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 pavāraṇā day, or the day of invitation.
On pavāraṇā 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 pavāraṇā 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 pavāraṇā 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 pavāraṇā, 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