On Relinquishing My Mahathera Status (part 1: Dhamma and Motivation)
A monk asked Kyōrin, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” Kyōrin said, “Sitting long and getting tired.” —Blue Cliff Record, case 17
This is the Big Announcement.
In summer of 2016, when I flew back to SE Asia for the last time, I had pretty much given up on trying to live as a monk in America. I had been aiming since 2011 to get myself set up somehow living among western Buddhists; but for various reasons, mostly considered in my old Nippapañca Blog, none of it worked beyond the level of house sitting, couch surfing, and living from hand to mouth, while at the same time being rather a burden on the relatively few people who were generously and openheartedly supporting me. I may as well observe that living from hand to mouth is exactly what a monk is supposed to do, although wandering literally penniless and sleeping in caves and under trees (or even in simple huts) is pretty much a non-starter in America.
So, while in Burma I made an offer to venerable U Vimala, the abbot of a forest monastery called Migadawun, to take upon myself the duty of being permanent abbot there, considering that U Vimala was getting old, his health was not so good, and he was looking for someone to replace him. Migadawun was originally established for western monks in the Taungpulu tradition, and I am one of the very last of them, if not literally the very last. (Venerable U Vimala usually lived alone because he was very hard to get along with, but for some strange reason he likes me.) The thing is, by the time I had made the offer, he had already given permission to a young scholar monk to turn Migadawun, at the time a place for meditation, into a monastic school. Because ven. U Vimala likes me for whatever reasons, for several months he was embarrassed (in Burmese, “ah nah deh”) to tell me that the place was already planned to become a monastic school, with a different, Burmese monk as abbot. As I get older I have been losing my taste for the blazing heat of the lowlands, including my old monastery of Wun Bo where I was abbot or “sayadaw,” and Migadawun was in the hills with a temperate climate, and I was burning out on living in Burma anyway, so finally in December of 2018 I came back to America and have been here at Kusalakari Meditation Center, in California, ever since.
I should add that I’d been burning out on Burma for a long time, which is a major reason why I wanted to come back to America before the great migration eventually occurred in 2011. I was tired of sweating all the time, getting weird tropical diseases (I’ve had malaria seven or eight times, always the worst kind, plus what one doctor called “amoebic hepatitis,” just to name the life-threatening ones), eating rice and goop all the time, and never speaking English with others (although I always spoke English to dogs and other nonhumans). The trouble is that I had burned out on both hemispheres of the earth. Sometimes I’d tell my supporters in Burma, half jokingly, that my trouble was that I didn’t want to live anywhere.
|an old picture of me, circa late 1990s,|
at Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park in NW Burma/Myanmar;
I was eating my meal on a rock overlooking Phaya Creek
For awhile a kind of compromise option was Bali. I’ve been there three or four times, there’s a wealthy Buddhist family there who have repeatedly offered support, with a Buddhist and/or New Agey western expat population, and shortly before I flew back to America this most recent time two of the family brothers flew to Burma, visited me and invited me to spend the rains retreat in Bali (in a cabin that they would build for me to my specifications), and then they got on a plane and flew back to Indonesia the following day. I told them I’d like to spend the next rains retreat in America but would be happy to come to Bali after that, but for various reasons, including my designated attendant ordaining as a novice, in Thailand I think, and possibly my going renegade in America and becoming practically a fascist sympathizer, it all came to nothing this time and is now no longer a viable option.
Before I get any farther with this I would like to make two statements. First I would like to point out, to those of you who may not have fully understood the implications of the title, that I am giving, in this and the next few installments, my reasons for “relinquishing my Mahāthera status”—that is, for disrobing and returning to the life of an unordained person. Also I want to nip in the bud any conspiracy theories which have nothing to do with my case. For example I am not at all being kicked out of the Sangha or out of this monastery. I informed the venerable abbot of my intentions recently, and he appears to be truly sorry that I am taking this new route in life. Also my choice has absolutely nothing to do with hysterical and intolerant leftist fanatics, Buddhist or otherwise, persecuting me and/or driving me away. It has nothing to do with public opinion about me personally. Also, I certainly DO NOT consider the Buddha, or the fundamental texts of Theravada, to be wrong, even though they may be damned hard to follow. I am still a Buddhist. I have several reasons for my decision, most of which have been around for years, and three main ones, the first of which I will discuss below, and the rest in subsequent installments.
My primary reason, numero uno, is this: I feel I have stopped making progress through practicing monastic Buddhism, and so I feel like I should try something else.
