From the Monkey Temple, atop Swayambu, the view of the Himalayas was grand. We sat on a wall beneath the main stupa, listening to the resonant dissonance of Tibetan services. Lamas passed by counting prayer beads and withered purple-clad refugees spun prayer wheels and chanted: Om mani padme hum. Om.
"That music is so far out," my Swedish girlfriend said.
"I'd even become a monk if they'd let me jam with them."
"They can have your mind, but I want your body."
"Let's do a number," someone suggested, and we smoked a pipeful right there at the Monkey Temple, all of us smiling and nodding to the Tibetans who tried to sell us things.
"How about the Blue Tibetan for some momos and chi?" someone suggested.
As we went down the endless staircase to the bottom of the hill we saw some monkeys quarrel in a tree. One of them fell to the ground and ran off.
"We'll do some good stuff when we get home," I told my friend.
Then other images flitted through my mind. I remembered those Golden Times in the Birla Temple in Delhi, Zeus' cave on Crete, the beach at Eilat, a smoky room in the Gulhane. It didn't matter where: the theme was always the same. Only details changed.
The fantasies and memories revolved around the various pleasures that, no longer available, not yet forgotten, stewed about in my mind, enticing me. "Look," a voice within urged. "There's some exotic food, a farout temple, tribespeople in fantastical garb, Himalayan splendor, ocean's ease, good friends, good dope, good times. It's all right there, and it can all be yours for, for ... free, for nothing at all. You want it? Easy. All you have to do is say two magic words, that's all, just two little words. Then it'll be just like before, instead of all this solitude. Sound nice? It's yours for the asking. All you have to do is say those two little words, I disrobe. Just those two little ones ...
And I looked around my little kuti. The kerosene lamp, on the stool beside me, cast a feeble light, leaving the far corners gloomy. I sat cross-legged on the padura, which was both my bed and meditation seat. On a shelf I kept the requisites and little else, perhaps a pen, a notebook, one text. I'd supposed that by emptying the room I would empty the mind as well.
The mind was hardly empty now. It fizzed and gurgled with some sort of digestive ailment (starvation? sensory deprivation?) and cast about for something substantial to chew on. I found myself uncrossing my legs and standing up before I quite realized that I'd intended to do so. If I'd thought first I'd have urged myself to try for just a few more minutes of mindfulness. But now that I was already standing I chose instead to go outside to the cankamana.
Thirty feet long by three feet wide, the cankamana was my walkway, my ambulatory. When I could no longer sit I paced slowly, trying to be mindful. Sometimes I attended to the walking, sometimes to the in- and out-breaths, sometimes to the breezes or sounds that touched me, but now I paid no attention at all. I lost myself in myself, a mote drifting restlessly in an eternal breeze.
My thoughts drifted back in a slow reverie about my travels across Asia, a reverie which meandered eventually to those halcyon days in Nepal just before I'd gone down to Calcutta. Ah, those golden days in Katmandu. Ornately carved wooden temples guarded streets lined with vendors of silks, spices, brassware, plastic Buddhas ...
It was at the Monkey Temple outside Katmandu that we'd sat on a wall, my friends and I, and smoked a chillum of hashish, listened to the temple music, and then wandered through town. I'd really enjoyed myself. But I'd left it, gone down to Calcutta and ordination. Maybe I should have just stayed there instead of coming here. Why did I ever leave it in the first place if I was enjoying it so much?
And before I quite realized that the intention had arisen I found myself face to face with a question that didn't drift by with the reverie but plunked itself down before me and demanded to be answered: if I'd been enjoying it so much why had I left Nepal? It just didn't make sense. And I thought more about that Golden Time.
Golden Times was my name for memories that I enjoyed re-running in my mind, like a favorite movie. They were the moments of magic which made the plodding drudgery of other times worthwhile. Now as I walked the ambulatory I recalled that Golden Time in Katmandu, and gradually forgotten details dawned upon me.
