I was considering letting this be the very last post on this here blog before shutting the thing down, for reasons which ought to be woefully obvious to regular readers. But, I’ve already written a few more posts which haven’t been published yet, and I do enjoy writing, usually, and it helps to keep me out of trouble while I’m here in Babylon, sort of, so what the hell. This won’t be the last post, although it appears the end is near. This one is pretty much the end of the last chapter of this tragicomedy, however, with everything that comes after being by way of epilogue. I will try to restrain urges to let this degenerate into an impassioned tirade, at least until I am near the end, although I may change my mind and start ranting at any moment. Today I’ve been feeling less disgusted, indignant, disillusioned, and heart-achy than usual lately (lucky for you), so I was actually thinking maybe I should hold off on writing this until I’m more worked up; but let’s just get on with it.
I suppose I should start with a rather simplistic synopsis of the flight of the lead balloon, or whatever it is, which will be review for some of you who are already familiar with the story.
In the summer of 1991 I officially renounced the world and became a Theravada Buddhist monk. I did this mainly for two reasons: I wanted to dedicate my life to the cultivation of wisdom, and to understanding Reality, considering that to be the worthiest thing I could do with my life; and also I could not take American culture seriously—it is just too shallow, too superficial, too confining for me to find deep satisfaction in it. It may be that just about any worldly culture would be the same, and the wisest philosophies and spiritual movements tend to agree that wallowing in a worldly life is an obstacle to realization.
My primary interest as a new monk was to follow the teaching of Gotama Buddha as closely as I could. I had zero interest in conforming to American-style Buddhism, to which I had almost no exposure anyway, and I also had little or no interest in conforming to traditional Southeast Asian “ethnic” Buddhism. I wanted to follow what the Buddha originally taught as purely as I could, so I kept my eyes on the Suttas and Vinaya and tried to live like an ancient Indian Buddhist ascetic.
Before long this resulted in me being an outsider even to the Sangha, and driving myself harder and harder until I was living alone in caves in remote tropical forests and semi-desert wastelands. I followed the rules as strictly as I could manage, and over the course of my first ten years or so as a bhikkhu I figured I was averaging about six hours of formal sitting meditation per day. If enlightenment was possible for me, I was determined to find it, and not by ignoring or simplifying Dhamma to make it more convenient. (If I were a Jew I would have to be kosher, and if I were a Christian I would have to take seriously such universally ignored tenets as “Gather not up your treasures upon the earth.”) For years I was a radical fundamentalist Buddhist, perhaps bordering on fanaticism in my profound desire to follow Dhamma.
Burmese villagers revere monks in general, in accordance with their Buddhist tradition, and they respected and loved me for renouncing my own world in order to live in poverty in theirs, out of respect for their own religion; and the fact that I was practicing so strictly and conscientiously besides had many of them considering me to be a saint, possibly even a fully enlightened being. To this day in certain areas of Burma people make offerings at little shrines dedicated to my honor, or so I have been told. Burmese villagers are very poor in a physical sense, but they were eager and honored to offer support.
After many years in Burma, though, I began burning out. Mainly it was the isolation and the blazing tropical heat. I started telling my best supporter that if I stayed there much longer I would go insane or die. I made some effort to come back to America, but by this time my father was dead, my former supporters in America, what few I had, had drifted out of contact, and I didn’t know how to leave. Lousy communications (this was before the country opened up and before Internet was available) almost ensured that I would remain in life-long exile.
By this time I felt that I had learned much of value from my practice and experiences, and that it could be good, for others as well as for me personally, if I returned to the West and shared this in some kind of interaction. I knew that the overwhelming majority of Westerners, possibly even the overwhelming majority of Western Buddhists, wouldn’t be interested, but it seemed extremely likely, pretty much a certainty even, that there would be some kindred spirits who could appreciate someone like me, and would be willing to form some kind of symbiosis. I didn’t want reverence so much as someone who could appreciate what I could share, and could communicate with me—being more philosopher than priest. Going back to America really seemed like the thing to do, essentially the next step in my practice.
Yet because of lack of communications with people in America while I was in solitude in Burma, there seemed to be no obvious way of returning. Finally, with the help of a generous Burmese donor, I took a huge leap of faith and just flew back to my old home town of Bellingham. I knew only one person there by this time, and I couldn’t just move in with him indefinitely, but I felt that Bellingham had a noticeably higher level of consciousness than most cities, and it is a beautiful place, and I felt the need to move somewhere, so I took the plunge and started the great adventure. I wasn’t even sure if anyone would meet me at the airport.
