Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Two Sides to Any Story

Sitagu International Buddhist Academy is square, with a 620-foot wall running along each of the four sides. I live in the Guest House, which runs the entire length of the South wall, just on the outside of the monastery proper. The Guest House has 32 rooms, all in a long row, used mostly for lay guests. For instance, a very old and eminent sayadaw died in Sagaing recently and people from out of town came and stayed in the Guest House. Two monks are situated long-term in the Guest House: me and U Issariya, at opposite ends. Most monks live in 'hostles," a few people to a room, within the monastery walls. I was accorded a room in the Guest House, maybe because I am a Westerner, the only one at SIBA at this time, and maybe because I am older than most of the other monks. Living here is a consideration, because it has a modern flush toilet. I've used squat toilets, but not easily. I do, however, share my quarters with a family of gekkos and sometimes a dog.

My appartment is three rooms, including a bathroom. I use one room to meet with students and one to sleep  in. The latter originally had two beds, but U Issariya, I and a woman staff member, disassembled one and stored it in the corner of the meeting room to give me sitting space in the bedroom. The meeting room has two doors to the outside, one in the front to a 620-foot balcony, and one in the back. I can get a breeze through this room by opening both doors, at which point "my" dog Wigglet often comes in and lies on the fllor. If it gets too hot I can close up and flick on an A/C in the bedroom, if there happens to be electricity.

I use a seven-foot two-by-two, part of the dissassembled bed, to prop open the rear door. The Guest House is built on piers, rather high at my end, and outside the back door is a narrow conrete staircase leading down to shrub and grass and often cows. Often I throw mango rinds out the back, left over from what my kappiyas bring every week, and seem to have encouraged a gopher to take residence right below my door, or some kind of rodent. I have to take care when I set the two-by-two prop to the side lest it fall through the door. One day this is exactly what happened. It summersaulted down the stairs with an awful clatter and came to rest at the bottom, so I climbed down and dragged it back up.

Also outside the main monastery wall, along the West side, is housing for lay staff, and the kitchen. The children of staff play on both sides of the monastery wall. Actually there are many people about, only a small fraction of which seem to be employed by SIBA. There are often strange people lounging about, or engaged in various forms of work. I see older women collecting large wide branches that fall, or are about to fall, from trees, bundle them up and carry them off, balanced on their heads. The children and some monks are continuously involved in gathering mangoes and coconuts from the trees for the kitchen. People often burn rubbish. Often someone will be tending cattle, often mooing right outside my appartment. Dogs are always yapping and geese and chickens run around.

One day a man, about fortyish, was sitting on a log directly under my appartment; who he was and for what reason he was there I have no idea, but this is common. Suddenly he was startled by the loud noise of wood against concrete, not fiteeen feet away. Someone had thrown a heavy piece of wood out the back door of the Guest House. Apparently the intent was not to discard it, because steps followed the piece of wood down the stairs. The  lower burgundy hem of a monk's robe appeared from above. Monks usually do not throw heavy objects down stairs. But this was not an ordinary monk; this was a giant! And pale as a goose! As I picked up the door prop I happened to glance up and see the kind of expression only Steve McCurry or someone like that can capture on camera: eyes like dinner plates, a jaw wide open, and a body ready to bolt.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Some pictures of me in my red Theravadan robe

I no longer look like that guy with the cat.

Here I am sitting under a bohdi tree.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mahayana/Theravada III: The Great Schism

Mahayana/Theravada III: The Great Schism.


The Buddha was very concerned with schism in the sangha. He defined schism very clearly, warned about its arising in no uncertain terms, and put many policies and procedure in place to avoid. The sangha here is understood as the community of monks and nuns, and the Buddha is reported to have averted a serious attempt at schism on the part of his cousin Devadatta, who had ambitions for leadership of the sangha.


Many accounts of the Mahayana trace its origins to a schism in the sangha reported to have occurred around 100 years after the death of the Buddha. The assumption is common that Theravada and Mahayana therefore have had irreconcilable differences ever since. I would like to show here that there probably never was an historic schism that separated Mahayana from Theravada or any of the other "Hinayana" schools, and to caution that assuming that there was might effectively induce one.


