A man’s character is his fate. —Heraclitus
One of the most common questions I am asked, possibly the most common question, coming both from Asian people and from Westerners, is “How (or Why) did you become a monk?” Other most common questions from Burmese people are “Are your parents still alive?,” “How many brothers and sisters do you have?,” “What meditation tradition do you follow?,” and “Will you teach me English?” Frequently asked questions from Americans include “What is the best way of meditating?,” “How can I develop mettā?,” and some variation on “How can I practice renunciation properly while living a worldly life and not actually renouncing very much?” I was told that once H. H. the Dalai Lama was asked that last question by a Western person and promptly burst into tears, presumably out of sheer frustration. It’s good to ask questions though. Oh, and I might as well add that by far the most common question I receive from children, Eastern or Western, is “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”
I have found that when I am asked “How (or Why) did you become a monk?” there tends to be a subtle difference in attitude or inflection between how a Burmese Buddhist asks it and how a Westerner asks it. When a Burmese person asks the question there is usually an undertone of admiring wonder: they are surprised and impressed by the fact that a person from so far away, living in a (supposedly) Christian culture, where everyone (supposedly) is rich and happy, could become a Buddhist, move into a remote Burmese forest, and practice the Burmese religion at a level that the questioner himself or herself, as a Burmese person, is unable, unwilling, or unready to take on. With Westerners sometimes there is enthusiastic admiration and approval; although often the question seems to be asked more out of mild amazement or confusion over how such a thing could possibly happen. It seems so unnatural, and maybe it is unnatural.
Anyway, I’ve been asked the question many times; and a few times readers of this blog have suggested that I write a book about my life. It’s been an interesting life, I guess—at least I’ve been interested. But I consider it presumptuous to write at length about myself unless there is some obvious potential benefit to the reader from my writing it. I don’t want to write such a thing for the purpose of trying to pass myself off as “special,” unless maybe in the sense that everyone is equally special. At the very least you should be entertained by any account of my life that I record, and if you are informed, instructed, encouraged, and/or inspired by it, then so much the better. So I’m finally endeavoring to answer the big question at length and in detail here, even for people who haven’t asked. At the very least you may see how it is possible for something so unnatural as an American citizen renouncing the world, more or less, to occur, and/or you might even be mildly entertained. Consider it an anthropological case history.
The answer comes in two parts: first, a preliminary account of foundational circumstances that made me “susceptible” to monkhood in the first place, and then the narrative of how the thing actually happened. So, on with the preliminaries.
The first source of momentum heading me toward monkhood is hypothetical, being based more or less upon an Indian interpretation of reality: that is, using some Buddhist jargon, pāramī from previous existences. Assuming that there is such a phenomenon as rebirth, if only for the sake of argument or to humor me, then it is pretty likely that I have moved in the direction of philosophy, renunciation, and a spiritual life in some, but possibly not all, of my previous lives. I may have alternated between lives of spiritual radicalism and lives of wallowing in sensuality; I’ve read that it works out that way for some beings. I have mentioned elsewhere, more than once even, that I was told long ago that in the human existence immediately preceding this one “I” was a well educated Baptist minister, fluent in Latin and Greek, who was ostracized from the clergy for holding unorthodox views, and eventually became the headmaster at a Christian school in early 20th century Georgia, USA. So, apparently, being a doctrinally unfettered American with Wrong View also goes back before this lifetime for me. I don’t remember that life at all though. It’s just what I’ve been told.
