Would I ever return to being a Buddhist monk?

The question has been asked of me many times. I have asked me many times. Here in Thailand there is opportunity to ordain again. But here in Thailand I do not think so.

In case you did not know, I was ordained as a novice 10 years ago. I lived in a Thai temple in Arizona for a little over 4 months. I lived there with 3 Thai monks, two who were bilingual. I was a bull in a china shop but I was serious and dedicated. I had planned to stay longer but some events required my attention and I could not do so as a monastic.

Monks live by very strict rules. 227 rules actually. They affect every area of life, dress, eating, grooming, traveling, socializing and much more. As I am in Thailand for my first time if I were to ordain, I would be limiting my ability to travel around. New monks are generally required to be in the company of a senior monk. They rarely can travel at night. They cannot go to entertainment venues, such as a Muy Thai match (Thai martial art)

As it is, I am very connected to the things that matter most to me about being a monk. I am with them constantly learning more and more about the history and ceremonies and teachings of the Buddha. My constant companions are monks who are all in university and are preparing to graduate. Each one has been in the monastic life for at least 10 years, starting when they were as young as 12 as novices.

Traveling and eating together I am constantly asking them questions. And they are practicing their English so they are forcing me to think about how I explain many things including English slang. Sometimes we have to resort to an Internet translator.

The monks are also teaching me some basic Thai words, and how to get around and how to integrate into a monastic community as a lay-person (non-monk). They are telling me stories about their countries of origin, Myanmar and Laos.

As part of the monastic community, I arise at 4.45 AM or earlier so I will chant the morning chants with them. I help clean the temple grounds and then go out on the alms rounds with them. I know the difficulties I would face were I to try walking barefoot for 2 miles everyday to collect alms/food. I usually have morning meals with the monks. Their last meal must be completed by mid-day. But unlike them, I can leave the temple in the late afternoon and get something more to eat. But of course I too must be in bed early to rest up for the next morning. So what would I benefit from ordination. Probably ego. As a lay-person I am essentially an attendant to the monks until the completion of the lunch meal. Then we often go out touring in the afternoon or helping me with errands like immigration.

If I travel Thailand as a monk I will be presented with the difficulty of eating my meal before noon. We have had to cut short some morning touring to eat and sometimes they just pass on the meal because it got too late, which would make me crazy. They cannot wear sunglasses or play musical instruments. Their robes are well-suited for most days but quite another matter in very hot or very cold weather. Monks generally hang their robes out around the temple to dry. I go to a laundry service because underpants should not be part of a temple clothes-dry line.

The monks wear sandals or flip flops when walking after alms. They have walked many miles with me that way. I am quite spoiled podiatrically speaking, and suffer if I do not have my vibram soled shoes when walking on hard surfaces.

In addition, while I am proficient at certain Pali chanting, I do not have it memorized, I am also not conversant with many additional chants used by the monks for specific moments. There is the blessing given on the alms round many times but sadly I do not have any skill in chanting it……yet. Pali is considered the language of the Buddha and was used to teach the Buddha’s lessons to his listeners. From Britannica “Pāli language, classical and liturgical language of the Theravāda Buddhist canon, a Middle Indo-Aryan language of north Indian origin. On the whole, Pāli seems closely related to the Old Indo-Aryan Vedic and Sanskrit dialects but is apparently not directly descended from either of these.”

So the truth is, at least for now, I have many of the benefits of being a monk but not the limitations. As a first time visitor to Asia, I think it is best for all that I not ordain again. Perhaps my next visit.

Renunciation (or what I didn’t get for dinner)

Renunciation is an act or instance of relinquishing, abandoning, repudiating, or  sacrificing something, as a right, title, person, or ambition. Renunciation is often  used to describe the act of a monk or nun going forth into a homeless life to be liberated from lust.

As you know, over 5 years ago, I was ordained as a novice Buddhist monk and resided in a temple/monastery for over 4 months. I had many apprehensions going into this challenge. I had never cut off my hair and eyebrows. I had never gone without dinner and monks do not eat after the midday. I had never resided in a community where I was the oldest person with the least amount of authority. I had never vowed to make no physical contact with a female. These are all part of the monastic lifestyle.

I have never been able to fully explain how I went from what was at times  an extraordinarily hedonistic lifestyle to monk. The transition was quite gradual but it is incredible that it took place at all. My primary guide was Ajahn Sarayut (ajahn being a honorific for monastic teacher), a monk from Thailand living in Tucson Arizona. We met through his meditation group on Meetup.com.

After attending his monthly 90 minute meditations at the local library, I asked to be given more comprehensive training in meditation. And Ajahn asked me to guide him in hiking the local mountain trails.

For the next year I imagine we hiked about 3 times weekly. Always meditating. And we always had hours of conversation. What do you talk about to a monk? We had no common life experiences in the physical realm. No cultural similarities. As a matter of fact, language was often a barrier to communication. At least Ajahn had studied English or we would never have spoken since I do not know Thai.