The great schism of about 350 BC reportedly resulted in a group of monks called the Mahasanghika walking out of the Second Buddhist Council and forming their own order, by some reports for reasons of doctrine and by others for reasons of discipline. Doctrine here means Dharma/Dhamma and discipline means Vinaya, principles of conduct for the monastic community. In fact, from the period 350 BC to 100 BC (I'm looking at a book here by Nalinaksha Dutt, Buddhist Sects in India), there seems to have been three principle factions of Buddhism, a forerunner of Theravada, the Sarvastivadins and the Mahasanghika, along with many minor ones. These three sects seemed to have doctrinal differences, but also influenced each other. For instance, the Theravadins and the Sarvastivadins composed competing Abhidharmas during this period. Dutt reports that the idea of the Bodhisattva first arose in the Sarvastivadin school during this period, as something that had particular appeal lay practitioners, then spread to the other two schools. Apparently most of the Jataka stories found in the Pali Canon were in fact composed by Sarvastivadin authors to illustrate the ideal of the Bodhisattva, then incorporated by the Theravadins into the Pali scriptures. The Mahasanghika advocated a higher status for the Buddha than that of a mere omniscient, psychically powerful human. However, Dutt considers all of these schools to be Hinayana.


Mahayana apparently developed centuries later in India and its exact connection to any of these schools is obscure. The bodhisattva ideal (Sarvastivadin) became a central feature of the Mahayana, but at the same time the equally important emphasis of the Mahayana on emptiness and the perils of conceptual thinking is considered by some scholars to have developed in direct opposition to the radical Sarvastivadin idea that gave the school its name, the idea that things in fact exist. The Mahayana produced, or later claimed for itself, a line of  brilliant and creative thinkers, and a very rich mythology, populated by such figures as Avalokiteshvara (Guan Yin), Manjushri and Samantabhadra.


When considering doctrinal variation in Buddhism, we can ask, "Is it true?" or "Did the Buddha say (something like) that?" But before we do that, we might ask, "Does it matter?" I'm not convinced, for instance, that belief in a transcendental Buddha either brings one closer or brings one further away from liberation. However, the question here is, "Are the doctrinal differences between the Mahayana and non-Mahayana schools great enough to cause a schism?"

Apparently not: Chinese pilgrims traveled to India in the Fourth to Sixth Centuries AD. These were Mahayana monks who knew that they might encounter "Hinayana" Buddhists in their travels. To their great surprise they found Mahayana monks living in the same monasteries, eating the same food, with Theravada monks, sacrificing no harmony over doctrinal matters. They lived like modern roommates one of whom reads mysteries and one of whom reads science fiction. It is not something one fights over.


The pilgrims returned to China, Buddhism eventually died out in India, Theravada Buddhism came to dominate the South of Asia, Mahayana thrived in the North, and for many centuries there was little opportunity for contact. However, this geographical dispersal of the schools of Buddhism was never, as far as I can see, the result of a schism in the sangha. It is more like a family separated for many generations through immigration, now divided even by language, but now reunited. Or maybe like a family reunited, but now with a lingering rumor of an ancient family feud. What will its future be?

We have not one, but two strong traditions each of which preserves essence of the Buddha's tradition (sometimes in its own way). That's great: we have someone we can swap leisure-time reading with.



Friday, July 17, 2009

Mahayana/Theravada II: The Pa Auk Tawya Encounter

Theravada/Mahayana II: The Pa Auk Tawya Encounter


This Spring I spent almost two months at the Pa Auk Tawya meditation center in Mon State, with about four hundred other monks. This is, of course, a Theravada monastery, and it has a very famous Burmese abbot, who teaches a particular and very systematic method of Vipassana meditation based on the commentaries of Buddagossa, The Path of Purification. It was a good opportunity for me to consider the differences between this style and the radically unsystematic (Mahayana) Soto Zen style of meditation I grew up on. Also significant was the great number of monks from Mahayana traditions, probably about forty or fifty, who had traveled to Myanmar to practice meditation at this Theravada center.


The first thing that struck me about the Mahayana monks is that they looked just like me in a previous life, about two weeks earlier. Well, not just like me: They were primarily from Korea, with some from China and Taiwan. Interestingly there were also ordained Theravada monks from traditionally Mahayana countries, like Korea and Taiwan, and also one from Japan. But it was interesting to discover in me a kind of identification with Mahayana that I did not know was there. What reminded me of "my kind of people" is the deportment and attire of the Mahayana monks.


