Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Uposatha Dhamma

By bhikkhucintita

Uposatha, a Pali word, is often translated as “Sabbath.” In Buddhist lands this traditionally follows the phases of the moon such that every time the moon is either full, empty (new), or half way in between (first or last quarter) we get an uposatha day. That is pretty cool in itself, but wait til you hear what Uposatha days are for! Anyway, they are generally seven days apart but sometimes six or eight.

Uposatha days are normally in Asia times for special Buddhist observances. Lay people will often spend the day at a monastery communing with monks or nuns, meditating, chanting,generally listening to a Dharma talk, offering to the Buddha or to the Sangha, and will also take eight or so monastic-style precepts for the day. Monks and nuns recite the Patimokkha every other Uposatha day, on full and new moon days, the hundreds of rules that they follow every day. This is pretty cool, but wait til you hear what you get to do on Uposatha days! Anyway, in Burma Uposatha days are like weekends; people do not have to go to work so that they are free for Buddhist observances. (more)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Moving Bhante Dogen to New Web Site

There are 27 subscribers to the Bhante Dogen blog that I set up prior to my travel to Myanmar. I would like to move this blog to my new Web site called Through the Looking Glass. I invite you to subscribe to the blog located there; just look for "blog" in the directory at the right side of any page. I have imported my previous Bhante Dogen blog entries to the new location. I hope that the new blog becomes more interactive, now that I can actually see posted comments (the government in Myanmar blocks access to, so I was posting blind by email when I was there).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Announcing New Web Site

I would like to officially announce my New Web Site as a home for various essays, some of which are reworked from postings from Burma to the present blog. It will also provide space for discussion and its own blog. Some of you have probably visited an earlier version of the site.

Please note that this site is still under construction. I hope to add a substantial number of essays now in progress by the end of 2010. Please subscribe to the blog to receive announcements about new additions as they happen.

The central theme of this site is the birth of Buddhism in America. I am an American monk and a self-appointed midwife in the birthing process. Karl Marx was once asked what the role revolutionary was, given his view of the inevitability of future social history. He explained that it is that of a midwife: the birth is inevitable, but it is good to have a midwife to make sure things go smoothly. I don’t know how positively Marx would value the birth of Buddhism in a Western land, but the analogy is apt in the present context. We are still engaged in the birthing process, I am as thrilled as any to be a part of this historical event, but I often fear the birth is not going smoothly. We certainly want to see a happy, healthy bouncing baby, and not to end up with one that is deformed, crippled or traumatized. I hope the essays you will find here will contribute in some small way to ensuring that the birth proceeds smoothly.

Let me explain what I have in mind. I have organized the essays into the following sections, each with a specific function that I will state here:

Monastic Life. I place this before the next, introductory, section in order to stress its critical importance, rarely appreciated on this side of the Pacific. The future of the monastic Sangha will be the key determinant of the future of Buddhism in America. It is similar in importance to getting the head properly positioned in the birthing process; once the head goes through, everything else generally proceeds generally without much problem.

Buddhism in America. These essays assess and advise the process of giving birth to Buddhism in America. The challenge is to retain the integrity of the Buddha’s project while adapting it and making it relevant to the American cultural context. An important part of this is to save Buddhism from the American propensity for tinkering.

Topics in the Dharma. These essays take up various aspect of Buddhist philosophy and practice. I see my role here as that of an interpreter, as that of making understandable and relevant to the Westerner teachings that evolved in quite foreign environments in the context of unfamiliar word views. Often this involves a new spin on traditional teachings.

Life in the Dusty World. This serves as a counterpart to the first section, that on Monastic Life. It is for the vast numbers of Buddha’s disciples who will bring their practice and the values they represent to bear on the mundane everyday world. My hope is that profundity of Buddhist teachings and practice have a strong and lasting transformative impact for the benefit of the broader American society.

Venerable Cintita. I have deliberately tried to assume a very personal perspective in these pages, a perspective already natural to the blog which I established for friends and relatives before my year of living adventurously in Burma and which is the precursor for these pages. Even as a monastic seeks solitude, his or her life becomes public and even as a monastic trains in no-self he or she serves as an example, hopefully an inspiration, to others. That is why we are required to distinguish ourselves with our fluffy robes and bald heads. This section is largely biographical, and also provides a point of contact for the projects and activities I invite others to participate in.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Still in Minnesota

I may be in Minnesota until June! Recall that in the last episode I left Austin 13 days after returning from Burma in order to fill in for the resident monk, Ashin Nayaka, at the Burmese temple in Maplewood, MN. I would stay here about one month until Ashin Mahasadda Pandita Sayadaw of Baltimore, a senior monk, could replace me after his trip to Europe. Unfortunately the latter has suffered a stroke before leaving to Europe. So I have agreed to remain here as long as I am needed.

