Saturday, June 1, 2013

Special Anniversary Issue: The Experiment in Bellingham

     This post marks the one year anniversary of the existence of this blog, this being the 53rd weekly installment of it. It's about a special issue I've been having.
     I'm happy and gratified to say that gradually more and more people are reading this stuff. It used to be when I was living in a cave that I'd write an article and then have about ten photocopies made and sent to people who I thought might be interested. Since putting my heresies and blasphemies on the Internet, people all over the world having been reading them and, I would like to think, have had their ideas challenged and stimulated. Last month, May 2013, set a new record, with 1586 pageviews, averaging more than 50 "hits" per day (although many of these were no doubt spam and "bounces.") I suppose some pornography websites get 1600 hits per day or even per hour, but the material of this blog can't really compete with pornography.     
     In a way the following is a followup on the early post "Fast, Big Lessons in America," with a brief sequel to "My Trip to Get Hugged by Amma" also.
~   ~   ~
     I always wanted to be a philosopher. Philosophizing is something I deeply love, and in my own opinion at least, I'm pretty good at it. However, my advisor in college advised me not to major in Philosophy, as one couldn't make a living at it. I was stubborn though, and continued with the plan. But after three or four Philosophy classes I realized that a major in Western Philosophy wasn't for me, or even a minor, and I wound up with a degree in Marine Biology. And then, several years later, I became a monk and Buddhist philosopher, and made a decent living at it, mostly in Burma. The living was a spartan one, but that's all a philosopher needs anyway.
     Then I returned to America and found that what my college advisor had said still held true: "making a living" as a monk/philosopher is very difficult here. At least it has been so far.
     In part I was naïve about American Theravada Buddhism, and about the overall Dharma scene in this country. I had been cautioned in advance by at least one American friend, and had somewhat of an idea as to what to expect, but still I was naïve, or overly idealistic. (Also in part the difficulty comes from ego issues: To the extent I consider the situation to be about me, "me" gets in the way of the flow of Dharma.)
     The plan for my return, which I haven't entirely given up on yet, was to try to establish some kind of existence in Bellingham, in the state of Washington, where I lived before my ordination more than twenty years ago. I knew there was a meditation society professing Theravada Buddhism in town, and I naturally assumed that they would welcome a trained senior monk, and probably offer me enough support to live; after all, the necessary requirements amounted essentially to little more than a roof, a bowl of food more or less every day, and access to a bathroom. How difficult could that be? Besides, America seems to be in need of Dharma, and there must be many spiritual seekers here who are not satisfied with the cultural status quo. 
     At the very beginning, however, there were complications. A senior member of the meditation society, who for many years had been a kind of spokesperson for the group, didn't answer my emails introducing myself. Shortly after my arrival I was courteously invited to a teachers' meeting, and immediately afterward this same person came straight over to me from across the room with a very intense look in his eyes and suggested that I ought to live at a monastery. This of course would necessitate my leaving town, as there are no Theravada Buddhist monasteries in Bellingham. A few days later I received an email from the same person with no hello, no goodbye at the end, nothing in fact but a list of monastic organizations I perhaps should consider going away to. (This is not to imply that he or anyone else in the group is a bad person, or any such thing: he has been friendly with me, or at least very polite, on numerous occasions also.) I was met with politeness from many, enthusiastic friendliness from a few, and was pretty much ignored by the rest. I eventually realized that although Theravada is scripturally very monk-oriented, overwhelmingly so in fact, most members of the insight meditation society in Bellingham seemed to have little use for a monk in town, and to see little or no reason why they should support one. This was difficult for me to understand at first.
     At the end of my first summer and autumn here, shortly after leaving town in preparation for a return trip to Burma, I wrote the meditation society a letter (well, an email), which was friendly in tone, but which contained a few statements which apparently threw some people into a mild uproar. I won't reproduce the entire letter here; mainly I explained the purpose of monks and the difficulties in the West, due to cultural differences, that Buddhist monasticism in general has encountered, and that I encountered specifically, and I concluded by pointing out that it could be to the advantage of a Theravada Buddhist group to have a "trained professional" nearby who could be consulted. Possibly the most objectionable and outrageous thing I said in the whole letter was this: 
…Upon my return to Bellingham there were immediately a few people who were eager to support my being there, but many more who remained politely standoffish. Also, I think I met with at least as much cool disdain inside the Red Cedar Dharma Hall as outside of it in the streets of Bellingham; and I was told more than once that some senior members of BIMS saw me more as a threat to the status quo than as a potential spiritual resource.
