Monday, March 16, 2009

Wearing the Robes

Our group has been doing some more traveling, me sporting my new robes, before most of us (not me) return to the USA on March 20.

The monks' robes carry a deep symbolic significance in Burma. People pay respect through bowing, often three times all the way floor, and these are often complete strangers acting quite spontaneously. Burmese people are well-informed about the lifestyle and rules of etiquette around monks, for instance, what monks are allowed to eat when, and how things, especially food, are properly offered. For me it is for me a lesson in what it must be like to be famous: I can't just go out for a stroll without anticipating interactions that I otherwise would not have. Readers who know me will not have missed that I am by nature reclusive, so this is a challenge for me, and at the same time a profound responsibility.

Then, being a Wester monk seems to carry an additional charge. Any Westerner is exotic here, but a Western monk elicits particular interest, usually starting with a double-take. People seem to appreciate that a Westerner would embrace something so dear to the Burmese culture as I have. I think many Asians are somewhat in awe of Westerners in general (probably for all the wrong reasons) and this is probably all the more so in a country that is so far from achieving First-World status as Burma is. I imaging Western monastics must be seen as a striking and very full endorsement of the predominant Burmese faith.

The proper mindset for the monastic is always to remember that he or she is only plaster that happens to have assumed the shape of the Buddha. I'm sure the Burmese are quite aware of this, given their tradition of temporary ordination and the close personal connection everyone has with monastics, often as family members. It's particularly easy for me to feel like a lump of plaster as I struggle with learning to wear the robes, learning the etiquette, and learning the Pali chants that I've heard six-year-old children recite by heart. Much of what I've learned through Zen practice simply does not carry over. It's very awkward, but the awkwardness is not unexpected or new, reminding me of the beginning of my tenure at Tassajara.

Mostly I am pleased as I could be with the step I've taken. One of the Burmese monks with good English, U Suntara, aked what felt different to me after ordination. I replied, "I know what I am!" He seemed to understand and be pleased with my answer, but after thinking about it, I realized it does not quite get to the heart of it:

A monastic is someone who makes a choice, a choice that few others see clearly they have the freedom to make. That choice is what the shape of his or her life will be. Specifically for the Buddhist monastic it is the choice to live, as a matter of vow, as if the Buddha's teachings were true. This is the mold that gives the plaster a recognizable shape. The value of exercising the freedom to live a life of vow was something I learned through years of Zen practice and through my reading of Dogen, that I was reenacting here in Burma.

What is different after ordination is that now for the first time more than a few others, in fact an entire culture, recognizes the shape of my life. So, it's not so much that I know what I am --- I've chosen to be it, after all --- but that others know who I am. Not only that, but through their expressions of respect for the robes they show that they fully endorse my faith in this way of life. My gratitude for receiving this kind of support is boundless.