Ashin Ariyadamma, the abbot of the Sitagu Buddhist Vihara in Austin, is here for a week. He came up in order to ordain a young Burmese man as a monk. The picture I've attached is from the ordination. An ordination requires five monks; the three monks in the foreground are from the local Karen monastery. Punnananda, as the new monk is called, has ordained for a one week. Temporary ordination is very common in Burma and Thailand.

For those of you in Austin, on Saturday, April 17, and interview with me is supposed to appear in the Austin American Statesman. Eileen Flynn conducted the interview during my short 13 days in Austin.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cintita's Ordination, March 10, 2009.

Burmese Government

When Myanmar makes the international news it almost invariably is in the context of government oppression. In September, 2007, it was the Saffron Revolution, the brutally suppressed monks' uprising. This last year it was the implications of John Yettaw's intrusion into Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest. While I was in Myanmar I followed a deliberate decision to be mum about political affairs, including discussion in this blog in order not to get anyone in trouble. Email is undoubtedly monitored by the government. Now that I am back, let me report what I observed.

Before going to Myanmar I informed myself of the political situation in Myanmar, about the nearly 50-year-old military dictatorship, about the landslide victory of the opposition in the 1990 election, the results of which the regime simply ignored, about the courage of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the “George Washington” of Burma and leader of the opposition, about the huge network of government-employed spies reporting conversations of common citizens, about the continual insurrection in the ethnic states. I had expectations before I arrived in Myanmar of endless identity checks in which passports, visas and other personal documents are scrutinized with gestapo-like attention, of huge posters proclaiming the merits of government policy. What I found was quite different.

The government is not as ubiquitous as I anticipated, in fact it keeps a very low profile. There are no posters praising the governments ideology or accomplishments, I think because it has neither. The military is rather reclusive and has simply given up trying to sell itself to the people. You see some soldiers and police in uniform in Yangon, hardly any in upper Burma, that is, in Mandalay or Sagaing..

In many ways security, for instance, at the airport, is rather haphazard. When our pilgrimage group entered the country at the Yangon airport. I expected an ordeal as we moved with the other disembarking passengers toward customs with luggage bloated with many things we were conveying to Myanmar on behalf of friends and associates. To my surprise a little man in what I would later recognize as traditional Burmese (civilian) garb waved us to the side where we passed through a gate and bypassed customs with our copious luggage altogether. Most of the time I was in Myanmar I did not have a passport in hand, because I was waiting for months for each of two visa extensions. But that is OK, a xerox of your passport including your last now expired visa was all the documentation anyone ever required at a checkpoint, and usually that was not checked. To make sure, a letter from a well-known Buddhist sayadaw seemed to bestow permission to do whatever it is one is doing.

Another way in which the government is almost completely invisible is in the scarcity of social services. I never heard the siren of an ambulance, of a fire truck or of a police car. I never saw anyone stopped by a policeman for a traffic violation; drivers seem to follow the honor system, which they seemed to do honorably, as far as I could see. I don't know how a crime would be reported or investigated. I never saw a traffic accident, but I would imagine that people would put the injured in taxis or horse carriages then look, perhaps in vain, for a doctor or a health clinic. The government schools to the extent they exist at all are reportedly very bad and many children have no opportunity for education. It seems monasteries provide most of the education in Myanmar, but cannot keep up with the need. There are private schools for those with resources. Health care is very sparse, with many infections diseases in circulation, such as malaria and typhoid. The government is simply out to lunch, a neocon's dream.

The government's and military's relationship to Buddhism is particularly interesting. The Saffron Revolution gave the impression of a government at war with the Buddhists. In fact the generals are themselves Buddhists for the most part. Monks are actually treated with quite a lot of respect at military check-points. When a bus passes through such, generally everyone must get off the bus and pass single-file through a gate and show their identification. The exception is the monks, who are allowed to remain on the bus; an officer will come into the bus to inspect their papers, and actually often neglects to even do this. On a couple of occasions some of us were riding in a car that was clearly marked as belonging to the famous Sitagu monastic organization and we were just waived through. When visiting Buddhist sites sometimes pictures will be on display of very pious-looking military officers in full uniform from previous visits, often sitting on the floor at the feet of some sayadaw.

