Tuesday, February 24, 2009

space for monks

None of the means employed to acquire religious merit, O monks,
has a sixteenth part of the value of loving-kindness.
Loving-kindness, which is freedom of heart, absorbs them all.
It glows, it shines, it blazes forth.

24 feb 09, fat tuesday

I’m sitting downstairs in the vegetarian restaurant part of Shanti Vegetarian Guest House, waiting for my taxi to the airport which will come in a hour. These last two days in Bangkok have gone by in a blur. Sunday was the day for Willie to take me on his grand tour of Bangkok, one that he has given with some variations to a number of folks. We started out early, 6:30 AM, when he met me and we headed for 7 AM Mass at Xavier Hall, a Jesuit residence and parish. And then spent the next six hours traveling from wat to wat, temple to temple. We visited three in all: Wat Pho, Wat Suphat with its famous reclining Buddha, and Wat Saket on the Golden Mount, an artificial mountain in the middle of the city, which we climbed at the end of our tour both a little sunburned and sore-footed. Willie was an excellent tour guide and is pretty knowledgeable about the Thai Buddhist tradition by now. There is way too much to tell of them all, but I will post some pix.

Monday was wan phra or “Monk’s Day,” a day when it is particularly auspicious to visit and give gifts to monks. When Willie first told me about it, I thought that it was a yearly thing, or a four-time-a-year thing, but it is actually a four-time-a-lunar-month thing, at every new phase of the moon. As Willie had been trying very hard to arrange, we spent the day with his friend Pandit Bhikku at Wat Pak Nam. Pandit is British, in his late 30s. After studying Thai Buddhism for a while in England, he headed to Thailand to ordain 12 years ago. (Interesting side note, he too stopped over at Shantivanam for a good long stay on his way to join the wat, and had a very good experience there.) We arrived at around 10 AM, met up with Pandit, and then wandered around the surrounding neighborhood a little before stopping for a cup of tea. Wat Pak Nam is a huge temple complex and a little difficult to reach, crowded on all sides by low-slung houses and shops and back alleys. We had taken two buses to get near, and then gotten a ride down a long side street by two motorcycle taxis.

The conversation kicked in pretty easily right away between the three of us, though as the hours ticked away it did mainly become a dialogue between Pandit and I. Willie was very patient, but that was also what he was hoping for, that Pandit and I would get a chance to meet and talk. We headed to the monastery for the morning meal, which according to the Thai monastic tradition is also the monks’ only meal of the day and must be taken before noon. There was a large sala or eating hall (I noted that it is the same word in Italian), one half of it set up for monks seated on a raised platform and the other with tables for visitors. On this particular day there were a lot of visitors, 90% of them women. Willie and I sat at the far end with a couple of other Thai men, who all seemed to know what they were doing. Immediately to our right were the youngest monks, novices, etc., in various degrees of being uncomfortable being on display in front of a large group of people.

There was quite a ritual of serving the food. Pandit explained it all to us later. I had asked him if this was something special for Monk’s Day but he said that it was done this way every day, only this day there happened to be a large group visiting, something like the Buddhist form of oblates, I took it. (Pandit, excuse me if I don’t get this right…) According to tradition Thai monks go through the streets begging, with their heads down waiting for people to put things in their bowls. (One of the things on display in the shops we saw on Sunday to buy your favorite monk for wan phra was a new, pounded brass begging bowl.) Apparently they used to gather too much food and much of it was wasted, so the old abbot arranged for people to bring the food to the monastery instead so that it could be distributed more evenly. But monks are supposed to receive food, not take it, so that eventually developed into this ritual of people actually serving the monks, and presenting the dishes to them before they eat them, even though they are already placed on the platform in front of them. Pandit and I both laughed a little at how begging on the street evolved into being served in a dining room, but that is how religion goes, I guess. It’s also a long way from Jesus washing his disciples’ feet to the present form of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in all its Baroque finery.

After lunch Pandit and Willie gave me a full tour of temple compound. Pandit has a wry sense of humor and can laugh at both the incongruities of Thai culture, and the inconsistencies of a monasticism that has grown so large and prosperous. Their life is, as is to be expected, different from Western Christian monasticism in some significant ways. He, after studying for some time, simply came here and “ordained.” The difference in the use of this word “ordained” is to be noted: one is not ordained as in ordained to the priesthood; one ordains as in taking the precepts. We did talk about the difficulty of the words that are used to translate these concepts that are so very different for us. Hence also the confusion with monk and priest since monasticism is the equivalent of our priestly class-caste-culture in a country like Thailand. Everywhere, especially within the temple compound, which is quite large at Wat Pak Nam, monks are shown tremendous deference and respect. People passing them by on the street stop and bow their heads with hands folded in front––the traditional wai gesture. Even folks passing by the novices seated on their platform eating bowed their heads as they scurried by. Christians and Hindus do have the distinction between monk and priest though it is not always understood––the difference between the Brahmin priest and the sannyasi, for instance, hence the difference between the ashram and the temple. The first one that comes to my mind in Christianity is the difference between Antony of the desert and his biographer, the great bishop and theologian Athanasius. It does not seem that Buddha envisioned any kind of priesthood at all, but even in his day it does seem as if the monks were given an elevated status.