Buddhist doctrine discourages monks from speculating about the past, which includes speculation about past lives. Really, it is only the present moment that really matters, since it’s the only moment that we can fully experience. But still, there have been many times when I have idly speculated, employing intuition, imagination, and “plausible” reasoning to account for personality traits of mine not easily explained by genetics and the past experiences of this particular life. I have a peculiar fascination or affinity for certain cultures in certain periods of history, but not for others seemingly just as interesting, for example. Going with this intuitive, imaginative way of thinking, I have a feeling (again, assuming that there is such a thing as rebirth, which can’t be proven empirically one way or the other) that one of my most important previous lives, one that was instrumental in making me what I am now, was that of a Catholic monk, maybe a Franciscan friar, who lived in England during the 14th century. I/he copied books for a living (the printing press not having been invented yet), despised the French (as this was the time of the Hundred Years’ War), was pretty much addicted to breaking my/his vow of chastity, was in other ways also a very sloppy monk, and died rather gruesomely from the Black Death, the bubonic plague, considering it, while lying on my/his deathbed, to be a just retribution from God for such a wayward life. Other possible past lives have been a snake-worshiping shaman type who induced mystical states through the use of drugs in prehistoric India, possibly somewhere on the outskirts of the Indus Valley Civilization; a Greek fellow who lived in the general area of Naples, Italy during the late Roman Republic and supported Cynic philosophers, although I/he wasn’t a wandering philosopher my/himself, but preferred dallying with slave girls instead; and, in the life immediately preceding the unorthodox Baptist minister, a late 18th-century Japanese man of the Samurai class, but not a fighter, just a teacher of philosophy. I feel that I may have been female a few times, but not many. At any rate, I have long had a deep feeling that it has been my purpose or “destiny” in this life, since before I was ever born, to be a monk, or at least a person who has dedicated his life to the cultivation of understanding. That is the direction in which I have been heading for a long time; I feel as though I have passed the point of no return; and before I became a monk it was as though an invisible hand was guiding, like chess pieces, me and circumstances around me, to ensure that I became a Buddhist monk. But I’ll get back to that eventually, maybe.
Usually when answering the question of how I became a monk, my answer begins with something like, “Well, for starters, I had a weird father.” In addition to inheriting 50% of his DNA, he was my first spiritual teacher…and an eccentric, or at least unusual, person by just about anyone’s standards. He had a deep love and yearning for unexplored frontiers, both physical and mental, and felt most at home while fighting for his life in a wilderness somewhere. In his younger days he was a brawler, a heavyweight boxer in the army, and had actually killed people, also in the army, as a soldier during the Second World War. He was a combination rowdy, poet, and shaman; and he used to say that he would have been happier if he had been born in the stone age. He lived in a surreal world, and considered this life to be a kind of dream state. He claimed to be able to see auras, and sometimes spirits, and our house was pretty obviously affected by the presence of a poltergeist when I was a boy (although parapsychologists theorize that poltergeist phenomena are not caused by actual “ghosts,” but by subconscious telekinetic activity in a living human). He experimented with ESP, hypnosis, spirit communications, and witchcraft, for a time being the warlock leader of a small coven of witch housewives. He also claimed the ability, under hypnosis, to astral travel, as well as the ability to remember a number of his past lives. (Whether he really accomplished these last states I can’t say—they may have been pure, hypnotically induced imagination—but I do know him well enough to know that he believed it himself, and was not just making it up.) As a kid, instead of watching TV or hearing the standard sort of bedtime stories, I would sit on his lap and listen in a state of fascination to his tales of fighting, big game hunting, wilderness survival, astral travel, sorcery, and past lives. Growing up with this sort of intellectual nonconformism of course prepared me to be openminded enough eventually to reject my own Western culture in favor of something very different.