At the same time there is a pervasive sense of fear and anger toward the government. The fear is reflected in how rarely anyone mentions the government or politics at all, the anger in how caustic their comments are when they do. Having heard that the government employs many people to spy on their associates, even monks, I never tried to encourage people to speak about politics. When they did it was always when they were among family members or alone with me; I don't suppose I fit anyone's profile as a government spy. Burmese are an astoundingly even-tempered people, but they seem to be incapable of mentioning the government without turning red in the face. An elderly man once implored me to do whatever I can to get the United States to intervene on behalf of the Burmese people, and entertained the hope of some great Asian war spilling over onto Burmese territory and removing the existing government. Another woman who I had encountered frequently who knew almost no English told me in plain English, “They are killers.” Her brother in law, who I also knew, had been arrested for political activities and had spend 3 ½ years in jail. The most common complaint about the government was that it just does not care about the people. I began to imagine the government as something like a dangerous snake living in the sofa, something that could be very quiet for long periods of time, then suddenly strike when you least expect it. The abruptness of government actions applies not only to physical violence, such as the violence against monks in 2007, but to many changes in policy over the years, for instance, making it illegal to teach English at one point, since reversed, declaring all currency in certain denominations void, making all new currency in denominations divisible by 9 for numerological reasons, and most recently building a new showcase capital city, Naypyidaw, in a remote area at enormous expense.

Much of the international criticism of the Myanmar government concerns the conduct of wars against the ethnic states of Myanmar, about which people in the ethnically Burmese areas of Myanmar have little direct experience. Our mostly American pilgrimage group was once refused permission to continue in the direction we were traveling by car at a military check-point because we were venturing too close to an area of insurrection. Here in Minnesota there is a large ethnic Karen population, and I have had the opportunity to talk with some of them about their experiences.. The Karen State is the area of greatest insurrection at present. The tactics of the Burmese military remind me of those of the American military in the Vietnam war, including destruction of villages and crops and indiscriminant laying of landmines, forcing villagers to flee into the forest or across the border into Thailand. Karens, as citizens of Myanmar, are permitted to travel in Myanmar, but if they are stopped at a military checkpoint even in the middle of the country, many are routinely drafted into the army on the spot. The villagers are often used to perform labor for the army without pay.

So, what is the government for? Outside of the “Unity of the Union of Myanmar,” it seems never to try to justify its existence. In fact, it is a kind of mafia, with no goal beyond personal enrichment of an elite group of military officers. These officers extract money from the general economy through taxation, through tolls and fees and through other means. They then involve themselves in a variety of business deals and enterprises, including opium production, but also running hotels, an airline and other businesses in competition with the general economy. And often they give generously to Buddhist causes or start new projects. Like the mafia, the government uses various methods of coercion to give their enterprises an edge. Rumors abound. For instance, there have been a series of arson in Yangon of marketplaces which everyone seems to know are perpetrated by the government in order to clear land for some enterprise, I never understood what kind. Apparently at the most recent, the government fire department showed up (as I say, I never saw evidence that there was such a thing), proceeded to stand by, then when people tried to douse the fire themselves turned their fire hoses on the people to prevent this. Ironically they seem to use such heavy-handed tactics in gaining merit through the Dhamma. I heard of one incident in which some generals founded a Buddhist university then hired (apparently no one dares refuse a job offer from the government) the principle staff from an existing non-government Buddhist university.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Minnesota Monk

I have been asked to fill in at the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara in St. Paul, Minnesota for a month, and flew up here on Thursday.

The monastery here plays a very active role in the life of the Burmese community. Frankly I'm surprised there are any Burmese in Minnesota at all; it's gets so cold. Generally only has one monk, Ashin Nayaka, a young guy. He is going to India for two months to finish his Ph.D. Normally a very senior monk, Ashin Mahasaddhapandita Sayadaw, based in Florida would fill in, but he has a trip to Europe planned. So they asked me to pop up here for one month; I guess they were desperate.