I had come back briefly a few times over the years to visit my parents, but this time, coming back indefinitely and in need of support, the strange, amazing ordeal began, probably a stranger shock to my system than when I first went to Asia. I really felt that I had something of great value to offer, and there have been Western people who agree with me on that, but the difference between Buddhism in Burma and Buddhism in America was like the difference between day and night, with America being night. It was like diving into ice water, the contrast was so great.
From the beginning I met with indifference. The representative of the local Vipassana group in Bellingham didn’t even answer my emails introducing myself. (This has proven to be quite common actually; about half of Western Buddhist organizations do not reply.) As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I met with at least as much cool disdain inside the local Dharma hall as outside on the streets of Bellingham. Polite standoffishness was the most common attitude, with some anxiety apparent on the part of the teachers of the group that I might somehow attempt to “take over” the organization.
To complicate matters somewhat, the only person in town to offer shelter, and desire eagerly what I could teach her, was a young, unmarried American woman. I moved into a greenhouse in her back yard, at her enthusiastic invitation. In addition to providing shelter, she also was providing most of the food I ate, sometimes feeding me five days out of seven, and she organized most of the other support I received. We were overwhelmed with gratitude for each other, and eventually fell in love. After it ended, and I admitted to all of it publicly, the board of directors of the local Vipassana group used it as a golden opportunity to be rid of me once and for all and unanimously excommunicated me from their “sangha”—although this was obviously a case of jumping at the opportunity to make official what many of them had been doing unofficially from the beginning. Even before I was finally excommunicated in 2013 I was living on the floor of a massage studio, fasting once a week to reduce the burden on my few supporters, and eating corn chips and cheese two or three additional days per week, which food was bought with money donated by Burmese Buddhists in California.
The “Let This Be a Lesson” episode has been seen by others also as a justification for non-support, although possibly none of them would have supported me in any case. I will say that the only time when my efforts to live supported by my fellow Americans seemed to be working was when my great benefactress and spiritual sweetheart was acting as a kind of agent or business manager, in some ways compensating for my own lack of (or disdain for) social skills, my aversion for hyping myself, and the rules of discipline preventing me from doing my own business. It appears that without some kind of manager it just doesn’t work. Also, I consider our romance, even though it was not consummated in the biological sense (as I did manage to remain celibate), to be the most profound and beautiful experience I have had since coming back to America in 2011. Even though it eventually hit the rocks and resulted in a great deal of unhappiness, I feel it was still well worth it, and cannot possibly regret it, even though I’m not planning to repeat the experience.
Anyway, the thundering silence of the Buddhists of Bellingham was apparently no anomaly, as American Buddhists in general seem to be pretty similar in this regard. In addition to almost total lack of interest in what I can teach, there has been almost zero interest in providing a senior Buddhist monk (me) with even the bare necessities of existence—food and shelter. Needless to say, this also indicates a lack of motivation to help a fellow human being.
A common observation is that Westerners aren’t familiar with supporting the minimal needs of an ascetic bhikkhu. This is no doubt true; although it is also true that virtually nobody is willing to learn. They just don’t see the point, and don’t want to see it. Often it is simply a convenient excuse for apathy, or indifference, or whatever. American Buddhists prefer to cling to the familiar, with their Buddhism modified and lukewarmified to fit with that. I am reminded of a senior teacher of the group in Bellingham saying that she wouldn’t support me because she did not know what lineage I came from—although I had offered the information in the past, and she had made zero effort to find out, and continued to make zero effort. It was a convenient rationalization, although perhaps not a very rational one.
A similar issue involves the idea, considered by some Western Buddhists to be quite reasonable, that the Buddhists of Bellingham were justified in not offering support to the only Buddhist monk in town because they had not invited me. But consider such an attitude in ancient India: Let’s say a wandering monk happens to pass through a village. The villagers, considering themselves to be Buddhists, say nevertheless, “Let’s view this monk with suspicion for three years or so before deciding whether or not to offer him support.” Well, of course Buddhism would have died out in ancient times, wouldn’t it. For that matter, why gives alms to a street beggar? You didn’t invite him. Why support your aging mother? You didn’t invite her either. Generosity makes little sense in a consumeristic society.
So of course, from the beginning Americans have been urging me to live at an established monastery. “Go stay at a temple!” they have said. For the most part this entails choosing between the Ajahn Chah tradition and Asian “ethnic” Buddhism; and neither is really for me, for reasons I needn’t go into and which most readers wouldn’t understand anyhow. Westerners tend to have only the vaguest notions of what monasteries are like, or are supposed to be like. If there is a monastery in the West where I would really fit in, I don’t know where it is. I have been staying at a little Burmese house-temple in California for the past several months, where the Burmese offer plentiful support, and where I meet approximately one Westerner per week, and usually the same guy. He’s a good guy though. But I figure it’s better just to go back to Burma, because the Euro-Americans obviously don’t give a damn. I get more physical exercise there also, have many more options, and actually have more freedom.
