Monday, December 28, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

On December 23 I left Sagaing and took the overnight bus to Yangon. I
will live in Yangon for the next two months, until I return to Texas.
Sitagu Sayadaw, my preceptor, had made arrangements for me to study
with Ashin Pannyasiha, a teacher at the Sitagu International Buddhist
Missionary Center. Here is a picture of the center: with a short article.

By the way, it is not the case that the various Sitagu centers are
named after Sitagu Sayadaw, rather it is the other way around. Sitagu
Sayadaw's name is actually Dr. Ashin Nyanissara. Some time ago he
became the abbot of the Sitagu monastery in Sagaing Hills, so he is
called Sitagu Sayadaw, distinguished teacher of Sitagu. Similarly Pa
Auk Sayadaw acquired this name when he became the abbot of the
existing Pa Auk Forest Monastery where I lived March - June. From the
original Sitagu monastery grew the Sitagu Academy, established on the
other, western, side of Sagaing Hill, the Yangon center, Austin's
Sitagu Buddhist Vihara, and some other centers. The original Sitagu
monastery is under direction of a new abbot, who I don't think uses
the name Sitagu Sayadaw; at the Academy we always called the original
Sitagu East. It is quite a beautiful monastery overlooking the
Irrawaddy River, and mostly trains young novice monks.

I had known U Pannyasiha earlier in my trip; he traveled a bit with
the pilgrimage group last February. He is 36 years old, ordained at
20, and lived in Nashville, TN for 1 1/2 years. He is known as a good
teacher, and is a serious, smart, dedicated and enthusiastic monk, who
smiles a lot. Also his English is excellent. His name is cool, it
means Lion (siha) of Wisdom (pannya)."

U Pannya goes regularly for alms rounds. Most of the monks I have hung
out with are student and teacher monks, often known as pariyatti monks
or village (as opposed to forest) monks. Their lifestyle is often a
bit less traditional than the patipatti or meditating monks. At the
Sitagu Academy and at the Yangon center, as at many large monasteries
of both kinds, you only have to find your way to the dining hall for a
food offering. Many large monasteries, like Pa Auk Tawya (forest
tradition), keep the form of the alms round: you stand in line with
your alms bowl, robe covering both shoulders, and people drop food
into your bowl but it's all done in one spot. At Sitagu we do not use
the traditional alms bowl at all; food is formally offered by monks
and lay people lifting a table together on which food has been placed.
U Pannya eats breakfast and lunch at Sitagu each day, but goes on alms
round at 9am, then brings the food back to contribute to the Sitagu
kitchen or to other monasteries. He does this because this is what the
Buddha wanted monks and nuns to do; the point of alms round is not
just to feed the monks and nuns, it is also to bring them into contact
with the lay people so that the latter will have the opportunity to
learn Dhamma from the former, and otherwise benefit.

Anyway, U Pannya asked me if I would like to go with him on alms
rounds while I am living in Yangon, and I immediately said, "Yup." So
we went out for the first time this morning, single file, silently,
mindfully, alms bowls slung over our shoulders held in front but
concealed under our robes. He always follows the same route, visiting
the same families. He says in Yangon you have to learn the families
that give to monks and nuns; in Sagaing it's much easier: everyone
does. With U Pannya the process is more intimate than I understand it
normally to be; he knows the families well and likes to teach Dhamma
if they have questions. At every house we enter and sit down, and
someone brings generally rice and curry. Everyone does bows to the
monks, of course. Apparently other monks keep a lot of little
containers for curry in their bowls. I did not have any so people kept
donating them to me. We were offered tea and coffee at one house, to
drink there. Everyone was curious about me; I heard U Pannya say,
"Ameyika' pongyi," American monk, at each house. Sometimes he
explained my relationship to the Sitagu center in Austin. People asked
me, through U Pannya's able interpretation, "Are you a temporary or a
permanent monk?" "Can you speak any Burmese?" ("Bama zaga ma pyo da;
pu," the one thing I know how to say well) "Is your family Buddhist?"
"Are your children now Buddhist?" "Why did you become a monk?" and of
course, "How old are you?" All of these families are very poor, very
devout and very happy in their generosity. Most of the families have
cats, sometimes several, living inside. One family had two pet
rabbits, a white one and a brown one named Obama.

The Sitagu center is a 5-star monastery. It serves as a school and as
a transit center, given its location in the hub of international
travel. The rooms are very Western. The food is outstanding. The
reason is that many families make meal donations to the monastery. I
think it works like this: Donating a meal to a monastery, for all of
the monks or nuns, is a common practice, especially for the
well-to-do. Yangon has 4 million people, so a lot of such donations
must be made like this in the city each day. In a list of the many
monasteries in Yangon, "Sitagu" jumps out, because of the fame of our
Sayadaw. When they make a donation to the Sitagu center, they probably
have a cost in mind, but generally discover, if there is no great
event bringing transit travelers through, that there are only about
six monks to feed. Therefore, they can afford to donate something
really good, and do so multiple times. Anyway, we eat to square meals
a day here, both before noon.

Bhikkhu Cintita

Saturday, December 26, 2009


I haven't had many photos to show you. However, when someone inquired I found this site on the Web. There are some very good shots. Click on "Sagaing" for the area I have spent the most time. You probably won't find me in any of these photos, but let me know if you do.

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, Myanmar

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

Dog Update. Tiny Tim, the scrawny lame puppy I've been feeding, is still holding in there. He is not growing as fast as his siblings, but his lameness is gone. I was worried for a couple of days when there was no sign of him, but only of his two siblings.

Village Trip. Last week I was invited by one of the teacher monks, Ashin Issariya, to visit his home town. His teacher, 80, had just received a major recognition by the government and a major festival was organized to welcome their favorite son home. We had a car and a driver provided by U Issariya's donor, which plowed through the pigs, bicycles toting housewares and building supplies, dogs,ox carts and women carrying precariously balanced things on their heads. We visited U Issariya's family, ate with the monks at the monastery where U Issariya had once practiced,  and slept at a pagoda nearby. The monastery has maybe 200 monks. The pagoda has little built-in outdoor meditation niches, each with a little altar, and a lot of space for walking meditation, in a beautiful area with many trees. We had a lot of time to kill overnight and U Issariya was catching up on things with two sisters, one of whom is a nun, who also stayed at the pagoda. So I meditated very happily for about two and a half hours in the evening then for another two and a half hours in the morning.  The festival was at the monastery and was a huge affair, with live music, booths where food and toys were sold, and a lot of chit-chat. And of course a religious observance and words from the senior monks.

I witnessed my first altercation since arriving in Myanmar: I was standing on a second-story balcony of the monastery building watching families arrive and situate themselves in front of the outdoor stage. Someone had marked out a checkerboard pattern with chalk, each square labeled, and families arrived to claim their squares. Each family laid out a grass mat that was too big for their square, but they overlapped them and that was fine. On either side families had set up wooden platforms, about the same size as the squares, which would raise the family up about two feet. These platforms are ubiquitous in Myanmar, used where we use picnic tables. Their main function, I suppose, is protection from snakes, but at the festival they could afford a view over the heads of those sitting on the ground. The altercation concerned two of these platforms. Apparently the previous day one family had set up their platform, then left, then a second family arrived and set up their platform in front of the other family's platform. The day of the festival the first family arrived again first, and the father was furious. He took his platform apart, shoved the offending platform into the place his platform had occupied and reconstructed his platform in the place the other platform had occupied. In the middle of this the other family arrived, and now the father in that family was furious. Both of them began yelling at each other and each armed himself with a 6' slat from his respective platform, ready for battle. Each was immediately engulfed by a wave of bystanders, led by the respective wife, to restrain the father's unskillful intentions. This incident surprised me, because Myanmarians are so invariably even-tempered. What's more, this happened at a Buddhist monastery!

One other thing was unusual at this monastery: almost all the monks smoke. I had noticed that at Sitagu U Issariya is about the only monk who smokes. Actually not many people at all seem to smoke in Myanmar. At U Issariya's home monastery, not only do the monks smoke, but lay people make offerings to the monks of cigarettes after meals. It makes me wonder if there are designating smoking monasteries in Myanmar; when somebody wants to ordain, they are asked, "Smoking or Non-Smoking?"

Goodbye to Sagaing. I'll be leaving Sagaing, and the Sitagu Academy, in a couple of days to study in Yangon for a couple of months. I will be studying with Ashin PannyaSiha (Lion of Wisdom), whom I know and who has lived in the USA. My intention was to return to Sagaing for Sayadaw's birthday, February 27, which is a huge event, but word is out that it will not be in Sagaing this year, but in Sayadaw's hometown, near Yangon. So I may not return to Sagaing at all. I'll fly from Yangon to Austin starting on March 2.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.

Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.

The reception committee of the Springdale Buddhist Center and Ping
Pong Club held a lavish banquette for its Buddhist members, and
offered the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization. To
their great dismay, no one seemed to eat much. The committee (Bob,
Carol and Skipper) realized some adaptation of the Buddhist Fare
might be necessary for the next year's banquette. However, they soon
discovered that most guests who were failing to eat well, were doing
so for what they felt were all the wrong reasons. "Is this what is to
shape the future of Western Buddhism?" they thought collectively.
Anecdotally they identified the following feeding patterns:

Some guests are simply uninformed about food. Some people, Bob
observed, would not eat things simply because they do not know what
they are. They might have thought that a bagel was a napkin ring, or
that a clear soup was for washing one's fingers. Or, having
identified something as actual food, they might not have known the
correct manner of eating it, so they didn't. They could have asked but
most of the people around them didn't seem to know either. Or they
would mistake the foods available for foods that they don't like, for
instance burritos for egg-rolls or meat pie for something sweeter.