Some objection was also taken to the fact that I referred to the mediation society as the only ostensibly Theravada Buddhist organization in town. The word ostensibly was seen as a slur. Anyway, the letter resulted in quite a stir, and a meeting of the society was convened to discuss my planned return, or rather what to do about it. Some insisted that they didn't want to support monks, or me, and some decided to offer more support. The meditation society was polarized a bit, with somewhat less neutrality on the issue of interacting with a bhikkhu, and I received more support, and had more friends, the following year.
     In January of 2013, after leaving Bellingham again for another trip to Burma, I sent another letter to the meditation society, which was so nice and polite that it didn't stir up anybody. When a meeting was convened by some of my main supporters to discuss support after my return, a total of five people attended, and the results were inconclusive. They were still optimistic though. This was the way things stood when I left for Asia later in January.
     Then, a week or so before returning to the US in April, I received an email from one of the five advising me not even to bother coming back to Bellingham, as all of the group of five had backed out, and there was no place for me to stay. This information, so close to the time of my return, even though it was not entirely accurate, resulted in great discouragement on my part, and I became rather depressed. Finding a suitable place in America, with a roof, a daily bowl of food, and access to a bathroom, seemed bewilderingly difficult. After receiving that email, returning to Bellingham started turning into probably the most dread-inspiring experience of my entire life.
     Shortly before leaving the little Burmese temple in Fremont, California for Bellingham, mainly in an attempt to be as little of a burden on my friends as possible, I sent one final plea to the members of the meditation society in Bellingham, asking that if people didn't want to shelter me as a monk or a teacher, still there is merit in sheltering a fellow human being, and once again offering my services. In response to this I received a few emails mainly offering moral support, and also this one, from a member of the society: 
As one of the Bellinghamites whom you see the need to scold frequently, I feel the need to speak my mind. Right from the beginning you presented yourself to us as a teacher, an advanced one at that. You set yourself apart from us, by your appearance and your aloofness, and then protested when we did not accept you. Really, most of us tried to ignore you. Now once again we are the target of your cynicism and bitterness that we do not accept you as a teacher. You point to us and proclaim our lack of insight and appreciation of you. I believe that finger is pointed in the wrong direction.
[his name]
In response to this rather intense letter, I submitted the following response to the meditation society's listserve:
Hello Again Everyone, 
     Today I received the following reply to the email I sent out yesterday. This person put his response mainly in the form of "us" and "we," implying that he's speaking on behalf of BIMS, so I would like to respond to BIMS, and not just to him. Anyway, here it is.
[the above letter, in full]
     First of all, I wouldn't consider once or twice a year to be all that frequent, and even if my letter to BIMS in December of 2012 and the one yesterday are scoldings, I would consider them very mild ones. 
     It is true that I offered my services as a teacher, expecting that a trained monk would be welcomed by a Theravada Buddhist lay community. It is also true that I was wrong, and that, especially in the fall of 2011, I was occasionally indignant and bitter because of it. America has been a case of great culture shock since my return. 
     My appearance is not for the purpose of setting myself apart from you, but is simply a matter of my being a Theravada Buddhist monk, and dressing like one and shaving my head like one, in accordance with the ancient rules I've followed since my ordination. Even lax monks wear robes and shave their head. My appearance has gotten me cursed, kicked out of public buildings, and generally gotten me into a fair amount of trouble since my return to the US. As for the aloofness, that also was largely a case of cultural dissonance. The Pali texts say that a monk should be aloof, that he shouldn't make friends with people in the "village," shouldn't laugh in public, etc., and Burmese culture reinforced that. Then I came back to America and was seen as cold and distant. Being a hermit for many years further atrophied my social skills. 
     In the email I sent yesterday I was not trying to point any fingers. If that's the way it seemed, or if I pointed them carelessly, I apologize. 
     This epistle resulted in a few more condolences from friends, with some retroactive advice that it would be better if I hadn't written it, plus a brief message posted on the listserve from one of the senior teachers making two brief requests: that the subject be dropped immediately "before it leads to anything unskillful," and that I not post private emails on the public listserve.
     The situation at this point had gone beyond what I would have considered realistically possible, and I was rather more discouraged than before. I wrote to the president of the meditation society and also to a senior member of the Board who had supported me in the past, telling them that the situation was such that if they thought I should simply stay away from the Dharma Hall I would respect their judgement. I didn't say it of course, but at this point I felt that it wouldn't be surprising if I were spat on by somebody if I dared to show my face there. I was totally amenable to just giving up on Bellingham, shaking its dust off my sandals, so to speak. If even the people who profess Theravada Buddhism are so disinclined to support the only Theravada monk in town, then the situation seemed hopeless.
