After sweeping it was time to get ready for pindapata: the longer I delayed the hotter it would get and the more hurried I'd be.
I dressed in the formal style, tucked a handkerchief into my belt, and took the almsbowl from its stand. The bowl was held inside the robe where it was somewhat protected from damage by a careless movement (though really it was metal and unlikely to be damaged: the custom derived from the days when clay bowls were more common).
Barefoot, I walked slowly past the library and into the front part of the compound. Already worshippers were there, bowing, making offerings, and circumambulating the stupa (a large white plaster hemisphere which housed, I was told, a single hair of the Buddha, preserved now for 2500 years). I went out the temple gates into the lethargic energy of Colombo.
There was more than one incentive that had made me decide to obtain my midday meals by going on pindapata, the almsround, rather than to accept the danas which were provided at the vihara. For one thing, I liked the food better.
When, newly arrived in Ceylon, I'd first eaten the food offered by dana dayakas, I'd been appalled to find that Sinhalese curries were so unspeakably hot that I was unable to take more than the smallest taste of them with the rice that formed the base of all noon meals. Yet, monks are supposed to eat what they're given, without regard to their likes and dislikes: so I'd been told. But try as I might to accustom myself to the chili peppers (used with extra liberality in food prepared for monks, so that it should be tasty enough!) they remained more than just unpleasant. An overdose, which wasn't much, would start my mouth burning as if it had been scraped raw. Then the fire descended my throat as I swallowed and lodged in my bowels. My nose became moist and runny; my eyes watered as if I'd been delivered of a stout rap on the bridge of the nose; something at the top of my throat became tightly, painfully, constricted; and in the extreme I got a case of the galloping hiccups that just wouldn't quit.
When I went on almsround (particularly so when I varied my routes so that I was never fully expected) people would give me only what happened to be around the house rather than specially prepared food, and the chili content of my meals dropped to a tolerable level. The first bonus, then, was that without having to pick and choose among the contents of my almsbowl my meals became more palatable.
For another thing I came to be regarded by some of the Sinhalese monks as exceptional. They asked me, as if I were doing something difficult, "How can you eat that food? It has no flavor!"
But the most important reason of all was that it gave me a chance, as much as my trips to the Immigration office, to get out for a bit and away from the monotonous peace of the vihara, for it was sometimes more peaceful than I could stand. Afternoon outings to restaurants and tea shops had come to an abrupt end with my arrival in Ceylon: that just wasn't done here.
I walked down the street slowly, eyes lowered, oblivious as I could be of everything more than about fifteen feet in front of me (but not as oblivious as to not look for traffic before crossing busy Galle Road). Several neighborhood food shops lined the road. I stopped at the last of these, turned facing the shopfront, and stood silently while the lady behind the counter quickly wrapped some food in a piece of paper and came out. With a move of my right hand I opened the front of the outer robe (what a time a flasher could have, I reflected) exposing the bowl (as well as my chest), into which the woman gently placed her offering. She bowed to me. I quietly intoned, "Sukhi hotu," may you be happy, and, letting the robe drape over the front of the bowl again, like a curtain on a performance, turned and continued on the almsround.
I didn't usually stop at stores because it felt like extortion: the shopowner knew he had to put something in the bowl to assuage the sensitivities of his customers, whether he wanted to or not. But whenever I tried to pass by that one store without stopping -- a tiny fruit and sweet shop, it was -- the middle-aged woman who operated it would run after me with her offering, so I knew: she was one of the faithful.
I went from house to house, stopping before each. Usually someone came out with some sort of food, often wrapped in newspaper, which I accepted with a blessing before proceeding silently. If nobody came I stood silently, motionless, for a minute or two before moving on: I wasn't asking for food, I was making myself available in the (likely) case that they wished to avail themselves of the chance to do something meritorious by contributing to my continued survival and well-being. Acting with such motives allowed me to feel that I, too, was doing something generous by making myself available. I wasn't a beggar. I distinguished carefully between sukhi hotu and paise sahib. And when someone mistakenly offered me a coin I refused it with a silent unsignaled rebuke.
After all, I didn't have to go on pindapata. There was plenty of food available at the vihara which would be served me with no effort at all on my part. But by going on almsround I was somehow earning the food, becoming more worthy of it.
