The Inscrutable World of Buddhism

I raised the stick high and tried to look threatening. Dogs can smell fear, an unidentified person whispers to me from the dark recesses of my memory. Maybe it was true. But what about the geese? I’ve heard they’re vicious.

I was so close to my destination – a meditation center where I would be volunteering and learning to meditate with a group of female Buddhist monks for two weeks – but I wasn’t sure if a pack of angry dogs and geese was an obstacle I could reasonably overcome. Was it a bad omen?

I backed my way up to the nearest house – the only house – and called through the open door the Thai greeting, “Sawasdee ka!”

An old Thai lady came to the door, and I nearly wept in relief. But she took one look at my predicament and her face crumpled in disapproval the way only a geriatric Thai lady’s can.

“Away!” she shouted and made shooing motions with her hands.

This was getting dire. At any moment, the stick could lose its magic and this strange alliance of dog and goose would unleash the full power of their fury upon me. If a fortune teller had told me that this is how it would all end, I would’ve laughed in her face and demanded my money back. Life is weird.

Just then a middle-aged (and arguably much more reasonable) woman appeared at the gate. I approached her, and pointed hysterically at the map on my phone to show her where I needed to go – mere meters away but across the canal. She made a gesture with her hand over her head that suggested head-shaving, and I nodded vigorously.

Yes! The Buddhist monks do shave their heads!

She called something in Thai and two male relatives appeared. The two of them graciously helped me lug my baggage over precarious cement and rebar beams across the canal, and I finally arrived at Dhutange Punya Panya Meditation Center. I certainly hoped it would be worth the trouble.

I was worried that my arrival had been some sort of sign. Maybe I shouldn’t be here. The high stress of that morning seemed like the exact antithesis of what is meant to be a relaxing and mindful experience. But on the flip side, maybe it was also one of those weird Zen master tests you see in cheesy movies like Karate Kid. Maybe I was the Karate Kid.

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The Dhutanga Punya Panya Meditation Center was run by Punya Panya, a female monk, originally from Thailand, who was a successful surgeon in Chicago for nearly 50 years before she decided to give it all up and shave her head. There were also two other female monks (pikkhunis) and one male monk (pikkhu) who were staying there at the time. The center focused on vipassana meditation, which was conducted twice daily – once at 5am and once at 7pm, although it was entirely voluntary.

Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is meant to be a path to self-purification through self-observation, and in this practice, observation occurs through focus on the breath. By focusing on the natural process of breath, one becomes aware of oneself, of impermanence, and ego. Focusing on the breath also keeps your mind rooted in the present.

I got my first taste of vipassana meditation the very night of my arrival. If you’ve ever tried meditation, you know how difficult it is as a novice, which I certainly was and still am.

Whenever you try to focus solely on your breathing, your thoughts run sprints around your mind, visiting every whim, fantasy, memory, and plan in an effort to stay active. “Why am I planning what I want to eat for breakfast two weeks from now?” you may find yourself thinking. And then you have to remind yourself that thinking about not thinking is still thinking and you have to shut that shit down. After all, breathing is pretty boring. Your mind wants to be doing other things.

This was certainly the case for me, as it is for many beginners. In fact, that first night I was rehashing the day’s events and putting the beginnings of this story together in my head.

But there were certainly moments when I came back to myself and focused on my breathing. You’re supposed to remain still, but if you need to move, you’re meant to be mindful of every adjustment you make, narrating your movements to yourself. This I dutifully attempted:

Now I am shifting my weight to the left.

Now I am correcting my posture.

Now I am taking my left hand and scratching a mosquito bite on my right elbow.

Now I am lifting my right hand and removing eye boogers from my right eye.

Now I am actively trying not to laugh out loud.

I eventually narrated myself down to a lying position, and when the lights came on, one of the volunteers said,

“It’s fine if you want to lie down, but if you do, never point your feet at the Buddha.”

On my first night of meditation, I had apparently committed one of the biggest faux pas in Buddhist practice. Well, you live and you learn.

In any case, the rules that seemed to govern daily life at the meditation center, and the ins and outs of Buddhism in general, seemed to be vague at best. The volunteers (myself included) always seemed to be slightly wrong-footed because of constant inconsistencies and contradictions.

The monks weren’t allowed to eat food that wasn’t directly offered to them, but they had drawers and a mini fridge full of snacks they would help themselves to if hungry. They weren’t allowed to eat after noon, but if lunch ran past noon, they had no qualms. Men and women couldn’t sit next to one another, but when there was no other logical arrangement in a vehicle, they did. The monks would sometimes show up for meditation, and sometimes they wouldn’t. Other times they would show up late, and on two occasions, they gave us lectures during meditation time and we didn’t meditate at all. But the lectures were fascinating and, honestly, kept you coming back every crack of dawn because you never really knew what you were going to get.

These were very small inconsistencies, but there were much larger ones that, for me, started very quickly to chip away at the very fundamentals of the Buddhist philosophy.

The first one I noticed was when, after meditation, the female monks would bow to the male monk, but he would never return the gesture.

Hoping that there was some other explanation for this behavior, besides the obvious one, I raised the question to Punya one morning. The answer I received was painfully disappointing, confusing, and required the kind of mental acrobatics that you would normally only ever see in Cirque du Soleil.

She suggested that, since men are physically stronger, and since men naturally think they are superior (her words, not mine), that the act of bowing to a male peer without expecting the same in return, is to humble yourself in such a way as to disarm them and help them release their ego.

Put this way, it sounded to me like some ridiculous alternate reality where men became so puffed up with ego that they were in danger of floating away like an arrogant balloon. The only way to release the helium valve was to bow, allowing them to float gently back to earth.