     I received responses from both men I wrote to, the president assuring me that he also was sorry about the strange reaction I had elicited, that I was welcome, and that the Board was quite neutral with regard to my being a member of their sangha. (He meant "quite neutral" in a positive way.) The other senior member also assured me of my welcome, and advised me that members had been put off by my recent emails, largely because of my blanket generalizations: the society is composed of individuals, and generalizations are seen as derogatory.
     It is true that any group of people is a group of individuals. A group of Theravada Buddhists in Burma is also a group of individuals. On the other hand, a group of Burmese Buddhists is extremely likely to act in significantly different ways from a group of American Buddhists. In human beings in general, especially people living within the same social system, the similarities tend to outweigh the differences. We are all culturally conditioned, and most of us are oblivious to this most or even all of the time. I can see how downplaying each person's individuality could be seen as objectionable by Americans especially, although I still consider some generalizations to be valid ones. The difference between American Theravada and Asian Theravada, for example, is like the difference between night and day.
     The purpose of this post is not to try to make blanket psychological generalizations, and speculative ones at that, with regard to Buddhists in America. However, I will mention that one apparent reason why my existence in Bellingham was not very welcome by very many members of a Buddhist society is that I was seen as trying to set myself up as a teacher, or even as the leader, of the group. Frankly though, if I could have shelter and food without giving regular talks to a "following," then it would be more convenient for me, and I certainly wouldn't be opposed to the idea. The thing is that in America one has to work for a living; people are much less inclined to support a monk just for the principle of the thing, or for earning merit, or to promote enlightenment in the world, or whatever, and are more inclined to support what seems useful to them at a more obvious practical level. So, I offered my services as a teacher, quite willing to share what I have learned over the years, to a resounding silence.
     Anyway, what I have to teach is evidently not what most American Buddhists are looking for. Many meditators in this country are trying to feel good; and some are simply trying to keep their heads above water in a very stressful world. This is a big reason why most "vipassana" teachers in the West are so soft and smiling and politically correct, and tend to avoid saying anything that might make their listeners feel uncomfortable. Yet the ultimate purpose of Dhamma is not to feel good, but to learn to accept however one feels, comfortable or uncomfortable. Anything ugly and hairy should be brought to the surface and dealt with as soon as possible, not covered over with smiling politeness. A Buddhist, a spiritual seeker, should be tough. But trying to teach this to large groups is somewhat like a Christian minister hammering away at notions like "Gather not up your treasures upon the earth." It is not conducive to popularity, despite its essentiality to the most ancient teachings. Yet my dharma in this life—"dharma" here being used in a Hindu sense—is to inspire Holy Discomfort, in myself and in others.
     So this is the situation I dived into on the 21st of May, a few days before Buddha Day, when I got on the train headed north. The train trip itself was a kind of purifying ordeal. I have yet to ride an Amtrak train as a monk where the person sitting next to me doesn't get up and move to a different seat. I fasted the following day on the train, drinking only water; and the following evening in Seattle, since I had to catch a different train the following morning to get to Bellingham, I spent the night on a bench in front of the train station. The station closed at night, so first I tried sitting on a stairwell in the same building complex and reading all night; but a security guard asked me to leave. (Incidentally, when he said, "I'm asking you to leave," he grinned, which I could easily relate to. We often grin or snicker when saying something embarrassingly unpleasant, as an instinctive way of showing the other that we mean no harm. It's human nature. I've done this in the past also, and sometimes it has been misinterpreted as malice, or bragging, or something equally reprehensible. The security guard obviously had some sensitivity, and was just doing his job.) After being evicted from the stairwell I tried some concrete steps across the street, but after 45 minutes or so it started raining. So I finally moved to the bench, which was under the eaves of a building. By morning it was very cold. In fact Seattle itself seemed cold in a different way: very unwelcoming and inhospitable to a homeless monk who doesn't handle money. I felt very vulnerable on that bench, at the mercy of a not necessarily merciful world. It is true though that around dawn a man walked by who asked to touch my hand, and enthusiastically blessed me and asked me to pray for him. (Jamie Easton, my blessings are upon you.)
     There was one additional factor to my "purifying ordeal" that made it more strange: In semi-desperation not to be a complete burden and hardship on my relatively few supporters in Bellingham I "took one for the team" by carrying with me an envelope of money that generous Asian Buddhists had donated on my behalf while I was in California, amounting to $937. I determined that it wasn't mine, and that I wouldn't use it, but would give it to someone in Bellingham as a kind of relief fund, or some such. So while I was fasting on the train I kept having this idea that I could just walk to the dining car and buy myself a meal, or at least a can of Coca-Cola. Also while I was spending the night on a cold bench outdoors I considered again and again how easy it would be to hail a cab and spend the night in a hotel. The urges were easy to resist, but they were persistent. That was the first time I ever carried money in my 22 years as a monk.