Barefoot, the pavement grew warmer and warmer. If I went on the almsround too late I'd have to seek out patches of shade to stand in. Yet barefoot and humble was the proper way, and though it would have been understood, if I'd worn sandals, that it was because of tender feet, I declined to wear them. Not only did I want to do things the right way, the way of the Dhamma (and not be discovered as the tenderfooted neophyte that I was), but also I had now adopted as a standard the goal of being able to get along needing as little as possible. So, walking more quickly in sunshine than in patches of shade, I continued on the almsround.
I had enough now: the bowl was over half-full. Much of this was space taken up by newspaper wrappings, air pockets, and packets of tea and sugar, but I had an ample meal in the bowl. The tea and sugar I donated to the temple's kitchen, where the temple boy would sell it for the few paise it brought him.
I turned back to the temple. I was beginning to wilt in the heat. Twice I was stopped, once by an old woman, once by a young man, and accepted food which I didn't want.
When I'd first gone on pindapata I'd been unwary and had accepted too much. With the unsought offerings of the return trip added to the bowl it had been filled to the brim. The heavy rice heated the metal so that I had to use a handkerchief to shield my hands, while the steam rising inside the robe turned my chest pink and damp. Now I knew when to turn back, but still sometimes I would say quietly to an over-zealous householder, "Tika, tika," little, little.
I'd asked whether I could refuse such unsought offerings and was told the story of how Ven. Moggallana, while on tour with the Buddha, had accepted unasked-for almsfood from a leper. Worse luck still, as the leper made his offering his thumb fell off and landed in the bowl.
"Did he eat it?" I was incredulous.
"Yes, yes. He ate the rice."
"Did he eat the thumb?"
"No, no. It's forbidden for monks to eat human flesh."
Just outside the temple gate a young woman offered a coin. I silently refused, but she was insistent. Unable to keep my eyes modestly upon her slim ankles, I looked up. For one frantic moment I felt my gaze become locked, like the safety cap on a prescription container, to the mounds of her breasts. They were two stupas my eyes tried to circumambulate; but then I recovered my purpose and looked up to her face.
She wore a red spot on her forehead. She was a Hindu, then, and probably didn't understand our customs about money. The dot, I noticed, was the plastic stick-on kind.
"Monks don't accept money." I spoke softly. Her raven hair was braided, rich and soft. I lowered my gaze and turned aside.
I hurried into the vihara. When I reached the back part of the compound, behind the library, I pushed the robe back over one shoulder to let some sweat evaporate. In my room I tossed the damp outer robe onto the bed and spent several minutes toweling my body. My testicles were sensitive and I avoided touching them. When I was cool and dry I had a look in the bowl. There were some biscuits to munch on while I sorted out the food, unwrapping little packets, putting the offerings of tea and sugar aside for the kitchen. I ate a banana and put a few aside in case I wanted them this afternoon. The desk drawer in which I kept a spare underrobe was also my larder.
I was becoming increasingly unhappy about my attachment to a three-meal day. I hoped these private afternoon snacks would end, like the sweeping, when I went to the Hermitage, but I also discovered a dread of being hungry and knowing there would be nothing to eat for another sixteen hours. I sensed on some precognitive level that by storing food for afternoon snacks I wasn't trying to break the rules of the Vinaya; I was simply responding to the specter of unsatisfied need. The Vinaya rules just happened, somehow, to get in the way. They were innocent bystanders (by-laws?).
I smoked a cigarette, then put on the outer robe and went to the shower room to rinse the sweat off my body. In the Buddha's day monks had bathed in a stream, a lake, or by a public well like everybody else. There had been no private showers and thus there had come to be a rule against bathing nude. But I was surprised to have been told more than once to wear an old underrobe or bathing cloth while showering, although each shower stall was enclosed and had a latched door affording complete privacy. The same reasoning required of me that I always have a fresh under-robe held loosely about me before removing an old one.
"To be a monk you must wear the monk's cloth. When you stop wearing the monk's cloth you stop being a monk."
"Even if it's just for a moment?"
"Even if it's just for a moment"
"When I put the robes back on do I become a monk again?"
