Friday, December 20, 2013

End of the Rains

     Well, here I am in tropical Asia again. Or to be more exact, I'm back at the Chinese cemetery in the highlands of central Bali—where there is no electricity other than batteries, and of course no Internet. (I'm writing this with a pen, on paper, like an ancient scribe.) So by the time you read this I won't be here any more. Even so, this post is mainly to catch up on the events that led me here.
     At the end of the current events post immediately preceding this one ("Life at a Burmese Cultural Center," 9 November 2013), I was concluding the "rains retreat" at a little Burmese temple in the suburbs of  Fremont, California. The last day of the rains retreat is kind of a big deal in Theravada Buddhist cultures. In Burma it is a national holiday called "Abhidhamma Day," signifying the anniversary of the day Gotama Buddha descended from heaven after spending the rains retreat up there teaching Abhidhamma philosophy to the devas. According to the rules of monastic discipline, though, it is called pavāraā day, or the day of invitation.
     On pavāraā day, usually the full moon day of October, local sanghas of monks are supposed to convene and, instead of participating in an uposatha ceremony as is usually done on full moon days, each monk who has observed a complete rains residence invites the other monks in attendance to admonish him with regard to lapses in his virtue. The English translation of the standard formula is as follows:
Venerable Sirs, I make invitation to the Sangha. With regard to what has been seen, heard, or inferred (about me), may the venerable ones speak to me, out of compassion, and seeing (my offenses) I will rectify them. [recited three times]
     It is ironic that Burmese monks gather from near and far to participate in this ceremony, considering that it is against Burmese tradition for anyone actually to answer other monks' invitations. I tried answering another monk's invitation many years ago, and was frantically waved to silence by the officiating senior monk. Perhaps the point of it has become to signify a mutual vote of confidence, or some such. It is also somewhat ironic that pavāraā day is so much observed, considering that many Burmese monks, including the ones at my temple, usually do not attend uposatha ceremonies on the other full moon and new moon days of the year. I suppose it is just as well. Most monks handle money, and a monk with unconfessed infractions of the rules breaks a more serious rule by participating in an uposatha ceremony than he would by not participating at all—since any monk who knowingly has unconfessed offenses and who participates in such a ceremony is technically guilty of lying, as participation, even just quietly sitting there, is an implicit assertion that one has expiated one's offenses beforehand. And the handling of money cannot be expiated until the money, and everything bought with it, is relinquished, which of course few monks are willing to tolerate. The fact that I was living in the congregation hall was convenient, as I could easily perform a ten-second-long, one-man "determination uposatha" by baring my right shoulder, squatting before the altar, joining my hands, and repeating "ajja me uposatho" (today is my uposatha) three times. That is, when I remembered uposatha day—living in an electrically illuminated city makes it easy to be ignorant of the phases of the moon, which is the main reason why I try to maintain an operational moon phase gadget on this blog.
     Anyway, the pavāraā ceremony in Fremont appeared to have most of the Burmese monks in the San Francisco Bay Area in attendance: about forty of them, plus two monks from Sri Lanka, plus me. I was the only non-Asian monk there. The monks sit in order of seniority; and although officially I'm a mahāthera (a "great elder") with more than twenty rains retreats under my belt, I was sitting closer to the back than to the front. Old U Jatila, a monk who was staying at our place and who has been a fully ordained monk for some 63 years, was sitting fourth in line.
     After the ceremony we sat through a very brief sermon delivered by one of the leading sayadaws to the almost entirely Burmese crowd (I saw a total of one non-Asian amongst the laypeople there), and then we were ushered into an area with long tables covered with Burmese festival food, which food we ate from plates, as it seems very few Asian monks eat from alms bowls in America. After this we ran the gauntlet of a long line of devout Buddhists offering little envelopes containing money. I prefer not to handle the stuff, so I was assigned an attendant to receive the envelopes on my behalf. He walked beside me down the line announcing (in Burmese), "The foreigner sayadaw! The foreigner sayadaw!" I pointed out to him that, strictly speaking, considering that we were in America, I was the only sayadaw there who wasn't a foreigner. He saw the point, and was amused by the idea, but continued calling me the foreigner sayadaw. My attendant collected no fewer than 27 envelopes on my behalf, containing maybe $400—not a bad "take," considering that all I did to earn it was to look like a monk, participate in a half-hour-long ritual ceremony, eat some pretty good food, and generally just behave myself. The Buddhist laypeople participate in these ceremonies to socialize and earn merit, but I suspect that for most monks the main point is the little envelopes.
     The next event on the Theravada Buddhist ritual/festival calendar was kathina, which can occur at any time within one lunar month of pavāraā, so the local Burmese temples scheduled their kathina festivals on different days so as not to compete with each other for faithful donors. This is yet another event originally associated with monastic discipline which in Burmese Buddhism has mutated into a virtually meaningless formality. I used to forbid them at my monastery in northwest Burma (for more details, see "The Noble Flight of U Nandiya," posted 2 March 2013), although I found myself participating in three of them this year. The Burmese monks at my temple probably attended five or six. Kathina generally involves a ritual called anumodana, in which the Sangha assembles in the congregation hall and recites some Pali asserting, among other things, that the procedure of "spreading the kathina frame" was done properly and correctly—something I could not recite without telling an untruth, and I am very much inclined to avoid lying. So I braced myself for the eventuality of anumodana, inwardly debating whether I should just stubbornly remain silent or else take an officiating sayadaw aside and say, "OK, look, I'll say it, but I won't mean it, so bear that in mind." But for whatever reason, I was not called upon to recite a fake anumodana. It appears that in Burmese temples in California one monk recites it on behalf of the entire Sangha. I'm rusty on ritual observances, so whether this California method is kosher or not I can't say.
