On Relinquishing my Mahāthera Status (part 3: Recap, and Where to Go from Here)
Inside my gate, a thousand sages do not know me. The beauty of my garden is invisible. Why should one search for the footprints of the patriarchs? I go to the market place with my wine bottle and return home with my staff. I visit the wineshop and the market, and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened. —from Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Dukkha is the friction between God and No God. —a strange idea I had recently
This is the conclusion to the Big Announcement.
For starters I suppose I should briefly review the reasons given in the previous two installments for my intended relinquishment of my status as an ordained bhikkhu—that is, disrobing—followed by a few secondary factors, followed by my intentions/plans/hopes for the future.
1. I appear to have stopped making progress in yogic practice, which is the primary job of a monk. The peak of my attainments, such as they were, was more than fifteen years ago. I feel that I have gotten as far with yogic asceticism and intensive full-time sitting practice as I am likely to get. I have gotten what I can from it, my practice is further hindered by waning of motivation over the years due to minimal results and frustration, and I feel that it is time to move on and try something different from meditating in solitude and following ancient rules. I have not given up on living a spiritual or philosophical life, but I do need a change.
2. Those ancient rules were designed more than two thousand years ago for a culture radically different from what we have now in the west, and they are extremely restrictive with regard to freedom of action here. Not being able to touch money, feed myself, or touch or be alone with a human female are damned inconvenient to say the least, and most western laypeople, maybe even most western Theravada Buddhist ones, don’t understand the complexities of monastic discipline or see much point to it. Also I have always felt that if I can’t, or just don’t want to, follow the rules relatively strictly, then I should not continue to wear the robes of an ordained bhikkhu. I just don’t want to be a lax, sloppy monk.
3. I have always been red-bloodedly heterosexual by nature, celibacy has been my sorest trial as a monk, and I do not want to spend the rest of my life without a mate whom I love and can actually touch. And I already know who she is, she is adorable and fits with me very sweetly, we wish to share our lives intimately with each other, and being a monk forbids very strictly anything along those lines. Long ago I made the resolution, even a public promise, that if I wanted to touch a woman romantically ever again I would disrobe first, and I very much would like to touch this one. (We have known each other for years and no, we have not yet touched each other physically as yet.)
|an old passport photo, taken in Burma long ago|
A few secondary factors:
4. I do have some lingering doubts about pārājika, or excommunication over breaking a major rule…not sex, but theft. In the postmodern west things are very complicated, and downloading or watching something pirated may actually qualify as copyright theft worthy of excommunication, as far as I can tell. And I have very probably downloaded or watched pirated material. Also there was a time long ago in Burma when I came back to my place from alms round and found a wood cutter right where I was staying in the forest, and a pile of freshly cut poles in the very spot where I ate my daily meal, so in anger I flung his chopped wood down into a ravine, thereby depriving him of what I suppose was his property. Hell, even clicking “I have read and agree” on those multipage terms of service composed in tiny-font lawyer speak without of course reading it may qualify technically as some sort of serious broken law.
5. This next one is only an intensifying factor for me, although to some others it might be sufficient in and of itself: My mind is too modern, western, curious, skeptical, iconoclastic, and broad to fit within the confines of Theravada Buddhist religious orthodoxy and “propriety.” Technically speaking, I am a heretic, and probably hold a few “pernicious wrong views,” for example the idea that Abhidhamma wasn’t originally taught by the Buddha, or that perception and volition are just two aspects of the same phenomenon, or that suffering isn’t ultimately real, or that monastic Theravada does not have a monopoly on enlightenment (even though it is one of the best traditions for approaching it). For that matter I have gone rogue in certain ways on this blog, posting things that have scandalized even some who are appreciative of most of what I have to say. Consider that Lust Epidemic post that is slowly creeping up the most clicked-on list. So I am an eclectic who bases most of my understanding of reality on Buddhist philosophy and practice, but a heretic I remain.
6. I am liminal by nature, even though the word “liminal” was not in my working vocabulary until recently, after reading the book The Trickster and the Paranormal by George Hanson. But liminal I certainly am, existing on the fringe, flouting norms, and challenging the cultural structures that keep everything reasonably predictable and “safe.” And I get a strong feeling lately that disrobing will be more conducive to that aspect of my nature than remaining in a monastery. At this point in the game, dropping out of the Order of renunciants may be more of a renunciation and challenge than otherwise, and I do need challenges in life. Disrobing is yet another renunciation of worldly social status, and possibly a turn towards greater outward freedom and vital chaos. Although I do hope that this will be my last great renunciation, until death I suppose. I’ve always been on the fringe of organized Theravada anyway.
J. Krishnamurti, in one of his books, talks about what happens if a strange mutant flower appears in a garden. The gardener will pay special attention to that flower and nurture it, because it is different from the others, and more interesting. Krishnamurti says it works the same way with people: the Universe nurtures the strange ones, the spiritual misfits, the liminal beings due to their own strange contributions to the “garden.” Maybe this is true. At any rate I have made a lifestyle of trusting in the Universe.
|me as a monk in my late 30s, in an emaciated state|
after spending several months among the rustic,
bad-cooking hillbillies living north of Alaung Daw
Kathapa National Park
Again and again, I have not stopped being a Buddhist, or a Buddhist philosopher. I still consider the oldest Buddhist texts to be the truest and best philosophy of life that I have found. But, as I pointed out in part 1, I appear to have stopped making progress in most yogic/contemplative respects; and as I pointed out in part 2, Theravada was designed to fit a culture radically different from the one I inhabit now.