I can tell you that the inclination is to discuss Buddhism when you spend hours with a Buddhist monk. And so we did, up and down the mountains and in dozens of emails which I wrote at night as my brain demanded more information. Simultaneously, I read dozens of books, journals and magazines on the subject. Then one day I decided that I would be Buddhist and I would take the vows associated with declaring oneself a Buddhist.

Here they are in Pali and English.

1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.                                                                                                                          2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.                                                                                                                       3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.                                                                                                                                  4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from lying or gossiping.                                                                                                                                    5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

I look back now at my “adventure” in spiritual growth. I marvel that the least of renunciations caused me much distress. I so fear/feared being hungry at night that I ate gluttonously at each lunch. It has taken me years to examine why the deprivation of food is so difficult. I am an overeater, that I know. But fear and anxiety about a meal…why?

The idea of self-imposed austerity is somewhat alien to my upbringing. If you can afford it, then eat it, wear it, drive it…own it. Austerity is generally for persons of limited means. While I am not rich, anymore, I can afford to eat. I can even afford to go on some spiritual retreats without having to renounce the life of a lay-person and become a monk. There has to be perceived value in the monastic lifestyle or why bother. In my case I saw it as a vehicle to diminish the fire of anger which burned constantly in me. I was incapable of putting out the flames of self-righteousness on my own. I was expert at rationalization, justification and resistance to change which were the barriers to a calmer life.

In the monastic life I had more time and occasion to reflect on my thoughts and actions. I was not distracted for hours upon hours by music, television telephone. I had my laptop and phone, but the emphasis was on practicing a quiet, contemplative  lifestyle. Mindfulness was emphasized. If you eat, then eat. If you walk, then walk. If you drive, you drive. I was urged to do things and speak skillfully. I was encouraged to examine my actions for their intent and effect. Most visitors to the temple spoke Thai so small talk was kept to a minimum.

Cloistered with and managed by lifelong Buddhist monks was weird but simple. No one ever really asked me to do something I did not or could not do., yet I found these simple commands of the monastic life difficult. Ludicrous at times. But slowly, having nothing else to do, I began to engage the world more mindfully.

One of the primary functions of monastic renunciation of so many aspects of ordinary life is to facilitate an inner transformation. Mindful meditation jump-started the process of seeing (awakening) to the truth. The truth being that most things I relied upon for happiness or caused me sadness were not true causes. Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist writer says “Renunciation is often difficult. Grappling with the power of desire, attachments, and fear may require great personal struggle. But that struggle yields many benefits. We develop the inner strength to overcome temptation and compulsion. We don’t have to live with the suffering and contraction that come with clinging. Clinging can be exhausting; letting go is restful. We may taste the luminous mind of freedom, which is hidden when clinging is present. And, last but not least, we are more available to work for the welfare of others.”

I had an epiphany after 3 months. I was and had always been in the throes of thought patterns that demanded I create and nurture resentments. Nothing was fully exempt from my manufacturing of disdain and resentments. But suddenly in one of my morning meditations, I saw clearly that I was the source of my problem and a solution. Rather than try to teach the monks how to behave in my Anglo-culture, as I had been doing dutifully, I would simply offer myself to be of service. It was a seismic shift which could be felt by the ajahns I lived with. My new mantra became “what can I do to help today?” My old mantra had been more like, “how can I teach you today?”

It is coming up on 5 years since I returned to my family and the life of a lay-person. Hardly a day goes by that my experience does not directly impact my thoughts and behavior. I still joke mindlessly at times, but I rarely act mindlessly and unskillfully.  I wish most people not be as hard-headed as I am about their spiritual growth. But my experience with people leads me to believe that most people are very much resistant to genuine change of a spiritual nature. It requires renunciation not of lust but of comfort. It requires practice in observing the mind, primarily through meditation. Spiritual progress has not come about by judging or interpreting the actions of others, but in keeping the focus and solution on myself.

Soon I will face the prospect of returning temporarily to the monastic life. I am still attached to my hair and dinner. These two things alone lead me to believe my work is far from over. Meantime, I ride my bike and teach. These things are powerful spiritual motors. I have been able to ride them to new destinations previously inaccessible.

 

Transformation

So there is a story behind every transformation. Every Anglo who walks into a Buddhist temple is a possible even probable story of transformation. Not because entry to a Buddhist temple is required but because it usually signals seeking and dissatisfaction.

I have come to a spiritual awakening of sorts through significant dissatisfaction(s). It starts in 1982 with a dependence on cocaine to alleviate the emotional pain associated with a lost love interest. I twisted the age old adage that “time heals all wounds” and decided if I could use coke to numb my pain it would eventually pass. It was a flawed plan.

A year after I put that plan in motion I was ready to enter a treatment center for drug abuse. I spent 3 weeks there being introduced to 12 steps and the underlying foundation of a belief in a higher power. My initial reaction which I openly expressed went like this. “If it will take God to keep me clean, then I am hopeless.” But I decided to try the 12 step programs because I really didn’t have a better plan.

Putting myself into close proximity to the people in AA and Narcotics Anonymous made me want what they had. I found a willingness to pray just because it worked for them and I had nothing better. I spent the next 14 years in recovery and I practiced and eventually believed that there was a higher God-like power and it was helpful to pray to said power.