Some guests are happy with bread and butter. Some people, Carol
noticed, will not eat things because they are afraid they will not
like some things, or they might upset their stomachs. Fish eggs or
lychees, or octopus make them cringe. These people simply don't
understand why people want to eat unusual things in the first place,
and so they themselves end up eating rolls, cold cuts, and cole slaw,
because these are safe, and they feel comfortable with this as long as
they cover all of the basic food groups.

Some guests have already eaten. One or two people, as Skipper
identified, will not intend to stay long, but will maybe take a slice
of tiramisu or something particularly exotic or appealing. They often
share the recollection of their experience with friends the following

Some guests seem more analytical than daring in their approach to
eating. These people, Carol explained, are always quite informed of
recent incidences of salmonella poisoning, tainted shellfish,
misidentified mushrooms, typhoid. They know all about trichinosis,
cancer, and how all of these relate to the food we eat. They also
carefully calculate calories; fat, protein and carbohydrate levels;
the amounts they are getting of each vitamin and mineral. They eye
unidentified foods with great suspicion. All of these are terribly

Some guests can only stay long enough to grab something to eat in the
Porsche. Bob observed that some people always partake of something
like a sandwich or couple of egg rolls because they have to rush to
put in some overtime at work, or they are on their way to the opera,
or to a lecture on the situation in Myanmar. They have also generally
just came from a workout at the gym, which they already had to shorten
at the other end to meet with their interior decorator or stock
broker. And even in the buffet line they talk on their cell phones.
These are busy people, people with life-styles.

And, of course, some guests try everything. Skipper pointed out, there
are still rare individuals who come with big appetites, know their
foods, have let go of all destructive preconceptions and are curious
and daring about the what they've been invited to enjoy, capable of
savoring the sublime and valuing the simple. Furthermore these people
generally give themselves ample time to spend enjoying food and
company. "They have a fork and they know how to use it," added Carol.

The following year the reception committee of the Springdale Buddhist
Center and Ping Pong Club met to consider again holding a Second
Annual Buddhist Banquette. The main question brought to the floor was,
What To Offer, and there were different opinions about this.

At one extreme was Bob's suggestion. Bob was rather upset at what he
interpreted as a lack of gratitude or respect shown by the guests the
previous year, in picking at the food the way they did. Bob's proposal
was to offer the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization,
exactly as they had done last year. However, this time there would be
some changes: Before the banquette they would send out abundant
information on the various foods, along with detailed descriptions of
how to eat lobster and some of the more difficult dishes, with
photographs and diagrams. Guests would be asked to arrive by 5:00 pm,
after which the doors would be locked from the outside and not
reopened until all the food was eaten. Also pocket calculators,
cell-phones and other electronic gear would be collected at the door.

At the other extreme was Carol's suggestion. The other two members of
the committee could not determine if Carol was more forgiving than Bob
or not. Her proposal was to offer spaghetti, marshmallow salad and
dinner rolls. And beer. "The greatest common denominator," she called

Like the lavish banquette, Buddhism is an array of various dishes.
These include meditation practice, on and off the cushion; bringing
mindfulness and awareness into everyday situations; cultivating
skillful mental factors, such as loving-kindness, and minimizing
unskillful, like envy; studying the teachings and commentaries;
attending Dharma talks and classes; cultivating penetrating insight
into the nature of reality; practicing generosity and renunciation;
taking refuges; following Precepts; ordaining as a monk or nun;
seeking the company of the wise and avoiding the company of the
foolish; paying homage; chanting or reciting; attending ceremonies and
observing special days of practice; and so on.

Now, in Buddhism these many elements are integrated into a working
whole, like the parts underneath the hood of your car. Let's take an
example and follow some of the interworkings: Buddhism values
selflessness as a skillful attribute. Selflessness is difficult to
learn and train in, and must be conveyed, supported and encouraged at
many levels. Buddhism gives us the philosophical teachings of no-self,
that the self that we tend to prize so dearly is a delusion and does
not exist in the way we conventionally think it does. Until this
difficult thesis is understood, however, faith in this premise is
necessary to keep one on track, while practitioners are encouraged to
experience no-self by seeing things directly as they are with the
support of a meditation practice, in particular, to observe the
reality being described philosophically in the rise and fall of
everyday phenomena. Also, through meditation practice one learns to
let go of unskillful emotional states, greed and aversion, that
according to the teachings are based in the concept of a self, thereby
undermining much of the functionality of the belief in that self. In
Asia almost from infancy, the practitioner will have learned the
practice of embodying selflessness through ritual, including through
bows and expressions of respect, then later through the practice of
generosity and through observance of the Precepts. Throughout, one's
faith in developing selflessness is nurtured through the powerful
example of monastics, who follow a set of vows for outward behavior
that almost completely precludes doing anything, owning anything or
being anything on behalf of a Self, and who depend in turn for its
support on lay Buddhists, who then have this opportunity for
practicing generosity, already mentioned above. Their respect for the
monastic sangha is encouraged through reciting the Refuges as the
articles of Buddhist faith. And so on.

In summary, the Buddhist path is supported by a complete package of
interrelating and cooperating factors, and has been so since the most
ancient times. These factors include teachings at the conceptual
level, empirical investigation and direct experience of causality both
in nature and in mind; meditative absorption and calm, clarity and
purification of mental factors; ethics and rules of conduct, faith and

So, lets consider the needs and habits of the guests of the Buddhist
Banquette, not as diners, but as Buddhist practitioners.

Simply uninformed. Buddhism is a rather elaborate and sophisticated
meal, the required understanding of the various courses is not
trivial. Unfortunately, most of who are regarded as teachers in the
West, the Land of the Fork, are not completely in the picture
themselves. Much of the Buddhist Path is virtually unknown in the
West, for example the Buddha's extensive teachings on community. Often
the simply uninformed will misinterpret certain elements in Buddhism
negatively because they are confused by their root religions, for
instance, seeing bowing to an altar as worshiping a graven image or
"faith" as "blind faith" not realizing that the Buddha always
encouraged investigation. The information most broadly missing in the
available teachings is often selectively the elements most challenging
to Western mainstream culture.

Happy with Bread and Butter. Those happy with bread and butter
recognize a common core that many religions, "the Great Religions,"
share in common, then conclude that the rest can be dispensed with.
While embracing our sameness they become intolerant of our
differences. They may be attracted to Buddhism for a kind of
simplicity, but eschew the exotic in Buddhism. They fail to recognize
that the differences among religions can be crucial to realizing their
commonalities. Let me give an example: Like Buddhism, much of
Christianity values and attempts to cultivate selflessness. But where
Buddhism refers to the doctrine of no-self, Christianity refers to
God; rather than eliminating a self, it introduces something greater
than the self. Commonality and difference. Removing the difference
weakens the commonality; you might still have selflessness as a common
value, but you lose the ability to cultivate it.

Already eaten. Those who have already eaten attend a Buddhist lecture
one weekend and a Sufi dancing seminar the next. They never miss the
opportunity to hear a famous spiritual master speak, of whatever
faith. They also have an appreciation for the value of many religions,
but unlike those who are happy with bread and butter, they
particularly value religious diversity, always seeking a novel
experience. Now, we have seen that Buddhism, like your washing
machine, includes many cooperating elements. Those who have already
eaten are like a centipede who is unable to coordinate its myriad
feet. The many practices they experience cannot work together; they do
not have a history of working together. And often the neglected
mundane practices are critical in the Buddhist path.

More analytical than daring. The analytical, or skeptical, actively
find rational bases for removing individual elements from Buddhism.
They are often attracted to Buddhism because it by and large appears
refreshingly rational, much of it is almost scientific. It also values
personal investigation and seeing things as they are, and fairly well
avoids metaphysical speculation. However, many elements are
unacceptable for them, either because they appear in spite of the
general trend to be irrational, or because they resemble elements of
Christianity that have not survived the European Enlightenment fully
intact. Sometimes the rejected elements include faith, devotion,
hierarchy, ceremony and ritual. I've started writing another essay
called "Buddhist with Beliefs" in which I will point out that many
areas of the secular life, including Science, have these exact same
elements, and that big difference between Buddhist on the one hand,
and Christianity and Science on the other, is that the Buddha
establishes a rational basis for these elements. Ethics or morality
has gotten bad press in the West and Near East. It does indeed seem
that those who talk most of Good and Evil turn out to be the latter.
Buddhism is ethical to the core, but its ethics have an entirely
different, and more rational, basis than that of the Abrahamic faiths.
Other factors are rejected as simply un-forklike, or at least a hard
sell in the West. My own feeling is that if Buddhism fails to
challenge the West, there is no point in bringing it to the Land of
the Fork.

"Religiosity," as much as it is necessary, often scares people; it is
the world of terrorists, hypocritical opportunists, pedophiles,
blindly faithful suckers, and people who knock on your door to tell
you stuff, won't go away and keep coming back. These are scary things.
"Religiosity" (with scare quotes) sometimes might also remind the more
analytical than daring too closely of the root religion they thought
they put behind them. They often advocate a "secular" approach to

Grabbing something to eat. The busy are particularly challenged fully
to embrace a Buddhist way of life. They can't build a new foundation
while so many rooms are already under construction. Instead they add
Buddhism as another room, another area of busy-ness, nothing

Trying everything. In Asia one finds the Whole Buddhist Fare
functioning both in the practice of the individual and in the life of
the Buddhist community, in both the Land of the Fingers (Theravada
lands)and in the Land of the Chopstick (Mahayana lands). For them,
it's so much easier; they are born into a Buddhist Society. In the
West many are inspired by what they have learned of Buddhism, of the
Wisdom of its teachings, of its Compassion, of its Serenity and
Peacefulness, and how they experience the presence of well-known
people like Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and Steven Segal, and
other exemplars of Buddhism they might have encountered. However there
is little opportunity to see the Whole Buddhist Fare in the Land of
the Fork. People come with differing motivations, and expectations and
are for the most part timid in enjoying the Buddhist Banquette when
the opportunity arises. The person open to trying everything is very
rare. "A rare bird indeed," says Carol.