It had been hot, for one thing: there'd been no shade at all, and I'd been uncomfortable in that glaring sunlight. How come I'd forgotten to remember that? I'd sweated from the climb to the temple and my clothes felt sticky. I'd nearly forgotten that too. It had been my dope we'd been smoking, no one else had offered anything, they'd all protested that they didn't have enough to spare, or none at all, and I had suspicions of being used. In fact, I hadn't been pleased at all with the company I kept. They were always complaining of this or that, how one was ripped off by a rickshaw-wallah or another had been treated harshly by a government bureaucrat. I was with them only because by late November there were few of us around. As for my Swedish girlfriend, I'd already decided that when I left Katmandu I'd be traveling alone. Then I recalled with surprise that I hadn't even been feeling well that day. I'd been mildly feverish, with an uneasiness in my bowels. My headache hadn't been helped at all by the hash, and I hadn't been enjoying myself at all. But: if I hadn't been enjoying myself at all how was it possible that a few minutes ago I'd been remembering that day as particularly pleasant?
This realization that some part of me was unreal frightened me. I wondered how many other ways I might not be deceiving myself. And I called to mind some of those other Golden Times. I re-created those warm sanguine feelings that I'd used to wallow in uncritically, and, trying now to recall the situations as they'd actually been rather than as I'd always chosen to remember them, I found one by one that they were flawed creations nearly all. And even those that still seemed flawless were changed now, transmuted from flawless gold to flawless lead by the alchemical knowledge that now suffused my consciousness: that it was possible at any moment to shatter yet another Golden Time by recalling, even by accident, some detail that would expose the memory as no more than a mockery, a memory of what had never happened, only of what I wanted to have had happen. And that this was even a possibility was already a tarnish on the memory. This nothingness, this mere smog-filled puff of possibility, had already laid the grime of experience over the stolid unreality of my fantasies.
And was my life so miserable, then, that I had to make up stories to amuse myself (or be amused by stories made up by others) because the fiction so surpassed the fact in attractiveness that I'd as soon ignore the fact altogether? And wasn't awareness of the here-now a way of giving up that escapism? Walking up and down this ambulatory, seventeen paces long, trying to be mindful, was a healthier thing to do than disrobe and carry on a search for more Golden Times, filling my life with fictions, pursuing endless careers.
Can't stand the peace and quiet around here? Disrobe now and leave the Hermitage and it'll just be the same old routine. What would you gain by leaving? Friends? Until you're friends with yourself how can you be friends with others? What else could you gain? Admiration? Sex? Schopenhauer knew something about that: Sexual desire ... is the quintessence of the whole fraud of this noble world; for it promises so unspeakably, infinitely, and excessively much, and then delivers so contemptibly little. No, if you disrobe you won't be any better off than now. No matter how difficult the monk's life might become don't ever deceive yourself into believing the lay life is easy, or even very satisfactory.
When all does ever burn and fume
what laughter is there? What delight?
You who are immersed in gloom,
should you not seek a light? (Dh. 146)
* * * * *
I worried that it was psychosomatic, this pain in my side. If it were physical it would be the doctor's responsibility to cure me, but if it were psychosomatic it would be mine. I wasn't sure, but my visit to the hospital coincided conveniently enough with an unexpected urge to take a break and loosen up a bit.
What should I do? Perhaps I should go slower. Perhaps I was being too hard on myself. This was a gradual teaching. Perhaps I wasn't yet ready to maintain as rigorous a discipline as I'd been attempting.
Then again, perhaps these bodily symptoms were a signal that I was on the verge of uncovering something significant, which a part of the mind dreaded to face. Perhaps this pain was the mind's way of diverting attention from itself, and what I now needed was that extra effort to make some real progress at last.
On the other hand perhaps I'd just reached the limit of my present capacities and should hold there, neither increasing nor decreasing the effort I made. And then again, perhaps this pain in my side meant nothing at all. Perhaps it was nothing beyond a pain. I didn't know.
The Suttas offered the simile of the lute, which had good tone only when the strings were properly tensioned, neither too loose nor too tight. But in music I could listen to a perfect A before tuning my instrument. Where was that perfect note in the Dhamma?
"It's so hard to find the Middle Way," I was earnestly counseled, and I could not but agree.
Until I went to the hospital I worried about the pain in my side, which had mysteriously begun several hours after I'd eaten the whole of a fallen coconut. That afternoon I'd met the Mahathera on a path and he told me he'd noticed that I'd eaten almost nothing at dana that day and that I didn't look so good to him, sort of peaked and wan.
"Why don't you get more exercise?" he suggested.
Exercise! How could I spare the time for exercise? How could I trifle with such oblique concerns when there was before me the task of putting an end to suffering? Sabbe sankhara dukkha: All conditions are suffering. And I stressed the "all."