My main duty is to receive food offerings. As luck would have it, eating is something I've always been good at. However I need to chant certain things and offer short Dharma talks, as well as make myself useful in many practical ways. There is a rather steep learning curve, so my stay is overlapping with the departing Ashin Nayaka, so he can show me the ropes; he leaves on Tuesday.

I've met most of the families who are active here. There is almost no Western representation here, just Burmese, and one other woman who I saw once. I am going to visit other Buddhist temples and maybe make some Western contacts. I will also continue writing.

The picture I've included has nothing to do with Minnesota, except to remind me of how warm weather feels. It was taken February 28. I think we have the look for a great punk rock band. We just need a name. Any ideas? The nice thing is that we don't actually need to learn to play instruments: We're monks and are not supposed to play music.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I think I'm back in the USA

Evidence that I Am. I distinctly remember being on three different airplanes and in four different airports. I remember seeing my luggage in progressive stages of decay, at departure, at customs and on arrival. I even remember the plot of an in-flight movie, "2012." I look out the window and see the shrubby grey and brown of Texas foliage in contrast to the soft round green of the Burmese. This Internet connection is blazingly fast.

Evidence that I Am Not. Everyone around me speaks and looks Burmese. I feel like a minority of One. The food monks receive is Burmese. There are monks. I still receive mail at the address I set up in Myanmar,

Those who have followed this blog religiously will know where I am. Others should come visit me anyway (see, ... if you are in or near Austin, Texas.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hanging out with Bhikkhus (and Bhikkhunis)

An important aspect of the Buddhist tradition is the intercourse between monastics and lay people, which is a powerful devotional and ritualized practice that might be compared to a dance between lay and monastic partners. In the West it is hard to appreciate that this has been a cornerstone of Buddhist practice for 2600 years because, well, we just have't had enough monastics to illustrate it. I'm doing my part to change that. Now, you can do your part!

 I would like to provide the following link for those who would like to learn more about the tradition of lay-monastic intercourse. This is by of inviting you to join me and others in enacting what we can of this after I am back in Austin. It is a wonderful practice opportunity, and very beautiful as I see enacted here in Burma.

"Discipline and Conventions of Theravada Buddhist Renunciate Communities"

This is a very accessible and short  presentation on this topic. Much of what it says about "Theravada" conventions carry over to Mahayana, and in fact can be recognized in Japanese Zen.

For those who like  to get the full story:

"The Bhikkhus' Rules: A Guide for Laypeople"

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Postcard from Burma


I will return to the USA in one month, leaving Yangon, Myanmar on March 2 and arriving in Austin March 3 at 11:35am. This time my flight will be through Taipei, rather than through Moscow. I will arrive on AA 1182 from Los Angeles.

I am looking forward to being home among my own people, and of course seeing friends and family, and bringing a little bit more Buddhism to America, which suffers so much. At the same time I know I will miss Burma, which has quite captivated me.

Though traveling half way around the work I will still be living at a Sitagu center, the Sitagu Buddhist Vihara, which you can visit at, or come out and visit me!

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Third Refuge

All Buddhists know the Three Refuges, which are...  (All Together!), "Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha." These are said to be the elements of Faith (saddha) in Buddhism.

Many Western Buddhists do not like the word "Faith" when applied to Buddhism, because they think of blind faith, the requirement that you believe a bunch of stuff for irrational or unscientific reasons, and prefer the word "Confidence." Myself, I prefer "Faith" because "Confidence" seems far too rational for what is meant. One way I like to think of Faith is as follows: There is always a gap between what we know and what we need to know. We know really very little, but we function in a very complex world in which we must make constant decisions often of critical importance, and therefore we need to know a lot. Faith is that which bridges the gap between what we know and what we need to know. Faith is not entirely rational, otherwise it would be in the domain of what we know. Yet it would be irrational to be without it, otherwise we would be frozen in a state of inactivity. But in Buddhism Faith is never meant to be blind, the Buddhist is always encouraged to investigate the basis of Faith, to move it toward Confidence, toward the rational or the known.

Another way to look at Faith is as a home, a place of calm abiding, where you are not engaged in constant struggle with the elements, where you can let down your guard. This is the same Faith, but with emphasis on the mental quality of Faith, the peace that comes with decisiveness, of letting go of nagging uncertainty. The word "Refuge" captures this aspect of Faith. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, "I have arrived, I am home." The Pali word for Faith, "saddha," actually comes from a verbal root that means, "put the heart on."

