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.


Be still:

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.


—Thomas Merton

(this is pretty much the story of my life)

Comments

  1. Best wishes for this new chapter of your life. I think this is a positive development for many. Your ability to help others and bring them to the Dharma will increase due to this decision. May you have a long, healthy life and may all obstacles be allayed. You’ll always be a champion of the dharma, whether with or without robes. I think it would be worth taking inspiration from the great Mahasiddhas of old, who were the true ‘rascally saints’ of Buddhism. Although monkhood is an optimal path for progress toward the goal, it is clear that numerous luminaries of the past have achieved Ultimate Realisations while being ‘in the world’. I’ll continue to support the great work you do.
    Sarva Mangalam,
    – BB

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  2. Thanks for sharing, and I wish you well on this new journey. As an American living in Burma, I really enjoy hearing all your stories and perspectives. I think you should consider writing an autobiography about your experience as a monk. I would enjoy reading it.
    ~ Tofu kid

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  3. You will be in good hands in SC. Wonderful climate, beautiful nature, and a very nice down to earth and libertarian-ish culture, low taxes and cost of living. Get used to politely saying yes ma'am and sir a lot. Looking forward to perhaps seeing some dharma talks in the mountains. Sending more love and support your way.

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  4. Hey, good luck on your new journey !
    There's a bunch of stuff you can try doing instead of a 9-5 job sucking your energy.
    Make a patreon account to allow people to support you.
    Learn some craft and sell hand-made stuff on etsy.com
    By all means continue the cool-headed refreshing in-depth commentary on world affairs and western mental malaise at all levels. Now you're even more able to exercise freedom of speech, my guess. There's tons of material around money masters, politics, etc, countless topics.
    May be crank-up concentration a bit in your practice or experiment.

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  5. Best wishes for the rest of your life. Be happy!

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  6. PURGING HERESY IS AN ACT OF COMPASSION! NO QUARTER TO HERETICS!

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  7. I hope your good kamma would ripen in your new life for your own benefit and that of others:
    "When, after a long absence, a man safely returns from afar, his relatives, friends and well-wishers welcome him home on arrival. As kinsmen welcome a dear one on arrival, even so his own good deeds will welcome the doer of good who has gone from this world to the next."

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    Replies
    1. Life is short. Wish you every happiness with your new adventure.

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  8. Bhante! There are really less things not possible to be solved. Please don't fall into indoxication with youth, health, life and urgendly seek association with good friends, leaving this consumer hosts.

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    1. Sir, your English translation is hard to understand.

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  9. May Bhante challenge my person in argumentation, may he come over to sangham.net, as my person has a hard to dwell on markets. Where has Bhantes compassion gone to go after such selfish and foolish thoughts?

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  10. Life isn't yours. Given what's hard to be given, may Bhante abound all kinds of status and go on for the heartwood of the gift of the sages, as a recluse under the Gems. Not for virtue, not for concentration, not for knowledge, is this way given, but for very release from the dirt of trade. Unbound, he wouldn't go back anywhere, left the domain of holding on losers and weak behind.

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  11. Thomas Merton is kind of an odd choice to be quoting as he was a bit of a lefty, wasn't he? His little romance with all things Eastern did a disservice to both Catholic and Buddhist traditions, but this was typical of an Ivy League graduate, a product of the Liberal Academy.

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    1. He had a fairly good understanding of Dharma, from what I have seen, and his mind was too broad to fit into any particular dogmatic orthodoxy. Also, I would probably qualify as a moderate lefty if lefties were still allowed to have freedom of thought and expression. Though I fully realize that socialism sucks.

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    2. Merton was a smart and skillful writer, and lefties should not be subject to the same censorship that they seem so willing to impose on the rest of us via woke-cancel culture.
      As a cradle Catholic, I encountered Merton in high school, but I was not in the best frame of mind to delve into his work as I did. I won't go into details, it's a long story. Perhaps I should be grateful to him for introducing me , however briefly, to Buddhism, but the resulting confusion sent me down a painful path. Was it his fault? One could argue not, as he was simply a long-dead writer, but as we know, karma (cause and effect) can be a bitch.
      Whatever, I learned too late that it's only showbiz. Dance monkey dance.

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  12. I have been reading your blog and I'm very sad for you now, specially because I see myself in you, and I seek ordination. I think about what is going to happen in the future and I get a bit hopeless. Will I end up disrobing too??
    It's shocking seeing someone disrobe after 30 years. You're more time in robes than I'm alive. It's really discouraging to read those posts about disrobing for who also wants to become a bhikkhu.

