Born in Ontario
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Born in Tibet was the first and the most dramatic book written by my first teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It recounted his brush with death enduring a nine month struggle with other Tibetans to flee their homeland and escape to India.
I’ve lived a dramatic life too, especially since my exodus from the horrifically boring suburbs of southern Ontario. There, with my best friend from high school, Rob Stickles, we would wander aimlessly in shopping malls searching for meaning and purpose in life. Then one day when my father was in Moscow on business as a professional engineer, Rob and I commandeered my dad’s orange ’72 Plymouth Duster and fled Ontario for the fabled lotus land of Vancouver, B.C. Actually, it was more confused than that. I had almost no concept of what Vancouver was. I was looking for a job and the West was booming in those days. Perhaps in a future book you’ll read the whole story about the youth hostel in Thunder Bay, northern Ontario, the hitchhikers on the hot plains of Saskatchewan, the mystical experience when I fell asleep in the back seat while Rob drove through the moonless night, and the time we were shaking in the Rocky Mountains. Finally we arrived in Gastown, Vancouver, to crash at the Cambie Hotel. The local government welcomed us. The unemployment rate was so low in Vancouver, about 6%. I really noticed how people didn’t worry about the unemployment rate in B.C. the way we did back home in Ontario. It was like a higher realm of existence. It was our new life, and we did it together, at the age of 20. My guru was the same age when he safely arrived in India. The parallels are uncanny!
Time is beginningless, the Buddha taught. So the furthest I can go back for a proper autobiography is to a time that was primordial. The word primordial is defined as: First in time; original; elemental. Biol. First in order of appearance in the growth or development of an organism. L primus first + ordiri to begin a web. Probably the most effective teaching to understand this heady concept is a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson. Larson drew this cave man family at home about to have dinner. Caveman and cave kids look rather bored and dissatisfied, when cave mom brings them soup to start off their dinner. The caveman grunts at the bowl of soup placed before him, and says, “Primordial soup, again!?”
In primordial times I found that the outside world beyond the fragile walls of my bubble/ego, seemed problematic. I’ve always believed since then that I was a separate independent self. I began to protect myself from the onslaughts of the universe. I developed a martyr complex because I meant no harm to anyone, and yet the environment around me was often hostile. This fortified my sense of self even more. Before long my egohood developed into the most subtle and sophisticated form of organization in the universe, even more sophisticated and well organized than the Catholic Church.
My ego took rebirth, again and again, a different form each time. This time around I was born on December 31, 1959. On that day I awoke to the lights of Earth at 5:00 pm EST in Saint Catharines, Ontario, Canada. I was the last of five children in six years. This helped to develop my humility since I got used to other people telling me what to do. I owe my life to the Catholic Church because if my Dutch parents had any sense at all they wouldn’t have had me; five kids was just too much stress on my mother. I grew up in a middle class suburban family in Ontario. Our house was a dynamic mix of creative influences. My first guru was my mother. She channelled unintelligible writings throughout my youth so my inner constitution is remarkably similar to hers. When I was 17 my father sadly warned, “I think you’re going your mother’s way.” My father was my second guru because he was a reader and a seeker, always exposing us to all kinds of ideas. The shelves were full of books on science fiction, philosophy, psychology and religion. Since age ten I was listening to his success and other educational audio tapes. I began meditating at fourteen with TM.
The altar of television was of central importance after school. The moulding forces deeply embedded into my mind were Star Trek, John Lennon and the Beatles, Kennedy, 20th century American politics, pop music, and the Buddha unknowingly through the book, Handbook to Higher Consciousness by Ken Keyes. My first memorable connection to the Buddha came when Keyes wrote that his writings were fundamentally based upon the noble truths of the Buddha. My eyes glued to the word “noble” which impressed upon me a powerful image of the equanimity of this great being called the Buddha. I soon decided that this Buddha was absolutely legitimate, beyond any faults, the real thing. Since then, that certainty has never left my mind, the conviction growing deeper and stronger. All of these early influences combined with my inner inspired state of mind which exploded through it all and manifested my own vision. By age seventeen I was writing like a demon on fire just to learn how to express what I felt was vital not only to me but to my world.
Years past before I studied Buddhism properly and thoroughly. In Vancouver my roommate Bruce Wilson suggested that we take a course together on Buddhist psychology so we went to the Dharmadhatu Buddhist Meditation Centre founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Instead of looking like some Tibetan temple, it looks more like office space underneath a three story apartment building. On the window it also has the name “Shambhala Training,” as two organizations founded by the same teacher use the same space. Beyond the inviting reception area, inside there was the main shrine room, dedicated to the practice of meditation. We tip toed in quietly and took a seat on one of the gomdens. These are large rectangular meditation sitting cushions placed on top of a Zabuton, a larger floor mat for cushioning the ankles and feet from the floor. The large room was pristine, immaculate! At the front the shrine held photos of various Tibetan gurus, with a small statue of the Buddha on the table. There were bowls of water, candles and incense burning. The cushions were bright orange and the lights were kept bright for the meditation. The whole environment is designed to perk up the mind and remind you that this is a place for the practice of Buddhist meditation. Perhaps the most impressive thing is that this is a Canadian environment. This is not a Tibetan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai or Japanese scene. Everybody here spoke English which made me feel very comfortable compared to my previous experiences with Buddhist centres.
I clicked with the teachings and the meditation practice right away. It had an enormous impact upon me. In three months I took my refuge vow and in a year I quit my job after selling mutual funds for eight years, to move to Chogyam Trungpa’s regional centre in Vermont, USA, called Karme-Choling. That was the best place I ever lived at in my entire life! It is staffed by about 50 people. We lived for free, worked five hours a day, meditated together about five hours a day, and took courses all the time. It was such a rich environment because they had many highly educated, well trained and experienced Buddhists. It is like a nuclear furnace of dharma. I recommend that people go and live there. We had gurus visiting from all over. The tape and book library was great. I just loved it! There I discovered the dharma tapes of the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin. He was the first ever American born lineage holder of Tibetan Buddhism. He came from an Italian Catholic family in New Jersey. Chogyam Trungpa named him as his dharma heir, and the Regent was brilliant indeed. If Trungpa gave a talk, the Regent would instantly grasp the essence of it. The guy was just great! He was even invited onto the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (which he declined).
My quest for dharma continued after leaving Karme-Choling so I decided to go to Nepal and India, head office for Tibetan Buddhism. Even though I knew that the dharma scene in Asia probably wasn’t as good as it was back home, I went anyway. I went for the money. I was drawn to the two dollars a day cost of living in a temple compared to the $25 a day cost of living in an American Buddhist centre. In Jack Kornfield’s guide to meditation centres in Thailand, he says that even with the cost of airfare, it’s worth going there for a long retreat.
My buddies in Vermont who had already been to Nepal and done that, warned me that I would get sick from the water and food in Nepal, as the conditions there were amongst the worst in the world. They suggested that I do a few meditation retreats in Thailand for a couple of months, to get acclimatized. O.K., that seems reasonable enough. I did that. I flew to Bangkok and met up with my friend Rob and his partner Erin. They were travelling in that part of the world. The first retreat I did was in south Thailand at Wat Suan Mok. They taught us Anapanasati, which is concentration meditation on in and out breathing. Their spiritual leader was easily the most famous monk in Thailand, Ajhan Buddhadasa. He was credited with bringing Thai Buddhism back to the Buddha’s original discourses. I saw him once just months before he died. He was too old and weak to give teachings so the foreigners had to look after themselves. A few lived there and organized the ten day retreats each month for some one hundred people. We had to converge there the day before the first of the month. Nick, an Aussie staffer, warned us to sweep our flashlights across the walkway at night to look out for scorpions. They weren’t deadly, but he described for us the painful stinging bites he had endured. This doesn’t look like Vermont, Toto.
