Saturday, February 23, 2013

Technical Matters: Excommunication by Theft of a Pāda

     Many of you know, and hopefully all of you who are monks know, that there are four rules of monastic discipline which, if any one them is transgressed, result in a Theravada Buddhist monk being automatically disqualified from the Bhikkhu Sangha for the rest of his life; re-ordination is not allowed in such a case. The four disqualifications, called pārājika, are 1) having S-E-C-K-S with somebody, "even with an animal"; 2) Intentionally stealing ("taking what is not given") anything valuable enough that one could be arrested for doing it; 3) Deliberately causing the death of another human being, which would include hiring an assassin, using black magic, and persuading someone to commit suicide; and 4) Deliberately lying about having attained "superhuman mental states," for example claiming to be enlightened, when one knows one is not, for the sake of becoming famous. Traditionally they are said to be listed in ascending order of seriousness. 
     There is a secret, fifth pārājika rule that even many monks don't know about: If a monk somehow is castrated or "neutered," even if it is by accident, he automatically stops being a bhikkhu and cannot be re-ordained (unless he somehow regains what he lost).
     The one rule in particular that I intend to discuss in this article is number two, intentional theft. At every monk's ordination the four pārājikas are explained to him, and he is told that if a monk steals a coin called a pāda, anything worth a pāda, or anything worth more than a pāda, he is excommunicated and, as a yellow leaf that falls from a tree cannot be rejoined to the tree and continue to live, he cannot be rejoined with the Sangha of monks. The exact wording of the rule, in English translation, is as follows:
"And whatever bhikkhu, with intention of theft, takes what is not given from a village or a forest, in such a manner of taking what is not given that the authorities, having caught a robber, would execute him or imprison him or banish him, saying "You are a robber, you are a fool, you are an idiot, you are a thief," then this bhikkhu, taking what is not given in such a manner, is also excommunicated and no longer a member of the Community."
     Pārājika rules being of such great consequence, there are extremely minute details in the books of discipline regarding what is and is not a theft entailing excommunication. For example, if a monk starts to steal something so that part of it has been lifted but part of it is still touching whatever it was resting on, then he has not yet committed pārājika, but is guilty of a lesser offense (called thullaccaya, a serious transgression) which may still be confessed and atoned for. Another example: If a monk steals something of little value, but worth more than a pāda, like honey, a little bit at a time, then whether or not he is guilty of pārājika depends on whether he does it according to an overall plan or whether he steals something less than a pāda again and again, each time with a fresh intention. 
     Sometimes the considerations can be very complicated. There is a story in the commentarial literature about a monk who picked up a roll of cloth at a crowded marketplace and made off with it. He was later struck with remorse and confessed the deed to a senior monk. The elder then went off in search of the owner of the cloth, and when he found him he asked a few questions. He returned to the penitent thief and told him that he had not committed pārājika at all because the owner of the cloth had dropped it and had given it up for lost---and thus technically the cloth was without an owner. The books of discipline, being essentially law books, contain many, many pages of such sample cases.
     It was probably this need for crystal-clear certainty with regard to what is and is not an offense that caused the rule to be defined, even before the Canon had reached completion, in accordance with the value of a pāda. It was apparently a common coin in ancient India, and so was a convenient criterion.
     The trouble is that we don't use pādas any more; and the value of one is questionable. Which is not so good in a case of such great consequence, potentially, to the Sangha.
     The section of the commentary corresponding to this rule simply states that a pāda is one fourth part of a kahāpaa (in Sanskrit kārāpaa, a coin which was the standard unit of currency in northern India for centuries). Elsewhere in the commentary, if my memory serves me correctly (I'm too lazy to look it up), all the further information that is forthcoming is that the kahāpaa in question is the nīla, or blue, kahāpaa. 
     In the medieval to modern sub-commentarial literature, however, there is a statement that the kahāpaa which the fateful stolen pāda is one-fourth of is a coin consisting of five unhusked rice grains' weight of gold, five of silver, five of copper, and possibly five of iron (the authorities did not agree on the iron). Using the sub-commentary as an authority and calculating the value of a kahāpaa by the current value of gold and silver, some scholar monks determined that it was worth the modern equivalent of around  US $60, and thus a pāda would be worth around $15. This was about 15 years ago when gold was approximately $600 per troy ounce; now it is more than 2½ times that much. A kahāpaa would now be worth about $150. So this is the official party line in Theravada Buddhism as far as I can tell. A monk can steal anything worth less than about $37 and not be excommunicated.