     Which leads to a situation I have encountered with supporters in Bellingham, concerning my behavior as a monk. General lack of support has resulted in me living in some situations which are not particularly monastic, which in turn results in supporters being even less inclined to support me, as I'm not behaving in a way that they associate with monks. This generates a kind of vicious circle, which, if not checked, would be a downward monastic death spiral.
     As it is, I consider that I receive more support out of friendship than out of faith or traditional Buddhistic propriety. And so, thus far, at least four of my closest friends and supporters in this area have suggested in all seriousness that I drop out of the monkhood and get a job. As suggested above, it seems like most American Buddhists or "spiritual seekers" do not see the point of being a monk, and view it more as an unnecessary handicap than as a blessed or noble state of being. Penniless religious mendicants receive much less respect in modern America than they did in ancient India, or even in medieval Europe. Or so it seems.
     I arrived in Bellingham on the day before the full moon, dazed, hungry, slightly depressed, and not knowing what to expect. I crashed in the spare bedroom of Clinton J., who has steadfastly refused to back away from the task of lending as much support as necessary. And the next day, Buddha Day, I went with a small group to get hugged by Ammachi, who was in Bellevue, about a hundred miles from Bellingham.
     I was still tired from "train lag" and at a rather low level of energy when I got hugged this time. While sitting in the line of people waiting for their hug a little Indian boy about two years old toddled up to me and put his mouth right onto the apple I was holding as an offering for Amma, getting slobber on the apple and on my finger. He tried about three times to eat the apple, not reaching for it with his hands, but bobbing for it with his mouth. (His mother apologized, explaining that he dearly loves apples.) For a few moments I was in an ethical dilemma: Would Amma prefer that I give the apple to the little boy who obviously wanted it, or should I give it to her, according to plan? I kept the apple, wiped off the slobber on my robe, and gave it to her, whereupon she immediately handed it to an attendant to put with all the other apples that had been given to her. I was too tired, dazed, and of low spirits to be nervous this time, even when kneeling on stage between a Hindu saint and a crowd of spectators. I hardly noticed when she started hugging me, but then realized that I should be as awake as possible for it. She kissed my forehead, said something I didn't recognize, and then kept repeating what sounded like "muh-muh-muh-muh…" At one point the single thought arose, "Open my heart," not so much as a prayer or request to Amma, as a simple heartfelt statement. Right afterward I was given a piece of chocolate and a flower petal as prasad. I gave the chocolate to a person I know, asking that she eat it for me, but she didn't want chocolate just then and put it away somewhere. I held the flower petal until the next day, when I finally lost it.
     And so, that is pretty much my situation nowadays. It is not entirely unique to me. When I was still in California a man in Canada who likes what I write, and has made generous donations of things like books and train tickets in the past, wrote to me saying that he found it very difficult to believe that I had difficulty in finding a place, and he offered to make inquiries on my behalf; and several days later he wrote again implying that it wasn't so difficult to believe anymore, as he had had no luck. He mentioned another bhikkhu he knows who had a similar predicament last winter. He came to Canada from Asia looking for a place to settle down, with little success. At one point he was living in a lady's basement, and was on the verge of becoming a street person (in Toronto, in winter time), when a group of Sinhalese Buddhists found a house for him to use as a Dhamma center. It is common knowledge among Western monks that usually the only way to receive enough support to live is to stay near an Asian Buddhist community. In his case this common knowledge held true. 
     And so, if any of you good people know of a place where a nonconformist, politically incorrect, "free range" Buddhist philosopher could conveniently, without causing hardship for others, have a roof over his head, one bowl of food every day, access to a bathroom, and enough Internet access to keep this blog going, please share this information with me. It would be a meritorious deed on your part. I'm happy to share what I know with others in person, so long as they are interested; otherwise, I'm happy also just to mind my own business and communicate through writing. 
     It's not like I'm in danger of starvation though. If all else fails I know of two Burmese temples in California that would have me, although the environment is not ideal for the likes of me, and would presumably be temporary. Or, I could give up in earnest and return to Asia, where I'm the abbot of a forest monastery and somewhat of a celebrity. I'm tired of sweating and of not speaking English though. For better and for worse, I am an American, a True Son of Liberty, and don't really fit in anywhere yet.
a view of Bellingham Bay, from a bedroom window


