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.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

On December 23 I left Sagaing and took the overnight bus to Yangon. I
will live in Yangon for the next two months, until I return to Texas.
Sitagu Sayadaw, my preceptor, had made arrangements for me to study
with Ashin Pannyasiha, a teacher at the Sitagu International Buddhist
Missionary Center. Here is a picture of the center: with a short article.

By the way, it is not the case that the various Sitagu centers are
named after Sitagu Sayadaw, rather it is the other way around. Sitagu
Sayadaw's name is actually Dr. Ashin Nyanissara. Some time ago he
became the abbot of the Sitagu monastery in Sagaing Hills, so he is
called Sitagu Sayadaw, distinguished teacher of Sitagu. Similarly Pa
Auk Sayadaw acquired this name when he became the abbot of the
existing Pa Auk Forest Monastery where I lived March - June. From the
original Sitagu monastery grew the Sitagu Academy, established on the
other, western, side of Sagaing Hill, the Yangon center, Austin's
Sitagu Buddhist Vihara, and some other centers. The original Sitagu
monastery is under direction of a new abbot, who I don't think uses
the name Sitagu Sayadaw; at the Academy we always called the original
Sitagu East. It is quite a beautiful monastery overlooking the
Irrawaddy River, and mostly trains young novice monks.

I had known U Pannyasiha earlier in my trip; he traveled a bit with
the pilgrimage group last February. He is 36 years old, ordained at
20, and lived in Nashville, TN for 1 1/2 years. He is known as a good
teacher, and is a serious, smart, dedicated and enthusiastic monk, who
smiles a lot. Also his English is excellent. His name is cool, it
means Lion (siha) of Wisdom (pannya)."

U Pannya goes regularly for alms rounds. Most of the monks I have hung
out with are student and teacher monks, often known as pariyatti monks
or village (as opposed to forest) monks. Their lifestyle is often a
bit less traditional than the patipatti or meditating monks. At the
Sitagu Academy and at the Yangon center, as at many large monasteries
of both kinds, you only have to find your way to the dining hall for a
food offering. Many large monasteries, like Pa Auk Tawya (forest
tradition), keep the form of the alms round: you stand in line with
your alms bowl, robe covering both shoulders, and people drop food
into your bowl but it's all done in one spot. At Sitagu we do not use
the traditional alms bowl at all; food is formally offered by monks
and lay people lifting a table together on which food has been placed.
U Pannya eats breakfast and lunch at Sitagu each day, but goes on alms
round at 9am, then brings the food back to contribute to the Sitagu
kitchen or to other monasteries. He does this because this is what the
Buddha wanted monks and nuns to do; the point of alms round is not
just to feed the monks and nuns, it is also to bring them into contact
with the lay people so that the latter will have the opportunity to
learn Dhamma from the former, and otherwise benefit.

Anyway, U Pannya asked me if I would like to go with him on alms
rounds while I am living in Yangon, and I immediately said, "Yup." So
we went out for the first time this morning, single file, silently,
mindfully, alms bowls slung over our shoulders held in front but
concealed under our robes. He always follows the same route, visiting
the same families. He says in Yangon you have to learn the families
that give to monks and nuns; in Sagaing it's much easier: everyone
does. With U Pannya the process is more intimate than I understand it
normally to be; he knows the families well and likes to teach Dhamma
if they have questions. At every house we enter and sit down, and
someone brings generally rice and curry. Everyone does bows to the
monks, of course. Apparently other monks keep a lot of little
containers for curry in their bowls. I did not have any so people kept
donating them to me. We were offered tea and coffee at one house, to
drink there. Everyone was curious about me; I heard U Pannya say,
"Ameyika' pongyi," American monk, at each house. Sometimes he
explained my relationship to the Sitagu center in Austin. People asked
me, through U Pannya's able interpretation, "Are you a temporary or a
permanent monk?" "Can you speak any Burmese?" ("Bama zaga ma pyo da;
pu," the one thing I know how to say well) "Is your family Buddhist?"
"Are your children now Buddhist?" "Why did you become a monk?" and of
course, "How old are you?" All of these families are very poor, very
devout and very happy in their generosity. Most of the families have
cats, sometimes several, living inside. One family had two pet
rabbits, a white one and a brown one named Obama.