     This strikes me as hardly likely for a number of reasons. First of all, $37 is a considerable amount of money, and it is hard to believe that a monk could walk into a store, steal a book worth $35, be arrested, convicted, and fined for shoplifting, and be called a thief, a fool, and a knucklehead besides by the judge---and still not be guilty of a pārājika offense. 
     Furthermore, the ancient texts give as examples such small things as several spoonfuls of honey or a piece of meat small enough to be carried off by a bird as grounds for excommunication. 
     Another consideration is that in the ancient rules for nuns there are two rules discussing a coin called a kasa, or "bronze," which according to the texts themselves was worth four kahāpaas. According to the rules, heavy cloth to make a robe should be worth no more than four kasas, and light cloth for same  should be worth no more than two and a half. This would make a light summer robe worth approximately $1500, which doesn't seem very likely. The very fact that the coin was called a bronze indicates that it probably wasn't worth all that much, certainly not more than a coin containing gold.
     Back in the days when I was avidly studying monastic discipline this issue seemed rather important, and I tried to get to the bottom of it. Finally I found the following information in a magnificent book called The Wonder That Was India, by A. L. Basham (Sidgwick and Jackson, London 1954):
     A money economy only existed in India from the days of the Buddha. That coinage was introduced from the west cannot be proved with certainty, but the earliest clear references to coined money are found in texts looking back to a period shortly after the foundation of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia [c.550 BCE], which was the first great empire to mint an official coinage, and which for a time controlled the Panjāb. The Babylonians and Assyrians managed with unstamped silver shekels, but the Achaemenid emperors adopted stamped coinage from Lydia and the Greek cities of Asia Minor, which had already employed it for a century or two. If India did not learn the use of coinage from the Persians she invented it independently, but the coincidence is too striking to make this seem probable. 
     The earliest Indian coinage consisted of flat pieces of silver or bronze, of irregular shape, but fairly accurate in weight. They bore no inscriptions, but a number of punch-marks, the significance of which is not finally established, but which probably included the emblems of kings who minted the coins, and control marks of local officials and merchants. Inscribed coins were not regularly minted in India until the 2nd century B.C., and though literary evidence suggests that gold coinage may have existed earlier the oldest surviving gold coins, other than one or two very rare specimens, are those of Vīma Kadphises of the 1st century A.D….(pp. 220-221)
     Uninscribed, punchmarked coins were minted from the 6th century B.C. onwards, and were in circulation for many centuries. Among the earliest silver specimens are those in the shape of a small bent bar, the largest of which, the śatamāna, weighed 180 grains. Half, quarter and half-quarter śatamānas are attested.
     The basic silver punchmarked coin of the usual type was the kārāpaa or paa, of 57.8 grains. The a or ika weighed one-sixteenth of this, or 3.6 grains. Various intermediate weights are attested, as well as large silver coins of 30 and 20 as and small half-a pieces.
     Punchmarked copper coins were generally based on a different standard---a a of 9 grains and a kārāpaa of 144. Quarter-as of copper, or kākiīs (2.25 grains) are attested, as well as large coins of 20, 30 and 45 copper as. 
     Only one gold punchmarked coin is known, and it must be assumed that gold was very rarely minted before the beginning of the Christian era….(pp. 504-505)
     Judging from the information above, it would seem that the coin described in the sub-commentarial literature has never been found and may never have existed, and that there were two main kinds of kahāpaa in ancient India, specimens of which abound in museums and can be purchased from coin dealers---which one would expect of a standard unit of currency which prevailed for centuries.
     Since silver is more blue than copper, I assume that the nīla kahāpaa specified in the commentary is the silver one. So, if silver is one US dollar per gram, and there are 0.0648 grams to one grain, then a 57.8 grain kahāpaa would be worth US $3.74 by modern prices---and thus the criterion for excommunication by theft would be one-fourth of that: 93 cents. (This is assuming that the silver in ancient Indian coins was as pure as sterling silver nowadays.) Which still seems like rather a lot; twenty years ago when silver was just a few dollars an ounce a monk could be automatically defrocked for stealing anything worth more than about 18 cents.

