Monday, April 29, 2013

A Conversation with Lindsay

Several weeks have passed since my last blog post. The reason I haven't written another one is because, well, I didn't want to! So, in order to work on this writer's block, I decided to ask my friend Lindsay to see if he could help me by holding an online conversation. Here is the transcript of our first conversation, edited for readability…

Lindsay: Hello, I'm Lindsay. I work in Berkeley. I've known John for many years. He's recently encountered writer's block. I'm here to interview him, in hopes of unblocking his inner writer.

Lindsay in Prague

John: Thank you Lindsay.

Lindsay: You're welcome, John. So what should we call this ... trip? A venture? An undertaking? And what, in hindsight, was its purpose?

John: The trip to Australia and New Zealand, or the general undertaking of quitting my job and going to monasteries?

Lindsay: Let's go with the second.

A new venture

John: Sure. I would say there were three things that were bubbling in my life that led to this new venture.

The first was my father passing away in early 2012. I think that was something that made the fragility of life extremely obvious, for me at least.

The second was, in the past couple years, a real joy and energy I started to emerge from meditation and practicing Buddhism. I have been doing this for many years, since 2004'ish, and it's becoming more and more magnetic. It's something that I feel a deep affinity towards.

The third was, and was in large ways connected with practicing Buddhism, a deeper appreciation for how fleeting and ephemeral the happiness and joy that come from the conventional life "highs"…you know, work success, relationships, sex, experiences, etc. All of the conventional draws of life were feeling increasingly unattractive.

Lindsay: Hmm. That's interesting. So, let's say we know someone who dies. We come face to face with our own mortality, some might think: "fuck, life is short. I'm going to go out drinking and having sex and living it up." But you think, "I'm going to sell all my stuff and sit quietly for a couple of months." What's the connection between death and that?

John: Sitting quietly is better than drinking and sex and "living it up".

Lindsay: Good answer.

John: I mean, if you asked me that question earlier in life, I probably would have said something like that.

A nice place to sit quietly

Lindsay: You visited SEVERAL monasteries. Why? Were you worried that one might not suit your needs? Were you curious? Did you think there was a chance of you becoming a full monk?

John: Back in October 2012, when I quit my job and started all this, I was actually ready to commit to a single monastery. I was that gung-ho about it.

During the time my father passed away, in early 2012, I was getting some guidance about becoming a monk from a former monk named Joseph Kappel. He spent 20 years as a monk including many years in Thailand. After talking to him for a while, I found one monastery in England that seemed good, at least as what you can find out from the Internet. So between Joseph's recommendations and what I could discern, I wrote a letter to the abbot of that monastery. Joseph delivered it to him personally and spoke to him on my behalf because he was making a visit to England anyways. This occurred during the summer of 2012.

When Joseph came back from England, he relayed to me the Abbot was happy about me coming to monastery. That said, there were some complications. Namely, 1) it was a community decision to accept somebody (or not) and 2) I would need to go through the visa process and that probably would not be easy. There was also another complication in that, after talking with my mother about my plans, she was quite unhappy with the whole idea. So, after talking with Joseph about all these complications, it seemed like the best thing was for me to go a monastery in California which was closer to my mom and I didn't need to get a visa.

So, the first monastery I visited back in October 2012 was Abhayagiri in northern California. I stayed there for 2 weeks and had a good time there and wanted to stay longer. Unfortunately they were completely booked until April 2013.

Lindsay: No more reservations. Yup, that's California for you.

John: So when I left, it was November 2012, and all my plans to go down the monk-road were pretty much foiled.

Dead end?

Lindsay: But you got to spend time with your mother, who needed you around ostensibly.

John: Yeah, I decided to spend some time with my mom and help her out with things at home. While I was this her, I decided to plan a trip to Australia for 3 months. I also spent a couple afternoons at a monastery in Southern California, and took a road trip up to Abhayagiri with my mother which I documented on my blog. At the end of December, I left for Australia.

Lindsay: Yes. To see the Ajahn Brahm.

John: Yes. I ended up spending 2 months at his monastery, and then about another month at a monastery in New Zealand based on a recommendation from Joseph.

Lindsay: Is he as funny as he is in his Youtube Videos? Ajahn Brahm?