The Sitagu center is a 5-star monastery. It serves as a school and as
a transit center, given its location in the hub of international
travel. The rooms are very Western. The food is outstanding. The
reason is that many families make meal donations to the monastery. I
think it works like this: Donating a meal to a monastery, for all of
the monks or nuns, is a common practice, especially for the
well-to-do. Yangon has 4 million people, so a lot of such donations
must be made like this in the city each day. In a list of the many
monasteries in Yangon, "Sitagu" jumps out, because of the fame of our
Sayadaw. When they make a donation to the Sitagu center, they probably
have a cost in mind, but generally discover, if there is no great
event bringing transit travelers through, that there are only about
six monks to feed. Therefore, they can afford to donate something
really good, and do so multiple times. Anyway, we eat to square meals
a day here, both before noon.

Bhikkhu Cintita

Saturday, December 26, 2009


I haven't had many photos to show you. However, when someone inquired I found this site on the Web. There are some very good shots. Click on "Sagaing" for the area I have spent the most time. You probably won't find me in any of these photos, but let me know if you do.

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, Myanmar

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

Dog Update. Tiny Tim, the scrawny lame puppy I've been feeding, is still holding in there. He is not growing as fast as his siblings, but his lameness is gone. I was worried for a couple of days when there was no sign of him, but only of his two siblings.

Village Trip. Last week I was invited by one of the teacher monks, Ashin Issariya, to visit his home town. His teacher, 80, had just received a major recognition by the government and a major festival was organized to welcome their favorite son home. We had a car and a driver provided by U Issariya's donor, which plowed through the pigs, bicycles toting housewares and building supplies, dogs,ox carts and women carrying precariously balanced things on their heads. We visited U Issariya's family, ate with the monks at the monastery where U Issariya had once practiced,  and slept at a pagoda nearby. The monastery has maybe 200 monks. The pagoda has little built-in outdoor meditation niches, each with a little altar, and a lot of space for walking meditation, in a beautiful area with many trees. We had a lot of time to kill overnight and U Issariya was catching up on things with two sisters, one of whom is a nun, who also stayed at the pagoda. So I meditated very happily for about two and a half hours in the evening then for another two and a half hours in the morning.  The festival was at the monastery and was a huge affair, with live music, booths where food and toys were sold, and a lot of chit-chat. And of course a religious observance and words from the senior monks.

I witnessed my first altercation since arriving in Myanmar: I was standing on a second-story balcony of the monastery building watching families arrive and situate themselves in front of the outdoor stage. Someone had marked out a checkerboard pattern with chalk, each square labeled, and families arrived to claim their squares. Each family laid out a grass mat that was too big for their square, but they overlapped them and that was fine. On either side families had set up wooden platforms, about the same size as the squares, which would raise the family up about two feet. These platforms are ubiquitous in Myanmar, used where we use picnic tables. Their main function, I suppose, is protection from snakes, but at the festival they could afford a view over the heads of those sitting on the ground. The altercation concerned two of these platforms. Apparently the previous day one family had set up their platform, then left, then a second family arrived and set up their platform in front of the other family's platform. The day of the festival the first family arrived again first, and the father was furious. He took his platform apart, shoved the offending platform into the place his platform had occupied and reconstructed his platform in the place the other platform had occupied. In the middle of this the other family arrived, and now the father in that family was furious. Both of them began yelling at each other and each armed himself with a 6' slat from his respective platform, ready for battle. Each was immediately engulfed by a wave of bystanders, led by the respective wife, to restrain the father's unskillful intentions. This incident surprised me, because Myanmarians are so invariably even-tempered. What's more, this happened at a Buddhist monastery!

One other thing was unusual at this monastery: almost all the monks smoke. I had noticed that at Sitagu U Issariya is about the only monk who smokes. Actually not many people at all seem to smoke in Myanmar. At U Issariya's home monastery, not only do the monks smoke, but lay people make offerings to the monks of cigarettes after meals. It makes me wonder if there are designating smoking monasteries in Myanmar; when somebody wants to ordain, they are asked, "Smoking or Non-Smoking?"

