Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Apology of Yuttadhammes

I am not staying at a Wat Thai this rains retreat. ANY Wat Thai. And I'm not going to apologize for that. I'd like to take a little time to explain why I've come to this decision, as most people are unable to understand why I would come to such a strange decision. Strange to them, of course, for it seems perfectly reasonable to me, having been ordained as a Thai monk and lived with Thai monks for the past 7 years.

First, the misunderstanding stems mainly from a misunderstanding of what a monk should be. I admit, I am not a perfect model of what a monk should be, but I think I keep at least a modest level of monastic discipline, including a healthy respect and adherence to the rules of the monastic life and a healthy distancing of oneself from societies of all sorts.

Secondly, I think we generally don't take enough time to appreciate what is meant by "Wat Thai" or "Wat Khmer" or "Wat Laos", etc. I think if we did, we would realize it is really a funny thing, considering the Buddha was of Nepalese decent. No, what these places really are is a place for displaced immigrants to return, even briefly, to the society from which they were displaced.

This is where I come in; a naive kid, looking for some genuine practice and discipline according to our beloved teacher. What do I get? My monastic rules forbid me to go into details but I think it is clear that any monastery intent on catering to the whims of a particular society is not really a monastery at all (the word coming from monos = solitary). It makes me ask the question, "why WOULD I want to stay at a Thai monastery at all?" or an American monastery, for that matter. Admittedly, it is all the worse when the society for which the monastery is designed is not my own, but the point is a Buddhist monastery should be a place to leave behind silly cultural and racial idiosyncrasies and get down to what is most important, the training of body, speech and mind.

The result of my love/hate relationship with Thai Buddhism (love the Buddhism...) has been a feeling of intense and prolonged weight on my heart. I am not free in Thai society to follow the Buddha's teaching, because it takes a subservient role to what Thai people think is the correct winnowing down of the Buddha's teaching for modern Thai society. As I am not Thai, this makes little sense to me. That I am subject to the same racial inequality as the Thai and other Asian people suffer in America, simply because I am a "Phra Farang", should almost go without saying but, that aside, the casual way in which these people throw away the Buddha's teaching in favour of what is most convenient, pleasing to the senses, and pleasing one's Thai sensibility, is chilling. And this is what I have to put up with daily. It finally dawned on me tonight that we do chanting here in translation. Not English translation, but Thai translation. This never seemed odd to me before I thought to write this blog post. But it is incredibly odd. Here these monks have trained for years and worked hard to get the opportunity to fly across the ocean to bring Buddhism not to Western people, but to Thai people.

The sign in front of Wat Thai of Minnesota says "Welcome To Our Temple / Everyone Welcome". Or at least it would have if it had been written in English. Yes, "Everyone Welcome" apparently means "EveryThaiOne Welcome".

To be fair, the people here are wonderful. Kind, gentle, caring and considerate. Too considerate, I might protest. The monks are considerate of the lay people. The lay people are considerate of the monks. But I think I am not overreacting by saying that there is very little consideration on either side for the Buddha. This shows up in the ubiquitous "offering" of food. As a short background, Buddhist monks have to give up everything. They can't even eat unless someone gives them food, willingly. The Buddha made a rule about it. No giving, no eating. I am often presented with the no eating side of it, because in virtually every monastery I visit, the monks, out of consideration to the lay people, tell them just to touch the table and poof, somehow the food on the table is given. The lay people, out of consideration for the monks, like this proposition, as it means you just have to lay out a smörgåsbord of food and then invite the monks to touch the table with you. Poof, instant merit.

I'm probably going to be accused of nitpicking, pedantry, etc. But if I am, it will be by those who have never put food in a monk's bowl. Anyone, myself included, who has ever given alms, can tell you that it is a very sacred and important part of one's spiritual life. Not something to be glossed over with a "everybody touch the table, 1-2-3, poof!"

It is because of these sorts of things that I generally get by in Thai monasteries only by not leaving my room that often. When I do, it is usually to make long sojourns on alms, usually alone, because I cannot eat lunch with my fellow monastics. And I imagine if this were the only fault I could find in Thai monastic life, I could bear with it, and indeed I have for many years.

But the problems are quite intricate and, in my burnt out state these days (teaching intensive meditation courses 24/7 for the past three months) I feel ill-equipped to relate the full extent of my conundrum. Here, then, in brief, I'll attempt to summarize some of the other main points in my defense against staying at a Wat InsertFavouriteEthnicityHere.

