two extremes, monks, should not be followed by one who has gone forth: sensual indulgence,
low, coarse, vulgar, ignoble, unprofitable; and self-torture, painful, ignoble,
unprofitable. Monks, this middle way produces vision, produces knowledge, leads to calm,
penetration, awakening, extinction. And what middle way, monks, is that? Just this noble
eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right thought, right speech, right action,
right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Truly, monks, this
middle way produces vision, produces knowledge, leads to calm, penetration, awakening,
"Monks, this is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, decay is suffering, disease is suffering, dying is suffering, association with the unliked is suffering, separation from the liked is suffering, not to get what one wishes is suffering; in brief the five holding aggregates are suffering.
"Monks, this is the noble truth of the arising of suffering: craving, leading to further being, accompanied by joy and passion, delights in this or that, that is to say, craving for sensuality, craving for being, craving for unbeing.
"Monks, this is the noble truth of the ceasing of suffering: the complete dispassion, ceasing, abandonment, release from, detachment from that very craving.
"Monks, this is the noble truth of the way leading to the ceasing of suffering: just this noble eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
"With the thought, 'This is the noble truth of suffering and this suffering has been understood,' there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, comprehension and light concerning things unknown before.
"With the thought, 'This is the noble truth of the arising of suffering and this arising of suffering has been abandoned,' there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, comprehension and light concerning things unknown before.
"With the thought, 'This is the noble truth of the ceasing of suffering and this ceasing of suffering has been realized,' there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, comprehension and light concerning things unknown before.
"With the thought, 'This is the noble truth of the way leading to the ceasing of suffering, and this way has been developed,' there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, comprehension and light concerning things unknown before.
"Knowledge and vision arose in me: 'Unshakable is the freedom of my spirit; this is the final birth; there will be no further becoming.'"
Thus spoke the Auspicious One.
From the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha's first discourse.
At sunrise the air was crisp and taut. Later it would become heavy, saturated with heat, wilting me. Now, though, there was that keenness of illumination found in the equatorial sunrises of Ceylon. I felt alert and invigorated, the day not yet a burden.
Since I slept in my under-robe (having been told of the Vinaya rule against sleeping nude) there was only the outer robe to throw on before stepping onto the verandah to greet the morning. Already several of the monks were sweeping the dust from their rooms across the verandah and onto the lawn that fronted these quarters.
To my right Ven. Khirti's door was open; I could see him standing at his desk, examining some texts. To my left the lawn gave way to barren ground which separated the living quarters from the classroom, library, stupa, and shrine at the front of the compound. A few coconut palms rose towards the tropical sky. A dragonfly with an iridescent red body hovered over a dandelion, all four wings vibrating rapidly. Distantly I could hear the traffic noises of Colombo.
I stood idly for a minute, a passive observer, then went to the tap outside the shower stalls to wash my face and head in cool water. I dried off carefully, avoiding chills. I still tended the remains of that nasty cold I'd picked up in Calcutta, the result of meditating too long on cold tiles in chill night air. In the mirror above the basin I inspected my image for signs of lingering inflammation, searching with uncertain results, for the cheap glass distorted my features. My image and I shook our heads at each other, bemused that we should ever have thought it an achievement to perceive the world as we chose, without regard to the way it really was. Cold and heat were indeed relative, and I could attend to or ignore them as I chose (within the limits of my own capacities); but ignoring them didn't make them non-existent, nor did it make me immune to their effects. I'd sniffled and sneezed the whole journey to Ceylon.
I'd nursed myself on the train to Madras, then lingered several days after obtaining an entry visa for Ceylon. There was money to get rid of. Ven. Dharmapal had instructed me to make my way in Ceylon without money. I stayed in a good hotel, took taxis everywhere, and each day ate three meals in fine restaurants. While walking past a pharmacy I decided not to go in, not even to browse; but I read magazines and novels and smoked American cigarettes. The thought of returning to the gloomy poverty of the lay life was depressing. Although I foresaw an austere lifestyle in Ceylon I preferred my chances there. Free as I then was with money, I expected to be as free without it. But Madras was sultry, so I bought a plane ticket and landed, with a few dollars left, in Colombo, where the sun finally baked away the congestion.