I have considered writing an article giving an account of my father’s hypnotic researches into rebirth and past lives, which I think could be interesting reading for those who are openminded enough to appreciate that sort of thing; but here I will give a brief account of a lifetime that my father identified with more than with most, by way of an example. He believed that, two lifetimes before the present one, he had been a Scottish man named Jason Haskell, who lived, evidently, sometime during the 18th century. Dad remembered only the most emotionally intense moments of that life, which, from what I have read, seems to be a common phenomenon in past life regressions. Assuming that such memories are valid, it may be that the most emotionally intense experiences make the biggest karma, and leave the biggest impression in one’s subconscious mind, or on the “Akashic Records,” or whatever. Anyway, one of his earliest memories of Jason Haskell is of him as a young man of about eighteen lying on a cot in a cottage, very ill with smallpox, and alone. He lay there raging against the people who had abandoned him (for fear of catching the disease themselves), and swearing revenge on all of them. He survived, but his face was pockmarked for the rest of his life. His next memory is of Jason lying on a grave and crying his heart out. He had the feeling, although he couldn’t be sure, that the grave was of Jason’s former sweetheart, and that he had killed her himself, presumably because of her rejection of him. A yearning for frontiers is allegedly a predominant theme in all my father’s lives, and Jason eventually became a sailor. One vivid memory or image is of a storm at sea: The ship, a wooden sailing ship of course, was carrying large blocks of marble in its hold, and during the heavy seas one of them had broken loose from its mooring ropes and was sliding back and forth in the hold. The sailors were frantically trying to secure it again before it beat a hole through the hull of the ship, and one of the sailors, struggling in the dark, was crushed against the ship’s side by the sliding block of stone. My father recalled very vividly Jason standing in the dark, below the decks of a storm-tossed ship, with a heart full of fear and dread, shouting out at the top of his lungs, “Bring aft a light!” The alleged Mr. Haskell eventually wound up in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains, possibly Nepal, as part of an exploring party. He remembered the clothing he wore in detail. At one point Haskell saw a small brass bowl sitting by the side of the trail. He wanted to take it as a souvenir, but a native guide warned him that some priest or magician had left it there to collect rainwater for some arcane purpose, and that he shouldn’t touch it. Jason ignored the warning and took the bowl. Later that afternoon, when they had stopped for the day, as he was bending over to put down his horse’s saddle, an arrow shot out of the bushes and caught him in the back, just below the shoulder blade, with the tip coming out his throat, and he died, coughing and choking.
I can be skeptical of such past lives now—not rejecting them as false, but suspending judgement one way or the other for lack of sufficient data—but as a kid I was a true believer. I was very proud of my father, and considered him to be a combination of Socrates and Hercules. I considered my father to be far superior to other fathers, which is a common belief in young sons.
In addition to introducing me to the “occult,” as he called it, he also instilled in me a love of nature, and a liking for physical austerity. He began taking me on camping trips by the time I was about four (he claimed to have taken me moose hunting with him in Alaska when I was just a few weeks old, but I don’t remember it—I was pretty young then—and anyway I just lay on the backseat of the car while he got out and shot the moose), and by the time I was twelve or so he had stopped going easy on my younger brother and me and stopped bringing a tent on our trips into the wilderness. We slept on the ground under the stars. His own backpack was an old “Trapper Nelson” packboard made of wood and canvas and covered with old moose blood stains, with all the gear put into chicken feed sacks and lashed onto it. It was from him that I acquired a tendency to see comfort as an unnecessary luxury, and a desire for it as weakness. Some of his mottos were “A little pain never hurt anyone,” “A little clean dirt never hurt anyone,” and “You can do a heap of living if you’re not afraid to die.” I didn’t emulate him in all things; for example I didn’t emulate his past bar brawling or his apparently indiscriminate desire for women during the times he wasn’t married; but he was my first role model and my first spiritual teacher, and also the guy who taught me to value toughness and “manfulness,” which also helped me eventually to become an ascetic forest monk.
My mother, bless her heart, could not really compete with my father as an influence on my impressionable young mind. She was not stupid, but of average intelligence, and spiritually she was a child—she didn’t have a spiritual bone in her body. She seems to have accepted totally the mainstream point of view, and to have derived many if not all of her values from television, which she watched avidly. My main inheritance from her, aside from physical resemblance and a high-strung, nervous disposition, was shallowness of emotional feeling. She was definitely not a passionate woman, and may have never really loved any of her five husbands. My father also was married a total of five times, which brings up the issue of a somewhat dysfunctional family in general as an influence toward making me a monk.
I have been told that great spiritual figures tend to come from broken or dysfunctional homes; and, although I don’t consider myself a great spiritual figure, I do think that my family situation is another factor that facilitated my becoming a Buddhist monk. Neither my father nor my mother was particularly close with their respective families, both having left home at around the age of sixteen, being the respective black sheep of their families; and to this day I am still not exactly sure how many aunts and uncles I have—or used to have, since most or all of them are dead now. I have no idea how many cousins are out there, and wouldn’t hazard a guess. So I have had no strong sense of family connection serving to anchor me in Samsara, so to speak. My parents divorced when I was nine years old, and after that I moved from one home to another, shuttling between parents (both of whom remarried, and then re-remarried, and both of whom wanted custody of me), so that, combined with the shallow emotions and other factors, it all seemed like changes of scene in a dramatic production, and nothing to be deeply attached to. Sometimes I considered it all to be a dream, and felt like I should wake up from it eventually. It wasn’t necessarily a bad dream—I was a fairly happy kid actually—but still a dream.
