“Pass the butter.” —Prince Dagwood-Philippe of Hohenstein
OK, so I couldn’t come up with a good opening quote for this one.
The last current events post on this here blog, if I remember correctly, was way back last summer, during my 25th rains retreat as a monk. So I suppose it’s time to catch up on that, more or less.
The big excitement of the last part of the rains retreat was eating fried bee larvae at a festival. The Burmese monk sitting next to me at the meal really liked them, and without me even having to ask for any he took the liberty of putting a scoop of them onto my plate. I looked at the maggoty-looking things on my plate and seriously considered just leaving them there; but then I considered that, as an ascetic, I shouldn’t be fussy and should just eat the little bastards, which I did. Actually, they weren’t bad, so long as I didn’t think about what I was eating, or pay much attention to the squishiness between my teeth after the lightly crispy insect carapaces were crushed. The Burmese monk who liked them helped himself to seconds, and then thirds. Almost needless to say, he and I were the only people who ate any of them.
The very next weekend there was the further excitement of seeing, for the first time in my life, a blue dog. It wasn’t dyed blue either, mind you, but had fur that was naturally a greyish blue color. There was a little brown around the edges, but mostly, I feel the need to emphasize, it was really a blue dog. It is almost a little sad that such an event came so late in my life, considering that in just a few decades genetic engineering may make available sapphire blue dogs with horns, ornamental wings, and the tail of a peacock. But still, I was impressed.
The end of the rains retreat is the beginning of the one-month kathina season, in which ceremonies are held for the purpose of laypeople making offerings of robes and other requisites to monks and monasteries. As I have written elsewhere, I used to strictly forbid kathina ceremonies at my monastery in Burma, as the whole thing has become corrupt to the point of meaninglessness; my Burmese colleague ven. Garudhamma admits that, nowadays, the primary purpose of the ceremonies is simply “fundraising,” i.e., the raking in of loot. But though I have little use for them myself, and forbade them at my own place, I found myself making the rounds after the rains retreat and attended maybe six kathina ceremonies during the subsequent lunar month.
One ceremony was at a Sri Lankan monastery, at which I saw, for the first time I think, one of the controversial new bhikkhunis. I arrived shortly before the meal and left shortly thereafter, and did not exchange a single word with her, which maybe was just as well, as there might have been call for me to express my opinions on the attempted revival of the bhikkhuni order, which is something I would usually prefer to avoid in a public context. Also at this ceremony, strangely, I saw the Sri Lankan abbot standing in the midst of the shrine room surrounded by people, with his arm around one of the prettiest young women at the place. I’ve never seen the likes of it at a Burmese or Thai temple. The Sri Lankans are onto something big, really big.
Another kathina ceremony I was herded to was at Tathagata Meditation Center in San Jose. Technically it could be called a Theravada Buddhist monastery, with a Burmese sayadaw serving as abbot and a few nuns also inhabiting the place; although first and foremost it is a vipassana retreat center. It was set up by a Vietnamese group that has embraced the Burmese Mahasi method as their spiritual vehicle, and it’s a relatively quiet, serious, pretty place. Anyway, during the ceremony, after enduring the discomfort of hearing the venerable sayadaw telling the audience (mostly Asian people, but with quite a few Westerners in attendance) about the importance, special benefits, and “great merit” of offering kathina robes to monks—despite the fact that the monks rarely wear these robes, and they are often simply put into a closet till the following year, whereupon they are taken out and sold to laypeople to offer again—a Vietnamese coordinator announced a one-month long intensive vipassana retreat to be conducted in December at the center. I had been hoping for an opportunity to do some intensive practice around December anyway, so I decided to inquire about it.
I sent an email to the organizer of the retreat, and she respectfully informed me that I was very welcome, and that I should submit my check for $750 ($25 per day, to cover expenses of food and utilities, etc.) as soon as possible to ensure my admission, as these retreats are almost always sold out fairly quickly. Now, I have never liked the idea of charging money for Dhamma, since Dhamma is priceless and should be equally available to everyone; and I also didn’t like the idea of a monk being charged money to practice meditation at what is technically a Buddhist monastery. Since my ordination as a bhikkhu I had never been charged money for the privilege of meditating before. So, I figured I wouldn’t attend the retreat. Two Western friends of mine told me that, relatively speaking, charging only $25 a day is actually quite reasonable, but still I didn’t like the idea. I even considered sending an admonishing letter to the retreat organizer, giving my opinion of charging money for retreats, even to monks who don’t handle money, but I am glad that I didn’t do it.
