Archive for the ‘biography’ Category

Newly Old: a Fantasy

July 13, 2014

I have been working with a student to proof my pending autobiography. A number of passages are fanciful, each of which is intended to make a Dharmic point, at least obliquely. I thought I would begin to post these as a series. Most, maybe all, have been posted independently in a previous incarnation as separate pieces before, but generally a number of years ago.

The first was originally written in Myanmar, in the Sagaing Hills. No other background is required, except Wigglet, the dog I refer too, was a feral dog who befriended me. She was actually much better cared for than most dogs around the monastery because she was smart enough to claim the Guest House as her territory, where many foreign visitors stayed, who tended to take more interest in dogs than the natives.

Newly Old

While living in Sagaing I became officially old: I turned 60!

In Buddhism we have this Self thing, or rather don’t have it. To be a Self requires the view that there is something in or around this body that is unchanging, besides a Social Security Number. That unchanging Self is what is known in Buddhism as “a mental formation,” and also as a “Wrong View.” In my case this delusion of a mental formation must have arisen many years ago complete with many wonderful unchanging characteristics. So it is not surprising that that Self is someone actually much younger than me. The landmark event of turning 60 put me once again face to face with that unchanging youthful Self, and gave me three choices:

The first choice is denial. Under this choice I try all the harder to convince myself that I am this youthful unchanging Self. After all, I have the still unchanged energy to be an international globetrotter, like I was in my 20’s, and now without depending on Youth Hostels. My health is excellent, except when I’m not feeling so chipper. I can always grow some of my lush head of hair back. I’ve had many more years of experience being young than any of the young of today — the whippersnappers — so I should be really good at it. Why, I just might get me a skateboard, and what I think they call a “Walk Man” so I can listen to the latest “Disco” music, just like the youth of today. Monks don’t have hats to speak of that they could wear backwards, but maybe I’ll express my youthful rebellion by wearing my robe over my right shoulder.

After I began with such thoughts to settle into a happy state of denial my daughter Kymrie emailed from America, “I don’t think the skateboard is a good idea. After all, you are 60.” That suddenly took the wind out of my sails. I then began to realize how denial must always slide the slippery slope gradually into despair. So I placed my mind there to see how it felt.

So, the second choice is despair. Under this option I lament the unfairness of the universe for not being the way it is supposed to be, for failing to respect who I really am, for not according me what was promised to me, for being like a fancy restaurant that has inexcusably lost my dinner reservation or a hotel that has put me in a room next to the elevator or over a, uh, disco. I might even try to organize something to do about it, like a gray folks’ protest.

Or I might just relish the despair. You know, I would probably make a really great Bitter Old Man, famous for my Bodhidharma frown. I would learn the art of striking fear in the hearts not only of children, but even of dogs and cats. And it would just get better as I get older and older and older, and more and more bitter. The Despair I would experience with Flair, with a Penetrating Frown and a Horrifying Glare. Wigglet would no longer want to come to my door, relieved instead by the mangiest mongrels of Sagaing, my kinda dog. I would learn to peal paint and wilt flowers as I walk by. Ha ha. If I have to be a Bitter Old Man, I’m going to do it right. By next rainy season my mere presence will pop meditators right out of samādhi into a thicket of unwholesome impulses. My former fans will say, “Don’t do It, Bhante, don’t become a Bitter Old Man,” and “No, Not Bhikkhu Cintita.”

… But wait, what am I thinking? Am I not just replacing one Self with another, the Young with the Old, then clinging equally to the new (Old)? Do I really think I can find satisfaction with the Old (new) Self, any more than I could with the old (Young)? Is not the new (Old) equally subject to dissolution? Oh, Impermanence, What Vexation Have You Wrought? And what would the Buddha say? One of his monks turning into a modern (new but Old) Mara. Besides, I can see that this Bitter Old Man bit will wear thin pretty quickly. “Oh, Wigglet! Wigglet!”

The third choice is acceptance. Under this choice I regard this situation as a good Practice Opportunity and Topic for Contemplation. This is the Buddhist Way! It goes something like this:

If I am not this unchanging youthful Self, then who is that guy, and who am I? I seem to have his memories of who he is supposed to be, so we must have intersected at some point, maybe that time in 1965. If he is not me, he must be around here somewhere, since he is unchanging. And I must be another Self, so two Selves. And if there can be two Selves that I identify as me, aren’t there likely to be more? But I know that guy used to be me, so what happened? The mind not able to wrap itself around any of this, exhausted, all the Selves shatter and what is left is nothing but the recognition of change, a continual relentless flux of the whole universe morphing into new forms. Even as the idea arises that this is me, all the parts and their relations are already morphing into something else. Any Self that tries to hold onto itself does not fit into the way things really are, is no more than the product of a very active imagination trying to find something solid in an ocean of change. It is silly to try to hang onto something I never was and could not possibly be.

Thinking this way gives me the ability to lighten up, … and to sound very philosophical while I’m at it.

Just when I had not only resigned myself to no longer being a youth, or a Self, but also thought I was joyfully present with this reality, one of the monks at Sagaing told me he thought I was already 70! That suddenly propelled me back to Square One. I began to picture myself in the upcoming spring once again zipping around Austin on a skateboard wearing full burgundy robes.

Alms Round in America?

January 28, 2014

Adapted from my autobio for publication in our monastery newsletter.

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Awakening, he continued his rounds in the streets of Kapilavatthu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life and, even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For the alms round was not simply a  way to feed the monks and nuns but also to give layfolks the opportunity to make merit and learn Dhamma as the Sangha, dignified and mindful, passes silently from house to house to receive offerings, and also to promote the growth of the Sāsana. Ashin Dr. Paññasīha of the Sitagu center in Yangon takes this ancient obligation quite seriously and I used to join him in this remarkable practice, crossing over Bailey Bridge, down some stairs, past a small Burmese version of a strip mall (about five tiny abutting shops), across another busy road and into a small neighborhood of many closely packed dwellings and muddy alleys trafficked by bicycles, pedestrians and chickens and beslumbered by lazy mutts.

Once, as my departure from the Land of Pagodas neared, U Paññasīha admonished me, “When you go back to America you should continue alms rounds.”

“I don’t think you can do alms rounds in the States,” I replied, “Nobody will know what I am doing.”

“I did,” he responded.

Indeed, he had lived in America for one and a half years where he had attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He explained how he had been determined to walk for alms no matter where he lived, how he had printed up fliers and distributed them through his neighborhood in anticipation of people’s bewilderedness, and how he ended up with many American students eager to learn Buddhism.

“In a lot of places in America, including Austin,” I objected, “I could be arrested for ‘begging’!”

“I wouldn’t have minded getting arrested,” he retorted, “I would teach Buddhism in jail.”

Whew, this venerable argued an awfully strong case.

Within thirteen days of my arrival back in Austin, I found myself living for seven months at the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara near St. Paul, Minnesotta, a northern land peopled primarily by tall lumbering Vikings under baseball caps, fair of skin, hair and eyes, just like me (for I am also of tall lumbering nordic descent), but without the robes. Although my old alms bowl stood on my shelf to remind me of Ashin Paññasīha’s alms admonition, I had trouble picturing myself seeking alms on County Road C, walking along the edge of the road, dumbfounding the occupants of cars as they flashed past, gaining little notice from the neighbors (undoubtedly Lutheran Protestants), all of whose houses stood well back from the roadway. What I pictured seemed hardly promising of alms, nor even of significant human contact.

That is, unless I just happened to pass the right house at the right moment: Once, while on my long daily walk, a swift bicycle passed me from behind then screeched to a halt, ejecting a dark-haired woman who, with a sidewards toss of the bike, dropped to the ground and bowed at my feet. She was, as she explained, from Laos and was now married to an American. As she had been washing dishes in her kitchen, she happened to glance up to see the very last thing walk by that she had ever expected in rural Minnesota. She dashed out the door, jumped on her daughter’s bicycle and hastened after me. Had I instead been walking by with alms bowl in hand, I would certainly have attained to left-over waffles, bear mush or even better!

