Saturday, August 31, 2013

The End of an Experiment


     Now the sneaking serpent walks
     In mild humility.
     And the just man rages in the wilds
     Where lions roam.     
               (—William Blake)

     Go alone like the horn of the rhinoceros. (—the refrain of the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta)

     By quoting the first verse above I'm not necessarily implying that I'm a just man, or even a lion.
     In scientific circles they say that there is no such thing as a failed experiment—at the very least one learns what doesn't work. Also they say that a successful experiment is a result of the experimenter making an even number of mistakes which cancel each other out. My experiment with living in the West as a "free range" bhikkhu is thus not exactly a failed experiment, but it seems that an odd number of mistakes were made. Anyway, it seems to be pretty much over for the present. Around the beginning of December I'll probably return to Southeast Asia, and there's no telling when I'll come back for another go.
     Since my return to the West from rural Burma in May of 2011, I've been struck again and again by the seemingly bizarre fact that it is difficult for a veteran bhikkhu to survive among Western Theravada Buddhists. There have been times, especially during my first year in Bellingham after returning from Burma, when it seemed much like the following scenario: A veteran surgeon moves into a small town with no doctor, but with an organization which teaches first aid. Some of the teachers of this organization have a kind of first aid certificate, while others no not, and some know relatively little about the practice of medicine. The doctor makes himself known to this organization, offering to help teach some more refined aspects of doctoring—and is given the cold shoulder, receiving disdain from some of the first aid group, with tinges of resentment from some, and being largely ignored by the majority of them. This was a surprise, partly because I had come from probably the most devout Theravada Buddhist country in the world, where even doctors and school teachers, let alone monks, may have people literally bowing on the ground before them, out of respect and gratitude. America is a brave new world.
     Of course, some who have read my recent post "Let This Be a Lesson" may say, with or without vitriol, that I am unworthy of support anyhow; but upon arrival in Bellingham in 2011 my rascality was pretty much a non-issue. If it is used as an excuse for non-support by some folks in Bellingham it is used mostly retroactively. In fact I was still relatively very strict in my practice upon arrival. I could have been a saint for all the local insight meditation society cared. So the main reason for my relative non-welcome, aside from the subjective fruition of my own karma, was something else entirely.
     A major reason, methinks, was my relative lack of social graces. After all, I've been essentially a recluse for most of my adult life. I do not wish to be dishonest or hypocritical, and one manifestation of that is that I generally don't say "I'm sorry" if I'm not sorry, "I'd like to, but I can't" when I can but just don't want to, "It's nice to meet you" when it's really not very nice, and all the other polite little lies that are required by the "civilized society" that I renounced. Also I lack tact, and call things as I see them, even if it is politically incorrect to do so. (For example, at my very first Dharma talk in Bellingham I was indignantly heckled by a young American woman for stating that America has a superficial, greed-based culture, and that the Burmese, despite their material poverty, are generally happier than we are.) I read a textbook on military strategy long ago which says that a direct, frontal assault is the very worst way of conquering an opponent; and my confrontational tactlessness often has the effect of such an assault. People tend to feel threatened and uncomfortable when their point of view is challenged, and challenging points of view is my specialty. Consequently, making people uncomfortable is also my specialty, which is nowhere near to being the path to popularity. 
     I've spent years developing my mental faculties in an atypical direction that most people develop in a haphazard, desultory manner, if at all; and I have largely ignored other directions which are seen as basic to worldly existence. People in the Western world especially have little or no appreciation for the results of my strange efforts, partly because it's clean off their radar. Spending many years living in caves and gazing at blank walls appears to count for little in the West. The results of that kind of behavior are not always obvious, or are seen negatively.
     It seems to me that, as a general rule, human beings buy into a system, and identify with it to some degree, considering it to be the "right" way. So if somebody else comes along who doesn't buy into that same system, it seems to be human nature to disdain or even resent that person. To make matters worse, I was a Theravada Buddhist who obviously didn't buy into a system that people in Bellingham were calling "Theravada Buddhism"; this, I suppose, bred disdain or even resentment among some of the Bellingham lay "sangha." The trick for me is not to fall into the same tendency, and to resent those not buying into my preferred system. If others perceive that I actually disdain what they cherish, whether it be Western-style Buddhism or Western materialistic humanism in general, it amplifies the intensity of the predicament.
     Anyway, the "great experiment" in Bellingham was pretty much finalized by three events, all of which occurred within one week: the aforementioned recent blog post, the third annual forest fast, and my last public talk at the local Dharma hall. The blog post manifested first, but its major effects came last, so it will be discussed after the other two.
     The Pacific Northwest of the United States seems like a perfect place for meditation-oriented hikes and camping trips, with a multitude of excellent forest areas practically devoid of anything dangerous (like venomous snakes or anopheles mosquitoes); and from my arrival in Bellingham I wanted to set up something like this. But my efforts met with indifference, and the only such events to actually happen were the annual forest fasts. We would go out into the remote foothills of the North Cascades Mountains and meditate and fast for three to four days, living on nothing but air and unfiltered mountain river water. The rule stating that high-tech water purification systems were not allowed resulted in considerable disapproval and some complaint; but the rule itself was a filter of sorts, filtering out materialistic Westerners who have more faith in high-tech water filters than in Dharma. (If you look after Dharma, Dharma looks after you.) This filter worked very effectively. Anyway, for this and many other reasons, including busy-ness, lukewarmness, and the acceptance issues mentioned above, the total number of people who went on the fast in 2011 was three, and in the next two years, two.