Considering that Westerners are supposedly openminded, and that Western culture in general is spiritually bankrupt and unsatisfying, the failure to find kindred spirits willing to make the effort to have me around has struck me again and again as a kind of bizarre anti-miracle. It’s totally amazing to me, especially considering the enthusiastic support in other parts of the world. I have tried to understand it, and have written several posts on this blog attempting to analyze various aspects of the situation. Obviously there isn’t just one big reason, but apparently very many, maybe twenty or more that I could list. Maybe thirty. Recently in a mood of despairing wonder I asked a Canadian man who has offered long-distance support from time to time what his explanation was. His response is interesting, and worth repeating:
Making connections isn't just about whether or not people 'accept' your style of Dharma, but whether they are motivated enough by you to actually make contact and form a relationship. I think much of it is more dependent on charisma and social skills than anything else: It doesn't matter how damn enlightened you are, if people don't find it compelling to interact with you, they won't want to. Just look at how pleasant and charismatic most Western dharma teachers are: half therapist, half entertainer, they make it very easy to connect to.
I've seen the mistake made more than once that monastics expect the same sort of piety and respect from Western layfolk that they received in the East. Yuttadhammo made the same mistake, but he worked extremely hard to put out massive amount of content on YouTube and to involve people-- he would get them to come to his various monasteries he set up, train them and ordain them as novices. He built his following as a missionary would.
Also I think your style of dharma is also partly to blame: your explicitness and skepticism removes much of the mystique people find compelling in other teachers.
With regard to this I would just point out, again, that it’s not so much “piety and respect” that I’ve been looking for as simple food and shelter. Even that has been too much to expect in the West, unless it is supplied by foreign immigrants. And if having spent half my adult life as an ascetic in caves lacks “mystique,” then I am incapable of it, period.
But there is no point in yet another attempt to analyze the almost total unwillingness of American Buddhists to support me, or for that matter to support practice above an elementary level. I will just add to the pile of reasons that my own motives are presumably impure to the point of giving me some hellaciously obstructive karma. The Universe is apparently insisting, really insisting, that I give up and spend the rest of my life in solitude in a tropical Asian forest, so I may as well bow my head, give up, and go.
Before moving on though, I will mention that sometimes I almost wish that America’s lack of interest in keeping me alive were entirely my own fault—simply a matter of impure motives and an obnoxious personality. But the fact remains that non-support of renunciants in America is practically universal. All monks in America that I am aware of are supported primarily by Asians. American Buddhists are not only unwilling to practice Dhamma as the top priority in their lives (and most people even in devoutly Buddhist cultures are the same in this), but they are also unwilling to support those who are willing. Thus American Buddhism has effectively abolished renunciation, along with the primary purpose of Dhamma: enlightenment in this very life. Dhamma is not merely decapitated, everything is cut off above the knees.
One interesting point to me is that I encountered a great dilemma in the West: As mentioned earlier I haven’t been able to take American culture as a whole very seriously, and that includes American Buddhism of course, most of which I would call “McBuddhism.” Rather than finding Americans turning to Dhamma because, like me, they are looking for a better way of life, practically all of them are clinging to the old way of life and force-fitting Buddhism into the spiritually bankrupt container. The kindred spirits I was so confident of finding are so extremely few and so thinly scattered across the world that they make little practical difference, except maybe at some ethereal level. So the dilemma is that I refuse to be hypocritical on the subject and, although I don’t always dwell on it, I don’t always conceal the fact that what most people in the West are seriously calling Buddhism I consider to be a corrupt farce. At least I’m not insulting their religion by it, since Buddhism isn’t their religion anyway. And I’m not insulting them personally, partly because they’re too lukewarm and apathetic to be insulted by it. Maybe I should be saying “you” instead of “them,” since statistically speaking you, the reader, probably fit the qualifications; but I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t matter anyway.
Maybe it is a personality defect that I insist upon standing outside the system, just about any system. Pretty much everything I write is an examination of some system or other from the outside. This is actually very valuable; but not only most Americans, or most Westerners, but human beings in general, 99.999% of us, insist not only on standing within the system, but on being enslaved to it, and wallowing in it. One reason why Burmese Buddhists support me so avidly, aside from being very generous and hospitable people anyway, is because they believe, bless their hearts, that I stand within their system, although really I do not, except maybe at the edge of it, as an accidental side effect. Those who do not stand within the accepted system are a threat to the majority’s peace of mind.