But no, I had by this time fastened on an alms plan that would leave little to chance. This was inspired by an American nun (named Ayya Thanasanti, and now a bhikkhuni), who, according to my sources, had started collecting alms in Colorado. Brilliantly, she performed her alms round at a farmer’s market! A farmer’s market provides the ideal set of circumstances under which even Nordic inhibition might be set aside in favor of an ancient rite that is over twice as old as Viking plunder: a wide variety of amiable people in a relaxed and interactive frame of mind, and food close at hand, available for purchase on a whim. I phoned the director of the nearest farmers’ market and easily obtained permission to walk barefoot, bowl in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, along the bustling row of booths.

I also invited the four monks from the local Karen monastery in St. Paul to join me, and a few members of our community to bring some food to offer, to prime the pump that would then suck up broader participation. The Karen monks, never having expected to go for alms in America, a bit apprehensive about the response they might invoke, and of less than Nordic stature, suggested we forgo the normal monastic custom of queuing up according to ordination date (for mine would be most recent) and, much like novices or ducklings, line up according to height … tallest first.

We had a number of glitches at first. The Burmese recruited to prime the pump were, as I should have anticipated, far too generous to provide a reasonable example for emulation, for they handed us what appeared to be entire grocery bags of food, which gave the row of monks the appearance of a kind of human shopping cart, already brimming and hardly in need of still further alms. Luckily, in subsequent weeks, with decreasing numbers of the Burmese community showing up, brim became less of an issue. Although many of the shoppers must still have wondered why grown bald men in dresses were playing choo-choo in the middle of their shopping experience, week after week more shoppers and vendors caught on. Once an apparent immigrant from Southwest Asia, who presumably had not seen an alms round in many years, was thrilled to be able to explain to her lanky grandson how to drop an offering into each of our bowls. Once a vendor gave each of us a little bottle of honey. Our alms practice finally ended with the end of the farmers’ market season as the chill of the northern winter approached.

Back in Austin, a small group of Burmese families has been considering purchasing and subdividing a lot adjacent to the monastery to build five houses. This would constitute a small village into which the Sitagu Sangha might venture, barefoot, bowls in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, along a short row of houses, to attain to rice, curry and more.

Uposatha Day 12/28/2012

December 28, 2012

Ch. 12. Requisites of the Bhikkhu

A monk is like a house pet: helpless on his own, absolutely and vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, but at the same time of therapeutic value to that kind hand (not to mention cute as a kitten in his fluffy robes and under his bald head). Like house pets bhikkhus live simple lives, need and possess little: they do not have a motorboat on the lake nor a puppy they are trying to put through college.

Monastics are also deliberately renunciates, which means that their lifestyle leaves almost no channels for the pursuit of sensual pleasures or accumulation of stuff, nor for the intractable issues that accompany these. The effect is that we settle into a state of quiet contentment, of not struggling with the world on the other side of the looking glass, not compelled as the laity is for financial or familial reasons to struggle in that world.

At the same time the presence of monastics moderates by example the excesses of the laity, makes teachings and pastoral care readily available and incurs less expense than the support of virtually any other clergy.

Accepting the generosity of the lay graciously, having no resources at all of one’s own that are not donated, puts the monastic in an uncommon frame of reference, but also does the same for the lay donor. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something the lay donor receives a gift. This is paradoxical to the Western observer, but if you look again, you cannot mistake the sugar plums dancing in the donor’s eyes.

MORE (pdf) …

Index to series (html)

Uposatha Day 12/21/2012 (and Mayan End-of-the-World Day)

December 21, 2012

Tales of Burma

This is the eleventh and  latest chapter of my autobiographical narrative Through the Looking Glass to attain draft completion. This will leave two chapters: 12. The Requisites of a Bhikkhu and 13. The American Monk. I will post chapter 12 next week.

Chapter 11. Tales of Burma

Shortly after my ordination and for the next twelve months life and Burma assumed a more leisurely pace that lent itself to contemplation, to settling into the patterns of Theravada monastic life and to observing the environment into which I had placed myself,  quite entranced in this very foreign land.
Behind the Learning Curve.

There is a steep curve for the new bhikkhu who comes from a land that provides little opportunity to observe the attire, deportment and activities of Buddhist monks. Shucks, I never even saw monks on alms round until I came to Myanmar.

The very afternoon after my ordination, Ashin Ariyadhamma and the pilgrims were ready to move on southward. It was suggested that I might wish to stay at Pa Auk Tawya, a famous meditation center in Lower Burma, for the quickly approaching Hot Season. Saigang in particular was reputed to swelter during those months. After quick deliberation we boarded a bus for the ten-hour trip to Yangon. An immediate and ever present wardrobe challenge, my upper robe seem to shift with every bump or turn of the bus and at every stop needed to be wrapped around anew. I marveled that Ashin Ariyadhamma’s robe stayed so neatly in place.

We  reached Yangon and rode a taxi to the Sitagu Center near Bailey Bridge. The center in Yangon serves as a kind of transit point as visitors to the various Sitagu centers and projects enter and leave the country. Fortunately for me, the famous Sri-Lankan-American Bhante Gunaratana, having left the conference in Sagaing just before my ordination, found himself stuck in Yangon, in fact in the room next door to mine, awaiting a visa to permit the next leg of his journey. In his eighties he was the hight of delight and as sharp as newly broken glass, with the same humor that shines through so effectively in his books.

MORE (pdf)

Index to Series

Burmese Alms Rounds

October 23, 2012

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, October 23, 2012

Another excerpt from my bio narrative:

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Enlightenment, he continued his alms rounds in the streets of Kapilavastu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life. Even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. He once criticized one of his disciples, an arahat no less who could meditate for seven days at a stretch without food, for neglecting his daily alms rounds. For the Buddha the alms round was not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns: it had a social role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay.

The Pali word for alms round is piṇḍapāta, which means “drop a lump,” rhyming with “heffalump.” and describing the process whereby food accumulates in the alms bowl. The tradition is that monks or nuns leave the monastery, or wherever they are dwelling (most ideally, the root of a tree or a cemetery), either singly or in a group. As a group they typically walk single-file according to seniority, that is, according to ordination date. The robes are arranged formally, covering both shoulders as described above. The monks walk barefooted into a village and then from house to house, not favoring rich nor poor neighborhoods, accepting, but not requesting, what is freely donated, that is, dropped as a lump into one’s bowl.

Everything dropped into the bowl, according to the most ancient tradition, is simply mixed together, since monks are asked not to favor one food over another, and by extension should not favor one blend of foods over another; their stomachs will just blend them in any case. Carrying the ancient tradition into the modern context can result in some rather unique blends, for instance, curry and cake, beans and tofu, tomato sauce and noodles, radish and yogurt. It is fun to speculate how much of today’s haute cuisine may have first arisen as a chance combination in the primordial ooze at the bottom of some ancient monk’s alms bowl.

There are a lot of rules for monks around eating. Foods must be offered by hand from a layperson, though a monks who has received food can thereafter share or trade offerings with other monks. Most foods must be consumed by noon the day they are offered, so cannot be saved for a snack or for the next day’s meal. Filtered fruit juices may be offered and consumed after noon, until dawn the next day. “Tonics” (sugar/molasses, honey, butter, oil and a couple of other things that characteristically no one would mindlessly sit around snacking on in large quantity) may be consumed any time by the hungry monk desirous of not fainting for hunger and may be saved up to seven days after being offered. Monastics are instructed not to endear themselves to the lay with the intention of improving their intake during alms rounds, not to ask for anything directly, not to express thanks for donations received, and to receive without establishing eye contact. This ritualized behavior can be seen every day in virtually any village or city in Burma.

