Saturday, June 28, 2014

The One Time I Pounded Another Monk

     Back around February of 2007 I was living in a cave which I named Tapoguhā, which means "Spiritual Striving Cave" or just plain "Hot Cave," take your pick. The cave was on the outskirts of Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery in northwestern Myanmar. Venerable old U Nandiya was still alive then, so there were two of us at the monastery—he lived in a little cabin down by the river, and I lived up on the hill.
     One day when I was in the hot cave I heard footsteps coming toward the entrance, and then someone began pounding on the door (it was a deluxe cave with a front door). A man's voice alternated with the pounding (in Burmese): "Venerable Sir! Venerable Sir!" (boom boom boom) "Venerable Sir!" (boom boom boom), and sometimes he would exclaim something about a "Mandalay Sayadaw" which I didn't quite follow. I called out "khana," which in Pali and Burmese means "moment," and in Burmese can mean "Wait a moment"; but the call was unheeded, and whoever it was continued calling and pounding, pounding and calling: "Ashin Phayah! Ashin Phayah!" (boom boom boom). I called out "khana" again, a little louder, but with the same lack of results. The calling and pounding continued. Thinking, "What, does he not understand Burmese?" I yelled, in English, "Wait a minute!" The voice then began saying, in English, "Yes yes, I understand, wait one moment, yes yes…"
     When I came outside I found three Burmese monks: Two were quiet, serious-looking individuals who looked like stereotypical Burmese forest monks, with their robes wrapped up covering both shoulders, and equipped with goat hide sitting mats and water bottles hanging by slings from their shoulder. I assumed the elder of these two was the "Mandalay Sayadaw." The third monk appeared like a typical village monk, I figured probably a local. His robes were casually slung over one shoulder, and he had an obvious lack of restraint in his behavior. It looked like he had guided the two visitors from a village monastery.
     This third one did almost all of the talking, animatedly explaining that the two quiet ones had read about me in a Dhamma magazine, wanted to meet me, and wanted to meditate in the new cave at the bottom of the hill for twenty days. The person who had donated the funds for digging the new cave agreed with me, that it should be a place for monks who followed the rules of monastic discipline strictly, particularly with regard to money. Technically, one monk who handles money can easily render a place "ritually unclean." A standard example in the commentarial literature is the following hypothetical extreme case: A monk buys a mango with his own money and eats it, tossing away the seed. The seed germinates and grows into a mango tree. A hundred years later, another monk sits in the shade of that mango tree—and commits a dukkata offense for making use of something bought with a monk's money. Lax monks have many options, and strict ones have few. So I had a healthy skepticism with regard to visiting monks, especially considering that about 98% of Burmese monks handle money. On the other hand, this Mandalay Sayadaw seemed pretty serious, and furthermore he was senior to me. 
     So I mumbled something about having to respect Vinaya if one stayed in the lower cave. The village spokesperson quickly assured me that the visitors respected Vinaya. I later realized that by using polite language I was rendering my statement almost totally useless: most monks will say that they respect the rules of discipline, even though most of them don't actually follow them. Anyway, I didn't want to make an issue of it, especially since he was senior to me, and it was only for twenty days, so I went into my cave and got the key. The village monk snatched it from my hand and off they all went toward the lower cave.
     It turned out that the village monk stayed with them, and it was fairly obvious that he was not a strict one. But again, I didn't want to make a scene, and it was only twenty days.
     The first two weeks or so passed uneventfully (which is to be expected for monks practicing meditation). But then one day when I was at the well the village monk approached me and said that he wanted to live in the lower cave always, even after the other two had gone back to Mandalay. I was caught off guard by this information, and was very noncommittal, being like, "Well, I don't know." But after the incident it was clear that having this village monk moving into the cave, which was specifically created as a refuge for strictly practicing monks, or even having him move into the monastery for that matter, was a bad idea. I prepared myself to make an unambiguous refusal if he asked again.
     The next day at the well he reiterated his desire to live in the lower cave long-term, and I didn't bother with politeness, giving him a flat-out No. He was taken aback by this, and offered to live there only during the hot season. He received another flat-out No; in fact I told him that after the Mandalay monks had left he would leave the cave also, not staying another day there. So he said, "Well then, I'll live in the congregation hall." He was moving in on U Nandiya and me.
     After this interaction I sought out old U Nandiya and said to him, "That village monk wants to live here always, but I don't want to give permission." He looked up at me with a solemn look and quietly replied, "He is my brother." I was rendered speechless by this information, so I simply turned on my heel and walked away. 
