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