Thus even as a boy I already was equipped with some of the characteristics which facilitated my becoming, later on, a reclusive, forest-dwelling bhikkhu. I acquired a love of wilderness areas, feeling much freer, more natural, and cleaner in a forest than in a city, where invisible rules, expectations of others, and artificiality pervade the environment. For most of my life I have had more love for animals and trees than for my fellow human beings (with some notable exceptions, most of them being female). And I’ve long had a love of being free and independent, and of working out my own understanding of the world instead of following along, sheeplike, with what I was told—which my father enthusiastically encouraged, so long as I wasn’t dissing him—with my mother not interfering with my father’s influence largely because she didn’t understand what was happening, or what I was heading toward. If she had known, she certainly wouldn’t have approved.
And speaking of my father’s enthusiastic encouragement, I have come to feel that this in itself was one of the most important formative influences in my life: He loved, respected, and deeply believed in me, in his surreal eccentricity believing that I could achieve practically anything in life. He was very proud of me, and I was told by a mutual friend that, just a few months before he died, he had told her that I was his “crowning glory.” That is a strange glory. There were times when he was thoroughly disgusted with me of course, especially when I was going through my rebellious feral teenager phase, and he considered my becoming a monk to be overdoing it, being rather too extremist even for his tastes; but overall his faith in me was unwavering, and a profound blessing, which much strengthened me in life. To have someone deeply believe in you is a very powerful thing. So there is that. Remember that if you want to strengthen and uplift others in life.
Although by nature I do tend to be rather self-contained and to need little human companionship, I have had a life-long fascination for beautiful females. (Maybe I should say “girls,” but I’ve always liked women also, and had a crush on one of my teachers, and on Barbara Eden, and on Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, when I was little, and I shouldn’t say “women” because I also liked girls, especially when I was a boy; so “females,” although sounding impersonally biological, is about the best I can do here.) The idea of sharing my life with a sweet, loving woman fascinates me; and even the word “wife,” when I consider the meaning of it, has a kind of mysterious, mystical glow to it…yet I have always had an intuitive, almost instinctive wariness of anything which makes “big karma,” and that includes not only acts like killing, but also settling into a professional career, having children, and also choosing a mate. Partly because of this, and partly because of other reasons, including a youthful shyness, bordering on panic, when I was around girls I was attracted to, I’ve gotten into an almost lifelong habit of liking females, and one in particular, without doing much about it. Sometimes even if a girl I had a crush on in school made it plain that she liked me also, I usually still wouldn’t “go for it,” which has caused me to kick myself more than once in later years, as I recalled some beauty who practically threw herself at me at some stupid time or another. So a habit of admiring females from afar without pursuing them also served to help me become a monk. Maybe not being attracted to them at all would have been better, but still. More about girls a little later.
One personality trait which no doubt was, at least in part, inherited from my father is a love of strangeness—I am tempted to say strangeness for its own sake, but more likely it is a love of strangeness because it is a kind of freedom from the narrow and shallow restraints of “normality.” Much more than most people, I seem to thrive on disorientation. This is obviously an asset for one questioning the fundamental axioms concerning reality that most people take for granted, exploring relatively deep meditative states, and realizing that ultimately there is no self. Since I was a kid I have cultivated a disdain for mainstream normality, which, in addition to manifesting a love for freedom, also appears to manifest some sort of radical egotism—not wanting to be just an average sheep in the flock. Better a lone wolf than a social sheep. I like weird, disorienting experimental music (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno is one of my favorite albums, with this being the first track on side one); I love the surreal absurdity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Monty Python and the Holy Grail being my favorite movie of all time); and I have had a decades-long fascination for certain types of mind-altering drugs.