I sometimes lament that monasticism isn’t as close to the center of popular religiosity in Western Christianity as it is in Buddhism or even Orthodoxy (where a majority of bishops are taken from the ranks of celibate monks), but I am beginning to doubt my lament. I like the distinction between priest and monk, as did Fr. Bede. In spite of the fact that he, like myself, was also ordained, he liked to point out that the monk has no function but the search for God alone, and hence priesthood is something added on to the monastic vocation. And so the sannyasi cuts off the sacred cord and walks away from his priestly caste and all ritual, renounces all titles and privileges. This seems a lot closer the way of the Desert monks as well, and St. Benedict who wasn’t sure he wanted to let any priests into the monastery at the beginning.

That being said, in many Asian cultures, as in the West, the monks wind up performing what seem like priestly functions, reading fortunes, presenting offerings, bestowing blessings, and of course teaching. I think it always surprises us Westerners to know how little meditation is stressed among some Buddhist monks, even in their teaching. There are those who meditate, but it is not the norm of the practice even for monks. (Actually, if I recall correctly, that is one of the reasons Shunryu Suzuki came to America, and left Japan, because he wanted to be more of a meditating monk than a priest and was thrilled with Americans’ interest in za-zen.) Pandit is a meditator and a student of someone who was a master in a tradition known as dhammagaya, which includes a lot of visualization and accessing the psychic realm.

To continue his story, he ordained, as most do, without a lot of formal training, but he after ordaining he studied with this above-mentioned master for five years, as is the norm. After those five years, he has been pretty much on his own. There is not a heavy obligation to take part in the daily rituals, chanting etc. in the wat, he can come and go as he pleases, even to moving away to another wat or another country (though skipping from wat to wat is frowned upon), and he is free to have his own income. As a matter of fact monks are encouraged to have a private source of income from family or friends or students. Pandit does have a quite a covey of students. He has started something called “the Little Bang Sangha” for English speakers in Bangkok that draws up to 300 people for some of its events, which is how Willie knows him. He also teaches regularly in the Buddhist University where Willie also teaches. And he has lots of creative ideas for spreading the dharma among lay people.

After our tour, Pandit took us up to his room in the large housing complex. It’s small really, one half crowded with books and computers and the other half sparse, with enough room for the three of us to sit on the floor comfortably, and an attached private bathroom. We discovered a common fondness for PG Tips (he gets them delivered regularly from a friend), and so we shared a cuppa and launched seriously into two and a half hours or so of conversation. We talked about everything and the answers to most questions we addressed to each other had a long back stories that we unhurriedly filled in. My favorite question that he asked me was, “Is the place for God in Buddhism?” I laughed and said that I thought that that was a question that I should ask him. I gave him my understanding first and then got his. It was the clearest conversation that I have had about the concept of anatta–“not self,” and I was able to pick his brain about my most recent understanding about that in relation to the Hindu and Christian understanding of the self. And we talked about my idea of the difference between the scopos–the goal which we articulate often in the same way––“to learn the self is to forget the self”––and the telos–end, which we describe very differently––ayam atma brahma, anatta, union with God. To that we added something even prior about which we also agree often between traditions, the Buddhist term for it is upaya “means,” the various praxises.

Around 3 PM we all three headed out again across town first by taxi, then by water taxi down the river, and then by foot to an air-conditioned coffee shop. It was here that we started talking among other things more about meditation, and then about monasticism itself and that question that I love to ask: where is the world going, and what is the world going to be asking of monks in the future? We went another full hour at that when I started to notice poor Willie glazing over with fatigue, either from having missed his afternoon nap for a third day in a row or from incessant drone of Pandit and I. The three of us made one more stop together at another wat––this one containing a whole hall full of relics of the Buddha––before parting ways at the river ferry again. Thanks to Willie, and with all due affection to my other Buddhist monk friends, I think that this was the best and deepest encounter I have had to date with a Buddhist monk. Pandit was refreshingly unpretentious and made no claims to having attained any great enlightenment himself. He kept referring to monks as the foot soldiers, doing something that everyone will have to do eventually, that is, renounce. I found that there was nothing to disagree about, even if there were at times differing views of a similar experience and reality––for instance, our discussion of re-incarnation––questioning each other how we came to believe in what we believed in rather than challenging. I am even more convinced there is such a large common core that we share, particularly in regards the means–upaya, and the immediate goal––scopos, even if we do not have the same way of describing the ultimate end.