Our valuables had to be checked in for safe keeping. Wise travelers wouldn’t feel safe about doing that in many places in Thailand, or other countries, but this was a Buddhist monastery, so I safely placed my faith in the three jewels. A long haired Australian musician deposited his didjeridoo. As the staff were passing everything down the line the Aussie said, “Hey be careful! That’s a didjeridoo! That’s a musical instrument you know.” It looked like a long, wide hollow wooden stick to everybody else. He stayed in a concrete cubical close to mine in the men’s compound which held almost a hundred. I came to enjoy his company even though that wasn’t the idea, being a “totally silent” retreat. It’s amazing how you can warm up to people when you all shut up. After the ten days he played his didjeridoo for us with a newly inspired Buddhist song. It went like this:
Well there’s dukkha
And there’s dhamma
I’m still not sure who I am-a!
I appreciated the opportunity to sit again at this retreat. This was a new technique for me. In two years I had developed attachment to my shamatha meditation practice and it was hard to let go of it. This anapanasati practice was a form of concentration meditation to attain mental tranquillity. We concentrated one pointedly on the breath going in and out at the tip of the nose. Our eyes were open, which impressed me. I was used to that. Then we would visualize an object of our choice, and build concentration on that. I started to use the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek (I preferred the old ship) and I had a problem fantasizing brand new episodes of the original TV series until our teacher, the abbot Ajhan Poh told us not to use an object that has meaning to you. It should be neutral. The idea is to build your concentration on the object until you see an inner ball of light. Some meditators succeeded in seeing this but I didn’t. That certainly didn’t matter to me, as one still benefits from meditation anyway.
This was the first time since living in Vermont that I was meditating more than an hour a day. Compared to the West, the quality level of the teachings provided at any centre in Thailand suffered because of the English language. Several people I met came to Thailand looking for Buddhism. This is a fundamental mistake. I would say that for all Buddhist countries, including Tibet and areas of Nepal and India. If money is an issue, which it usually is, than these places are good for an inexpensive meditation retreat. But living a Buddhist life is best done at home, wherever home is. And it can be done well as a householder, because Buddhism does speak to modern lay life as it is. I was fortunate to come from Vancouver which probably has more Buddhist centres than any other city in North America. If people are from countries with no dharma, then it’s fine to move to find it. But the big mistake is to think that somewhere in Asia is better than Europe or North America. That is false. It’s more a question of money. If you are taking time off from work to meditate and contemplate then you may be forced to look for ways to cut your expenses. This clarifies your thinking as you balance the cost of living with getting decent instruction in your own language.
Before I could finish my retreat at Wat Suan Mok I got sick with the seasonal flu and had a very high fever of 104.5 degrees. One night I fainted after going to the washroom and hit my head smack on the concrete floor. This made me angry because I thought something had hit me! It’s funny when I look back on it now, but at the time I was miserable and hospitalized briefly with this seasonal flu.
My friends and I took the long train ride to northern Thailand to do a one month Vipassana meditation retreat at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiangmai. Three years later I ordained as a monk there. On the way Rob had a bag of garbage and he was looking for a place to put it. A kindly old Thai woman saw his discomfort so she took the garbage from him and promptly dumped it out the window! We looked out to see a parallel train of garbage beside the tracks!
Chiangmai is known for it’s 700 year old Buddhist temples. It was a beautiful setting for our retreat and the month of intensive practice gave me my first deep understanding of what mindfulness is all about.
Going to Jail
None of us have lived the life that we intended. I’ve made my mistakes. I have my weaknesses and faults. I’ve done my share of bad deeds. When I was a kid I used to blow up ants with firecrackers and I would yell at my mother. So, my theory is that all of this blood and evil karma caught up to me in June of 1993. After the retreat I stayed in town at the Thapae Place Hotel in Chiangmai. The front desk buzzed and said I had a guest. I headed down, not wanting to invite unknown guests into the room. I took the stairs instead of the elevator from the 4th floor. Going down the stairs, I noted a police officer coming up. I knew. I acted sooooooo cool, as I usually do, and went to reception. An immigration officer greeted me with about four police officers. We sat down and he asked me about my visa. I explained that my visa was overdue by three months, but no problem, I’m happy to pay the $5 per day fine, when I leave the country to renew it. Big mistake! It was then that I found out for the first time that what I had planned was a major no no. If you overstay your visa by more than a month in Thailand, they can throw you in jail! They threw me in jail.
Even before we first sat down one policeman said to the immigration officer, “Just take him.” They drove me to Immigration, by the airport. Finally, they hauled me away to the Chiangmai Police station, detention centre.
Unfortunately I couldn’t go to the proper jail, which had space. I was taken into the back of the police station into a dark, stinky, sweaty place that came out of a scene from Midnight Express. They led me into the smallest cell with one Burmese man because he was the only one who spoke any English at all. Sam had been in Thailand for 25 years but his separated wife turned against him and finked on him. A man without a country, he was being sent back to Burma. How unfair! Our cell was about 7 feet square, including a squat toilet. It was good to have someone who spoke English but he had the listening skills of a water hose. Unlike Midnight Express, what struck me as the most unexpected thing was that almost everybody was as polite as ordinary people. I expected murderers and thieves, psychopaths and lawyers. But 90% of the men there, all men, were illegal Burmese immigrants who were working on the fishing boats in the south of Thailand (three years later the government improved the laws to allow them to stay and work legally, since Thailand was short of a labour force). They were just here for a job. There were a few fist fights with people being punched to the ground and kicked, but these were mainly the long termers who vied with each other for control and ran the inside of the detention centre by buying and selling things to the prisoners.
The first of seven nights I had to sleep on a concrete floor with a sheet of newspaper for a mattress. They didn’t think that far ahead when they planned the detention centre. Cockroaches crawled across my back as I slept. A ten inch rat jumped right onto my right thigh in order to jump through the bars of the door. I was noticeably uncomfortable with that. Later they moved me to a bigger cell, away from Sam because a guard disliked Sam and didn’t want him to enjoy speaking English with me. Left without anyone to talk to, unless I hollered over to Sam across the aisle, I was stuck with 16 other Burmese in a space about 10 feet by 15 feet. We were the lucky ones. Across from us were about 80, yes 80 guys in a cell about 20 feet by 20 feet! They had themselves stacked three people high on blankets tied between the many bars. B.O. dripped off the prison walls. I had just enough space to lie down with someone’s feet right at my head, being careful not to shove my feet into someone else’s face!
There was a gentle sixteen year old Burmese boy who I really felt for because he had bullet wounds on his chest and arm. He managed to explain that Burmese soldiers had tried to stop him from fleeing into Thailand and they shot him several times. He fully recovered but the marks from the wounds were two inches across. He kept asking me if I could take him to Canada with me. He was very much afraid of being sent back to Burma — Myanmar, they all called it. They didn’t even know what Burma was! I kept saying how sorry I was and I felt just so awful and sad for him. I wanted so much to help him avoid going back.
I was trying to work out a deal with immigration so that I could just leave the country rather than go back to Canada. I succeeded at a cost of $2000 Canadian. Until the deal, I did not know that I would be in jail for seven days, or one day, or much longer. That not knowing bothered me, you understand. The best Buddhist lesson I got from that hellish experience was the lesson that what bothered me the most was the thoughts in my head. My greatest suffering was anger and frustration with the situation. I really learned something about myself in that squalid jail cell. I learned that I suffered much more from the idea of being there, than I did from actually being there in that physical environment. Some of the time I just relaxed and read a book.
I could still sit there and meditate sometimes. They fed us sticky rice and soup twice a day. But it really wasn’t so bad. It was the constant chatter in my skull that made it bad. I realized that we suffer the same way whether we are in jail, at home in a mansion or on vacation in the tropics. We take our skulls with us and we always suffer from that constant chatter in our minds. The solution is to work with your mind. The solution is not to save up for another vacation to get away from it all (all but your mind). Now I’m glad I went to jail!