     Shortly after these events occurred possibly the most spiritually significant event of the year for me—the yagé ceremonies that I mentioned in a recent post ("Trial by Ordeal," posted 7 December 2013). Among other great benefits of those ceremonies, I had been more or less depressed for more than three months, and the medicine I took there effectively snapped me right out of it. It did this by allowing me to see quite clearly, even forcing me to see, that the depression was purely optional. For more information, see the other blog post.
     I may as well mention that the main reason why I was depressed was the plain fact that my attempts to live a less isolated, freer existence in America hadn't worked out so well, and I was soon to return to the place it had taken so long to leave, with no telling how long I would remain there. 
     Of course there are folks who will not hesitate to point the finger squarely at me, and many already have pointed it, declaring that it was because of my own arrogance, and/or rascality, and/or heresy, and/or whatever else, that I received so little physical support from non-Asian Buddhist communities in America. There is, no doubt, some truth in that…although really, the finger points both ways. First of all, I required minimal support from the very get-go, even when I was full of optimism, gratitude, relatively expanded consciousness, and relatively strict practice, and was eager to see the best in everyone. Also, it is just plain common knowledge among Western monks that practically the only way to exist long-term in America is to be supported mainly by Asian Buddhists. As a general rule, Americans do not support monks, and American Theravada Buddhists do not support Theravada Buddhist monks—not lax ones, not strict ones, not arrogant ones, not humble ones. I assume that there are exceptions to the rule, that there are monks receiving most of their food and shelter from non-Asian Buddhists—I hope so and would like to think so—but I don't know who they are. Bhikkhu Bodhi maybe? But the last I heard he was living at a Chinese Mahayana monastery. I suppose venerable Ajahn Thanissaro in southern California is supported by Thai communities, which include the wealthy mother of Tiger Woods. I'm pretty sure that Abhayagiri, the Ajahn Chah monastery in northern California, also is supported mainly by Asian immigrants, and the extensive property of Abhayagiri was originally donated by a Chinese Mahayana organization. Ajahn Amaro at his new place in the Pacific Northwest, maybe? Wat Atam near Seattle, the home base of the only Western monk I've met who resides in the Pacific Northwest, is supported almost entirely by Thai immigrants, as is probably also the case with Birken, the Ajahn Chah monastery in British Columbia. So I hope they're out there, but I just don't know who or where they are. And wherever they are, they form a small minority. As a general rule (or a sweeping generalization), Americans do not see the point of supporting full-time Dharma practitioners. I've been told by more than one American, on more than one occasion, that the reason Asian Buddhists support monks is because they've been "brainwashed" into doing it. Well, we American Buddhists are just as brainwashed, just in a different direction. And seeing our own cultural conditioning can be hard.
     Anyway, I succeeded in living in America, and not mainly in dependence on Asian communities, part-time, for about 2½ years. Maybe half of my supporters were not Buddhists, and they all tended to be more like friends helping out a friend than laypeople supporting a monk—which of course are not entirely bad things. They did it more out of open-heartedness, generosity, friendship, and even appreciation for my presence, than out of any traditional Buddhist duty to a renunciant. But there were so few people that were into that, that I felt like a burden on these my friends. And anyway, those last few months in Bellingham I was eating emergency cheese and corn chips about three days a week, paid for with funds donated by Burmese people in California. But this is all somewhat of a digression, considering that this is a current events post. 
     Yet so long as I'm digressing I might as well digress even more by saying that my second-most important spiritual event of 2013 was probably the posting of "Let This Be a Lesson," and all of the ramifications that ramified out of it. It felt very important to publish that, and it still feels that way, despite some apparently negative consequences. I am happy to say that the Priestess and I recently had a profound reconciliation—all appears to be mutually forgiven, and we are enthusiastically loving and blessing each other again, long-distance, without physical contact. We may never have jugglers and acrobats performing at out wedding reception, but it feels very much better to have gratitude, blessings, and an open heart than resentment, bitterness, and a closed one. Besides, I've long held the romantic idea that true love should have no beginning and no end.
     Getting back on track here, just a few days before I left California a Burmese man and his two young sons undertook temporary ordination, he as a monk and they as novices. The boys, although of Burmese parentage, were born in the USA, spoke little Burmese, and were pretty thoroughly westernized. Sometimes older Burmese people have lamented to me about how their children have absorbed American consumer culture so thoroughly that they have little interest in or knowledge of Dhamma; and these two boys were potential candidates for that, as they didn't seem to see much point in staying at a monastery. They did it mainly to satisfy their parents. The day after they were ordained, some female family members came to offer food, and the new novices went around announcing that they didn't have on any underwear. Then a lady asked one of them how his meditation was. He asked, "What meditation? You mean the meditation I had last night?" When she said yes he replied, "It was ginger and onion. It was very spicy." I endeavored to explain to them the Four Noble Truths in simple language, but I don't know how much of an impression I made. The elder of the two boys seemed to be attentive.
     And then I came way over here to Bali, where my years of training allow me to live alone in a cemetery without worries (except maybe when I hear a strange sound in the middle of the night). By the time you read this I'll probably be already in Burma (also known as British Further India)…and I think we're caught up for now. Be happy and peaceful.