People bring a lot of different perspectives to the Buddhist
Banquette. But the upshot has been the slow development in the West of
a radically pruned down Buddhism when compared to what is found in
Asia or to what the Buddha taught. To a large extend, Buddhism has
become meditation. "That's what I mean by Spaghetti," exclaims Carol.
Almost all Western Buddhist centers focus on meditation and many offer
nothing else in the way of Buddhist practice or teaching.

Why meditation? Why should it be the single element with the widest
appeal in Western Buddhism? For "Simply Uninformed" meditation is
recognizable. Western yogas have meditated for years, the Buddha
almost always sits in meditation posture. For "Already Eaten"
meditation is the most reliable source of peak experiences. For "Bread
and Butter" meditation is a commonality with many religious traditions
at some level, or is at least similar to prayer and to many other
other contemplative practices. For "More Analytical Than Daring"
meditation has some solid science behind it, verifying certain
beneficial qualities, physical as well as psychological. Direct
benefits of other aspects of Buddhist are more difficult to quantify.
For "Grabbing Something To Eat" meditation fits well with the
structure of the Busy Life: It can be scheduled in a consistent way,
requiring little or no restructuring of the rest of one's life. It
generally requires a commitment of time, but "Grabbing's" life has
probably become busy in the first place through the repeated
willingness to add yet one more time commitment; it's how "Grabbing"
attained membership in a gym, for instance. For "Trying Everything"
meditation is perhaps less than what is desired. At the same time,
meditation in and of itself is a very sumptuous dish and can keep
one's fork active for a long time. But "Trying Everything" will
probably look for opportunities for something more complete.

Neglected are, for instance, the following:

The Buddha divided the program of learning and practice that he
advocated into three trainings: Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom, and two
of the three are critically neglected and the third is significantly.
Almost the whole area of Virtue (aka Ethics, Morality, Right Conduct)
is missing. (Some centers offer Buddhist Precepts but there seems to
be very little expectation that the relatively few people who take
them will actually follow some of the more challenging ones.) The
area of Wisdom is critically compromised. For the Buddha this
consisted of accepting a number of teachings provisionally, belonging
to Right View, as a foundation for focused investigation and insight,
in conjunction with meditation practice. But relatively few in Western
centers seem to know these provisional teachings, even those regarded
as Buddhist teachers. "What's left is marshmallow salad," explains
Carol. Although meditation is the most developed practice in the Land
of the Fork, my impression is that Right Effort is not practiced well,
the cultivation of skillfull mental states and the weeding out of the

The Refuges and other articles of faith and commitment are poorly
developed. Many Buddhist centers, perhaps most, do not offer the Three
Refuges, which are traditionally the initiation into the Buddhist
life. Elements of ritual and respect. Bowing and other traditional
rituals of respect have made some headway in traditional Zen Centers;
I'm not sure they have elsewhere. Many other centers have removed the
perceived "religiosity" of altars, chanting and bowing completely, for
instance, as in the Goenka-style Insight Meditation centers.

The practices of generosity and renunciation are not only rarely
understood, but seem rarely to be recognized as fundamental Buddhist
practices. Members of Buddhist centers generally have little
encouragement to simplify their lives. The centers are normally run
with at least a partially as part of the exchange economy with fees
for various programs and services, rather than on the model of giving
freely. Of course the community of renunciates, the Sangha, a
consistent and significant part of Asian Buddhism, is only beginning
to sprout in the West.

Since these various aspects function as a whole, even meditation
itself will always be inadequate without the other elements. Ajahn
Suwat from Thailand, leading a meditation retreat in the USA, once
commented, "I notice that when these people meditate they're awfully
grim." He soon attributed this to the lack of preparation of the
meditators in the other Buddhist teachings, in particular, in
Generosity and in Virtue, which in Asia would generally precede
training in meditation, and as Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests, develop a
sense of spaciousness and happiness as an appropriate context for

In the discussion of the Second Annual Buddhist Banquette of the
Springdale Buddhist Center and Ping Pong Club, Skipper represented the
Middle Way and prevailed. They decided as a group to provide a variety
of dishes very similar to the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to
Realization, of the previous year (and again not to serve beer or
anything other spirits --- "Shucks"). In addition, they decided also
to put effort into educating people beforehand about what they will
find at the banquette. They hope that if they are steadfast in
offering the same each year, maybe they will gradually become a
community of Non-Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.

"It's going to be a long haul," suggested Carol.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma
Electricity Update. Now that the Rainy Season is over we seem to have
electricity only about half of the time. It has generally been out in
the early morning, most of the afternoon, and on and off, but mostly
on during the evening. With a good battery in my computer, a
rechargible flashlight and candles I am not particularly
inconvenienced. There is no longer a need for the A/C. Often the
electricity goes out during my 4:00 English class. That's OK, except I
generally show a documentary DVD in English (they have a few here) one
day a week. Sometimes it gets postponed or we watch it a bit at a
time. I like to make tea with my little water heater; sometimes I have
to wait, or start it only to have the electricity go out.

Weather Update. It has been quite chilly in the morning. We are now
one month into the Cold Season, in which the prevailing winds come
down from Tibet. During the night temperatures plunge to below 60. All
the monks, including me, wear shawls to breakfast, wrapped around both
shoulders, and sometimes over the head as well. I like it, but many of
the monks seem to think it is a hardship, they look like they are
trudging in a blizzard through the snow. A different idea of what cold
is. It warms up during the day to a nice temperature. Since there is
no such thing as hot running water in Burma, except in international
hotels, I now take my shower in the afternoon.

Dog Update. Wigglet never became pregnant. Recall that she had been in
heat a couple of months ago. Wigglet's mom has become a regular
visitor to my apartment. She is very friendly, but very greedy (she is
the chubbiest dog anywhere around) and stubborn. One morning as I was
leaving to breakfast, it was still fairly dark out and the electricity
had gone out, she slipped unbeknownst into my apartment and I was
surprised to find her in an obscure corner when I returned maybe half
and hour later. She decided thereafter that she was my roommate, and
would practically force her way in every time I opened the door. I
would have to forcibly drag her out but then she would whine at the
door. One day in her distress she decided to chew my sandals, which
until that time I would leave outside the door. She has relaxed a bit
now but I still keep my sandals inside the door just in case. There
are three new puppies living with their mom around the side at the far
end of the Guest House. One of them has a lame leg and is scrawnier
than the others, so I've been giving it some pieces of meat after

Cintita Update. I will be moving down the the Sitagu Center in Yangon
at the end of December and remain there for my final two months in
Myanmar. Sitagu Sayadaw had asked me to stay until March so that he
could continue to teach the Mahasatipattanasutta. But he has been so
busy, he has not been in Sagaing very often. In December he will
travel to India, then to Hawaii, then to Minnesota and Austin. His
last excursion took him to Israel for an Interfaith conference, among
other places. So he has made arrangements for me to study with another
monk in Yangon. Maybe I can find someone in Yangon to make a trip to
India with during those two months; it will be easier to get there
from Yangon. I will pop back up to Sagaing for Sayadaw's birthday,
February 27. Moving to Yangon means I will have to halt my English
class earlier than anticipated

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mahayana/Theravada Finale: In the Land of the Fork.

Mahayana/Theravada Finale: In the Land of the Fork.

This is the last in the series on Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. I'm
sorry I have not been able to say much about Vajrayana or Tibetan
Buddhism, because I know little about it. Although it is normally
classed as a branch of Mahayana, it has its own unique properties as
well. Let me summarize what we've discussed so far:

The Theravada and the Mahayana differ in geographical and cultural
distribution, in doctrine, and in practice. The Theravada is found in
Southern Asia, primarily in those countries historically within the
Indian sphere of cultural influence, the Land of the Fingers. The
Mahayana is found in Northern Asia, primarily in those countries
historically within the Chinese sphere of influence, the Land of the
Chopsticks. Both are found in the West, in the same countries, in the
same cities, often on the same blocks, in the Land of the Fork.

Doctrinally, beginning in India the Mahayana has shown a greater
tendency to differ from the original teachings of the Buddha, as we
understand them. Although some common themes and concepts are
characteristic of the Mahayana, such as Buddha Nature and the
Bodhisattva Ideal, it is actually hard to define the Mahayana clearly;
it is not monolithic. The Mahayana seems to be heir to a creative
period of Indian Buddhism that partially predates the name "Mahayana"
while the Theravada was forming in remote Sri Lanka. This creative
period actually represents a variety of doctrinal perspectives, many
of which might be fairly conservative, but have later been claimed as
Mahayana. In China the Mahayana came under the influence of Chinese
religious influences, especially Taoism, and other aspects of the
Chinese world view.

There appears never to have been a substantial schism in India around
the development of the Mahayana schools as distinguished from the
Hinayana, including Theravada, in spite of traditional claims. Rather
Mahayana and Hinayana monks lived together in harmony, as reported by
Chinese pilgrims to India. A schism is when one group of monks goes
off in a huff to practice on their own.

Today there is a tendency for Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists to
disparage each other, particularly in Asia, where there has been
geographical separation between the two groups for many centuries.

My recommendations for those in the Land of the Fork are as follows:

We should not worry about the question of which Buddhism is most
appropriate for the West, Theravada or Mahayana: It is in the long run
moot. Most of the substantial differences between Theravada and
Mahayana have arisen from differences in the cultures of India and
China. The West is yet another culture, out of which a merging of the
two great traditions will arise. By the way, many in the West
anticipate a radically new form of Buddhism as Buddhism leaves Asia. I
think it is important to bear in mind that the cultures of India and
China are probably at least as far apart as Western culture is from
either of them. We should not anticipate that Western Buddhism will be
in a different ballpark.

