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.