The Elder Sister of All Alms Rounds
Well, I have been so busy with book editing that once again I have been writing things other than new blog posts. My intensive book editing is now finished, however, as my third collection of essays on Buddhism and Dharmic philosophy—Buddhist Ethics, Buddhist Practice, has been completed and published, and is for sale on Amazon here. (I think it may be considered by some to be the best of the series, containing some of my best writing and being based more on practical matters than on mind-bending metaphysics, but you can decide for yourself.) So this post is a teaser from the fourth collection, which will be published eventually, though I suppose three is enough for now, and I really should get back on track with writing new stuff and studying for my driver’s test.
As you may perceive by reading what follows, it was written several years ago when I was still a monk living in Burma. It was after my shuttling between hemispheres had begun though—staying in America until it became too frustrating, then staying in Burma until it became too hot and, well, Burmese, and then repeating the process—and thus I was already well on my way to becoming the guy wearing a shirt sitting here in an apartment in South Carolina typing this.
In fact one of the reasons why I stopped living at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, where this post was originally written, is that I was simply becoming too famous there, and not only was I receiving way too many visitors to be proper or comfortable for a recluse, but even obtaining a daily bowl of food was becoming so easy as to become difficult, as you may notice below.
The last time I was at Wun Bo in Burma, in winter of 2016-17, I was informed that the little white dog who appears in this story, a very sweet little being called Khit Khit, passed away, probably due to one of the many tropical dog diseases that are endemic in Burma. I hope she is in a better place now.
Anyway, what follows is the original post from 2014, which is destined to be included in my eventual next book, Memoirs from Myanmar: Writings of an Incendiary Buddhist Monk, a collection of essays about my eventful life as a monk.
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You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. (—William Blake, alias The Devil)
I suppose I should start off by explaining how it was even possible in the first place, so:
How It Was Even Possible in the First Place
The Burmese take their Buddhism very seriously. Their approach to religion seems to be more medieval than modern, coming closer to the attitude of a European Christian 600 years ago than to the attitude of a modern Western Christian or Buddhist. This has its good points and its bad points like everything else, and is not entirely a bad thing, especially from a spiritual point of view. Unlike a modern Western religious person who lives first and foremost in a material world governed by scientific laws, with religion being added as a kind of "app" which is of secondary importance (at best) with regard to one's interpretation of reality, the devout Burmese Buddhist lives in a Buddhist world governed by laws of Dhamma even when she or he is not feeling religious, with scientific materialism itself being of secondary importance.
The Burmese have their own kind of materialism though, a kind which a Tibetan monk once famously referred to as "spiritual materialism." They think about meritorious karma almost as though it were money. They believe that established Buddhist rituals have validity and power in and of themselves, regardless of all else. For example, many Burmese believe that observing five precepts is practically futile if one doesn't first perform the ritual of taking them upon oneself, before a monk or at least before an altar. Also, they believe that a simple ordination ceremony turns a man into a superhuman spiritual being, somewhat like a devout Catholic believes that a simple ritual turns bread into the real and true flesh of Christ, through the Miracle of Transsubstantiation, despite the fact that afterwards it still looks like, and tastes like, plain bread.
Thus the Burmese have a different vocabulary for describing the comings, goings, and doings of monks than the one they use for unordained people. The word for "human being" is not applied to monks. Even a man ordained temporarily, maybe even for just a few days during a vacation from work, will be considered no longer a mere human during that time, and will be called ashin hpayah (Venerable Lord) even by his closest family members.
That's just for starters. Add to that the fact that I came from America, a country which Burmese villagers naively believe to be some kind of Paradise where everybody is rich and happy. Just a few months after my first arrival in Burma many years ago, a village doctor informed me that the local villagers already loved me more than they loved the saintly abbot of the monastery where I was staying, because I had voluntarily renounced my comfortable, privileged life in "Paradise" to come halfway around the world and live in poverty amongst them, living in accordance with principles which they considered to be sacred. The felt honored, proud, and grateful, as though their way of life had somehow been vindicated.