Goodbye to Sagaing. I'll be leaving Sagaing, and the Sitagu Academy, in a couple of days to study in Yangon for a couple of months. I will be studying with Ashin PannyaSiha (Lion of Wisdom), whom I know and who has lived in the USA. My intention was to return to Sagaing for Sayadaw's birthday, February 27, which is a huge event, but word is out that it will not be in Sagaing this year, but in Sayadaw's hometown, near Yangon. So I may not return to Sagaing at all. I'll fly from Yangon to Austin starting on March 2.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.

Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.

The reception committee of the Springdale Buddhist Center and Ping
Pong Club held a lavish banquette for its Buddhist members, and
offered the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization. To
their great dismay, no one seemed to eat much. The committee (Bob,
Carol and Skipper) realized some adaptation of the Buddhist Fare
might be necessary for the next year's banquette. However, they soon
discovered that most guests who were failing to eat well, were doing
so for what they felt were all the wrong reasons. "Is this what is to
shape the future of Western Buddhism?" they thought collectively.
Anecdotally they identified the following feeding patterns:

Some guests are simply uninformed about food. Some people, Bob
observed, would not eat things simply because they do not know what
they are. They might have thought that a bagel was a napkin ring, or
that a clear soup was for washing one's fingers. Or, having
identified something as actual food, they might not have known the
correct manner of eating it, so they didn't. They could have asked but
most of the people around them didn't seem to know either. Or they
would mistake the foods available for foods that they don't like, for
instance burritos for egg-rolls or meat pie for something sweeter.

Some guests are happy with bread and butter. Some people, Carol
noticed, will not eat things because they are afraid they will not
like some things, or they might upset their stomachs. Fish eggs or
lychees, or octopus make them cringe. These people simply don't
understand why people want to eat unusual things in the first place,
and so they themselves end up eating rolls, cold cuts, and cole slaw,
because these are safe, and they feel comfortable with this as long as
they cover all of the basic food groups.

Some guests have already eaten. One or two people, as Skipper
identified, will not intend to stay long, but will maybe take a slice
of tiramisu or something particularly exotic or appealing. They often
share the recollection of their experience with friends the following

Some guests seem more analytical than daring in their approach to
eating. These people, Carol explained, are always quite informed of
recent incidences of salmonella poisoning, tainted shellfish,
misidentified mushrooms, typhoid. They know all about trichinosis,
cancer, and how all of these relate to the food we eat. They also
carefully calculate calories; fat, protein and carbohydrate levels;
the amounts they are getting of each vitamin and mineral. They eye
unidentified foods with great suspicion. All of these are terribly

Some guests can only stay long enough to grab something to eat in the
Porsche. Bob observed that some people always partake of something
like a sandwich or couple of egg rolls because they have to rush to
put in some overtime at work, or they are on their way to the opera,
or to a lecture on the situation in Myanmar. They have also generally
just came from a workout at the gym, which they already had to shorten
at the other end to meet with their interior decorator or stock
broker. And even in the buffet line they talk on their cell phones.
These are busy people, people with life-styles.

And, of course, some guests try everything. Skipper pointed out, there
are still rare individuals who come with big appetites, know their
foods, have let go of all destructive preconceptions and are curious
and daring about the what they've been invited to enjoy, capable of
savoring the sublime and valuing the simple. Furthermore these people
generally give themselves ample time to spend enjoying food and
company. "They have a fork and they know how to use it," added Carol.

The following year the reception committee of the Springdale Buddhist
Center and Ping Pong Club met to consider again holding a Second
Annual Buddhist Banquette. The main question brought to the floor was,
What To Offer, and there were different opinions about this.