     That night I did some serious thinking. U Nandiya himself did not give the proverbial tinker's cuss for monastic discipline, but he was an old man, was almost equal to me in seniority, and had lived at Wun Bo practically since his ordination, and I didn't want to make trouble with him. But new monks who ignored Vinaya were another matter. I was senior monk there, and did not want the place overrun by the standard variety of lax village monks. But U Nandiya's brother! Thinking about it, it seemed unlikely that they were really brothers. U Nandiya was about 30 years older, or so it looked. The Burmese will often say someone is their brother, or cousin, or niece, when really they're only good friends or more distantly related. But if U Nandiya considered this monk to be his brother, maybe I shouldn't be too excessively harsh.
     The next morning I walked down to the lower monastery and found that U Nandiya and the Mandalay monks were in the village walking for alms, but that the controversial village monk was there. He was making a mango salad, pretty obviously from mangos he collected himself (as we had no resident monastery attendant who could have made the fruit allowable). When he saw me coming he looked around quickly, apparently looking for someplace to hide the illegal mango salad, but it was too late, so he brazened it out. I asked him if he and U Nandiya were relatives, and he said, in English, "cousin brother." So they were probably cousins, maybe not even first ones. I told him, "I don't want you to live here, but if you are a relative of U Nandiya I will have to be patient." He scowled and harrumphed once or twice during the telling, and then I walked back toward my cave on the hill.
     But the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea of living at the same monastery with this fellow. I really didn't want the monastery to resemble practically every other lax monastery in the area. Sometimes I would refer to him as "the clown monk." During bouts of serious thinking about the issue in my cave, I decided that, U Nandiya like it or no, it would be best to nip this situation in the bud and eject him soon, as the longer he stayed the more roots he would have down, and the harder it would be to dislodge him. Besides, old U Nandiya and I had an unofficial agreement that a visiting monk could stay, even temporarily, only if both of us gave permission. So I decided to hash it out with U Nandiya.
     The next day, two days before the determined twenty were up, I went down the hill and sought out my venerable colleague. I walked past the village monk, who was reading a book near U Nandiya's cabin, and found U Nandiya about twenty feet from where the newcomer was sitting. I shouted to him, because he was very hard of hearing, "That village monk wants to stay here always, but I won't give permission! I want to kick him out!" To my surprise, my old friend's face broke into a wide, almost toothless grin of amusement, and apparently of approval. 
     "Is he here?" he asked, still grinning.
     "He's right over there!" I roared in reply.
     So the two of us walked over to where the unwelcome visitor was reading his book. U Nandiya asked him, "Did you hear?" The visitor said he didn't, which I would guess was not quite accurate, considering that I had been shouting about twenty feet away from him. So, just to make sure, I informed him that he would have to vacate the monastery when the other two left, at the end of their twenty days.
     The village monk coolly replied, "I'll stay."
     I assured him that no, he'd really have to move out when the others did.
     He repeated, "I'll stay."
     Then I warned him that if he didn't leave we were going to fight; and, rather amazingly, he responded with a ready "No we won't."
     He seemed to be working under the traditional Burmese assumption that monks are inviolable no matter what their behavior is like. But he failed to take into account the variable x—that I was a foreign barbarian who didn't have much use for that particular tradition. Also, he made the mistake, I think, of pretending to continue reading his book during our disagreement, making a show of how inconsequential my attempts to dislodge him were. He pretty clearly was trying to take over the monastery, and was already acting like the abbot. Of the two incumbents here, one was old and feeble, and the other was just a foreigner, so he didn't see much problem with accomplishing his aim.
     Anyway, by this point I was starting to lose my temper, and informed him that he was just a clown wearing monk's robes. He waved his hand airily and said, "That has nothing to do with anything." Then he explained to me, in a combination of Burmese and broken English, that the monastery was his (although he waved his hand in a way to include U Nandiya, indicating that his family had special privileges there), and that I was only a visitor. This, despite the fact that I had lived there almost as long as he had been a monk. After he finished his explanation his waved his hand at me and said, still looking down at his book, "Now go away. Go," thereby concluding the interview.
     Again, not looking up was probably a mistake on his part. He might have noticed that during his dismissal I was starting to vibrate and emit sparks, and at one point even impulsively lunged at him, catching myself before actually doing him any physical violence. But right after he said "Go" I snapped, lunged, grabbed him by the front of his robe, and slammed him to the ground as though I were an enraged gorilla. As his head hit the ground the contemptuous scowl on his face was immediately replaced by a look of pain and/or terror. I was too unhinged to be witty, so the best I could manage was to lean over him and tell him, "YOU are the visitor!" Then I stomped away to the well to fill a bucket of water. When I reached the well, which was about 100 feet away, I turned to see that the visiting monk was still lying motionless on the ground. The physical part of the altercation lasted all of about one second.