The point of alms round is not just to feed the monks and nuns nor to offer the joy of generosity. It is also to bring monastics into daily contact with lay folks so that the latter will have the opportunity to learn Dhamma from the former, not only from the example of their dignified quiet and mindful presence, but at laity request from actual words of inspiration or instruction. Accordingly some monks will simply pass silently from house to house to receive offerings, while others will speak with the lay folks and invite questions concerning Dhamma or will simply make a habit of offering a short discourse at each house.

Ashin Paññasīha, in his mid-thirties, resident of the Sitagu Center in Rangoon, personal assistant to Sitagu Sayadaw in his good works, scholar with a doctorate, had gained a reputation as a teaching monk, sometimes lecturing to large audiences. He left the Sitagu center in Rangoon each day around 9am to go on alms round, and offers what he had collected an hour and a half later to the Sitagu kitchen, where meals are prepared to obviate the necessity of such alms rounds for the other monks that they may have sufficient time for their studies. U Pañña did this because this is what the Buddha wanted monks and nuns to do and because it gives him the opportunity to teach at the houses he visits upon request.

I moved down to the Sitagu Center in Rangoon at Sitagu Sayadaw’s suggestion so that I could learn what Ashin Paññasīha knew; mostly we focused on Pali language. But shortly after my arrival he asked me if I would like to go with him for alms, so we began going together, in formal robes, single file, silently, mindfully, alms bowls slung over our shoulders held in front but concealed under our robes, eyes fixed on the road before our feet, never glancing around, over Bailey Bridge, which carries a mixture of vehicles in both directions with an emphasis on old grossly overloaded buses, down some stairs, past a small Burmese version of a strip mall (about five little shops right next to one another), across another busy road and into a small neighborhood with many closely packed dwellings squeezing in on muddy alleys trafficked by bicycles, feet and chickens and beslumbered by lazy mongrels.

U Pañña had been following the same route in this neighborhood, visiting the same families each day. In Sagaing a monk would receive offerings from every house he passed, in the big city he would learn which families were prepared to offer and which were not. U Pañña had developed an intimate relationship with some particularly devout families that liked to learn of bit of Dhamma each morning. At most houses we were welcomed to enter and sit down in chairs waiting for us rather than receiving offerings out on the street, would receive rice and curry either in our bowls directly or by yielding our bowls to see them disappear into the interior of the house then return still closed but magically alms-enhanced. We would receive from everyone present three prostrated bows and if a Dharma discussion or just a chat was in order they would sit on the floor at our feet, often with hands raised in anjali the whole time. A young woman who would be a nun except for her obligation to care for her mother always had a burning question and many follow-up questions and even took notes with paper and pencil. Women traditionally placed a shawl over their right shoulder while talking to monks, the end of which they would spread on the floor to receive their foreheads when doing prostrations. Men never used shawls.

In the early days everyone was very curious about me, asking me, through U Pañña’s able interpretation:

“Are you a temporary or a permanent monk?”

“Can you speak any Burmese?”

“Is your family Buddhist?”

“Are your children now Buddhist?”

“Why did you become a monk?”

And of course, “How old are you?”

I got used to hearing the phrase “ameyikan phongyi” when the conversation reverted to Burmese in reference to myself. “Phon phon” was usually the vocative form for either of us. Sometimes adults would parade little children before me to practice the English they were learning in school:

“Hello. How are you?”

“I am fine. How are you?”

“I am fine.”

“Bye bye.”

“Bye bye.”

One of the children sometimes referred to me as the “bye bye phon phon.”

I quickly came to appreciate the alms round. It makes a wonderfully formal mindfulness practice as the monk walks silently with lowered eyes from house to house. It gives the monk an intimate connection to the lives of the laity and the laity a similar connection to that of the monk, presumably just as the Buddha intended. This keeps the monk from disappearing into a monastic bubble, or rather lets the laity come in to share it. The laity exhibit an awe-like respect for the monks and yet at the same time an affectionate familiarity. I know of no counterpart for this blend in my own culture.

I appreciated the opportunity to see how people live, generally very poor by any American standard, houses for the most part leaky shacks almost on top of each other with plank walls and light visible between the planks, intermittent electric power passing through funky wires. At the same time there was no sense of deprivation; they lived with a sense of dignity and in intimacy with their neighbors. Every act of generosity toward monks reminded them that they have wealth to share. Most of the families had cats, sometimes several, living inside, dogs relegated to the no-man’s land of the streets. One family had two pet rabbits, a white one and a brown which they had named “Obama.”

U Pañña once admonished me, “When you go back to America you should continue doing alms rounds.”

“I don’t think you can do alms rounds in the States. Nobody will know what I am doing.”

“I did.”

Indeed, U Pañña had lived in America for one and a half years where he had attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He explained he had been determined to walk for alms no matter where he lived because of the Buddha’s injunction. He described how he had printed up fliers and distributed them through his neighborhood to head off people’s bewilderedness, and how he ended up with about seventy new students of Buddhism. He has a very captivating smile.

“In a lot of places in America, including Austin, I could be arrested for ‘begging’!”

“I wouldn’t have minded getting arrested. I could teach Buddhism in jail.”

Whew: U Pañña argued an awfully strong case.

The bowl itself is the symbol of the monk. The bowl in Theravada lands it is shockingly large, far larger than most appetites, but this allows it to serve as a kind of suitcase for mendicant forest monks, or to be used to collect alms for more than one monk, for instance, if another monk is too sick to go on alms rounds. The bowl has a strap, which is slung over the right shoulder to carry the weight of the bowl when walking, and a lid. The lid was added sometime after the Buddha; I can imagine two scenarios that might have motivated this originally, both involving birds.

There seem to be many variations in alms paraphernalia that have to do with the issue of mixing foods. For purists and traditionalists all of the offerings just go in the big bowl. However, the lid turned upside down allows foods and other offerings to be apportioned: The bhikkhu can collect noodles, sauces, beans, cooked vegetables into the big bowl, but turn the lid upside down to form a tray to receive whatever might be difficult to imagine as part of the stew accumulating in the big bowl: mango slices, cookies, soap, razor blades, candles (notice that some non-food items are also occasionally offered). One custom in Burma, which U Pañña had been observing and which I followed after a generous donation, is to carry little containers within the main bowl to separate the different kinds of sauces, beans, cooked vegetables and such.

The traditional alms round, whereby monks walk from house to house, does not work so well for a large monastery such as a monastic university because so many monks taking to the street would overwhelm the local community. In such cases the monastery must depend on a widely spread base of donors. Sometimes individual families travel from afar to make occasional offerings to the entire monastery. Sometimes the local lay staff of the monastery prepares food on behalf of lay donors who send financial contributions. Most generally a combination of these two strategies prevails, with the local staff at least cooking the daily rice. Outside donors generally wear their fanciest cloths, and bring cameras in order to pose over the feeding monks, generally bring particularly sumptuous delights and want to be involved in every step of the preparation and offering process. The resulting overstaffing of the kitchen for donor meals invariably leads to turmoil and confusion, such that meals take longer to serve.

Nevertheless even in large monasteries the traditional form of the alms round may be retained. Such is the case at Pa Auk Tawya in Burma, which feeds around 400 monks daily in a dedicated building called Piṇḍapāta (Drop-a-Lump) Hall constructed with this in mind. The monk walks with his bowl and with his robes formally as if entering a village, but instead encounters a gauntlet of people all offering food in one place. The first generally offers rice and the others various curries and vegetables which go into the same bowl and fruits and other items which can be accepted into the inverted lid of the bowl.

Many other monasteries, including the Sitagu monasteries, forgo the traditional form of the alms round in favor of offering food “family-style” at a table in dishes from which the monks can help themselves. Generally conventional plates and bowls are used for eating and silverware or chopsticks, though most Burmese monks eat with their fingers rather than with Western or East Asian eating implements, as in India.

A third alternative to village alms rounds and food offerings at the monastery is the food offering in a private home. As far as I know this always fits into the “family-style” model of monastic food acquisition. The greatest difference between monastery and home dining is the ratio of monks to laity. Generally if a family invites monks over, they also invite zillions of neighbors and friends, the more monks the more zillions. At this point the pet-like nature of monkhood becomes more like feeding time in the zoo.