I have never been a very good meditator by nature or temperament. Like many westerners, my mind is supercharged, very restless, high-strung, and prone to uddhacca, that is, mental agitation and distraction. Although I am somewhat of a mystic, I am also a compulsive thinker much of the time. So it took my greatest efforts over a period of many years to realize what meditative states I have attained, averaging several hours a day sitting in the full lotus, living in solitude in remote tropical Asian forests, strictly following ancient rules, and practicing some pretty rigorous austerity. The result was that, a few times in my life, I have reached relatively advanced meditative or mystical states, sitting wide awake and still, with the mind clear like glass—what the Catholic mystics call “contemplation.” Those times, however, were many years ago. Aside from one night back around December of 2015, the best meditation of my life was between the years 2000 and 2004. Although meditating regularly and often up until recently, I have not been able to attain really deep states since then, and that really is the primary job of a contemplative bhikkhu.
|one of the first places I inhabited in Burma|
(it's the entrance to a little artificial cave called Mandalay Gu)
I am reminded of the monk Godhika in the Godhika Sutta of the Samyutta Nikāya, who attained jhāna (deep contemplative states) and then lost them again, then regained them, then relost them, and continued with this until he committed suicide in desperation. Also I am haunted by a statement I read by Saint John of the Cross, a true meditation master even though he was a Christian, who said that anyone who doesn’t fully master contemplation but occasionally has it and then loses it again…well, God has other plans for that person. He simply is not intended or destined to be an adept at contemplation. I have often hoped that he was wrong, but it appears in my case that he was not. I have not managed to become an adept at contemplation, and apparently “God” has other plans for me. Although once one has really tasted Dhamma one cannot truly abandon it.
I became a monk thirty years ago in order to strive for enlightenment in this very life, and that striving, from an orthodox Theravada Buddhist perspective especially, involves the cultivation of deep meditative states, and I have not really experienced for years anything like the kind of states I’m supposed to be cultivating…which suggests to me that maybe I should try something else. Even back in 2010, before the big exodus back to America, I was feeling like I had got about as far as I was likely to get by sitting alone and meditating in caves. Lately the best meditation I have had by far has been while doing walking meditation at night, outdoors, using AUM as a mantra every eighth step, after consuming approximately one tenth of a gram of relatively potent cannabis.
Having to go back to start repeatedly, grinding away at the ABCs of elementary meditation (like labeling phenomena as they arise), has caused my meditation gradually to dry up and dwindle away, so that there is precious little drive left for sitting in formal meditation. So on top of the inability to still the mind consistently, because my meditation has always been sporadic even at its best, now there is also the inability to maintain enthusiasm and use “beginner’s mind” with regard to trying again and again.
For more than ten years I have had to exert more and more effort just to stay at the same level, to tread water so to speak, rather like the Red Queen in Wonderland who had to run as fast as she could just in order to remain in the same place. From the beginning of my monkhood I had the Great Comforting Thought: Even if I make no significant progress in this life, at least I’m staying out of trouble, more or less. And even when my meditation was going much better than lately I imagined myself being a member of the Rocky Balboa school of Buddhism: not so much trying to win (the metaphor refers to the first Rocky movie, not the sequels) as just staying on my feet the full twelve rounds and refusing to throw in the towel out of sheer obstinate idealism. But seriously, when something stops working, and stays not working for several years, it does make sense to try something else.
A big reason for returning to the west way back in 2011, aside from the other big reason of burning out majorly on living in tropical Asia, is that interacting with other people, practicing Dharma while moving around and making noise and maybe even helping others somehow, was a possible new way of practice that might yield benefits. I have long felt that more human interaction would be helpful, partly because my heart is relatively underdeveloped. The great comforting thought is not so comforting anymore; stagnation seems not to be an optimal way of life, and if I remain in robes—the brown toga—it seems rather likely I will simply spend the rest of my life in a state of gradual decline, not just physically and mentally but also spiritually.
Some people who read this, the first on my list of reasons, might glibly offer advice like, “oh, you should find a better teacher,” or “oh, you must have been following a wrong method, and should go to X meditation center or follow the true teachings of venerable Y,” or “the commentaries say jhāna isn’t necessary.” But I have read it all and heard it all, and I have tried following the Pali texts as rightly as I could manage. I’ve tried plenty, and I am soon to try something radically different from sitting crosslegged in solitude and following ancient rules.
(Perhaps I should say with regard to that bit about jhāna being unnecessary that it may be true, although of course the Suttas place great emphasis on jhāna and actually emphasize it more than mindfulness meditation. But anyone who has reached a state of stillness, silence, and crystal clarity may know that just five minutes of it is worth years of grinding and struggling, and is far superior to a lifetime of counting breaths and labeling stray thoughts. After experiencing it it is damn near impossible to be satisfied with something that is far less.)
In summary: The most sacred duty of a bhikkhu is to strive wholeheartedly and single-mindedly for enlightenment in this very life, in accordance with the instructions set forth in the Pali texts; and now that I have never really mastered jhāna and have been experiencing a shortage of motivation to continue striving with all my might along those lines, it seems suitable to seek another path. I can still strive, and I certainly have no regrets, but Theravada Buddhist monasticism has gotten me about as far as I am likely to go by following it.
The next installment of this here blog will discuss another big factor or two, one of which I have addressed a number of times recently in essays and interviews, so that one may come as no surprise. May all beings be as well and happy as Samsara and the First Noble Truth will allow.
|on U Pein Bridge, an antique structure I used to walk across every morning|
to go for alms in Taungthamon Village on the other side, when I was at
Mahagandhayon Monastery in Amarapura back in the early 90s