The Journey to the East, Part 1: from the Monastery to Santa Monica Pier
“For our goal was not only the East, or rather the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times.” —Hermann Hesse, in his version of The Journey to the East
I am sitting here in my bedroom, at my new desk, in a very nice little apartment/HQ in South Carolina. I’m wearing the first non-robe lower garment I’ve worn in thirty years (a pair of shorts), and I just helped myself to a breakfast of chocolate cake (I conscientiously had to finish it off, food mustn’t go to waste), ice cream, and coffee that I brewed myself, with milk. I spent much of yesterday simply walking around this apartment gazing at everything in amazement. The purpose of this post is just to tell you all how I got here, from a Burmese Buddhist monastery in California less than two weeks ago. Some of this will be review from the rough little video update I made from a hotel in New Orleans, but such is life.
So I suppose I should begin at the beginning of my journey away from California, and from monasticism.
More than a month before I left French Camp on the 8th of May I had informed the venerable abbot here, Sayadaw U Kosalla, of my intentions to leave and disrobe, giving him my main reasons. He seemed surprised and a little saddened but accepted my reasons (at least some of them) as valid, and didn’t try to talk me out of any of it. (He has been very shy around me for years, maybe a little intimidated, partly because I have a bit of a fierce streak to me and partly, I suppose, because I was one of the last western monks ordained in the Taungpulu forest tradition, in which he also was ordained, a sort of “great white hope” for the Burmese Taungpulu tradition.) Then a week or so before I was scheduled to begin the long trip by going to Fremont he took off first with a friendly visiting monk whose car we had blessed before his journey.
The original plan was to disrobe down to samanera (a “semi-monk” in what Catholics maybe would call minor orders, still wearing robes and supposed to be keeping ten precepts) in the presence of U Kosalla and then bow to all the monks there, all of whom except U Ko had been junior to me, asking forgiveness for any trouble I had caused during my stay with them. I figured traveling as a samanera would be less objectionable, because I would be shamelessly handling money and feeding myself on the trip. But with the abbot gone to a different place I figured I’d better wait and disrobe to venerable U Garudhamma, the abbot of the Taungpulu monastery in Fremont in the South Bay, as he was next in seniority and authority, and he and I had lived together in Fremont for a few years previously, before my latest trip to SE Asia in 2016. Later I heard that U Kosalla himself would be in Fremont before I boarded the train for the first major leg of the journey, southwards to Los Angeles.
So I got a ride to Fremont on the 8th and met with some old friends and supporters there. My buddy Aaron, who used to be my chief supporter and “bag man” (handler of donations on my behalf), came for a visit, but he had recently hurt his back so we didn’t do the traditional walk around the nearby lake. Burmese supporters came to give me a friendly farewell and donated several hundred dollars to help me on my way to a new life. I suspect some of them didn’t know I was planning to drop all the way out, or even down to samanera, although I doubt that they would have changed their minds about the donations—and if they knew I might have received even more donations out of compassion or “old times’ sake” or some such.
Even before setting out for Fremont I had begun handling money openly. Just a few days before the trip began a very nice Burmese fellow asked if he could donate some cash for the trip, even calling it “cash” instead of using some euphemism, and for the first time in 30 years I simply consented and held out my hand for it. I openly accepted the donations in Fremont too, which was really a strange transition for me. But it seems handling money isn’t such a big deal in American anymore, for reasons I will get to before we’re done.
Venerable U Kosalla was scheduled to return to California on the afternoon of the 10th, the day before I boarded the train; and since he would be flying into Oakland it was taken for granted that he would stop in Fremont before continuing on to French Camp. So I waited less and less patiently for him to arrive so I could get the disrobing down to samanera over with. The only real nerve-wracking part of it was the waiting. Finally, late at night, with no U Kosalla yet, I asked U Garudhamma what the deal was, he made a phone call, and then informed me with some surprise that U Ko had gone straight from the Oakland airport to French Camp, totally bypassing me. (I have some suspicion that he deliberately avoided me in order to avoid having to accept my disrobing personally, although I can’t be sure of that.) So then I asked U Garudhamma if he would accept my disrobing down to samanera, and his eyebrows went up in surprise (usually he’s pretty inscrutable), and he said for the first of several times, “Are you sure?” I said “Yes,” whereupon he suggested that we wait till the following morning, before I left for the station.