John: He very much likes to crack jokes. One time when I was sitting with some other Anagrikas in the dining sala his monastery and we were discussing Buddhism and something to do with patience. Ajahn Brahm walks by and I ask him..."Ajahn, how would define patience?" He stops walking, pauses for a moment, replies, "let me back to you on that," and then walks on.

It took me a few minutes before I got it and then I started laughing.

Lindsay: Hmm. There's something to that.

John: He doesn't crack jokes just to crack jokes though. He's very much trying to keep the mood light and warm hearted. He teaches that you can't get into deep meditation without having a happy mind.

A reservoir at Bodhinyana

Lindsay: Now. Can you simultaneously explain Thai Forest Buddhism while also explaining its virtues as opposed to other "flavors" of Buddhism. What attracted you to this particular flavor of Buddhism?

John: There are several reasons. Probably the most obvious is because of some prominent monks that have come out of that tradition.

Ajahn Brahm, obviously, but I first started to learn about the Thai Forest tradition through Ajahn Thanissaro who is an extremely prolific Buddhist scholar and writer. If you look up a Buddhist sutta on the Internet, there's a good chance you'll come across his translations. And of course, Ajahn Chah, because he taught and influenced so many westerners. When I've read some of his teachings, I was blown away by the simplicity and profundity.

So it just came about very naturally, through reading and poking around on the Internet over the years looking for material to inspire me or help my practice. The forest monk teachings seem to have this incredibly simplicity that resonates with me. It inspires me and gives me a lot of confidence. I also like the fact the forest monks place a heavy emphasis on virtue. This also really resonates with me.

A walking path outside my cuti in New Zealand

Lindsay: Ethical virtue.

John: Yes. In the monks case, it's also the monastic discipline, which is ethical virtue combined with good conduct for social harmony.

Lindsay: Where does the whole "forest" part come into it?

John: These were monks that were primarily practicing in the forests (jungles) of Thailand, as opposed to being in the cities.

Lindsay: Did you find it hard to keep the eight precepts? Did it start hard and get easier? Are there any that were specifically challenging?

John: Actually it wasn't much of a problem. Which ones were challenging dependent on the context. At the monasteries, I would probably say the most difficult one was refraining from wrong speech. Most of the other precepts you were (almost) automatically a given if you just followed along with everybody else. I'm usually pretty good about just following along with everybody else.

But refraining from wrong speech, which includes not lying, not using divisive speech (e.g. gossip), not using abusive speech, and not going "blah blah blah," that I found very easy to slip. There's just so may ways things can creep into your speech. Being slightly deceptive, or talking about somebody else when they're not there, or just "blah blah blah" and then you go, "hmm, do I really need to say that?"

Lindsay: Yes, you said you made no "egregious" errors. You also said you were practicing a modified version of the eight precepts. Modified how?

John: When I was not at the monastery, e.g., with my Mom, I modified the one to not eat after midday to instead be to not eat after 2pm. Basically, this made it much easier to eat lunch with other people as most people don't have lunch before 12pm. Most restaurants aren't even open before then!

Lindsay: Yes. And you were waking up EARLY.

John: I didn't feel it was too bad. I mean, some mornings I was little tired, but you could always take a nap in the afternoon if you were really exhausted.

Another morning in Bodhinyana

John: BTW, since I got back from Australia, I'm now on the regular 5 precepts for Buddhist lay people.

Lindsay: Okay, so you and I used to live in the co-ops in Berkeley together ... I couldn't help but get the feeling that the communal living resembled co-op living in certain ways. Do you see any connection there?

John: Very much so. If you've lived in the co-ops, you'd feel right at home in most any monastic kitchen/dining room.

Lindsay: Yes. Explain for those who've never lived in the co-ops.

John: I would say that community kitchens are lovably chaotic. You just have a bunch of people doing things, whether it's chopping vegetables or cooking some pasta or washing dishes. Nobody is really calling the shots, and it all works out.

It somehow always works out...

Lindsay: Let's go down a different direction. Your visa was going to run out in April. If it hadn't run out in April, would you have stayed longer?

John: No, I think it was time for me to come back in April. I wanted to come see how my mother was doing and I wanted to spend some more time at Abhayagiri.