So, the three elements of Faith in Buddhism are, the Buddha, the enlightened teacher; the Dharma, what the Buddha taught, or the Truth that became clear to the Buddha; and the Sangha. The Sangha is the most misunderstood of these in the West, and I have to say I have come to understand it much differently in Asia. In fact here I get to BE the Third Refuge. It is quite remarkable experience to be right at the heart of the Faith of others, to experience it from the inside.

The misunderstanding of the Refuge of Sangha in the West begins with the notion that Sangha is the or a community of undifferentiated Buddhists, for instance, that the members of Austin Zen Center or the Dharma Punx are a Sangha. The Sangha is in fact the community of monks and nuns as distinguished from lay people. This is how the Buddha most consistently used the term. It also makes sense in terms of the Refuges, since the Buddha, before his death, refused to appoint a successor, did not want Buddhism to have a Pope, but rather made the community of monks and nuns the caretakers of the Dharma. This community is more than a group of people who live according to certain standards, it is a group organized by a system of governance, a concensus democracy. Its responsibilities are laid out in the Vinaya. It is said that as long as the Sangha lives and practices in harmony the Dharma will flourish. So, the Buddha gave the Sangha the central role in preserving and propagating Buddhism.

(As an amateur historian, I've been trying to track down at what point the word "Sangha" took on its more inclusive meaning. I thought, maybe in the Mahayana rather that the Theravada, maybe in China, maybe in Japan, which until recently has been the primary source of Western Buddhism, or maybe someone just made it up in the West. It seems the last is the case. In China, for instance, the Sangha is understood to mean the community of monastics. I wrote Prof. John McRae, a Buddhist scholar now living in Japan whether the Japanese use "Sangha" in an inclusive way. He said, No, they don't use the word except to refer to monks and nuns., and concluded, "... the western usage of 'sangha' to include ordained and lay practitioners/believers is unusual, or idiosyncratic." If anyone has any idea of where the more inclusive usage originated, please let me know. Its use in the West is understandable: The virtual absence of a monastic community in Western Buddhism has made the term an orphan looking for a referent. Unfortunately assigning it one has led to a possibly perpetual misunderstanding of the very important Third Refuge.)

Now great abiding Faith lends itself to physical expression, to bodily enactment, perhaps most commonly as caring for or relating to, in various ways, the objects of faith. This is a mysterious quirk of human psychology. Of the Three Refuges, the Sangha is the one that is most physically present. In Myanmar, wherever you go, you can see it walking around, often with alms bowl, often on some other errand.  The Buddha died years ago, so the best we can do is show reverence either to relics of the Buddha, or more often perhaps, purported relics of the Buddha, or to an image of the Buddha. These objects of reverence receive much care, and are often provided with flowers and even food offerings. But although this provides means of enacting one's Faith physically, it is still pretend; the Buddha statue is just stone or plaster; the Buddha is not actually there, and people know that.  The Dharma is more difficult, though the faithful try. Traditionally Buddhist texts are treated with reverence in the various branches of Buddhism. In Zen or Theravada, for instance, one should not place a chant book or other scripture directly on the floor, or throw it in the garbage when it is worn out. Nichirin Buddhism actually makes a a particular scripture the primary object of reverence, the Lotus Sutra. It is interesting to observe that in early Buddhism there were no depictions of the Buddha for many centuries, nor were there physical Buddhist texts since these were memorized. Yet the bodily expression is a means of strengthening Faith, the Buddha recognized as powerfully nourishing for his disciples. The Sangha, on the other hand,  has been continually physically present throughout the history of Buddhism in every land in Asia to which Buddhism has spread.

I've never been in a country as thoroughly religious as Burma, and sure enough, every means of physical expression of Faith in the Three Refuges is utilized.  Buddha statues are ubiquitous, and every Buddhist home has an rather elaborate altar, generally part of the architecture of the building, to which offerings are made daily. Reverence to Dharma, the Second Refuge, remains the most difficult to enact physically, though many short texts are memorized by many laypeople in Pali, here thought to be the original language of the Buddha. And in me personally, as well as in each of 499,999 other monks, people see a object available for expressing reverence in the Third Refuge, the Sangha.