I didn’t get much sleep of course, so I got up for the “dawn meal,” a meal I always used to avoid, since for thirty years I ate once a day and didn’t bother with the early breakfast. My last meal as a bhikkhu was two bowls of mohinga, a kind of Burmese noodle soup that is actually pretty good. Three nice ladies had offered the food, and it was the birthday of one of them, so afterwards we did the obligatory little ceremony, with monks chanting blessings and U Garu leading the laypeople in a traditional Burmese water-pouring ceremony. Then the ladies hung out and talked with U Garu as the time for leaving kept drawing nearer, and as I get more antsy and impatient just to get it over with.
Finally, maybe 15 minutes before it was time to go, the ladies left and I was free to do the little disrobing ceremony. First U Garu and I made confession to each other. Then two more times he asked me, “Are you sure?” and two more times I said “Yes.” I had never disrobed down to samanera before so he told me how to do it: all I had to do is say samanero'ti mam darehi (“understand that I am a novice”), three times, and that was that. Strangely I felt little but a kind of casual interest and some relief that the suspense was over. There were no pangs of “is this right? do I really want this?” or any such thing, and I was happy and excited to get going on this new path in life. Being a monk really had run its course in my case, and it was time to move on.
So anyway, on the morning of the 11th of May I was driven to the Amtrak station in San Jose to board the Coast Starlight train bound for Los Angeles. Because my final destination (Greenville, SC) was a tiny station with no staff on hand there, I was required to carry ALL of my luggage the whole way, and it was the maximum amount of stuff I could carry: an army surplus Burmese iron footlocker (medium heavy), a wheeled suitcase stuffed full of books and weighing a ton, a backpack, and my bowl in its sling (also stuffed with personal effects), with my shoulder bag and my vital stuff (passport, ticket, money, god-forsaken lung pao sicken mask) under my robes and pressed to my body. I was able to walk maybe a fifty meters with all that before I would be huffing and panting and having to switch hands for carrying the footlocker.
While sitting at the San Jose station looking around I got my first taste of what “real life” is to most people outside of monasteries. Very few smiles of course, and most people at the station looked really unhealthy: about a third were morbidly obese, and lots of the rest were limping or hobbling or all hunched over like their system was out of kilter somehow. Later I told my sweetheart about it and she replied that it’s because of the unhealthy food Americans eat—corn syrup and soy in everything, etc. But I’m not a philosophical materialist and am of the opinion that mental states come first—mind is the forerunner of all dharmas, and all that—and so I feel it is mainly just a very unenlightened and unhealthy zeitgeist upon us, or just unhealthy attitudes overcoming the people. Though the unhealthy attitudes no doubt help to inspire people to stuff themselves with corn syrup and soy.
The train ride to Los Angeles was scenic but otherwise uneventful. It lasted about eleven hours. A very nice Burmese lady named Neela (it means sapphire in Burmese and Pali) had packed me a lunch for the train, and I ate everything except the rice and Burmese curry goop. It was good that she packed me a lunch, because the two bowls of mohinga were pretty low-cal, and the cafe car on the train DID NOT ACCEPT CASH, but only plastic. That and having to wear a damned face mask the whole trip (even while sleeping but not while eating or drinking) were the only real inconveniences.
I arrived in LA late at night, and fortunately for me, Manu of the little YouTube channel Humble Stature (ironically named considering that he’s six feet seven inches tall) met me at the station, and helped to carry the ton and a half of luggage. I spent the night at his place and also met his parents, both of whom are westerners and devout Hindus. I’m pretty sure both of them are devotees of a reportedly fully enlightened and omniscient Hindu guru in California with a name so long and complex that I could never manage to remember it, so that even his followers call him something short, like Gurudev or Guru-ji. Anyway, Manu’s father especially was up for a long spiritual and religious conversation with me, so we hung out talking until late in the night, whereupon I took a quick shower and crashed.