After washing I took the broom from behind my door and joined the morning sweepers. I had doubts about the value of sweeping when there wasn't even a little pile of dust at the end to show for it; but so it was done by the monks here, and I wanted above all to get along. I wasn't always happy with the restraints of the robes, but provoking criticism didn't help me feel better, as I'd found out.
The breakfast bell still hadn't rung, although my belly told me it was time. Some of the other monks paced up and down, practicing mindfulness. When I finished sweeping I staked out my own length of verandah, but my gut kept rumbling, "Feed me! Feed me!"
My appetite was for something more substantial than mindfulness and my attention turned instead to the remnants of the head cold. How could I be mindful with blocked sinuses? It had been a welcome excuse since Calcutta, but now the alibi was worn as a beggar's rags, and I wondered how I could decently dress my distaste for renunciation.
I saw Ven. Khirti still standing by his desk. I was more interested in talking about mindfulness than in doing it, and so allowed my pacing to take me towards him. He suffered from spinal deterioration and couldn't bend to sit. Confined as he was to standing or lying down, the aging scholar was often good for some conversation.
"How are you feeling today, bhante?" Bhante was the form of address I'd been taught to use towards monks senior to me.
"The same, Vinayadhara. The body doesn't get any younger." Confronted daily with his ailments, and lacking words of healing or comfort, I always changed the subject as soon as I could.
"Breakfast seems very late today."
"There's no point in being impatient, Vinayadhara."
Impatience hadn't motivated my comment, so I said nothing.
"It will be ready when it is ready."
"Worrying won't hurry it any."
"Patience is one of the lessons the East has to offer the West. Westerners are always in such a hurry. They want everything right away, and if they don't get it they're unhappy."
"You're impatient about your residence visa, too."
"It's taking so long."
"Are you going to the immigration office again today?"
"No, I was there yesterday." I went every few days.
"And what did they say this time?"
"The same thing they've told me every time. My papers aren't ready yet, but maybe they'll be ready next time."
"Then you still have to stay in Colombo?"
"Yes. After they're approved I can go to the Hermitage."
Since arriving in Colombo I'd looked to Ven. Khirti for knowledge as I'd looked to Ven. Dharmapal in Calcutta. Both of them recommended the Island Hermitage as suitable for beginning meditation. I'd written and knew I'd be welcome as soon as my application for a residence visa was processed; but even the deference and respect accorded monks didn't speed up the machinery of a bureaucracy trained for centuries in the tactics of inefficiency by both Portuguese and British masters.
"You need to go to the Hermitage. Maybe there you can do something about your impatience. If you can wait that long."
"A lot has been achieved through impatience."
"But impatience is a source of suffering."
"It's just so difficult to be patient."
"Of course it's difficult. Nobody said it was easy to learn. If it were easy anyone could do it."
But I wanted patience now. If impatience was a source of suffering so too was the restraint of the robes. The Hermitage was on an island in a lagoon; there would be even less opportunity for diversions than here. My feelings alternated between bravado and trepidation. The idea that happiness was to be had by giving up, not by acquiring, was both fascinating and frightening. To go to the Hermitage would mean undertaking an uncomfortably large commitment to myself; I asked myself why I should want to go there at all if I was already so disenchanted with meditation.
"Bhante, you've told me about different kinds of meditation; now I've been reading about Buddha-nature, and I wonder what sort of meditation is best for realizing that."
"Buddha-nature? Where have you been reading about that?"
I told him.
"Conze! His views are pure Mahayanist. Anything he has to say about the Theravada tradition is probably wrong, because he's only studied it; he's never practiced it."
Ven. Dharmapal had tried to explain the differences between the Theravada and Mahayana sects of Buddhism, and Ven. Khirti continued my education.
"The only way to understand the Dhamma is to practice it. To strive for the goal of nibbana."
Nibbana was the Pali. The Sanskrit word, used by Mahayanists, was Nirvana. Ceylon was a Theravada country.
"But, Vinayadhara, the Mahayanists, they say they're going to refuse nibbana until everybody can attain it. They think that to find freedom from suffering while others still suffer is selfish. They say it's more generous if we all suffer equally. That may be democratic, but it's not the Buddha's Teaching."
"But if the Buddha-nature is in all of us, then ..."
"... Buddha-nature? What is this Buddha-nature?"
"It's the nature of the Buddha," I explained.
"Where is this Buddha-nature even mentioned in the Suttas?"
"I'm not exactly sure."
"The Pali Suttas don't even mention it."