     This year a friend named Steve and I went out and fasted in the woods for 3½ days, finishing the last half-day in town largely because Steve had to work the last day. One of the highlights for me was that on the third day three large birds, apparently juvenile turkey vultures, circled overhead, I assume to see if Steve and I were dying. Another highlight was on the very first day when I was collecting firewood: I experienced a rush of consciousness in which I became peculiarly aware of the movements of my body as I walked, and more aware of the process of consciousness itself, in an almost psychedelic experience. (This sort of thing is much more likely to occur in Burma than America, although being in a remote forest was a suitable opportunity for it.) The fast has always had a good effect on my disposition, and although it was somewhat uncomfortable, and although we were rained on one day, I came back expanded and "chilled out." 
    The day after the fast ended I gave my last talk at the Dharma hall, on the topic of the two main orientations to spirituality: heart and head, feminine and masculine, religion and philosophy, or "faith and reason." (I won't summarize the talk here, but probably will in a future post.) The attendance was perhaps larger than usual—about 15 to 18 people—and it went relatively well, partly because I kept losing my place in the notes and was required to speak more or less spontaneously. I actually approached my idea of a "good" Dharma talk by going into a mild meditative state while speaking, almost doing what New Age people would call channeling. The talk was well received, and several people came up and thanked me for it afterwards.
     This was about five days after the publication of the controversial "Let This Be a Lesson" post on this blog; and although there was some anticipation of trouble at the Dharma hall because of it, I guessed, and rightly, that almost nobody in the meditation society except for a few friends reads this blog anyway. Consequently, there were no complications at the talk because of it. But complications were in the works.
     I was informed afterwards that the same person who had sent me a kind of "hate email" on a previous occasion (quoted in the Special Anniversary Issue, 1 June 2013) had for some unknown reason read the soon-to-be-controversial post, and began agitating some senior members to have my talk cancelled. (I would prefer to assume that someone else had told him of it, rather than that he was simply prowling the blog looking for something to use as a weapon.) The senior teachers knew of his antagonism toward my association with the meditation society, and didn't pay him much heed. It was only after the talk was given that his persistent agitation urged other members to read the post. One senior member considered it to be uncomfortably, excessively personal, and then ironically sent it out to all of the teaching staff of the meditation society. Some of them apparently used the post as retroactive justification for never having had much to do with me in the first place. The one who circulated the post, who incidentally is a very conscientious and likable person in my opinion, went to the extent of contacting me to request that I remove the post from the blog. I refused, saying that too much truth makes people uncomfortable (as T. S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality"), and asking him to consider the following question: What is the purpose of the local insight meditation society—Is it a truly spiritual organization where the members take a hard look at the truth, even if it is uncomfortable, for the sake of waking up? Or is it mainly just a social club where people go to relax and feel good about themselves? I personally feel that the second description is more accurate than the first; but such an opinion, if perceived by the members of the "sangha," is not conducive to popularity at all. I would guess that the second description is more accurate with regard to most Western meditation groups, as well as to most Presbyterian church organizations...probably to most Western societies that are intended to be spiritual.
     Anyway, the teachers of the society discussed the possibility of discussing whether or not simply to ban me from giving talks at the Dharma hall in future. On the other hand, having a relatively senior member (the aforementioned agitator) whose behavior is sometimes obviously motivated by hatred seems to be swept under the carpet by a presumably spiritual organization. I see this as ironic.
     So, to make a long story even longer, I am now residing at a little Burmese temple in the San Francisco Bay Area of California again, anticipating a return to Asia after my rains retreat is finished. The Internet connection is good here, which is a plus; and people are happy to feed me every day, which is another plus; but I am rather sedentary and get little exercise, and I don't really fit in here so well. Consequently, I'm not sure when I'll return to the West, and if I do return I don't yet know to where I will return. Maybe to stay in Asia would be best for me, as America can take a lot out of a guy.
     If I do return, it may be up to you, dear readers. What I would like most of all is to find people who can appreciate my peculiar brand of radical cage rattling—people who can appreciate having their point of view, and their "comfort zone," challenged. As I've already said, that seems to be what I specialize in. I know you are out there (this month, according to my stats page, this blog averaged more than 90 "hits" a day). I derive little satisfaction from trying to teach people who just want to feel comfortable, or who are trying to sew new patches onto old cloth, to use a Christian metaphor. If they are beginners mainly trying to de-stress and find some balance I can certainly help them with that, and am happy to; but if they've been at it for years and their concept of Dharma practice still doesn't go much beyond that, then it just doesn't seem worth it. There are plenty of other teachers out there who specialize in that sort of thing. 
     I have found that to be appreciated in what one has to offer is invaluable. It is a great encouragement, and without it one may easily lose one's inspiration and enthusiasm, as I have sometimes done here in the West. The inspiration and encouragement between a teacher and a student goes both ways. And to have someone believe in you is one of the greatest supports and blessings there is in this world. It is almost as important as believing in yourself (not egocentrism or narcissism, but knowing that your potential is literally infinite, and that Divinity is already to be found in you). But I can get along without that kind of support, if necessary.
     If I am to be supported, I would naturally prefer to be supported for being "myself," and for doing what I do best. I refuse even to try to live up to what other people think I should be like, especially if they are worldly-minded people who don't even know me. To use a New Age catchword, let us be "authentic." I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I'd rather die than knuckle under to politically correct public opinion, and the mandatory emasculation of spiritually-oriented Western men. I'd rather go down fighting; better to die in battle than to live in defeat. As the Pali idiom has it, "I wear muñja grass." Maybe what America needs is a kind of spiritual Fight Club.
     Anyway, one experiment that is not yet over is this blog. I intend to continue with it for as long as I can—hopefully I'll have Internet access in Burma. 