At one extreme was Bob's suggestion. Bob was rather upset at what he
interpreted as a lack of gratitude or respect shown by the guests the
previous year, in picking at the food the way they did. Bob's proposal
was to offer the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization,
exactly as they had done last year. However, this time there would be
some changes: Before the banquette they would send out abundant
information on the various foods, along with detailed descriptions of
how to eat lobster and some of the more difficult dishes, with
photographs and diagrams. Guests would be asked to arrive by 5:00 pm,
after which the doors would be locked from the outside and not
reopened until all the food was eaten. Also pocket calculators,
cell-phones and other electronic gear would be collected at the door.

At the other extreme was Carol's suggestion. The other two members of
the committee could not determine if Carol was more forgiving than Bob
or not. Her proposal was to offer spaghetti, marshmallow salad and
dinner rolls. And beer. "The greatest common denominator," she called

Like the lavish banquette, Buddhism is an array of various dishes.
These include meditation practice, on and off the cushion; bringing
mindfulness and awareness into everyday situations; cultivating
skillful mental factors, such as loving-kindness, and minimizing
unskillful, like envy; studying the teachings and commentaries;
attending Dharma talks and classes; cultivating penetrating insight
into the nature of reality; practicing generosity and renunciation;
taking refuges; following Precepts; ordaining as a monk or nun;
seeking the company of the wise and avoiding the company of the
foolish; paying homage; chanting or reciting; attending ceremonies and
observing special days of practice; and so on.

Now, in Buddhism these many elements are integrated into a working
whole, like the parts underneath the hood of your car. Let's take an
example and follow some of the interworkings: Buddhism values
selflessness as a skillful attribute. Selflessness is difficult to
learn and train in, and must be conveyed, supported and encouraged at
many levels. Buddhism gives us the philosophical teachings of no-self,
that the self that we tend to prize so dearly is a delusion and does
not exist in the way we conventionally think it does. Until this
difficult thesis is understood, however, faith in this premise is
necessary to keep one on track, while practitioners are encouraged to
experience no-self by seeing things directly as they are with the
support of a meditation practice, in particular, to observe the
reality being described philosophically in the rise and fall of
everyday phenomena. Also, through meditation practice one learns to
let go of unskillful emotional states, greed and aversion, that
according to the teachings are based in the concept of a self, thereby
undermining much of the functionality of the belief in that self. In
Asia almost from infancy, the practitioner will have learned the
practice of embodying selflessness through ritual, including through
bows and expressions of respect, then later through the practice of
generosity and through observance of the Precepts. Throughout, one's
faith in developing selflessness is nurtured through the powerful
example of monastics, who follow a set of vows for outward behavior
that almost completely precludes doing anything, owning anything or
being anything on behalf of a Self, and who depend in turn for its
support on lay Buddhists, who then have this opportunity for
practicing generosity, already mentioned above. Their respect for the
monastic sangha is encouraged through reciting the Refuges as the
articles of Buddhist faith. And so on.

In summary, the Buddhist path is supported by a complete package of
interrelating and cooperating factors, and has been so since the most
ancient times. These factors include teachings at the conceptual
level, empirical investigation and direct experience of causality both
in nature and in mind; meditative absorption and calm, clarity and
purification of mental factors; ethics and rules of conduct, faith and

So, lets consider the needs and habits of the guests of the Buddhist
Banquette, not as diners, but as Buddhist practitioners.

Simply uninformed. Buddhism is a rather elaborate and sophisticated
meal, the required understanding of the various courses is not
trivial. Unfortunately, most of who are regarded as teachers in the
West, the Land of the Fork, are not completely in the picture
themselves. Much of the Buddhist Path is virtually unknown in the
West, for example the Buddha's extensive teachings on community. Often
the simply uninformed will misinterpret certain elements in Buddhism
negatively because they are confused by their root religions, for
instance, seeing bowing to an altar as worshiping a graven image or
"faith" as "blind faith" not realizing that the Buddha always
encouraged investigation. The information most broadly missing in the
available teachings is often selectively the elements most challenging
to Western mainstream culture.