Postscript: (June 5) Yesterday, despite some apprehension, I attended a group meditation at the local Dharma Hall for the first time since my return. A few people looked the other way, but most were very friendly, or, at the very least, very polite. That is a relief, and I am grateful.


  1. I live in Europe and don't have a place for you to stay but if I ever do I will invite you. You sound like someone who could benefit others by teaching what he learned. We, in the west, have gotten so used to some kind of Dharma-lite that we run away when we meet someone who tells us the truth. That said, as a monk, you have to keep your vows and rules while at the same time adapting to the culture you are in, in such a way that people won't get bad views about Buddhism. The only thing you did wrong, which you obviously didn't know, is to make public a personal email. On most message boards that is strictly against the rules. Now you know. I hope you will continue to write as you have done and continue to speak your mind openly. I love it and I am sure there are many others with me.
    My advice as an avid blog reader: most well-read blogs have posts that are a little shorter and more controversial topics. As a philosopher that might not suit your disposition but it is something to consider if you want to take this to the next level (meaning more visitors--some with potential willing to sponsor you). Anyway, keep it up (the writing) and I hope it all works out for you.
    One last question: have you ever considered moving to a Mahayana center? Some are pretty good in providing for monks.

    1. I agree about the shorter length. The idea was to average around 1500 words per post; then when I was in Burma and had lots of silence and solitude I started writing long, involved monster articles. Sometimes it takes lots of words to describe something. As for more controversial, I'm not sure how to be more controversial than I already am! You think this isn't controversial?

      Actually, a friend of mine has offered to check out a Chinese Mahayana place for me in some place like Missouri. I had assumed that, like Theravada, Mahayana places would prefer to keep monks of their own tradition. We'll see how it goes.

  2. Yeah, you are right. It is controversial enough. :-)
    Fun read though. What do you think of the Bhikkuni order established by some Western Thai Ajahns? (BTW, western Thai Ajahns or western Birmese Sayadaws could be topics in their own right). Other topics of interest (to me) are the different meditation traditions in Birma/Thailand/etc. and which one is the best. ;-)
    I am glad you responded to my comment as the best blogs are the ones where the author is willing to engage his readers--and follows up on their advice and writes about what they like. Don't want to add another smiley but that was my lame European attempt at a joke. Anyway, thanks for the blog and keep it up. I hope you will find a nice place at the Chinese temple. They are good to their monks though I heard one has to follow their rules pretty strictly.
    Have you thought of the place in Western Virginia by Bhante Gunaratana? I went there once and it was a nice place. Maybe too restrictive for you but something to consider.

    1. Some idea of my attitude concerning the recent attempts to revive the Bhikkhuni order can be had by reading "The New Bhikkhunis," posted July 1, 2012.

      An article comparing the various meditation traditions out there is a good idea.

  3. Sayadaw,
    I am glad to hear your blog is receiving so many hits. Hopefully some day it will allow you to live independent and free from worry here in the west.

    Regarding this post, I feel that you have touched upon two differing views of Buddhism. People are either drawn to it for help or support it as a religion.