Thus when I returned to America this last time, in December of 2018, I already had the idea in my head that there must be a better way of living a relatively awake and spiritual life in America than adhering to an ancient Indian monastic system that, though founded by an enlightened being, and having great merits of course, nevertheless does not fit modern western culture at all. The fact that Vinaya (the ancient Buddhist code of monastic discipline) is a bad fit for the modern west has been pretty obvious to me for a long time, and so for years I have had the idea of somebody working out some sort of compromise. I have considered a kind of unordained quasi Sangha of people who follow a more limited and less limiting set of rules, without being fully ordained and thereby not breaking the rules of ancient India. Maybe these quasi renunciants could wear grey cotton sweats (white if they are totally celibate) or army surplus instead of an ancient Indian brown toga, and presumably they would be allowed to handle money in moderation, and probably even cook for themselves. Maybe, since they would not be claiming to be ordained bhikkhus and would have respect for Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, they could even receive some recognition from the ordained Sangha. The Catholics do something like this anyway. Something along these lines is still an option, and I am open to dialogue on the issue. Hell, I may start doing something like that myself without dialogue.
Though I am no longer striving with all my heart in a Burmese forest cave, “wrestling with the devil in the wilderness,” so to speak, I have learned many things that I am happy to share. I am still the same person, and know the same things as before. Maybe I could be viewed as an old athlete who is no longer competing professionally but still is qualified to serve as a coach or trainer; or maybe I could be viewed as an old soldier able to train recruits, or rather civilian paramilitary types wishing to be prepared for any emergency.
I intend to continue with this blog, and also with occasional videos; in fact I may increase certain types of video output and diversify the content a bit, for example by doing readings of my favorite texts, if there is support for that. I hope the quality will not decline, though it potentially could if I become too busy working to feed myself and pay the bills. I do not like sloppy work, so I suppose the quantity would decrease before the quality takes a serious hit, if I am in fact busy with the curse of Adam, earning my bread by the sweat of my brow—especially if that work is not as a Buddhist teacher. (I remember people, including my own academic advisor, urging me long ago not to major in Philosophy because “you can’t make a living as a philosopher.” I wound up majoring in Biology, but even so I have, thus far, proved those well-intentioned people wrong, even though I have lived hand to mouth at a subsistence level, as is appropriate for philosophers, I suppose.) I can teach Buddhism in person also.
I have been receiving some generous support from people around the world who appreciate what I am doing, and what I have done and represented in the past. There aren’t extremely many of them, but they are much appreciated. I suspect some will drop out when I disrobe, if not shortly after reading this, although perhaps some others will begin offering support after I am allowed to handle money (not much of it I suppose, but still).
I live philosophically and my needs are few. I continue to be a radical minimalist. (I will be living in a small but very nice apartment in South Carolina that also serves as a part-time artist’s studio, and the very nice artist and I will share the rent.) So I hope to live not so radically differently from now, aside from some obvious concessions to the western world—plus a lovely mate. It is theoretically possible that I could get some books published, or some such: I have lived a strange and interesting life thus far, and few people today have spent years of their lives practicing Buddhist yoga in caves, so maybe an autobiography would sell, I dunno. (If there are any editors or publishers out there who are open to such things, or people good at video editing etc. who sympathize with “the cause,” feel free to let me know.) I don’t like the idea of charging money for Dhamma, which is priceless and should be free to all, though my own odd ideas are presumably non-priceless enough to be fair game in the form of a book for sale. Also I could be a Dhamma teacher on a more personal, face to face sort of basis. One thing I have no desire to do, however, is peddling “awesome merch.” I find the very word “merch” cringey as hell. Ideally though, making a living as a teacher of Buddhism would be ideal for me, since that’s more or less what I’ve been doing and have specialized in for years, and I do consider myself, even without robes on, to be more qualified for that than most Dhamma teachers in the west. It is time for some Zen in the marketplace.
|me sitting under a tied-up mosquito net in a nice neighborhood|
in Yangon (picture by Damon)
Probably most of the people who fall away from me as a result of my disrobing will be devout Asian Buddhists who see monks as a kind of superhuman beings, and disrobing as a lamentable fall from Grace. Many westerners actually prefer lay teachers—though the ones most likely to revere monks tend to be conservative right-wingers, like the ones who have expressed the most appreciation for what I’ve been doing. We’ll see how it goes, and it’s bound to be damned interesting.
Soon I will be starting again in life, essentially from scratch. I literally have not worn even pants or a shirt in thirty years, not even thermal underwear or those Asian kung fu pajamas that some monks wear under their robes. I’ve never owned a checking account or a credit card in my life, and have never operated an ATM machine. My credit rating is literally zero, an utterly neutral blank.
I will keep you all posted on how well this new path in life turns out. It is a rather exciting new adventure to start from scratch in my fifties, and it is a little daunting, and I have been experiencing some psychic strain, but as I’ve said before it does seem to be the correct thing to do, under the circumstances, and I do need challenges in life to keep me fully alive.
Some people reading this will hardly be surprised. Hell, some western monks and fundamentalist laypeople have been prophesying my monastic demise for many years. If anything those sorts will be more surprised that I lasted as long as I have, a full thirty years in robes. I have no hard feelings towards anyone, even though the old group or “tribe” of my friends and supporters may potentially undergo somewhat of a mass extinction event (it won’t be the first time), though thus far mostly my supporters are still supportive, and understanding of my situation, which I much appreciate. At any rate I will continue with this blog, and with the videos etc. and the SubscribeStar page and other media, until I run out of ideas (not soon methinks) or else I become just too busy feeding myself to indulge in the joy of philosophy. May all beings be as well, peaceful, and happy as Samsara and the First Noble Truth will allow.
When in the soul of the serene disciple,
With no more fathers to imitate,
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.
Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
(this is pretty much the story of my life)