In the storage building I once came upon several heavy brass urns with large screw-top lids that required twenty or thirty full-circle-turns to unscrew. In curiosity I got one open, but saw that it contained only some grayish powdery substance with lumps of porous gray-white matter which at first I didn't recognize as bone fragments. Then I looked on the bottom of the urn. On a piece of white tape stuck to it was the word, Ņanamoli. I imagined the storage building grown yet older, mustier, dirtier, and then in a corner of that picture placed another brass urn with the label, Vinayadhara on it. Would I die here? Sabbe dhamma anatta: all things are not-self.
In consideration of the Mahathera's feelings I decided to take an extra fifteen minutes of daily walking, but it would have to come from that hour each day which was "my own" time, time used for bathing, washing robes, and reading outside the Dhamma. (I read Dhamma, a page or two at a time, between meditation sessions. My outside-the-Dhamma reading still included Kierkegaard, who told me about earnest striving: ... to shorten one's hours of sleep and to buy up each waking period of the day, and not to spare oneself, and then to understand that the whole is a jest, aye, that is earnestness.
And it was a jest: it was absurd that after all the effort and expense of educating me in that omnicompetence that is needed to function in a technological society I should now find myself with no greater need nor use for that knowledge than the ability to count to one, to set myself down by the root of a tree or against a wall and do nothing more creative or useful than to observe the in- and out-breaths as they passed the tip of the nose. That I should be educated in external matters with such thoroughness as to reject the external was a jest indeed. And so too was the way I kept finding myself trying to grasp that internality. For although it had changed by now from a flirtation to a preoccupation, still, in trying to grasp it I found myself continually seizing upon its externality.
The monk's ward of the hospital into which I entered for a few days, for "observations," was no jest at all. The doctors examined me thoroughly and concluded that I had a pain in my side. "Don't worry," they said. (They didn't look worried that I could see.) "As long as it doesn't spread you're in good shape." They gave me a thermometer and put me to bed beside a young dark-skinned bhikkhu whom I observed throughout the day. Every morning he would wake chipper and alert, feeling no pain at all, and by late morning throbbing misery would have spread through his limbs, and fever and chills would rack him. He would spend his afternoons shivering, moaning sometimes, soaking his sheets with a great deal of malodorous sweat and not feeling at all well. Around dusk he would improve and spend the evening either glassy-eyed and limp or asleep after his daily labors. Malaria was the name the doctors gave to that kind of disease.
Across the aisle lived an old bhikkhu whose particular hell seemed to be some sort of moroseness of mind. When he was well he was friendly, spoke good English, and could converse intelligently, if not profoundly, about the Dhamma. Sometimes, though, he would sit on the edge of his bed, his bowed legs dangling uselessly, naked save for a small cloth which, wadded up, he placed in front of his privates. His head would hang down, his eyes would focus on infinity, and any attempt to approach him would be rebuffed with a few curt Sinhalese words that I didn't understand and which no one would translate. I didn't know what name the doctors would put to such an agony. Melancholia?
Next to him an ancient wrinkled hollow-eyed bhikkhu lay in bed and stared at the ceiling all day, dying of cancer.
Cancer: what a final word. All that agony, so much more intense than I could endure, with nothing to look forward to at the end except death. Dreaming feverishly of the miracle cure, the one-in-a-million reprieve, a present from Santa Claus, until the pain becomes so intense and abiding and deep and burning and pervasive and exhausting that the gift one would most wish for from Santa would be the gift of death.
After three days the pain went away and I was released and returned to the Hermitage. I took more exercise, I allowed myself more free time, and I stayed away from fallen coconuts. The Mahathera said that I looked much better.
* * * * *
A period of non-wandering, Vas, was observed by bhikkhus (by those of the Hermitage, at any rate), during three months of the rainy season (the rainy season, that is to say, of the Ganges Valley, where the practice had originated rather than the long wet season of the Hermitage, where we followed the ways of the elders). During this annual quarter bhikkhus were expected, except in special circumstances, to spend every night under the same roof and not to go wandering about the countryside on carika. I was still only a samanera and not bound by the rule, but I remained at the Hermitage anyway. It was a time for retreat even though part of it would coincide with those few months of clear weather that were the Hermitage's annual allotment. I knew better than to ask whether Vas might not be more properly observed during the time of the year when it was actually monsoon-season at the Hermitage.