Lindsay: That gets back to the reason you wrote the blog. You wanted to stay connected with your loved ones.

John: Yes.

Lindsay: Do you think this attachment to the people you love in your life will keep you from becoming a full-time monk?

John: No.

Lindsay: Explain.

John: I would say, if anything, it's actually is propelling me forward. There were many times during my stay in Australia and New Zealand where I thought of my mom and dad, my sisters, my family, my friends, and kept thinking how important it was for me to do this, not just for me, but for them too.

Lindsay: Why for them?

John: You ask good questions.

Lindsay: I try.

A small stream

John: I think there's a connection with something much deeper and more profound than what we typically experience with mundane life. I don't know what all this means, or how it will play out, but if I can help be a catalyst or a connection to things, then that is important. Buddhism is not a conversion religion, it's a kindness and wisdom religion. It's hard to predict what affect being kind and wise will have on others.

Lindsay: Keep going. Don't edit yourself.

John: This is hard to say.

Lindsay: Let me ask a question then. Has this experience affected the way you interact with other people? Would I notice a difference in the John from 2 years ago and the John now?

John: I would say I'm less on autopilot.

Lindsay: Ooh, explain that. Also, how did your experience help you be less on "autopilot"?

John: When we're on autopilot, we're sort of just doing or saying we we're used to doing or saying. It's also how we're habitually looking at or perceiving the experience that we're in. I think the recent experiences have lessened that autopilot-ness just because there's a greater sense of importance to not do things that create pain and distress and to do things that create ease and happiness.

Basically, I'm not as interested in winning or proving something or accomplishing something as I am in just going "hmm, how do I make peace with this?"

Lindsay: I noticed that you said that in your blog. Then, afterwards, there were only like 2 more posts. Has this sense of decreased urgency ... made it difficult to get things done in a timely manner?

John: I don't think so. I haven't had too many time sensitive things going on though.

Lindsay: What has been going on recently in the last month?

John: Well, I was staying at my mother's place but she wasn't there most of the time, so it was quite nice to be alone by myself. Other than my taxes, I had nothing that really needed to get done. Initially I relaxed my schedule and discipline, e.g., spending lots of time on the Internet, etc., and found myself looking at too many unhelpful things. I was getting quite unhappy. So I pulled back my Internet usage and meditated more.

Lindsay: Yes. I've found myself in the same dilemma.

A sunny day in New Zealand

Lindsay: I've got MANY more questions. But only two are really pressing. Had you been kind of planning this trip for a while? Even before your father died? Maybe just as a wish in the back of your head?

John: I haven't been planning what I have been doing lately, but the idea of becoming a monk has been in the back of my mind for maybe 2-3 years. There were thoughts earlier than that, but they felt more like escapist fantasies.

Lindsay: Yes. escapist fantasies. for many of us, the desire to do what you've been doing the last 4-5 months constitute just a desire to escape from the problems and worries of our hectic lives. how was this different?

John: Oh, because there was a much better understanding through experience that if you try to undertake something like what I'm doing, you will most definitely not escape your problems.

Lindsay: Explain.

John: The very first passage in the Dhammapada is amazing… here is the quote:
"All experience is preceded by the mind,
Led by the mind,
Made by the mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As that wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by the mind,
Led by the mind,
Made by the mind,
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow."
John: Over the years, I've found this be truer and truer. There's just this sense even if you change your surroundings, you'll still be carrying on these habits of mind that will recreate the same kinds of suffering or happiness.

Lindsay: So, it's not just something you have to accept on faith, you can actually try this out?

John: Oh very much so. I mean, you have to have some provisional faith in Buddhism, to spend the time to listen to what somebody says and to take it seriously. But Buddhism is not about believing in things, it's about taking these things with sincerity and conviction and seeing if they're true or not.

Lindsay: So, final question. What's the next step on your Buddhist path? Are you going right back out there to the monasteries? Are you going back to work for a while? Do you have a plan at this point?

John: Yes. My next step is go spend 3 months at Abhayagiri (the northern California monastery) starting in July. After that, I will be doing a year as an Anagarika somewhere, to be decided. After that, not sure. But there's a very strong internal commitment to at least do a year as an Anagarika.