In family-style service it is important to offer the food items clearly lest a confused monk take what is not freely given. Though each item must be touched by only one monk, the clever Burmese will typically make things easy by offering a whole table of food at once as if it were one giant dish. Because lay people are so eager to give, generally a flash mob forms around the table; if someone cannot reach the table through the human mass, they have only to touch someone who can table and that counts. Afterwards people hover around the table ready and waiting for a monk to need something; a mere movement of the hand toward a dish of curry or the touch of a teacup evokes immediate intervention. And those who see no obvious clues imagine future needs: “It is just possible that monk will be desirous of a paper napkin; I’ll move the napkins closer to him.” When multiple people are applying their imaginations in this way, items on the table begin shifting around like the pieces on a board game.

Burmese lay people will not sit at the same table with monks and will generally eat what the monks have left behind, supplementing it as necessary with other food that has been prepared. Monks need to finish eating before noon; lay folks can linger. Sometimes the monastic and lay meals will overlap, but in that case always at separate tables.

One interesting clever variant of the lifting the whole table as a formal offering that I have once say in Myanmar was the use of two tables, table A for the main course and table B for desserts, fruit and coffee or tea. When the monks sitting on the floor around table A had finished the main course, two men each reached between adjacent monks at opposite sites to lift table A up clear over the heads of the monks and then right into the midst of waiting hungry laypeople already configured around an imaginary table. The men then placed table B, which had stood to the side, into the midst of the monks right where table A had been. That way the laypeople began the main course just as the monks begin the second.

Food offers the laypeople a kind of loophole through which they are free to arouse sensual desire in the monks, a loophole that is often exploited by those rascals through offering sumptuous and costly dishes to test the resolve of even the most well-intentioned monks. So don’t be surprised when monastics, those renunciates of sensual pleasures, express dismaying enthusiasm for food or even start to get chubby. What’s more, lay people here, who take as great an interest in doing things for monks as you do in the welfare of your cat, recognize this one channel as a way to please monks while ingratiating themselves, so they like to excite monastic passions even more through the culinary arts. This is probably better for lay practice than for monastic practice, but it sure can be yummy.

Alms in Minnesota

October 15, 2012

New Moon Uposatha Day, October 15, 2o12

I have three chapters left in “Through the Looking Glass” to finish (first draft):

  1. Tales of Burma
  2. The Four Requisites
  3. The American Monk

The following is from the last chapter.


From distant Minnesota I remembered U Pañña’s insistent admonition in Yangon,

“When you go back to America you should continue doing alms rounds.”

I recalled how resourceful he had been in implementing this advice himself when he lived in Nashville. I recalled that the very same alms bowl I used in his company was sitting on my shelf in Maplewood. But somehow I had trouble picturing myself seeking alms on County Road C. I pictured myself walking along the edge of the road, dumbfounding the inhabitants of cars as they flashed past and gaining little notice from the neighbors, all of whose houses stood well back from the road. What I pictured seemed hardly promising of receiving alms nor even of tangible human contact.

That is, unless I just happened to pass the right house at the right moment: Once while I was on a long walk a swift bicycle approached me from behind then  passed me carrying a dark-haired woman, who screeched to a halt, jumped off the bike, tossed it the side, dropped to the ground and bowed at my feet. It turned out she was from Laos, married to an American, had been washing dishes and had happened to glance up to spot the very last thing she had ever expected in Maplewood: a monk walking right by just like in the old country! She had dashed out the door, jumped on her daughter’s bicycle and hastened after me. Had I instead been walking by with alms bowl in hand at that moment I would undoubtedly have attained to some left-over waffles, some bear mush or better!

No, I had a plan in mind that left little to chance. This was inspired second-hand from a  American nun I had heard about who had started collecting alms in Colorado at a farmers’ market. This plan was brilliant: At such a place are found a wide variety of amiable people in a relaxed and interactive frame of mind, and with food close at hand ready to support the spontaneous whim to cast nordic inhibition aside and to participate in an ancient rite twice as old as the Vikings. I phoned the director of the farmers’ market in Maplewood and solicited permission to walk barefooted, bowl in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, past the booths.

I also invited the four monks from the local Karen monastery in St. Paul to join me and a few members of our community to bring some food to offer, to prime the pump that would slurp up other potential participants. The Karen monks, never expecting to go for alms in America and a bit apprehensive about the reaction they would invoke, suggested we forgo the normal monastic custom of cuing up according to ordination date and, much like novices or ducklings, line up according to height … tallest first.

We had a number of glitches. The Burmese recruited to prime the pump were too generous to provide a proper example to those ready to be slurped up into the process; they handed us what appeared to be grocery bags of food which made the row of monks appear to function as a kind of human shopping cart, and hardly in need of others’ generosity. Luckily in subsequent weeks fewer members of the Burmese community showed up, but then few of the shoppers had any idea why grown bald men in dresses were playing choo-choo in the middle of their shopping experience. And then the occasional shopper or merchant figured it out. An oriental woman who had not seen an alms round in many years had her grandson drop offering in each of our bowls. A vendor gave us little bottles of honey. We were week after week making slow headway when suddenly the very short Minnesota farmers’ market season came to a chilly end.

The Case of the Missing Hour

October 8, 2012

Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day, October 8, 2012

I am hoping that there is a prospective sleuth or a professional gumshoe among my readership who can illuminate the Case of the Missing Hour. Not that I expect to get the hour back (I would probably just spend it writing on this blog in any case).

This is how I remember the start of the day last Tuesday:

4:30. Alarm, I lazily click it off. I lie in bad, stretch a bit. It is a little chilly in my cabin beyond the blankets.

4:41. Finally I get out of bed. I make coffee and study conjunctions in A.K. Warder’s Introduction to Pali for about 40 minutes, during which I finish the coffee. I do a little stretching put on my hat and leave for the Dhamma Hall. It is dark as always and I use my flashlight.

~5:25. Arrive at Dhamma Hall. I expect Mahendra, a visiting retreatant from India via Boston, to join me but he is not there. I unlock the door, do bows, get settled on my cushions, set a timer to count down from 1 hour. I will sit for 50 minutes. Well before the end of the period I hear someone enter the room behind me.

6:20. I ring the bell to end the sitting period. Suddenly Dr. Than Tut, another visiting retreatant, is next to me and reports that I am late for breakfast but he had not wanted to interrupt my meditation. I begin to explain to him that it is only 6:20, that breakfast does not start (for the monks) until 6:30, but as I turn to speak to him I notice that the sun is streaming through the windows whereas at 6:30 the previous day there was only the very slightest glimmer of sunrise in the sky. Disoriented, I abort my explanation.

By the time I arrive at breakfast it is in fact 7:30 not 6:30! The abbot finished eating and left long ago. Maung Wah, the cat, has also eaten but is still hanging around and is delighted to see me finally arrive. Sayaw Lay, our nun, has kept food on the table for me while Dr. Than Tut went to find me.

Where did the hour disappear to?

I explain what had happened and Saya Lay concludes that I was in very deep samadhi indeed and inadvertently sat for almost two hours. She and the doctor, looking a bit wide-eyed and awe-struck at the depth of such samadhi, both instinctively bring their hands into anjali as she interprets the incident and concludes with, “Sadhu sadhu sadhu.” I try to explain that I don’t think that was what had happened but they will not listen.

In fact there are other equally plausible explanations:

  1. A time warp or an unanticipated time zone change occurred somewhere between my cabin and the Dhamma Hall.
  2. I became so immersed in Pali conjunctions and coffee that the time just flew by.
  3. I in fact fell asleep once again after shutting my alarm clock, for almost exactly one hour, even though I have no recollection of having done so at all, nor of waking back up.

