Well, by golly, this is the first post of June, which I figure makes it the third anniversary of this blog. Also, by convenient coincidence, or karmic coincidence, or whatever, this is the first post to be posted since my return to the USA (alias Babylon, Technotopia, the Brave New World). That is convenient because this post is about The Challenge, or maybe two challenges: America's challenge for me, and my challenge to America. Maybe more than two challenges.
So anyway, I'm writing this with several hours' worth of jet lag.
As was the case in 2011, so today, I am in search of a suitable place for a person like me (well, me actually) to exist in the West, presumably America, and to live a primarily spiritually-oriented life. And as was the case in 2011, the absolute bottom line, materially speaking, would be a roof over my head, a bowl of food every day, or almost every day, access to a bathroom, and, preferably, Internet access at least once a week. But, strangely, even this much has been difficult to come by in America, except when I live among Asian immigrants.
It used to be common knowledge among Western monks, and maybe still is, that in order to exist in the USA (but not necessarily in the UK, or Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Europe) it is a practical necessity to be supported mainly by Asians. Most Americans of European, non-Buddhist ancestry tend not to support monks very much, if at all, even if they consider themselves to be Theravada Buddhists. This is mainly for cultural reasons that I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, so I suppose there's no need to grind through it again here. Besides, I'd prefer that this "Challenge" be as upbeat and open as possible.
I'm really not against being supported by Asian people. I like Asian people. In fact I owe my life to them many times over. But if I'm going to be supported by them, I might as well live in Asia, where there are lots more of them. Also, I have my own forest monastery in the blazing hot wastelands of upper Myanmar, where I am the "sayadaw." If I stay in the West it would be, ideally, in some kind of symbiosis with Westerners. So this is a challenge for me. I'm not against challenges, though; I like challenges, too. They seem to be pretty much necessary.
Back in January of 2011, a few months before coming back to the US and plunging into the Unknown, I met an American man, who is now my friend, and who, at the time, warned me of what American Buddhism is like, what I should expect when I got here. He made many observations, and only one prediction of his was inaccurate, although I'll get back to that one. One of his observations which hit the bullseye was that Buddhism in America is generally very fluffy, with people living stressed-out lives looking for peace and comfort, and thereby avoiding such unpleasantnesses as "home truths" and other harsh realities. Some of them go to retreats for the healing of psychic wounds in their life stories, and dwell on this as a theme of their Dharma practice. Consequently, Dharma teachers in the West tend to be very soft, politically correct Dharma politicians, often chronically smiling in some semblance of benevolent bliss. They have to give people what they want, in order to be popular, in order to make a living. Plus maybe they agree with that orientation anyway. So, it has become expected, even insisted upon, that Dharma teachers in the West do not ruffle anybody's feathers. Everything is soft, comfortable (maybe even luxurious), and "nice."
But, as anyone who knows my style can appreciate, I do not consider this to be the best way of going about Dharma, either practicing it or teaching it. In order to Wake Up it is good to be shaken a bit. And even if most Western Buddhists aren't really aspiring to enlightenment, at least they shouldn't be against it. Sometimes facts are unpleasant—sometimes life in general is unpleasant, in accordance with the First Noble Truth—and aversion for such unpleasantness is essentially an aversion for truth and reality. I really don't have much use for this; unpleasantness is grist for the mill. Not that I want to be cruel, or cudgel people like an old-fashioned Zen master, or seek out discomfort and wallow in it, but pampering spoiled Westerners and pandering to their chosen weaknesses seems to me like selling out. It may be necessary for beginners, so they can settle down enough to go into deeper practice; but sooner or later we have to stop being beginners. (No worries, though—I'm pretty good at determining where a person is at, and mainly challenge only those who are ready for it, or else just think that they're ready for it, to show that they're really not ready.)
To some degree I noticed how easy being a Dharma politician could be, theoretically, while in Bali recently. I met with a Western-style Vipassana group there, composed of Western expatriates, and I could feel a palpable, invisible temptation or urge to be a chronically smiling, politically correct diplomat. The good people there weren't forcing it upon me of course, or even suggesting it, but when facing other people there is an instinctual urge to be "nice." If I cause others to be uncomfortable, I feel uncomfortable. I can easily see how someone could easily be sucked into a role of being a popular teacher like Jack Kornfield, and I just don't want to be like Jack Kornfield. Some of the members of the aforementioned group seem to hold Jack Kornfield in high respect. Now, I have no doubt that Jack is one heck of a great guy—that is not at issue at all—and I assume he has some wisdom to him, but at the same time, there have been a number of occasions during the composition of blog posts when I have had to overcome the inclination to write, and I quote, "Fuck Spirit Rock." Once or twice I've even felt a twinge of temptation to exaggerate and dramatize a little and call Spirit Rock a festering boil on the buttocks of Western spirituality. I've been told that sometimes even Jack himself laments over how liberal political correctness and a kind of bureaucratic democracy has derailed the place. (For a mild caricature of Spirit Rockism, filmed right there even, see this brief video, as a sort of introduction.)
