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 austinzencenter.org 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.

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