The Third Refuge is enacted in bows, sometimes placing palm to palm as a monk walks by, or should one spot a sufficiently stationary monk, performing a full bow with forehead to the floor or ground. It is enacted by feeding monks, giving them alms on their daily rounds, or attending to other needs they might have, whether it is a glass of water or a new robe. It is enacted by sitting on the floor at the feet of monks. It is enacted simply by gravitating toward monks, by trying to be in the presence of monks. It is enacted by the language used when talking with monks, not only vocative forms of respect, but even a specialized vocabulary for referring to the acts of eating and drinking by a monk. I've described my experience of my treatment as a monk variously in this blog, as being like that of a movie star or of an animal in the zoo, the latter since so much ado is made about feeding monks and watching them eat. Of course monks individually can be like the Buddha statue, mere stone or plaster. There is something pretend about the behavior of monks. No one really thinks, except in some very rare cases, that these are being of superhuman qualities. Everyone has a nephew or an uncle who is a monk and so knows better. Many lay men have been monks in their younger days. In fact another way that a woman can care for a monk is not to sit or stand too close, acknowledging the fragility with which the monk maintains his vows. So, it's pretend, but it is still as meaningful or more so to the laity as making offerings to a plaster Buddha.

The experience of being the object of reverence can go in different directions. I imagine that for some it goes to the monk's head, makes them feel like they personal are someone special. But that is hopefully offset by the practice of living as a monk, which is to live with almost no personal footprint, to enact throughout one's day the state of being a no-Self. Perhaps the respect shown monks is even a lifeline to monks who would otherwise float away into Emptiness. Besides, Burmese are such a humble people, it is hard for this to be an issue here. The other direction comes with the realization that it is the Sangha, not the individual monk, that is the object of Refuge. This Sangha has existed continuously since the days of the Buddha, has carried Buddhism into new lands, has memorized the scriptures, studied and and practiced and taught the Dharma and preserved the integrity of Buddhism  century after century, and occasionally even gave rise to an Enlightened being. That is as an individual a lot to live up to.

What is most moving about being the Third Refuge is it places me right inside the enormous Faith of the Buddhist laity. Ever wonder what it would feel like to be a Buddha statue? It feels like being in a bowl of split pea soup. I can feel the calm abiding in the Third Refuge. People sit at the feet of monks, or give them a tube of toothpaste. Even though it's pretend,  they are utterly at peace. It is quite a joy for them, which makes it quite a joy for me.

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, Myanmar

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Postcard from Burma: Alms Rounds

I have settled into life here in Yangon, Pali lessons with Bhante
Pannyasiha, morning and evening walks in the neighborhood and the dogs
that greet me, the wonderful two meals each day at the Sitagu
Missionary Center, my afternoon classes on English pronunciation,
study, reading, getting attacked by mosquitoes. With only 7 weeks left
in Myanmar and with in-room wireless access (as I say, this is a
5-star monastery), I find myself increasingly drawn through the Web
and toward what is happening in the States, enjoying insights from
Noam Chomsky on the state of American politics and reports from Eileen
Flynn's blog on religion in Austin and beyond. Of course I pop in
regularly to the site I once created at to watch
its continuing unfolding.

I have been going on alms round with Bhante Pannyasiha three mornings
a week, on the days I do not teach, that is, on Friday, Saturday and
Sunday. I am finding this not only a very valuable experience, that
will be difficult to duplicate in the USA, but also very enjoyable. We
follow the same route each day, in formal robes, that is, configured
to cover both shoulders, bowls carried with two hands in front, straps
slung under our robes over our right shoulders, walking barefoot,
silently and mindfully, me as the junior monk behind U Pannya (agewise
he's about 25 years my junior), generally visiting the same families
each time (a new family asked to be added to our route a couple of
days ago). Generally we receive a scoop of rice and some curry at each
house. The monks here bring in their bowls various small metal
containers for receiving small portions of curry. In some stricter
traditions everything would just get mixed up together in the same

Alms round gives me a better opportunity to see how people live.
People are generally poor by any American standard. Houses are for the
most part leaky shacks with plank walls, almost on top of each other,
small alleys in between, electricity but no other amenities. But I
don't get the sense that most people think of themselves as poor or
deprived; they live with a sense of dignity. And every act of
generosity toward monks reminds them that they have wealth to share.