So I have spent my life painting myself into a corner, metaphorically speaking. I am not only a misfit and outcast, but I insist upon being one as a matter of principle. I must continue with it also, and have no real regrets over how I have lived my life. If I had these past few years to live over again there would probably be only some minor adjustments, and it still wouldn’t work out. I’d wind up in the same situation as now. I thought there would be others who could benefit from my nonconformity, but apparently I was mistaken; but regardless of whether I am alone or with other kindred spirits, I have to live according to my own conscience and reason, and not follow along with the conformist herd.
I do hope this blog has been of benefit to somebody, that it has helped at least one person out there to be at least a little more awake, a little less entangled in the phenomenal mess called Samsara. Based on the communications I have received, this blog seems to appeal mostly to loners, to those who are unimpressed by their local Buddhist group and are looking for something more satisfying. I am very glad you are out there, and wish you luck. But even the loners appear to be pretty lukewarm.
Well, thus far I’ve managed to write this thing without losing my cool and breaking into a fiery rant, although it has been meandering unsteadily all over the place. I guess I’m just too weary of the whole joke to get good and fired up. So I’ll add a succulent passage from a previous post, one written shortly after my formal excommunication from the blind leading the blind.
When I was young and Diogenes was my hero, I rebelled against society. I no longer rebel against it; now I'm content just to renounce it, more or less. It seems madness and futility to rebel against 99.99% of the human race. I'm willing to let society be. I don't really rebel against the Bhikkhu Sangha either, although I renounced that institution also, more or less, when I was still a young monk, still not at my peak of strictness, after realizing that more than 95% of bhikkhus don't seriously practice Dhamma or Vinaya (and that is not an exaggeration). For years I avoided the company of other monks whenever it was convenient to do so. But now, in my less fanatical maturity perhaps, I'm willing to let the Bhikkhu Sangha be also, and am more willing to associate with my colleagues in that organization, whether or not they are willing to associate with me.
But there is one institution that I still consider worth my while to rebel against: and that is what many (but certainly not all) people in America are pleased to call "Theravada Buddhism"—a movement in which laypeople who may not take three refuges or keep five precepts call themselves "Sangha," and if they do take refuge in the Sangha, take refuge in themselves; in which the members believe more deeply in scientific materialism and politically correct humanism than in Dhamma; in which even many teachers do not believe in fundamental principles of Buddhism, even Nibbana, because scientific materialism cannot explain it; in which the members sew new patches onto old cloth, and are essentially worldly materialists with a little Buddhist flavoring added; in which the possibility of miracles is rejected out of hand; in which monks are required to be politically correct, smiling politicians, or saints, in order to be considered the equals of the lay community; in which a monk must prove himself worthy of even receiving a bowl of food every day; in which many of the teachers are more ignorant of the Buddhist texts than a typical Burmese villager with a grade school education; in which most of Theravada Buddhism is rejected or ignored, with the system reduced to little more than a few elementary meditation techniques, being a pale shadow of a mutilated fragment of Dhamma; in which complacent lukewarmness is standard, with anything more than that being considered extreme, unnecessary, or "cultish"; in which truth is covered up with phony politeness for the sake of not ruffling feathers, or threatening people's fragile self-esteem; in which true renunciation is scorned; in which austerity is pretty much a nonstarter, with luxury and wimpiness being virtually mandatory (with the Goenka folks not culpable of this one); in which "sacred" is regarded as a superstitious word; in which Liberation in this very life has been replaced by enhancing the quality of their mental prisons, because the members are unwilling to go beyond a very casual and elementary level of commitment; in which a radical way of life designed for enlightenment has been rejected in favor of watered-down, soft, easy, convenient, comfortable, non-threatening, politically correct fluff designed to help them stay more comfortably asleep—THAT I rebel against. I lift my lower robes and fart in its general direction.
There you are. To those of you who have generously offered support in the past (and there are some), and to any of you who really have derived benefit from my presence, I do apologize for all this. But even so…fuck it. I quit. As a large alien humanoid once said on the old Star Trek, and as I used to say to myself while sitting alone in Burmese forests, “My life is forfeit.” As the Burmese say, becoming a monk is a form of suicide. It’s pointless to say any more—in fact it was probably pointless to say most of what is above, since maybe nobody gives a damn anyway. Better to spend the rest of my life in exile, and in solitude.