On the other hand, the Buddhism of the West needs to regain its
moorings. It has been set adrift on an ocean of eagerness to build a
comfortable religion. Fork People have been pruning away at it without
knowing what it is they are pruning and what it was they had in the
first place. It is like removing the safety cover on an electric saw,
not understanding its function, because it makes it more difficult to
see the board you are sawing. Buddhism is a whole system of
interlocking parts: Practicing generosity and virtue; understanding
the teaching of non-self; training the mind to distinguish wholesome
and unwholesome intentions, and to free it of the latter;
renunciation; the task of monastics in propagating and sustaining
Buddhism; faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; and so on. You can't
just start removing parts from under the hood of your car to make room
for luggage unless you are very very sure you know what those parts
are. I'm afraid that is what we are doing to Buddhism in the Land of
the Fork.

It seems to be more difficult for Westerners to find one's moorings in
the Mahayana tradition. I think this has at least two causes. First,
the scriptural basis is so fluid. Different schools of Mahayana
subscribe to different sutras and shastras. The Vinaya is the most
common foundation, but that is largely ignored in the West. One does
not know where to go for a complete picture. Second, Buddhism in the
Land of the Chopstick has been leaning on Taoism and especially
Confucianism for hundreds of years. When that prop is removed, it
collapses. For instance, Zen Buddhism puts very little emphasis on
following Precepts, in fact in Japan taking precepts is often
considered to be a purely symbolic act. But traditional Chinese
culture is permeated with Confucian ethics, rendering the Buddhist
ethical system rather redundant. In the West we've imported Buddhism
from the Land of the Chopstick, but not the Confucian ethic to
complement it.

The Theravada tradition, on the other hand, is generally much more
clearly moored in the original teachings of the Buddha in their
entirety than the Mahayana. This does not mean one should abandon the
Mahayana tradition one has been trained in. But at this juncture, as
Buddhism makes its historic move to the Land of the Fork, it is
appropriate to study the Core-pus, the Suttanta and the Vinaya, or
derivative literature. This is the historic foundation of all of
Buddhism. Of course not all of you have the time that, say, I have,
to make a careful study of this corpus, but your teachers should. It
will be a useful exercise, not necessarily to change your current
views, but at least to understand what they are.

At the same time, I think it should be appreciated that all Buddhist
do not have to conform to a strict orthodoxy, to have exactly the same
understanding as everyone else. In fact debate and consideration of
alternative viewpoints is probably much more likely to give rise to a
more proper understanding than simply adhering to orthodoxy. It often
happens that an erroneous understanding becomes orthodox, and without
differences in viewpoint and debate it is impossible for the orthodoxy
to recover from the erroneous viewpoint. A simple example is the
Theravada view, not represented in the Core-pus, by the way, but in
the Commentaries of Buddhaghosa, that the language of the Buddha was
Pali. The best scholarship indicates that that is almost certainly
not the case, but the view persists, even among Asian Theravada

The Mahayana tradition is much more one of innovation and trying out
novel means of expression. Zen is even playful with orthodox teachings
and has a reputation for iconoclasm. Dogen is well-known for turning
even Zen teachings that had become orthodox by his time on their head.
But I think it is important to recognize how Zen has kept its moorings
through the years. First, it has been a rather intense monastic
tradition, in which practitioners were in an ideal position to find
verification in their own experience. Second, my impression is that
the study of very traditional teachings actually was fairly thorough
in spite of what Bodhidharma was later reputed to have said about
"Without Reliance on Words and Letters." I predict that Buddhism will
retain much of this spirit of innovation and debate in the Land of the
Fork. Consider that science, now a very old tradition, thrives on
innovation and debate.

That said, it is remarkable to me how on-the-same-page most of the
various sects of Buddhism actually are. Throughout Buddhism there is
the idea that humans get ourselves and each other into trouble because
we misperceive reality, from which liberation is possible through our
own contemplative effort to purify the mind. This and considerable
more detain is found in schools of Buddhism that had no communication
for many hundreds of years. If you compare Christianity to Buddhism,
for instance, I don't think you find as great a degree of doctrinal
agreement, even though Christians at least, by and large, agree on
what the scriptures are. What holds Buddhism together? There is an
orthodox Theravada teaching about that, and that is that as long as
the monastic sangha is living in harmony according to the Vinaya, the
doctrine will be preserved just fine. (Why that should be so, will
await the series of postings I have planned on Buddha's Teachings on

Let me end this series on Theravada and Mahayana on a personal note,
and with maybe a few more conflicting metaphors than necessary. (I've
also been in the Left-Wing all my life, so I find it strange to
suddenly view myself below as a conservative.)

Ten months ago I ordained as a Theravada monk after living as a
Mahayana Zen priest/monk for six years. I have an enormous love for
the Mahayana scriptures and the quirky Zen stories and in general for
the creativity of the Mahayana tradition. But I personally decided to
set a more conservative example in my own life, to be a representative
of the original wonderfully profound teachings of the Buddha, to live
the way the Buddha thought the Sangha should live. The reason is that
in the West everybody wants to be an innovator; but someone has to
worry about the moorings. I fear that the ship of Buddhism is already
floating aimlessly in the Ocean of the Fork. I hope that the readers
of this blog will join me in making sure that we assemble and drive
the whole car before we decide what parts to remove or modify.

NOTE: I cannot view this blog directly from Myanmar. If anyone is
posting responses I am not seeing them. However, please feel free to
respond to me directly at

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

Well, it's been a quiet month at Sitagu Buddhist Academy. Sitagu
Sayadaw was away for about a month, and returned yesterday for about a
week. He is a busy guy. He will be back in Austin, Texas sometime in
December, then again in March, when I will also be returning to
Austin. I have no idea where he has been for the last month.

It is interesting what a flurry of activity accompanies Sayadaw when
he returns. Visitors, mostly lay, but some monks and nuns, start
checking into the Guest House, where I live, in the days before his
arrival. I don't know who all of them are, but generally they seem to
be people who need to meet with Sayadaw while they have the chance.
Donors start providing more of the meals, for all of the monks, which
means the cuisine takes on a couple of extra stars, and monks start
gaining weight. This morning we had Mohinga for breakfast, which is a
specialty in Myanmar, made of noodles under a thick soup, with various
toppings to choose from (eggs, fried bread dealies, parsley, lemon).
Mmmmmm. A lot more lay groups start showing up presumably from the
immediate area, filling the parking lot, many of them apparently not
on business, but just to look around at the Convocation Center and the
various statues and altars, apparently at the same time wishing to get
a glimpse of the famous sayadaw. This flurry of activity presumably
follows sayadaw wherever he goes, to Mandalay, Yangon, Bangkok, Korea.
It would explain why sayadaw is so chubby. I wonder if he even knows
that the flurry of activity leaves each place when he leaves.

Monastics are renunciates, which means that their lifestyle leaves
almost no channels for sensual pleasures or accumulation of stuff, or
for all of the problems that accompany these. The effect is that we
settle into a state of quiet contentment, of not struggling with the
world. This makes absolutely no sense to most people, but there is
actually enormous joy in this kind of life, if your passionate
impulses don't get the better of you. The one channel that is open to
the monastic for enjoyment of sense pleasures, at least until noon
each day, is enjoyment of food. So don't be surprised when monastics,
including me, 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.

The lay people who come to visit SIBA are always upbeat, whether or
not Sayadaw is present, in a festive way. Happy voices working in the
kitchen or gardening, or just looking around. Often people come for
one reason, maybe to meet with one of the monks, then while waiting or
afterwards pick up a broom, or take one away from a monk, for some
habitat cleaning while they are here.

The weather is getting cooler. It is quite nice, a little chilly in
the morning, a little hot in the afternoon, bright and sunny during
the day. It's quite beautiful. I saw a big snake behind the Guest
House, near the gopher holes, a couple of days ago, maybe four feet
long. One of the monks explained to me that if you whistle it attracts
snakes. But he said you don't want to do that because most of them are
VERY poisonous. There are still a lot of mosquitoes; I'm hoping the
cold weather will reduce their numbers.

I am still teaching English five or six days a week, following the
lunar weeks, with two days off for every uposatha day, before and on.
I've started showing documentary that are available here in English
once a week. So far I've shown two: One was on Egypt, and had Omar
Sharif in it, more of a docudrama. One was on the Mayan civilization.
Tomorrow I will show one on the American Civil War. There are also a
few on nature: Some National Geographic films, some films about
geology, and profiles of different countries. Most of them have rather
difficult narration, most of these with an American accent, which the
students find more difficult than a British accent. I chose the first
two films because they also had English subtitles. I've been teaching
geography and some other subjects mixed in with English lessons. Most
of the students are amazingly uneducated. Some cannot find Europe and
Asia on a world map! One of the great tragedies about this country.
They are very eager to learn though.