In the process I undertook tasks that had once seemed impossible. I started school, I went to sleep at regular hours and I exercised consistently. I, a high school dropout, got through law school. I, an incurable insomniac, began to sleep. And I became a regular in the gym and on the triathlon circuit.

But, complacency eventually became my constant companion. I got cocky and believed that I had molded myself into a normal guy. Time though has shown that I am not normal even at my most normal. I can mimic a community. If it is a criminal community, I’m in. Recovery? OK. PTA? I’m good. I won’t blend in but my behavior will comport to societal norms.

So subsequently I drank and then drugged again. If I missed doing a drug in the first go round, I got to it this time. I wouldn’t even try in this story to recount the horrors of my addiction. That is a book in and of itself. Nope this is about the spiritual transformation that then occurred over the next several years.

I went back to 12 step meetings. I sought mentors and sponsors. I inadvertently read books about transformation, starting with Eckhart Tolle. I taught myself to meditate. I sought a meditation teacher and wound up practicing with Ajahn Sarayut a Buddhist monk from Thailand. (ajahn means teacher in Thai)

I was teaching Ajahn how to navigate amongst Anglos and he taught me meditation and the practice of Buddhism. After 2 years spent constantly studying with each other, we undertook to open a new Buddhist temple in Tucson. I subsequently felt compelled to continue and deepen my practice by becoming ordained. To serve as a temporary Buddhist monk required the permission of my family, shaving off my head and facial hair and living exclusively in the temple and having no physical contact with females. I was allowed to eat the single meal of the day that monks eat, I wore only the saffron robes and I participated in twice daily chanting and meditation. I learned to chant in Pali. (The word Pali is used as a name for the language of the Theravadan Buddhist scriptures.)

I sought training with other teachers as well. Jack Kornfield, Lila Wheeler, Eric Kolvig, Lama Marut and more. I crossed the country to spend days in lectures to attend silent meditation retreats.

I “unordained” and returned to my family a little after 4 months. Ajahn completed my training as a teacher of meditation and provided me with a letter of introduction to the Buddhist Center of Dallas when we subsequently relocated to Dallas TX. I have been teaching meditation at least 3 times weekly for the past 4 years in and around the area.

I have left behind my drugging and drinking. I have long left the world where I owned adult entertainment nightclubs and websites. I am an infrequent participant in the firearms world where I made a living for so many years.

Everyone American I meet in the Buddhist temples is a seeker. None of us were born into Buddhism. To arrive here we had to have dissatisfaction with whatever came before. Some will embrace Buddhism and others will simply develop a mindful meditation practice. We are driven consciously or unconsciously to seek answers to our discontent. Some find what they are looking for. Others do not. But the practice of mindful meditation will facilitate or perpetuate transformation to all who practice it.

Can a Jewish lawyer and handgun expert be a Buddhist monk?

The Thai monk, AjahnSarayut Arnanta of Tucson AZ. posted a photo of us together one day on Facebook. He made an accompanying comment which I wish toordination day address. “When you hang out with the monk, you do things like the monk.”

It is true that the time I spent before, during and after living in the temple had a profound effect on me and the way I do things. I do things differently than I used to. It was almost 3 months of living in the temple before I stopped hounding the monks about how they should run the temple. Then I had an epiphany and realized that I could best serve the temple by offering simply and only to do what was asked of me….nothing more. The next 45 days were spent practicing humility and service and meditation.

I wish there were opportunities like that for other spiritual seekers. Unless and until you take the vows of a monsatic, and wear the robes and live amongst fellow monks 24 and 7, I do not know that you can understand the power inherent in such an experience.

The monk seemingly assigned to monitor my behavior in public was Ajahn Preeda Jaiboon. Although he didn’t speak English he was relentless in guiding me in the protocols of monastic life. (For instance I never did master the proper way to wear my robes in the formal fashion.) He had great patience, warmth and humor. I am not sure the monks could be as satisfied by having the likes of me in their midst. I am hard for any Anglo to manage, so what a challenge it was to provide the appropriate environment for an American who was a lawyer, pistolero, head of household and older than the oldest monk by 10 years.

Given the opportunity I would re-enter tomorrow to complete the transformation that began with the shaving of my head and eyebrows, followed by the recitation in the Pali language of the vows which were to bind me to the monastic community and the Buddha.

I’d rather attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed.

I dared to become a Buddhist and then to become a monk. As a novice monk, I took vows, chanted in an ancient language, Pali, every day twice a day. I never ate past the noon meal. I didn’t have physical contact with my wife and daughters. I never wore jewelry, I slept in my robes, and never appeared in public without being fully arrayed in the saffron colored robes. I left a large house and bed to sleep nightly in a small room on a small bed. I never gave that much effort to being a religious Jew. I was never inspired by Judaism to expend the energy to ever be referred to as a “good Jew”.  I do not expect to become enlightened before I die. But my death will be all the better for my Buddhist practices.

When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.

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