When I was released the police actually apologized to me for putting me through something that was more severe than required for a mere three month overstay. After the police released me the colour green took on a whole new meaning! The streets were teaming with light and colour and fresh air! Inside, in the fanless heat, we only had a bit of opaque glass on the ceiling to guess if the sun was shining. Now I felt like someone who had just stopped beating their head against a wall. One sweet, humble police officer escorted me by plane to Bangkok International, where he inserted me into a plane bound for Malaysia. Freedom! That same morning I woke up on a damp concrete floor in prison and that night I stayed in the five star Shangri-La Hotel in Penang. What a life.
I was in Thailand for four years, which was much longer than I had originally envisioned. I decided in the summer of ’95 to spend some time in the monkhood. In the Thai tradition you don’t have to be a monk for life, you can do it for just a few months. Typically before a young man gets married, he enters the monkhood for one month because the Thais believe that a man is more ripe for marriage after he has had the spiritual training of the monkhood. His fiancee and mother will come and visit him and bring him nice food, and make sure that he doesn’t get any ideas about committing himself for life to the monkhood. They want him ripe but not too ripe! In the Chinese or Sri Lankan traditions, once you become a monk or a nun you are expected to remain for life so it would be a real shame on your family if you ever quit. Later, when I worked at the Chinese temple in Richmond, B.C., my understanding boss Julia said, “Don’t tell people that you were a Buddhist monk.”
In preparation for my change in life, I moved into a temple in town called Wat Ou Sai Kham. I stayed there at the invitation of the abbot, Ajhan Cheron, who took me on a long road trip to fabulous temples in the north. We went to a favourite temple patronized by the crown Prince and I came upon this laughing guard chatting with some people while a huge machine gun rested on the table in the periphery of his vision. He was stationed to guard solid gold Buddhas behind bullet proof glass. The Ajhan liked having foreigners stay at his temple, his little kingdom, and he and the other monks practiced their English on me. I taught a regular class to two novice monks, about 20 years old. One of them was from Laos and he told a dramatic story of how his family fled the communist take over just after he was born in 1975. He was pretty young then so he didn’t remember any of it. His mother had to flee across the river holding him, and she made it into Thailand. He grew up near the Laos boarder. I’ve been to that area and 90% of the people speak Laotian. It was a part of Thailand over a hundred years ago. He was practicing his English by telling us about his hilltribe village in the jungle. I would give them diversions from studying their Headway English language book published in England. It contained reading and comprehension lessons based on Buckingham Palace info or Charles Dickens stories that had nothing to do with their lives.
This sweet little novice monk kept having laughing fits. Sometimes I tried to be funny which is my nature, and part of my job as a teacher but I would get bent out of shape when he would think that one of my rational explanations was ridiculous or utterly funny. Once he had to get up and go across the shrine room to the window so that he could have a proper laughing fit and concentrate on it mindfully like a good would-be monk. His laughter was infectious for his companion, the Thai novice. It’s not hard to get Thais laughing. The Laotian described his hilltribe upbringing, very different from Thai culture. Like most hilltribes they were not Buddhists, they were Animists, people who worship spirits in the forest. Buddhists also acknowledge the existence of devas that live in the forest, on the earth and in the sky, but we don’t worship them as gods. The Buddha called forest devas “tree sprites.”
The novice told me that they shot wild pigs in the forest to help support themselves. I asked him if he ever saw any wild tigers because I knew that they were sadly diminishing. He said that some wild pigs were getting eaten by tigers in their hills, so they sent hunters out to kill the tigers. I was understandably disturbed by his remarks so I said that it was wrong to kill tigers. I even pointed out that the Buddha said that tigers were one of the “noble beasts,” which should not be eaten. “No. No, teacher, you no understand,” he said. “The tiger, he kill the pig. So the shooter, he shoot the tiger, and then… then he shoot the pig.” He broke out with a broad smile at the last part as if everything finally made sense! Next, I laid a statistics trip on him and I held my hands up in the air trying to speak slowly. “Many tigers now gone,” I stared at him desperately.” So few. Better to let them live.” He looked at me as though he was talking to a mentally retarded adult. “Oh, Mr. Brian, the shooter get the tiger because the tiger get the pig. Is O.K., is O.K.,” he assured me. After our exchange I nurtured the hope and belief that he did in fact realize that some people feel that it is a bad thing to shoot tigers. Even after bringing up the subject of tigers in other classes, I don’t think that he ever got the idea that there is something wrong with killing them.
Next, I moved into Wat Ram Poeng with the intention of ordaining as a monk for about three or four months. This is a beautiful monastery at the foot of the mountain Doi Suthep, about one mile from Chiangmai International airport. This is where I originally went for my one month Vipassana retreat almost three years before and I kept up a relationship with them throughout that time, so this monastery was my natural choice for ordination. I walked through the front gate and down the main lane surrounded by teak and jackfruit trees. It happened to be a warm and sunny day, that day, so I guess that was a good sign. My meditation instructor, Phra Sawat, was expecting me. I had met him many times before preparing for this big day. He was about 40, very self assured and from a family very successful in business. Like many Thai monks, he was in the monkhood on behalf of his family, it was merit for all of them. My sponsor was impressed with me, he said “Brian, you’re not becoming a monk for your parents. Your parents have passed away. You’re doing this for yourself!”
Phra Sawat assigned me to a concrete bunker in a row of eight concrete bunkers. Now I understand what Hitler’s last days were really like down there. Everything was run down, compared to Canada, except for the new school with ten new Apple computers and the great marble library where they housed the canonical scriptures translated into a dozen different languages. The computers were donated for a project to translate the Theravada scriptures into the Lanna language. That is the northern Thai dialect which very few people need to read. I wondered if their resources would have been better pointed towards the future instead of the past. This temple had money, big money. The Thais all give about 10% of their income to the local temple; they are very devote. Even foreigners who own restaurants must give to the local temple or they lose face. In the West, people don’t believe in donating much, some of them have rebelled against the church and are against the idea of tithing, so Western Buddhist centres are typically poor. If you charge Westerns a fee, they will pay it. If you ask for donations, they will give two bucks, or maybe five bucks.
My room was 15 feet by 9 feet with no hot water, paint chipping off the walls and a squat toilet. I saw some spiders on the wall so huge that I lost sleep. There was no hot water in the entire monastery, except for the abbot’s quarters, and I could hardly take a shower there. The Thais don’t believe in hot showers because they’re hot enough! I arranged my books and few possessions on some rickety shelves, spread out my thin mat, and made myself at home. I lived there for seven months.
Phra Sawat spoke pretty good English and he was very intelligent, not just about dharma but about people. He gave me instruction in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition of Vipassana meditation from Burma and trained me to be a meditation instructor. Phra Sawat had an open screen office and there were about 20 people on retreat who would wait in line 50 feet outside, and take turns so that he could go over our minds. He would say to me, “Mr. Brian your intention must be make effort!” When I was bummed out from my depressing room or my depressing mind, I would usually leave his office feeling lifted and a bit cheered up. For food we ate cafeteria style at 6:00 am and 10:30 am. No one could eat solid food after noon until dawn the next day because that is part of the ten precepts for people on retreat. I used to like to meditate on the roof of the library. It was such a beautiful structure, covered with gold nagas (dragons), carvings of stories from the Buddha’s life, and a bright red ceiling. I took many photos of it. Women weren’t allowed upstairs but the reason was not sexism. It is because the Buddha made a precept that a monk cannot be in an enclosed space alone with a woman. The stairs went up to an enclosed second floor where monks frequently sit in meditation. If a monk was alone there, and a woman just passed through on the way to the roof, then the monk would be obligated to undergo a strict penance practice which could last several days.
I had to wear white robes for four months before I could ordain. This is to be sure that foreigners are serious, and also to be sure people aren’t doing it just to get a free visa to stay in the country, which people used to do. Once you’re in the monkhood, they will renew your visa indefinitely as long as you are in robes. One syndrome that happens at temples in any religion is that they attract people who can’t make it in life, often because they have negative personalities. I was warned about this by my former boss Bill Szabo. He kept me on the employee list for a year because he thought that I would be disillusioned and return to Vancouver.
