Ordination as a Bhikkhu
After my ordination, on March 10, 2009, in Sagaing Hills in Burma, one of the Burmese monks asked what felt different to me after ordination. I replied, “I know what I am!” He seemed to understand and be pleased with my answer, but after thinking about it, I realized it does not quite get to the heart of it.
Theravada or Mahayana ordination happens in two stages: (1) novice ordination, (2) higher ordination. Most typically novice ordination is undertaken by youngsters under the age of 20 and full ordination at the age of 20. However for oldsters already over the age of 20 (like me, for instance) both can happen in quick succession, at least this is common in Burma. Novice ordination involves shaving the head, donning the robes and taking the refuges and ten precepts. It requires only one monk to perform; it is a private ceremony not requiring approval of a Sangha, a group of monks.
In my case, I was a novice for one day. U Ariyadhamma, abbot of the Sitagu Buddhist Vihara in Austin, TX, with whom I had traveled to Burma, gave the Precepts. Another monk, U Lokanatta, who lives in Jamaica, assisted and a few lay people, Burmese and American, were present.. We went outside to a large community outdoor bathing facility, basically a well-like structure common in Burma, where I got my hair wet and let U Loka shave my head. I hadbeen shaving my head since April, 2003, when I ordained in Zen, but I had let my hair, or what was left of it, grow for about 3 weeks for just this occasion. The procedure attracted many curious Burmese of all ages, who were of course quite familiar with the procedure, but not so much with the nationality of the candidate for ordination. Back inside U Loka helped me put on the lower and upper robes in a side room after U Ariya had ceremonially offered them to me. These had been donated to me, as had each of the eight requisites necessary for my full ordination the next day: the three robes, a belt, an alms bowl, a razor, needle and thread and a water filter.
In the main room the Refuges and Precepts were administered in Pāli. Tradition requires that this be pronounced precisely, since Pāli is respected in Theravada as the language of the Buddha. The Burmese have their unique way of pronouncing Pāli, so we followed what is considered internationally to have been the correct pronunciation. After repeating the lines a couple of times in the hopes that I would get it right at least once, Ariyadhamma has me repeat the Burmese pronunciation, just in case the Burmese were right all along.
After novice ordination we reported to Sitagu Sayadaw, Ashin Nyanissara, who would be my Preceptor the next day, me sporting my new burgundy outfit, just like U’s Loka and Ariya, as well as Sayadaw’s. At this time Sayadaw came up with my name as follows:
Sayadaw-dyi asked, “How long you think about ordain as Theravada monk?”
I answered, “Um, for about four years.”
Said Sayadaw-dyi, “Usually if someone has a little name they do great things. If big name they do little things.” Then he pondered and came up with, “Cintita. It means, ‘Good Thinker’.”
For the rest of the day I felt like Lawrence of Arabia, testing out my new clothing, except that mine is much more primitive, and did not include a dagger. In fact it is like wearing a beach blanket in public, which might happen if you are at the beach and, say, an octopus gets ink on your regular clothes, and you have promised to stop at the deli on the way home. Except in my case I would have to dress like this for the whole day, no matter where I went … every day … forever! Apparently such fasteners as buttons, straps, zippers and velcro just didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, so the outfit stays on more by willpower. In the evening a Burmese family came to visit and greeted me with three full prostrations each. I discovered what it feels like to be a Buddha statue: just plaster but the recipient of so much reverence.
I had come to Buddhism mid-life. I did not have a religious upbringing, and conducted my life largely according to common wisdom, or rather common lack-thereof. My life had its ups and downs but would be regarded as fairly successful, but never satisfactory. Armed only with a meditation practice, and some limited observations about what didn’t seem to work in life (abundant money, for instance), happiness and harmlessness always eluded me. I began looking within religious traditions for a Handbook of Life, a source of wisdon, advice on what my life should be. I always knew I must have come with an instruction manual, but my parents must have lost it at some point. I found that Handbook in Buddhism. About twelve years earlier Buddhism had became the main focus of my life. Nine years earlier I had retired from my professional life to live in a monastery, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California. Seven years earlier I had ordained as a Zen priest at the Austin Zen Center, where I had since lived and served.
The utter simplicity of the monastic life draws many to Japanese Zen. Zen practice has a wonderfully sharp edge to it. However, I had discovered that much of what is still remembered of this tradition in terms of monastic discipline was largely lost before it reached American shores. Because of my strong monastic aspirations I had decided to reordain where the full monastic tradition as defined by the Buddha in the Vinaya still remains intact. This did not have to be Theravada, but given my connections it turned out to be so.
So, why did I want to become a monk? First, so that life would not be a problem for myself or for the many others whom my misguided actions would otherwise harm. Second, so that I could bring the fruits of life and practice to my people: America is spiritually crippled; its people by and large lack any semblance of inner fortitude, they live desperately, often in the midst of wealth and splendor, encountering the world with fear all the while seeking in vain any bit of personal advantage that might make it all right. I believe Buddhism will become a positive force in America’s future as it has in my present. But history shows Buddhism never exists long or healthily, and never ever enters new lands, apart from its Sangha, its third Jewell, its monastic community. I wanted to dedicate myself, on behalf of Buddhism in the West, to the development of an American community of nuns and monks, and what better way … than to be one!
My full, or higher, ordination as a bhikkhu was at 7 AM the next day. Many people had mentioned that this timing was auspicious: It was a full-moon day; it was Sitigu Sayadaw’s birthday, and it was the first ordination held in the newly built magnificent 600-seat conference center, which also serves as an ordination hall at Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, designed on the model of the famous Sanchi Stupa in India.
Full ordination involves acceptance into a Sangha consisting of at least five monks. It is an act of the Sangha, meaning, as the Buddha instructed, that all of the monks present must concur; if even one objects, the ordination cannot proceed. After examination of qualifications, including a check of the eight requisites, and then instruction in the basic parameters of one’s vows, one’s Instructor, who in fact does most of the talking during the ceremony, presents the candidate to the Preceptor and Sangha. The new bhikkhu will take on a set of 227 vows, though only the first four, those whose violation can get you kicked out of the Sangha for good, are explicitly mentioned in the ceremony. In my ordination Sitagu Sayadaw acted as Preceptor, Ashin Ariyadhamma acted as Instructor, a group of almost one hundred monks including the students of SIBA acted as Sangha, and the about-to-be-dubbed Cinitita acted as Candidate. Also about 30 lay people were present, including all of the Americans and the Burmese in the pilgrimage group with which I had traveled around Burma.
A monk or a nun is someone who makes a choice, a choice that few others see clearly they have the freedom to make. That choice is, What will the shape of my life be? Specifically for the Buddhist monk or nun it is the choice to live, as a matter of vow, as if the Buddha’s teachings were true. Vow is the mold that gives the plaster of one’s life a recognizable shape. The idea of exercising the freedom to live a life of vow seems contradictory to most people. Its value is enormous.
My initial reply to the Burmese monks who had asked what felt different to me after ordination, “I know what I am!” did not quite get to the heart of it. What was different after ordination was that now, for the first time, more than a few others, in fact an entire culture, recognized the shape of my life. It’s not so much that I know what I am — I’ve chosen to be it, after all, after all the Good Thinking that earned me my name — but that others also know who I am, not only that, but through their respect for the robes, show that they fully endorse and share my faith in this way of life. My gratitude for being held by this kind of support is boundless.