     
     


23 comments:

  1. Hello,
    Aren't you putting the blame on the Bellingham Meditation Society to evade blame on yourself? You are rather shameless and careless in this respect too. On the website of the society (http://www.bellinghaminsight.org/) it is said that Buddhist monastics such as Ajahn Santi do teach there, so they are not so adverse to Buddhist monastics as you make it appear in your blogs. Probably it is your reputation and conceited attitude (even now, after all the mischief you have done you dare to compare yourself to a “veteran surgeon”) that made the people of the society have a cool attitude to you. In the West people don't respect a monk because of the numbers of years he has stayed as an ascetic in the jungles but because of his conduct.
    D.

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    1. A surgeon also may be a rascal, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't know what he is talking about.

      As was mentioned in the essay, I was still relatively strict in my Vinaya practice at the time of my arrival in Bellingham, so my rascality was essentially a non-issue. My reputation in Burma was a good one. The rascality then was more potential than actual. It became an actual issue mainly because the only person in town who was eager to shelter and support me happened to be an unmarried young woman.

      Believe it or not, it is likely that I am still stricter in Vinaya than are most bhikkhus (which, however, is not necessarily saying very much). I am more inclined to admit to my digressions than are most, though.

      It is true that a monk called ven. Santidhammo comes to Bellingham and gives Dhamma talks there about once every two months. He is supported mainly by a Thai community near his monastery in the Seattle area. I have to admit that his relative popularity has always been somewhat of a mystery to me, for reasons we needn't discuss here. Another bhikkhu comes and teaches in Bellingham once every two years.

      My intention is that a new tradition not be continued here by the comments section of this post becoming a forum for timid Anonymi venting their hostility, mainly because I do not live up to how they think I ought to be, and then blaming me instead of themselves for their resultant indignation, or whatever negative reaction they happen to be feeling. At least state your names and take responsibility for your own speech and actions.

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  2. Dear Venerable,
    Thanks for your interesting, well-written description of your perceptions. In honor of your great honesty, here a few opinions and observations from my experience in the West. I trust that your intentions are good and my presumptuous intention here is to spare you some troubles down the road.
    First of all, I think you are not alone in your experience. There are regularly monks who are feeling that they have something special that lay practitioners should respect and who come on rather strong with that. Most of those who have been around for a while have heard of these difficult, unpleasant cases. Therefore, many people in Bellingham may have already anticipated somebody like that to come and cause rifts in their group, which doesn't make it easy for your style.
    The problem is a bit in the paradigm: These monks (and, as regularly, nuns) feel they are doctors but they are perceived more like Christian missionaries in Africa, who don't know much about the community culture they enter, think of themselves as profoundly better, and hope to be revered for the civilized views and concomitant progress they plan to bring.
    I have also lived for seven years in Burma and, personally, think you are wrong about the greater happiness of the people there. Not only do studies show that people in developed countries are somewhat more happy but also my experience seems to indicate that the romantic view of the happy poor is off track. This issue can, of course, not be settled conclusively but my impression is that it continues the theme of your not carefully observing the communities you're living in. While I can't comment on the form of the indignant listener to your talk, I feel it's rude and ignorant of you to enter a community as a guest and then criticize it, in the same way that I would find that pathetic in an 19th century Christian missionary in Africa.
    Personally, I feel that most self-styled confrontational teachers are a pain in the neck and didactically incompetent, rarely learning well as they go along. Essentially, their psychology is to humiliate people who then, ideally, experience a kind of letting go. I almost never see even the Buddha do that with lay people and not that often with monks; the few exceptions are for those who are extremely aggressive and public, which he then typically wins over right away. Practically none of his disciples in the suttas are in record to teach like that. Conversely, monks are known for their politeness, modesty and friendliness (e.g. M 89).
    What most people need much more than confrontation is, in my opinion, first of all a sense of being seen in their situation and, secondly, growing gradually and at their own speed into a confidence that the Buddhist repertoire of teachings has something meaningful to offer to their situation. Provocative teachers tend to create strong personality cults – even though they ostentatiously discourage them – which leave students dependent, isolated from other groups and often tragically unaware of many useful teachings of the Buddha. The communities they attract are often ignorant and unpleasant, as their students feel entitled to copy their teachers.
    Also, this style works persuasively mostly from those teachers who are super-pure, as the kamma of their criticism tends to be that their every move and word is turned over for incongruities, misperceptions and misrepresentations of the teaching. The responses to the “Lessons”-blog reflect that and show how many feel that you don't qualify for this type of teacher role. Of course, a few may but how much do they know about dhamma?
    I hope this is not too harsh a criticism and you're most welcome to correct misunderstandings on my part. You're advertising yourself in this entry as a teacher and your monastic experience, intelligence and eloquence may qualify you for that, indeed. I just hope that this will become a good experience that the Buddha would approve of and in this spirit is this rather long reply written.
    All the best, Tan Piyadhammo

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    1. Hello Again Venerable Sir,

      First of all, I'd like to express appreciation for the tone of your comments. I know you to be a strict and conscientious bhikkhu; and although you probably don't approve of very much that I write, you are one of the few monastics who have commented who exhibits some philosophical detachment and even compassion. I think that speaks well for your Dhamma practice.