     This comes nowhere near to exhausting the issue of pārājika #2 in modern times. There are all sorts of new issues which simply didn't exist in the Buddha's day. For example there is the problem of copyright theft. Some of the photographs I put on this blog are downloaded from the Internet, and I can't be sure that they're not copyrighted. Also I'm not sure exactly what is legal or illegal in this regard. If a photo shows signs of being copyrighted I don't use it, but that is no guarantee. Fortunately a monk is not excommunicated unless he commits theft with conscious intention to commit theft. In Buddhism intention is the primary factor in ethics, and is the essence of karma itself.

An uncopyrighted (I hope!) picture of ancient silver kahāpaas

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Burmese Women

     Sati (Attention): This post may be politically incorrect, because it happens to mention that the inhabitants of "poverty-stricken" Burmese villages, especially the women, evidently experience less unhappiness in their lives than we Westerners do, regardless of their "unempowered" state. My purpose is not to be deliberately politically incorrect, however. It just happens sometimes.

     Some people may suspect that I have more fascination for women than is appropriate for a celibate Buddhist monk; if so, they are probably right. Even so…
     Several years ago I read Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, alias Isak Dinesen, and one chapter that made a strong impression on me was "The Somali Women," about, not surprisingly, Somali Women. It seems that women in pre-World War Two Somalia were essentially sold for money by their parents to their husbands, and generally had little or no say with regard to whom they married. It was all arranged by the parents. Although technically property, the Somali women were trained from childhood to be the captivating enchantresses of their men. Somali men are, or at least were in those days, ascetic nomads, and being devout Muslims besides, do not drink, gamble, or indulge in much luxury. Practically their only real luxury in life, their greatest joy, is their women, and they dote on them mightily, spending most of their money on pleasing them, or at least decorating them. A common topic of gossip amongst the girls was how much money was paid by a man to marry So-and-So, and the girls took great pride in the high prices they would fetch when sold by their parents. Once some Somali girls shyly asked Baroness Blixen about marriage customs in the West:
By the time that we had become well acquainted, the girls asked me if it could be true what they had heard, that some nations in Europe gave away their maidens to their husbands for nothing. They had even been told, but they could not possibly realize the idea, that there was one tribe so depraved as to pay the bridegroom to marry the bride [i.e., to pay a dowry]. Fie and shame on such parents, and on girls who gave themselves up to such treatment. Where was their self-respect, where their respect for woman, or for virginity? If they themselves had had the misfortune to be born into that tribe, the girls told me, they would have vowed to go into their grave unmarried.
It struck me that there are many possible ways to look at female roles in society, and that more than one way is possible. More than one way may even work, although no way is perfect.
     This is true in Burma (Myanmar) also. Culturally, Burmese women have only a quasi-equality with Burmese men. There is an ancient tradition, possibly derived from classical Indian culture, that women are inherently inferior to men. To give a few examples of this: At the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous monument in all of Burma, women are not allowed to go up and walk on the upper platform. (Most foreigners don't even know that there is an upper platform.) Because so many foreign tourists and pilgrims come here, and possibly because of an unpleasant confrontation or two in the past, a convenient rule has been made banning all foreigners, male or female, from ascending the upper platform of the Shwedagon, with the primary purpose really being to keep the women off. At one of my favorite shrines in Mon State, women are not allowed to enter at all, but have a cheesy little substitute temple from which they may view the big one. (I like this place not for its architecture, much less for its sexist policy, but because it is on the seashore and little mudskippers, land crawling fish that can even blink, are all over the place. There are mangrove trees too.) I know an American man who led a kind of spiritual pilgrimage through Burma not long ago, and the American women in the group were outraged when they were informed that they as women were not allowed to put gold leaf on the big boulder of Kyaiktiyo, another famous Burmese pagoda, afterwards practically boycotting the country they were traveling in. Some of the men in the group participated in the boycott also. Burmese monks enjoy much more prestige than nuns, and it is an age-old tradition that a fully enlightened Buddha—not an ordinary enlightened being, but a Buddha who starts the wheel of Dhamma turning in the world—can only be male. There can be no female Buddha, allegedly.