"No. Removing the robes means renouncing the vows."
"Can I ever become a monk again?"
"Of course, if you get ordained all over again."
But I didn't like showering with a wet robe clinging to my body. I bathed without it, but kept the cloth belt draped loosely about my neck, and thus remained a samanera by a few threads, and kept my feelings to myself.
After showering I made ready for vandana, the daily bowing-down ritual. There was a way of wearing the robes so that the left arm was in a sleeve, like the formal going-outside style, but which still left the right shoulder bare, like the sleeveless going-about-the-temple style, and it was in this way, which I thought of as semi-formal, that I now folded the robes about me. Taking the vandana cloth, I went out.
The chief monk sat by his office in front of the library. Worshippers were bowing to the Buddharupa housed in the shrine room. Others walked clockwise around the stupa, talked amongst themselves, tended the grounds, filled oil lamps, lit incense, and scattered flower petals on the offerings-table.
The devotees who were talking with the chief monk made way for me. I spread out the cloth and bowed down before him, arms and forehead resting on the cloth. Straightening up, but still on my knees, I placed my hands together and entreated: "Okasa divarattayena katam sabbam aparadham khamatha me bhante:" 'Hear me; forgive me, venerable one, for all offences done in the (past) day and night.' And "Khamami khamitabbam," 'I forgive that which can be forgiven,' he responded. I bowed again, gathered up the cloth, and took my leave with a namaste. The chief monk returned to his conversation and I returned to the living quarters, where I repeated the performance with the other senior bhikkhus. The junior monks each made their own rounds at their convenience. I went to Ven. Khirti's room last.
"How is your typing coming along now?" he asked, after I'd bowed down and recited my lines. He was referring to the pages that were stacked beside the typewriter in my room. I'd spent a lot of time typing them.
"Oh, that; I finally finished it yesterday."
"That must be a relief to you."
"I'll return the typewriter later, if that's all right."
"Of course. It was generous of you to do it."
"I'm stuck in Colombo anyway, and I've got the time."
"I'm sure Đanasumana appreciates your help."
"He couldn't get it done otherwise."
Until my arrival Đanasumana had been the only American monk in Ceylon. He'd been here for over a year, and lived now in a shack on the edge of the dry-zone jungle. I'd taken a bus to the village where he got almsfood and walked from there through sparse jungle to his dwelling to meet him. We'd spent several days together talking, and when I returned to Colombo it was with a sheaf of papers I'd offered to type for him. These papers were the letters of the late Ven. Đanavira Thera.
Ven. Đanavira Thera had been an English bhikkhu for fifteen years. In the last years of his life, plagued by illness and unable to meditate, he'd written letters to interested laypeople discussing what he'd learned as a monk, and the problems he'd faced. Đanasumana had collected some of these letters. He placed great importance in them not only because of Ven. Đanavira's understanding of the Dhamma ("attained to view" was the phrase 'Sumana had used) but also because of his ability to explain in Western terms what it was he understood.
"I hope these letters have made you ask yourself some questions."
"They sure did. I'm glad I made myself a copy."
"More important than copying is understanding."
"I wouldn't presume to claim that." But I was uncomfortable with my modesty.
"It's not a question of whether you claim it; it's a question of whether you'll strive for it."
"Of course I'll try to understand it, bhante."
"How?" He was building to some rebuke.
"By meditating on it." I hoped that was the answer he wanted.
It wasn't. "The understanding I'm talking about is the understanding of restraint. Restraint of speech, of body, of mind."
"Sometimes that's difficult."
"Of course it's difficult. If it were easy anyone could do it. It requires patience with yourself."
"I'll try to be patient."
"When you came back from pindapata didn't you cross the courtyard with your robe pulled back over your shoulder and your chest exposed?"
"It was so hot, bhante."
"But you should have the patience to wait until you get to your room. The dayakas, they don't like that."
"I don't see what difference it makes."
"Of course you don't. You already said you have no understanding."
"I'm sorry, bhante."
"You should listen instead of arguing."
"I'll try not to argue. But sometimes I don't understand why there are these little rules. If you can give me a good reason for them they'll be easier to keep."
"I just gave you one. You weren't listening."
