It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything. —Tyler Durden, in the movie Fight Club
When I first moved into Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery with the intention of becoming a monk, one of the lay attendants already residing there was a tallish, thinnish, middle-aged German woman with long, light brown hair, who went by the name of Vaṇṇamālā. She had previously been a disciple of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, with the Hindu name Sarjana; and after the illustrious Bhagwan was evicted from the United States, she apparently went in search of a new guru, and somehow settled upon the old Burmese abbot of TKAM, venerable Hlaing Tet Sayadaw. I was told that she had lived at the monastery before, and had been kicked out for unspecified reasons; but to the surprise of some of the others associated with the place, she had been invited back by the monastery’s administration in San Francisco, presumably with the intention of utilizing her as a “mole” for supplying the administration with information on the goings-on at the monastery.
Both of us stayed in the laypeople’s area on the lower floor of the main building, and we naturally interacted sometimes. She was friendly and liked to talk—although her slow, rambling, roundabout way of talking caused me to feel frustrated and uneasy, as I would know the end of her sentences long before she ever reached them. The feeling was somewhat similar to how I would feel as a young man driving behind a hat-wearing old fellow going ten miles below the speed limit. It was like, “OK, come on, you can move onto the next sentence, because I already know this one!” I tended to steer clear of her, as did others. But there were no real problems, at first.
The situation escalated into a full-blown predicament about two months after my arrival, at approximately the same time as my ordination as a bhikkhu. Venerable Mahasi U Paṇḍita of Burma was leading a two-week intensive meditation retreat at our monastery, and we lay attendants were encouraged to join the retreat. It turned out that I was so preoccupied with preparing to renounce the world that I dropped out after a few days, but Vaṇṇamālā was keen on meditation and was going for it. Maybe she was going for it a little too intensively, however, as at one point she apparently had what could be called a psychotic episode: She began hearing voices and became convinced that she had attained “samādhi concentration” and had become fully enlightened. Due to this and a few other contributing factors, the retreat organizers changed their minds and told the monastery attendants, including Vaṇṇamālā, that they shouldn’t participate in the retreat any longer. But Vaṇṇamālā’s “enlightenment” continued unabated.
For several days afterwards she appeared very disheveled, as though she were drunk, and would stagger and/or dance around, occasionally giggling to herself. One day she walked many miles to Santa Cruz to consult a certain book at a New Age metaphysical bookstore, to verify her belief that she was enlightened. Once I overheard her saying to someone that “the voice” had told her that now was the time for her to begin her “energy teachings.” On another occasion when she was serving Hlaing Tet Sayadaw his breakfast, she informed him, “Now a Buddha is serving you.” Her behavior became so erratic that another one of the attendants downstairs, a young Chinese woman, was expressing some serious alarm. But instead of expelling Vaṇṇamālā, the administration in San Francisco expelled the Chinese woman.
Vaṇṇamālā stopped going to the kitchen to receive her meals, insisting that someone bring her food to her, as was done for Sayadaw. She also began insisting that people bow to her, as they did to the monks. Most importantly from a practical point of view, she stopped helping in the kitchen, and stopped serving as an attendant altogether. At one point there was a shortage of monastery attendants, or “kappiyas”; and we monks (I was ordained by this time) would be in the kitchen washing dishes while Vaṇṇamālā would be sitting in the yard playing with the cats.
Sometimes people would confront her and ask why she wasn’t helping out anymore. She might give some reply to the effect that some people like cats and some people don’t like cats; but as for herself, she liked them. If the inquisitor persisted, brushing aside the non sequiturs with, “That’s fine Vaṇṇamālā, but why don’t you help in the kitchen anymore?” she would eventually close her eyes, tilt her head back a little, assume a blissful smile, and become immobile like a statue until the troublemaker eventually went away.
She had two main allies at the monastery: the venerable abbot himself, who did not speak English and did not understand what she said, and who was rather a simple village person anyway; and Michael, another one of the lay attendants who, like Vaṇṇamālā herself, was living on the outer fringe of acceptability and remained there largely due to the favor of Sayadaw. He was one of those interesting, hot-blooded, abrasive Hebrew guys who inevitably rub some people the wrong way, although I personally liked him. Michael had a very high opinion of Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, and one day, to my amazement, he informed me that, according to Sayadaw, Vaṇṇamālā had attained second jhāna. That was good enough for Michael. As for myself, however, I had begun to suspect that Vaṇṇamālā was mentally unhinged.