A No Women Allowed sign at the bottom of an observation
tower at a shrine in northwest Burma

     At a more mundane level, one may notice that the jitneys made from Japanese pickup trucks lurching around Burmese cities never have women riding on top of them, although men often ride on top. This may be seen as gallantry, letting the women ride inside, and there probably is a fair amount of genuine gallantry involved; but a more important reason is that it is demeaning to a man's dignity to have a woman's bottom just inches above his head. It also demeans his dignity to hang his clothes on the same clothesline as one from which women's clothing is hung; and handling women's clothes at all is considered an indignity, even by professional dyers. Much worse than this is to walk under a clothesline with women's clothing hanging on it. I did this once and a Burmese monk I was with practically freaked out. When I came back the other way he stood in a place conspicuously guarding the way and energetically gesticulated for me to go around, not under. I later learned that the Burmese equivalent of Samson lost his prodigious strength not by having his hair cut off by a Burmese Delilah, but by walking under a clothesline with feminine sarongs hanging from it.
     On the other hand, in other respects people do not take the supposed inferiority of women very seriously. Deep down they seem to know better. For example, there may be as many female physicians as male ones in Burma, and of course the most internationally famous politician in the country is a woman. Women keep their own name and their own property after they marry, they are allowed to divorce their husbands, and they are often the main money-makers of the family. And they receive respect, in an old-fashioned sort of way. I've been told that in the villages near Wun Bo Forest Monastery where I lived for many years, a man could be flogged publicly for using foul language in the presence of a woman (but I never heard of it actually happening, either the flogging or the foul language).
     I may be at grave risk of being politically incorrect by saying this, but I do feel that Burmese women are better off than are most American women in certain respects, especially spiritually. Burmese women in general are very devout, and have a modesty, virtue, and quiet dignity that naturally inspires respect. Even little old ladies tend to have a clear look to their face that is usually lost in American women before they stop being teenagers. That clear look is symptomatic of self-respect and a clear conscience, of "innocence." 

Since ancient times, most of the people who give alms
to monks have been female

     I was told by a Burmese lady once that most of the celestial nymphs in the lower heaven realms were Burmese women in their previous lives; ironically, they were rewarded for their devotion and virtue by being reborn as voluptuous playthings of the gods indulging in heavenly orgies. It is interesting that more than one religion offers up celestial lasciviousness as a reward for earthly morality and self-restraint.
     In fact, based upon 18 years' experience in Burma and many more years in America, I can say from my own extensive observations that Burmese women experience less unhappiness in their lives than do their sisters in the USA. Overall, they may have lots less fun, yet they are less unhappy.
     This is not to say that Burmese women—especially village women, as they are the ones I've known the best—do not have troubles. They do have plenty of fears (the Burmese in general are an easily scared people), but their fears are simple and easily understood ones: they fear ghosts, snakes, witches, monsters, pandemics hyped on international radio news, and sometimes they fear the government. They do not seem to fear men much. Another situation that arises is hysterical symptoms (not "hysterics," but hysteria in the technical, psychological sense) such as psychosomatic headaches and vertigo, possibly caused by the unnatural strain of self-restraint in virtuous Burmese Buddhist ladies. Reckless wantons can be found anywhere in the world, and Burma is no exception, but even they are pretty mild by Western standards.
     One of the greatest troubles I have seen for village ladies is that there are many old maids, and a Burmese old maid is in all probability celibate for life. Possibly the large number of unmarried women is due to the large numbers of unmarried monks and soldiers in the country. Also, as a general rule, once a woman reaches about thirty she becomes a confirmed spinster, unless she has outstanding qualities or her family has money. The sorrow of living a life without a mate and without children, without the kind of love that most women naturally crave, can be very sad, and a cause for some shame too. Such women often become very religious, and take much consolation in Dhamma. This is how I have come to meet many of them. They will often support a monk or monks as a way of having a surrogate man in their life.
     Still they suffer less than do American women. This is largely because of the simplicity and "wholesomeness" of their lives, and the relative simplicity and virtue of the culture. Burmese people take Dhamma to heart.

The one in green is Ma Htay-I, one of my chief supporters
and best friends for years