"I'll try to listen better."
"Of course the rules are bothersome sometimes. Why do you think they were made? But you need to balance that dissatisfaction with a sense of the necessity of the monk's life. Lack of restraint leads to attachment and unhappiness. If Đanavira communicates that much his letters are worth reading."
I nodded, more to show that I was listening than that I was pleased with his words.
"All action arises from the base of dissatisfaction. The one who's truly satisfied is truly still."
I tried to be still and listen.
"You've tried escape from dissatisfaction, and it didn't work or you wouldn't be here. The Dhamma is for facing that dissatisfaction."
"You're right, bhante. If I didn't see that I wouldn't be here. But living with restraint is like driving with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake."
"And you want to take your foot off the brake. Maybe some day you'll understand that you don't travel the eightfold path the same way as you go down Galle Road to the Immigration."
"But bhante, I know Galle Road goes to the Immigration Office; I've been there. How do I know the eightfold path goes to enlightenment? What if it doesn't?"
"Then you'll have wasted your time."
"But how can I know whether this Teaching works?"
Ven. Khirti chuckled and shook his head in an ask-a-stupid-question gesture, but his reply was sincere. "It's good to question things; I don't say it isn't. The Buddha advised everyone to inquire carefully, not to just accept things on faith. But there's more than one way to inquire. If you want to go to the Immigration, and you see directions telling you how to get there, which do you do: do you begin a learned inquiry to decide whether the directions are accurate, or do you follow the directions and see whether they lead you to Immigration?"
"I follow the directions."
"Just so, the only way to be sure about the eightfold path is to follow the directions. Understand the meaning of restraint and you'll find out for yourself about the path."
But his reply didn't satisfy me. I didn't want to be told that the way to quell doubt was to practice the Teaching. I wanted firm and solid proof in advance so that -- it occurred to me unexpectedly -- so that I wouldn't have to practice it.
After a bit of chatting about the article he was writing concerning appropriate meditation subjects ("in- and out-breaths," he advised, "use the in- and out-breaths"), I took my leave of Ven. Khirti and returned to my room. The lunch bell would ring soon, but because of the after-pindapata snack I wasn't hungry. The strong savory aroma coming from the almsbowl didn't affect me, and I would be glad if the bell was late.
I looked at the typescript stacked beside the typewriter and picked up the carbon I'd made for myself, glancing at it here and there, gleaning phrases ("revolt is the first reaction of an intelligent man when he begins to understand the desperate nature of his situation in the world ...") and reflecting on what I'd learned, from my talks with 'Sumana as well as from his own letters and from Ven. Khirti (who also had known him) about the late Ven.Đanavira Thera.
English-born and English-raised, he was the well-educated only child of a well-to-do military family. He'd come to Ceylon shortly after having served in World War II, taken ordination, eventually settled into the comfortable solitude of a hut in a remote jungle near an undistinguished village -- the same hut 'Sumana now lived in -- and remained there the rest of his life.
In the last years of his life, when he wrote both his book, Notes on Dhamma, and the letters I was now thumbing through, he'd already been suffering for a dozen years from the dolors of intestinal disorders ("stomach trouble is the principal occupational hazard of the bhikkhu ..."), which, he found, undermined his purpose in being a monk ("the ravages of amoebiasis play havoc with the practice of meditation ... though perhaps in other respects it may not be very serious: 'Just a little scarring of the intestine,' as one doctor told me, rather leaving me wondering whether he would describe a bullet through one's brains as 'just a little perforation of the head'") and left him with "little hope of making any further progress in the Buddha's Teaching in this life" and also with a distaste for living. That distaste was aggravated when, while taking a course of medication to quell a fresh outbreak of intestinal infection, he experienced "an abnormal, persistent stimulation which, though no doubt neutral in itself (it is, indeed, disagreeable when observed dispassionately), is a pressing invitation to sensual thoughts."
I looked away from the typescript to the sickly-green of the wall and considered the word satyriasis. What affliction could be more unfortunate for a monk? The effort needed to control my own growing sex drive seemed slight compared with the challenge of restraining an erotic stimulation that left Đanavira with "an appetite for several young women daily."