     Not surprisingly, that evening I was extremely agitated, pacing back and forth in the cave like a caged leopard. I was very unused to this kind of aggressive confrontation. Crazy, adrenalin-fueled thoughts raced through my head as I paced. I was thinking things like, "Am I really going to have to beat him up to get rid of him!? I shouldn't leave any marks on him though. Maybe I could punch him hard in the belly a few times...or maybe I could get him into a double hammerlock and dislocate both his arms, and then fling him into the river…no, he might drown…" 
     Fortunately, as the adrenalin subsided my thoughts became more sane, and the obvious solution presented itself: Demagoguery! All I had to do was make an appeal to the villagers, starting something like, "My friends! My people! I need your help!" I had no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the local villages would be on my side on this issue. 
     So that's what I did. The next morning when I went for almsround I told some of my main supporters about what had happened (and a junior monk aggressively defying a senior one is practically unheard of in rural Burma), eliciting a few gasps, and I was informed that they would report the situation to the village headman. The results were at least as amazing as the altercation the day before.
     I went down the hill to pay my respects to the Mandalay Sayadaw and say goodbye, as they were to leave early the next morning. I didn't find them, but did find the village monk, who gave me a defiant look, and as I searched for the other two he walked behind me clapping his hands loudly, as if trying to startle me, or something. It was obvious that receiving a lump on his head had not persuaded him to leave. He was still quite willing to fight for his position at the monastery.
     Shortly thereafter the headman of the monk's village came to see me, and asked what was the matter. I repeated many of the details I related above. He is a very mild-mannered, slow-speaking man with a perpetual smile stained ketchuppy red by chewing betel, and he assured me in his slow, friendly voice, "Don't worry about anything. I will go back to my village, and I'll collect some men, and we'll all come back here, and we'll throw him out for you. Don't worry about a thing." After politely hanging out a little longer he paid his respects and went back to collect his men.
     Before this I had been rather nonplussed, still wondering how I could possibly evict the fellow; but after the headman left I was walking around cackling like a fiend, thinking, "How can it be this easy!"
     The villagers really outdid themselves too. Before long the headmen of both nearby villages had come, along with at least four village sayadaws, a village medical officer, a group of village elders (who largely came, I suspect, to watch the show), and at least ten young bucks just in case any manhandling was required. In all at least 30 people showed up, with not a woman or child among them—apparently kicking out monks is man's work. 
     On stating my case, one of the village sayadaws who has always been friendly with me asked the embarrassing question, "What Vinaya doesn't he follow?" I didn't really want to be specific, since it consisted of essentially the same rules that almost everyone else in the area doesn't follow, including these sayadaws. I answered that he didn't seem to pay much attention to any Vinaya. I asked the group if they wanted me to accompany them to the lower monastery to eject the unwelcome visitor, but they advised me to stay where I was. He was evicted that very morning, and left in shame, disgrace, and ignominy. The overwhelming support I received from the local villagers was very touching to me. It is a good thing to feel supported and loved like that.
     Afterwards I was warned that I should beware of that village monk, who had a reputation in the village also for getting into fights. One village lady in particular cautioned me that he might jump out from behind a tree someday and stab me, or maybe brain me with a board. (This is a standard way of finishing a fight in Burma; the concept of "fair play" seems rarely to enter the picture in such cases.) But, it turned out that the evicted monk behaved honorably afterwards. After a little while to recover from the shock of it all, he became almost friendly. I respected that in him, and it's good to know that he has good in him. Heck, we all have good in us.
     As an afterword, just to show how karma can work sometimes, I'll mention the first time I saw him after he was ejected from the forest monastery. It was maybe two weeks afterward, and he was still in the recovery phase, and probably still had some significant hard feelings toward me at that point. I was walking to Wun Bo village for alms, and he was coming down the same track, heading the other way toward another village. It's the only time I ever saw him anything like this: He apparently had slipped and fallen in some mud, and had fresh mud all up and down his right side. As we passed on the trail he scowled, and pretended like he didn't see me. Symbolic workings of karma. Strange how things work out sometimes.
     (Written in an airport in Korea last winter)