Generally we are invited into homes where there is conversation and
where Bhante Pannya answers Dhamma questions. Chairs are provided for
the two monks, while the lay people sit on the floor where they
perform three full bows before and after, sometimes to each of us,
sometimes to the two of us together. A young woman who would be a nun
except for her obligation to care for her mother always has a burning
question and many follow-up questions. All who are listening hold
their hands in anjali the whole time. Women traditionally place a
shawl over their right shoulders while talking to monks. Men do not do

Because I know so little Burmese I cannot report much of the
conversations. However, more people speak some English here in Yangon
than in Sagaing. Yangon was part of the British empire for a much
longer period, and it also is much more cosmopolitan; it's a big city.
Also U Pannya interprets for me. Naturally people are very curious
about me, an ungainly American monk. The most common question they
have for me is, Are you a temporary monk or a lifelong monk? In
Thailand and in Burma a man will often ordain for one or two years for
the experience, then return to lay life, or even ordain for one or two
weeks for the photo ops. My answer is, Lifelong. The second most
common is, Why did you become a monk? On one occasion I was informed
that a daughter of one of the lay families, generally away at school,
would be there to meet me the following Sunday because she wanted to
(1) practice her English and (2) ask this last question.

I came to Buddhism mid-life. I did not have a religious upbringing,
and conducted my life largely according to common wisdom, or rather
common lack-thereof. My life had its ups and downs but would be
regarded as fairly successful, but never satisfactory. Armed only with
a meditation practice, and some limited observations about what didn't
seem to work in life (abundant money, for instance), happiness and
harmlessness always eluded me. I began looking within religious
traditions for a Handbook of Life, a source of wisdon, advice on what
my life should be. I always knew I must have come with an instruction
manual, but my parents must have lost it at some point. I found that
Handbook in Buddhism.

About 12 years ago Buddhism had became the main focus of my life, 9
years ago I retired from my professional life to live in a monastery
(Tassajara), 7 years ago I ordained as a Zen priest where I lived and
served at the Austin Zen Center for 6 years. The utter simplicity of
the monastic life draws many to Japanese Zen. I discovered though that
much of what is still remembered of this wonderful tradition was
largely lost before it reached American shores, tragically due to
political interference, and that I could not find the support for my
monastic aspirations within most of its current Zen schools (I don't
want to discourage others from finding a home in what has become a
beautiful and very powerful laicized practice tradition in the USA)
and decided to reordain where the full monastic tradition as defined
by the Buddha remains intact. This did not have to be Theravada, but
given my connections it turned out to be so.

So, why did I become a monk? First, so that life would not be a
problem for myself or for the many others whom my misguided actions
would otherwise harm. Second, so that I could bring the fruits of life
and practice to my people: America is spiritually crippled; its people
by and large are lack inner fortitude, they live desperately, often in
the midst of wealth and splendor, encountering the world with fear all
the while seeking any bit of personal advantage that might make it all
right. I believe Buddhism will be a positive force in America's
future; the people of Myanmar have much to teach us. But history shows
Buddhism never exists long or healthily, and never ever enters new
lands, apart from its Sangha, its third Jewell, the monastic community
. I want to dedicate myself, on behalf of Buddhism in the West, to the
development of an American community of nuns and monks, and what
better way ... than to be one!

The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life.
The Buddha has a lot to say about alms rounds in the Vinaya. It was
not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns; it had a much greater
role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay. Even
when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded.
When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his
alms-financed Enlightenment, he continued his alms rounds in the
streets of Kapilavastu much to the distress of his aristocratic
father. He criticized one of his disciples, an arahat who could
meditate for seven days at a stretch without food, for neglecting his
daily alms rounds. He did not permit monastics to grow, cook or even
store food, but to eat what was duly offered from a lay hand on a
daily basis. The monastics were not allowed endear themselves to the
lay in the hopes of gain, or actually even to ask for anything
directly except in an emergency. Traditionally monastics don't express
thanks for gifts received and receive without establishing eye

The result is an absolute and vulnerable state of dependence on the
laity. Why? Humility is certainly a part of it. The lay folks have the
key to the car and the nuns and monks don't go anywhere without them.
Accepting the generosity of the lay graciously, having no resources at
all of one's own, even one's robes, that are not donated, puts the
monastic in an uncommon frame of reference, but also does the same for
the lay donor. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts the lay
donor receives a gift. This is paradoxical, but believe me, you see
the sugar plums dancing in their eyes. The relationship is unlike what
one finds in conventional human intercourse, one's values are
reoriented. This is the economy of gifts that provides the context of
the most fundamental Buddhist value-practice, dana.