      I actually do learn from my mistakes, and learned very quickly that social criticism, like what was contained in my first Dhamma talk in Bellingham, doesn't work very well. My public talks include no personality-bashing and very little America-bashing. On the other hand, I could never be very politically correct—in my case it would be gross hypocrisy. I challenge points of view, and most people don't like having their points of view challenged. Yet remaining comfortable is conducive to staying asleep. This is somewhat of a dilemma.

      Also, I've been told more than once that I "come on strong," as you put it, simply by entering a room. I'm physically large and furthermore wear a brown toga. I also may have somewhat of an intense "vibe."

      If you really believe that Westerners are happier in general than are Burmese villagers, then, being a Buddhist, you must also believe that Westerners have less desire than Burmese villagers (2nd Noble Truth). To me it's pretty obvious. The capacity of Burmese villagers to accept harsh conditions with equanimity is phenomenal. Plus you're much more likely to see genuine smiles there. I would guess that those psychological studies you mentioned were conducted by Westerners. Do you really think Americans have less craving?

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    2. Hello Venerable,
      Thanks for your thoughtful reply.
      First of all, it's not difficult for me to be respectful, as I genuinely do feel this. It's not really correct that I don't approve of what I have read of your writing - I consider it a valuable contribution to normal monastic discourse. 'Compassion' is not a term I would use for the sentiment I'm feeling - perhaps more 'collegial friendship' - but maybe you use that term differently on the US West Coast. :)
      As far as perceptions of teacher-types and GNH is concerned, I consider them just descriptions of broad (and therefore inaccurate) generalizations, that have their value mainly in illustrating a point. Here my point was to take on what I perceive to be an incorrect idealization.
      I genuinely believe that most Westerners of my acquaintance are more happy and contented than most Asians I know, although the generic differences are slight and individual differences are more important. In relative brevity, the stress that poverty, uncertainty, restrictive government, limited education, poor justice systems etc. cause all create their tall. Many Burmese and other Asian people I've come to know and like were constantly frustrated and frightened by these problems. Personally, I find not only does my qol go up from Asia to the West but also from the US to Europe, where you have lower crime rates, less racism, universal health care and a trustworthy legal system. I also don't find Asians as such to be more moral. Killing animals, the death penalty, poor workers' or prisoners' rights, corruption, very high domestic violence figures etc. worry the fewest of them. Political escalations tell some of the story. Details assessing happiness are involved but can easily be googled.
      Similarly, my view of more bold teachers of Buddhism is based only on my experience. I really can't say whether your style has enough in common with those I have in mind and I believe there is a place for benevolent confrontation.
      My refuge is in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, though, and I try to take my views & cues for wholesome monasticism from what I know about them (if not always the reality I end up in). The point I was trying to make is that your described frustrations with the situation in the West seem to be to me in good part due to factors that you can improve yourself with those sources, not due to the nature of Americans. - In my limited experience I have actually come to appreciate American's ability to work with Buddhism very highly. So I hope you will have the chance to have the same experience. So long, p

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    3. OK, so you don't have compassion. :-)

      With regard to the Who Is Happier question, I think we may not be talking about the same Burmese. When we were corresponding in Burma you were living in one of the wealthiest monasteries in the country, and may not have learned the Burmese language. So you probably were dealing mainly with more or less Westernized Burmese city people. I am referring mainly to villagers. And you never did answer the question: Do you really think Americans have less craving??? It may also be that you are hanging out with the best of the best in the West. If you spend much time walking down city streets, or sitting in big city train stations, etc., you may see another side of Western happiness.

      But you are certainly right that all of my difficulties are of my own making.

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    4. Sorry, but I feel that I did answer your question about craving by saying that, in my experience as well as in studies, Westerners appear to be more contented. Do to large family and friends circles, as well as international Buddhist contacts, my sample is here fairly broad. Westerners don't crave status symbols in the way Asians do and many feel that they have enough of everything they need.
      My Burmese sample is much more limited but not in the way you imagine. One of my main supporters was a pious former nurse and I had quite a bit of intimate contact with Pa Auk villagers and monastics from village stock.
      And don't get me wrong: I often talk to people in most inspired terms of the 'Burmese housewife's' simplicity and piousness (with older Burmese men, I didn't get that; they seemed often really grumpy).
      Only, the romanticized version of the poor happy doesn't resonate with me. But it's not that important to me and I'd be happy to be shown to be wrong.

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  3. Hola,
    I read this blog from Washington State and looking at your stats I see half of the readers are from the US and half of them are from Washington State. I think that your readers come here mainly for the personal stories as your tag suggests. The long discourses on ancient Pali writings and technical aspects of sacred text are received with far less enthusiasm and readership (I suspect). I think this blog would continue to draw readers with more of a concentration on "selling the sizzle not the steak" in marketing speak. For good or bad that is where I see readers coming from. But perhaps you may find a way find an alchemy to bring us to the light. Do you think you have it in you?

    Metta

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    1. Yeah, I was slightly surprised when I discovered that the personal stories (especially the current events ones) tended to be the most popular. However, popularity is not the main purpose of the blog, much less "marketing"; I really don't want to boost my "sales" by deliberately pandering to the masses' liking for sensationalism. The original intention for the blog was sharing my attempts at radical Buddhist philosophizing, plus occasionally sharing the spectacle of a monk returning from the Tropics and trying to find someplace in America ("Spiritual Siberia"). The post "Notes on Mysticism," a philosophical one, was up until recently the all time most clicked-on post. And the star calendar one has been much clicked-on lately, mostly by people in Poland. I don't know why Polish people are so interested in ancient Indian astronomy, but I'm happy to share what I know with them. As for the alchemy issue, we all have infinite potential in us; and in an infinite Universe, anything is possible.