And then there is the remarkable fact that monks who appear to live unusually saintly lives may receive reverence from Burmese laypeople reaching a level of fever-pitch. I was told that when venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw, the founder of the tradition in which I was ordained, would travel, sometimes young women would line his path on either side, bow down to the ground, and strew their long hair across the path for him to walk on. In those days he was followed by a young Texan monk who simply could not bring himself to walk on the hair of young women, so he stopped following Sayadaw long enough to walk around them.
|venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw (with attendant)|
Fortunately I guess, I've never had women spread their hair out for me to walk on, although on several occasions they've spread out their scarves for the same purpose—not to protect my feet from the hard, dirty ground, but to bless the scarves by their coming in contact with the Sayadaw's foot. Never would I have dreamed at the age of 16 that there would come a day when hundreds of exotic, dark-eyed women would be literally worshipping at my feet. But, like Kipling's Man Who Would Be King, it has always been strictly against the rules for me actually to touch any of them, not even their hands. A Japanese monk once accused me of making very strange karma, and I have to agree with him.
For most of my life as a monk I have lived alone in forests, have meditated regularly, have not handled money, and have not followed the lifestyle that most Burmese monks follow; and because of this I have been considered to live an unusually saintly life—in fact, as I've probably already mentioned before, in some parts of northwestern Burma I have a reputation for being a fully enlightened being. (I certainly don't go around telling people that I am one though.) Once when I was living under a rock ledge at the edge of a large forest, a friendly village man came to visit me, and he said to me, wonderingly, "I could never live like you. You don't drink tea! You don't smoke cigars!" The fact that I didn't drink tea or smoke cigars seemed to strike him with more profound awe than the fact that I slept and meditated alone in a forest, under a rock ledge. I have often considered that if Burmese people knew of the stuff that goes through my mind sometimes, they would be much less inclined to worship me. But who knows.
Anyway, I lived at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery (where I sit here writing this, in front of my old cave) for about a year and a half before things started approaching anywhere near fever-pitch. Up until then alms round in the nearby villages was easily manageable—house by house alms round was not much of an option, since a line of people would be waiting for me at the entrance to the village, but still everything went into the bowl, with no grocery bags, not even with cakes and fruit balanced on top of the bowl lid (I usually don't use a bowl lid anyway). But then one morning, around January of 2003, I entered Wun Bo village for alms and found a kind of three-ring circus: a crowd of people, many of whom I had never seen before, were waiting to offer alms food, candles, incense, pieces of cloth, etc. etc. I finally staggered out of the village with a bowl stuffed to overflowing and two big grocery bags full of stuff. After a week or two the crowds and festival atmosphere had diminished somewhat, with flareups on full-moon days and special occasions; but that was the beginning of it all.
I later learned that what had happened was this: About twenty miles from Wun Bo there was an old monk called Ywa Mun Sayadaw, who lived alone in a small cemetery and who was considered by many to be an Arahant. I had visited him once several years previously. Anyway, sometimes local villagers would rent a mechanized contraption called a "toila-gyi," a kind of motorized iron cart with no suspension, and go in groups to pay their respects to the old sayadaw. Just a day or two before the aforementioned three-ring circus, a group of people from Shwe Zayay, a village just north of Wun Bo, rented a toila-gyi and went on such a pilgrimage to pay their respects to Ywa Mun Sayadaw; and when they told him where they were from, he said, "Oh, that American monk lives near there. You should always make sure that he receives enough food when he goes for alms; even if it is raining you should be sure to give him alms. He is very venerable." Why he said that I don't exactly know, but to the Burmese it could mean only one thing: if an Arahant praises another monk, saying that he is very venerable, then that other monk must be an Arahant too, or at least very advanced. That was the beginning of my reputation for being a great saint in the area of Wun Bo.
Human nature is peculiar. If people are biased against you, then you can do no right in their eyes; but if they're biased in your favor, then they can work everything out as proof that you are wonderful. There was a man I had never met in Shwe Zayay who presumably didn't like foreigners much, and used to say that if I ever came to Shwe Zayay he would escort me back out personally; shortly afterwards he developed some kind of jaw cancer, became horribly disfigured, and then died—which just demonstrated the fact that if you have bad thoughts toward a great saint, bad things will happen to you. Once I was informed that a photograph was being circulated around the city of Monywa, showing me levitating above the city using psychic power. I never saw it, but my standard response whenever it was mentioned was, "I think it must have been someone else, because I don't remember doing that." One time a doctor told me that he had seen a picture of me with light shining out of it; I did see that one, and it was just overexposed.