Because his failing health had already reduced his ability to practice the Dhamma he had turned to writing as a way of filling up his days. Now, having to live with an appetite he could neither disperse nor satisfy, he turned as well to thoughts of choosing between the lay life and suicide. ("Wife or knife, as one might say.")
He probably never really doubted which choice was right for him. After several unsuccessful attempts ("One lives and learns -- a particularly suitable motto for the unsuccessful suicide, don't you think?") over a period of three years, he succeeded at last ("... and if I cannot practice mental concentration I have no further use for this life") in answering "the crucial question, whether or not I should do better ... instead of killing time, simply to kill the body."
'Sumana had shown me the still-half-filled bottle of chloral ether he'd used.
"Attained to view," 'Sumana had described him, and after all my questioning I still wasn't sure what that meant. There was the state of the unenlightened, still bound by attachment, suffering, and sensuality, and there was the state of the enlightened (the arahat, "worthy one"), free of attachment, suffering, and sensuality. But there seemed to be also a third case, the sekha, or "trainee," who had one foot in each world. Perfect freedom, it seemed, was achieved in stages. To understand that I conjured the image of an air bubble which, freed of its trapping, still rises, not yet having broken the surface. The sekha was one who, having understood the root of suffering ("... our natural assumption, which supposes that the subject 'I' would still continue to exist even if there were no objects at all ...") was bound to fully purify himself of ego concepts, but who, having not yet done so, wasn't yet completely free of attachment, suffering and sensuality. He saw the deceit we each of us perpetrate upon ourselves ("... in the actual attainment ... the mind becomes steady and there is direct intuition instead of discursive thinking ..."), but had not yet fully relinquished it. Such a person was Ven.Đanavira Thera.
I pictured it as a sort of unification ("... unless one's thinking is all-of-a-piece there is, properly speaking, no thinking at all ...") between two opposites (subject/object; yin/yang; electron/proton) by which there resulted a nullity, a voidness, and it was only later that I learned that to give up mysticism it was necessary to give up intellectualization.
I put down the typescript. I'd have to write a letter of my own to 'Sumana to go along with those of Đanavira. On a fresh sheet of paper I wrote, "Dear Sumana," and then looked up at a spider crossing the ceiling and remembered the shack in the scrub jungle of the dry zone.
"Colombo's a total loss," he'd told me. "Get out of there as soon as you can."
"Why? It's a pleasant enough city."
"But it's still a city: the noise, the crowds, the smell."
"Don't forget I'm coming down from Calcutta. By comparison it's quiet as the jungle."
"I bet you won't feel that way a year from now. Whenever I go to Colombo my head feels like it's been filled with cotton. I can't think."
"It must be easier to meditate out in the jungle."
"In Colombo I can't meditate at all. Can you?"
The distant repetitious thunk of a chopping tool cut the palpable stillness of the jungle air into discrete units.
"The worst thing about Colombo is the hypocrisy."
"That sounds ominous."
"It's the stifling traditionalism of Sinhalese Buddhism. Instead of treating us as people the upasakas treat us as objects of veneration. You didn't come to Ceylon for that, did you?"
"To get bowed down to? I still feel funny when someone does that to me."
"Why did you come here, then? Why'd you become a monk?"
"I was disgusted."
"With the world?"
"And with myself. For being part of the world, I guess."
"The world is an endless series of frustrations. Why stick around for that?"
'Sumana laughed. "Uptight, were you?"
"Even about little things. I'd get angry if a beggar hassled me. I guess I just got tired of being angry so much."
"I didn't used to get angry; I just got tired. I even got tired of escaping into booze and women."
"Were they hard for you to give up?"
"The women, sure."
"Do you still think about them?"
"I don't have time to. I'm too busy meditating." Then, "What were your escapes?"
'Sumana made a sour face. "That's evil stuff."
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." I defended myself but I didn't feel that, wearing robes, I could defend dope, even though I wasn't against it. What I was against was that even with dope the world hadn't done as I'd bid it. Just so, I wasn't against anger; I was against the ineffectiveness of my anger. That's what had disgusted me.
I looked around 'Sumana's shack. It was a single room of brick with large glassless windows. The floor was earth; there was a raised area with a tangle of bedding. The only furniture was an armchair, in which I sat. 'Sumana sat on a window-ledge.