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  4. Venerable
    As a lay person who has observed how Western Therevada bhikkhus who have been trained in the East who have succeeded in the West, here are my observations and how they compare to your situation:
    1. They have been trained by venerated teachers (e.g. Ajahn Chah) in a monastic environment and arrived in the West with the backing, blessings, encouragement of their teacher and fellow bhikkhus and at the invitation of a lay community or trust. Your arrival was somewhat different – you expected the folk at Bellingham to trust you as a ‘surgeon’ (amongst first aiders) whose reputation, methods, conduct, skill was unknown and unverified.
    2. Furthermore, their training stands in stark comparison to yours – you lived in relative isolation in Asia without the company of other bhikkhus or a teacher to point out your faults or train you according to your temperament and ‘talent’.
    3. Your attitude seems to be that of condescension towards having to ‘conform’ to a group (of bhikkhus) or living up to people’s “unrealistic expectations”, rather you want to stand out as an intellectual who wants to confront, challenge people and shock them through (your considerable?) wit and intellect. Their training methods toward lay people is to respect the western culture they find themselves in (British, Aussie, US, NZ, sri Lankan, thai, Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian), gently encourage lay people to take refuge in the triple gem and understand what it means to undertake the gradual training and sincerely practise the 8fold path.
    4. Their behaviour has proven to be truly befitting of Samanas – exemplary, without fault and careful wrt relations with women. Yours on the other hand with the Priestess was unseemly and ugly. Not only that, you took advantage of the support members were giving you and unknown to them still conducted your affair with the lady until it turned sour. You remain unrepentant about your behaviour and your constant portrayal of it being a beautiful experience devoid of regret is distasteful.
    5. You express surprise that the folks in Bellingham wanted to ban you from teaching Dhamma and belittle them comparing them to a social club where people go to relax and feel good about themselves. At least they didn’t intentionally deceive their supporters. The bhikkhus I mention in the west have gained the trust, confidence, loyalty, admiration and support of the lay people through their conduct, humility, teaching, wisdom, compassion and not by publicly deriding their supporters.
    Perhaps you should train for another 18 – 20 years, this time in Burma under a teacher and in a monastic community, then come back to the West at the invitation of a lay group and report the differences to contrast the experience you had with your first ‘failed’ experiment.

    Regards
    C. Lawson

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    1. A few comments to these comments.
      1. I also was trained by venerated teachers in a monastic environment, although the teachers were not famous in the West.
      2. I lived in a monastic community for longer than the required five years before "going alone like the horn of the rhinoceros" as advised by the ancient Buddhist texts.
      3. It is true that I have sufficient disdain for modern American society to wish to renounce it in the first place, and that disdain is a major reason why the majority of the local meditation society had little to do with me from the beginning. I have not made a major issue of that disdain in my public talks, but it seems to be always implied. And to pretend that I don't have it would be disingenuous.
      4. The behavior of many bhikkhus popular in the West is not exemplary at all, although they avoid the more politically incorrect transgressions. They may handle plenty of money, wear Western clothing, shake hands with women, etc., and this is often seen as good rather than otherwise in the West. Whether my lack of remorse for my love and interactions with the Priestess are distasteful depends upon how one chooses to look at it.
      5. Actually I was not surprised that I was blackballed from the Dharma Hall. And it's been called a social club by many, and I sincerely consider that to be a fair representation. I've been there. It is true though, that caustic social commentary, especially directed toward the standardized American version of Theravada, will inevitably result in the severe disapproval of most of those who follow it. Still, it seems like the thing to do for the time being. Luckily I'm not living in an earlier age when I could be burned at the stake or stoned to death by a howling mob.
      I can appreciate your final advice, but I do not plan to follow it. I simply cannot and will not conform to a society that I consider to have the primary purpose of sleeping as comfortably as possible.

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    2. Hello Venerable,
      When I read the reservations put to you and your replies, I get mixed feelings. In a way, it's a civilized discussion with valid reservations and thoughtful replies. Considering geographical separation and the complexities of the situation, that's a great achievement. At the same time, I always get a kind of urge to analyze your situation (seeing quite substantial danger in it), and communicate it. But, apart from feeling this to be mildly distasteful – for who am I? – I don't see this going very far right now.
      Your case is also discussed outside this blog by relevant monastics and I would like to communicate one thing about that discussion to you. Try to see your case a little from outside: There are many teachers of Buddhism who create a trail of blood with sex scandals, which typically don't come 'single-spy.' There are several high-profile cases with terrible fallout going on as we speak. They split, alienate and often traumatize communities, whether they have been sexually involved with them or skeptical from the start.
      Like pedophiles and modern Arittha's, all these teachers bend the ways in which they teach Buddhism to excuse their behavior by stressing deep or beautiful parts of the experience, in ways that experts of sex-abuse consider typical. This has been going on for decades and affected communities are extremely sensitive to it. Have a look M 22 and M 45 again, if you would, to appreciate the strength of the sentiment from the Buddhist fold.
      For many of those in contact with these situations, this is the end of their good of Buddhism, of Buddhist monks or even of mental health. While some of the teachers are perceived as positively evil and perverted, others have merits and standing.
      My impression is that you perceive your case as an isolated case with many attenuating peculiarities, whereas the communities wonder whether this is the beginning of the next big super-meltdown.
      Perhaps it's important to understand that in these frequent cases, always the question is to those who knew early on: “What did you do (in the war :))?”
      I'm trying to let you in on this because I think that it must be difficult to see from your perspective that your eloquent explanations creep concerned parties and individuals even more out – a bit like Göhring's eloquent explanations at the Nuremberg trials.
      What the concerned people need more than details of the complexities is some sort of assurance that this is not going to become a conflagration – that you are committed to keeping the Vinaya and will be fair to canonical scripture in your presentation of Buddhism.
      At the risk of looking stupid later on, I will put myself on record here that I personally believe you have that in you. But many who are wiser than me don't. I hope this is helpful in some way to help you use your good intelligence in ways to serve everybody involved optimally.
      All the best, Piyadhammo