Of the observations and prophesies made to me in January of 2011 only one, as far as I can remember, turned out to miss the mark; and that had something to do with "credentials." He pointed out, apparently in accordance with fact, that in America it is very difficult to succeed without some kind of credentials—a PhD. from a prestigious university, the authorship of a widely-read book, an endorsement from Oprah or Jack Kornfield, etc. His false prophesy was that the "mystique" of my monk's robes and the fact that I've lived in caves in Burma for many years would serve as my credentials. For some people in America it did, but for others it had the opposite effect, so that the effects cancelled each other out, as far as I can tell at present. My experience is that many American Buddhists just don't like monks all that much, or approve of what they represent, largely, I suppose, due to Protestant Christian and of course non-Buddhist cultural conditioning. But again, my purpose here is not to bash American Buddhism, despite the possible entertainment value of that.
One very obvious morsel of advice that I have received in the past is that I should seriously consider living at a monastery in the West specializing in Western monks, like one of those in the Ajahn Chah tradition. On the other hand, a few relatively serious monks (well, two) have warned me in the past that I shouldn't even bother trying to live at an Ajahn Chah monastery. Thai tradition lays relatively heavy emphasis on mandatory group conformity, with much of the conformity not being with ancient Pali tradition but rather with modern Thai tradition; and, as is the case in Burma, the later tradition often trumps the ancient one. But I'm not into conformity for conformity's sake; it's just not my bag of tea. I reserve the right to follow what conscience I have, which has its advantages and disadvantages, but if I don't do that I feel like I'm living a dishonest life. There may be some monastery out there in America that I haven't heard of with a relatively tolerant, undogmatic Sangha that would let me behave like myself, in which case it might work out. I am capable of following Vinaya as strictly as necessary. At present I'm staying at a Burmese house-monastery in the suburbs of a California town, in a congregation hall (sima) that is used mainly as a storage room, since the monks rarely congregate for formal acts here, not even for uposatha observance; the monks around here are non-congregational, you might say. I can live in that sort of situation too, so long as I'm not compelled to conform to it. Once the monks start buying, storing, and cooking their own food, though, then the place becomes too unkosher for me, so long as I'm required to eat the food. Better to live in some layperson's garage (with their permission, of course).
I have read that if one is seeking some ideal situation in life one should visualize it, that is, have a clear conception of what one actually is seeking. So, I'll publicize here what I visualize, and "put it out there" to help it manifest, so to speak.
When I was talking with the prophetic guy in 2011, I mentioned the fact that I was quite willing to turn away 90% of my potential supporters for the sake of finding some real "Dharma samurai," that is, at least a few people who are really sincere, or at least mostly sincere, about doing whatever it takes to Wake Up. That doesn't mean they'll succeed, but at least they're giving it a fairly sincere shot. I would like to interact with people like that, if possible—people who are making Dharma their top priority in life, regardless of whatever else they do. If I become a member of a group, it's hardly likely that most of them will be peaceful warriors, but at least a few should be. I know they're (you're) out there. I've been contacted by a few, and have personally met a few. They tend to be thinly scattered, and tend not to be loyal members of groups, since most Dharma groups in the West have a similar function to village temples in the East: They are the containers for what is essentially a social club with an ostensibly spiritual theme. This is not "bad" or "wrong," and is as much as most folks are ready for, which is OK, and I can happily teach basics to beginners, but it is not what I'm especially looking for. I don't care if I'm a teacher or just a member so long as someone is really giving it a shot. If one or more members is/are more advanced than me, then I'd gratefully become a student; although most teachers in the West seem to be still beginners (regardless of how many decades they've been practicing). So interacting with at least a few relatively like-minded people, like people who don't differentiate Dharma from "everyday life," and don't mind having their beliefs challenged, would be high on the list of ideal circumstances. They could be monastics or laypeople; that part is irrelevant.
Also, I would prefer that some wise women be involved in this, partly because I appreciate the company of women, and partly because women in general have a more "heart centered" orientation that intrigues the heck out of me, and that I would like to cultivate more. This preference for female associates is somewhat ironic, though, since my luck— er, karma with women is rather tumultuous! Women tend to like me, and shortly after this happens I start bothering them half to death, because they bring up some variation on the theme "You're too much this way and not enough that way, and if you don't stop being too much this way and not enough that way I'll withdraw my friendship/respect/affection for you." So then my usual response is to say something like, "Well, do what you feel is right, but I reserve the right to continue being this way," which, instead of inspiring them with respect for my resolute firmness, infuriates them, because they would prefer not to carry out the threat. Anyway, that's how it looks at my end. But enough about my complications about women. I'd still like to interact with some though, as a kind of advanced Dharma practice.