Next on the list is the feeling of being much akin to a tropical bird in a gilded cage; all for show, living a life of interminable slavery to a group of well-meaning admirers. The abbot of Wat Thai summed this one up on the last day of the grueling three-month meditation course when, during the final ceremony and in front of a large crowd of people, he congratulated me by saying, "Phra Noah is a monk worthy of compliment. He is not even Thai, he is a foreign monk, and yet he was able to study and practice to the point that he can even speak Thai." (Polly wanna rice cracker?) I have met nothing but resistance to any thought that I might ever be given a position of authority; the one time I was made head of a failing meditation center in Thailand, it almost cost me several bruises from a broomstick because, as was kindly pointed out to me, "this isn't your home. Your father wasn't born here. Why don't you go back to your father's home?" That piece of advice turned out to be terribly useful (the broomstick didn't add much to his credibility, however), and that is what I came to seek out this time around in North America; a place where I can stand on my two feet and walk the Buddha's path unhindered by monks who think "Thai way or the Highway."

And this is the next complaint, for I am feeling in a mood to complain. And it's my weblog, so I hope you'll indulge me in doing so tonight. My next complaint is that I cannot bear any longer to have to bow down to authority simply because it is powerful. This is not the way of us Western folk. We don't think it proper to follow anyone who's on the wrong path, no matter how powerful. It is a very Thai thing, for those who are not aware, to do just that. If you know anything about Thai politics (I know very little beyond the basic moral and philosophical premise that has lead to almost 20 coup d'etat in the past 40 years), you know that virtue plays second fiddle to power. And this the way things go in Thai monasteries. Even the lay people have a share in the power game, and us Phra Farang are always at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole in this matter because, of course, we are not Thai.
Don't get me wrong, I am not power-hungry, but I am not prepared to follow any longer after ways and practices counter to the Buddha's teaching, ways I find ubiquitous in Buddhist monasteries across the board. You think I am overreacting? Do a quick search on Wat Thai of Los Angeles on Google. No, I'll save you the time. Here are the top three results (after the official website):

Wat Thai Temple- foodcourt closing? - Los Angeles Area - Chowhound
22 posts - 20 authors - Last post: Jul 16, 2008
My wife and I had a wonderful lunch up at Wat Thai temple today in North Hollywood. Looks like it might be the last one as we were asked to ...
chowhound.chow.com/topics/427987 - Cached - Similar

Wat Thai ...Mangoes? - Los Angeles Area - Chowhound
I have a craving for the mango & sticky rice dish from Wat Thai. Does anyone know if the mangoes are good this time of year? Last time we went we bo.
chowhound.chow.com/topics/374195 - Cached - Similar
More results from chowhound.chow.com »

Wat Thai of Los Angeles - North Hollywood - North Hollywood, CA
Rated 4.5 out of 5.0
68 reviews - Price range: $
68 Reviews of Wat Thai of Los Angeles "Authentic is the word to really describe the food here. It's like getting a home cook meal for a bargain price.
Show map of 8225 Coldwater Canyon Ave, North Hollywood, CA 91605
www.yelp.com/biz/wat-thai-of-los-angeles-north-hollywood-2 - Cached - Similar

And this is place I'm supposed to leap at the opportunity to spend my rains residence? Oo, wait while I get my monk apron on. No, I am here and now refusing to be a peon in the war of who makes the best Pad Thai in America. The best joke of the year was when Wat Thai of Los Angeles decided to buy a piece of property for me and my group to build a meditation center. One acre, $750,000. I almost promised them I would settle down at Wat Thai if they came through with it. As far as I know they will. They've bought the property (it's in ESCRO) and are already getting ready to... cut down the two ancient trees on the lot and pour asphalt to build a parking lot for the cars that come to the weekly food court at the monastery. Uh, what about the meditation center? Yes, well that's what they're going to use to disguise the parking lot...

The list goes on, the anecdotes are many. My final argument in favor of my case is the support with which my decision to leave Wat Thai has met from my loyal students and supporters. I hope you can sense the sardonic tone in my key presses, for the support has been dismal at best. No, I think I'm going to be going it alone, just me and my grasshopper (gopher is apparently offensive to some) assistant. If all goes well, we'll be hitting the road this summer (in his car), to "find a place to call my own and try to fix up, start a brand new day". Most of my students have done nothing but given me all the more reason to break with the whole Thai Buddhist scene, as they are mostly unable to separate culture and religion, and so their culture can be said to be a religion in itself. Their main argument is that monks have to stay in monasteries. I wonder if they ever considered why it is called a monastery if not simply because it is a residence for a monk? It is a laughable argument, one which Google has already demolished; they might better argue that great cooks like me had better stay in Thai restaurants like the great eatery on Coldwater Canyon Ave in North Hollywood. They, along with most others who would otherwise support me, are just waiting for me to fail, so I can be forced back into their golden cage and they can cling to me as they do to each other, and I shall be nothing greater than an instrument, a tool, a benefit to their society, their culture, their in group. No, I intend instead to follow the Buddha's teaching, and be of benefit to myself first.

That's my rant; sorry, it's been a long day... several months long. Almost over. Just thought I'd get that one over with. I'll be a single monk this rains or I'll be a dead one :)

Don't laugh yet...