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    3. Haha - i like C Lawson's really balanced critique!! You definitely wont be welcome at Amaravati or Abhayagiri - exemplary monastic communities practicing in the West - because this forum is public and supporters of the English Sangha Trust will not welcome there.

      The best treatment for you is that you should just be IGNORED by lay and monastics alike. Go back to your forest in Burma and never come back to America. hehehe hehehe hehehehe

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    4. Did you offer the Bellingham group the opportunity to request of your teachers (though not famous) a character verification, or for them to check with other western bhikkhus or respected burmese lay buddhists who knew you in the USA the chance to vouch for your conduct and experience? I recommend George Sharp's talk on how the Sangha came to England on the amaravati website as a different point of view.

      Yet you sought out the community of Western lay people in America and posited/foisted yourself as a solitary teacher in the league of a surgeon. Wouldn't it have been better to place yourself in a community of western bhikkhus at a monastery in America and then gradually re-introduce yourself to how things have changed and see how these communities have developed the mutual support relationship. Is it not possible that going it alone in the remote forests in Burma can have its disadvantages especially as you aren’t able to get feedback or admonition?

      You have alluded to the fact that disdain is not universal in that Bellignham group to all bhikkhus. So why are you met with disdain?

      I am referring specifically to the western bhikkhus in the monasteries of Ajahn Cha and Ajahn Sumedho in the West, not to the ones you speak of who handle volumes of money and shake hands with women.

      Your lack of remorse magnifies your own lack of hiri and otapa. There are I think you would agree universal norms and behaviours rather than how each person chooses to look at it. Most people who have posted here share the same view about your lack of remorse and gushing gratitude towards the experience with the lady.

      Finally I think your criticism of what the westerner lay people want is too harsh. Most people I feel don’t want to be challenged in the same way you think they ought to be, they have enough challenges earning a living in this consumeristic, media obsessed, over stimulated, topsy turvy, big data world. Maybe they are searching for a way to find happiness and need to be reminded of the basics – dana, sila, refuge and how to develop wisdom and blessings in their life.

      C Lawson

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    5. Well, I wouldn't call this comment very well balanced. I don't consider Lawson's comment to be extraordinarily balanced either, for that matter.

      Actually, I've never had any great desire to live at an Ajahn Chah monastery like Abhayagiri, not that I have anything against Ajahn Chah. Their policy of mandatory group conformity just doesn't work for me. So taunting me with my non-admission to places I don't want to go to is a bit lame.

      And as for ignoring me, I suggest that you try a little harder, as you're not doing a very good job of it.

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    6. Because the comments are to previous comments, they are unavoidably getting out of order. The previous one is to sub-comments made by K. Perera.

      This one is to C. Lawson. I'll try to address your comments, although they're not listed so nicely as in the first comment you made.

      Even before arriving in town I offered to provide information on my lineage, etc., to the local meditation group. Nobody took me up on it, and then later their lack of information was used as a reason why some of them didn't want to support me.

      As I have mentioned elsewhere, my main objective was not to set myself up as a solitary teacher in the West. My main objective was simply to set myself up, to exist. But in America nobody lives for free, so it seemed obvious that I could work out some symbiosis by teaching something. It seemed obvious, anyway.

      I came back to America after trying for years to get out of Burma, with almost no supporters or connections left in the West. I essentially flung myself into the unknown, having faith in the idea that gawd would provide. Give no thought for tomorrow, and so on.

      Living alone does have its disadvantages. Living in a community also has its disadvantages. Everything has its disadvantages, and its advantages.

      Disdain toward all bhikkhus is not universal in Bellingham, true. There is one other who comes every once in awhile who is more popular, although he is not one of those exemplary ones you have mentioned. He is good, though, at giving the people what they want. If he lived in town he might meet with less enthusiasm. Why I met with disdain was one of the main topics of the above article.

      That my lack of remorse magnifies my own lack of hiri and ottappa is your own projection. As I've said before, remorse is always an unskillful mental state ("bad karma"). It just makes things worse. The trouble is that so many people in our culture are burdened, maybe even tormented, by guilt and shame; and instead of realizing that these feelings are unskillful and unnecessary, they become indignant if others are not similarly burdened. It is OK to be human. Anyway, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I do not intend to break any sanghadisesa rules in future; so my lack of remorse is no handicap in that regard.

      There are universal norms I suppose, but most of what are considered such are arbitrary customs...in our case the arbitrary customs of a sick society that I refuse to conform to.

      If you think my criticism of Western Buddhists is too harsh, I give you fair warning that the criticisms in my next post will be much harsher, so brace yourself.