In the Buddha’s day the elite of society left their lives and spouses behind to join the Buddha in the monkhood. Can you image if our society today solicited men and women to ordain with lines like:
“Would you like to guide others in your community? Would you like to provide the highest level of guidance — spiritual guidance? Are you having trouble getting along with others? Nobody wants to be in a relationship with you? Are you a bit of an angry or confused person? If you’ve struck out at life, or at getting a decent job, perhaps you should ordain as a Buddhist monk or nun! In this way you will immediately be elevated in society to the level of a spiritual person. When people want to visit, to check out what the Buddhist way of life is like, they will see you.”
The quality of the people around you is everything. If you live in a concentrated spiritual community, this is terribly important to consider. The Buddha said that we need good friends on the spiritual path. This is a real challenge without a known solution. I was impressed by the calibre of monks and guests at Wat Pah Nanachat. The most honoured monk at the Wat was Ajhan Sumedo who was visiting from Amaravati in England. He’s probably the most famous American monk and he first ordained there in the mid 1960’s with Ajhan Cha, in the forest tradition. It was my 36th birthday, new year’s eve, and I had been there for three days so I had to shave my head, as per their rules for men. I waited to have an audience with Ajhan Sumedo and he smiled at my chrome dome. “Are you going to join the club?” he invited me. I decided to ordain close to others in Chiangmai, even though I preferred their Wat. The Thais say it’s best to ordain far away, like shooting an arrow, but I didn’t want to so I evaded Ajhan Sumedo’s flattering question. I felt bad about shaving my head, “I hate it. I just discovered that I have a ridge along the top of my head!” I complained. He chuckled about my attachments.
Back in Chiangmai, I ordained on January 25, 1996. It took over three hours. My sponsor came with his friends from the air base. He was Lt. Col. Khun Suriyan, a really good friend of mine. He used to drive me around in his old blue car and sing really old songs. It was an honour for him and the other officers at the military base to pay for my robes, my bowl and so forth. The Buddhists believe that it earns great merit to support someone in the monkhood, and rightly so. The reason why people believe that, is because it is true. The senior scholar monk, visiting from university in India, Phra Interakito was the one with the greatest sense of humour. He volunteered to shave my head that morning. It had to be shaved bright and shiny for the ceremony and I had some serious five o’clock shadow after a few weeks. Steve, our American forest ranger friend from Utah was the photographer. Our buddy Hans Madsen came dressed formally, “This is a wedding,” he said. Hans is tall, blond, good looking, gay, British, and from Angola. He lived a tough life, with the revolution there. Hans gave up an illustrious career in the shipping business, to go to university and get two masters degrees in literature. After all of his accomplishments he flew to Thailand looking for Buddhism.
During the ordination ceremony I wore a white robe as a pakow, a lay person, then my orange monks robes were handed to me. There were about 60 people present and three Thais were ordaining with me, one for just a week and another for just a month. Our abbot’s abbot officiated, Ajhan Tong. He had a dozen monasteries in the north and he was number seven in line for the top monk’s position in Thailand: the Sangharaja, “king of the monks,” like the Pope of Thailand. Thais generally feel that the most virtuous monks are to be found in the jungles, not at head office in Bangkok. Ajhan Tong gave us a beautiful talk about the meaning of the monkhood, the discipline and the precepts. He gave me my monk’s name, Buddhasaro bhikkhu, which means “the one who thinks of the Buddha.” They pick the name out of a book, based upon one’s birth date. They said that it was auspicious that “Buddha” was in my name. About 15 of the Western retreatants came in to watch. Temples are a place for ceremonies. The bot is the building restricted for monks only, lay people are never allowed in. In the bot they completed our vows. We had to stand outside while they asked us ten traditional questions, such as “Are you a human being? Are you a man? Are you free from debt?” The reason why the Buddha prescribed the question about being a human is that there is a source story in the scriptures about a naga. A naga is a deva in the higher realms, that looks like a dragon or a serpent. Once, a naga wanted to become a Buddhist monk so he changed into human form as devas can do. Incidentally, the Buddha said that most people are born from the womb, but some take spontaneous uprising. These are manifestations of the higher realms. The naga passed himself off as a monk, but one day his karma caught up with him and he fell asleep in the virharn and changed back to his naga form. The other monks witnessed this and asked him to leave. The naga left very sad because he was totally devoted to the Buddha and wanted to be one of the Buddha’s monks. So, he slithered his sad little face back into the forest. Sweet story and it’s probably true.
After the final ordination we went outside and the lay people competed to put money into our bowls because we were new “pure” monks who hadn’t broken any of our 227 precepts yet (or learned them either). [The photo above is of that very moment, stepping out of the bot. My room is immediately in the background.] The alms bowl was a novelty, most Buddhist countries don’t use them anymore. We had to go out at 6:00 am and walk barefoot with no hat. In January, it’s cold at dawn in northern Thailand! We had to walk 2.5 kilometres to beg for food at Talat Payom, the market. The lay people would stand by the trunks of their cars and laden us down with food. Some would kneel as I gave them a blessing in the Pali language. The chant is a blessing to invoke the devas in the god realm to give them beauty, strength, long life and happiness. Thirty million people in Thailand know this particular chant. I had to eat my food alone in my room because monks shouldn’t chit chat with the boys while they eat. Mindfulness. Mindfulness/awareness. Two meals in the morning, then no more food until the next dawn. Some poor neighbourhood kids would come to my kuti and take my leftovers everyday. Pindabat, going for rounds is a fantastic relationship of give-and-take for the monks and lay people. It’s a beautiful thing to partake in! It would be something to experiment with that in the West, as Ajhan Sumedo has done in England.
I was surprised to discover that I didn’t get more than average dharma reading accomplished as a monk. As Rosanne Rosannadanna says, “There’s always something.” I was more inclined to meditation than study. The abbot asked me to teach Vipassana to the foreigners, 20 sometimes, so I helped out with that. He trained me as a meditation instructor by allowing me to sit beside him during his many interviews with the meditators. I saw everything and I could see that he’s seen it all before. Ajhan Supan is an attained meditator in the Burmese tradition and he is a year younger than myself. One reason why such a young monk was appointed as abbot is because he is an abhidharma scholar. The abhidharma, or “higher dharma” is the last of the three baskets of the Theravada scriptures. It includes a detailed explanation of the universe and consciousness.
Wat Ram Poeng is an abhidharma temple. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the volumes of abhidharma scriptures. I’m good at anatta, the five skandhas of non self, which is the core of the abhidharma teachings. But I would sit in the sun on the roof of the library turning the book around, trying to glean some sense out of the very technical wording. I would read, “Conauscience factor number seven,” which had several items associated with it, before moving on to Conauscience factor number eight. I think you have to be on a really high level to “get it.” I didn’t “get it;” the teachings are self secret.
Other temples aren’t so much into this third basket of the scriptures, but Wat Ram Poeng is and Ajhan Supan was the best man to run the place. He was always so calm and happy. Once I went in to see him with one of my petty little concerns and he said “Sneck. Sneck.” I smiled, trying to figure out what a “sneck” was. He reached for his long stick with the hook at the end and moved towards a huge six foot green snake slithering right on top of his guest room table in the elegant abbot’s meeting room! I jumped back, “Yikes!!” as Ajhan Supan concentrated on the snake. Hooking the snake, he carried him outside and put him on the ground as tough he was taking out the garbage. He was cool man.