The Elder Sister of All Alms Rounds
After returning to the Wildlife Refuge Monastery this winter, within a few days my alms round in Wun Bo village became difficult. About half of the alms donors were from Shwe Zayay, and with so many people wanting to offer food, my bowl would eventually be stuffed literally to overflowing, and I'd be carrying a big bag of extra stuff which could be very heavy, especially if there were a lot of banana donors that day; and then, as I would be leaving the village, fairly staggering with the load already, maybe ten or twelve people with clear, innocent looks on their faces would be holding out one-liter bottles of purified water. I would guess that even Superman could not carry all of it, considering that even Superman has only two hands. Usually a part-time monastery attendant who lives in the village would volunteer to help me carry everything, especially the water, back to the cave.
So when a young man from Shwe Zayay invited me to walk for alms in his village, I accepted, partly in the hope that the people of Shwe Zayay would be satisfied and would thus throng less at Wun Bo alms rounds, allowing my collection of a daily bowl of food to be less of an ordeal and workout. Besides, I like Shwe Zayay people, and it's a pretty village. So I went there on the eighth-day uposatha during the waxing moon of Pyatho.
Apparently to make sure that I made it, or maybe to provide an "honor guard," three young men from Shwe Zayay were waiting outside my cave at dawn, along with Ko Myint Oo the Wun Bo part-time attendant, and three dogs. We took the cart track to Wun Bo, then walked through that village, and then down along the river bank, there being no actual road. After various efforts Ko Myint Oo managed to turn back two of the dogs, anticipating fights with strange dogs once we arrived at Shwe Zayay; but one little white dog could not be dissuaded, and followed us all the way.
Never before had I walked on an alms round like that one. Up until that morning the most people who had put rice and goo into my bowl in a single morning was maybe 120-140; in Shwe Zayay there had to have been at least 500 people lined up, possibly as many as a thousand. Practically the whole village turned out for the occasion, with a few more from a village across the river. The alms route extended from one side of a large village to the other, and it took about an hour to complete it.
One of the main reasons why I had been invited in the first place was that there were many elderly people in Shwe Zayay who couldn't navigate the rough path to Wun Bo. Also lots of toddlers offered alms, many of them evidently having little more idea of what they were doing than "Mama wants me to do this." Despite the rule of one spoon of rice and one spoon of curry each, my bowl (which holds about five or six liters) was full long before I reached the end of the line; but I was encouraged to dump the contents into another container and to keep going, so that everybody could offer something. They didn't care at all that they were offering many times more food than I could possibly eat. (Sometimes I would remark, jokingly, "I don't think I'll be able to eat all this.") Their desire to inundate me with alms was largely motivated by that spiritual materialism that I mentioned earlier: they considered making an offering to me to be a blessing for them, a meritorious deed ("good karma") that would protect their health and well-being.
Now, from a Buddhist point of view, we always get exactly what we deserve; it is the fruition of our own karma, our own doing. So in that sense I deserved to have several hundred people very reverentially making offerings to me, with all of them who were not too old to manage it then getting down on the ground and bowing at my feet. But, by the very same token, Adolf Hitler deserved to be lord and master of most of Europe for a few years, and someone like Richard Nixon deserved to be president of the United States, and the most powerful man in the world. But although I deserved it in that sense, I certainly did not want to take it lightly or disrespectfully (especially after my recent hungry experiences in the West). I very much felt that I should be worthy of the honor I was receiving, at least while I was receiving it. So, from start to finish, I was blessing everyone for all I was worth—seeing them as Divinity and perfection, seeing each one of them as being as important as me, or as anyone, seeing them all as us, with no real boundary between them and me. Rather than hope Divinity would blossom in them I saw it as already there. And as soon as I noticed that the blessings were becoming mechanical I would immediately snap out of it, make corrections, and bless them with my whole heart again, as well as I was able.
Several years ago I composed a long, explicitly erotic "epic" poem which, while I was in America, I rarely thought of; but shortly after arriving at my old cave it came up frequently, and I tinkered with it, making adjustments here and there. On the morning of that alms round, before setting out, it occurred to me that the word "resplendent" could be a very nice word to include in an erotic poem. "Resplendent flesh," or some such. So while going down the long line of faithful Buddhist alms donors, the word "resplendent" would occasionally arise in my mind, and sometimes an entire line of voluptuous poetry containing the word would offer itself up for my consideration. But in that atmosphere, surrounded by people gushing with faith and reverence, it felt so utterly incongruous that it simply fell away and disappeared, almost as quickly as it arose.