"This place used to belong to Đanavira Thera. I got it when he died." He described the corpse and the cremation.
"Is it hard to live on your own like this?"
"Don't even think about it. The Island Hermitage is the place for you."
"First, it's hard to find a suitable place. Almost every possibility is either too near something or too far away from something. And although it's easy to find a village willing to support you it's hard to find one where the people will leave you alone."
"Like with the pa˝ca sila and bowing and all that?"
"They'll find an endless number of reasons for hanging around. Don't forget, we're strange objects to them. Not only are we white foreigners, but we're also living a lifestyle they've never seen. You don't think the village monks live like this, do you?"
"But what if I did find a place to set up?"
"That's the second thing. You can't believe the hassles that come to those who build. This place was already built; I just had to move in. But I tried to modify it once, and I could talk about the problems I had until your ears fell off."
"I've endured frustrations before."
"But you're just not ready to live on your own. You've only been a monk a month or two. Even I stayed with my teacher longer than that, and I was criticized for leaving too soon, and rightly so, as I'm finding out."
"What about looking for a teacher?"
"Let the practice be your teacher."
"Then you think the Island Hermitage is the right place for me?"
"I think it's the only place for you."
The dana bell rang. I took my bowl and joined the other monks who were moving towards the danasala. That room was crowded with dayakas. I went to my place, set the almsbowl on the table, and sat down cross-legged on the bench, making sure the robes draped properly and that I wasn't exposing myself to the unwilling examination of the plump brown ladies in gold-embroidered saris who had come for other reasons entirely. I sat silently while the rest of the monks drifted in, each with his almsbowl, and while the chief monk gave the upasakas the pa˝ca sila and a short sermon. Then the people bowed and murmurred "Sadhu, sadhu," and it was time to eat.
I took the fruits and sweets and put them aside on a plate and separated the packets of food I would eat from those I wouldn't. I recalled that amongst the practices of dhutanga monks was that of stirring up one's curries and rice so that they became uniformly mixed, in order that one would not pick and choose at favored morsels. Carrying things to extremes seems never to have been a rarity amongst Westerners who have sought the robes (any Westerner who would become a monk would already be an extremist); 'Sumana had told of a Western monk who included his fruit, banana peels and all, his bowl of curds, even his Nestomalt tea, in the mixing-up process, spooning down the results with a gusto which must have arisen from somewhere other than his taste buds.
I accepted a token offering of rice from the dayakas and, when the other monks had been served, dug in, refusing all offers of curries. I had several times to refuse one man's urgings that I accept some pieces of what looked to be a German wurst. Six months ago I'd have scarfed it down, but more recently I'd chosen to be a vegetarian.
I'd been surprised to learn, in Calcutta, that Buddhist monks were not required to be vegetarians; not only surprised but shocked (was nothing sacred any longer?), and had asked for an explanation.
"There are three occasions," the Buddha said, "When I do not allow meat for a monk: when it as been seen, heard, or suspected" to have been killed on his account.
"Monks," Ven. Dharmapal had told me, "don't kill animals. You should have nothing to do with taking of life. But when an animal is dead already, then you can eat it."
"But by not eating meat a monk can show the people that killing is wrong," I argued.
"That won't show that killing is wrong; that will show that eating meat is wrong. But what harm is there in that? What good is refusing? It doesn't matter what you put in your stomach; it matters what you put in your mind."
"What if I don't want to eat meat?"
"Then you don't have to. Only, Vinayadhara, you must be careful of one thing. Now one thing means you should not think you are better than the monk who does eat meat."
"Of course not, bhante; of course not."
And in Colombo Ven. Khirti told me, "Refusing meat doesn't save lives. Many creatures lose their lives to give you a bowl of rice: insecticides kill many; others are killed unintentionally by the plow and other ways. Don't imagine that by being a vegetarian you're saving lives. Possibly more lives are lost to provide you with a meal of rice than with a meal of meat."
"Animal protein is bad in two ways," 'Sumana told me. "First, it's bad for you physically because it's got a cellular box that's hard to break down. Vegetable protein is easily broken down into basic aminos; it's more useful because it's more fully digested. Secondly, it's got a heavy aura, an animal aura, and it stimulates the baser feelings, the sensual centers. Stay away from meat: it's a drag on the practice."