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    7. All right, this sub-sub-comment is to ven. Piyadhammo. In future, please start new threads whenever the comment isn't directly addressing the previous comment.

      First of all, I don't know what "single-spy" means. You mean without being caught first?

      It's not quite flattering to be compared to a pedophile. You may see my experiences with the Priestess as "abuse," although I really don't see it that way, and such an interpretation is not an entirely unbiased one.

      It's also not exactly flattering to be compared to Hermann Goering. Is falling in love with a woman comparable to being second in command of the Nazi Third Reich? The emotional biases that gush to the surface as a result of my articles is fascinating, and well worth careful consideration in their own right.

      As I have already mentioned more than once, although I really am not sorry for my controversial experiences and make no apologies other than those I have already made, I have no intention of breaking any more sanghadisesa rules (not touching a woman, not deliberately having an orgasm, not even building a hut larger than the allowed dimensions), let alone parajika.

      Being fair to canonical scripture in my presentation of Buddhism reminds me of the reason why our correspondence came to an end more than ten years ago. The Burmese would say that you and most Western monks are not fair by neglecting Abhidhamma, etc. It all depends on how you look at it.

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    8. Hello,
      What do you mean with neglecting Abhidhamma? Aren't shame (or shying away from evil) and conscience, hiri-ottappa, that is, the shying away from doing deeds that will harm oneself and others and being conscientious about what the results of one's actions will have on others, a wholesome quality in the Abhidhamma?
      Your posts and comments and pictures are rather provocative and brazen, and other Buddhists would take this to be due to a lack of shame and conscience, i.e. not shame and conscience about you did earlier, but shame about what you are going to do.
      Hiri-ottappa are frequently mentioned by the Buddha, for example, in the Hiri-ottappasutta, the 65th sutta of the Anguttara, where the Buddha says that lack of hiri-ottappa leads to lack of sense-restraint, which leads to lack of virtue, ... lack of concentration etc. See Anguttara Bbook of Tens, Sutta 67 where the Buddha says that one who has no faith, no shame, no conscience, no energy, no wisdom regarding wholesome things, there will be decline with regards wholesome states by day and night, no increase.
      In your case, it started off with having no shame and conscience with regards thinking about women, then drawing and watching pictures of nude women and delighting in their beauty, then closely associating and living alone with a woman, then sleeping with her (although not having full sexual intercourse in the traditional sense of the word), then boldly writing about it and putting a picture of it, then putting down the Bellingham Buddhist Society as the cause of your down-fall, and then haughtily dismissing critical comments of other concerned Buddhists. If you would have developed a strong sense of shame and conscience, rather than having developed ascetic practices (which were of not much use to you in the USA) would this all have happened?
      Ciao,
      Pedro

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    9. By neglecting Abhidhamma, I mean that most Western Theravada Buddhists do not consider Abhidhamma to be authentic teachings of Gotama Buddha, and do not pay much attention to it. It makes sense to us Westerners to neglect studying it, although the Burmese consider it to be the most profound and important part of the teachings of Buddha.

      Thinking about women is not simply a matter of deciding. A fascination for the female is built into a human male. I struggled against it for many years, and finally made a partial retreat. I reserve the right to be a human being, and I'm not going to be ashamed of that.

      I do not put all the blame on my "downfall," as you put it, on the Bellingham meditation group. The situation was definitely co-created; and ultimately anything, pleasant or unpleasant, that happens in our lives is the fruition of our own kamma, our own doing. As an obvious example, my lack of social graces certainly wasn't their fault, except to the extent that experiencing it was the fruition of their own kamma.

      My ascetic practices have been useful in the USA; for example my ability to fast with equanimity, or live and sleep just about anywhere.

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  5. Duuuuude,

    Please indulge me here as my intent is to learn something and in the spirit of your stated intention here to share in your unique perspective and experience/experiment here in the west. I wonder if you don't think that the reaction from fellow Bhikkhus as expressed here and your stated belief that you remain a monk despite your aggressive defense of your sin/unskillful action/SEX WITH A WOMAN!!! might not give you cause to reconsider your vocation? If your lack of remorse for intentionally having an orgasm while trying to defend your action in terms of ancient text might make you think that you are following a doctrine so ancient and unworkable for you that you may look at your vocation in a new vain? As a westerner and especially as a man I can't fathom the strictures against women your order prescribes. I wonder if you may now think in light of your actions and the reactions you've met in and outside of your order give you pause to rethink the whole enterprise of being a monk? Just how big of an experiment are you willing to undertake David?

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    1. For starters, I really didn't quite have sex with a woman. If I had, then I would be automatically excommunicated, regardless of anything I or anyone else did.

      I fail to see how my defense thus far has been all that "aggressive." A bhikkhu should consider praise and blame the same. If the people who reprove me are wise, then of course I should seriously consider what they say; but when they're obviously indulging in hostile reaction and even cooking up false accusations, then I do not feel obligated to take them very seriously, especially if they're not wielding torches and pitchforks.

      I remember shortly after my return to America telling an old friend that there are times when I sorely miss female anatomy, but that there are certain aspects of female psychology (certainly not all, but some) which make celibacy seem worthwhile. The experiences I described in "Let This Be a Lesson" actually reduced my desire for a woman, at least for the time being. And as I mentioned before, if I do want to be intimate with a woman again I'll disrobe first.