Almost at the very end of the long, long line was a slightly nutty yet very good-natured old novice (koyin-gyi), who lives more or less like a hermit near Shwe Zayay. He offered candles, I think, and was wearing a stocking cap with a New York Yankees logo on it. Once about eight years ago he came to my cave with an offering of candles, incense, and bottled water, and handed me a note which said,
"Venerable Lord, you know and see all that is in my mind—So, out of compassion, so that I may be victorious in the Sangha, please tell me the winning lottery numbers."
I advised him that gambling is not good Dhamma, and that he shouldn't do it. With many grins he politely took his leave, explaining that it was time for him to set out for alms round. Despite his odd ideas, before the advent of ven. Iddhidaja I had considered recruiting him to be overseer of the Wildlife Refuge after I left. I tend to get along well with old novices, and they have less power to ruin a good monastery than monks have.
Anyhow, after finally reaching the end of the line at the far end of the village, I was requested to stop at the house of two devotees who couldn't walk very well any more. I made my appearance, still generating blessings as well as I was able, and as a final offering, on top of everything else, I received a bouquet of flowers and a watermelon.
I was to be taken back to the monastery in a motor boat, so I was then escorted to the Shwe Zayay boat launch. Several teenage girls were at the river filling vases, and then carrying them back to the river, full of yellow flowers. The little white dog, who had followed me all the way and had somehow survived the gauntlet of strange, growling village dogs, could not be called onto the boat, so we left her behind at the boat launch. As we pulled away from the village I felt that I had blown yet another opportunity to exercise compassion—I felt like I should have gotten out of the boat, picked up the dog, and carried it back onto the boat. Such behavior on the part of "the Sayadaw" probably would have embarrassed a few people, but it would have spared the dog the dangerous ordeal of finding her way back home through hostile territory. As it turned out, though, she survived the ordeal and showed up at the monastery in time to help celebrate the extreme excess of food.
Altogether, the "haul" of that one alms round, for one monk, amounted to, approximately:
• about 3½ bowlfuls of rice and curry, including plenty of eggs, peanuts, and cauliflower (maybe 25 lbs., or 11 kg)
• two large grocery bags of fruit (maybe 30 lbs., or 14 kg, each)
• two large grocery bags of fried things, cheap bread, cake, cookies, etc. (the bakery stuff being of such a quality that most Americans would choose not to eat it)
• 77 liters of bottled water (no parenthetical comment required)
• 24 bottles of lychee drink, of various brands (equalling about 6 liters)
• various other drinks (including coffee and tea with so much sweetened, condensed milk added as to make it difficult to determine which it was supposed to be, and "Shark," a cheap Burmese imitation of Red Bull energy drink that tastes like a combination of cough syrup and corn syrup)
• one large grocery bag containing mainly candles and incense (with a few little extras, like home-woven handkerchiefs and a bottle of licorice honey)
• three bottles of spirulina tablets
• two bunches of flowers
• one watermelon
All of it amounted to about 300 lbs. (135 kg) of stuff (not including five golden rings that I didn't accept, their being made of an inappropriate metal, and several calling birds and lords a-leaping which were turned loose at the boat launch). And then of course it turned out that I wasn't very hungry. I did, however, probably break a personal record that day with regard to the number of tangerines eaten at a single meal. As for the food and beverages (not including water), I consumed my fill, ven. Iddhidaja took a few bananas, four lay supporters who were keeping eight precepts consumed their fill, three dogs consumed theirs, and the rest, which was plenty, was left for the squirrels and jungle fowl or else carried home by the laypeople.