I looked up her symptoms in a home medical guide at the monastery—tangential thought, hearing voices, freezing like a statue, seeing no point in cooperation with others, etc.—and it appeared that she had a classic, textbook case of schizophrenia. However, to my further amazement, when I would mention this to others at the monastery, nobody would believe me. Aside from Sayadaw, who seemed to believe that she had second jhāna, the other Burmese monks figured she was just pretending because she didn’t want to work in the kitchen. (At least one Burmese monk openly despised her, referring to her as “the snake.”) The only other Western monk there, besides me, was an avid student of Abhidhamma; and since Abhidhamma does not account for mental illness, except to the extent that it asserts that everyone who is not fully enlightened is insane, he denied that schizophrenia even exists. When I broached the subject with the secretary of the board of directors she immediately exclaimed, “Michael’s the crazy one!” I was eventually vindicated, however: There was a research psychiatrist interested in Buddhism who would visit sometimes; and once when we were at a nearby park I was giving a few details about the strange goings-on at the monastery, not even for the purpose of presenting Vaṇṇamālā as a case for his professional consideration, and he interrupted me to say, “It sounds like you’ve got a psychotic living there.” He was not a psychiatrist who minced words.
At this point I digress with the purpose of discussing certain words which might be applied to people like Vaṇṇamālā. “Crazy” and “insane,” and to some degree even “psychotic,” are viewed as politically incorrect, derogatory, and offensive now, with a term like “mentally ill” being considered more polite and acceptable. But I consider such political correctness to consist largely of silliness and bovine herd instinct. “Crazy” has acquired connotations that are not entirely negative, for example one can be “crazy” about something that one really likes, or call something or someone “crazy” out of intense admiration; whereas “ill” is always, or almost always, used as a negative term. “Mentally ill” may thus be seen as more condescending, with more negative connotations, and possibly even more derogatory. Furthermore, I do not consider all so-called psychoses to be states of mental illness: some of them may simply be very unorthodox interpretations of reality. And as the Buddhist texts avow, aside from a few fully enlightened beings, we are all psychotic.
Anyway, some traditional cultures consider “crazy” people to be beloved of the gods, and under their special protection. (I am reminded of an old Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic in which the three hippies go to Mexico, and Fat Freddie, one of the three, ingests some shamanic substance which causes him to identify with his totem animal, the pig. He gets naked in public, wallows in mud, and so on, with no Mexican person daring to try to stop him. When a Mexican official is scolded by an American for this, he bashfully replies, “Is against Mexican custom to touch a naked crazy man…”) From a more Buddhist perspective it may be that such a person has such unusual mental states that they are producing unusual karma. Whatever the explanation, Vaṇṇamālā seemed to enjoy some special protection. She seemed blessed in a way.
Every attempt to be rid of her, even by the legal owners of the property, ended in failure. Vaṇṇamālā was a particularly sore trial for a fellow named Ravi, who became the monastery’s resident chief attendant. Regardless of how irrational or demanding she could be, Hlaing Tet Sayadaw always took her side, and would scold Ravi for not doing her bidding. On one famous occasion this caused Ravi literally to burst into tears of unbearable frustration. Finally he decided to take matters into his own hands by reporting Vaṇṇamālā to the US immigration authorities, as she was a foreigner who had been living in America without a valid visa for years. But the American immigration service was (and still is) so overwhelmed with illegal immigrant Mexicans that they wanted nothing to do with a German quasi-nun living at a monastery. One time the administration called the police to have her evicted. Vaṇṇamālā simply led the officer to Sayadaw; the policeman asked him if he wanted her to go, he answered No, and that was the end of that. The officer got into his car and drove away. On another occasion the owners of the property started a formal eviction procedure of some sort. Vaṇṇamālā’s only hope was to go to Sacramento and sign some kind of form, which would somehow defuse the attempt; although she seemed indifferent to the threat. Just then a young Burmese man who had developed a virulent hatred for the monastery’s administration, going with the idea “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” volunteered to drive her to Sacramento so she could sign the papers, which is what came to pass. On still another occasion a large group of supporters of the monastery, along with most of the monks, met with Sayadaw, trying to explain to him that Vaṇṇamālā was calling herself a Buddha, was not in her right mind, and was a serious disturbance at the monastery; and Sayadaw, although he did not understand English, denied everything. He simply replied, in Burmese, “No, she didn’t say that.” (He had a similar attitude toward the current military regime in Burma also: When Burmese people would explain to him that they saw with their own eyes soldiers shooting people in the streets, he would tell them, “No, you didn’t see that. That didn’t happen.”)
Finally, one day when Vaṇṇamālā was elsewhere, some of the people from San Francisco came to the monastery, put all the personal stuff that was in her room into plastic bags, moved the bags into the garage, and locked her out of the laypeople’s quarters. While this was happening one of the gentler members of the board stood next to me and said, “It’s hard to know what is the right thing to do, you know?” And, cynical young monk that I was at the time, I replied, “Sometimes there is no right thing. Sometimes you have to choose between two wrong ones.” When Vaṇṇamālā returned, she quietly took her stuff out of the garage and moved into a tent in the back woods which had been set up for meditators. She lived there for months, and before winter set in she found a meditation cabin that had been carelessly left unlocked and moved into that. None of these many efforts seemed to bother her very much, if at all. She almost always seemed serene; and, despite her aggravating refusal to cooperate with anyone, she did meditate a lot. She would sit on a cushion in the back of the meditation room, leaning back against the wall, with a peaceful smile on her face. I may as well mention that by this time she had acquired a small following of New Age people from town who would occasionally come to see her.