     Some Westerners may be skeptical that Burmese villagers experience less unhappiness in their lives than do we Americans. After all, they live in profound poverty—they make on average probably less than the US equivalent of $3 a day, and often three generations of a family will live in a one-room shack with bamboo matting for walls and a roof of thatch serving the dual function of shedding rain and concealing rats. Up until recently their country was governed, as is common knowledge, by a brutal and incompetent military dictatorship. Most of those villages have no electricity or running water, and furthermore have barking dogs, flies, dirt, and goat turds all over the place. How could they possibly be happier than us?!
     Test it for yourself: Go to any Burmese village at random and count smiling faces—not fake, stuck-on smiles, but genuinely happy faces—and then go to any American town at random and do the same. You may be very surprised. It's really obvious to just about anyone who has spent much time in both countries.
     The seeming mystery is resolved by some very elementary Buddhist philosophy, namely the Second Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth states that all suffering is the result of craving, or desire—and there can be no doubt whatsoever that Americans have much, much more desire than do Burmese villagers. More desire, more dissatisfaction, more suffering. It's very simple, and relatively obvious for those willing to look. Yet we think the Burmese should be more like us anyway. We insist on believing the consumeristic lie that happiness depends upon external circumstance, not on a healthy attitude. Our luxuries and privileges simply make us fussier and harder to please.
     Things are starting to change more quickly in Burma, as capitalists rush in to exploit new markets and cheap resources and cheap labor, and as tourists come in a more leisurely way to spend money and take pictures. A few years ago I started noticing lots of places in Rangoon with the sign "KTV" on the storefront. I wondered what they were, and guessed they must be a kind of place where people drink tea or overpriced Coca-Cola and watch videos on a big-screen TV. I didn't see how such a place could stay in business though. Then an Australian man who spends much time in Burma explained to me that these places are practically brothels; guys do go there and drink the overpriced drinks and watch videos, but pretty girls come and sit at the table with them, and if they like the looks of one or two, they make arrangements to meet at such and such place for an evening, or maybe just half an hour, of prostitution. My Australian friend also told me about the multitude of "massage parlors" sprouting up in the city, which started out mainly catering to Chinese businessmen. Now certain people are trying to start up "sex tourism" in Burma similar to what has existed in Thailand for a long time. After he told me this stuff, for about three days I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. My heart went out to the innocent Burmese girls who were being corrupted by a new culture brought in by foreign commercialism. Many of the ones who wind up like this are simple village girls coming to the city to make some money for the family…and somehow winding up in a squalid little room "entertaining male guests." They make a few dollars per day, and are essentially prisoners. But another reason why I felt so awful after hearing the tale is that I knew that if I were not a celibate monk and had the money, I'd be sorely tempted to go to a place like that myself. Some Burmese girls are extraordinarily pretty. The thought that one of them could be had so easily could be a powerful yet terrible temptation. Out in the villages a guy practically has to marry a girl before he can kiss her.

A new Westernized look for Burmese women

     I noticed long ago, and have noticed again since coming back to America, that very many American women suffer from a great deal of deep confusion, fear, trauma, and distress. I feel that much of it is as I've already touched upon: We live in a less moral and much more complicated world with much, much more desire, and thus much, much more dissatisfaction and unhappiness. We generate "unskillful karma" and are fussy, hard to please, and closed-hearted. With regard to Western looser morals in particular I suppose women have difficulties; there has been a double standard throughout the world for thousands and thousands of years, in which women have been expected to be more moral than men (and enjoyed some respect for it); and it may be that as a consequence women have evolved to have a less "robust" conscience than men. In other words, they have a more sensitive conscience; and the modern right to be just as bad as men has resulted in much of this confusion and distress that I see in the women of the West—although I freely and gladly admit that Western women have qualities, like open-mindedness, that Burmese females tend to lack. Every system has its good points and bad points. 
     But I think there are other reasons why American women can seem more "emotionally challenged" than their five-foot-tall, brown-skinned, saronged and sandaled sisters on the other side of the world, and one that is rarely discussed is: The women of the West are experimenting with a new way of the world, one in which women are equals not only in personal rights but in directing the movements of civilization. This is similar to what I mentioned in a recent blog post about early Christianity and the first awakening of universal compassion in the West: It is a new system feeling its way partly by trial and error, and is bound to have troubles, confusions, and false starts, especially in the early stages. Women in the West are trying to learn a new way to be, and have few past success stories to draw on.
     Some of the confusion arises as a result of feeling out a new form of female/male relationships which do not involve the male dominating the female (often thereby requiring her to get her way by wheedling, using her affections as a reward, or "nagging"), while at the same time avoiding turning the relationship into a monster with two heads, with each head wanting to go in a different direction until it is eventually torn apart. This is a tough one, as not only thousands of years of male-dominated culture, but also literally millions of years of biological evolution appear to be stacked against it. It is definitely well worth a shot though.
     My suggestion for this is that if we are to create a Heaven on Earth, a kinder, gentler, more balanced world with equality for everyone, we should not despise manliness. Not only the Divine Feminine should be emphasized, but the Divine Masculine as well; only then can there be Divine Balance. So in addition to the gentleness, nurturing, compassion, open-heartedness, etc. of the Feminine, the Divine Male aspects should also be accepted and honored, including courage, a thirst for freedom, unflinching determination, and a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for accepting the harshness of the world. That last quality might be also described as love for a difficult challenge. The trick is to acknowledge the divine aspects of both polarities, without getting sucked into the weaknesses of either.
     I wish also to respectfully offer some advice to the women of the West who are endeavoring to create a world more influenced by wise femininity: If you strive out of love for women, for equality, for a better world, and so on, you will be doing something positive, and likely to succeed. If you strive out of resentment against men and the mess we've made of things, and so on, you will be doing something inherently negative, which will lead to more negativity and more strife. Anything we say or do with positive mental states is positive, and conducive to positive results; and anything we say or do with negative mental states is negative, and conducive to negative results.
     I read long ago that hatred of war does not stop wars; it is love of peace that stops wars. This same principle applies to all sorts of things.