|most of one day's "alms" on the eighth-day uposatha|
of the waxing moon of Pyatho
Some people in the West, upon reading such an account of the behavior of Burmese Buddhists, while taking considerate care not to say anything so obviously politically incorrect as, "Well, they're just ignorant foreigners who don't know any better," would be inclined to express essentially that same idea in different words. It is human nature for us to consider our own cultural conditioning to be Right, or at least more Right than other cultural conditionings. But the fact is that we are all ignorant, and none of us knows any better, with the possible exception of a few enlightened beings. It may even be that from a spiritual point of view, from the perspective of Dharma, such Burmese villagers are better off, or more advanced, than are most of us Westerners, since spirituality is fundamentally built into their system, which hasn't been the case for most Westerners since the advent of modern civilization. One may be better off with an excess of faith and credulity than with an excess of the opposite—i.e., an excess of cynicism and suspicion. Burmese villagers at least have their door open, so to speak, so that if a real saint or sage actually does come along, he or she is much more likely to be welcomed in and accepted. In the words of Sathya Sai Baba, using Hindu vocabulary,
If you take Krishna to be a mere cowherd, a man of the world like others, then for you he will be just a cowherd! You too climb only up to that stage….You will have noticed that Uddhava who looked upon Krishna as his Guru benefited more than Arjuna who looked upon Him as Sakha, a friend. If you have faith that He is God, He will be God to you; if you dismiss Him as mere man, He takes on that role and becomes useless for you. Search for Him with the heart, not with the eye for externals. The superpower has to be sought in the super-state itself, not in the lower states. Then, if you have the eyes that are fit to see and the wisdom to understand, you will find Him.
And as the ancient Greeks used to say, sometimes the beggar at your door may be a deity in disguise. But I believe there is enough goodness in human nature that no society could ever be completely anti-spiritual, or non-spiritual. Goodness, or badness, can be found anywhere, if we are receptive to it.
Also, some people in the West, upon reading such an account of my own experiences with Burmese Buddhists, would be inclined to consider it just so much blatant, grandiose, pathetic boasting. But bragging and swaggering was not my intention. This account is written in pretty much the same spirit as any number of other accounts describing life in Burma or current events. There are two main reasons why I've taken the trouble to write this rather long post.
First, I have lived a relatively unusual life. The number of modern Western men who have renounced a worldly life for the sake of seeking wisdom and practicing Dharma, and have then followed their calling into remote tropical forests, "wrestling with the Devil in the wilderness," until gaining the stature of living, breathing pagan idols (so to speak), is relatively small. And the number of them who write about it is even smaller. So I write about this stuff to present a kind of case history, an example of what is possible if one chooses to live a radical alternative lifestyle, and a proof that one is not required to conform to a spiritually destitute society, and that one may have a richer and happier life because of not conforming. I have no doubt that my life has been much more fulfilling than it would have been had I accepted a U.S. Navy scholarship and become a nuclear technician, for example.
Second, I've written several times about my experiences with westernized Buddhism in America, and about my rather cool (sometimes positively frigid) reception in that country; and I have received quite a few comments from Western people to the effect that: 1) the cool reception I experienced was all my fault; or 2) regardless of its causes, I keep harping away about it, and it's getting plain tiresome. These people are looking at the situation, naturally, from a Western point of view, which is practically the same as saying that they are looking at it from a point of view biased in favor of the cool reception. But from my perspective, this way of looking at things is seeing only one side of the picture. My exposure to American Buddhists, and my fate at their hands, was so astonishing and bemusing, and such a shock to my system, largely because it was in stark, glaring contrast to anything I had ever experienced before. As soon as I became a Buddhist I began moving toward what I considered to be what the Buddha originally taught, bypassing American culture, even bypassing Burmese Buddhist culture, and aiming at ancient India. So after trying to live like an ancient Indian for many years, supported by a rural Burmese society that comes much closer to ancient India than to the modern West, I returned to America and found a Buddhism there that had mutated so extensively that the difference between it and what I was acclimated to was like the difference between night and day. Stark, jolting contrast—like jumping out of a hot bath and into ice water, or vice versa. So writing a little about being worshipped in Burma is an attempt to broaden the view somewhat, and to give the reader a better idea of this guy's, or Sayadaw's, perspective.
Sometimes I worry a little that my strange karma has me locked into a strange polarity of "feast or famine." Ideally, I would like to find a good middle way between "Please bless us, Venerable Lord" and "Who the heck does this guy think he is." In Bali, maybe. Or maybe I could just keep moving to places in Burma where I'm not famous yet, and where people haven't seen me levitating over cities. I think it would be nice to find a middle path where fluent English is spoken, although maybe I'm just being fussy.
In conclusion, I would just like to respectfully suggest that if reading about someone like me being a minor king of Kafiristan (sort of like Colonel Kurtz, except without heads on poles) bothers you, and if you really don't want to get a better idea of my perspective, then you are very probably reading the wrong blog. Be happy, and have a beautiful day. Seriously.