The adoption of the ascetic idea requires a firm faith in spiritual happiness and as firm a despair of material life. Its wide prevalence in a society bespeaks not only the acuteness of its religious consciousness but also considerable social distress. In practice, the ranks of the mendicants are filled not merely by ardent religious souls but in the main by those whom despair of material life has driven into vagrant beggary. —G. C. Pande
I want God, I want poetry, I want danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin. —Aldous Huxley
OK, this is the part in which I give a play-by-play account of the events which culminated in me shaving my head and putting on a brown toga (among other, more important things). It is not necessary to read the previous installment in order to understand this one, but it would probably help.
When I was a kid, like most kids I assumed that adults had life pretty much figured out. They understood What’s What. I supposed that the reason why I didn’t understand What’s What was because I hadn’t grown up yet. Furthermore, I had the idea, which most people in the West, I suppose, also have, that if adults in general know What’s What pretty well, scientists know it better than anybody. So, as a kid, I wanted to be a scientist—more specifically a zoologist, as I have always liked animals. After my father, two of my earliest role models were the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, whose knowledge of science gave him practically superhuman powers, and Mr. Spock on Star Trek, whose superhuman powers made him the ideal scientist. For as long as I can remember, a desire to know What’s What has been one of my primary driving forces in life.
But at around the age of thirteen it started dawning on me that, not only did I not know What’s What, none of the adults who were trying to teach it to me knew it either. Adults started appearing approximately as foolish and ignorant as I was. This added fuel to the fire of cynicism, smart-assery, and rebellion that many thirteen-year-olds experience naturally. And by the age of sixteen it had become painfully obvious that adults in general, not all, but most, were probably even more clueless than I was. Consequently, by the age of sixteen I was ripe for all-out rebellion, or for some other analogous form of radical upheaval.
It has been said that the average modern Western youth no longer has any formal rite of transition into manhood, or womanhood, or membership as an active member of the “tribe”; but I can pinpoint my transition from boy into man to a single day, and a single “ceremony”: my sixteenth birthday party. My father was working, my parents were divorced, and I was allowed to have some friends out to our house for my birthday with nobody else in attendance, and as it turned out, one of my best friends had recently begun smoking cannabis. Also, my father had recently stopped drinking alcohol, leaving a well-stocked liquor cabinet to my teenage schemes. So, my sixteenth birthday was the first time I ever got drunk as the proverbial skunk or higher than the proverbial Georgia pine, and I got both. I was a skunk in a pine tree. I vaguely remember at one point laughing so hard that I fell on my face to the ground, not even bothering to put my hands out to catch myself, and then lay there on my face, still roaring with laughter. It was brilliant. Mind-altering chemicals (including ethanol), “partying,” and generally having a wild time seemed so utterly superior to playing the game imposed upon me by the established system that the choice was obvious. I cut loose, rebelled against the System, and became an irresponsible party animal.
(I may as well add, parenthetically, that I also lost my virginity during my sixteenth year of life, although it wasn’t as pivotal to my surge into young adulthood and independence of thought. I lost my virginity about an hour after my first romantic kiss—which may have something to do with the intensity I have always experienced with regard to “romance.” She was a notorious “party girl,” and not particularly attractive; but she made it crystal clear that she was willing to have sex with me, so I embraced the situation, and her, with open arms. With the exception of one girl, who I met in college, my love life tended to be rather desultory and inconsequential, though relatively very intense at times. Mostly I was without a girlfriend, and never even wanted to master the art of picking up women, since it seemed largely based on insincerity, if not downright lying.)