Thanks Lindsay!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Daily Life at Bodhinyana (Fixed)

The earlier post didn't have images. This one should be fixed. This first post will describe a visit I made to Bodhinyana monastery during the months of January and February.

Bodhinyana monastery is located about an hour from Perth in Western Australia in a small town called Serpentine. The bush (their term for the forest) and climate reminded me a lot of the forests in southern California. The temperatures got as high as 110 (fahrenheit) some days, and some of the evenings got as a cool 55 degrees. There were even some days with rain.

Morning by one of the reservoirs

The monastery is fairly simple. There is a main hall for group meetings and dharma talks. There is a kitchen, dining hall and outside eating area for the meals. The rest of the buildings on the property are bathrooms or brick huts/house to give homes the monks or guests. The monks brick huts were scattered about into the monastery property, some as close as 5 minutes walking distance and others as far as 20-25. The paths were almost all concrete, a nice addition due to the plentiful donations the monastery has received over the years.

Walking monk

This was done in large part to help contain bush fires which can be quite common, especially during the summer. There was one that I saw nearby during my stay. It should be noted that bush fires can be quite dangerous as they can spread quite quickly over large areas.

Reminds of Los Angeles

I stayed in a simple, three-person guest house not too far away from the kitchen and main hall. An ablution block was about 5 minutes away which had showers, toilets and washing machines for clothes.

My home for 2 months

The days at Bodhinyana were broken up into the work week, Tuesday-Friday, and the weekend, Saturday-Monday. During the work week, I would usually get up around 4-6am and do some meditation before breakfast (optional) which was at 6:30am. After breakfast there would be cleanup and then we would attend the work meeting at 7:15am. The work meetings were really short, maybe 10 minutes tops, where we would get assigned work for the day.

The work would last until about 9:30am where we would then head down to the kitchen for meal preparation. Because each day varied quite a bit in terms of the number of people who would bring food (weekends were typically heavy, where certain week days were really light), there would be different amount that was prepared each day. On most days there were at least a few dishes prepared in the kitchen, but most of the meal was brought in from the visitors.

Working in the kitchen
Organizing the offering tables

When the meal preparation was finished, usually around 10:30am, somebody would bring a tray of drinks upstairs to the monks which would signify that the meal was ready to be offered. The monks would come down and the visitors would do a ceremonial rice offering (pindabat) with the monks.


After that, the monks would go inside and help them selves to the offered food, buffet-style. Guests and other people working at the monastery or nearby properties (8-precept holders) would also get a plate of food after the monks. Everybody would head upstairs to the dining hall during this time. Late arriving guests (sometime intentionally so it seems) would offer their plate(s) of food here to the monks. Additional long-term offerings, if they were available, would also be offered, for example, things like toilet paper, cheese, cleaning liquid, bananas, etc. The senior monk would often be giving a short talk while all this going on.

After all the offerings were done, the monks would chant a blessing. I would often use this time to think about the work that had been done or other good things done during the day to help remind myself of the positive qualities within. One beautiful aspect about Buddhism is the encouragement to reflect on one's positive deeds and qualities, as much as possible.

The joy of making toasties

After the blessing, people would head downstairs to help themselves to a plate of food. Most of the monks usually ate silently upstairs in the dining hall, others would take the food back to their huts in the bush to eat in solitude. The guests and visitors would eat all around the monastery property, often in the outdoor courtyard.

Before the meal

After the meal there would be the meal cleanup which would usually last until about 1pm. I was typically exhausted by this time so I would often make myself a drink and hang outside the dining hall while I rested. Sometimes I would chat with the visitors or the other monastery guests, other times I would just relax in silence.

Exhausted by the heat

After the meal time the rest of the day was free. Outside of doing personal chores (bathing, washing clothes, sleep, etc.) I would usually spend most of this time meditating. There were also a couple classes that I was taking part in, one to learn the old language of the teachings (Pali), and the other to learn about the contextual history of origins of Buddhism (the Upanishads and Jainism were covered during my time there). There was also an optional tea time at 6pm that I would usually take part in. I would usually get to sleep at around 9:30-10:30pm.

Probably the morning but imagine it's the evening

In the next post, I'll talk a little more about some of the work I did there as well as the wildlife and anything else that comes to mind.