Another special quality of our abbot was demonstrated every full moon and new moon. Every two weeks all the monks gathered in the bot to perform an ancient ceremony initiated by the Buddha — the recitation of the patimokkha. These are the rules, the precepts for the monks and they all had to be spoken in the Pali language. First we would make confession of any transgressions we made of our monk’s 227 precepts. We didn’t have to actually say what we did. We just confessed that we did in fact break our precepts. This was an affirming and strength giving process and I know why the Buddha prescribed it. I always paired off with Phra Dhammarato because his English was fairly good, as he is an Australian. Not perfect, but I could understand him really well. We didn’t all have to do the recitation of the patimokkha. Ajhan Supan was selected for the job because he could do it the fastest, so that we could listen to him, and be out of there in 20 minutes flat. His speed was incredible! Sparks practically flew off of his teeth.
A pair of English fellows did a retreat with us and I loved their typical dry humour, but Mike came up to me alarmed one day and he asked me to check on Scott. I found Scott drumming on his travel bongo drums and he was not sane. He was staring into space and Mike told me that Scott had been suffering from depression. Jonathan, the Dutchman staying long term came to the rescue and took control. It wasn’t long before we were loading Scott on a truck bound for Suan Prung Mental hospital. Jonathan and I would go and visit him everyday and Mike arranged to cut short Scott’s trip and send him home to England. The temple was wary about their reputation when meditators from their retreats had to go to the mental hospital. The temple would have been happier if people didn’t know, because it’s a loss of face for them. Asians have a much bigger problem with face than we do. Scott’s breakdown was the only case I had witnessed of something I had been trained about as a meditation instructor. The mistake was that Scott should not have been instructed to do such long hours of meditation because he was in a depression. There’s no problem with the meditation practice. The danger that Scott stepped into is that he stopped meditating and he just sat there thinking about all of his depressing problems and thoughts. It’s like a black hole. You slowly slide down a slippery slope to a repeating loop of black habitual patterns. Because of the language barrier, the meditation instructor did not understand the severity of the problem that Scott was explaining to him. The instructor just said, “Don’t worry about it. Just keep meditating.” Scott should have done more walking meditation and stayed more into his body rather than just his mind. Something like mindful sweeping around the temple grounds is ideal for depression. Purposeful action is excellent for burning through depression. Keep ’em busy!
Wan phra means “Buddha day.” This would fall every seven or eight days according to the moon and 100 people would come in the evening, some staying and meditating overnight, which is traditional. Usually only old ladies and maybe one old man will stay the night, the younger generation is busy doing nightclub dance meditation. I wonder if a similar problem was happening in Tibet even prior to the Chinese invasion? During one wan phra, Ajhan Supan gave a talk and surprised me by asking me to give a reading in English. Later we went outside the Virharn and lit beautiful little bouquets provided for us. We would light three candles, for the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, and circumambulate around the main stupa (chedi, in Thai). That particular stupa was built the year before Christopher Columbus set sail for America, and it has an Indian look to it. This is a very old monastery. The stupa is a construction of rocks and bricks and it stands about 60 feet high. It may even contain a bone of the Buddha. That’s the idea of a stupa. It is an object for veneration because inside are the relics of a venerated monk or nun. The Buddha described how to make a stupa by folding his robe into a square, putting his bowl upside down on the robe, and putting his staff on top. Because of those instructions, today billions of dollars are spent in Thailand and other countries, on the construction of stupas. It’s a very big deal. People do three circumambulations always in a clockwise direction because when people greeted the Buddha they always kept their right side to the Buddha, coming or going. The cultural reason for this was to show that you weren’t carrying a sword in your right hand.
The abbot asked me to give dharma talks to the foreigners and my first dharma talk was about the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment. I quoted from the sutras:
In the first watch of the night the Buddha saw the nature of beings.
How they arise, dwell, and pass away.
In the second watch of the night he recalled all of his previous lives.
Then, in the last hour before dawn his eyes fell upon the morning star
Which triggered the great enlightenment, and ended the cycle of death and rebirth.
As I prepared my lectures I kept vigil over my ego. I recalled the admonition of the Buddha in the Dhammapada (Byrom, 1976; 21):
Whatever a fool learns,
It only makes him duller.
Knowledge cleaves his head.
For then he wants recognition,
A place before other people,
A place over other people.
“Let them know my work,
Let everyone look to me for direction.”
Such are his desires
Such is his swelling pride.
One way leads to wealth and fame,
The other to the end of the way.
Look not for recognition
But follow the awakened
And set yourself free.
Heeding this warning, I also believed in the idea of teaching whenever someone asks for teachings. Benefitting others with the dharma is the highest act of compassion. We don’t have to second guess our good intentions, and I won’t convince myself that I’m on an ego trip when the truth is that I am not.
We had a German machee named Maggie who has come to Wat Ram Poeng every year for 16 years. She would work as a cook in Germany, then spend all winter on retreat. She seemed a bit jealous that I was giving Buddhists talks because no one would think about inviting her to do so. I don’t blame her feeling, because sexism is the reason for the tension. There’s no way a woman could give a talk with a group of monks present.
The other machee named Kate was in love with Phra Sawat. Being a good monk, he could not respond to that. He even took her to the hospital in town to view the dead body of a man in the morgue who was killed in an automobile accident. This is the contemplation on death that the Buddha taught as a way to overcome sexual desire. Think of the body as something fowl and pestilent. Kate’s feelings were not unusual. It happens that people fall in love with their meditation instructor, because the depth of the experience is closely associated with the guide. Before she flew back to England she recounted a moment when she sat with a monk. A Thai woman walked 400 feet across the grounds from the kitchen to give the monk a drink because that’s a way people can earn merit. She dusted off the table, and presented a tall glass of coconut juice for the monk. She turned and didn’t pay no never mind to Kate, and walked away. There’s not much merit in giving a drink to a woman, so c’est la vie. The Thai people are very friendly but this was institutional rudeness. At the end of the 20th century thousands of Thai women were putting pressure on tradition to fight for women’s equality. This account of sexism is not fair to the Thais because things have improved. However because the religion is ancient that part is slower to change.
I took a monk business trip to Bangkok because there were some famous teachers near there that I wanted to get teachings from, such as Phra Payutto, and I wanted to see Chualalongkorn Buddhist University. I took the train down and I had gotten used to people bowing to me. The traditional Buddhist custom is that people hold their hands together on the heart centre in anjali and give a little bow when they greet or relate with a monk. It’s not strict. As a monk I could not bow back, not even to the King of Thailand. Monks are supposed to be higher, they’ve taken the higher ordination. In Bangkok I was a visiting monk at Wat Mahatat, where the university is located. I knew about ten Theravada monks from Cittigong. This is a corner of Bangladesh next to the Burma border. There are about a million Buddhists there surrounded within a Muslim country. The monks told me that sometimes the Muslims would be rude or hostile to them in Bangladesh, but the monks couldn’t fight back. The university was a fascinating mix of Theravada monks from all over. It was a block from the very famous Grand Palace, where I went for free because I was a monk. Japanese tourists would line up beside me and take turns having their photo taken with me. It was fun but meaningless, I felt like a monk doll.
At the temple the Venerable Dr. Khemananda took me under his wing. This monk was a scholar and he was passing out copies of three of his Buddhist books in English — quite good, scholarly and with many footnotes. I loved being with him. He spoke excellent English so I could have serious dharma discussions with a monk — a rarity. One day he asked me to join him for lunch. We went out and came upon a huge old silver Mercedes parked inside the temple. Oh. I got in with four other monks, plus the driver and we were cruising downtown Bangkok. I snickered at the whole scene. We drove to an air conditioned mansion along the banks of the Chao Praya River. Surrounded by BMWs, Porches and a Rolls Royce, we walked into the house from the “beach.” Even the rich people had to smell the water, breathe the hot polluted air, and get stuck in traffic. It’s easy to have compassion for the rich in Bangkok. The daughter and son-in-law greeted us and Dr. Khemananda explained who I was without properly introducing me. They probably weren’t in the mood to speak English. I assumed that the better educated Thais like this probably spoke better English. They all said a perky “phra falang,” so that was my introduction. We were visiting a retired Minister in the Thai government who was a long time patron of the doctor’s. Two of his extremely attractive and exquisitely well dressed granddaughters (I assume) served us. They were seriously challenging my precepts with regard to women. They bent over and served us honey covered shrimp cakes flown in from somewhere, and every other expensive beautiful and wonderful food I could imagine. I started with sticky rice. I felt like a poster boy for falang Buddhism. I was the guest phra falang and the doctor felt that it was a feather in his cap to be showing off a Canadian monk. I yearned for Karme-Choling in Vermont where we would take courses and meditate together for four hours a day. I vowed then that someday I would make it back to my Buddhist homeland: America.