Mahayana clothing evolved in China as layers of clothing were added underneath the traditional Indian clothing, and then the traditional robe on top as abbreviated. Theravada represents something closer to the Buddha's tradition, consisting of the triangular lower and upper robes, and generally nothing else. Different Theravada countries now wear robes of the same size, but differing color, and seem to have only one style in common of the many ways the upper robe may be worn. I understand that scholars really are not entirely certain how the upper robe was worn in the Buddha's day, nor how big it was. Apparently, though, it was smaller than it is now, so maybe the Mahayana upper robe is not so great an abberation.


The Mahayana monks, on the other hand, enjoy the many benefits of sleeves! The most commonly worn Mahayana robe is like a large bathrobe. In the early days of Austin Zen Center Flint Sparks was the first to begin wearing a robe to early morning zazen; I thought that because of the early hour he had become to lazy to get properly dressed in the morning. None of the Mahayana monks at PAT had the voluminous sleeves that the Japanese seem to prefer however.


Most of the Mahayana monks had some smaller version of the Theravada upper robe, worn over the left shoulder and under the right, but hanging very smoothly and evenly with little overlap and no slippage. (Japanese Soto has managed to put the slippage back into robe wearing.) Most Mahayana monks generally dispensed with this robe altogether except on formal occasions and some did not seem to possess such a garment at all. Many were also wore monastic work clothing, something like the Japanese samu-e, or like a karate outfit, and some even wore t-shirts, into the meditation hall. I am sure that this seemed quite inappropriate to the Theravada monks (who uphold the tradition in their own very casual way, wearing their robes only in a technical sense as the weather became very hot), and even to me with my Zen training which included Dogen's instructions always to wear Buddha's robe into the zendo.


The Mahayana monks, I notice, uniformly sit with a very deliberate posture in the meditation hall, just as the Zennies in the States learn: They sit with their butts on raised cushions, very erect, generally in full or half lotus. Their erect posture also carries them outside of the meditation hall with a certain kind of dignity. The Theravadins, on the other hand, tend to sit any way they want, on very thin mats. Many of the older Theravada monks seem to have habituated a lopsided posture, that the younger monks are just in the early stages of developing. In Zen, of course, posture is everything.


As an aside, it has struck me how much Burmese nuns' attire resembles that of Mahayana monks. Burmese nuns are not fully ordained bhikkhunis, they actually take only eight precepts. This does not seem to entail any less dedication to the Buddha's Way, but it means that they are free of many obligations described for bhikkhunis in the Vinaya, including what to wear. Modesty is the norm for women in Myanmar, and much more so for nuns. So nuns are always well covered, wear robes with sleeves and wear the upper robe more ornamentally than as functional clothing.


In both Mahayana and Theravada traditions seniority is generally associated with ordination date. The Theravadins are particularly clear about this, as was the Buddha, in seating for ceremonies, in walking with a group on alms rounds and so on. (I am still the baby monk at Sitagu, though my physical age and my exoticness seem generally to give me a degree of undeserved status.) Now, it is very common, I have discovered, for Theravadins to question the validity of the Mahayana ordination. I don't know what the basis of this is; Mahayana monks never, as far as I know, question the validity of Theravada ordination. In every Mahayana country except Japan, and a bit in Korea, monastics undertake the rules of the Vinaya, like Theravada monks, with varying degrees of success, like Theravada monks. Maybe the Mahayana monks just don't look like professionals in Theravada eyes for reasons described above. Anyway, it is interesting how Pa Auk Tawya deals with this mixed set of monks for alms rounds: First, they put foreign monks and Burmese monks in separate blocks, and allow the foreign block to precede the domestic. Since there are no domestic Mahayana monks, this seems graciously to honor the Mahayana monks. However, this is a slight of hand: Within the foreign block they order all Theravada bhikkhus first, by ordination date (putting me at the end of this group, for instance), then all Theravada novices (I was actually followed by an elderly Korean Theravada novice; he apparently did not want to take all 227 precepts), and finally by Mahayana monks from the most senior to the most junior.


In the end, at Pa Auk Tawya is a large group of monks, differentiated in various ways but living together and sharing a deep dedication to the practice of liberation.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009


The following link will take you to some pictures from the Burma pilgrimage. Scott, who took the pictures, may already have posted them to the blog, in which case I apologize for the second posting.


Notice, that although Scott uses my new name (U Cintita) in the captions, he in fact returned to Texas before I acquired that name. That is why I am not wearing burgundy robes in any of the pictures. However, Scott is a great photographer and has included some wonderful shots that represent Buddhist Myanmar quite well. Enjoy these.