A Burmese girl with traditional
thanakha bark makeup


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Stone Elephant

     I am sitting in a bamboo and palmyra wood chair in front of a cave called "Mandalay Goo" at Kyauk Sin Tawya, or Stone Elephant Forest Monastery, in central Burma. In addition to sitting here writing in the prehistoric manner—with ink on paper—I'm occasionally listening to the rats moving around in the roof thatched with palmyra leaves above me. Thatched roofs are good insulation from the sun and shed water well enough, but are much favored by rats, possibly because roofs are less accessible to snakes than are holes in the ground.  
     This place is called a forest monastery, but actually it's more of a desert monastery. Not much rain falls here even in the monsoon season, and there is an abundance of thorn bushes, cacti, and scorpions. A Burmese supporter once told me that foreign monks come here fat and white, and leave here thin and brown.

One of my roommates in Mandalay Cave

     Kyauk Sin is about 15 miles from Wun Dwin ("Inside the Belly"), the nearest town—but the road from there is so bad that it's an hour and a half by jeep. And that's during the dry season. Recently, though, the new one-car-per-minute freeway was opened, which runs within a mile of the monastery. The turnoff is between mileposts 308 and 309, about a hundred miles south of Mandalay. The huge white pagoda (also new) can be seen from miles away.

     This is one of the oldest monasteries in the Taungpulu tradition, and is the first place I lived at long term after arriving in Burma almost twenty years ago. At that time the dammed-up lake didn't exist yet, although there were some smaller reservoirs then, so water was available. I've been told that in the old days before the reservoirs were established the monks had to walk two miles to a village monastery to take a bath, and were often very sweaty again by the time they returned to Kyauk Sin. The food here is pretty rough, the temperature gets up to around 120o F (49o C) in the hot season, and one occasionally gets parasitized by intestinal worms and/or bedbugs. Long ago a Japanese monk who spent a rains retreat here told me, "If you can live here, you can live anywhere." I spent a total of four rains retreats here, but, thank the gods, only two or three hot seasons.

     When I first arrived here as a junior monk fresh from America in 1993, I spoke almost no Burmese, and none of the Sangha here spoke English except for a temporary monk (dullabha) who lived here for only a couple of weeks. While he was present he was in charge of most of the intercultural communications, despite the fact that he knew only one English verb: "happens." But as it turns out, if you know only one verb, "happens" is a good one to know—I always understood what he meant. For example, one time I was sitting in front of a little meditation cabin and he approached me, pointed at some clay water pots nearby, and said, "Water happens no," which of course meant, "Don't drink that water." Then he said, "Cup, fire, alcohol happens." The meaning: Give me your bottles and I'll bring you some sterilized water. Sometimes when we'd meet I'd greet him by waving and calling out, "Happens!" Before he left I gave him some little treasures, like a Burmese translation of the Dhammapada and an American butane lighter; then I discovered that he was a relatively rich man, a resident of the wealthy city of Mogok, producer of some of the finest natural rubies in the world.

     After he left I communicated my needs whenever an English-speaking visitor was here, which wasn't very often, or else I spoke broken Pali with venerable U Kovida, who had received some formal monastic schooling in town, and who was the Abbot/Sayadaw's trusted lieutenant. (Now, ever since venerable Pakhokku Sayadaw died a few years ago, he is the reigning Abbot of Kyauk Sin.) His Pali vocabulary was more extensive than mine, but I was better at manipulating verbs—he always used the present tense, third person singular. Some of the first Burmese I learned consisted of the usual things villagers would say to me when I walked for alms in the morning; before that I had to interpret their meaning as best I could from their tone of voice, like a dog does it. The two most important expressions were "Yat daw mu ba om hpayah!" ("Please wait, venerable sir")—used when they wanted to offer food, and "Gadaw zun ba hpayah" ("I pay respect as my offering, venerable sir")—used when they weren't going to offer any.