A view of the rain from a hut in central Bali 


  1. I wonder why you are fixated on American-born Buddhist's support of you? Does it really matter who supports you should you truly want to be in America? What is the judgement?

    Burmese people are not brainwashed but it is in their culture (since they were young children) to give those "little white envelopes" (to which you yourself implied that Burmese monasteries often exploit). Likewise, it is in Americans culture to work hard in order to make something of oneself and to be suspect of those not wiling to work. Both extremes are concerning.

    Yet, there is support given in America but it is given by people who believe in someone, something, a cause, a deed, a project? Their tradition may not be to give little envelopes or huge amounts of foods to a monk who to some degree expected respect immediately but does that mean, "Americans do not see the point of supporting full-time Dharma practitioners."? You don't see it, but it doesn't mean it isn't happening, Ram Das just raised 50,000 dollars for his charity, largely funded by Westerners for example.

    Americans may be less hesitant to support "full-time" practitioners, but look at all the apparently "full time" Burmese practitioners who make little progress with all the precious time and support they are given because of their loyal donors. You yourself have shared that you have in the past taken Burmese support for granted while in Burma. You have also said you have made more progress in the last few years than the in the last many in Burma. Could this be because you simply were not given everything that you wanted or expected? What a gift. You are getting exactly what you need.

    Although both Americans and Burmese have something to gain from one another, how is bringing up the same old, same old helping you or us to change, look within and open our hearts to a different kind of reality? It just seems like complaint to me and without any more clarity than it did a year ago. I am wondering if you can respectfully explain to me what is different?

    I'l like to make a point about the Priestess for your readers and those that may know her. It is wonderful that you have been in contact again and loving to each other! No doubt a great deal of necessary healing and clearing up misunderstanding happened.

    Yet, "Let it Be a Lesson" did deeply hurt her and from her point of view, was extremely distorted and absolutely unnecessary to describe in such intimate detail. She has never had a voice in that one-sided blog post and that was hugely unfair. I hope your readers know that in her opinion, you did have something to humble yourself for and from what I understand in your most recent conversations, you did. Saying something like - "given how it effected you and why, if I had to do it over again, I likely would not have written that blog post that way." - This was an important turning point for her in her ability to be caring and open with you again.

    I think that is important for your readers to hear. It is probably as important for them to hear as it is for them to hear that you continue to care deeply for each other and you continue to find and make your way in Asia. No doubt you will find your place. May you be happy and peaceful David/Pannobhasa.

    Bows and Blessings,
    L. D.


    1. Hello Dear Lady—Greetings from Burma.

      (Part 1)

      One reason why I write about the difficulty in America of support for monastics in general and for me in particular, is that this is a kind of journal, and I write about what I happen to be chewing on. And although I don't consider myself to be all that "fixated" on the issue, I have been chewing on it. If people don't like to read about it they are under no obligation to read it.