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    Replies
    1. You are a different person from me. If you can master jhāna, or if you are willing to live in Asia your whole life or fudge on rules in the west, or if you do not have lots of rāga, then you may not have the same complications I have had. And anyway, being a monk and striving for just one day is better than a hundred years of being a total blue-pilled normie.

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    2. About jhana: I personally think it's bullshit most of the talk about jhana. People talk about it as if it were a panacea. Actually, it gets boring as any other pleasure. Even at monasteries here in Thailand I saw senior monks seeking pleasure in movies, smoking, making brooms, driving, raising buffalos. Jhana is just another pastime, you can't just sit and meditate all the day, first because your body was not designed for that, second because gets fucking boring, even if you get strong piti and sukha.

      About living in Asia: I'm living in Thailand right now. I have no problem with it. Actually, I have a passion for Asia since I was very young. It's my pleasure living here.

      About living in the West: I disrobed once because I had to leave Asia. I preferred not to go to the West thinking I would not be able to keep the Vinaya and because it would be pointless anyway. Who cares about a bald man wearing orange robes?

      About lust: I'm gay, and probably more lustful than you are. Sometimes celibacy is hard. No narcissism, but I'm very attractive, so it's like having pornography available all the time. Living among other monks is not a hindrance to be honest. It's just a matter of avoiding looking at their bellies when they are wearing their ansa (อังสะ).

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    3. So why then thinking of öeaving the training, if the day today as monk is hundred times better as that of an loser without robes? At least, one should not forget the lose of manys faith and trust, the lost value of merits done toward one... so even if not seeing worth for ones person, it would be a matter of compassion to bear hardships one can not overcome yet, or?

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    4. Johann you don't get it at all. You simply assume that anyone not wearing monk robes is "an loser" which is ridiculous. As for the rest of your arguments, your English is so atrociously bad that I can't understand it half the time.

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    5. Actually, who ever has no hindrances but could walk the holly life in it's full, yet drunken in youth, health, life, or somebody going back to the low life is proper called a loser. Trying to make incapability to a virtue doesn't chance that. Given Bhantes statement before, in regard of 100 times more, may he count and discriminate which side is the losing one. Nobody not lost mind wouln't declare a drunkard other then a loser and any whould wish toward win (aside of foolish lefties and discrimination-deprived... sure). All that pain just for low desires of Sex at least... sell...

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    6. Maybe you should try reading ALL the reasons over again instead of just singling out one thing as some example, based on what you prefer to believe, as wrong and foolish and the path of a "loser." Maybe in a year we can see how happy or miserable I am and compare notes.

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    7. Look at this people there https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-R6OZ-RvGw9s/YIM_kgN2X2I/AAAAAAAAETk/RWKYgkDkRyYWe5UYMHgwpbBgdAItj9hfQCLcBGAsYHQ/w576/more%2Balms%2Bin%2Blaymyay.jpg

      Hundreds of the, 1000 times, gave what they saw a hero, a god, others then the article useing folk here. Aren't they not worthy to get not endangered that there gifts got lost by lose of mind somewhere under modern time wasting junkies and entertainment? It's since very long actually not even your body, but long time simply maintained by the faith toward the Gems. How can one pull that, if not total confused, down into the common world?
      If Bhante really is up to relinquish such as status and desire for gain, than more then proper to abound this useless blog and bad friends all around first. Such would be leaving home, status and not as Bhante confused and drunken likes to construct to pull others with him for his worldly livelihoods. Bhante is able to leave home as soon as getting aware of the trap of thoughts just caught, and their cheating, the five "friends" (hindrances for holding on work and path). May Bhante relinquish what isn't benefical for him and many and hold firm on what is most benefical for him and many, and make use of given without bonds toward world, cast away the use of what isn't given and binds strongly in losing dependency and addictions.

      It's not so that all what now appears wasn't clear to come, but sometimes on a peak, seeing suddenly ones stupidy, starts lisyening and puts effort into try to get the message, one might pull the breaks and get back to mind... (https://forum.sangham.net/index.php?topic=554.msg12336#msg12336 ) at least it's the last generation of homeless life under the Gems, really a lose if letting it fade for amuse.

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    8. "Maybe you should try reading ALL the reasons over again ...", again, there are only three reasons for going down to the low life: indoxication with youth, health, life. As for maybe possible, rather "small" grave wrongdoings, a "downgrade" to "simple Pabbajito"(formal Samanera) shouldn't be much hindrance to go on with the holly life without status. May Bhante consider wisely in regard of what's hard to gain but so easy lost by common loser and leftty folk (miccha's instead of samma). Right livelihood is just this for higher paths. It's, all the differend reasonings, simply the opposition of good, the five "friend's" arguments, and all comes down simply to this three reasons, loser reasonings.