A central tenet of my philosophy at that time was that, in order to be happy, one shouldn’t do anything that one doesn’t want to do. So, I stopped doing schoolwork, stopped attending classes regularly, stopped cleaning up after myself, spent almost all of my savings account, supposedly destined for college, on drugs, and basically just got into a lot of trouble. One reason why I was able to get away with this as long as I did was that before my sixteenth birthday I was a very good student, sometimes even teacher’s pet; so when my grades nosedived from A’s to F’s, my teachers apparently weren’t sure about what to do, or anyhow didn’t want to push. My father assumed that, despite my long hair and absence from home on weekends, I was still doing well in school; he encouraged freedom of thought, so he didn’t try to talk me out of my new attitude. About as far as he would go in that direction would be to say, “David, one of these days you’re going to look around and realize that you’re the only hippie left.” I suspect that the tide began to turn in earnest when he attempted to get me an honor student discount on my car insurance and realized that I was no longer anywhere near to being an honor student. My grade point average for tenth grade was 3.92—22 A’s and 2 B’s; I don’t remember my cumulative GPA for eleventh grade, but my final report card for that year reported a grade point average of 0.80—3 F’s and 2 C’s. One C was in Honors Math, with a C being the lowest grade awardable in an honors class; and to this day I have no idea how I managed to get a C in Chemistry. The only experiment I did all year was Experiment 1: Observation of a Candle Flame, and I took the final exam coming down from an acid trip, having had no sleep the night before, with my ears still ringing from a rock concert I attended in lieu of studying. (Incidentally, my very next report card, for first quarter of my senior year, had a 4.00—straight A’s. Go figure.)
Deep down I had an intuition that high school was my last big chance to really mess up in life, so I went for it. And although I kissed off academics for awhile, I probably learned more during that time than I would have if I had studied. I took a crash course in Worldly Experience, and spent much of my time associating with riffraff and getting into various sorts of trouble, with more of the trouble coming from my associates than from any kind of authorities. I have no real regrets for that time, and sometimes feel a certain nostalgia for my time as a wild haired eccentric teenage troublemaker. But enough nostalgia for now.
My father’s frustration reached a breaking point one night when he returned from work and found a girl passed out on the kitchen floor, with me in bed with another one, and music blasting so loud he claimed he could hear it from the road, before reaching the driveway. In a towering passion he informed me that I had two choices: start seeing a youth counsellor, or simply hit the road. By this time my mother had already evicted me from her home after discovering that I was growing marijuana in my bedroom closet. It seemed that seeing the youth counsellor was the easier of the two options, so that’s what I did.
It turned out that the counsellor, a social worker who specialized in troubled teenagers, was a spiritual guy. His name was Ron Sherman. He considered my case to be very interesting, and apparently saw some potential in me; so, among other things, he began giving me books to read, including Grist for the Mill, by Ram Dass. At the time such literature was so alien to anything I had ever been exposed to that very little of it sank in and was assimilated: I couldn’t easily integrate it with the previously stored information in my head, especially at first. But intuitively I felt that This Is It—even though I didn’t understand it very well, I sensed very strongly that this was something I could respect, and that living the sort of life that Ram Dass was talking about was infinitely superior to playing the shallow, materialistic game of “swim upstream, spawn, and die,” and to riding the ecstasy/misery roller coaster of partying and getting into trouble. Running in circles, puking, and passing out every weekend, followed by nursing a killer hangover, was maybe a good introductory ascetic practice, but not something worth dedicating one’s life toward. I learned from experience that pleasures and pains balance out in the long run.
Eastern philosophy, metaphysics, and spirituality became my new passion. I enthusiastically believed statements like “It’s all an illusion” long before I ever really understood them. So when I was still seventeen years old I acquired the aspiration, or ambition, to become a monk someday, or some other kind of spiritual renunciant. I still liked pizza and ice cream and getting high and rock ’n’ roll and of course girls, so I was in no great hurry to find an ashram, but it was always somewhere in my mind after that. In fact I postponed my renunciation for ten years, although I did give myself a deadline: I would be living a radically spiritual life by the age of thirty. I had the further agenda of being “well under way” (whatever that meant) by thirty-three, and, rather naively, of attaining whatever there was to attain by thirty-seven.