I usually did very well in school, and was usually a relatively good student, or even a relatively outstanding one, despite my laziness and aversion for homework; but I remember in grade school when we were taught all the “Just Say No” anti-drugs propaganda, all it did was fill me with a great curiosity and ambition to try it out, and a desire to become a hippie. It is odd that despite the fact that I knew nobody who used illegal drugs regularly at the time, being just a kid, I looked forward to being old enough to start taking mind-altering drugs the way many guys looked forward to losing their virginity. Hence my hypothetical assumption that I used drugs, or “sacred plant medicines,” regularly in at least one past life. Assuming that there are past lives.
It would fit in with the flow of this narrative to discuss my early drug use in the next phase, the “play by play” account of the actual events leading up to my ordination; but here I will mention that the use of certain mind-altering substances, especially cannabis and LSD, was a key contributing factor in my journey to monkhood. For me, as well as for others before and after me, being exposed to an alternative perspective on reality, which in its own way is just as valid as the normal way, inspired me to begin looking for methods of expanding consciousness and “de-mundanifying” that did not require chemicals. Thus I found meditation. But to this day I have to admit that in some ways drugs like LSD are superior to meditation: for example, they are much more reliable, provided that you can get them. You take the substance, and a result is pretty much guaranteed. With meditation practice one may strive for years and rarely attain, or never attain, a state of expansion and clarity comparable to that of taking 500 micrograms of LSD, or maybe even of smoking some really good dope. So for more than ten years, starting when I was sixteen, drug use became my primary form of yogic practice. With LSD in particular I almost always wound up having religious experiences.
Before I became a monk I was of the opinion that the only experience that could compare with the ecstasy of a good acid trip was the ecstasy of good sex; and although I was shy around women, wary of worldly attachment, and usually without a mate, it did happen sometimes. Which leads, pretty much, to another major factor in my eventual renunciation of the world: I was unlucky in love.
As a general rule, if I liked a girl she didn’t like me (or already had a boyfriend); and if she liked me I either didn’t like her or else didn’t “go for it” out of neurotic silliness or whatever; and if we liked each other and got together, then some calamity or damn inconvenience would inevitably crop up and muck up the whole situation. Part of the problem was that, since I usually didn’t chase girls, I usually wound up with the ones who chased me; and those who chased me tended to be naughty, “party girl” types who chased guys in general. Largely because of this, I never had a girlfriend who was faithful to me; and I contracted a venereal disease on three separate occasions, always from a girl I naively trusted and dearly loved. Another factor was that, since I am pretty far from the mainstream in various ways, it was always hard to find a girl who was “my type,” that is, who had an outlook on life and love similar enough to mine to allow for compatibility. Another serious factor, which may be even more true now than it was then, is that, if I were to have a mate, in a romantic relationship, I could not be satisfied by anything less than deep, sustained intimacy—wide open, with no secrets, with the two of us, in addition to retaining our former identities, merging into a third, new being, an us, and seeing, and honoring, Divinity in each other. And it appears, unfortunately, that most human beings, including most women, are unwilling or incapable of sustaining such intimacy. It requires being wide open, which is a kind of mystical or religious experience, and most people are afraid of the vulnerability of that, or just don’t comprehend that it is even possible. In my twenties I used to say, half-jokingly, that karma or “God” was keeping me pure by keeping me unattached.
The first sexual experience that I can remember occurred when I was approximately four years old. My mother and one of her best friends went shopping, or bowling, or something, and left me and the friend’s little daughter Laurie, also four, with a babysitter at our house. While Laurie and I were playing in the back yard she suggested that we play Doctor. I had never heard of it before, so she explained it to me: “First I pull my pants down and you examine me, then you pull your pants down and I examine you.” At that age I really didn’t see the point of it; but I’ve always been relatively openminded, so I was willing to give it a shot. So, little Laurie pulled her pants down and lay down on a pile of lumber at the edge of the yard…and I must admit I was disappointed. I felt like I had been cheated somehow. After all, a four-year-old girl, little temptress that she might be, has almost nothing to look at: all there is is a little vertical line. (I didn’t start appreciating the beauty of female genitalia until after I had reached puberty.) So anyway, when it was her turn to examine me, and I was lying on the woodpile with my pants down, the babysitter suddenly appeared on the back porch and yelled out, “What are you two doing out there!?” Whereupon little Laurie immediately burst into tears and began repeating over and over again, like a mantra, “He made me do it! He made me do it!” Even after we were both in the house with our pants up, minutes later, she continued crying and vehemently repeating the mantra to the babysitter, with me sitting there in a state of total bemusement. Thus I was seduced and betrayed by a four-year-old femme fatale. Don’t believe all that stuff about the innocence of children. Another thing I used to say half-jokingly was that my love life was all downhill after that date with little Laurie.