U Chintita

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bhante Cindita

Theravada ordination happens in two stages: (1) novice ordination, (2) higher ordination. Most typically novice ordination is undertaken by youngsters under the age of 20 and full ordination occurs at the age of 20. However after the age of 20 (like me) both can happen in quick succession, at least in the Burmese connection.
Novice ordination involves shaving the head, donning the robes and taking the refuges and ten precepts. It requires only one monk to perform. Since full ordination for nuns died out in Theravada countries, novice ordination is the only option available for nuns in Burma, at any age. At the last minute it was decided that I should take novice ordination on the day before my full ordination was scheduled, in order to simplify a very busy March 10. A small ceremony was planned with Wendy and Aung Ko or our itinerant group in attendence along with two donors and U Lokanattha (from Jamaica), and with U Ariyadhamma giving the Precepts. We went outside to a large community outdoor bathing facility, basically a well-like structure common in Burma, where I got my hair wet and let U Loka shave my head. Of course, I have been shaving my head since April, 2003, when I ordained in Zen, but I had let my hair, or what was left of it, grow for about 3 weeks for just this occassion. The procedure attracted many curious Burmese of all ages, who were of course quite familiar with the procedure, but not so much with the nationality of the main participant. Back inside U Loka helped me put on the lower and upper robes in a side room after U Ariya had ceremonially offered them to me. In the main room the refuges and Precepts were administered in Pali. Tradition requires that this be pronounced precisely. Luckily I and a few others had been studying Pali with Bhante Sumedha back in Austin, but still U Ariya had to correct me a few times, then made me say them in Burmese pronunciation of Pali to boot.
After novice ordination we reported to Sitagu Sayadaw, who would be my preceptor the next day, with me sporting my new burgundy outfit, just like U's Loka and Ariya, as well as Sayadaw. At this time Sayadaw came up with my name as follows: He asked me how long I had been thinking about this reordination. I answered, "For about four years." Then he said, "Usually if someone has a little name they do great things. If they have a big name they do little things." Then he pondered and came up with "Cindita," pronounced "Chin Dee Teh" in regular Pali or "Say Dee Tuh" in Burmese Pali. He says this means, "Great Thinker," sub subsequent research indicates that it means "One who has thought it through." So now approprate things to call me are: "U Cindita" or "Ashin Cindita" (both common forms in Burma), or Bhante Cindita or Venerable Cindita (which mean the same thing), or "Cindita Bhikkhu" or "Hey you, with the peculiar garb." My kids have permission to call me either "Daddy Cindita" or "Ol' Cindita."
I felt like Lawrence of Arabia that evening, testing out my new clothing, except tht mine is much more primative, much like waring a beach blanket in public ... all the time ... forever. Apparently such fasteners as buttons, straps, zippers and velcro just didn't exist at the time of the Buddha, so the outfit stays on more by willpower. In the evening a Burmese family came to the room I share with Aung Ko and immeditately did full prostrations when I walked in. I discovered what it feels like to be a Buddha statue: just plaster but the recipient of so much reverence.
Full ordination involves acceptance into a sangha, a group of at least five monks. (In Theravada "sangha" always specifically refers to a monastic community), after examination of qualifications, and then instruction in the basic parameters of one's vows. One's "instructor" does most of the talking and presents the candidate to the preceptor and sangha. The candidate takes on a set of 227 vows, though only the first four, those that can get you permanently kicked out of the sangha, are explicitly mentioned. My higher ordination was at 7 AM, March 10. Many people had mentioned that this timing was auspicious: It was a full-moon day; it was Sitigu Sayadaw's birthday, and it was the first ordination held in the newly built and magnificent conference center and ordination hall at SIBA. Sitagu Sayadaw acted as preceptor, Ashin Ariyadhamma as instructor, a group of about 110 monks including the students of SIBA as the sangha, and Cinitita in the role of "The Candidate." Also about 30 lay people were present, including all of the Americans and the Burmese in our pilgimage group. I hope that pictures will be availalble on or through this blog after my fell pilgims return Austin on March 20.
Bhante Cindita

Monday, March 9, 2009

Big Theravada Conference

March 5-8 I attended the 2nd conference of the Association of Theravada Buddhist Universities here at SIBA in Sagaing Hills. This was very much like many of the academic conferences I used to attend in the United States is format and feeling, bringing together a huge international set of scholars for general sessions and simultaneous panel sessions an a variety of topics.

There were hundreds of participants, perhaps 60% of which were scholar-monks and nuns, and 40% lay people. Many participants, both lay and monastic were professors or advanced graduate students. Countries represented, in approximate descending order of number of participants, were Manmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, India, Napal, Laos, USA, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malasia, Australia, Uganda and Mexico. From the USA were Burmese monks and our group from Sitagu-affiliated centers, and the famous Bhante G. (Gunaratana, author of Mindfulness in Plain English; I've been a big fan for a long time). There were also a couple of Mahayana monks. Everyone was interested to meet a monk from Uganda, the only one. People are also very interested in Buddhism in the other frontiers of Buddhism, the USA and Mexico.