A day or two later, at meal time I told a Burmese gentleman about how the meditation center wanted to charge $750 for me to attend the retreat. I had already decided not to go, so I wasn’t angling for anything by telling him; mainly I just thought he might be interested to hear that monks are charged money to meditate in America. But within an hour of my telling him this, he and a small group of Burmese supporters came to my room and happily presented a check for $750, so I could attend the retreat. I was really impressed by the good will and generosity of the lay supporters, and didn’t want to refuse them, so somewhat reluctantly I changed my mind and decided to attend the retreat after all. I also determined to practice diligently in order to do justice to the Burmese group’s generous faith in me. That same day one of them took the check to TMC, and I was duly registered for the retreat.
I admit that right up until entering the retreat I had ambivalent feelings about the whole thing. I probably wouldn’t know anyone there. Of all the people I have encountered, the Vietnamese have struck me as being the most mysteriously inscrutable—although I suppose their inscrutability may simply conceal the fact that they really aren’t mysterious. Most importantly, I didn’t know the Burmese sayadaw who would be leading the retreat, so I didn’t know how rigid his methods would be, or how similar he would be to his former teacher, the occasionally angry and fierce U Paṇḍita. I considered withdrawing from the thing, not being particularly eager to begin, but stayed the course with the idea that no matter how it turned out, it would be a good experience for me, and also with the intention of honoring the generosity of the Burmese people who so willingly came up with the $750. The night before the retreat began, as I was packing my stuff for the trip, I looked for my sandals and couldn’t find them. So I went without shoes, although I might not have worn them even if I had found them. So long as there is no danger of frostbitten toes I can walk barefoot without difficulty.
As an example of typical weird retreat karma, I will mention that on the very first day of the retreat I noticed in the men’s bathroom a rack containing, among other things, a large box of Q-tips and a sign saying “feel free to use these items,” so I cleaned my ears—and in the process accidentally pushed earwax up against my right eardrum, blocking it and causing a distracting pressurized feeling in that ear as well as rendering it about half deaf. I tried cleaning out the obstruction but was unsuccessful. On the second day I noticed a bottle of hydrogen peroxide on the same rack, so I started using it to dissolve the earwax. (Yes, hydrogen peroxide dissolves earwax.) Three times a day, during walking meditation times, I would go into my room, tilt my head to one side, pour in a little hydrogen peroxide, and stay there for twenty minutes or so mindfully experiencing the fizzing in my right ear. The trouble was that I had no squeeze bulb or other apparatus for flushing out the half-dissolved ear excrement, so all it did was sink and settle up against the eardrum, keeping it blocked. After about four or five days of this ritual I finally gave it up as a bad job and went around with a pressurized, half-deaf ear. I got used to it pretty quickly, and after approximately 18 days it naturally came unblocked.
For the first ten days or so Kate Bush was repeatedly playing in my mind, especially music from her album Hounds of Love (“Come on baby, come on darling, let me steal this moment from you now…”). She eventually faded out and was briefly replaced by “Private Idaho” by the B-52s.
Day 3: Towards the end of the consistently surreal after-lunch sitting session, as I was sleepily attempting to distinguish between the sensations of air at the nostrils and abdominal movements, suddenly the word “boustrophedon” popped into my mind. I was sure it wasn’t a genus of dinosaur, and guessed that it meant writing from right to left instead of vice versa, which turned out to be close. (It means writing one line from left to right, then the next from right to left, and so on. I looked it up in the dictionary just now, before writing this.)
Just for the purpose of providing some information about TMC, I may as well include some demographic data. At any given time, there were approximately 6-7 Western men, 10-12 Asian men, 6-7 Western women, and 20-25 Asian women practicing as yogis at the retreat. (At one of his Dhamma talks the sayadaw explained the predominance of women at meditation retreats by saying that women have more devotion.) Most of the Asians were Vietnamese, with a few Burmese, Chinese, and Indians, and at least one Thai name on the interview roster. Most of the Asians were also older, with apparently nobody younger than 35 years old until about halfway through the retreat, when a few college-student-looking meditators appeared. The Westerners were more diverse age-wise, with young people and old. The two bhikkhus enrolled were both American—a junior monk ordained at Abhayagiri, and me—as well as about half a dozen Asian Buddhist nuns of several denominations, including one ancient nun whose name began with the honorific Ayyā, or “lady,” and whose signature included the word “Bhikkhuni,” so she would count as the second new bhikkhuni I have ever seen. A Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk appeared during the last ten days of the retreat. There were some struggling beginners there, and also some heavy hitters who regularly sat for three hours at a stretch. They also walked much more slowly than I did. I demonstrate my breaking of rules by writing this, as we weren’t supposed to be looking at each other.