My friend Venerable Jitamaro, from Laos, has been expressing a strong
interest in coming to the USA for a long time. He is interested in
being a missionary for Western Buddhists. I think he will be very good
at this. He is my main English student. We've been exploring ways to
bring him over as a monk, most viably to live at an ethnic temple.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

Kathina Day.
Last week was Kathina Day, a time when lay people make donations of
robes to monks. Not that they don't at other occasions throughout the
year. Kathina Day is always scheduled after the Rains Retreat (Vassa)
has ended. The original tradition, as described in the Vinaya,
involved a lot more work for the monks. In the old days donations were
often in the form of robe cloth rather than finished robes. Monks
would accrue pieces of cloth until they had enough to sew a robe. On
Kathina Day all of the monks at a monastery would, as a joint project,
sew a single robe from scratch and donate it to the monk who was
considered most worthy or most needy. Here is the catch: the robe
would have to be sewn by the following morning , by hand of course.
Everyone would pitch in regardless of seniority, and stay up all night
sewing. Nowhere in the scriptures does it explain why the Buddha would
institute such a silly practice, but the reason would seem to
encourage solidarity among those who shared the Rains together. Isn't
that cool? With time and modern industry, robes have lost the value
they had at the Buddha's time. Certain forest monks keep the old
tradition alive, but by and large Kathina Day has become a kind of a
festival at which purchased, manufactured robes are simply donated,
along with toothpaste. Today's Kathina involved also a Dhamma talk by
Sitagu Sayadaw and a very good lunch, prepared by a lot of lay people,
both for the monks and for themselves, monks eating first, before
noon. Then this evening the monks met together for a brief ceremony.
English Classes.
Petra, the German woman who was living here for a couple of months has
left for a new job in northern Myanmar, teaching meditation to
tourists at a hotel. She had started an English conversation class
while she was here, alongside my English pronunciation class which was
largely preempted by Sayadaw's lectures. I am continuing her class
daily 4:00 – 5:30 pm, except for Uposatha Days and the days before
Uposatha Days. Uposatha Days are full, new or quarter moon days when
many laypeople visit monasteries and monks recite Precepts. The
afternoon before an Uposatha Day is temple cleaning for the monks.
Cold Season.
November 1 was full moon, therefore an Uposatha Day. I believe this
also marked the beginning of the Cold Season. The Cold Season lasts
four months, as does the Rainy Season (just ended) and the Hot Season
(which will start just before the beginning of March, I think). The
weather has been getting cooler, still warm in the middle of the
afternoon, but a bit chilly when I get up at 4am. I no longer take a
shower first thing in the morning, but wait til it is warmer, sometime
before lunch. There is no hot water, of course. In about a month is
is supposed to be quite chilly. I don't think this means freezing
temperatures; I've never seen anything like a space heater in Myanmar
and many buildings don't have real windows. But I think I have
adequate blankets and enough layers of robes to cope.
On this full moon I was invited with the other two foreign monks to a
nuns' monastery, right across the street from Sitagu. Another unknown
senior monk was there who seemed to be a regular. Quite good food. The
various laypeople and nuns took a lot of pictures, as usual featuring
the exotic Western monk. About half an hour after I returned home
about ten people from the monastery showed up at my apartment guided
by the senior monk who proceeded to give them a tour, showing them the
little bathroom and all. They just showed up and let themselves in;
knocking is not customary in Myanmar, then all did prostrations not
only to me, but also to my altar with its $2 gold Buddha. Of course as
usual they were all delightful people.
Later that evening three children showed up at my apartment (I usually
do not get so much traffic) asking for money. That surprised me, since
there is very little begging in Myanmar (unless you count the monks),
and only in public spots, and it is odd to expect a monk to give you
something besides the Gift of the Dhamma. I wouldn't give them
anything. I learned later that this full moon day is a special day
each year in Myanmar when children are allowed to ask for small things
like money and cake. In a way, it is like our Halloween, but not as
scary. OOPS!!! And I did have some Kyat (Burmese $$) in small bills
that I could have given them.
A monk who lives in Yangon invited me about a month ago to tour the
Buddhist sites in India with him. This was U Pan~n~asiha, who used to
live in Minnesota, and has a new doctorate from an Indian university.
He suggested this rather casually, but when he comes through here
again I've decided to try to pin him down. Sitagu Sayadaw has
suggested about three times that I go to India while I'm here, and
once that I go to Thailand. If you look at a map you will see that I,
here in Central Myanmar, am not at all far from the area in which the
Buddha lived. I probably can live in monasteries, travel maybe three
weeks. Hopefully my visa will allow me to leave the country and get
back in.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mahayana/Theravada 4: The Authentic Teachings

Mahayana/Theravada 4: The Authentic Teachings

If you poll the followers of the various schools with the question,
"Which is the True Buddhism?" you will probably find a very consistent
answer: "Ours Is!"

Zen, for instance, is traditionally held to be a special transmission
independent of words and letters that was kept under wraps in India,
but can be traced directly to the Buddha, through Bhikkhu Mahakassapa,
who as only one out of myriad disciples understood what the Buddha
meant when, instead of delivering a conventional discourse, he simply
held up a flower, and Kassapa smiled. Soka Gakai, a Japanese sect
whose main practice is revering the Lotus Sutra, not part of the
earliest scriptures, often claims to be the one "True Buddhism."
Theravadins often claim that theirs is the one authentic school
because, they say, it has not added or removed a single word from what
the Buddha taught.

The various schools of Buddhism (Theravada and Mahayana, the latter
with much more variety than the former) do differ in their doctrines,
though my own feeling is that except for some runaway schools, the
differences are not as great as many people seem to think. And almost
no school contradicts a certain set of core teachings, which can be
attributed to the Buddha with a degree of certainty, though all
enhance them, either a little or a lot. In this posting I want to
consider how to pinpoint what the Buddha taught and then in very
general terms consider how that has been tinkered with. This is a bit
of history, as I understand it from my studies. (By the way, I'm not a
Buddhist historian, and do not intend this blog posting as a scholarly
treatise. I welcome hearing any corrections to what I write here).

What Did the Buddha Teach?

We actually do not know for certain what the Buddha said or did not
say. But there is a corpus that we can be reasonably certain fairly
well reflects the Buddha's teachings as they were understood shortly
after his death. This is the Eartly (Not Mahayana) Suttas (Sutras, or
Discourses, I will use the Pali word Suttas to refer to this corpus)
and the Vinaya (Books of Discipline), which correspond to two of the
three baskets of the Theravada Pali Canon and to similar parts of the
Agamas that survive in Chinese translation from Sanskrit. I'll call
these the Core Corpus, or, if you will, the Core-pus.

The argument that the Suttas and Vinaya, the Core-pus, mostly date
back to the Buddha, comes from reconstructing their history. It is
recorded that the teachings of the Buddha, quite extensive after a
45-year teaching career, were first recited from memory in their
entirely at the First Council of 500 monks shortly after the
Parinirvana. The words were not yet committed to palm leaf, but
retained in memory, different parts by different members of the
sangha, and preserved in that form for hundreds of years, eventually
in many different regions in India and beyond, and in different
languages, and by the different early schools that began to form. The
idea of memorizing such a huge corpus seems daunting to modern
Westerners, but it seems to have been common at the time. After living
with Burmese monks, who continue this tradition of memorization, this
no longer seems at all infeasible to me. Many monks here can recite
very long texts word for word, such as all 227 rules for monks. There
was a famous Burmese monk who won a place in the Guinness Book of
World Records for being able to recite the entire Pali Canon,
basically the entire Core-pus plus the huge Pali Abhidamma, all by
himself, which is like 28 thick books! The texts were eventually
written down at different places and times and in different languages,
apparently first in Sri Lanka, where the Pali Canon was recorded about
400 years after the death of the Buddha. Today the Theravada school
refers to this Pali version, and this is the easiest to find in
English translation. In India the Sanskrit versions became most widely
known, and were inherited into the Mahayana schools. However, these
various versions of the Core-pus, preserved in different places and
recorded at different times, turned out to be in remarkable agreement,
and in no way account for the doctrinal differences of various later
schools. So, in China virtually the same range of discourses and
stories and rules of discipline were available as in Sri Lanka or
Burma. This is evidence that the various written versions probably
accurately represented the original recited version of the Core-pus.

Although there versions of the Core-pus agree remarkably they don't
entirely. Spurious changes can be found, and in fact editing of these
versions probably went on for hundreds of years. For instance, in the
Pali Vinaya there is an account of the Second Council, reported to
have occurred 100 years after the death of the Buddha. For the most
part scholars can detect spurious edits by comparing the early written
texts, but apparently there are cases in which this does not work,
because the editors of different versions have adopted the same
changes from a common third source. For instance, some scholars now
believe that many of the Jataka (previous lives of the Buddha)
stories, along with references to the concept of the Bodhisattva,
first mentioned in the Jatakas; and the teachings of the Paramitas,
recognized with some differences by virtually all modern schools of
Buddhism, were all absent in the original Core-pus, i.e., the Buddha
never taught these things. Rather all of these seem to have
originated in the Sarvastivada (early Hinayana, i.e., non-Mahayana)
school long after the Buddha, which then added these to their
scriptures. Apparently these modifications were a good idea, since
other schools, including the Theravada, then made these same changes
to their versions of the scriptures. But by and large scholars seem
generally to have a degree of confidence that the Suttas and Vinaya
reflect the teachings of the Buddha.

Different Interpretations.

The Christian Bible, as far as I can tell, was written by many
different people who had quite diverse and contradictory views. This
may partially account for why there are so many doctrinal differences
within Christianity. The Buddhist Core-pus, on the other hand, is
largely the product of one mind, or of the Buddha and a handful of
disciples who were in intimate contact with that one mind, and as such
is very consistent in its approach. However, even the Core-pus seems
to lend itself to alternative interpretations, some of which may
underlie later doctrinal differences within Buddhist. For instance,
what is meant literally, and what is meant metaphorically, what is
essential and what is incidental? For example, the Core-pus has a lot
of colorful imagery, and often makes reference, quite matter-of-factly
to devas and deva realms, i.e., godly beings and their living
arrangements. These may be embellishments for dramatic or comic
effect, but sometimes seem to have systematic roles in the exposition
of the Dhamma, as in the case of rebirth in the various non-human and
non-animal realms. In the Pure Land School of Mahayana Buddhism, the
Pure Land is one of these godly realms, in which a buddha (not THE
Buddha, who is sidelined), Amitabha, plays a critical role. I
understand that the basic premises of this school actually have
support in the Suttas and Vinaya, if you look for them. Yet the Pure
Land school is often criticized in the Theravada as deviant in its
doctrine in making rebirth in the Pure Land a fundamental goal. (The
Pure Land is, I believe, also the largest modern school of Mahayana
Buddhism, so this critique is sometimes assumed in the Theravada world
to apply to all of the Mahayana.) This may (I am speculating) be a
question of whether a particular passage of the earliest corpus is
taken to be essential or incidental.