"Then where does it come from?"
"This idea, that within us there's a Buddha-nature, and all we have to do is to realize it -- that's just a variation on the idea of 'soul', the idea that there's something eternal within us. And what does the Buddha say about that?"
"That all things are impermanent?"
"And that all things are not-self."
"I have trouble with that idea."
"If you didn't you'd either be enlightened or a fool. But the Buddha has said that if you look for a self you won't find one."
"Then Buddha-nature is just something some people made up long after the Buddha was gone?"
"It was easier than bothering to understand the Teaching. Because the only way to understand is to practice."
"But to practice you have to know what to do."
"Read the Suttas and find out. It's all been translated from the Pali. I've told you that all the texts are in the library. Ask the chief monk for the key. And start by reading the Vinaya to find out how to behave as a monk."
How to behave? Was he suggesting that my conduct was less than perfect? I didn't get the chance to ask (or to find out I dared not ask), for the temple boy brought Ven. Khirti his breakfast, and he excused himself. He was unable to eat with the rest of us in the danasala, the dining hall. I returned to pacing the verandah, knowing the bell would ring soon now.
He was right, of course: reading scholarly opinions would never lead to an understanding of this Teaching. I'd heard that advice before and, actually, had already taken the Vinaya from the library. But though the scholarly books were sometimes ponderous, sometimes condescending, they were also, sometimes, right on. Birth is the cause of death, one of them told me. We start dying the moment we're born. All the circumstances which may bring about actual death are but its occasions. How can we be at ease in the interval?
The temple boy rang the bell demandingly, but I waited until some of the other monks had turned towards the danasala before I made any move in that direction. Not only did I not want to seem hasty, but also it would do me no good, for early or not, breakfast wouldn't begin until the chief monk had been seated and everything had been done in its proper place.
I took my seat, cross-legged, at the end of the long bench and waited quietly. There were no dana dayakas; there would be no pańca sila ceremony to wait through. I didn't know how the food was obtained when it wasn't brought by dana dayakas; somehow things had been arranged to function smoothly; somewhere someone made it his or her personal concern to see to it that there was always breakfast, and I accepted the arrangement without further inquiry.
When the chief monk arrived the temple boy served the food. As always when there were no dayakas it was plain and unassuming: stringhoppers, Nestomalt tea, and bananas.
Stringhoppers were a stringy tangle of steamed rice-flour served with various sauces and picants, and I shoveled away all I was given, washing it down with estate tea from Upcountry, lavishly fortified with malted milk powder. The bananas today were the small sweet variety. Other days we got a larger type, called plantains, which were more delicately flavored, more coarsely textured. There was a third variety as well, very fat with a reddish skin and those were really good, sweet and creamy, but those, alas, I seldom saw since they were looked upon as village food, common, and therefore unsuitable as offering to anyone as venerable as a monk.
Hungry as I was, this venerable monk would have been glad to have another banana or two, even of the small variety, but none were offered, and I did without. Doing without seemed to occupy a substantial part of the monk's life; but apparently not substantial enough for all. There were, I'd read, thirteen allowable practices, called dhutangas, by which one accepted ascetic disciplines beyond those required by the Vinaya. Some of them seemed easier than others. There was, for example, the austerity of eating only food obtained on the almsround. My breakfasts weren't obtained on the almsround, but my lunches were, and I looked upon the almsround as a pleasure rather than a hardship. There were some dhutangas, however, that indeed seemed austerities, and among these was that of eating only once a day by giving up breakfast entirely.
When my last stringhopper was eaten I considered how ravenous I'd be, if I gave up breakfasts, by the time the lunch bell rang. Yet there were monks in the Buddha's day -- and there still were now, apparently -- who lived so from choice. There were even monks who undertook the austerity of living on twenty-one mouthfuls of food a day. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to give up the necessary pleasures of life, but was chagrinned to find that the idea fascinated me. What compensations could be found in such practices? Would I have sufficient perseverance and strength to adopt that life? How would it benefit me?
The commentary that described the dhutangas didn't answer these questions. Nor could any of the monks here, for I was quite sure none of them practiced any dhutangas, not even Ven. Khirti who, with the continuous pain of deteriorating spinal discs, found his days bleak enough without undertaking any additional austerities.