One morning at around 4:30am, as I was walking to the meditation hall in the dark, I happened to see an unusual shape on the lawn. As I drew closer I realized that it was a skunk, crouching there on the grass eating a persimmon. As I slowly passed by, gazing upon the only real live wild skunk I can remember ever seeing, it regarded me warily, although not so warily as to actually stop eating the persimmon. An hour later, when the sayadaw was leading the group in mettā meditation, I made a special point of including the skunk. May all beings at this meditation center be well, happy, and peaceful…including the skunk….May all beings in this area be well, happy, and peaceful…including the skunk….May all beings in the world be well, happy, and peaceful…including the skunk…. The whole rest of the day I mindfully observed the urge to tell somebody, “This morning I saw a skunk in the yard!” But I didn’t tell anybody, as we weren’t supposed to talk unless it was necessary. I really wanted to tell someone though. It was an auspicious secret skunk. (Sādhu, Sādhu, Sādhu.)
The retreat was conducted by venerable Sayadaw U Paññāsāmi—with the same Pali name I had as a temporary novice many years ago—with his assistant sayadaw being venerable U Paññobhāsa—with the same name as I have now. Both monks are quite Burmese. In his Dhamma talks U Paññāsāmi pronounced Pali words with international consonants, but his vowels remained Burmese, which is reminiscent of the Burmese approach to Westernization in general: The objects may be Western, but the relations between them remain traditionally Burmese.
U Paññāsāmi is one of the many Burmese bhikkhus ordained since childhood, and he has been wearing monastic robes for probably more than fifty years. He was a novice under the guidance of the late great Mahasi Sayadaw, back when the Rangoon Mahasi Center was still new. He also spent many years under the authority of U Paṇḍita, and still considers that venerable sayadaw to be his commanding officer, so to speak. His Dhamma talks are fairly simple, although he often reels off long lists of Pali technical terms and quotes Pali texts at length, apparently looking down at his notes while reciting; but if one looked at his “notes” one would see that they were always the same: a picture of some kind of sea bird diving into water. It’s all from memory. His knowledge of Pali texts, as well as of the Mahasi theory of meditation, is truly remarkable. Also remarkable is the fact that his very Burmese way of giving Dhamma talks seemed to work well, usually, with the Westerners in the audience. He even occasionally had the meditators repeating after him when giving lists of Pali terms like the five faculties and the seven factors of enlightenment. Some of his Dhamma talks were particularly enjoyable and uplifting. One of the things I liked best about him, though, was that he was very unlike his commanding officer, venerable U Paṇḍita—he seemed like a humble, gentle, slightly shy, good-natured person who also happens to be an accomplished meditator. One could feel that he was genuinely friendly, that he was on your side. I would walk out of interviews with him joyous and grateful, which was very different from my interviews at Panditarama nineteen years ago, after which it might take two days for me to cool down enough to get back on track after one of Sayadaw’s frequent scoldings. Unfortunately for me, most of my interviews were with U Paññobhāsa, whose English wasn’t quite as good, and who seemed less adept at understanding precisely where I was at in my meditation.
Despite his friendly disposition, the good Sayadaw maintains some of the traditional fierceness of the Mahasi method, and of old-fashioned Theravada in general. He emphasizes the inevitability of death, citing it as an excellent reason for practicing diligently. He had us repeating things like, “I will age; I am not beyond aging. I will get sick; I am not beyond sickness. I will die; I am not beyond death.” Also: “My life is uncertain; my death is sure to come….My life is uncertain; my death is certain.” Another staple of traditional Mahasi is the idea that “pain is the friend of the meditator.” Pain is the key that unlocks the door to Nibbāna. Our instructions were to try not to change positions during the one-hour sitting sessions, even though the pain might feel so intense that we thought we might die. Many people fudged on that one though. A particularly difficult one for me, especially at first, was having an infuriatingly itchy face and not being allowed to scratch it. An itch on the cheek right beside the nose could be so intense that my arm would be twitching with an automatic reflex to reach up and scratch.