      Another reason, a big one, is that I consider this very issue to be one of major importance to Western Theravada Buddhism. Theravada is a system designed mainly by renunciant monastics, for renunciant monastics. The reason for this is that, as a general rule, only monastics have the opportunity to practice Dhamma deeply enough to make profound progress. American Theravada, with very few exceptions, has quickly become a dismembered fragment of a system radically designed for enlightenment, with even few of the teachers getting beyond an elementary level of it, largely because they are distracted, and their time is much occupied by other commitments. So without support of the "Sangha," Theravada has much less opportunity to become much more than a relatively superficial self-help technique that is no longer equipped to lead one to enlightenment—which is ultimately its primary, sacred purpose. So even though people in the West may not want to hear about it, and may see it as a total non-issue except in my own biased mind, still I consider it quite important, and will very probably continue writing about it, trying to look at the situation from different angles if I can.

      For me as a Western monk to ignore the issue and carry on like everything's hunky dory would be like a Western environmentalist ignoring the greenhouse effect, or an American economist ignoring the fact that the US government is more than twenty trillion dollars in debt. Many people are happier ignoring such issues, or seeing them as non-issues, or even pretending that they don't exist, but still it's best, from my point of view anyway, to bring them up.

      Americans (in general) may be suspect of those not willing to work, as you say, and this statement you made is indicative of the idea that Americans don't see Dhamma practice as real work. But dedicating one's life to learning and practicing Dhamma can be damned hard work! And in the East especially it can be a dangerous job. To a large extent non-support makes that work much more difficult, sometimes maybe impossible.

      It is true that Americans can be very generous. I don't want to deny that at all, and I think it is wonderful. Some Dharma teachers conduct fund-raising retreats that cost many thousands of dollars per person, maybe even thousands per person per day. But mainly the teachers seem to require worldly "credentials" or fame in order to do this. An unkempt, unsmiling, wandering monk is often seen as an outsider, and viewed with suspicion, or worse, even by people who profess Theravada Buddhism in the West and call themselves Sangha.

      I'm still skeptical that monastics will ever "catch on" in the USA. I still think something like Kerouac's Dharma bums might fit the culture better. Maybe we need a new Beat movement or Hippie movement, or some such, for that to happen even at a relatively small scale.

      I agree that Burmese laypeople often spoil monks rotten. But in a case like this, excess of generosity toward the "clergy" of one's professed spiritual system, or excess of generosity, of faith, and of "Christian charity," may be better than the opposite. For support to be barely sufficient for food, shelter, clothing, and medicine is ideal—or is supposed to be. That presumably would be the middle path in the case of monastics or renunciants. We're not supposed to be hard to support. It would be nice to find a middle path between feast and famine without having to be supported by poverty-stricken Asian hillbillies to achieve that. I feel that it is possible.

    2. (Part 2)

      With regard to the Priestess, she acknowledged the importance of writing "my story," and she had suggested that we write the post together, but our perspectives are so different that it seemed like a nonstarter from the very get-go. Plus at the time I wrote it we were not communicating anyway, largely at her request. So I figured she could at least add comments, or even her own story, giving her point of view. It turned out that she did actually submit two comments, but because they were anonymous and unfriendly, and seemed to me very biased to the point of asking rather unfair, leading questions, I didn't publish them. If I had known they were from her I would have though, regardless, probably without even trying to get in the last word with a sub-comment (like I'm doing now).

      I did try to represent her point of view as well as I could. By your term "distorted" I would interpret that to mean something like "out of context." As far as I can tell, and my memory is a good one, everything I wrote in that post is true.

      One major consideration for me before publishing that self-revelation (so called) was that I knew she had the wisdom and the heart to forgive me, and I considered it very likely that she would—and I'm happy to say that I was right. (For the time being at least! I hope permanently. Blessings upon her always.)

      You are very right that meeting with difficulties helps us/me spiritually. I have to admit that my times of greatest spiritual growth have tended to be very painful. Sometimes we need "bad karma" to thrust unpleasant lessons on us. The past few years attempting to "get by" in America have really catalyzed a new perspective in me, mainly thanks to the Priestess. She was the star of the show—and taught me possibly more than any individual monk ever has—although occasionally one of the background singers would step forward and do an important solo (in my theater).

      Even so, it hurts to be rejected sometimes. It feels good to be accepted and appreciated. And, for example, even though taking ayahuasca is very beneficial, I wouldn't want to take it every week because it's so damn unpleasant. I'm not like a good Catholic saint who wants to be despised by everybody. But I don't intend to be a fake for the sake of being accepted either. There's the rub.