    Asian Buddhism is part of the culture, in other words, it is a core religion with all the icons and rituals that go along. Asians are raised respecting the Bhikkhu and expect the Bhikkhu do the same. I do believe you were misunderstood. Bhikkhu are expected to be distant. A friendly Bhikkhu would draw suspicion from the community. Unlike Westerners many in the Asian community have been a Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni. The community understands the relationship between the Dhamma and the Sangha. The Sangha is expected to preach the Dhamma and in return the community returns the gift by supporting the Sangha and their efforts to reach nibbana.

    I believe that many if not most westerners are attracted to Buddhism to resolve some Dukkha that is plaguing them. They are searching for they key that will reduce their suffering and find Buddhism in this process. Embracing Buddhism in any manner is a good thing but being westerners they receive it as a Philosophy. This removes the religious component separating the “true” Sangha from the Dhamma. Once turned into a philosophy there is no need for a Monastic because anyone can preach the Dhamma and anyone can teach meditation. Most westerns don’t understand that a Bhikkhu is on a serious spiritual path and offering Alms and habitation is good merit that will carry over in their current and future lives.

    As for your interaction with the Theravada community in Bellingham, I believe they already see themselves as a Sangha therefore anyone can teach the Dhamma. So there is no need to support a hard core Monastic that will eat up resources and interfere with their organization. Referring to your previous post “It all depends on how you look at it”. There is no way for you to understand why their actions are what they are. I suspect they have had little if any contact with the real Theravada therefore it is almost impossible for them to understand you.

    Regarding your carrying money, you did not need to do this. I know something else could have been done.

  4. Well, you have certainly found your voice and your "following." Everything exists because there is a need for it. Therefore, nothing is wrong or bad, everything is valid. Though, not at all valid for everyone, still it doesn't matter. Love, Serve, Remember God.

  5. Ah, my friend, had I the resources, you would most certainly be supported, regardless of your involvement with the Buddhist community in Bellingham. Having sat in your presence, with my knowledge, I am aware of the Truth you have to share. Being someone who, in a different time, would have followed in similar footsteps, I respect the Path of the "professional spiritual" person. As an aside, one reason your travel-mates may leave you to your space is due to respect. Not understanding the depths of reality you have experienced, it may be that they have thought of you in much the same way that many children think of adults - that adult must think of such lofty and important things! (Isn't that a funny thing!) On the rare occasion that I have met a monk while traveling, I have been guilty of leaving them alone, out of respect, not wanting to be a bother. All the while, though, dying to talk to them at length.

    Having read this post, though, it points out something to me that I had not thought of before; offering food to traveling monks. While I may not be able to support a monk over the long-term, I can surely feed one from time to time. After all, it costs the price of a few balloons and gifts others a few smiles. (Since a large part of my livelihood comes from twisting balloons for folks in restaurants and I often get my food donated...) Honestly, until this read, it hadn't occurred to me that traveling monks may not be eating because there is no one to offer them food. Now I know and will remember. Question: If you were unknown to me and I just came up and asked if you were hungry and might I buy you a meal, would that be sufficient? Or is there a more proscribed way in your monastic rules?

    One thing is sure, my friend, if you and I wind up in the same town and if there is any way I can arrange it, you will have your shelter, meal, and bathroom. Internet can be had outside almost any coffee shop. (Sometimes, that is the only way I get internet.) Also, have you heard of I have used it many times while traveling. It is free and most people on the site are much more open-minded and experienced than the average American, in my experience.

    So, there ya go...for what use that is to you. Where are you at these days? I'm presently in Ohio, to be headed out to the Pacific Northwest next week, though there is no idea when I will actually make it out there. I'm presently thinking of just riding straight though, but who believes a thought?

    Om Shanti

    1. Ah Kai, good to hear from you again. At present I'm still in Bellingham, and gave my first Dhamma talk tonight.

      With regard to the question of whether it's sufficient to go up to an unknown monk and ask if you might buy him a meal, if he's too strict to handle money and buy his own meal, then you may wish to rephrase. A monk who follows the rules may not even tell other people what to do with money; so you shouldn't ask if you should BUY him something, but you may certainly ask him if you might OFFER or PROVIDE something. Then how you obtain it, as with buying it, is up to you.