That pain is the friend of the meditator is a good thing, as I experienced quite a lot of it, especially during the second and third weeks of the retreat. Small, obscure back muscles with unpronounceable Latin names known only to anatomists, of which we are oblivious, after a week of sitting bolt upright for many hours a day suddenly start making their existence known by silently screaming at us. By the time the muscles and ligaments had restructured themselves and settled down I had become a connoisseur of agony: the sharp, narrow, quick, piercing pains in the back just between the spine and the right shoulder blade; the more intense and powerful pulsing agony at the left collarbone, extending up in a kind of string into my neck, intense yet bearable like very spicy food; the much more difficult stretching, glowing, almost sickening pain of a hamstring tendon, behind the knee, with the upper end of the tendon apparently attached to my gall bladder somehow; and so on. Each pain is different, and constantly changing. It’s very easy to note.
I found that pain is not the only friend of the meditator: another invaluable one is instant coffee. I might have fared better at Panditarama if I had had a jug of it then.
About a week after the first skunk encounter I was slowly walking toward the meditation hall, as before in the early morning before dawn, and a light rain was falling. After clearing overhead obstructions I snapped my umbrella open, and immediately heard a peculiar rustling noise directly in front of me. I looked and beheld, maybe twelve feet away, the aimed back end and menacingly upraised tail of an alarmed skunk. I mindfully, slowly hastened away from it, trying to go not quite fast enough to alarm it any farther, with a strange desire to go fast and slow at the same time. I sat down to my first meditation of the day with my heart still beating fast. As before, for the rest of the day I observed the desire to announce to somebody, “This morning I was almost attacked by a skunk!” but didn’t.
I intend to discuss the actual meditation method, as well as my criticisms of it, positive, negative, and neutral, in the next post. Also, an instructive YouTube video on meditation points out that to tell others about one’s meditative experiences may be fascinating, but to hear others tell of theirs is unbearable torture. Even so, I will share one meditative experience here.
After about one week of intensive practice, during the early evening, my mindfulness became very clear and quick, and my consciousness seemed to start expanding and accelerating somehow. Thoughts were noted almost immediately and would then disappear, and I began feeling a kind of joyous exhilaration. I abandoned the Mahasi method just a little at this point and, in a manner of speaking, flung my attention wide open, trying not to exclude anything. This triggered a marked upsurge of the intensity and exhilaration, and, at the risk of giving some kind of touchy-feely cliché, my arms seemed to be surging with a kind of golden light, with feelings of pleasure or piti so intense that the arms seemed to melt somewhat and were twitching uncontrollably. Excited thoughts started arising, which I would note and let go.
“I can do this!” Note it, let it go.
“All right!” Note it, let it go.
“Excellent!” Note it, let it go.
I was noting the exhilarated feeling also; but before very long it started overwhelming my powers of detachment, and before long the expanded meditative state crashed. It didn’t totally wipe out, but became just “pretty good” for the rest of the sit. Afterwards, while doing walking meditation, sort of, it occurred to me that in order to be fully enlightened, one must be able to note and let go absolutely everything that arises, because anything that you can’t note and dismiss catches you and becomes your Samsara. No matter how pleasant, or unpleasant, or intense, or subtle, if we can’t note and detach from it, we are stuck right there. Writhing in ecstasy? Note it, let it go. Feeling torment and guilt over those 517 nuns and orphans you carelessly allowed to die twelve years ago? Note it, let it go. Feeling a very subtle sense of “me” delicately pervading your experience? Note it, let it go. Otherwise you are stuck in that particular form of Samsara. It seems about as good a definition of enlightenment as I can think of at the moment.
We Westerners tend not to have nearly as much religious devotion as do Easterners who have been believing, religious Buddhists since childhood, but while slowly walking back and forth there in the meditation hall, with a Buddha statue on the altar silently bearing witness to our struggles, I was deeply inspired by the legendary life of Buddha. First of all, he very probably had experienced states orders of magnitude beyond anything I had felt in meditation, and had skillfully let it all go, with detachment, equanimity, and profound skill. The legend of his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree at Gaya seems a poetic metaphor; yet I could appreciate to some degree what Gotama had to go through in order to become a Buddha: the legend has Māra the evil one launching every weapon he has against the Bodhisatta—armies, voluptuous daughters, raging tempests, everything. The paintings of the events of that night usually show the soon-to-be Buddha sitting serenely with eyes closed, as though simply ignoring Māra and his seductively wriggling daughters, but I felt that he couldn’t ignore them at all. He was carefully, diligently noting all of it, every last bit of it, in order consciously to let it go. I usually don’t have faith like this, but on that night I was inspired and moved. We don’t meditate for that, however. The faith and inspiration also should be noted and mindfully dismissed. Otherwise we’re still stuck.
Sayadaw U Paññāsāmi