It is a far far nobler thing for an hour to be swallowed into samadhi than into slumber, but we must consider all possibilities. After breakfast I ascertained that the alarm was indeed set for 4:30 and that both of my clocks were showing the correct time. My cell phone showed that the abbot had tried to call me well before 7 am, no doubt worried about his missing monk.

By way of investigation I have no one to interview, since I saw no one that early morning. I talk to Mahendra and sure enough discovered he did not see me at all that morning in spite of his claim to have come to 5:30 meditation, to have found the door to the Dhamma Hall locked and to have gone back to his room to meditate.

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September 30, 2012

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, September 30, 2012

This week we have had three visitors on private retreat and we have been meditating together in the Dhamma Hall at 5:30, 10:30, 2:00 and 7:00 for 50 minutes a shot, my normal schedule, and chanting as usual at 8pm. Along with studies I have gotten a lot of work done in organizing our new library, the last couple of days with the help of my daughter Kymrie. I’ve also had some time to return to writing and can now offer the next chapter of the autobiographical Through the Looking Glass. The pagination and chapter numbers have changed from what followers are used to as I have reorganized the earlier chapters.

Chapter 10. The Burmese Monk

You’re going to become a What?

“You are going to do everything, on purpose, that everyone else is trying hard to avoid? Like Discipline, Commitments, Sitting on the floor, Noble silence, Wearing a bed sheet in public and Waking up before dawn?

“All this, so that you can renounce everything everyone else thinks makes life worth living? Like Entertainment, Parties, Lavish food, Singing and dancing, Wine, women and song, Fast cars and fast women, Gossip, Strong opinions, Being right, Self-promotion, Self-adornment, Revenge, Late nights, a Vacation house in Belize, Tacquilla sunrises on the beach with an awesome woman, Spiffy clothes, and Hair?

What are you thinking?”

These were questions of my own mind, raised anew for the umpteenth time in many years.

“You see,” it replied to itself, “We are born into a Looking-Glass World, a world of Misperception in which Forward is really Backward, Outside is really Inside, and what seems Soothing is really Too Hot to Handle. Things are not really as they seem.”

A monk or a nun is someone who, generally even before fully understanding them completely, boldly acknowledges that these misperceptions exist and lives accordingly, thereby stepping boldly out through the Looking Glass to inhabit, as a matter of vow bodily, verbally and mentally the world as it actually is. As perplexing as this sounds to most, the life of the monk or nun there on the opposite side of the looking glass is actually one of great ease and satisfaction. Detached from the petty concerns of the world life is no longer such a great problem.

Monks and/or nuns have been an integral part of Buddhism in every Buddhist country in Asia since the time of the Buddha, and is in fact the cord that keeps the beads of the mala of the sasana in line. The voluminous Vinaya, the founding charter of the Sagha, is certainly the most widely studied, consistently respected and observed Buddhist scripture across the Buddhist world, outside of perhaps a handful of individual original suttas/sutras. And this is true only because there have always been those who out of faith or understanding and also with the endorsement and support of the general Buddhist community dare to venture through the looking glass.

The Golden Land of Pagodas.

One by one the seven pilgrims stepped aboard the Singapore Airlines flight from Houston, Texas, bound for Moscow, Russia. First class passengers, some by now comfortably holding cocktails, glanced up as Ashin Mahosadha Pandita, smiling in his voluminous bright burgundy robes entered, the revered leader of this pilgrimage.U Maho was one of the first monks I had met at the Sitagu Buddhist Vihara in Austin on my very first visit years before, the elderly smiling monk who spoke but little English.

Many of the premium travelersnext spied through the bottoms of uplifted beverages two more monks in similar robes, Ashin Ariyadhamma and Ashin Nayaka. U Ariya was the abbot with whom I had enjoyed an occasional but long-lived and ongoing discourse about monastic practice, and who had now invited me on this expedition. U Nayaka was a young residen tof a Burmese monastery near St. Paul, Minnesota.

As the first class passengers opened their complimentary copies of the Wall Street Journal three less exotic passengers failed for lack of color to draw so much attention as they passed by: Wendy, Scott and U Aung Koe. Wendy had been my first connection with the Sitagu Vihara as her early exploration of the Buddhist Way brought her for a short time to AZC. Aung Koe had not been in Burma since he had fled after participating in the 1988 student uprising.

Finally as much of the priority class adjusted its overhead air puff thingies some of their eyes couldn’t help but alight on a shaved head dressed all in black and wearing yet another black garment around his neck, much like a bib or maybe like a pouch,a man in his late fifties wrangling his bag down the aisle.

Burma is almost opposite from America, both on the globe and culturally, a land of almost perfectly upside down people from the Texas perspective,rendering a route through Moscow, Russia nearly equivalent to any other route. After a brief stop-over in Moscow and during the night we looked down on Afghanistan,India,Burma and other exotic places finally to arrive at the great transportation hub of Singapore about dawn. Although we had spotted the lights of little villages along almost all of the route, including over Afghanistan, Burma itself had appeared eerily without light.From Singapore a short couplehour hop back up the Malay Peninsula brought us to the Yangon (Rangoon)airport by the midmorning.

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Giving and Receiving the Dhamma

September 23, 2012

Uposatha First Quarter Moon, September 23, 2012

How far must the teacher and the student each reach? At what place do they meet?

Reverse Proselytizing.

(Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, January 2002.) Tassajara has an initiation tradition for incoming monks, a kind of five-day Zen hazing, called tangaryo. Tangaryo has an ancient history. As the reader may be aware Buddhists are not renowned proselytizers, quite the opposite: Buddhist monks and nuns generally teach only if asked, and only if the would-be student shows due respect for the Three Jewels. In the forests and mountains of China this assumed a new dimension:

Imagine a pair of Bodhidharma’s Witnesses, going from house to house through a quaint and picturesque farming village in their short-sleaved white shirts and khaki pants carrying copies of Watchpagoda magazine. One of them knocks on a door [knock knock], a young man named Wu Wei opens the door [fwoop]:

“Yes, can I help you?” Wu Wei asks.

“We are just passing through your quaint and picturesque farming village introducing ourselves. Have you thought much about … the Buddha?”

“Can’t say that I have. What’s he got for me?”

“Vast emptiness. Nothing holy!”

“Uh, …, O…. K. Who are you guys anyway?”

“We don’t know!”

“Get outta here!” [Slam]

Traditionally if a young man wanted to become a monk he would knock on the monastery door. A couple of years later Wu Wei, in spite of his unpromising first encounter with the Dharma, has decided to leave home, shave his head and lead the holy life.

[Knock knock. Fwoop.] “Whadya want?”

“I would like to leave home, shave my head and lead the holy life.”

“No holiness here!” [Slam]

[Knock knock. Fwoop.] “Can I become a monk, just like you?”

“No room! Only vast emptiness!” [Slam]

Determined, not taking “Mu” for an answer, Wu Wei sits in front of the monastery gate in meditation posture … for hours. In the evening monks appear in the window to taunt him, pelt him with tomatoes and otherwise make him feel unwelcome. He ignores them and continues to sit.

The next day is no different, although a kindly old man appears with a bowl of rice gruel at dawn, and again just before noon with a bowl of rice and pickled radish. The following day is just the same, but a determined Wu Wei continues to sit, relentlessly. After five days and nights of this the door opens unexpectedly and Wu Wei feels an unanticipated hand on his shoulder. He is invited inside, the monks congratulate him, shave his head and give him robes.

“We had to make sure you were worthy!”

This is roughly the origin of tangaryo as I understand it. With time, perhaps with the ordination of large numbers of of monks, this process began to be regulated. At Tassajara tangaryo consistently lasts five days and nights, the monk actually sits in the zendo, receives meals in the zendo, and is given a real bed to sleep in, from nine at night to three fifty the next morning. Otherwise the would-be monk has to be on his allocated cushion, facing the wall, except to use the restroom, never bathing or shaving, while other, established, monks come and go into and out of the zendo, to sit zazen, practice chanting and ringing bells and to clean the zendo, a little too cheerfully for my taste. Also, because monks arrive just prior to the practice period there is generally a small group of them on the same schedule. There were about fifteen of us, the women sitting on one side of the zendo, the men on the other.