"I've never been a vegetarian before," I told myself in India. "At least not seriously. Vegetarianism is so common in India that this seems like a good time to try it out."
And in Ceylon I told myself, "This must be the spiciest food in the world! I'll never get used to it!" But the vegetable curries, I found, were mild compared to the fish curries; and the fish curries were tasteless compared to the meat curries; and I put the meat and fish aside, repelled.
But after the main course, when curds were served with honey, I accepted some.
"The dayakas, they like you to accept something from them," one of the senior monks told me.
"Their saying is, 'No merit without curds,'" 'Sumana claimed.
"This stuff tastes great," I decided, and accepted the curds gladly, with the honey, a darkish syrup with a nutty bouquet and slightly bitter aftertaste, and lapped it up even though it was animal protein.
When the dana ended I returned to my quarters and, like the other monks, washed the bowl, laid it on a handkerchief on the grass, and allowed it to dry in the sun. I'd been reprimanded before for having forgotten the bowl, leaving it to bake for hours. Now I paced the verandah while it dried, trying out mindfulness. Then I took the bowl back to my room, hung up the outer robe, and lay down to let some of the heaviness of digestion work itself off while I took a cigarette. 'Sumana had told me that at the Hermitage the Mahathera ("Great Elder," meaning the chief monk,) was a smoker. I nursed hopes of getting cigarettes from him.
I noticed the nearly-blank page I'd left on the desk and remembered the letter I'd started to 'Sumana. I put the paper in the typewriter and wrote.
I'm sending you the completed typescript of Ven. Đanavira's letters, keeping one copy for myself per our agreement. I must admit to being most impressed by them. He sure tears into scholars, doesn't he? And "scientific method"! It makes me glad I'm not a scientist. But most useful to me are his warnings about how misleading are the Abhidhamma, the commentaries, and the whole traditional (mis-)interpretation of the Suttas. He's surely saved me many blind alleys. "Ignorance of them leaves less to be unlearned," indeed!
I can't follow all his discussion, but I'm impressed by the range as well as the depth of his understanding, and above all by a transparent honesty and a sense of humor about both the world and himself.
Speaking of the tradition, I had another example yesterday. I remember you said that you shaved every month or two, when your hair got long enough to need cutting. But around here whenever I let my hair grow for more then a week someone a1ways points it out. "The 'dayakas,' they don't like you to go so long without shaving," they say. "They think it doesn't look nice." As if personal appearance is supposed to matter to monks. So yesterday when I came back from 'pindapata' the chief monk was standing outside his room running his electric razor over his head, which was already smooth, and looking very pointedly at my week-old growth.
Anyway, I haven't yet looked at Đanavira's book, "Notes on Dhamma," since I've been too busy with the typing. I'll save that treat until I get to the Hermitage. But I'll let you know what (if anything) I make of it.
I took the letter out of the typewriter and was about to sign my name when I realized that I wasn't sure how to spell it. Perhaps it was just old post-dana weariness that blocked my mind, but although I knew there was an "h" in the word, just now it escaped me where it went. I tried several alternatives on a piece of scrap paper, but although none of them looked completely wrong none of them looked quite right either.
It was such a long name, anyway. Nicknames didn't seem to have been used in the Buddha's day, but 'Sumana shortened his name in informal situations. What could I make from Vinayadhara? Vinnie? But it might be supposed that "Vinnie" was short for Vincent, and although I wasn't convinced yet that I wanted to be Vinayadhara I was quite certain I didn't want to be short for Vincent.
None of the other syllables in that long name lent itself to a reasonable-sounding familiarity either. "Vinnie" ... "Vin" ... "V". Why not? Sure: "V" had a nice ring to it. And there'd be no trouble spelling it. Then I remembered that I'd thought highly of Pynchon's novel, V. V: the cleavage point between subject and object: me. And so I finished the letter:
I don't know what customs there are in the Sangha about nicknames, but my name seems too long for such an informal letter. Why don't we just shorten it? I'll sign myself,
Yours in the Dhamma,
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