At the end of this rainy season we came to the kathina season, kathina being a special temporary relaxation of certain monastic rules concerning robes, a benefit accruing to those bhikkhus who had properly observed the rains-retreat. (Seniority among bhikkhus was reckoned by Vas seasons properly completed.) Traditionally it was the time (for dayakas) of giving and (for bhikkhus) of receiving, and a ceremony, the kathina pinkama, was held. In the days of the Buddha the ceremony had served a definite purpose: by the end of a monsoon robes could rot. A temporary relaxation of certain rules regarding their usage was of some practical importance for bhikkhus. Gradually, as the Sangha deteriorated (in India it reached its nadir just prior to its virtual extinction there in the Ninth Century) it became a time for the obtaining (by bhikkhus) of possessions and (by dayakas) of merit. In Burma and Thailand, I've been given to understand, things were different, but in Ceylon there were few places where kathina hadn't degenerated into a time of preaching and palaver, gobble and grab. They expected, some monks, to be both fed and clothed in the best of style, though few of them even bothered to observe the rains-retreat, Vas. That, though, was hardly my harshest judgment of them.
Usually the Mahathera didn't involve me in the politics of keeping the Hermitage well-provided for; but all Westerners at the Hermitage were expected to attend this pinkama, even Crackers, a newly-arrived English traveler who wasn't even a monk. Our supporter wanted to show off as many foreign monks as possible and our nationalities, such as they were, were needed.
"Maybe we should just give bhante our passports, and we can stay here," I suggested to Crackers.
"You can send yours wrapped in a brown cloth and I'll send mine wrapped in white so the dayakas will know which passports to bow to."
"Or else we'll ask the Mahathera to ordain your passport."
"I wonder where we'd find fans small enough."
"If they don't have fans they can't go."
In Ceylon monks carried fans with them everywhere, as if they were a ninth requisite. The first time I'd ever gone off the island, on some minor matter or other, I'd been instructed to take a fan with me.
"I don't have one, bhante," I'd argued.
"There isn't one in your kuti?"
"But it's not mine. It was there when I moved in."
"It's for whoever lives in that kuti. You should use it."
"I don't need a fan." For it hadn't been a warm day.
"In Ceylon all monks carry them."
But I couldn't recall anywhere in the Vinaya or Suttas where they were prescribed for monks. What had fans to do with renunciation? And I'd objected: "I don't need a fan, bhante."
"It's not for your needs. It's for the needs of the other monks. They'll want to know why you don't carry a fan, and what can you say?"
"I'll say my ways are different from theirs. I'll say I don't need a fan."
"And they'll be insulted; they'll think you put on airs and be angry with you. Don't make them angry. Take a fan."
And so that morning I put on the robes, packed a few things into the almsbowl, put it in the sling, started out the door, hesitated, and then went back to pick up the damned oblate palm-leaf fan that lay on the shelf.
We climbed into the boat and arranged ourselves, Piyadassi on one oar, a monk on the other. As we pulled away from the island I saw it as a whole: lush, fetid, silent, green. Only the library roof betrayed signs of habitation. Coconut palms leaned out over the water, which barely rippled in the close humid air.
There was a second island in the lagoon. It was small, had sparse growth, and the ruined foundation of a house.
"Is that what happens to mud huts when they're not taken care of, bhante?"
"Sure. A mud hut will melt if it's not taken care of. But those walls were brick, not mud. They didn't melt; they were stolen."
"You mean people stole the house, brick by brick?"
"Sure. They did that during the Second World War. There used to be a European living on that island, a Swissman, back in the 'Thirties. He built the house and lived there. But you know, he could see war coming, and thought the Japanese would take Ceylon so they could threaten British India. So he gave the land to the Hermitage and left. We didn't have many monks then. It was very difficult. So the villagers and fishermen, they stole the whole house, piece by piece."
"Did the Japanese ever threaten Ceylon?"
"Once a Japanese plane flew over Colombo and dropped one bomb. It killed five people, as I recall. So that Swissman, he didn't need to run from here."
"Where'd he go? Back to Switzerland?"
"No, he knew there'd be war in Europe. He wanted a place where there wouldn't be war, so he moved to the South Pacific. He settled on an island out past New Guinea called Guadalcanal."
We all smiled. "He was killed in the fighting, then?"
"Not at all. He lived all through the war without injury. But on the day the war ended he climbed up to the top of his house to put up a flag, for the celebration, and he slipped from the ladder and broke his neck."