Tangaryo is perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever done on purpose. It was impossible to actually sit zazen the whole time; apparently nobody ever does. I would start off OK for a few of hours, then would have to relax and think about something, remember favorite songs, daydream.

If you find that your mind has drifted away from the daydream just bring it gently back, letting go naturally of whatever distraction has arisen and returning to the daydream.

Later I would return to actual zazen for a couple of more hours, then try to recall my most interesting distraction thus far. With my meal I would drink as much liquid as I could so that I would have to go to the restroom more often, and then drink as much water as I could on the way back to the zendo. I would furtively glance at the women tangaryians facing the wall in their baggy robes on my way back to my seat, the greatest external thrill I could squeeze out of the day, except maybe for lunch; the women seemed much stiller to me than the men I was sitting next to, certainly than myself.

Finally just short of one hundred and twenty hours of this a voice congratulated us, asked us to walk up the hill to the hot springs, bathe, to put on clean robes and to join the practice period as full-fledged participants. All fifteen of us had sat it out, though I would learn of would-be monks of the past who had given up and gone home in a huff and with a sigh.

The Buddha did not make it so hard in the early days to begin Buddhist practice, even for nuns and monks, but he did expect anyone who came to a nun or monk for teachings to show proper respect and deference. Monastics were and are in fact prohibited from teaching someone who was unwilling to show these.

Why Not Aggressively Convert People?

(Austin, September 2012) I can say have found great happiness and meaning in my life and attribute much of the to the ardency with which I have followed the Buddhist Path, even starting relatively late in life. As I have walked along this path I have felt increasingly compelled to share it with others because I see in the shadows of the world much suffering, harm and ignorance that I know the light of Buddhism would illuminate. In fact trying to shine this light in the dark corners of my own land is the most ardent task I have set for myself for the remainder of this life. But this task is accomplished only gradually.

So why not proselytize if the results might be as beneficial for others as they have been for me? Why not proselytize like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Evangelists, tent revivalists do? If I had taken every opportunity to turn my brother Arthur (see last week’s post) toward Buddhism would he be alive today? I might have used some of the following pick-up lines:

“That reminds me of a story about the Buddha…”

“We Buddhists don’t have that problem! Do you want to know why?”

“It’s all karma, man! You know about karma, right?”

“Oh, quit not being empty of independent existence!”

“Have you thought much about … the Buddha?”

I think the reason Buddhists generally don’t reach out in this way is because the teaching runs so deep. To encounter the teachings requires that the student meet the teacher half way. To succeed in her endeavors the student must already possess bold faith, that is a willingness to leap headlong into something without knowing ahead of time exactly what it is or where it will lead. Without this bold faith there will be no reserve of energy or willingness to try to understand what is difficult to understand nor practice what is difficult to practice. Beginning a meditation practice, renouncing what need to be renounced, trying to make out what the heck emptiness or dependent co-arising is, or how there can not be a self, these things are entered into only with the bold faith that they will be fruitful.

If instead the student does not go half-way then the teacher willing to go all the way ends up with students of timid faith, students swayed by personality or drawn to a welcoming community, but unwilling to leap into something incomprehensible or hard. These are students who expect easy answers or fix blindly onto whatever answers are offered with no reflection. Such a student is not willing to be challenged; her faith is not strong enough. The form the teachings must take in order to retain the student’s attention will have to be very thin and might as a consequence gradually lose their integrity altogether. There is a third category in addition to those moved by bold faith or by timid faith, which is that of those who are unmoved. The unmoved are of even more timid faith that clings to what has become most familiar at an early age, those who will not be converted at any level. There are, by the way, no people of no faith; there is no such thing because we live in a world of such uncertainty that our every movement requires a degree of faith. There is no such thing as the rational or objective as opposed to the faithful; this is a silly myth. The Buddhist principle of ehipassiko (“come and see”) is the closest we get: “come” is bold faith, “see” is the opportunity to verify that our faith is well placed. Science works on the same principle.

In Buddhism we talk of fields of merit. Our generosity is better expended one place rather than another just as seeds are best planted in fertile ground rather than in barren. The student who approaches the teacher with bold faith (along with a proper sense of discernment) is a very fertile field of merit indeed. A student of the second or third kind, of timid faith, is a barren field. My brother Arthur was of the third kind, a very hard nut to crack. Not that he could not have developed beyond that with proper inspiration.

So, how does bold faith arise? I think it arises from awe. And awe arises in three ways. First, awe might be a natural (karmic) disposition. Second, awe might be taught, particularly at a very young age. Third, awe might be inspired through the experience of something or somebody awe-inspiring. It might also arise from two or all three sources. Good scientists or artists arise in a similar way. In Buddhism awe arises in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha and is natural, taught or inspired, or ideally all three. I feel personally fortunate to have a strong natural disposition for awe. I also feel personally fortunate to have found great inspiration in Buddhist teachings and in the many people, particularly teachers, I have encountered who have provided shining examples of the Buddhist lives, sometimes merely in their bearing, sometimes in their virtue and good works, sometimes in their great wisdom, always in their strong practice.

Oh, but if only I were taught awe for the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha at a young age! This is the primary difference between the Western and the Asian Buddhist. For instance, Burmese generally learn to embody respect and deference for the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, as well as for parents and teachers at the earliest age. They also have a ubiquitous Sangha and enjoy the presence of many people of great attainment, even arahants among them. Their pumps are primed for Buddhist practice and study. Although I have learned to embrace much of this training in awe, I recognize in my daily encounter with devout Burmese Buddhists that they have internalized a solid support at a young age that I will never completely realize.

This essay began as a response to my dear supporter’s U Aung Koe’s comment to last week’s post:

I think you better share your insight knowledge of Buddha teaching to your siblings and relatives before they pass away …”

I share U Aung Koe’s heartfelt wish. However, we live here in the Wild West of Buddhism, where much is barren wasteland but punctuated by very fertile valleys and fields of merit. I have no doubt about the American capacity for awe (it is why we have produced so many scientists and artists). But relatively few are primed from a young age for Buddhist practice, primed to meet the teacher half-way, and will not be until something deeply inspires them. I have deep gratitude for those exceptional people who are able reach out to me as a teacher as I reach out to them. I only wish my brother had been one of them.




Awe and Faith

August 25, 2012

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, August 25, 2012

This week I have been rewriting a thematic thread that runs through my life story. I thought I would represent three excerpts here. The first concerns my childhood, the second my graduate studies in linguistics and the third my early Zen career.


A bloke enters unexplored bush, bold and resolute, not knowing to what dangers to expect, but nevertheless resolved not to high-tail it home the first time he sees a crocodile. A bespectacled wissenschaftler meets each distractable moment of the day deep in thought, walking looking at his feet or drafting and reckoning with his pencil, wrestling with some obscure enigma sometimes late into the night, determined to get this small part of the world to submit to reason. A young bohemian, Henri, paints little cards postales to sell to tourists, earning just enough to purchase paint and canvas which he carries to his garret to produce real ouvres d’art, ones that will as likely as not never see the light of day.  Alyosha becomes a novice at the Orthodox monastery moved by immense conviction in a loving God and a personal love for mankind and capacity to do good.

These are four people of awe, the most fortunate of people. A bit less than rational, they delight in new possibilities, exhibit a degree of carefree foolhardiness as they plunge with full faith into the unknown, enjoy mystery and wonder, and experience a heartfelt  devotion to something disconnected from the concerns of personal advantage, something bigger and easily tainted by such concerns. Awe underlies the best part of religion. It also underlies academic or artistic pursuits such as science or history, sculpture or music composition; it even underlies hobbies such as birdwatching or model railroading. It sculpts the lives of those who possess it. People of wonder are easily recognized by their irrationally selfless passion and by their foolishness in the eyes of almost everyone else. They are a bit crazy.