I started studying various spiritual systems and, as a college student, began working my way through Max Muller’s old Sacred Books of the East series. Buddhism appeared to have the least amount of faith in a story required, and was philosophical and very deep, so I began favoring Buddhist texts and considering myself to be almost a Buddhist. Up until shortly before my ordination if someone would ask if I were a Buddhist, I would say No—mainly because I wasn’t keeping five precepts, and considered that to be a requisite for being a real Buddhist layperson. I did admit, though, to aspiring to be a real Buddhist someday.
At first I liked Soto Zen, and figured I’d probably become a Zen monk. I liked all the stories of eccentric, bright-eyed old men in black robes standing around talking in riddles and indulging in outrageously strange behavior, and occasionally hitting each other with sticks. Also, I seriously considered just making a wool robe for myself and acquiring a wooden begging bowl and just setting out wandering across America as a nondenominational mendicant philosopher, although I knew myself well enough to realize, eventually, that I lacked sufficient self-discipline to pull it off without some formal system keeping me in line.
Anyway, I continued getting an academic education, intending to major in Philosophy at first, but quickly losing interest in the academic version of Western Philosophy. Too much confusion with everyone disagreeing with everyone else, and with nobody alive taking any of it very seriously. I wound up getting a degree in Biology, marine emphasis. Also while in college I fell madly in love with a beautiful girl, who actually loved me in return, and I probably would have forgone renunciation and married her if the invisible guiding hand and my miraculously bad girl karma, etc., hadn’t eventually derailed the relationship. Then after we got back together to derail it again. (We needn’t get into the details.) By the time I was in a university I had learned how to party and get good grades, mainly by actually doing my homework, and doing it before getting loaded. Although smoking dope almost every day and occasionally dropping acid (not to mention still having long hair), I also managed to be graduated with a 3.94 GPA and the honor of being chosen Outstanding Graduating Senior in the department of Biology. My friends weren’t sure what the hell to make of it. I considered going to graduate school, but decided that it would be better just to become a monk instead.
After graduation I made a living as a fisheries biologist, pretty much being sucked into the job, since there was a demand for them, and there wasn’t much else one could do with a Batchelor’s degree in Marine Biology. I worked mainly on foreign fishing vessels in the Bering Sea, which was some further training in solitude and austerity. I didn’t like the job much, although I worked only six or seven months per year, and had the rest of the time off to lie around, smoke dope, read a lot, and go on many hiking trips into the many wilderness areas of the Pacific Northwest of the USA, which is where I lived at the time. Hiking alone into a remote forest and taking LSD was one of my primary spiritual practices in those days. I meditated sometimes, but my meditation was of such poor quality that it was more of an exercise in patience, and in just sitting still, than in the cultivation of insight.
I am capable of loving a woman very deeply, even of making our relationship a kind of religion, with her serving as a manifestation of Divinity; but my ambition of becoming a celibate monk served as one more hindrance to finding “true love,” as I considered it wrong to become emotionally involved with a girl without keeping the door open to the possibility of a lifelong commitment. I’ve never really needed a mate; and anyhow need is not really a healthy thing on which to base a relationship—attachment is the cause of all suffering. Also, I found most American women to be a psychological challenge for me. Despite my love of women, there are certain aspects of female psychology (definitely not all, but some) which have caused celibacy to seem worthwhile in the long run. In short, I love freedom of spirit even more than I love women. I’m sure there must have been at least one woman out there with whom I could have had a fulfilling spiritual romance, with radical sex and radical Dharma, but I never found her.
(a religious idol)
Anyway, to make a long story even longer, around the age of 25 I began looking for a monastery in which to be ordained. I had no interest in traveling to Asia, as I had no desire to learn any more foreign languages than were absolutely necessary, I had no desire for visa hassles either, and I figured America had more need of monks than Asia did. The trouble was, though, that I had no idea where to look. I had heard a vague rumor that there was some sort of Buddhist monastery near Seattle, but it never got beyond the level of a vague rumor.