After breakfast I padded barefoot back to my room, where I hung up the outer robe on the robe-rack and lit a cigarette. There was enough money left to support that habit a while longer, but as I smoked I calculated my reserves. Monks didn't ask for things unless they were invited to do so, and as yet no upasaka had offered himself as a dayaka. There were other things, too, that monks didn't do.
"The dayakas, they don't like to see monks smoking," a monk explained. Occasionally I would notice, near one set of rooms, a faint aroma of tobacco; but nothing was said about it and I politely refrained from asking. We kept our bad habits to ourselves.
"The dayakas, they don't like to see monks wearing only the under robe," another monk said when I walked bare-chested to the wash stand, and he instructed me on wearing the robes.
"The dayakas, they don't like to see monks use money," still another monk explained, and gave me a booklet of prepaid bus coupons for my trips to the Immigration office.
They didn't need to use money, though, for family and friends saw to their material needs. But I didn't know how they managed their other needs, for although most of them spoke English and all were cordial, none was open to me about personal matters, and I didn't ask. Most of the monks here were older; there were a number of vacant rooms.
I didn't know how to manage my own other needs either, for in the last few days I'd felt vague stirrings of a sexual desire which had been more or less dormant, put to sleep a good half-year ago by small but regular feedings of various drugs.
"Read the Vinaya and find out how you're supposed to behave," Ven. Khirti had said. I looked at the books around me. Several lay on the floor beside the bed, open and face down; others were on the table by the window, beside the typewriter and the stack of typed pages. I picked up one of the books.
The five volumes that made up the Vinaya made for fast reading. Much of it I skipped entirely, for its content was predictable from its form. An incident would be described in which someone was outraged by the conduct of a bhikkhu and the Buddha would then make a rule forbidding that activity. Then variations on the incident would be described, showing by example just where lay that thin saffron line that marked the boundary between the allowable and the disallowable.
Playing with one's food, digging the earth, having a mirror (though there'd been mirrors in every temple I'd yet seen), trafficking with money, claiming (falsely) to having attained to supernormal states or (even in truth) telling laypeople of such attainments, sleeping (in the same room) with a woman, and masturbating were a few of the hundreds of things prohibited bhikkhus. It left me feeling glad to be still only a samanera and subject to nothing more complicated than the dasa sila.
The changes were rung on entire categories of the bhikkhu's life, describing in minute detail, for page upon page, exactly what, for example, was proper behavior in the company of a woman (aside from discussing Dhamma, practically nothing), and what behavior was improper (practically everything), what sort of speech was acceptable (two kinds: talk of Dhamma, or "the noble silence") and unacceptable (lies, gossip, talk of chariots, kingdoms, women, wars, etc. etc.), how, what, and where to eat, dress, walk, teach Dhamma, behave towards one's teacher, and get along with other monks.
Mixed in with all this were charming little stories of such a different nature than the categorized legal cases that I wondered which was the real Buddhism. As I read now I came to the story of the anger-eating demon.
A certain demon appeared in one of the heavens and sat on the throne of Sakka, King of the Devas. The devas, or deities, who saw this were shocked and outraged that such a sniveling ugly wretched gnome-like demon would dare to sit on the throne of Sakka, their King, and they expressed their indignation. As they carped the anger-eating demon grew in stature, his features became less loathsome, his power increased. The more anger the devas displayed the more he grew until at last he was a gigantic radiant powerful malevolence before whom the devas fell back in silent fear. Then Sakka, King of the Devas, came back from wherever he'd been, sized up the situation, and faced the demon.
"I'm Sakka, King of the Devas, at your service." And he bowed before the anger-eating demon. At this the anger-eating demon shrunk in size and lost some of his radiance.
"I'm Sakka, King of the Devas, at your service." And he bowed again, and the anger-eating demon shriveled down to his original gnomish proportions.
A third time Sakka bowed to the anger-eating demon and placed himself at the demon's service, and the anger-eating demon vanished entirely and was never seen there again.
I finished my cigarette and went outside to sweep up the leaves. The monks all did something each day in the way of keeping the temple tidy and functional, so I'd begun to help the monk who swept leaves. I'd applied myself with such diligence that by now I'd almost taken over the job entirely, being helped only occasionally by one of the other monks.
"Sweeping is a good time to practice mindfulness," I'd been told.
"I thought mindfulness was to be practiced all the time."
"It is. But with some chores it's harder to be mindful."
"I tried being mindful when I was typing."