I feel I’ve been fortunate throughout my life to have always been almost continuously in awe of something to which I’ve been willing to give myself over with delight and devotion. This has been an intrinsic part of my glob of karmic heritage.

Science was my first love, and very early on it directed my gaze skyward. My first experience in scientific research followed upon a chance observation. Already for some time I had been finger-painting the sky as a blue line across the top of my sheet of newsprint art paper, leaving what was directly below that, but above the roof tops and trees, as an enigmatic blank space that began to puzzle me. What I observed, unprecedented for all I knew in the annals of science, was that the sky is not just up there, it is also over there. In fact it seemed to come all the way down to the ground, and indeed somewhere behind Nasan Avenue Hill (El Cerrito)! Not only did this discovery improve my artistic composition, but I became curious to see exactly where the blue sky came down, to touch it and knock on it to see what it was like. I set off on foot to find the intersection of earth and sky, only to return home discouraged, exhausted and thirsty half an hour later. Science is a lot of work. Sometimes the ocean fog would roll in and darken the sky. At this age whenever grownups talked about the fog I thought they were saying “frog,” and pictured a giant frog hopping over our house, and when I looked up I thought indeed I could see its gray belly. But its legs seemed to come down too far away for me to see them, probably they were near where the sky touches the ground.

My father occasionally took us kids outside where he would set up his surveyor’s telescope on the sidewalk and point it skyward, usually toward the moon, where we could see craters and mountains. Our babysitter, Pam, would take us out to lay on the front lawn where on our backs we would gaze skyward. She once remarked how the starry sky was like a blanket enveloping us all. Indeed the stars also seemed to come down behind Nasan Hill. In 1957 my father took us outside one evening to see something special: The Soviets had just launched an artificial satellite into outer space and it was in “orbit” around the earth! This was a mind-dazzling concept and the whole country was buzzing with bewilderment. “What keeps it up?” “Why would they want to do such a thing?” “Why didn’t we think of that first?” “Where were our scientists when this was happening?” “Spies! They want to spy on us, mark my words!” My dad had read in the newspaper that if you look skyward in a particular direction at a particular time, you could see Sputnik! So at that time and in that direction four little faces gazed upward, and we did see it! It was like a faint little star, but moving slowly and steadily across the sky. We watched it for a long time then all at once … it disappeared! vanished completely! We speculated that it had blown up, or that the U.S. Army had shot it down, but I later learned it had gone into the Earth’s shadow.

This was the beginning of the Space Race, history’s most spectacular sports event, between the World’s two great superpowers and ideological adversaries, in one corner the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and in the other the United States of America. This game never ended officially, but practically it ended eleven years later. The first few years were catchup for the good guys: We would put up a satellite, the Ruskies would put a dog into space. We would put a monkey into space, the Reds would put up a cosmonaut. We would put up an astronaut, the Commies would put up a cosmonaut and keep him up there for days on end.

The American space launches were always publicly scheduled, for like four in the morning PST at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and covered on all three networks, and I was always up at that crisp hour to watch, while the rest of the family and the rest of Larkspur slept, alternately switching between ABC, NBC and CBS, to see on each occasion a capsule-tipped rocket produce the thrust necessary to escape worldly existence. One day President Kennedy gave a quite dramatic speech in which he declared that America would “Put a Man on the Moon by the End of the Decade” (the 1960’s). The Russians were actually clocking far more time in space, and probably doing a lot more science there, but the USA was going right for the big prize. This culminated in an flustered Niel Armstrong mis-uttering his historic line from the surface of the moon about the Big Step that would puzzle posterity forevermore.

This was a matter of American pride. After Sputnik funding for education increased throughout the United States, new curricula were developed such as “New Math” for high schools. The nation was determined to have the world’s best science, mathematics and engineering, and America had the material means and the German scientists to make it happen. My dad, always wanting to instill an interest in science and engineering in his children, to which my older brother Arthur and I responded most favorably, would occasionally take the family, kids filling the back of his pickup, up Mt. Hamilton near San Jose to Lick Observatory, at that time home of the second biggest telescope in the world.

I had by that time become quite a book worm buying many books from the Tides Bookstore in Sausalito. I read not only science, but literature and philosophy as well. The world was so rich with knowledge! I read things like Darwin’s Origin of Species and Goethe’s Faust.  We were largely a family of readers, especially Arthur, who could not put a book down until he finished it, often at three in the morning … on a school night. But pacing myself, I was the systematic student. For instance, I got interested in “Existentialism” and so read a good selection of what people seemed to consider representative of that way of thinking: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Camus, Sartre’s Age of Reason, and so on. I got interested in playing Chess and read many books on the subject, tracing through Bobby Fischer’s or Alexander Alekhine’s games. I also considered it my duty to learn Esperanto, since it was to be the international language that would make world peace possible, and for a time I belonged to an International Esperanto Postal Chess Club.

Having read Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov I turned my copy over to James, who curiously remarked that the brother Alyosha Karamazov was just like me. At the beginning of the book Alyosha is a novice at the Orthodox monastery. He is described as having immense faith in a loving God, love for mankind and a capacity to do good. I don’t know which part of that James thought applied to me, but I suppose it is a complement especially coming from a little brother, who would normally have expected to be an object of abuse in the hands of a big brother (I left that up to Arthur).

I got interested in electronics, and built a radio from parts and modified a war surplus WWII Command Receiver from an airplane to run on 120 VAC, and accidentally gave myself a 400 V. zap from the transformer I had put into it, when I forgot to unplug it in the middle of testing. In these days most radios ran on vacuum tubes. My brother Arthur became infected with my interest in electronics and would make that his life’s work. More than anything I read many books on Astronomy and Physics, and had quite a personal library on these topics. I was in awe.

Awe turns to accomplishment and accomplishment turns sadly to pride. I began to pride myself on my knowledge of Astronomy in particular and used these visits to Lick Observatory to show off my knowledge during the public tours and nightly viewing opportunities. Once a large group of us was taking turns looking at the moon through one of the old but respectable refractor telescopes, and someone asked the guide, certainly a graduate student,

“How far away is the Moon?”

The guide answered, “About a quarter of a million miles away!”

As various people gasped, I chimed in, “239,000 miles, to be exact.”

The current term for annoying people like me at that time was “smart alec,” now it would be “nerd” or “dweeb.”

On one trip my father was explaining to another guide that I wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up, and the guide turned to me and said, emphatically articulating each word, “Then You’ve Got to Study Math.” I would remember that in high school, taking math every semester and making sure to get an “A” every time, preparing myself to enter UC Berkeley, where my father had studied. I also studied German for two years in high school, because I thought German was the language of science. My boldness got me in over my head and I earned a D- the first term, but then my resolve set in and I earned a B+ the second and A’s after that.

I had from the earliest age the selfless awe of a good monk, even if differently manifested. At some point it even occurred to me that academics are the modern monastic order, that they live with a certain distance from worldly life, with a pure and detached mind, capable of reflection from outside the box, and observant of a precise code of ethics. That appealed to me and attracted me to  a prospective academic career. I would one day discover that the ideal was far from the true when I would get to know enough real academics, but the monk does share with the scientist or academic a wonder for something of value that transcends the concerns of a petty self. A reserve of such self-disinterested energy, such awe, would be a near-constant throughout my life, often directing itself in unexpected channels, but consistently sustaining an explorer’s mind, bold and resolute. I’ve always been glad of that. Decades in the future it would even provide the energy behind my rediscovery and embrace of Buddhism.

Graduate Student Days

During this period I participated in two casual conversations concerning my chosen field of study but which also anticipated what I would years later recognize was the nature of my Buddhist faith. The first conversation was with someone I just happened to meet in a non-academic setting. It went something like this;

“So, what do you do?”

“I am a linguistics graduate student.”

“Oh? What is linguistics?”

“Well, …,” I very briefly explained what linguistics was and how  it fascinated me.

“Is it, um, something you can make a lot of money doing?” he asked.