I drove to the big city of Seattle and looked for Buddhist monasteries in the phone book. I found one Zen place that looked like a possibility, but when I called all I got was an inauspicious answering machine. I checked out another place, which turned out to be Nichiren. So I moved on to Portland, Oregon.
In Portland I found a kind of Zen temple, not a monastery, but with a Zen priest who was willing to offer help and advice. When I told him I wanted to become a monk his reply was a rather Zenlike, “I’m happy for you, and also sorry for you.” In his library was a directory to Buddhist organizations in America; so I sat down with it and wrote down the name and address of every place that looked like it might be a Buddhist monastery. If it wan’t obviously not a monastery, I included it on the list. I then continued on my way to take drugs and party with some old friends in California, and then went back home to Bellingham, Washington. I wrote essentially identical letters of intent and sent them to the ten or twelve addresses I had written down.
Some of the places never wrote back, and most of the remainder were not monasteries, but non-monastic meditation centers or Dharma centers or some such. One monastic center which sent a reply was a Zen place in northern California, and the other was a place which in the directory went by the name of “Taungpulu Sayapdaw.” I had no idea what a Taungpulu Sayapdaw was, thinking maybe it was Bhutanese, but it was not obviously not a monastery, so I had written to them. It turned out to be Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California. “Sayapdaw” was a misspelling of “Sayadaw,” but the actual Taungpulu Sayadaw had been dead for several years by the time I ever saw his name misspelled. An American attendant named Bob had written back to me, telling me that the place was established in a forest tradition of Burmese Theravada, and saying that if I were ordained there I would be pretty much on my own, relying upon my own initiative, but that I was welcome. He also said I should practice “vipassana,” which at the time I had never heard of, and did not know how to pronounce it.
I took a look at both places, starting with the Zen place. It was there that I realized that Zen in books may be very different from Zen in real life. For one thing, I found that a lot of Pure Land Buddhism had been mixed with the Zen, which for me is not a good mix. Also, I found that much of the routine there involved lots and lots of bowing and chanting, with the chanting, for the most part, being stuff I had little or no interest in. Also, the monks and nuns, who interacted freely, lived relatively worldly lives, running a store, putting on lay clothing to drive into town and do some shopping, etc. No enigmatic masters dressed in black, speaking in riddles and hitting people with sticks. I was not extremely impressed by the scene. It didn’t really call to me.
After that I went to Taungpulu, in Boulder Creek. There were a total of three monks there, all Burmese, which already was very different from the large Western Sangha at the Zen place. The ancient Burmese abbot, venerable Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, spoke no English. There were almost no ceremonies, and the monks mostly just quietly minded their own business. They didn’t run a store or drive cars, and seemed to be living a more ancient Indian lifestyle than at the other place, which I liked. It seemed closer to what the Buddha originally set up. During my ten-day “self retreat” there I was working on a standard meditation object of the Taungpulu tradition: sitting, hearing, touching. For most of the ten days I was attempting to experience and note all three simultaneously; until finally, when telling the sayadaw of my difficulty, he explained, with some impatience, that I should only note one at a time. (In fact, according to the Abhidhamma philosophy, which the Burmese accept as gospel, it is impossible to note more than one object at a time anyway.) One of my few memories of the ten days in a tent in the monastery’s back yard involved a cricket I caught in the tent: I put it into a ziploc plastic bag for the time being, and then forgot about it, so that it suffocated. It remained in the position typical of a peacefully resting cricket, and presumably it hadn’t even noticed that it was dying. Such events may seem utterly trivial to some people, but for some reason it had enough impact to inspire one of my few memories of that trip.