Neither in sky nor in mid-ocean's fathoms,
nor by entering a mountain chasm --
There's found in all the world no locality
where one is not assailed by mortality. (Dh. 128)
Once ashore we rolled our robes up into the formal style and walked over to the nearby road to wait for a bus. An old rattletrap came along and we boarded it. The distaste of oil fumes filled my mouth like a balloon blown too big to spit out yet which I had to be gentle with lest it burst.
We sat in the front rows, in seats designated for monks. In the days of the Buddha healthy monks were expected to walk. The Mahathera gave a booklet of prepaid bus coupons to the conductor, who tore out some of the coupons and returned the booklet with our transit tickets. I slipped mine into the almsbowl and sat quietly.
There was no doubt about where to get off. The place, when we came to it, was decorated with streamers and poster paintings. A loudspeaker amplified the enthusiasm of a portly monk who preached to a crowd. We were greeted, bowed to, and offered coconut water. There was a room, already full of monks, where we could stay during the preliminary preaching. We were expected to be in attendance only for the main sermon and for the dana afterwards (though for me the dana was the main event). There were other foreign monks here, Burmese, Laotian, Vietnamese, whom we greeted politely. Sinhalese monks wandered in and out, as did laymen. Pan was passed around. Beedies were smoked. It was warm; several monks fanned themselves, and the Mahathera noticed.
"Where is your fan, Vinayadhara?"
"Hmm? Oh, I must have left it in the boat or the bus. That was careless of me."
"Take better care of things. You lose too many fans."
"I'm very forgetful, bhante. I'll try to do better."
"Use my fan for now. But don't lose it."
"I don't want to deprive you of your fan, bhante. And such a nice one, too. I'd hate to forget it somewhere."
"You won't. I'll make sure of that. You take it."
I took it and shrugged. "I'll carry it, but I don't understand why everyone thinks monks need to carry fans."
"Because that's the custom in Ceylon."
But the reason they carried fans, I knew, was to keep their hands busy and give them something to do. If they didn't have something to do they became fidgety and twitchy. The fans were pacifiers.
Two monks sat across from me, and I observed them. One leaned forward, his forearms resting on his legs. Thumbs and heels of his palms held together lightly, his fingers tapped together steadily, opening and closing cupped hands, driven by some internal mechanism, ticking out time. Next to him a monk chewed pan vigorously. Occasionally he tapped a foot unrhythmically to some internal melody. He waved his fan languorously, a counterpoint to his foot tapping. Both monks wore their yellow robes in the informal style even in public, as did most village monks, lax in Vinaya. Our robes were an earthy russet, the color worn by most jungle monks. City monks tended towards more vivid reds and oranges. These days the robes weren't just for protection against insects and weather but served also as insignia.
I sat quietly, trying to control the sense faculties and sustain mindfulness amidst the comings and goings of the crowd. With all the eyes around it was easy to maintain mindfulness, but it was a mindfulness tainted with awareness of those eyes not as actualities but as potentialities. I kept my own eyes down, on my hands resting in my lap. The nails, I noticed, were a bit long, and none too clean. I observed them for a while and then, in a moment of forgetfulness, found that I'd joined the crowd: with one index fingernail I reamed dirt from beneath the nails of the other hand, scraping out little black balls which I flicked away from me. And when they were as clean as I could get them by such a method I picked at them, tearing them shorter, playing the fingernail game for all it was worth, even after I caught myself at it.
I sat quietly, appalled to find so little concentration among so many monks, and wished myself back at the Hermitage, where a higher standard of conduct was kept. Occasionally I made an aside to Crackers on the more striking displays of philistinism, but there wasn't much pleasure in such easy shots.
The loudspeaker gave me a headache. The noise I thought to be a hell-fire and damnation sermon, but when I asked the Mahathera what the preacher was talking about he replied, "He's telling the dayakas how good it is to be generous."
"Is it working?"
And then at dana envelopes containing money were distributed to the bhikkhus. We Hermitage monks weren't put in the position of having to refuse them.
"Paychecks," I suggested to 'Rasa, and he replied that as monks at least we weren't being paid salaries greater than our worth.
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2. I must have copied this quotation into my notebook during the period of time in which I wrestled with the urgings to disrobe, as if trying to not scratch an itch. It was during that time that I developed in a few weeks the views which are set forth here in one uninterrupted monologue. [Back to text]