 Sayadaw U Kovida and me (I'm the taller one)

     Here at Kyauk Sin, as a rule, the monks do "the sitter's practice," i.e. they never lie down, and sleep in a sitting position. However, it didn't take long for me to learn that anything I leaned back against at night would quickly become foul with sweat, and that the coolest way to be was sprawled horizontally on the cement floor of my little cave. So, I bagged the sitter's practice pretty quickly. In fact the heat has always been my main limiting factor (to use some Biology jargon) in this country. I was not required to participate in daily monastery activities, like group chanting or whitewashing rocks in the blazing sun; instead I spent most of my time alone inside the cave where it was often cool enough for me not to be totally soaked in sweat. I became semi-nocturnal, sleeping as much as I could during the day, and staying up at night when it was less uncomfortable. At the biweekly uposatha ceremony, which all monks are required to attend, I would often literally have sweat dripping from my elbows, as though from leaky faucets, creating two wet blotches on my sitting cloth as I squatted on it with my hands joined in front of me. The sweat has always been more of an issue for me than the heat.

     I came back here mainly to finish ecclesiastical penance for breaking certain rules in America. Kyauk Sin has traditionally specialized in "wut saunt" ("upholding the observances"), as it is called in Burmese, and monks from all over the country have come here for it. (What is required for this kind of penance is a relatively remote monastery with an available Sangha of at least twenty monks.) Probably the most severe penance I've observed so far is simply remaining in a squatting position during the ceremony in which the six days and nights of manatta penance were conferred upon me—three of the monks recited the formal act very slowly, carefully pronouncing their Pali in accordance with the Pakhokku method (which is even stranger than ordinary Burmese pronunciation of Pali; I know of one venerable sayadaw who actually herniated himself while enunciating the explosive consonants of Pakhokku Pali) so as not to invalidate the proceedings. I've grown unused to prolonged squatting, and my feet and calves were burning mightily by the time the monks got as far as "Dutiyampi" ("And for a second time…"), the entire act being recited three times, not including the introduction and conclusion, plus the parts that I had to recite. (Incidentally, the bell which summons the Sangha to the congregation hall for formal acts such as this is apparently made from the casing of an old WWII bombshell that didn't explode like it was supposed to.)

     Penance here is somewhat tricky for me now, because of the very cool fact (I love this) that after twenty years I'm now one of the most senior monks here. Sayadaw U Kovida is traveling around the country conducting meditation retreats, and the only monk at Kyauk Sin who is senior to me, as far as I know, is old U Makua, who's 85 years old and lives in retirement on the outskirts of the monastery grounds—and even he's just a few years senior to me, because he was ordained relatively late in life, very unlike U Kovida, who is younger than me but was ordained as a child, and grew up in the Sangha. Anyway, junior monks are continually wanting to bow down to me, and when we walk together they want to slow down to let me be in front—despite the fact that a monk doing penance is not allowed to let a monk not doing penance to bow down to him, and he should walk behind everybody else. Once I slowed down to let the other monks pass me, and they slowed down too. Then I stopped, and they stopped too. And requesting that they stop treating me so deferentially doesn't always work. Just now a monk has come to sweep my "front yard" for me. I told him not to bother, that I'd do it myself, but he went ahead and started doing it anyway.


The "front yard" of Mandalay Cave

     This next part may be debatably improper—but we're all friends here, right? (Right?) I'm considering celebrating my twentieth anniversary of first arriving in Burma by consuming some Ayurvedic butter infused with a certain "psychotropic ancient plant medicine" which a dear friend (not Burmese) gave to me recently. The anniversary also happens to fall on the eve of the full moon of Pyatho, which is even more auspicious. I think it will be very interesting to be in such an expansive state doing walking meditation in the moonlight, surrounded by the sounds of crickets, owls, and scurrying rats in the thatched roof in front of the cave.

     May all beings find peace in their heart, like the peace that is so easy to find here…when the weather is cool, and the bedbugs aren't biting.

Kyauk Sin Shwedagon Pagoda, Pakhokku Sayadaw's glorious monument

in the midst of a desolate wasteland