What Was Taught After the Buddha?

Buddhism has a vast set of scriptures that do not belong to the
Core-pus, many of which are important to only specific schools of
Buddhism. Many of these are claimed to have originated with the
Buddha, often with a transmission story to explain why they were
unknown earlier on; these stories often involve either devas or
dragons preserving these scriptures secretly for a period, sometimes
until the world is ready for these teachings. In addition, there exist
commentarial traditions and philosophical schools within Buddhism that
have enjoyed quite a lot of original thought and debate. In many
Mahayana schools of Buddhism the Suttas, although part of the history
of these schools, are all but ignored in favor of these later works
(though significantly the Vinaya is an important part of almost every
tradition outside of Japan).

Let me review some things that are clearly post-Core-pus:

(1) The Abhidhamma. This is regarded in the Theravada tradition as the
third basket of the Pali Canon. In Burma this is not only attributed
to the Buddha, but regarded as the highest teachings of the Buddha. It
also has a transmission story, which has the Buddha reciting it to his
mother, reborn as a godess, in Tavatimsa Heaven. Unlike the other two
baskets the Pali Abhidhamma does not correspond to anything preserved
in other traditions. There are at least two other versions of
something called "Abhidharma" that arose in other traditions,
including the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma, but these are clearly separate
works and also not a part of the Core-pus. The Theravada Abhidhamma
(which I am engaged in studying right now) is a thorough
systematization of the Buddha's teachings as presented in the Suttas
with regard to the nature of reality and of the mind, but also seems
to add some original detail, For instance, it provides a detailed
accounting of the mechanisms of rebirth, which does not seem to be a
major focus of the Suttas.

(2) The Theravada commentarial corpus. This includes, for instance,
The Path of Purification and other works of Acariya Buddhaghosa. This
corpus, compiled about 800 years after the Buddha, in Sri Lanka in
Pali, is considered by nobody to have originated with the Buddha, but
is claimed to have been based on writings of his early disciples.
Nevertheless, it has something close to scriptural status in the
Theravada school, playing an important role in the current shape of
Theravada Buddhism. The Path of Purification is a meditation manual
and is pretty definitive of Vipassana meditation, though a number of
Theravada meditation teachers, including Ven. Buddhadassa of Thailand,
point out that the Buddha's approach to meditation as presented in the
Suttas is really much less elaborate.

Doctrinally Theravada Buddhism might not be identical to the Buddhism
of the Core-pus, but on the other hand, it never lets the Core-pus out
of its sight. The Suttas and the Vinaya are widely studied, and so the
parallels with the commentary and Abhidhamma are clearly in mind.
Students are instructed in Burma to study with the Suttas (or
Abhidhamma) in one hand and the commentary in the other. This pretty
much ensures that there can be no large unfounded deviation from the
original teachings of the Buddha.

(3) All of what are commonly regarded as Mahayana sutras. These
include the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Flower Ornament Sutra, the
Amitabha Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, Indra's Net
Sutra, and so on. All of these Sutras appear to have been composed in
the early centuries of the Christian era, primarily in India, though
apparently scholars are now discovering that many are of Chinese or
Middle Asian origin. Many of these works are attributed to the Buddha
and often have some of the formal structure of the early Suttas, but
the colorful imagery of the early Suttas, including gods and
supernatural powers, really comes into its own in many of the Mahayana
Sutras. These Sutras introduce a host of characters not found in the
Core-pus, such as the Bodhisattvas Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara,and so
on. They also focus on some themes that are absent or more marginal in
the Core-pus, such as the bodhisattva ideal and compassion,
realization of emptiness as the heart of wisdom, Buddha nature and the
transcendent nature of the Buddha. However, taken as a whole the scope
of the Mahayana Sutras is much narrower than that of the earlier
Suttas; they usually focus on higher stages of wisdom, whereas in the
Core-pus there is a Sutta for virtually any occasion or listener, so
that they cover meditation instruction, ethics, metareligion (such as
how to evaluate religious teachings), care of parents, etc., even the
proper way to hang up robes to dry, in addition to higher wisdom.

(4) All of what are commonly regarded as the Mahayana commentaries
(shastras). This includes works of philosopher-monks such as
Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga, Shantideva, etc. In the Mahayana the
name of Nagarjuna, sometimes called "the Second Buddha," is
particularly prominent, and there are even origin stories for his
teachings, involving special access to secret works from the time of
the Buddha that were preserved by Nagas (dragons) under water (notice
that his name accordingly begins with "Naga"). Commentaries and the
Sutras seem to have been composed throughout the early centuries of
the Christian Era, most scholars agree, by monastics.

Notice I have hedged calling the Sutras and commentaries "Mahayana."
This word was first applied after most of these had been composed, so
after the fact. Rather, there seems to have been a period of free
Buddhist inquiry and debate in northern India in the early centuries
of the Christian Era, roughly that was perhaps comparable to the
intellectual milieu of post-Enlightenment Europe, in which monastic
universities flourished and scholars could examine Buddhist ideas
creatively from a variety of perspectives. Sanskrit became the primary
language of this world. Because Theravada Buddhism developed primarily
in Sri Lanka it was largely cut off from this rich intellectual world.
For a period Sinhalese was its primary language of discourse, then
later Pali.

When the word "Mahayana" was introduced it seemed to have been to
applied to a variety of seemingly orthogonal teachings, including
Emptiness, the Enhanced (almost godly) status of the Buddha, the
bodhisattva ideal in opposition to seeking personal enlightenment,
etc. "Hinayana" was used to refer to schools or monks that do not
accept this variety of teachings. In general the Mahayana never
criticized the Hinayana, or the Core-pus, for being in error, but for
being incomplete. Somehow there seems to have been a long-standing
dissatisfaction with the original teachings that provided a constant
pressure toward a variety of innovations during this very creative
period in northern India. The interesting question is why was that? A
weakness in the Buddha's teachings, a change in the demographics of
the Buddhist community, a need for more devotional practices or a more
colorful mythology? In any case, the Mahayana-Hinayana debate in no
way split the monastic community; as Chinese pilgrims who visited
India during this period testified Mahayana and Hinayana monks lived
side-by-side in the same monasteries perfectly happily, apparently
with a high degree of tolerance for doctrinal diversity.

Now, many of these innovations can be found in the schools called
"Hinayana." For instance, the "Hinayana" Sarvastivadin school seems to
have originated the bodhisattva ideal early on, which was partially
adopted by most schools, including Theravada. On the other hand, the
"Mahayana" focus on Emptiness may have been a reaction to the
Sarvastivadin Abhidharma, which seems to have reintroduced something
like an enduring Self. Theravadins criticize the Sarvastivadins for
this. David Kalupahana argues that Nagarjuna's contribution to
Buddhism was not a new doctrine of emptiness, but a further exposition
of profound teachings that the Buddha first introduced, that his views
were conservative, very much in the spirit of the Core-pus, though his
style of exposition was brilliant. I think Nagarjuna actually never
touched on any of the other "Mahayana" themes, and lived before the
word "Mahayana" was coined.

Proponents of the Mahayana may have simply claimed many of the most
creative thinkers and their works as representing Mahayana after the
fact. But also, notice that all the other Hinayana (non-Mahayana)
schools of Buddhism eventually died out, as Buddhism died out in
India. I suspect that Mahayana simply became the heir of all of the
products of this creative period in norther India. This might explain
why Mahayana is difficult to pinpoint doctrinally. We might say,
Mahayana = Core-pus + Creative Innovations.

(5) The Teachings in China, Tibet and beyond. As Buddhism died out in
India, the scholar and university tradition primarily continued in
Tibet. In China the teachings took on radically different forms,
primarily under the influence of Taoism. For instance, in the Zen
tradition the koan corpus acquired scriptural status, quirky little
stories or dialogs that pointed to higher wisdom, while little direct
reference was made to the teachings of the Suttas, for instance to the
Four Noble Truths. It is very difficult to compare Zen to the Core-pus
point by point for consistency, because its language is quite

Folk Embellishments.

In addition to deliberately composed teachings, there are in every
Buddhist country a lot of folk embellishments to the Buddhism of the
Core-pus, often resulting in a blending of indigenous beliefs with
Buddhism, in a way that locally it becomes difficult to distinguish
the two. It is interesting to observe that in Myanmar: I've reported
in past postings to this blog on a lot of the ways in which anything
of interest to the normal tourist has become a pagoda after some folk
story has lent it special Buddhist significance. Here is another
example of the blending of folk beliefs in this country: The Burmese
cherish their arahants and generally attribute posthumous supernatural
events to them. There is a widespread belief that an arahant can
choose to become a mummy, that is, with no preparation they can choose
not to decay after death, and to thereby remain as a Protector of
Buddhism should the need arise. Somehow I have trouble picturing how
this would actually play out. I have seen such a mummified arahant at
a pagoda near here, and he did not look like he would be very healthy,
or particularly useful, if he arose from death with some noble task in
mind. He would scare a lot of people, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike.
In East Asia there is a lot of blending of Buddhism with ancestor
worship, as well as with Taoism and Confucianism.