I made occasional, feeble attempts not to dislike her. She could be very exasperating, for example by her aforementioned inability to see any point in cooperating with anyone. Also, she seemed to be rather smug after her “enlightenment.” She was of the opinion that there were three people at the monastery with “attainment”: herself, Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, and another German laywoman, who was continually having crises and was quite amused to be listed among the arahants. The rest of us were dismissed as inferiors, or so it seemed at times. One time, when the police had been called to have Vaṇṇamālā removed from the premises, I took the trouble to write her a note pointing out that in all probability she would be thrown out, and that, even if she wasn’t, the majority were antagonistic to her and wanted her gone. I urged her, for her own sake (as well as everyone else’s), to leave peacefully and voluntarily. She read the note, serenely rolled it up, and stuck it under the arm of the big Buddha statue on the main altar. On another occasion her sister in Germany called to wish Vaṇṇamālā a happy birthday. I happened to answer the phone, so I went to her to convey the message. I tried to be friendly; but Vaṇṇamālā responded with such effusiveness and such a bright, deep, intense look into my eyes that I quickly started backing away. Mostly I just avoided her, which was pretty easy to do after I became a monk. Once or twice the other Western monk and I discussed possible strategies for feeling mettā towards her, or at least maintaining equanimity towards her.
But the possibility of successful friendliness pretty much evaporated about a year after her enlightenment, at which time she began declaring herself a fully ordained bhikkhuni. It was just too much. She would say “It’s official,” and produce a certificate declaring her to be an eight-precept yogi—that is, a layperson. She began shaving her head, and every day too, so that her scalp was always shiny. One day as I was approaching the back of the main monastery building I saw Vaṇṇamālā’s shining head slowly, serenely coming up the steps from the lower yard…and I almost snapped. I’ve heard of seeing red when one is very angry, but on this occasion I experienced a flash of fury that was white-hot; I spun on my heels seeing white and stood with my back turned to her, fists clenched, until I got a grip on myself. Monasteries and ashrams, being places of unnatural self-restraint, can be like a dangerous pressure cooker sometimes. One former lay attendant called our monastery a “shit accelerator.”
As it turned out, shortly after Vaṇṇamālā transitioned to bhikkhuni status I moved out, or fled, to Asia. Only occasionally would I hear some bit of news from California. One tidbit I received was that Vaṇṇamālā had acquired some monk robes and was wearing them. Also, everyone apparently gave up on trying to get rid of her, since absolutely nothing was working.
A year or so after my arrival in Burma old Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, wishing to spend his final years in the country of his birth, returned to Burma for good. With Vaṇṇamālā’s focus of bhakti gone, as well as her great protector, she quickly left TKAM of her own accord. The next I heard she was staying at Bhavana Society, Bhante Gunaratana’s place in West Virginia. I suspect Bhante was not overly enthusiastic about his new nun, as shortly thereafter he came to Burma with Vaṇṇamālā in tow, and she was deposited at, or just found her own way to, Hlaing Tet Sayadaw’s monastery in the village of Hlaing Tet, in central Burma. Whether Sayadaw was glad to see her or not I don’t know, but I would guess that nobody else was overjoyed by her presence. Within a relatively short time she was unable to get her visa renewed, possibly due to supporters dragging their feet, and so she left Burma; and that’s the last I ever heard of her.
I have no idea where she is now. She could be here in California as the leader of some small New Age spiritual movement for all I know. Or she could be in a mental hospital. Maybe she went back to Germany. I don’t know. One thing I do know now though, much better than I did in those days, is the value of difficult or unpleasant challenges like the ones Vaṇṇamālā provided. People like Vaṇṇamālā—and people very different from her, but just as difficult to deal with—“trigger” us; they help to bring up latent attachments, facilitating them being shoved into our face, so that we can see our own rigidity and immaturity, our own limitations, and thereby give us a golden opportunity to understand and outgrow them. It is difficult to understand and let go of what you cannot see. The Russian philosopher/guru George Gurdjieff was famous for deliberately keeping obnoxious, really troublesome people at his ashram for this very reason. Such people can really help us to wake up, if we let them. But at the time I just couldn’t appreciate Vaṇṇamālā for the treasure that she was. (Even so, if I ever do start a place in the West, and she were to show up asking for admittance, I probably would not let her stay! Deliberately making life difficult for oneself is not necessarily the Middle Path. But I don’t know.) I do wish her well, wherever she is. I would much prefer that she be a New Age icon than a patient at a mental institution.