"And what happened?"
"My fingers got all mixed up."
I'd taken up the task because sweeping was one thing to do with the monk's life that (I thought) I already knew about; but it didn't take long for the job to become a bore. Was this all there was to the monk's life? I didn't understand why enlightenment couldn't result from mindfulness about things more enjoyable. How about mindfully indulging in erotic imagery? As I gathered leaves I also gathered images of that flirtatious young lady in Calcutta whose ripe body and long black hair had known the touch only of my gaze.
I was glad the task of sweeping leaves would die a natural death any day now, when I received the residence visa and departed for the Hermitage, for there seemed no other way to end the job. It had come to be my possession because about a week ago I'd sought for it and, it seems, won.
I'd been cautiously sweeping near (but not too near) the bushes behind which lived a nest of biting ants (carefully staying out of their way) when one of the senior monks came bustling up to me.
"Vinayadhara; Oh, Vinayadhara."
"That's not the right way to sweep the leaves here."
"The right way?" I didn't see the error of my ways.
"Give me the broom" -- rakes were unknown in Ceylon -- "and I'll show you the right way, the easy way, the traditional way of sweeping the leaves. Come now, give me the broom."
He held out his hands and waggled his fingers, nodding emphatically. I handed him the broom and felt my surprise turn to astonishment and then resentment. I'd been enjoying what I was doing. Now he was sticking his nose into what I thought was none of his business, and destroying my pleasure by turning a pastime into a chore, in which there were many wrong ways and but one right way one. I listened sullenly to his instructions while understanding grew on me.
"You see, Vinayadhara, your hands are wrong."
I inspected my hands to see what might be wrong with them.
"I mean, you hold the broom wrong. The right hand should be on top of the left."
"What difference does that make?"
I knew what difference it made: in Ceylon as in much of Asia the right hand was the hand for eating, the left the one for washing oneself after moving the bowels. The left hand was lower than the right in this respect, so it followed (somehow) that it should be lower in all respects. Being left-handed in this part of the world was a source of many minor difficulties. But my instructor explained it differently: "That way you can swing the broom more effectively."
He emphasized his words with a vigorous sweeping motion, and swept as he talked, working at a rapid pace, much faster than I was interested in, raising dust.
"Look, look how quickly it's going now, Vinayadhara."
"I wasn't in a hurry." But I was ready to argue, until I thought better of it and waited.
"Your way, with your left hand on top, is backwards. You can't get an effective swing, and that's why it takes you so long. Right hand on top, Vinayadhara. That's the correct way. Now you try it. I'll watch to see that you do it right. Here, take the broom."
"No, that's all right, bhante." I didn't want a supervisor, and felt anger rising to flush my face.
"All right? What do you mean, all right?"
"If the way I sweep leaves is going to make people unhappy then I'd rather not do it. I'll find something else."
I waved off the broom he held and started to walk away.
"What's that, Vinayadhara? What do you mean? Come back!"
I stopped, unsure how the conflict had arisen, unsure how it might be ended.
"Vinayadhara, I didn't intend to offend you. Please believe me. It was for your own good I tried to show you the right way, but certainly I don't want to offend you."
Mollified, I would have dropped the matter if he had said no more. But he continued:
"In viharas, Vinayadhara, samaneras are expected to listen, to take heed, to, to, what is that English expression?, to lend an ear to the words of the senior bhikkhus. That's why you're here, Vinayadhara. You're only a samanera, you know. But forgive me" -- he smiled broadly and patted me on the shoulder with pudgy fingers -- "yes, forgive me, please, if I've offended you in some way."
Offended by his apology, I found nothing to say.
"I ask you, Vinayadhara, to take back the broom -- here, take it, now -- and to continue sweeping in any way you like. Take the broom, Vinayadhara, take it, that's right, thank you very much, now you keep on sweeping as you like, even with the left hand on top. And you know, Vinayadhara, you know that if you need more help I'm always glad to lend a hand. Glad to."
And he'd smiled again and left, and since that incident I'd seen no choice but to continue sweeping the leaves each day, left hand on top of right, at my own deliberate pace.
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1. This technical term requires extensive explanation to be intelligible. Briefly, the aggregates (khandhas) -- form, feeling, perception, conditions (sankharas) and consciousness -- are the basic constituents of experience; when involved with attachment they are involved with suffering (dukkha). [Back to text]