      One remarkable thing about this whole uproar is the emphatic disapproval, again and again, of my lack of remorse - despite the plain fact that Buddhism teaches that REMORSE IS FOOLISH. I have really taken that to heart, and all the hostile, disapproving Buddhists in the world won't change that.

      How big of an experiment am I willing to undertake? As big as my life is. It won't end till I die, gawd willing.

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  6. Sorry for the way of posting and about the 'single spy.' I thought the saying 'when sorrows come, they not come single spies, but in battalions' from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is standard English idiom. My point was to say that sexual scandals often come in series.
    Personally, I believe what you're saying, that the incident was circumstantial and isolated. In my opinion, it's not abuse because I feel that a factor of intimidation should be present for that, which I don't see. Views vary here. My sense is that yours was a rather ordinary love story and I find even some sort of temporary idealization forgivable, all the more in the context of your radical honesty program. But, given your views and attitudes to the case, the fear that this is not the end is widespread. Listen to the sentiments behind the posts here!
    Being fair to canonical scripture can take a variety of shapes. With most Theravada monks, the consensus what Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha are is broad enough for us to understand each other well. We all agree, for example, that sensual things are dangerous 'stumbling blocks.' We do so, not necessarily because of personal experience, but on account of scriptural passages. As a Buddhist monk, you are qualified to know - and supported for - presenting what the Buddha taught, broadly, on the basis of that scriptural consensus. - If you present views outside that consensus, you need to have ready a persuasive argument why this view should be considered the Buddha's.
    Let's leave sophistry aside here. My point is that your attitude is disturbing to most Buddhists who take the effort to post here and I've tried to communicate to you why.
    As far as criticizing imagery, I don't think that will get us far. Maybe you can find better images. Great. But the point remains that many in Bellingham or those who post here seem not persuaded by your way of arguing your case. The way you argue it, rings a lot of bells for people who have had exposure to the scandal culture and, consequently, they expect more to come.
    Personally, I find your repeated assertions that you are committed to not incurring any heavy transgressions are helpful in this regard. They use a language and logic that Buddhist monks and lay people can relate to.
    And while I feel the communication with those who express reservations here could be better at times, I do admire you for the comments you are willing to allow and your effort to respond even to posts, which don't meet the Buddhist standards for discussion and admonition of, say, A 5.167. Hopefully, the issues in the not yet admitted ones can be addressed in time. - Conversely, I don't think that your announcement of an entry in which you will give us your harsh views on Western Buddhism will help people to regain faith that you are a trustworthy Buddhist monk, simply because of the current context.
    Not sure, if that's helpful...

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  7. Venerables and associated community,

    I am a regular reader of this blog, and in addition, I consider U Pannobhasa as a friend (no disrespect intended with the “U” instead of “Ashin” or “Bikkhu”--I am following the honorific title that U Pannobhasa seems to prefer). I have refrained from commenting on any of his posts previous to this as it didn’t seem necessary at the time. However, this discussion seems to ask for my voice, so I’m offering it.

    I think the original metaphor of the imperialist doctor going into an indigenous community to rescue the “noble savages” is not quite apt, as in this particular case (to stretch the metaphor) this wasn’t a community invaded by an outsider--it was an encounter between those who would ideally ALREADY be a part of a greater community.

    Obviously, this wasn’t the case in execution, and prevailing Western notions of proper guest/host etiquette were certainly in play (which seems questionable to me when it comes to supporting the monastic community in the first place). For any Buddhist community to consider a monk a stranger is disheartening to me, even if it is an accurate reflection of modern society (I’m not sure it is).

    But this medical metaphor does carry some resonance for me, and I think it’s clear to any reader of this blog that U Pannobhasa’s medicine is of the bitter, herbal variety. No cherry-red flavor to be found, and he is not Mary Poppins. This is of the more primal type--the kind that makes one vomit out the “bad” stuff in order to make room for the “good” stuff. By definition, this causes discomfort.

    I can say with confidence that any repeated attempts to have U Pannobhasa consider the emotional makeup, defense mechanisms, or subtleties of neurosis of a Western Dhamma group will be fruitless (and in my opinion, rightly so). It dilutes the medicine, and focuses on the surface-level bruises of the “patient” instead of going immediately to the amputated limb and spurting arteries. To me, that is not an overly dramatic comparison.

    This has to do with accurate diagnosis--the spiritual state of the world is one of bleeding out, not of mild contusions. Personally, I’ll debate the bedside manner of my physician AFTER you have found the best surgeon in the area to keep me alive to be indignant later. I need sutures and good antibiotics, not bandaids and well-wishes.

    I’ll admit that I gravitate to teachers who have an “edge” to them, and I consider U Pannobhasa to be a teacher of mine. It seems most efficient to have one who points to the depths of my own conditioned behavior, and this often seems to be paired with confrontational/anti-PC behavior. Not always, but usually. So be it, as there is no time to waste.

    Some seem not to want that, and I would trust them with their own discernment. However, I find U Pannobhasa’s approach to be honorable overall, and most importantly, HONEST. I could ask for little else in the end. I would ask others, however, to respect that it does work for many who are not engaged in this digital discussion, and it need not be declared suspect nor ineffective due to the judgments of some.

    In the interest of clear disclosure, I am living in Myanmar currently, and I have had the pleasure of interacting w/ U Pannobhasa in Bellingham, Seattle, and in various parts of Myanmar (including his “hermit cave”) at many times over the past few years. I have seen him interact with Burmese villagers and with Western folks, both men and women. May this discussion be to the benefit of all.

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