Topics for lecture included scriptural teachings (pariyatti), practice (patipatti), Engaged Buddhism, monsticism, current development of Theravada, and current Pali literatures. All talks were in English, except for the sessions on Pali literature, which were in Pali. One of my tasks over the next year is to master Pali, but I see I am just starting. One of the things I've discovered is that the Burmese have their own pronunciation of Pali (e.g., sadhu becomes thadu, with English-like "th," paccaya becomes pissiya, etc.). But I learned during the conference that while the Burmese call their version of Pali "Pali," they call the standard pronunciation, found for instance in Thailand and Sri Lanka "Sanskrit"! I'm not sure what they call Sanskrit.

An Indian scholar gave a talk on the role of Vipassana (Insight) meditation in Theravada. He declared it the heart of Theravada Buddhism, and stated that the Buddha's primary contribution in the area of insight or wisdom is the recognition that mere intellectual understanding of the nature of reality does not suffice, that one must go beyond conceptualisation and meet reality at the level of direct experience. This sounds exactly like Zen to me.

Bhante G. gave practical talk about Buddhism in the USA. He came to the USA in 1968 (from Sri Lanka) and has founded the Bhavana Society, so spoke directly from experience. Some asked him how he sees the future of Buddhism in the USA. He said he thought the future looked "very bright," pointing out how many Buddhist groups are sprouting almost everywhere. But, he warned, that there is a lack of teachers and as a result a lot of misinterpretation of Buddhism. He said this is a very dangerous thing, comparing it to grabbing a snake by the wrong end. I had an opportunity to have a long talk with him yesterday morning. He was very encouraging of my intentions here.

The conference also incorporated a lot of pomp and circumstance (the prime minister of Myanmar was here for the opening ceremony, for instance) and entertainment. The "cultural program" included chanting from Myanmar, chanting and dancing from Nepal, and music and dancing from Thailand. A group of about 20 young performers from a Buddhist university took a bus from north Thailand to come here. Their music was an interesting blend of traditional Thai and modern elements, for instance with very strange looking electric "guitars" and various percusion instruments, bamboo flutes, etc. The dancing, all be women, seemed completely traditional, very slow and graceful, moving in unison. The Thai's were a huge hit. Many normally constrained monks, many with cameras, seemed to take a lot of interest in the female dancers. (sigh.)

My ordination is set for tomorrow morning. After that, our group will make a final trip, to Rangoon and the Mailay peninsula, bringing me back here to SIBA about March 20.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

English Lessons

The upcoming conference of the International Association of Theravada Buddhist Universities is almost underway here in Sagaing Hills. Many of the about three hundred visitors are beginning to arrive. Bhante Gunaratana of the Bhavana Society and author of Mindfulness in Plain English arrived yesterday. Originally only about 100 delegates were expected, preparations have gotten very busy. My ordination date has changed til after the conference, to the morning of March 10 here or the evening of March 9 in real (Texas) time.
The conference is almost entirely in English, except for a smaller Pali language session. Some of the senior monks at Sitagu are busy preparing and rehearsing their talks, which for many is quite challenging. Many have much difficulty with pronunciation, even though the vocabulary is there, so I have been helping some of them to prepare. Although English is widely taught here, and Burma is a former British colony, few Burmese have contact with native speakers of English or with foreigners in general. I noticed in our travels to smaller villages that most Burmese have never even seen a foreigner outside of TV or movies. This made the native American component of our party very exotic indeed. It was interesting to be stared at so much, expecially by kids who would crowd around our car when we stopped and press their noses right up against the windows, then get very excited if we so much as waved, or if one of our party took their picture.
I intend to offer a course focussing on the pronunciation of English as Sitagu. Sitagu Academy is supposed to be English-language speaking, but I understand that I will have to try to learn more Burmese than I intended to be able to communicate with people here. I was helping one of the monks whose rehearsal presentation I had attended without understanding more than a few words. While we were re-rehearsing I asked him who was currently teaching English at Sitagu. He answered that he was! People, kids and monks, are very eager to learn English or anything else, and work very diligently. So teaching English here should be a rewarding experience.
One of our party, Scott Conn, has returned to Austin already. If he has not done so already, he intends to post some pictures to this blog so that you can see what it looks like around here.