Although the direct teaching of the Suttas has largely been displaced
in most of the Mahayana schools by later Sutras, commentaries and
other works, this does not entail that the spirit of the Suttas has
been lost in this transformation. The one part of the Core-pus that is
still widely referenced in almost all Mahayana schools is the Vinaya,
the Books of Discipline, that define the lives of monks and nuns, and
the governance of the Buddhist community. Thus more than the the
Suttas, the Vinaya is the common thread that runs throughout almost
all of Buddhism in Asia. This may at first seem strange, but this is
very important to consider in the West, especially since this text is
virtually unknown in Western Buddhism. The Vinaya was created by the
Buddha as the instrument though which the integrity of the Buddha's
teachings would endure and through which the Buddhism would flourish.
In fact in Theravada Buddhism it is taught that as long as monks and
nuns follow the Vinaya, the Dhamma will take care of itself. The
history of Buddhism seems to bear this out. If this is true, then
those Mahayana traditions that respect and practice the Vinaya can not
be doctrinally too far off base.

I intend to make one final posting to the Theravada/Mahayana Series,
in which I draw conclusions that are hopefully useful to Western
Buddhists for planning their practice lives. Then I will begin a
series called "The Buddha's Teachings on Community," based on the
Vinaya, that often dry and in the West neglected work, that has
nevertheless proved to be critical in the history of Buddhism and that
will be essential for its future growth in the West.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Invitation Day.

The vassa, or rains retreat, ended on the last full moon day, October
3. The tradition as defined by the Buddha is to stay put at a
monastery for three months during the rainy season, rather than to
travel from monastery to monastery. On the last day of the retreat,
is Invitation Day. On virtually every full moon day bhikkhus and
bhikkhunis recite the Precepts, but not on the last day of the rains.
Instead the Buddha set it up so that on that one day each year each
monk invites criticism from every other monk, basically, Where Have I
Failed in My Actions During the Last Year? It is a good idea, but this
has become rather perfunctory in Burma; no one here likes to
criticize anybody else (Can you imagine that?). And in fact, to
perform the ceremony, the eighty monks from Sitagu walked to another
monastery where over four hundred monks convened.

Newly Old.

In the last episode, Bhikkhu Cintita was still pondering the Three
Responses to Old Age. He had rejected the originally favored Hang onto
Your Youth, as foolish and ultimately futile, in favor of Old and
Bitter Despair, which he looked forward to doing With Flair, with a
Penetrating Frown and a Horrifying Glare. Bloggers from around the …
uh … Austin sat at their computer screens saying, "Don't do It,
Bhante, don't become a Bitter Old Man," and "No, Not Bhikkhu Cintita."
As we visit Bhikkhu Cintita today he is imagining How It will Be.
Let's listen in:

I've been practicing my Frown and Glare since I posted my last blog,
and it is working! Wigglet is no longer coming to my door, relieved
instead by the mangiest mongrels of Sagaing, MY kinda dog . By next
month I should be able to peal paint and wilt flowers as I walk by.
Haha. If I have to be a Bitter Old Man, I'm going to do it right. By
next vassa my mere presence will pop meditators right out of Samadhi
into a thicket of unwholesome impulses.

… 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!

And thus does Bhikkhu Cintita reject the Second along with the First
of the Three Responses to Old Age, leaving only the Third, The Middle
Way. … to be continued.

Lao Monk.

I have been helping my friend Ven. Jitamaro in his ambition to become
a missionary in the West. Jitamaro is from Laos, and has been my
primary English student. He comes to practice with me every day, and
has been my assistant in my teaching activities. He is 31 years old,
but has completed 10 vassas. He is interested in contributing to the
development of Buddhism in America, and in learning English more
thoroughly. I am interested in seeing monks like him come to America
to help establish a stronger monastic sangha and to become teachers.
"Like him," means young and personable. I think he could learn to
communicate the Dharma well to Westerners. Anyway, I discovered that
for a monk to come to the USA he needs a Religious Worker (R) visa,
which can be granted if a religious institution (monastery) invites
him to come. He is sending email inquiries to the Lao temples in the
USA we have scared up on the Web, and will then try Thai temples (he
speaks Thai as well), the Vietnamese (he doesn't speak Vietnamese) and
Sri Lankan (… nor Sinhalese).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Postcard from Burma


The monks at Sitagu eat in the dining hall, generally around 5:40am
then again around 10:45. Since our vows do not permit us to eat after
noon, except for certain things considered medicinal, we have to
finish eating our second meal by then. Someone hits a big bell
outside with a mallet to tell us that it is time to eat. Every time
this happens all of the dogs that roam around Sitagu, including
Wigglet, take this as cue to point their chins skyward and howl. From
my room I hear the dogs better than I hear the bell and sometimes
Wigglet is right outside my door.

The monks sit on the floor, actually raised platforms about a foot
above the main floor, around round table, five or six monks to a
table, and the food is place in the middle of the table. Food is
always supposed to be formally offered to monks, so this is done by at
least one monk and one staff member or lay donor lifting the table
together. Once food is offered to one monk it can be shared freely
with any other monks who might come late without additional formality.

Most meals are simply cooked by the Sitagu kitchen staff. Sometimes
the same beans or the same fish dish is served day after day. But
generally about four or five meals each week are offered by donors,
usually a family, I think, or two families, or a group of friends.
This is a big deal for them. They sometimes travel many miles to be
able to make the offering. They wear their fanciest cloths (I assume),
often bring cameras, of course bring food, and sometimes bring other
offerings (last week a group of donors brought new sandals for all the
monks; someone searched out the biggest they had for me, but they were
still way too small). The food is always especially good if provided
by donors, and sometime very good. The overstaffing of the kitchen for
donor meals leads to a lot of turmoil, such that meals take longer to

The donors are always so happy to be there; this is the great merit of
dana. They are very respectful of the monks, very humble and very
attentive. When they are not serving or making themselves useful, they
sit on the lower part of the floor, so that the monks on raised
platforms are above them. Donors are generally astonished to see me,
a big Western monk. Sometimes they take turns posing for pictures next
to me, sometimes a lot of donors at a time all, in anjali (gassho)
paying their respects.


I've gotten some feedback from readers concerning my turning 60. You
might recall that I entertained three approaches to handling this
circumstance: denial, despair, and acceptance. The first is the
American way, the second the way of the multitude, and the third the
Buddhist way. I was kinda leaning toward denial, but my daughter
wrote, "I don't think the skateboard is a good idea. After all, you
are 60." That took the wind out of my sails. I also realized that
denial always slides gradually into depair. So, I've been turning over
in my mind the possible advantages of the second approach, despair. I
would probably make a really great bitter old man. I can do a great
Bodhidharma frown. I'll wager within a short time I could strike 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. What do you think? This would be the last resort
before I need to get serious about (gulp) Buddhist Practice.


Petra, the German lady who has been staying in the Guest House, became
very ill a couple of weeks ago. She had an extremely high fever. Since
there is a Sitagu hospital, medical care was not far away, but they do
not provide all of the services a Western hospital would. For
instance, they do not draw blood and analyze it. So there was no
diagnosis for several days. Petra used to live here for a couple of
years, and was at one time ordained as a nun, and speaks fluent
Burmese, so she had many people, especially nuns, to look after her.
After the fever subsided, but she was still not eating, and feeling
lousy, she was finally diagnosed … with typhoid! Luckily she has
survived, and on the mend. Typhoid is communicated in food and water
under unsanitary conditions. She says she has been eating many places,
including restaurants and nunneries. Sitagu generally has a pretty
good record in the kitchen, though I know they sometimes serve certain
dishes for too many days in a row, which results in stomach
complaints. This reminds one that infectious diseases are very common
here. I had a bunch of vaccinations before I left home, including for
typhoid. But it makes me even more cautious about what I eat.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bhikkhu Cintita Joins the Ranks of the Newly Old

On September 27 I will turn 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," which in my case arose many years ago complete
with many wonderful unchanging characteristics. So it is not
surprising that that Self is someone much younger than me. The
landmark event of turning 60 puts me once again face to face with that
unchanging youthful Self, and gives me three choices:

One, I can 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
without depending on Youth Hostels. My health is excellent, except
when I'm sick or pulled a muscle. I can always grow my lush head of
hair back (I think; I haven't actually checked for a while). 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 buy me a skateboard when I get back to the States,
and what I think they call a "Walkman" so I can listen to the latest
disko music. Monks don't have hats to speak up that they could wear
backwards, but maybe I'll express my youthful rebellion by wearing my
robe over my RIGHT shoulder.

Two, I can 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 next to the elevator. I might even try to organize
something to do about it, like a protest. Or I might just quietly
experience the despair.

Three, I can regard this situation as a good practice opportunity.
This is the Buddhist Way! It goes something like this:

If I am not this unchanging youthful Self, then who is this 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 morphing of the whole universe 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 here told me he thought I was already 70! That
suddenly breathed new life into option (1). If you see someone zipping
around Austin on a skateboard wearing full burgundy robes next spring,
that will be me.

As a Buddhist monk I take on a large set of vows which if followed
scrupulously give very little opportunity to feed a Self. They don't
guarantee that I won't entertain a Self secretly, and they allow for
the basic requirements for well-being of the body and mind that the
Self also sometimes wants, but they divert almost all of my life's
time and energy to purposes other than keeping a Self alive. This has
two benefits. First, protecting or enhancing that Self is always a
losing battle. That becomes easier to see as I become older; it will
all end up in the rubbish bin. Second, a self is insatiable. It could
easily drain all my life's time and energy, and leave no room for
worthy projects. There is an enormous sense of liberation that comes
with monastic vows, there really is. (Not that all monks experience
this: the vows Don't Mean a Thing if You Don't Have that Swing.)

