Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Farang Becomes a Monk

I met Frank a month after arriving in Bangkok in the summer of 2007. He and three friends invited me to join them for coffee after a talk in English about Buddhism. He had been in Berkeley during the People's Park demonstrations. Like the others -- Tom, Herb and Bill -- he was a long-term expatriate. He and Herb were single and we shared stories about our appreciation of Thai women. I was happy to find like-minded souls and it helped me affirm that I'd made the right move.

Since then, I've continued to run into him, as well as the other old guys, at various functions organized or publicized by Pandit Bhikku's Little Bang Sangha. I knew he was a serious student of Buddhism, for he was involved in translating portions of the Abhidhamma, the last of the three books in the Tripitika, the Pali canon of Buddhist scriptures. Even though I twice attended a study group, I found the text incomprehensible. Although compiled several centuries after the Buddha's death, it was attributed to him and contained answers for everything. One teacher claimed it predicted quantum physics. It was with some surprise that I learned he was to be ordained a Buddhist monk. The Little Bang site announced that he was "'Going Forth from home to homelessness' as the suttas put it." We were all invited to attend.

On Sunday I met Marcus beforehand at Ricks II, the new edition of the popular Banglamphu eatery, and we had a friendly argument about the significance of the term "Buddhism" (a useful label or a Western academic invention?) before heading off to the nearby Wat Thewarat on the Chao Phraya River for the farang's ordination ceremony (this lovely temple is right behind the guest house where Cyprian recently stayed). Many from the Little Bang gang were there. The monk-to-be greeted us on the steps of the temple hall where his guests were feasting on stir-fried clams. A Thai family had donated the reception as a way to earn merit. His head freshly shaved and he was dressed all in white.. Until Pandit explains the ceremony that followed, I can only speculate about what took place.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of monks in Thailand, I do not think there are many farang. Pandit has introduced me to a couple who've come to Bangkok, men from Canada, Australia and the United States. Recently I read Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand, an excellent account of the experience of Peter Robinson who, however, disrobed over ten years ago to run the Students Education Trust (SET). Robinson, as Phra Peter Pannapadipo, also wrote Little Angels: Life as a Novice Monk in Thailand, stories about young Thais who became monks to escape from poverty, broken homes, illiteracy and drug abuse. Many of their journeys sound remarkably similar to those my students have made, from small villages to academic life as university students, and Robinson has dedicated his life to helping them through the SET. For Thais, ordaining can be a short-term choice, a way to gain merit, usually as a gift to a parent, alive or deceased. But it's another matter entirely for a farang. Ordained along with the American was a young, heavily tattooed, Austrian man named Martin. He had been a student of Mai Chee Brigette, an Austrian nun who has operated until recently a meditation center near my apartment. Perhaps for him ordination was a form of graduation. But what prompted Frank to put on a robe and take up a begging bowl?

This blog post does not have the answers.The farang , to be henceforth known as Phra Adhicitto, was too busy with his many farang and Thai guests, many of whom were pressing ordination cards and gifts into his hand, for an interview. The ceremony was a delight. We processed from the hall under a hot sun and gorgeous thunderhead clouds to the temple where a dozen orange-clad monks sat in rows before a huge Buddha image. Martin had apparently already been made a novice and Frank's ordination was two-in-one, from layman to monk, moving quickly through the novice stage. There was much chanting, with each ordinee repeating phrases in Pali, and Frank was given a new brown robe (the temple in which he will live favors a darker color) which he put on, with Pandit's help, out of the audience's sight. Each man sat before a monk whose face was shielded by a Bo leaf-shaped fan, signifying he spoke the Dhamma and not his own opinion. Finally, the new monks were each presented begging bowls, a sign of their homelessness.

At the close of the ordination ceremony, the old monks left and the new monks sat with their bowls which were each quickly filed with gifts and money (which they can no longer handle, according to at least one of the very detailed 227 Vinaya rules for monks -- my favorite is, they must now pee sitting down). Phra Adhicitto (which Pandit says means "higher mind" as in a mind attained to high levels of concentration) was beaming . He and Martin will live at a wat in Nong Chok across the city near Suvarnabhumi Airport. I also heard that Mai Chee Brigette, who was much in evidence at the ordination, is closing her Taling Chan center and, after her annual trip to Europe, will start a new meditation center in Nong Chok. A number of her students, all in white, posed for photos with the new monks, as did a group of Little Bangers. Since monkhood is often temporary in Thailand and no shame is incurred by disrobing, I wondered if Frank and Martin would ever recover their secular names. Who knows? was the answer I got, in keeping with the Buddha's teaching that the only certainty is change (a bit simplified, I know, but true I suspect).

On his web site yesterday, Pandit rhetorically asked: "So who will we be ordaining next ? Any contenders ?" Not me, as he knows. I'm still wedded to the world. When I visited Wat Pah Nanachat three years ago, I was neither impressed by the monks nor the candidates for membership who seemed more interested in status than meditation and enlightenment. While I respect the choices of Pandit and Frank (and Cyprian) to give their renunciation a tangibility, I am still trying to understand the meaning of (my) existence within the world in all of its messiness. Marcus tells me that the Mahayanists believe samsara IS nirvana (or can be). Recently, while researching the differences between American and Thai Buddhist practices, I was surprised (no, shocked) to discover that Theravada doctrine holds that the Pali word sangha denotes only the monastic community. I had expected eventually to take the refuge vows, to acknowledge my respect for the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, which is the minimum requirement that I know to consider onself a Buddhist. For me, the word "sangha" connotates the interdependent whole, Thich Nhat Hahn's "interbeing, and I would even lump rivers and trees in there. I helped form the Shantivanam Sangha in Santa Cruz and was a member of Carolyn Atkinson's Everyday Dharma sangha. I would not take refuge vows if sangha=monks, for I do not accept that monks are somehow superior to lay people, or even indispensable to Buddhism. According to the very popular Australian monk, Ajahn Brahm, however, Buddha designed the sangha to consist of celibate monks, and only these members have the authority to teach.
Many young lay Buddhist groups in Australia, Europe and the Americas are calling themselves Sangha, going for refuge to themselves, even worshipping themselves, and presuming this is Buddhism! This is sad, misleading and produces no progress on the Path.
Pandit disagrees, and says the Pali word means "group," which can include lay people as well as monks. But according to my research, this interpretation is a minority one in Theravada Buddhism. Marcus assures me that Mahayana Buddhism (he leans toward the Korean version) is much more welcoming and ecumenical. In the New Buddhism evolving in America and elsewhere in the west, monks are rare, partly because the supporting community is absent (a robbed monk with a begging bowl would be photographed in America but it's doubtful that his bowl would be filled with food.) The idea that the monastic community is essential to Buddhism and provides the "field of merit" for lay people would be greeted incredulously by most American Buddhists. In future posts, I will say more about the differences in Buddhism I have discovered and what they say about the practice of Dhamma as a religion (or, in America, a psychotherapy).

Today I'm recovering from a bout of conjunctivitis and my vision is a bit impaired. After a couple of weeks of "pink eye" that didn't disappear, I went up to the nearby Chao Phraya Hospital yesterday morning for some medication. The eye center was empty, I received an immediate appointment with a beautiful, young optometrist, and after less than an hour paid about $25 for everything, including antibiotic ointment and eye drops. My method of recovery has been to drink cranberry juice and watch movies on my laptop.


Janet Brown said...

Many serious questions to be asked after reading this but instead you get "Why must they pee sitting down?"

Dr. Will said...

Because it's a "low" activity. That's my guess.