The following day I was to be fed by Manu’s godfather and mentor, who is a kind of psychic healer as well as an Ayur Vedic chef. While he was preparing the meal I asked him his opinion of keto diets, as I have been exposed to the idea of keto quite a lot lately, and know a few people who ride the keto train. It turned out that it was hard to get a straight answer out of him due to his propensity to philosophize at length, liberally peppering his disquisition with a multitude of Sanskrit technical terms—and although I recognized many of the Pali equivalents the meanings of Indian philosophical terms are often quite different between Yogic Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. Just for starters he began explaining something mysterious about “properties” which I couldn’t follow, till finally I realized he was saying prakritis, a key term in Samkhya (and Ayur Vedic) philosophy. Finally after my third try at steering him towards a comprehensible answer (“But what is your opinion of keto?”), he answered succinctly, “It sucks.” Then he elaborated by saying that a diet based on a foundation of pure materialism, with no consideration of whatever the Samkhya terms are for vibes and energies and chakras and so forth, emphasizing only various sorts of organic molecules and their interaction with a purely physical body, may be fine for someone operating at a crude, non-spiritual level, but for a spiritual person it is inadequate. Since I am intuitively drawn to a more or less sattvic diet (a fairly Hinduistic one featuring grains, fruits, nuts, and dairy products), I pretty much agreed with him, more or less. The lunch turned out to be a savory soup made with mung beans, ash pumpkin, bitter gourd, and I don’t know what else. It was somewhat ironic that it was made from ingredients commonly encountered in my bowl after walking for alms in Burmese villages. I ate three bowls of the stuff.
It turns out that one of his recent jobs was “optimizing the energies” of a rock band before a concert, and he had several strange stories about demonic possession, misaligned chakras, and so forth. He did a brief reading of my own chakras, and I am happy to say that they were fairly well aligned, although according to him my second (sexual) chakra was somewhat underdeveloped (which was a surprise), and that some sort of issues in my solar plexus (whether it was my third chakra or not I don’t know) were interfering with the full development of my heart chakra. (Third chakra supposedly conditions drives for power and social position, and the fourth chakra, the first of the non-mundane higher chakras, specifically conditions compassion.) He did say that my first chakra, the survival chakra, was rock solid, so that I had no concerns for mere physical survival—which is good, because animal survival mode is not a pleasant state to be in. He didn’t go any higher in his survey than number four; and after several minutes of having me sit on a couch in meditation he gave me an energetic readjustment, though I really can’t say how successful he was. One other specialty of his is making Ormus, a small amount of which was given to me by Manu shortly before I continued on my way that same evening.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention! The enlightened sage that Manu’s family follow as devotees claims that Kalki, the avatar of Vishnu who will bring an end to the present Kali Yuga or spiritual Dark Age, is alive in a human body today. He is 13 years old now and is being trained by spiritual adepts (real heavy hitters no doubt), and he will be ready to mount his pale horse with sword in hand by 2026. So we have that to look forward to. The first sign of the end of the age will be a flood of truth, as dirty, awful secrets come out into the open and accelerate the chaos and people’s readiness for profound change. Incidentally, Gurudev also asserts that the 2020 election was rigged, Trump really won by a landslide, keto and kombucha are not good for you, the current pandemic is an evil sham, and that wearing the mass-hysteria-induced face masks is pure idiocy.
A few other highlights of my stop in southern California: I found a bag of runes at Manu’s place and pulled one: Sowelu, allegedly a powerful rune of wholeness and energy, with the message being that now is no time to withdraw my energies but to exercise them in the world. Also we took a scenic drive and wound up at Santa Monica pier, where I bought something in a shop for the first time in thirty years—in this case two divinely kitsch refrigerator magnets, to stick to the fridge awaiting my arrival in South Carolina. I was tempted to go on the Ferris wheel, but resisted the urge. We were going to check out Venice Beach and Hollywood also, but I was told that Venice is no longer worth it (homeless camps now instead of girls rollerblading in thongs), and Hollywood is not my style anyway. We hung out good, and then Manu drove me back to the train station so I could board the Sunset Limited headed for New Orleans. He even helped carry my ton and a half of luggage onto the train.
The next two nights were spent sitting on a coach seat on the Sunset Limited, with a goddamn mask on. The trains don’t accept money for food, as I already said, so I picked up a few things at a grocery store to stave off starvation on the trip. I eventually did run out of liquids though, so I would occasionally have to make a foray at train stops to acquire beverages from vending machines. All the vending machines I found refused to sell bottles of plain water, so I drank carbonated sugar water instead. I found that, even though I had two seats to myself, sleeping did not come easy, and every time I would yawn the face mask would pull down under my nose. One guy was actually thrown off the train in Texas for insisting on the freedom of not wearing one. Of course the train conductor and the sheriff were “just doing their job.”
(To be continued….)
|me at Santa Monica pier|