“Hmmm, I’ve never thought about it. I suppose not.”

“Why would you do something that takes so much work if you can’t make a lot of money? And why would you not think about it?”

Why indeed? Nothing I said from that point on made the least sense to him. What he said made sense to me, but had a twisted logic to it, and the conversation quickly devolved into mutual bewilderment.

How could he go through life without awe, without finding meaning and wonder in something just because it’s there? This was Language we were talking about here: the very center of human culture, the primary locus of ethnic and national identity, the chief channel for insight into the human mind and for its outward expression, the medium that Shakespeare and Goethe brought to mastery, living history in which almost every word or turn of phrase is the product an elaborate and ancient tale that began long before the pyramids were built, a system of mapping between sounds and meanings in such an intricately refined and contextually sophisticated way that humans were now just barely beginning to comprehend this product of their own minds. What do I and my petty personal interests have to do with it? Looking back I see that my astonishment spoke of the degree of my linguistic awe and devotion.

The second conversation was with one of my classmates right after we had taken our oral examinations. Upon completing two years of graduate studies a student had to demonstrate his or her proficiency and general knowledge orally before two panels of about four professors each. One quizzed the student on syntax and the other on phonology. They could ask anything, and generally probed deeply. Their aim was to determine if the student had the wherewithal to complete the doctoral program and become an independent researcher, or if he or she should instead be granted a conciliatory MA degree and dismissed from the program.

Every one of these professors was razor sharp and wanted not only to know if the student was thoroughly familiar with the research literature, but also if they could examine it critically and be able to defend a particular theoretical position, against which the professors would often play devil’s advocate to the surprise and dismay of the student.  I went in to the orals feeling confident and prepared and was more or less satisfied with the results.
Naturally the students in my class compared their experiences of the orals after they were all completed. A number of students felt dejected and soon were no longer with us in the program. Phil, a personal friend of mine, apparently barely squeaked through, but would nonetheless go on to have a very successful career in linguistics. At this point, however, when I asked him how his orals had gone, he replied:

“Well, I don’t know. The syntax one was really hard. They asked me something that didn’t seem fair. They asked me to argue for or against the validity of transformational grammar! What was I supposed to say? We have to assume Chomsky and the other people know what they are talking about!”

Do we indeed? This made less sense to me than the other guy. This was carrying faith too far, to passively give allegiance to the prevailing paradigm and its originators. I had thought that as future independent researchers questioning the paradigm was the main thing we should be doing above all else, the one thing that we should bear constantly in mind. Not to reject it out of hand, but to check out how it was working for us. My own inclination by this time would have been to poke a few holes the paradigm where I was beginning to detect problems, even though that would have elicited a hornets’ nest of detailed counterarguments, rather than a mere swarm of follow-up questions, as four of the most brilliant syntacticians in the world would have taken me to task point by point. But they would have, I presume, respected my willingness and ability to take a stand on this issue. I doubt that unquestioned faith in the teachings was not what they were looking for.

Again, I was astonished. Looking back I see that my astonishment speaks of the discernment that accompanied my awe for linguistic science. It was the explorer’s awe and had nothing to do with blind faith. Blind faith is in fact very common in science, but reverence, devotion and faith do not require checking one’s wisdom or discernment in at the door.

Faith often gets a bad rap, but it is actually an unavoidable part of human cognition: It is how we humans deal with the fundamental uncertainty of our existence. Faith fills the gap between what we know — which is really very little, like a narrow strip of beach —, and what we need to know — which is really a  lot, like a vast jungle. Lest we are stranded in a narrow and timid strip of certainty we need faith, in fact bold and resolute faith, the willingness to give ourselves trustingly over to something that we do not fully understand and that therefore is not fully within the scope of our rational certainty, and that we will not understand until we’ve explored it. Awe inevitably sets one up for bold faith. Faith sometimes gets a bad rap because it has become publicly identified with a particular and extremely limiting strategy for facing the unknown. This is the faith of the timid, it is blind faith and fundamentalism. It is the insistence on an impossible certainty, it is recourse to a false sense of knowing. It is faith without admission that we don’t know what we are doing, without the mystery and wonder and delight in possibilities that otherwise drive us to explore the unknown boldly and resolutely. Bold faith opens up rather than closes possibilities. I would one day discover in Buddhism that same bold faith.

Upon Returning Home from a Zen Retreat in Culture Shock

In contemplating the challenge to my cultural sensibilities and natural inclination toward the casual, during the subsequent weeks I came up not so much with a resolution as with a way of arriving at one. The easiest response to my discomfort would have been,

Balderdash! Ritual forms are nonsense, they are a perversion of real Buddhism, of real Zen, or … or else a cultural artifact of the East Asian cultures in which these ritual forms arose that are of little relevance in the critical-thinking West. Ha!

With this response in hand I would have been free to seek out retreat centers that loosened up on this nonsense. I did not know at the time of the ubiquitousness of such Buddhist meditation centers, largely to satisfy the demands of the thriving “balderdash” community. But the “balderdash” response was not good enough: How would I know that the response is correct?

In what for me was an almost unprecedented display of good judgment, of smarts and wisdom, I chose the opposite response: I accepted as a working assumption that there is a purpose for all of these ritual forms and related nonsense that I simply had yet to fathom. How could something persist generation after generation with no purpose? For this reason I make the decision to begin sitting every week with … Flint Spark’s group at the Clear Spring Zendo, the group infamous for its bows and ritual forms that until then had inhibited my participation.

I did not yet know it, but this is the moment when I fully aligned myself with Buddhism, the moment when I acquired Buddhist “faith” and in return relinquished the arrogant assumption that I already knew what I was doing. I had already learned in my career as a scientist that there was little danger in such a leap of faith as long as one did not thereby relinquish wisdom and discernment as well. I had given myself over to Generative Grammar on a similar basis as a linguistics student, and in fact came eventually around to rejecting it rather soundly, yet in the meantime developed quickly into a scholar. If the ritual and bowing thing did not work out, I would simply give it up and be all the wiser for it. What I did now was to establish a general policy to accept with a degree of wholeheartedness whatever I was taught by respected Buddhist teachers or texts, at least until I got to the bottom of it in my own experience. This policy would serve me well in the years to come and sustain an explorer’s sense of curiosity throughout my career of training.

In Buddhism we talk about the Three Refuges, which are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha, as the beginnings of Buddhist faith. We are like the explorer, entrusting ourselves to the unknown terrain of the mind, but we have the advantage of a map to get us started, even if it is smudged and sometimes difficult to interpret: It is the teachings, a deep trust in the originator of those teachings and the advice of living interpreters and more seasoned explorers. We have hopes of liberation from worldly woe, but mixed in are less rational aspects that fuel the boldness and resolve Buddhist practice demands, including delight in new possibilities, a capacity for awe, deep reverence, and a bit of foolhardiness. Buddhist practice is not for the timid.

Faith is an often misunderstood thing. You might, as I did, think of yourself as a person of reason as opposed to a person of faith, but faith is not like that. We are all persons of faith all the time, not just in matters religious but in everything, in our consumer habits, in our relationships, in our hobbies. Whether we are rational or not we have no choice! The reason is that we live in an inherently and exceedingly uncertain world and yet need to make decisions in that world. The persistent gap between what we know and what we need to know is huge; faith in all its guises is that which leaps over that gap. But although we have no choice about whether or not to have faith, we do have a choice about how deliberate and discerning we are in our faith, or what or whom we allow to inform out faith.

For instance, in the choice I made to embrace ritual and bowing I did not become more a person of faith, I only traded one faith for another in choosing to let experienced Buddhist practitioners rather than uninformed prejudice inform my faith. The balderdash alternative would have rested on faith as well, which would have been the set of tacit unexamined assumptions that had inclined me so readily toward the “balderdash” response in the first place. What were those assumptions? Where did they come from? What is it that would have informed my faith in that case and why would that have been better than where I now decided to place my faith? Let’s look at that a moment. …