But of course, being unlucky in love was part of the bigger picture in which I was fortunate in Dharma. Considering my fascination for girls/women, only miraculously bad luck could prevent me from marriage, then probably parenthood, and thus the construction of a huge obstacle toward living the so-called Holy Life. It is possible to live a life devoted primarily to Dharma in the world, with a family, but the Buddha would not have endorsed renunciation without a good reason. Almost needless to say, it is much easier for most to follow Dharma while unattached to a family. So I can’t really regret my past misadventures with females. It all goes into the hopper, and it has all led me to this moment. And this moment is perfect. (Incidentally, the last I heard of Laurie, maybe eighteen years after our interrupted game of Doctor, was that she was romantically involved with a Christian minister, or maybe just a fellow who was studying to be a Christian minister. I don’t remember now.)
There are a whole slew of other contributing factors which I haven’t discussed in detail, such as above average intelligence (which, combined with the aforementioned disdain for mainstream orthodoxy and a familiarity with Eastern philosophy and the “occult,” helped me to see the limitations and undesirability of what almost everyone takes for granted as the only realistic or viable way); laziness (which allows me to sit practically motionless for hours without much, if any, boredom or restlessness); introversion; and even a weak sense of smell (which causes me to have less attachment for food) and lack of visual depth perception (which causes everything I see to appear as though it’s on a movie screen). And on top of all this, I just intuitively felt, and continue to feel at present, that living the life of a Buddhist monk is the best thing I could possibly do, the most profoundly “meaningful” (for lack of a better word) and beneficial way I could spend my life. I want to know Reality. That is even more important to me than romance and sex. A desire to transcend delusion is probably the number one reason why I became a monk, and remain one. And this despite certain un-monklike personality traits including a deep appreciation for intensity of experience, for example in the form of love for spicy food, strong drugs, strong beer, head-banging rock ’n’ roll, and naked, voluptuous, smiling women, which are some of the reasons why I put off becoming a monk as long as I did before finally taking the plunge.
One of the best reasons for becoming a monastic, maybe even better than a desire for enlightenment—which is usually based on unrealistic assumptions anyway—is simply that the lifestyle and attitude of a monastic are in harmony with one’s nature; this is why, after becoming a monk, I have remained one for so long (approaching 25 years now), despite the fact that almost all of my monk friends, especially the Western ones, eventually dropped out and found themselves a woman and a job. It is also despite the fact that some people, including some presumably wise monks, have believed that I am at the very verge of flinging myself into the pit of destruction, so to speak. They tend to believe like this because I am defiantly unstereotypical, following my own nature, and don’t give much of a damn what they or others think, especially with regard to their thoughts on how I should be. And here I am, paradoxically lasting longer than the stereotypical ones. I suspect this is in part owing to the unnatural strain of conforming to a stereotype. It’s too fake, and most can’t keep it up for very long.
It is true, though, that I have no great emotional attachment to being an ordained monk. It’s the best I have found so far, but there’s no telling what I may find tomorrow or the next day. I try to be openminded and live each moment as it comes, and am not about to make any lifelong vows anytime in the foreseeable future. At present I’m not planning on dropping out of the Sangha; then again, Theravada Buddhist monasticism obviously doesn’t work very well in America, and I would like to interact with Western people who speak my own lingo more, and especially with a wise female or two, if possible. Yet what seems most likely in the near future is that I will give up on an America that doesn’t want me and go back to Myanmar, where people do want me. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.