Happy with Bread and Butter. Those happy with bread and butter
recognize a common core that many religions, "the Great Religions,"
share in common, then conclude that the rest can be dispensed with.
While embracing our sameness they become intolerant of our
differences. They may be attracted to Buddhism for a kind of
simplicity, but eschew the exotic in Buddhism. They fail to recognize
that the differences among religions can be crucial to realizing their
commonalities. Let me give an example: Like Buddhism, much of
Christianity values and attempts to cultivate selflessness. But where
Buddhism refers to the doctrine of no-self, Christianity refers to
God; rather than eliminating a self, it introduces something greater
than the self. Commonality and difference. Removing the difference
weakens the commonality; you might still have selflessness as a common
value, but you lose the ability to cultivate it.

Already eaten. Those who have already eaten attend a Buddhist lecture
one weekend and a Sufi dancing seminar the next. They never miss the
opportunity to hear a famous spiritual master speak, of whatever
faith. They also have an appreciation for the value of many religions,
but unlike those who are happy with bread and butter, they
particularly value religious diversity, always seeking a novel
experience. Now, we have seen that Buddhism, like your washing
machine, includes many cooperating elements. Those who have already
eaten are like a centipede who is unable to coordinate its myriad
feet. The many practices they experience cannot work together; they do
not have a history of working together. And often the neglected
mundane practices are critical in the Buddhist path.

More analytical than daring. The analytical, or skeptical, actively
find rational bases for removing individual elements from Buddhism.
They are often attracted to Buddhism because it by and large appears
refreshingly rational, much of it is almost scientific. It also values
personal investigation and seeing things as they are, and fairly well
avoids metaphysical speculation. However, many elements are
unacceptable for them, either because they appear in spite of the
general trend to be irrational, or because they resemble elements of
Christianity that have not survived the European Enlightenment fully
intact. Sometimes the rejected elements include faith, devotion,
hierarchy, ceremony and ritual. I've started writing another essay
called "Buddhist with Beliefs" in which I will point out that many
areas of the secular life, including Science, have these exact same
elements, and that big difference between Buddhist on the one hand,
and Christianity and Science on the other, is that the Buddha
establishes a rational basis for these elements. Ethics or morality
has gotten bad press in the West and Near East. It does indeed seem
that those who talk most of Good and Evil turn out to be the latter.
Buddhism is ethical to the core, but its ethics have an entirely
different, and more rational, basis than that of the Abrahamic faiths.
Other factors are rejected as simply un-forklike, or at least a hard
sell in the West. My own feeling is that if Buddhism fails to
challenge the West, there is no point in bringing it to the Land of
the Fork.

"Religiosity," as much as it is necessary, often scares people; it is
the world of terrorists, hypocritical opportunists, pedophiles,
blindly faithful suckers, and people who knock on your door to tell
you stuff, won't go away and keep coming back. These are scary things.
"Religiosity" (with scare quotes) sometimes might also remind the more
analytical than daring too closely of the root religion they thought
they put behind them. They often advocate a "secular" approach to

Grabbing something to eat. The busy are particularly challenged fully
to embrace a Buddhist way of life. They can't build a new foundation
while so many rooms are already under construction. Instead they add
Buddhism as another room, another area of busy-ness, nothing

Trying everything. In Asia one finds the Whole Buddhist Fare
functioning both in the practice of the individual and in the life of
the Buddhist community, in both the Land of the Fingers (Theravada
lands)and in the Land of the Chopstick (Mahayana lands). For them,
it's so much easier; they are born into a Buddhist Society. In the
West many are inspired by what they have learned of Buddhism, of the
Wisdom of its teachings, of its Compassion, of its Serenity and
Peacefulness, and how they experience the presence of well-known
people like Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and Steven Segal, and
other exemplars of Buddhism they might have encountered. However there
is little opportunity to see the Whole Buddhist Fare in the Land of
the Fork. People come with differing motivations, and expectations and
are for the most part timid in enjoying the Buddhist Banquette when
the opportunity arises. The person open to trying everything is very
rare. "A rare bird indeed," says Carol.

People bring a lot of different perspectives to the Buddhist
Banquette. But the upshot has been the slow development in the West of
a radically pruned down Buddhism when compared to what is found in
Asia or to what the Buddha taught. To a large extend, Buddhism has
become meditation. "That's what I mean by Spaghetti," exclaims Carol.
Almost all Western Buddhist centers focus on meditation and many offer
nothing else in the way of Buddhist practice or teaching.