Also, because the group, organized as such or not, would have at least a few "samurai," we could try to cut through some of the attachments that we Americans tend to take for granted, as just part of the substrate of life, but which really is there because of cultural conditioning. We would look at difficult subjects, like fundamental beliefs and preferences for comfort and pleasure. We would experiment—as Paul Lowe says, the only thing you can know for sure doesn't work is what you're already doing, because you're already doing it and you're still not enlightened! We would speak frankly with each other, with the intention of helping each other of course, and would not indulge in the sort of politically correct superficial politeness, avoiding anything too sensitive, that appears to prevail in American Vipassana Buddhism. For an example of dealing with attachment issues that I've considered good for retreat situations, I read in a Western Ajahn Chah book that some monks in England experimented with mixing the monastery food all together in a plastic bucket every morning, and at meal time the bucket would be passed around with everyone scooping out as much as they wanted, but without being able to pick and choose what they especially liked. The practice was discontinued in England, but it sounds like an excellent way of reducing fussiness with food. Fussiness is a big one in the West. I've got unorthodox ideas about chairs, too.
I've even considered being involved in the setting up of some kind of pseudosangha, not actually ordained, but living a more or less renunciant, Dharma-oriented lifestyle more in accordance with the modern West, in which men and women would be equal, or in some ways judged by individual merit, regardless of gender. Grey sweats instead of brown robes, plus maybe enough money to live in poverty, for example. But that isn't totally necessary. Just an idea to play with. If it does happen I wouldn't mind being involved in it, though.
With regard to a lot of things I'm very flexible, which is totally necessary, since the future is unknown, and it pays to be able to adapt to whatever turns up. I like the west coast, for example, but I'd be willing to go to Hoboken, New Jersey (for example) if the right people were there. Even a New Age commune might be preferable to a Buddhist social club. We'll see how it goes.
It appears that I've gotten about as far as I'm able, at present, living alone in a cave in an Asian wilderness. During my first year in America, in Bellingham, WA to be more precise, I made more spiritual progress, methinks, than I did during the previous three to five years combined—and that despite, in fact partly because of, the fact that I fell in love with a woman there, and met with a wide variety of troubles. So human interaction, especially with people who speak my lingo, would be a good thing for me, and possibly for those interacting with me also—a mutualistic symbiosis. In the West, even receiving the cold shoulder has been to my advantage, spiritually at least.
Part of the thing is, though, that I turned to Dharma and became a monk largely because I cannot take American culture very seriously. I left America-ism behind to look for something more suited to me, something with more depth; although some aspects of the American point of view are invaluable, other aspects are serious handicaps to anyone wanting to know Reality. So I was rather surprised when I returned to America and found that most other American Dharma practitioners are not like this—instead, most appear to keep to the American mainstream point of view, or something not far from it, and to transmogrify Dharma to make it compatible with a spiritually destitute system. Dharma has become a kind of "app" for tepid materialism, a kind of part-time hobby. And so, since I can't take American culture very seriously, I can't take most forms of American Buddhism or Dharma very seriously either. So it would be wonderful to meet some more people in the West who also can't take it seriously. You guys are the ones I'm searching for…especially if you haven't just replaced superficial America-ism with dogmatic Asia-ism.
But all this may be little more than a pipe dream, considering that thus far, in America among born Americans, even the bottom line of shelter, food, and a bathroom has been problematic. My experience in Bellingham, from start to finish, was that the only Theravada Buddhist society in the city, consisting of at least a hundred members, had insufficient generosity to provide the only Theravadin monastic in the city with a daily bowl of food. American Buddhists, apparently, see little point in supporting Buddhist renunciants. It's mainly a cultural thing. In fact, I don't know of a single bhikkhu living in America who is not supported primarily by Asians. There may be a few out there that I don't know of, and there may be a few jokers who work for a living and provide for themselves somehow or other, but it may really be that not a single monk in America is supported mainly by Americans. And if that is the case, then that fact is a more scathing indictment of American Theravada than anything I have ever written on this blog. If you don't approve of me personally, then support a different monastic! But without renunciants, true Theravada is dead, or at best a pale shadow of a dismembered fragment.
So, the plan is to look around for someplace suitable. I may check out a few places before the rains retreat begins this summer. If you know of any prospects, feel free to tell me about them; for example if you know of some Dharma group that is languishing for lack of an eccentric, openminded, heretical teacher or resident Buddhist philosopher….And if I don't find anything worthwhile over the next several months I'll go back to Asia, where many people love me and want me to stay. I won't be able to communicate with them very deeply, but I'm used to solitude. Next time I may not come back until I eventually receive some kind of substantial invitation from a group of people willing to support me with the four requisites (food, shelter, clothing, and medicine)—plus, ideally, some Internet access. Shuttling between multiple "support groups" could theoretically work, too, as I'm not afraid of couch surfing.
So, in review, here are the challenges: 1) the challenge for me to find a suitable way of existing in the West; 2) the challenge to American Theravada Buddhists to get off their arses and support a monk or two, for crying out loud; and 3) the challenge, for me in particular, of ruffling feathers, and occasionally outraging a woman, while maintaining an open heart. We'll see how it goes.
My blessings are upon all of you.