  1. You do know this post is very funny, right? You spend a season nakedly bathing with a woman and you punch another monk, but oh the horrors of a monk handling money...
    BTW, I don't care you did either but wouldn't you consider that a little bit hypocritical? Judge not, lest ye be judged and that kind of stuff. :-)

    1. Not hypocritical, just idiosyncratic. I think I understand your point, although I'd consider the story above to be largely irrelevant. First, it happened several years ago, when my practice was rather different than it eventually became in the US. Also, it was a spontaneous, totally unpremeditated, solitary event which virtually happened of its own accord. So the point might be sharpened down to: Isn't it hypocritical to get naked with a woman, yet disapprove of handling money?

      There are some differences in the two actions. One relates to one of the deepest urges of the human male, which has been programmed into us since before we were human. The other is more, eh, artificial and intellectual. There are some monks, though, who are more attached to money than to women. I suppose it's a matter of personal choice. Also, I have always been eager to keep the monastery at Wun Bo as a kind of oasis of "ritual cleanness"; and, maybe strangely, monks who handle money can wreck the vinaya of a monastery more thoroughly than monks who touch women--or in this case, who would eventually touch one.

      I told the story above not to make any moral points, but because it seemed like a story interesting enough to be worth telling.

  2. Respected Bhikkhu Pannobhaso,
    Is it possible for you to give a Dharmic/Dhammic/personal perspective on a few things like inter-racial dating, sexual relationships, marriage, immigration, "multiculturalism", racial nationalism and such? I have been taking spiritual guidance from a person who believes in strong "racial nationalism" and of course takes a very dim view on the first five subjects on this list...I am not going to disclose his name or the race he belongs to ..i am also not going to disclose my race on this comment..but lets just say we are from different races....I have taken the vow to be lifelong celibate (though will only take up monkhood after achieving certain career fulfillment because that was my late father's wish..I am like you an only child of my are also like that if I am not mistaken)....these issues have been bothering me lately because of the positions taken by my spiritual guide...I do not know whether I should agree or disagree or have no opinions on these you have an opinion or Buddha-dhamma has an opinion on this? Or being a lifelong ascetic celibate you leave society to find out its own comfort level regarding such issues and prefer not to have an opinion on such subjects?

    1. Well, from the point of view of Buddhist ethics, which I find very acceptable, whether an action is "right" or "wrong" depends upon volition, not upon the outward form of the action. So if being multicultural, for example, helps one to have a clearer mind and fewer desires, then it is a good thing. I suppose it would depend upon one's own character, and beliefs. It is true, though, that dating, sexual relationships, and marriage, regardless of race or gender, tends to increase attachment, and thereby become a spiritual handicap. But some literally can't live without these things; so again, it would be best in such a case to find a mate who helps one to wake up as much as possible. Judging from the Pali texts, the Buddha considered race, as well as caste, to be irrelevant. Mental states are relevant.

      I think the Buddha would also agree that it's best not to agree or disagree with the views of other people. But you don't have to agree with that.

      And incidentally, no, I am not an only child. I come from a rather unusual family; and in addition to one full brother, I also have several half brothers and sisters, most of whom I have never met.

  3. I also want to thank you for jolting me out of my complacency regarding my Spiritual Strving/Sadhana..Your article on Elementary Buddhist Ethics: Wrong is Wrong is helping me immensely...Whenever I find myself of telling some small or big lie I resort to 24 hours of no water and no food...hopefully this level of self-chastisement will improve my character

    1. I would suggest that if you do any "self-chastisement" you do it with compassion, not out of self-aversion or any kind of punishment. You are your own only child. Disapproval of oneself may help to push one forwards through life, but it eventually becomes an obstacle, and always causes more suffering. Do sadhana with joy and gratitude, and you will progress much faster. May the gods continue to smile upon you my friend.