      Thank you for your feedback. I hope I have answered your questions. Be well, and learn from bumpy roads and dead ends! Bless you.

      P.S. STRONGER LESSONS, by Walt Whitman

      Have you learn'd lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?

      Have you not learn'd great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?


  2. I think you can find a middle road if you intend to. I asked what you judged regarding not getting your needs met by American born Buddhists in part because I was curious how it effects you personally.

    I will liken it to a Western environmentalist being emotionally attached to ending global warming. He could easily keep writing about things that are and are not happening again and again but at some point, stated in the same way, is less effective. Especially if it has more to do with him than on the environment. It doesn't go in (to the masses) because ultimately that Western environmentalist is emotionally invested. It isn't just that it is happening and he wants to educate, he also has to do it. There is danger in having to have to do anything, I think.

    Like the example above, you still seem to be personally upset by the experience of you feast and famine (i.e. blindly spoiled in Asia by "hillbilly" Burmese and under supported and somewhat disliked in certain places in America). To be more specific, it is like what you continue to "chew on" has more to do with your possible hurt feelings (and extremes of your life and its personal effects on you) and less to do with keeping pure Theravadan tradition alive for the sake of its enlightenment potential for all. Is there any truth in this?

    Ultimately is it even necessary? Perhaps the evolution of the species and the crisis of our world is such that we need a system of awakening that is less dogmatic, less based on an outmoded traditional system and less male aspect dominated (not speaking about men in general, just the masculine, solo way). Maybe what we as a collective humanity need is a more pragmatic, inclusive way that involves compassion and the care for all life to thrive. It might be possible that the imbalances of Theravadan Buddhism is actually in-line with things, that it may be a natural and necessary breakdown. After-all, maybe the Buddha himself said Buddhism would not last more then 500 years. Maybe it is just existing mostly in name itself and no longer in the hearts of its practitioners or supporters.

    It seems important for all strict, linear systems in place to reform to some degree be it Buddhist strict Dogma, the Churches strict Dogma or any particular Governments strict Dhamma. Just food for thought and my opinion only.

    As for the Priestess, just one last thing. You say from your perspective everything you said is true and from her perspective (because I know her) it was distorted. So there is something amiss there.

    Can it be that two people are in the same "reality" have different experiences? It is like a five year old or foreign person and an American graduate school student having different perspectives even though they lived the "same" experience? Now, I am not saying one person was like a five year old and the other like a graduate student, I am just saying that it is important to understand that both humans could describe and experience the same situation very differently, yet the blog only truly gave one account, only speculating on the other (because you didn't involve her in the process).

    If a graduate student was describing things, lets hope he/she would understand without a doubt that the five year old (Foreign person, etc.) would experience it vastly different and just as validly, eh? Given that other valid perspective would have been helpful and much less hurtful.

    I am glad she forgave you and still cares for you. It probably isn't the wisest thing in the world to do something that effects someone else, with unknown consequences without that persons grace. I can gather you both have learned.

    Thank you for posting this and for taking it in. I feel complete, let us both move on to more fruitful, warm-hearted and NOVEL conversations, shall we?

    Many Blessings,

    1. Well, as far as I can tell, I'm not motivated primarily by hurt feelings. I do admit, though, that I do sometimes feel a certain amount of indignation. This is not only about me personally, but because I've dedicated much of my life to a profound spiritual system, and then see so many people rejecting most of that system, living essentially worldly lives, calling themselves Sangha, and seeing absolutely nothing strange about this situation. I admit, that bothers me sometimes, both from a strictly personal angle and on behalf of Dhamma itself.

      I agree that orthodox Theravada may not work out well in the West. But anything lukewarm and primarily materialistic and worldly is hardly likely to amount to much. I admire the people who attend ayahuasca ceremonies because of their willingness to go beyond popular, casual, "feelgood" dharma.

      So in some ways I'm like the environmentalist who is indignant that most Americans are unwilling to change their lifestyles sufficiently to stop contributing to an environmental collapse. We don't want to think about it. And it's true that simply harping away on the issue breeds resentment. Still, some people feel that harping away may be necessary. Jesus of Nazareth harped at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, which was one big reason why he wound up nailed to a cross. But he figured it was worth it. Not that I'm suggesting that I'm like Jesus.

      I made it clear in "Let This Be a Lesson" that my story was from a single point of view, and thereby necessarily incomplete. I did the best I knew how at the time.

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  4. Thank you!
    This blog post of yours filled me with great joy.
    You are teaching valuable things.

    May the Dhamma be with you.