We were invited to the minister’s house to do some chanting, so after lunch Dr. Khemananda passed this long white string around so that all of us were holding it. At the other end of the string, it was wrapped around a large photo of the minister’s late wife. We chanted in Pali for her. Leaving the track lighting and air conditioning behind, we were soon back in the car in Bangkok traffic. There are worlds within worlds and heavens within hells.
I taught several drop in visitors at Wat Mahatat. They asked me to help out there because they had just one monk who could teach well in English. That was fun. I met some dharma students that I kept in touch with years later. Patricia was a half Brazilian, half Irish Hare Krishna who came for days and she was so very appreciative of Buddhism and Vipassana practice. She was with me once when Helen Jandamit came to visit me. Helen, my mentor, is an English woman who has lived and taught Buddhism and Vipassana for 20 years in Bangkok. She runs the House of Dhamma, which is in many tour guidebooks. When I was working for the Buddhist University in Chiangmai the senior monks had me transcribing lectures of Ajhan Helen Jandamit. That’s how I got into her teachings. She was the one who taught me that precepts mean intentions, not vows. When I was putting my first Buddhist course together Helen was very encouraging. “Just teach what you want to teach, and the students will come,” she said. Patricia sat with us in section five, a meditation hall too small for the needs of the temple. “The Hare Krishnas don’t meditate,” she said with the concerned tone of a woman losing her faith. “They just chant to god, but we were never taught to meditate.” She was on her way back to Catholic Dublin, where there were no dharma centres, so I realized how important it was for me to teach people. Not everybody has a big choice of Buddhist centres. It was at Wat Mahatat that I decided to focus on teaching Buddhism and being a better teacher. In my meditations I came to see clearer how I limited and denied myself before I even got started. What I thought other people were doing to me, I was doing to myself. I decided alone, on my own and without external validation, that I was a Buddhist teacher. I never looked back.
I definitely could not stay in the monkhood to teach Buddhism. The whole point in going to Thailand was to leave. After my training, I intended to go home, which is always where I wanted to be. I was like Dorothy in Oz for four years. So, I decided to disrobe, teach a Buddhism course in Bangkok, and then fly home to Canada. I did. I went back to Chiangmai to pay my respects to my beloved abbot, Ajhan Supan. Coming back to his warm, calm smile made me sad, because I was saying goodbye. He tried to talk me out of disrobing and he made me wait a day, then another day, to reconsider it. I told him that it was lonely being a Canadian monk. “If you leave, you’ll still be lonely,” he said, cutting right to my heart! He was so good at being concise. I’ll never know if that’s because of his English or because of him. His meditation instructions with Machee Pete tended to cut through people’s blah blah, and keep it simple. Machee Pete was his Thai/English translator and all the guys fell in love with her. It was because of her magnetic being and angelic expressions. She definitely had some level of attainment. People like her and Ajhan Supan redeem my whole faith in the Buddhist tradition of 59,000,000 people. Something has been working right for 2,200 years in Thailand.
My disrobing ceremony took about fifteen minutes. Ajhan gave me the five precepts of a layman and then he dipped this small kind of broom into a pot of blessed water. He splashed the water all over me, which is what I loved the most. I love rituals that make sense.
I taught my first proper course on Buddhism and meditation at the Community Services of Bangkok, a kind of American community centre. They were a great bunch of interesting people, mostly wives of embassy staff and wives of engineers who were stationed for a few years in the country. The wife of the American ambassador to Thailand wanted to take my course, but I left too soon. They were a captive audience because they were stuck in Thailand and wanted to know something about the native religion. I sent the following email back home to my family and friends describing my life in Bangkok:
Captain’s log, stardate 2539
[that was the year, according to the Thai calendar]
The Enterprise has been sent to an alien civilization to boldly spread the Buddhadharma where it has already been spread before. The landing party has faced obstacles of intense heat and radiation. They don’t speak the language too well but the food is good, fast and cheap. (Captain Kirk signals Uhura for a ship wide announcement:)
“This is the captain. What you don’t realize and must now be told is that Starfleet command would like the crew of the Enterprise to pull out of teaching English unless we have no other option. We must raise our sights (background musical score) and uplift these lost people by focusing on Hotels and tour groups of foreigners that have a genuine interest in the religion of this planet. We may make money or we may starve. The fewer of us that have virtue, the more merit there will be for the ones that do! We will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, magnetize any foe, to insure the survival and success of our mission. You must make it through that traffic and you must succeed! Kirk out.”
Nearby I would frequent the World Fellowship of Buddhists headquarters (WFB). Here I got friendly with Khun Prasert, the 84 year old director. He told me stories about leaving school in England because of the war, and coming home to Thailand. He was so old I wasn’t sure if he meant World War One or Two. He was friends with some Japanese administrators who had a “friendship pact” with Thailand during the big one. I really respected his age and I kept asking him questions about his early days. His experience was so precious. I talked about my aspiration to help spread Buddhism in the West and he was very supportive of me. He appreciated that I was going home “to the colonies.”
Back in Canada
I was sad in Thailand and always missed Vancouver. Once back home in Canada I looked up my old roommate Bruce who had introduced me to Buddhism. He was teaching at Douglas College and he gave me the idea of teaching a Buddhism course there. The Director of their Health Sciences department, Geraldine Street, put together an innovative series of courses on natural health and healing, which was not offered at any other community college in British Columbia. I arranged to see her and before our interview I did the Mangala sutra chants for blessings (see class ten). It may have worked. She agreed on the spot to sponsor my Buddhism and Meditation course and I came right on their deadline day. Following this I was hired at the Vancouver School Board. The program coordinator, Connie Gibbs was the force behind introducing spirituality courses at the school board. She noticed that most people don’t have a religion so there is a need out there for spirituality that is going unmet. I asked her if it was permissible to have a religious course in the secular environment of the school board. She said “If people object to it, then they can give me a course proposal of their own.”
One of the best Tibetan Buddhist centres in Vancouver is the Dalai Lama’s Zuru Ling. I became friends with the nun who teaches there, Anne McNeil, or Anila. A Canadian, she has been a Tibetan Buddhist nun since 1970. Anila suggested that we go to the International Buddhist Society on the Steveston highway in Richmond as we wanted to see this shimmering beautiful temple. I had talked with one of their directors previously about the idea of me teaching a class there but I had never seen the place. We went and it was full of colour, ponds, statues and probably the most beautiful shrine room in B.C., if not in Canada. Their statue of Quan Yin, the deity of compassion is twenty feet high with literally a thousand wooden arms. It’s also the biggest Buddhist temple in Canada. It’s of the Chinese Pure Land School. This was our first time there and we paid a visit to the office, unannounced. One of the directors came out and she was very generous and interested in how we could work together to propagate Buddhism amongst Canadians. She immediately explained that they had thousands of free books to give away and she wanted to know if we could recommend other Buddhist centres in North America. She really perked up when she discovered that Anila was the Buddhist Chaplain for the Correctional Dept. and that Anila served the needs of Buddhist prisoners in eight penitentiaries in the Abbotsford, B.C. area. Anila described the behaviours of several categories of prisoners and how the Chinese inmates wanted something for the veneration of their ancestors, but they wouldn’t tell her that directly.
