which, however, is fundamental to many spiritual systems, including Buddhism and Biblical Christianity. "Give no thought for tomorrow, what you will eat or where you will sleep," "Consider the lilies of the field," and all that. Strangely, it wasn't until I returned to rich, comfortable America that I really had the opportunity to put it to the test; and so far it has worked in a strange and beautiful way. In fact there is a feeling of freedom and exhilaration in just letting go and not worrying about how I will survive, even though I'm not sure how I will. "God will provide." For example, on the day that I write this I was informed that I will be required to find other shelter within five days, and I honestly don't know where I will go, but I trust that everything will work out. I feel strangely grateful for this. As the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe has said, gratitude will get you farther than indifference. 
     Sometimes I get the feeling that all my years of sweating and meditating in tropical Asia were training to prepare me for the return to the West. It is now that I'm putting that training to the test. I feel that my years of practice have finally made me strong enough to exist in what essentially is a spiritually bankrupt materialist culture without being destroyed by it, so that perhaps I may even be able to contribute in some small way to helping America Wake Up. Life is interesting, and I'm happy to be back.
     After more than a year I'm still not sure how being a Theravadin monk in the West will work out---for the Sangha in general, not just for me. A Theravada Buddhist monk is supposed to follow a lifestyle designed for ancient India, and now, here, there seems to be some dissonance, as though bhikkhus are an awkward and anomalous addition to the culture, something on the verge of Politically Incorrect that makes for a strange fit. A Theravadin monk can be compared to a kind of tropical orchid: in Asia it can grow naturally, outdoors; but in a temperate-zone non-Buddhist country it must be grown in a protected environment with people having to take special care of it. (Thus it is appropriate that one of my first monastic residences in Bellingham was a greenhouse.) The other alternative for a monk is to stop following strictly the ancient rules of monastic discipline, for example by handling money and preparing his own meals. I must admit I'm not nearly as strict as I used to be. I still eat only once a day and don't handle money, but the rules concerning highly restricted interaction with women, for example, have gone out the window. Which reminds me of another benefit of living here---one has more exposure to female wisdom, to the Divine Feminine. Or at least that is my experience.
     There is much to be said for living in a quiet, protected environment if one wishes to progress spiritually. It certainly helps to deepen one's meditation and strengthen one's understanding of how the mind works, and a healthy amount of it may continue to be necessary, at least sometimes. Yet there is also much to be said for embracing life and using the resultant turmoil as an invaluable way of bringing up "stuff" lying latent in the psyche, which otherwise might not come up at all. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, the Christian prayer "…and lead us not into temptation" really means "let us not know who we are." 
     May all of you out there find out who you really are, whether you choose solitude and introspection, whole-heartedly embracing the experiences of an outwardly active life, or some middle path between these two extremes. When you do find out who you really are, I bet you'll see that you are beautiful and perfect, and that you always were, but you just didn't notice.

This mind, monks, is shining forth, but it is defiled by visiting defilements. 
The unlearned common person does not understand this as it really is.
Therefore I say there is no development of mind for the unlearned common person.
(---Anguttara Nikāya, 1:6:1)

     By the way, today, the day after I wrote that part about having to move and not knowing where I would go, I received a message from a person generously inviting me to stay in his extra room for a few weeks. The First Noble Truth says that to exist is to suffer; but to exist is also an inscrutable mystery, and a miracle.



  1. Reading your article it appears weird to me that you named you blog "Nippapañca".

    1. True, but how does one write about non-differentiation? It's always here, even if we don't notice it.

  2. Thank you, Bhante, for sharing some of your experiences. Since adopting the Buddha's teachings into my life some eight or so months ago I have often wondered how the experience of being Buddhist in the U.S. differs from that of, say, a Cambodian or other Asian. Perhaps your thoughts shared here will help piece together a more accurate view of monastic life for those of us who have, so far, little or no contact with the Sangha locally.

  3. This would be a great 'Must Read' for anyone re-integrating into this society after so long in the wilderness.

    It seems you, by necessity, decided to see the reintegration as a positive thing. Thankfully. But I'm also glad for the challenge to the community, and to myself specifically, to meet you half way. By you choosing not to integrate completely, we have the great fortune of another perspective, a valid one, to challenge our own. Keep the robes!

  4. You've made no friends with this post.

    Do you think past the present?

    1. I don't entirely understand this comment. If it had come to the Bhikkhuni post it would have made more sense to me. ???

  5. Hi Bhante, with regards to eating just once per day. Do you feel that you have enough energy? Do u feel hungry at night? If I got it correctly, monk are allowed by the code to take liquid food after the single noon meal. Liquid food can be juice, milk, probably even liquified food using a blender.

    1. People can get used to anything. Actually it's kind of amazing how fat one can get eating only once per day. I have enough energy, and usually only feel hungry at night if I ate too much in the morning (my theory is that it stretched out my stomach, thereby eventually resulting in a bigger empty). But food is not one of my major attachments.

      Monks are allowed to drink juice in the afternoon, but not milk. Milk is considered to be substantial food.

  6. I wonder that you do not cared for by your parents or relatives. Also, it would be interesting if you simply take your Burmese sponsors or anyone else and made a little hut on a permitted land to stay in and meditate in seclusion. I was already offered a hut like that in Czech Republic, but so far I'm not finished with my training in Myanmar. Anyway, I want to wait until I can get built whole monastery :-))) . Good luck in your practice and thathanapyu ;-) .