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    9. The Reason Of UnreasonMay 3, 2021 at 9:17 PM

      Samantha - are you a nun? If so at what nunnery/monastery? Because if you’re not a full time nun then I don’t see you have the right to tell Dave what to do because he’s been living it for thirty years. Eating insects, getting malaria repeatedly, getting rained on, and being totally celibate - and you?
      Samantha, maybe he just wants to party a little before he croaks, and I sense you could do with letting your hair down a little too (if you’ve got hair - bald?)
      Metta to you both

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    10. Dear Samana,

      I'm sure your intent is good in hoping to dissuade venerable Pannobhasa, however it seems as though ven. P is moving in this new direction in a good mental state, and also with good intent. Metta to both of you.

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    11. How could a running away debtor be imagined as directed to good mindstates? One who fullfills duty and task for what's given, is ones mind release.

      Truly, with such "friends", associates, followers, no wonder at all, praising Mara and his lures and welcome failure to stay in "Sex"...
      Nothing special with malaria and other burdens like that, if that would be all, really no qualification to imagen a hero, where a loser thinks time to develop.
      Nobody past, present, in the future, will, could have even a thought of going back to low life, with good intention and is by nature of it caught by strong wrong view, even on the worldly level. It's really not a sign of compassion to approve such ideas at all, yet just something common, like doing lose-ward is common.
      (Not to mention that my person hardly could imagen that even any of the consumer here around had ever supported Bhantes life, health, cloth, food, dwelling, so as you might be simple "co-corrupter" of dedications toward liberation and the Gems, missused Bhante with Bhantes tendencies, no wonder that not feeling lose by past sacrifices, having approached just for consume, between online-gaming, work and porns, most propably.
      And sure, may person doesn't care any rights, but is never stingy to leave some of real "political incorrect" (not for sake of entertainment, socialization, gains) stuff for liberation and independency, first of all from bad assosiation, behind. May Bhante comes to mind and let that behind, of which really is neither given nor of any use here, but strings that bond him down till where he faces himself, thinking, going total down would give release of the many tensions, but it's about leaving home, stand, and become a real homeless, of which would solve all struggles very quick for him.
      Will be really heartbreaking when he will now try to take on your side, fearing the lose of his refuge, "friends"... Watch it out, householders will love and fall for it!

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  13. Regarding Thomas Merton, these may be of interest:

    https://www.superflumina.org/merton_tragedy_1.html

    https://www.superflumina.org/merton_tragedy_2.html

    May all beings be well and happy.

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  14. Once a recluse shared words on corruption. Asked Bhante, he never replied whether the gift of Dhamma could be further shared toward the Sangha, or stays a common householder relict.

    Good that given would always fall back to one timely when one ha developed gratitude toward ones own many sufferings:

    III. EIGHT-VERSED DISCOURSE ON THE CORRUPT
    1. Some corrupt-minded ones do make arguments;
    Then again, true-minded ones make arguments also.
    But a sage does not have recourse to any arisen argument;
    Therefore the sage is not unyielding at all.
    2. How would one get over his own view,
    Led on by preference, entrenched in personal inclination,
    Working up consummate systems for himself?
    Indeed, as one would understand, so would he argue.
    3. Whatever person, even unasked,
    Speaks to others of his own morality and observances,
    Whoever even of his own accord speaks of himself—
    Adept ones say his is an ignoble way.
    4) But a mendicant at peace, with self completely blown out,
    Not boasting about his morality saying, “I am like this,”
    For whom there are no distinguished positions at all in the world—
    Adept ones say that his is a noble way.
    5. Whosever philosophies are contrived, determined,
    And set before them are not immaculate.
    Whatever the advantage he sees for himself
    He is dependent upon a peace that is conditioned by instability.
    6. Indeed, not easily got past are the entrenchments of views
    Seized, having discriminated, from among the philosophies.
    Thus a man amid those entrenchments
    Discards, adopts a philosophy.
    7. For the purified man there is not at all in the world
    A contrived view concerning this or that existence.
    The purified man, having abandoned illusion and self-regard—
    What would he go by, he who has recourse to nothing? ...

    https://forum.sangham.net/index.php?action=tpmod;dl=item27

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  15. Pannobhasa,
    I've made certain blunt, even insensitive comments about your future standing wrt Herr Ruhe, Thomas Merton, etc.
    I heartily apologize if I have offended, and yes, I acknowledge and renounce any words of mine stemming from personal gripes or baggage in hopes of alleviating any negative karma that might ensue. When all is said and done, I wish you well in what is your own personal choice. May all beings be well and happy.

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