Busy after closing time, the temple staff practically filled Anila’s Toyota with statues for the penitentiary chapels — some of them made of marble, statues for the prisoners, books, chant player machines, counting beads and incense. Walking in the light rain outside we all felt that this was a brilliant and virtuous streak to help spark some wakefulness in those that may appreciate it. The International Buddhist Society demonstrated the bodhisattva vow in action. Anila described their kindness by saying “They’re super missionaries.” The three of us felt delighted to be a part of some small effort that came together by our meeting that day. The temple was providing the actual financial means and we were there giving them another place to manifest their Buddha activity. The Buddhist teachings talk about virtue or goodness as being completely without effort, not produced or created by effort and requiring no effort to maintain; whereas confusion is said to require tremendous effort and pain (Judy Lief, 1990 seminary).
A couple of weeks after this I wrote to a Japanese temple that I know to see if I could get a gig teaching a Buddhism and meditation class. Before I followed up with a phone call, I did the Mangala Sutra chant, which is a deva invocation practice that I was taught by U Silananda when I was a Buddhist monk in northern Thailand, the year before. My purpose in this was to call to higher realm devas in the god realm to assist me. They did. When I phoned the Japanese temple, I couldn’t get through. This happened more than once. Three hours later, out of the blue, I received a telephone call from the director at the big Buddhist temple in Richmond! She asked me what I was doing. I said I was teaching three courses a week. She invited me to work there full time. We negotiated on the phone and she hired me on the spot. Monday morning, 9:30 am please. As I hung up the phone, I knew. I realized what had just happened to me. The devas. Over lunch I spoke to her later about this and she said that it was her own idea to invite me to work for them. She said that it wasn’t the devas but she could not deny that she did make the decision to hire me during that three hour period after I invoked the devas. Smiling, I politely disagreed with her. I have the ultimate conviction that the devas saw me as a scientist sees a white mouse in a maze. They could see that instead of some other temple, I should have been working for the IBS I live my life by the Buddha’s words prescribed in the Mangala Sutra blessing chant. This practice has helped out in the past and it will do more in the future.
I worked for six months at the temple as their public relations official. We received hundreds of visitors every day. What a blessing it was for me to meet spiritual people and tourists from all four directions! It was such an opportunity to propagate the dharma. I would receive school groups a few times a week for up to two hours, giving them a tour, teaching meditation and answering questions about Buddhism. Many Christian groups would come to investigate Buddhism so I gave a lot of talks on comparative religion. We had 90 kids from Surrey Christian Middle School and one boy stood near the fountain pointing at the statue of the baby Buddha standing with one arm pointing up and one pointing down, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. I told him that Prince Siddhartha founded the lineage of disco music, and they all howled! I had a lot fun with the students and the teachers too.
Once a family of healers from France paid a visit. As I brought them over to the ancestor worship area in the corner of the temple, they immediately felt an energy like a wind coming from there. When I explained that the tablets of over 1000 people who had passed away were there, they knew that they were feeling the energy from all the merit given to people’s ancestors. And they could feel the presence of the devas or spirits that connect with people there. When I walked past that corner sometimes I felt a more powerful, sacred energy.
People go to that temple just because it is very big and it stands out. After sixteen years without a regular class in English at the temple, I was the inspiration behind the first ongoing series of classes for meditation and various talks on Buddhism. With three classes a week, for the first time the temple had a regular sangha of local English speaking Canadians. In July of 1997 it started haphazardly because some of the temple goers didn’t have much respect for the practice of meditation. Theirs is a Pure Land temple so they just don’t practice meditation, except for a few like the nuns. They chant the name “Amitabha,” which they believe to be a celestial Buddha, a deity that will grant them salvation. While employed there, I never once told people the truth that Amitabha Buddha was invented by the Iranians around 150 A.D. as an expression of their Iranian belief in the Zoroastrian religion.
One of the directors returned from Hong Kong and he began regularly teaching some of my students and he said “Brian, I really appreciate teaching Westerners! They ask questions, they’re intelligent and honestly interested in the dharma. I want to increase the intellectual standard of the temple. Most of the people who come to dharma talks here are uneducated older Chinese women. It’s great to open up the temple to Canadians.” This indicates the generation gap which has occurred as few young Chinese Canadians want to follow the Pure Land tradition of practice. I have had several of these younger English speaking Chinese in my classes and they have appreciated a Western perspective on the dharma and particularly the techniques of meditation and contemplation.
At another time, I was out near the pond with the temple director and he said to me “Brian, the Pure Land is the only way. In this world we don’t have time to meditate. We don’t have time to study. The Pure Land is the only way to enlightenment that can work for us.” It really does sound like a drug, and it is not what the Buddha taught — very much the opposite in fact. The Pure Land distorts people’s views of Buddhism. When I was touring a Christian Bible college group around the temple, I took them into the Thousand Buddha Hall and their instructor was delighted to explain to them how, in the Buddhist religion, the patrons here do fortune telling and they shake a stick out of a cylinder of sticks and they use that number to correspond to a sheet where they go and read their fortune. “On the Chinese New Year,” she said with a disdaining gleam in her eye, “they shake twelve sticks out to read their fortune for each month of the year.”
Perhaps she didn’t realize that I wouldn’t stand still for such a remark regarding Buddhism, so I smoothly threw water on her words by having the last word. “However, the Buddha himself was against any such practices of fortune telling.” I explained how people like fortune telling so over the centuries it became attached to temples as a convenience, as a cultural affectation, but it’s not really Buddhism at all.
Although the Pure Land tradition practiced at the IBS is very different from my own Buddhist background, I do appreciate their visualization practice. Mahayana visualizations are not secret practices like some Vajrayana visualizations, so I will describe one here for the sake of study. Mahayana visualizations are very colourful. In visualizing Amitabha’s Pure Land you begin by visualizing the western sunset, then eight columns covered with diamonds, each emitting 84,000 rays of light. Later you see lotus flowers in the air and you think that each lotus flower has a hundred kinds of gem-colour and eighty-four thousand veins in the petals, resembling heavenly pictures. These veins have eighty-four thousand rays, all of which are clearly visible. This “sutra” also says that the smaller petals are two hundred and fifty yojanas in length and the same in width. Each of these lotus flowers has eighty-four thousand petals. Between each of them, there are millions and millions of Muni-gems as ornaments. Each of the Muni-gems emits a thousand rays, which are like canopies, being composed of the seven jewels, covering the whole Land.
This “sutra” goes on and on in this beautiful description of heaven. It’s quite delicious! In my own experience of this practice, I visualize the “Land” as outer space, surrounding planet Earth, vast lotus flowers orbiting in space, with a height of 250 yojanas. A yojana is about 1/10 to 1/4 of a mile in length. The currently orbiting nuclear weapons flower into celestial petals, wafting to earth as they completely clean our atmosphere. This Mahayana practice is so similar to Tibetan Vajrayana visualization practices that I believe that the Vajrayana is Mahayana.
In my work at the Chinese temple they would send me out to visit Buddhist prisoners in various penitentiaries in the Abbotsford area near Vancouver. This is a better way of going to prison than what I did in Thailand. The Buddhist Chaplain, Anila Anne McNeil took me as a visitor. When we arrive at Matsqui Institution we can’t take our wallets in with us — no money, so we lock them in the car. No Buddhist books or practice materials can be taken in unless they have been preapproved. No spontaneous generosity! The main gate electronically opens as the guards let us in thorough the double barbed wire fences. They check the register to be sure that I am an invited guest. Anila nurses me through the inevitable confusions we face. Sometimes they have a lock out, or a shut down, so visits are cancelled without notice. If the prisoners have internal strife and fighting, everything shuts down.
Sometimes the prisoners refuse to see the Chaplain. Once I brought many posters of the Buddha that were donated by the Buddha Educational Foundation in Taiwan. The posters are held, then given out later. At this time the prisoners were behaving badly so the prison Chaplain refused to give the posters to them right away. Since the prisoners don’t have power they responded by boycotting the visit of Anila. That’s the only power that they have: saying no. This occurred at a time when I brought out a Chinese nun, Venerable Wai Fan, from the temple where I worked. Fortunately we went to another nearby prison and the Chinese prisoners there came out and were delighted to see her. “I never thought a nun would ever come out to see us!” one of the inmates exclaimed.