So what are my selfless worthy projects? More than ever I intend to
devote my remaining years to the cultivation and flourishing of
American Buddhism. I say, "more than ever," because I am enormously
inspired by what I see of Buddhism here in Burma, and at a distance
dismayed at what I know of the spiritual state of my own country. I
also have great fears about the direction of Western Buddhism in
America, much of which has become a form of New Age Feel-Goodism. It
will take selfless wisdom, energy and patience, on the part of
countless dedicated disciples of the Buddha to see Buddhism firmly
planted in American soil. But Burma has taught me it can be done and
shown what a difference it makes when it is done. That is where my
heart is as I join the ranks of the newly old.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Postcard from Burma

"The Alley"

The Guest House where I live is situated along the South side of the Sitagu grounds, actually just outside the monastery fence, but inside an outer wall that also encloses within its perimeter housing for staff, a small lumber yard, and other infrastructure facilities. Behind the Guest House, in the direction my back door faces, and on the other side of Sitagu's outer wall, is a narrow street, more of an alley, on the other side of which are nothing but more monasteries and nunneries.

Most of the traffic on the alley is monks and nuns. A large group of about fifty novices heads west each morning after daybreak with their robes covering both shoulders, and with alms bowls in hand, single file walking silently without looking from side to side (except for the very young monks, who can't help it; some of the novices look to be as young as six or seven years old). Then this group returns a couple of hours later, looking just the same, but this time walking east.

There are more novices in Myanmar than there are fully ordained monks. One incentive for becoming a novice is education. It seems that most of the education in this country is supported by the Buddhist temples, usually the construction of schools and hiring of teachers is spearheaded by monks. Schools are often few and far between, so they often end up providing kids with a place to sleep and try to work out a way to feed them. Essentially the schools become monasteries. There is a school of this kind very near here that supports about 100 boys.

Nuns, who do not seem to do alms rounds (they follow a different set of precepts), traverse the alley frequently. They are very colorful, generally wearing an orange skirt and a clashing pink robe with sleeves over that, and a small brown robe folded into a banner over the left shoulder. They usually travel in a group in which all nuns typically wear identical hats or carry identical umbrellas.

The lay traffic in the alley consists of a woman who each day carries a very large tray of snacky foods for sale, who shouts in to announce her wares as she walks; cows; some cars and horse carriages that often have trouble getting through the alley if the cows don't feel like moving. Often lay people walk or ride motor bikes up the alley, and then go into one of the monasteries or nunneries.

The alley is recently paved; I am told was dirt until the mother of an American nun who was visiting her daughter at one of the nunneries here offered to make a donation to pave the alley. The alley was the site of a tragedy a couple of years ago: That year Sagaing was drenched with rain and the Sitagu Academy was flooded in a heavy storm. The double walls all around the Academy acted as a damn and water build up against the wall on the south side. Suddenly the wall gave way releasing the water into the alley as an instant river. A nine-year-old nun was drowned; they found her in a tree.

A few days ago one of the nunneries right across the alley began a recitation of the Pattana, the last book of the Abhidhamma, the third basket of the Pali scriptures. The Abhidhamma is very intensively studied in Myanmar; I read recently that Burma has been the center of Abhidhamma studies in the Theravada tradition since the Fifteenth Century. The recitation of its final book takes about five days and nights without break. I know about this because the recitation was piped through one of Burma's ubiquitous loudspeakers. I think the nun who was in charge of the volume control must have been in a Heavy Metal band before she was a nun, because in this case it was especially loud. I think they started at 3am, a few mornings ago because that is when I was awakened. I needed to wear earplugs every night during the recitation in order to sleep. The recitation is one continuous voice, but with a new voice swapped in every hour or so, day and night.  It is inspiring to hear them work their way through the very long text, hour by hour, day by day without stopping. The way the Burmese intone a Pali texts can be very beautiful, but the skill and experience of the various nuns varied a lot.

Unfortunately I still can understand almost no word of Pali as they pronounce it in Burma, so the content of such recitation is lost on me. I've downloaded some chanting in Pali from Thailand and other countries, and I understand many words just fine. Listening to many people use Pali words here, I've come to realize that no original Pali sound is preserved in Burmese Pali if that sound does not also occur in Burmese. Imagine trying to speak French using only sounds found in American English ("Gee Swee Enchant-ee Madam-moyzul"). Then in addition many of the original Pali sounds that do occur in Burmese are changed anyway. I'm trying to do Pali "the right way," for instance, making a double-length aspirated cerebral voiceless stop involves basically tying your tongue into a knot, keeping it there for a moment, untying it then putting a little puff of air after it, where the Burmese just say "tuh." The Burmese have made Pali entirely their own. They have another word for the Pali they hear Sri Lankans and Thais, and presumably me, use: Sanskrit.


"Bhikkhu Cintita's Plans"

I have not forgotten the "Mahayana and Theravada" series of blog postings. I've been writing a piece about doctrinal differences, and what that means for one's faith, but have revised it a couple of times. Now that I have continual use of a computer I should make some progress. That will be the last posting in that series, number four.

I thereafter plan to begin a series on "The Buddha's Teachings on Community." This is the primary topic of the Vinaya, the first basket of the early scriptures. For the Buddha this topic was as important as, or maybe more important than, such things as the Four Noble Truths or the teaching of no self, and yet his teachings in this area are all but ignored in the West (and then we wonder that our Buddhist communities are not a little more harmonious). Before I came to Myanmar my first priority for study was the Vinaya. I've now read virtually the whole thing and several commentaries.  I don't recommend each of you do this (it's not easy going), so I thought I would summarize what I've discovered for the readers of my blog.

I plan to continue my studies here until the end of the term, to return to Austin the first week of March, in about six months time. But I will not be leaving Sitagu at that time, just moving the Austin branch.

Bhikkhu Cintita

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Another Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

(Think of these postcards as very big, or as the writing on them as very small.)

Wigglet is in heat. I've described Wigglet is "my dog," though she now bounces between my place and that of Petra, the German woman who is living in the guesthouse about ten apartments down. It turns out that Petra and Wigglet have known each other for years. Wigglet is a smart dog: she knows to hang out with the Westerners, who all like dogs. She was Venerable Sopaka's dog after Petra's previous tenure (U Sopaka is the American bhikkhu who moved down to Sitagu-Yangon just as I moved in here). Anyway, we will probably see a lot of drama around the Guest House in the coming days. The male dogs are starting to hang out in masses. Often when I open my back door, where Wigglet never goes, there is a dog on the other side. I sympathize with the male dogs: they are all so miserable, and Wigglet keeps chasing them off. I can tell they are going through the total range of emotions that human males go through in corresponding circumstances.

Observing the male dogs is a good reminder for me of why one becomes a monk (or nun), that is undertakes a life of renunciation. Buddhism is to look from outside the box, then to think, "This is crazy. Why do people make themselves and others so miserable?"  There is joy outside the box and  much more opportunity to benefit others. Ajahn Tate writes that teaching the Dhamma is nothing more than pointing out the afflictions and flaws of worldly life.

One of the ironic things I've discovered in Myanmar is that often the quality of manufactured wares is better here than in America. Myanmar is a very poor country,  Africa-poor according to the statistics, so people in general do not own much. However, people do use razor blades (especially monks), flashlights, clothing, and sometimes even little motor bikes. For probably a very small part of the population there are cars and cell-phones. (At the Sitagu Academy we seem to have a lot of computers.)  All of my clothing is manufactured either in Myanmar or Thailand; it is Theravada monks' clothing; I don't even own a pair of pants anymore. But most manufactured goods now come from China, or less often Thailand, much as in the USA. What surprises me often, though, is the availability of good quality.

Everybody here seems to use rechargeable LED flashlights. LED lighting does not seem to have caught on in the USA. Scott, a member of our original pilgrimage team to Myanmar, who is a lighting technician for movie sets, commented that LED lighting is very expensive in the USA. I have a rechargeable LED flashlight that I bought before I ordained for 25000 Kyat ($2.50) for use when the electricity goes out. It works great. It plugs into a wall outlet to recharge. I think it might even recharge with American electricity; I may bring it back.

 In my last few years in the USA I was working out ways to have as small a consumer footprint as possible. This is a good practice, not only for monks and nuns but for all Buddhists. I no longer owned a car or a house, so I was dealing on the level of things like razor blades. In the USA razor blade technology has made great strides, now offering many high-tech options at high-tech prices, such as three parallel blades encased in a plastic housing. It occurred to me that in my younger days shaving was relatively inexpensive. In an economy that grows primarily through the growth in inefficiency, finding a more labor- or resource-intensive way to do whatever it was you were already doing before, this is hardly surprising. In fact the most economical solution would seem to be the old Schick double-edged blade. The blade must be easy to manufacture, since no assembly is needed. Also you have two blades in one, like the double-edged sword that allowed you in days of olde to fight a much longer battle before your weapon became dull. And when both edges become dull you flip it over for additional mileage. I began experiencing nostalgia for my old double edged razor. After I discovered that you could buy double edge blades at CVS, but not the full razor, a fellow Zen priest, Korin Anita, found me an antique razor on e-bay, and I was in business. Although I found that I cut myself more often with the CVS double edge blades than with the high-tech alternatives  the extreme cost differential induced me to stick with the double edge, and before I came to Myanmar I stocked up on CVS double-edged blades.

Now, in an economy like Myanmar's that has yet to grow into inefficiency one would expect that the optimal solution to the razor blade question would be widely recognized and practiced. And indeed, everyone uses double-edged razors, with blades of exactly the size that fits into my antique razor. In fact, a common offering people make to monks is double-edged razor blades; all monks use the same kind. In America, I've noticed, people offer monks disposable razors, because there is no telling what kind of razor the monk might possess. As a result, my supply of double-edged razor blades has steady grown since I've been in Myanmar.

This is a long story, but now I get to the point: The razor blades in Myanmar are much better than the CVS blades I bought in the USA! I almost never cut myself. In fact I now enjoy a closer, smoother and more comfortable shave with less loss of blood than I used to with