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.

Requisites donated by an 80-year-old abbot.

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.

Head Shaving.

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.

Ready.

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.

Ashin Cintita's Ordination by Sitagu Sayadaw.

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.

11 Responses to “Ordination as a Bhikkhu”

  1. Satish Reddy Says:

    I am touched!

    Like

  2. Orlando Casas Says:

    “I know what I am”

    defining who you are.
    truly an aspiring event.

    How would you describe it now?

    Like

  3. adam fisher Says:

    With or without the robes, good luck with your choices.

    Like

  4. josesiem Says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this story. I hope someday — after my kids are grown up, long time to go — to undertake this endeavor.

    Like

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      It is very common in Burma for people to become monks or nuns later in life, after the kids are grown, with permission of their spouse if they have picked one up along the way. I also have grown kids and would not have been able to follow this path earlier. Since raising kids itself is such a rewarding and meaningful part of life the two stages together make for a very worthwhile life indeed.

      Like

  5. Brian Dillon Says:

    I live in New York City. How do I start on the road to ordination from here?

    Like

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Brian,

      I don’t know your situation, but the first step is normally to develop a relationship with a monastery. There are zillions of them in New York City. Not many of them will be conducive to Westerners, generally because of language problems, but you can explore. The Bodhi Monastery in NJ might be a possibility; Bhikkhu Bodhi used to live there; now he is in Carmel, NY. Try Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, Chinese, etc., depending on what tradition you might favor. Get involved in the monastery life as a lay person, learn how to behave around monks and get to know the monks. If it feels right you can begin talking with a favorite monk about ordaining.

      Two alternatives are (1) to get involved with a Western monastery or get to know a Western monk, or (2) take off for Asia. The cultural and language issues will be less. There are very few Western monasteries, but I know of one new one in Texas and a couple in California. I don’t know about NYC. In Asia there are meditation centers that are used to accepting Westerners and offer ordination.

      I hope that helps. Also visit THIS link.

      Like

  6. Tony H. Says:

    Very inspiring!
    I too want to ordain very much so that I ended up taking a trip to Sri Lanka (Na Uyana monastery). However I ended up getting injured and had to return to the states. One thing though it wasn’t necessarily a training monastery and being a foreigner it was some what difficult. I’m looking into ordaining again and considering either Burma or Thailand.. I’m middle age as well..Why was your choice for Burma? I haven’t been to either place. Any suggestion?
    May the Triple Gem Bless You!

    Like

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Tony, I certainly applaud your aspirations. The reason I ordained in Burma was not a deliberate choice: There is a Burmese monastery here in Austin, Texas that I used to visit when I was a Zen priest. When I decided to ordain in the Theravada school, the abbot here offered to ordain me here or to bring me to Burma and leave me there for a while. However, I think that this circumstance was ideal. Buddhism is very pure in Burma, the Burmese are very devout, monastic discipline relatively good and in some places spotless, and there are many opportunities for serious training in Burma with serious sayadaws (teachers). I recommend it highly. The Burmese are also very sweet people completely supportive of Westerners who want to ordain (some cultures seem to discriminate against foreigners). Since the political situation has been improving in Burma I think there will soon be a greater influx from the West.

      Like

  7. Tony H. Says:

    Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!
    The monastery I was at follows the Pa-Auk Tawya practice of meditation in Burma. I know of a few foreigners that have stayed there for quite awhile. This is one place I’m considering. They seem follow closely inline with the Vinaya.

    Like

  8. Garbis Bartanian Says:

    Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu

    Like

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