Why meditation? Why should it be the single element with the widest
appeal in Western Buddhism? For "Simply Uninformed" meditation is
recognizable. Western yogas have meditated for years, the Buddha
almost always sits in meditation posture. For "Already Eaten"
meditation is the most reliable source of peak experiences. For "Bread
and Butter" meditation is a commonality with many religious traditions
at some level, or is at least similar to prayer and to many other
other contemplative practices. For "More Analytical Than Daring"
meditation has some solid science behind it, verifying certain
beneficial qualities, physical as well as psychological. Direct
benefits of other aspects of Buddhist are more difficult to quantify.
For "Grabbing Something To Eat" meditation fits well with the
structure of the Busy Life: It can be scheduled in a consistent way,
requiring little or no restructuring of the rest of one's life. It
generally requires a commitment of time, but "Grabbing's" life has
probably become busy in the first place through the repeated
willingness to add yet one more time commitment; it's how "Grabbing"
attained membership in a gym, for instance. For "Trying Everything"
meditation is perhaps less than what is desired. At the same time,
meditation in and of itself is a very sumptuous dish and can keep
one's fork active for a long time. But "Trying Everything" will
probably look for opportunities for something more complete.

Neglected are, for instance, the following:

The Buddha divided the program of learning and practice that he
advocated into three trainings: Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom, and two
of the three are critically neglected and the third is significantly.
Almost the whole area of Virtue (aka Ethics, Morality, Right Conduct)
is missing. (Some centers offer Buddhist Precepts but there seems to
be very little expectation that the relatively few people who take
them will actually follow some of the more challenging ones.) The
area of Wisdom is critically compromised. For the Buddha this
consisted of accepting a number of teachings provisionally, belonging
to Right View, as a foundation for focused investigation and insight,
in conjunction with meditation practice. But relatively few in Western
centers seem to know these provisional teachings, even those regarded
as Buddhist teachers. "What's left is marshmallow salad," explains
Carol. Although meditation is the most developed practice in the Land
of the Fork, my impression is that Right Effort is not practiced well,
the cultivation of skillfull mental states and the weeding out of the

The Refuges and other articles of faith and commitment are poorly
developed. Many Buddhist centers, perhaps most, do not offer the Three
Refuges, which are traditionally the initiation into the Buddhist
life. Elements of ritual and respect. Bowing and other traditional
rituals of respect have made some headway in traditional Zen Centers;
I'm not sure they have elsewhere. Many other centers have removed the
perceived "religiosity" of altars, chanting and bowing completely, for
instance, as in the Goenka-style Insight Meditation centers.

The practices of generosity and renunciation are not only rarely
understood, but seem rarely to be recognized as fundamental Buddhist
practices. Members of Buddhist centers generally have little
encouragement to simplify their lives. The centers are normally run
with at least a partially as part of the exchange economy with fees
for various programs and services, rather than on the model of giving
freely. Of course the community of renunciates, the Sangha, a
consistent and significant part of Asian Buddhism, is only beginning
to sprout in the West.

Since these various aspects function as a whole, even meditation
itself will always be inadequate without the other elements. Ajahn
Suwat from Thailand, leading a meditation retreat in the USA, once
commented, "I notice that when these people meditate they're awfully
grim." He soon attributed this to the lack of preparation of the
meditators in the other Buddhist teachings, in particular, in
Generosity and in Virtue, which in Asia would generally precede
training in meditation, and as Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests, develop a
sense of spaciousness and happiness as an appropriate context for

In the discussion of the Second Annual Buddhist Banquette of the
Springdale Buddhist Center and Ping Pong Club, Skipper represented the
Middle Way and prevailed. They decided as a group to provide a variety
of dishes very similar to the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to
Realization, of the previous year (and again not to serve beer or
anything other spirits --- "Shucks"). In addition, they decided also
to put effort into educating people beforehand about what they will
find at the banquette. They hope that if they are steadfast in
offering the same each year, maybe they will gradually become a
community of Non-Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.

"It's going to be a long haul," suggested Carol.