I was more impressed with the atmosphere and lifestyle of the Burmese Theravada monastery than the busier, more westernized Zen place, so several months later I came back for a kind of dress rehearsal for ordination: I was ordained for five weeks as a samanera, or novice. My Pali name as a novice was Paññāsāmi—Master of Wisdom—which may not have fit me very well. I didn’t like the name much, and hoped I wouldn’t be named that if I was fully ordained there. Incidentally, the fact that my Pali name started with P indicates that I was born on Thursday. Thursday’s child has far to go. That’s how it works in Burma; everyone knows what day of the week they were born on, and consider it to be of cosmic importance. (Those who have been to a place like the Shwedagon in Yangon may have noticed that people born on different days of the week have different places around the circumference of the pagoda to make offerings. For the sake of producing eight, which mathematically is much easier to work with than seven, Wednesday is divided into two: Wednesday and Yahu. But I digress.)
I remember waking up on the floor of the monastery’s library room the morning after my ordination as a novice: I was in such an alien situation, the likes of which I had never been in before, that it took me several seconds to wake up enough, and think furiously enough, to remember where I was, and what the hell was going on. I also remember being aroused in the erotic sense the first few times my head was shaved; it was as though a whole new part of my body was getting naked for the first time. I was counting the days until my determined five weeks were up, but the place seemed satisfactory. Even after wearing robes like this, before I left ven. Hlaing Tet Sayadaw asked if I could keep five precepts from then on, and I said no. The main issue at the time was the inconvenience of not drinking alcohol. In the Pacific Northwest, especially in those days, a guy pretty much had to drink beer.
I went home and prepared to become a monk in earnest. I sent a letter to the monastery’s administration, informing them of my intention to be ordained at Taungpulu Monastery; and although I received no response I prepared to go anyway. (I knew enough about the haphazard functioning of the monastery’s board by this time not to wait for a response.) I wasn’t absolutely sure that I would remain a monk, at least not this time, but I took measures that it would be practicable. Shortly before the big day I went to Vancouver B.C. with some friends of mine and proceeded to get stinking drunk at a strip club, and then one of my companions and myself shared a prostitute, while the other companion sat passed out in the driver’s seat of his car. I wanted to have sex one last time—actually, the first time was so much fun that I went back to Vancouver alone a little later and found another female for hire; but this second one was so cold and unfriendly that it left me extremely frustrated and unsatisfied. Which, of course, is best for someone intending to be celibate for the rest of his life.
I had pretty much burned out on being a fisheries biologist also, so renouncing the world was actually pretty easy. I figured the most difficult parts about it would be 1) no orgasms, 2) getting rid of almost all my books, and 3) no football. Number 1 continued to vacillate between a chronic inconvenience and an acute tribulation, but 2 and 3 were difficult only before the break was made. Afterwards I hardly missed them. And so, several months after the trial run I settled all financial obligations, got rid of most of my stuff and stored most of the remainder at my father’s house, and took off.
I must admit that when I entered the monastery for full ordination I was very idealistic and naïve—I had stars in my eyes—and I naturally assumed that I was entering a brotherhood of men diligently striving for Nirvana, and that all of them would be wiser than me since they had been striving longer. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that this was not really the way it was, except for relatively rare exceptions. In fact, although I still believed in the ideal (and still do, to the extent that belief is of any value), I rapidly lost faith in the sanctity of a very human Sangha. I was rather disillusioned with it in fact; and at one point when I was thinking up a single word to describe each person at the monastery, the word for myself was “sullen.” With encouragement from some of the Burmese monks I pounded away in solitude, trying to live up to the highest dream. The Holy Life is somewhat like the D-Day invasion: No matter how you figure it, it’s always different from that, so the best you can do is just keep moving forwards and not give up. It’s worth it. If you want to know the highest truth, Ultimate Reality, you won’t do it with Science, but with Dharma—by looking inwards, not outwards. But I have gone beyond explaining how I became a monk. What came after ordination belongs to a different narrative, which may or may not be written. It won’t be written anytime soon anyhow.
So there you are. I don’t know if this account could be called uplifting or edifying, but at least you can see how a long-haired, dope-smoking, college-educated American becoming a Theravada Buddhist ascetic is possible.
(Paññobhāsa's sermon to the coots: "Ye are all my children...")