One Year Anniversary Disrobing Edition

Even if I make no significant progress in this life, at least I’m staying out of trouble, more or less. —the “great comforting thought” throughout my monastic career

     Well by golly, Monday, May 16 is my one-year anniversary of disrobing back to the the status of Regular Layman, after thirty years as a monk, twenty years as a Thera or Elder in the Theravada Buddhist Sangha, and ten as a Mahāthera, or Great Elder. Exactly one year ago tonight on the night I am writing this I was still in monastic robes and riding a train from New Orleans to Greenville, South Carolina to meet my sweetheart in the flesh for the very first time. I had sore ears from having to wear a goddamn paper mask all the way from California to South Carolina, and was nervous and sleep-deprived, but excited and happy about the new life I was starting. Now, one year later, I am living in a nice house with my loving sweetheart, with five dogs, a cat, a small flock of chickens, and several fishes and a few frogs in our little pond in the front yard. I work at a sheet metal shop, have a forklift certification (something I never dreamed of having throughout most of my life), recently FINALLY acquired a driver’s license (long story that), and have a credit rating now, and even a good one, in the mid 700s. The main drag on my credit rating at present is that I’ve actually had a credit rating for only a matter of months. But the gruesome details of obtaining a credit card and a credit rating have already been discussed elsewhere.

     I am happy to say that I have no regrets from “declaring my weakness,” as the ancient Pali has it, and returning to the status of Nobody in Particular. Ironically, the purpose of becoming a monk was to become Nobody in Particular, but nowadays, in Asia as well as in the west, a tall white guy in a brown toga has a hard time of being anonymous. It’s much easier to be Nobody in Particular when blending in with one’s cultural surroundings to some degree. Also, I freely admit, I experience much more joy in life now that I have an affectionate mate and a job and extremely affectionate dogs and the ability to walk into the kitchen whenever I like and eat something. I may also have more unpleasant feelings to compensate for the increased pleasant ones, in accordance with the Ways of the World (in Pali, lokadhammā), but if so it was expected and, in my opinion, worth it, an equitable trade.

     The main negative aspect of being a normal person again, sort of, is that, as I mentioned in a previous post, the efforts required to pay the bills, namely working for a living, take up A LOT of my time and energy, so that I often come home exhausted and have little time or energy left over for practicing or teaching Dhamma, or attending to my lovely mate for that matter. My Dhamma practice now consists mainly of mindfulness, a certain amount of patient austerity, and thinking, speaking, and writing about Dhamma—though, as I say, I have less time and energy to do that. But, I am making an honest living, Right Livelihood and all that, and I really have no cause to complain. Being a nonviolent Colonel Kurtz in the forests of Southeast Asia had its good points definitely, including the time and solitude required to cultivate some relatively refined meditative states, but it ran its course, and here I am.

     Two years ago today I was the sole western and “foreign” monk at Kusalakari Meditation Center, a Burmese monastery in French Camp, California. Those of you familiar with this blog may have some recollection of that, and my experiences as a brown-togaed outsider in what was essentially a Burmese cultural center. I don’t think about that time very much, and the situation certainly was not optimal for me, being unable to live as a bhikkhu should in accordance with the ancient texts, and also being unable to live in American culture.

     Five years ago today I was living in a little room attached to the congregation hall or “simā” at a forest monastery in the hills of the Shan Plateau, about 45 miles east of Mandalay. I had been shuttling back and forth between Asia and America for several years. I had offered to be the permanent resident abbot there at Migadawun; and although the monastery was established mainly for western monks in the Taungpulu tradition, and although I was the only remaining western Taungpulu monk left in Burma, and a strictly practicing Mahathera besides, my friend the abbot there had already given permission to a Burmese scholar monk to turn the place into a monastic school. I came that close to spending the rest of my life as an abbot in Asia.

     Ten years ago today I was engaged in a ballsy but ill-fated attempt at living as a “free range” monk in Bellingham, in the state of Washington, my old home town. Some of you with good memories may recall how I put faith in the Buddhist version of “give no thought for tomorrow, what you will eat and where you will sleep—God will provide,” and simply fell out of the sky and landed in a town in the Pacific Northwest. I survived, pretty much, but it became fairly clear that, in my case anyhow, American Buddhists in general weren’t ready for a resident monk, or anyhow weren’t prepared to support one beyond a hand-to-mouth level. (Hand-to-mouth really is most appropriate for a bhikkhu, but I was reluctant to be a burden on the relatively few people in town who thought a resident monk living nearby was a good idea.)

     Twenty years ago today I was senior monk at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, located on the banks of the Chindwin River in northwestern Burma/Myanmar. I had a deluxe cave there, with a devoutly Buddhist and very supportive lay community living in villages nearby—but the radical solitude, the furnace-like heat throughout most of the year, and my growing fame in the area resulting in almost daily visitors from strangers seeking blessings, eventually urged me on to greener pastures. I lived there for about eight or nine years, which is longer than I have lived anywhere else, I’m pretty sure. I have no idea what is going on there nowadays. It was a beautiful place, with scrub forest, snakes, owls, and jungle fowl (wild chickens), surrounded by good, simple-hearted people, but HOT, and TOO hot for a westerner who was gradually getting older, and more sensitive to violent weather.

     Thirty years ago today I was a fresh new monk living at Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California. The insanity there was sufficient that some senior monks had advised me to go to Burma for a little while, until things got better. Things didn’t get better, and I spent well over twenty years in Burma, mostly alone in various caves. But you may already know that.

     Forty years ago I was a drunken college student, working towards a degree in Biology and just learning about Buddhism, and aspiring someday to become a Buddhist monk of some sort, maybe Soto Zen. I had long hair and partied a lot, still somehow getting mostly A’s on my report cards, but deep down I longed for something deeper. 

     Fifty years ago I was in fifth grade, and had a crush on a girl named Lori Heggie.

     The thing is, I longed to live a spiritual life, and renounced the world to pursue it, and at last I have learned to live a spiritual life while working for a living, and sleeping with a beautiful woman who loves me, and interacting with normal American folks, and even drinking the occasional beer. Hardnose Theravadins may view me as a spectacular failure, but so far I am doing rather well, with no regrets. May you do likewise, with my blessings upon you. 


  1. Lovely summary, thanks for sharing. I found that to be a beautiful way of looking back at the unexpected course life often takes. Who among us could have really predicted where we'd be 20 years ago?


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