There was a murderer who became a Buddhist in prison and was practicing for nine years. He wanted to see a Theravada Buddhist since he hoped to become a monk in a Theravada country like Thailand or Sri Lanka. Anila was a Tibetan Buddhist, so she called me because I had been a monk in Thailand. I went to the prison to see him. We walked through several long corridors outside in the rain. Entering the chapel I found a multi religion oasis with many pews. The prisoner I came to see, Donald, led me upstairs into a small loft with windows looking down on the main Chapel. Inside there was an altar set up for the Sikh and Muslim religions. It was Donald’s turn so he had the Buddhist shrine nicely arranged with candles, incense and a poster of the sitting Buddha. We sat on cushions before the shrine and I taught him the Vipassana meditation technique I had learned as a monk, as he wanted Theravada meditation, so that’s what we did. Sitting quietly, I had one of my better meditations. There was some feeling about transforming the energy of the place that gave me a calm kind of pulsation or inner glow. The sounds nearby, and the whole atmosphere made me feel as if we were meditating inside of the Bob Dylan song, “Visions of Johanna”:
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
(Dylan, 1966; Blonde on Blonde)
I listened to Donald going on about his problems in the penitentiary. And, we talked dharma. I listened to him teach the dharma. Isn’t this what students want? Our personal connection was good but I knew I couldn’t just chat and be a nice guy. In his situation I needed to cut through some neurosis. I could see that to some extent he may have been using Buddhism to gain some control within the prison, but I can understand why he would feel that way. We were discussing the karma of his murderous deed and Donald said apologetically, “Another way of looking at the karma of the person that I killed is that it was their karma too.” I couldn’t let that go so I raised my right hand with a polite interruption and said, “Well, aside from what their karma was, it was your intentional action to do what you did, so as far as your karma is concerned, that was intentional. You did that, so it’s pretty heavy karma.” He looked down, then to the side, indicating that he had heard me, then he carried on from there. I did have heart for him and I looked forward to enjoying being with him and listening to his prison world. I liked this guy. I have never met a killer that I didn’t like. The results of my efforts seemed positive.
Anila and I would go to the penitentiaries with Vietnamese Master Hoa and he experienced obstacles in working with the Vietnamese Buddhist prisoners. Some would listen and be with him, others would be less respectful and not pay much attention. Prisoners have all day to meditate it seems but it’s difficult in that environment to have a settled enough space to develop the practice. Prisons are not Buddhist monasteries.
A marketing person told me “Brian, you’ve got to have the necessary communication tools to get your message across to the people that need it. You’ve got to sell yourself and what you have to offer if you want to skilfully benefit others.” I took this to heart and my approach now is to use the skilful means of mass media as a lure to attract people to the dharma. This is how things are today and Buddhism adapts.
In another situation, a lawyer, Chilwin, told me that he wanted to study the dharma by going to original sources. Like many lawyers, he prefers to study original documents and primary sources when he researches a topic. When he wanted to learn more about Buddhism, I suggested studying the original Pali texts translated by Wisdom Publications. He decided to do that before he read more modern commentaries. That way, he could decide for himself what the Buddha said, before he evaluated what others said about him. Chilwin went to a well-known spiritual bookstore in town and he asked for the sutras. The young lady said “The sutras? Um… well, we have the Lotus Sutra.” “No,” Chilwin said, knowing enough from my course that the Lotus Sutra is a Mahayanasutra, hardly ‘an original source.’ I want the Theravada sutras,” he insisted. “Oh! Ah…” she looked around, “I don’t think we have any in right now. Sorry,” she apologized.
Keeping his cash, Chilwin walked out the door and left. Just five feet from the clerk were two copies each of the Long and Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, either would have fetched a good sale for the store. They were in a locked glass cabinet by the cashier. The reason why she didn’t realize that the books were sitting right there was because so few people ever order the Pali sutras that employees sometimes forget that they are in stock. There’s plenty of Mahayana sutras there though and the staff know exactly which shelves have the Mahayana sutras. Such is the state of Buddhism in this declining period of the sasana.
The reviews and feedback I’ve received from people who’ve read this book are quite positive. People have had wonderful transformational experiences just from this book. The invitations people give me to fly somewhere and lead weekend retreats or talks is an inspiring indication of the rise of the Buddhadharma in our time. Thousands of men and women have taken my courses and have had even more vibrant results than those with only Freeing the Buddha. There has been critical feedback, which I yearn for. I’ve used criticism to improve each subsequent edition; this is the fourth. I grow weak for lack of a worthy philosophical opponent. I’m actually looking for criticism of my book. I might even have to pay money for it. This book is “dangerous” only in challenging people’s thinking but it is not truly dangerous to the reader, no. The contrary is true, I believe, or I would not have granted permission to Motilal Banarsidass to publish it. A century ago Oscar Wilde wrote, “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”
This book is like a motorcycle headlight coming towards you as you stand at the end of a cul-de-sac on a moonless night. Out of the mist the rider comes and brings the light right up to your face. Maybe this is just a fantasy, but most good books are like that motorcycle headlight. They take time to grow. The Japanese have a word “kayzan,” which means “continuous improvements.” Maybe we can’t improve upon the Buddha, but we can sure improve upon how we communicate the letter and the spirit of His message.
The Future is More Important Than the Past
The future of pure Buddhism depends upon people respecting and upholding the past. If we lose our heritage, we are a lost, confused lot. At the Vancouver Burmese temple I had an audience with the Venerable Sayadaw U Janaka Bhivamsa, recognized as Burma’s foremost meditation master. I respectfully explained to U Janaka my sadness that the Tibetan Buddhists are dominating the Buddhist scene in Vancouver and the West. I gave him Freeing the Buddha and I shared my belief about how to relate Theravada Buddhism to today’s culture and I pointed this out in the “Theravada Manifesto.”
I was amazed and very honoured when U Janaka Sayadaw sat and quietly and deliberately read the entire Theravada Manifesto. U Janaka’s face was even, than he smiled and nodded when he was finished reading. I told him that I had committed my life to teaching Buddhism in the West. He said, “We believe that in order to teach Buddhism in the West it must be taught by Westerners.” I was relieved. At the end of my audience with the Sayadaw, he raised his right hand and he gave me a blessing saying “May you be well, happy and successful propagating Theravada Buddhism.” Then he and the ladies nearby chuckled as I soaked up his words with profound appreciation for his presence and his blessings.
I am one link between Theravada countries and the West. I act as a translator, translating Buddhism from English into today’s language with the attitude of a Buddhist Consumers Protection Agency. My role is to facilitate the emergence of Theravada Buddhism as a force in today’s culture. I am a boatswain who blows the whistle calling people to come aboard the ship. This means that I help other teachers shine by bringing in guest speakers to our ongoing sangha meetings and I defer to the guidance and wisdom of senior monks. I act in subordination to them, particularly my primary teacher, Ajahn Sona who has taken me right into the gold mine of truth, in order to support the unbroken lineage of the Theravada. Ajahn Sona is the spiritual advisor to our Theravada Buddhist Community of Vancouver and he has straightened out my views and answered my questions like no one has done before. Looking to the future, we are working to help the dharma take root during these pioneer centuries of Buddhism in the West. I am the only lay person working full time teaching Theravada Buddhism in the city — at five school boards and several community centres. Join my quest. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a phone call if you would like to volunteer some help or donate to this mission. There’s a lot to do in building enlightened society.
These have been some of my experiences treading the path of dharma. Sometimes my path has been a bit overgrown and I have gotten lost, needing a compass and a survival kit but the adventure continues.
– Brian Ruhe (“Born in Ontario” is Chapter 21 in Freeing the Buddha)