But what does this say, then, about men and women? That women are holier, more superior, and mentally stronger than men naturally? Are men incapable of seeking enlightenment because they can’t let go of their ego unless they feel pandered to? Does anyone really believe that?

If this is true, and women are meant to act as guides to our supposedly morally weaker counterparts, then we’re doing them a disservice; acting as training wheels to their goal of enlightenment that they can never remove. Because how can you ever truly let go of your ego if you require a kind of reverence served to you that you never return? If Buddhism and enlightenment are really about humbling oneself, a more likely scenario would be that men and women, rich and poor, young and old, would be stuck in a stalemate of humility forever, neither capable of taking their foreheads off the floor for fear of being insufficiently humble.

And yet, Punya still insisted that once you put on the monk’s robes, you are no longer a man or a woman. You are a being of the universe. One who seeks enlightenment.

This too required fervent doublethink. The very act of putting on a monk’s robes is one of “otherness” for men and women. Men have three pieces of clothing, while women must wear five. When a man puts on monk’s robes, he agrees to follow 227 precepts – rules that must be obeyed as an ordained monk. But for women, their robes come with 311 precepts.

The reasoning, according to Punya, was the same reasoning that I and every other girl endured in high school when our teachers told us we couldn’t wear spaghetti strap shirts. Everybody, even the enlightened, know that boys will be boys…

One of the main tenets of reaching enlightenment is removing desire. If you can only rid yourself of desire by demanding that the object of desire make themselves less desirable, I would argue you haven’t really achieved that goal.

But maybe a more practical answer is that, in a country where there are 200,000 male monks and only 270 female monks, and where women cannot be legally ordained, it’s just easier to not question the status quo.

As the days wore on, I tried to put this out of my mind and keep the heavy disillusionment from interfering with my meditation practice. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that meditation is not Buddhism and vice versa.

Every morning I woke up at 4:45am to be in the Buddha hall by 5am, and every night I sat myself down at 7pm to do what I soon began to refer to as my “corrective posture lessons.” That seemed to be the only thing that I was getting better at.

The problem, I soon realized, was that I didn’t want to stop thinking. I was in a very good time in my life. I had just spent two weeks in Thailand with someone who was making me see fireworks, and I couldn’t – didn’t want to – make the fireworks go away. In another four weeks, I would be seeing him again, and in between I had plans to do a one-week cycling trip up the coast of Vietnam with a friend. I had so many good things behind and in front of me and my thoughts refused to remain on my breathing. They were sky rocketing into romantic fantasies and getting down to the nitty gritty details of my cycling trip. They were fiercely positive and swollen with self-love. Why would I want to stop that?

But the problem, I know, is that my head isn’t always filled with fireworks and little cupid hearts – or exciting plans. Often enough, it’s racked with self-sabotage, anxiety, and self-doubt. I knew I should learn to meditate so I could clear my head and center myself when I really needed to.

But there was another reason I knew I should learn to meditate. I need, like many people, to learn how to really be in the present.

Let’s forget the argument, shall we, that you never know what’s going to happen in the future and that today might be your last, so you should enjoy it. Chances are normally pretty high that your plans are going to come to fruition, maybe not exactly as you planned, but near enough *knocks on wood*. The thing that I want to learn to remain in the present for is that the present is pretty fucking cool.

After all, when will I get the chance to be young again? When will I again have the opportunity to learn to meditate with the guidance of female Buddhist monks in Thailand? Will I ever again feel the goofy anxiety and excitement of getting to know someone who’s setting off fireworks in my head? Maybe not. And how sad would it be if my entire life was only ever lived remembering the past or imagining the future?

But let’s take this down one existential notch. What about the pure, unadulterated joy of existing? What is not beautiful about noticing your very existence? What is not remarkable about the breath filling and deflating your lungs?

We had very little routine during the days. Every morning after meditation, some of the volunteers would clean the kitchen and dining area while the other volunteers would go with the monks to the local market to collect alms.

The generosity of the people at the market every morning was astonishing to me. People gave freely and willingly, and in return, received blessings from the monks. When I asked Punya why people gave so generously, she said it was a way to be closer to Buddha, but also because they wanted to rid themselves of greed.

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Sometimes it felt like jumping back in time. Despite the neon lights and the rapid traffic around us, it wasn’t hard to imagine Buddhist monks, thousands of years ago, collecting alms like they still do today. I could see a line of them, stretching back to before the time of Christ, filling their bowls while horses turned to carriages, and carriages turned to cars. Sometimes I forget that there’s still room for this kind of humility and generosity in today’s world, and this was a good reminder.

Most of the days we had free time to pursue our own interests, such as reading, podcasting, or going on runs (in my case). Sometimes Punya had projects for us. And sometimes we went on excursions.

One day, another male monk, also known only as pikkhu, showed up and gave us a tour of sorts. We went to a farm, an animal rescue center, and to his own multi-acre property where he had built a series of meditation halls.

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This monk seemed to embody many of the contradictions in Buddhism that kept appearing, and as the day wore on, I felt more and more exhausted, confused, and disillusioned.

The weirdest event of the day was when we were at the animal rescue center. The center had giant tortoises, and this monk decided to sit on one. As the poor tortoise tried to escape this man’s cumbersome behind, he merely laughed and waved his hands like he was a child on some crazy carnival ride. But the tortoise was clearly distressed. I’ve never seen a turtle move so fast in my entire life.

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It seemed to me like a basic disregard for life, when Buddhism is meant to be respectful of all life. To say it was puzzling would be an understatement. Disturbing is more accurate.

At the end of the day, already exhausted and disillusioned, we got the grand tour of his grounds. As he drove us around in his limousine golf carts, he gestured to exquisite marble Buddha statues and rattled off their costs. At one point, as we sat in one of the many meditation halls, he pointed repeatedly at the golden, Buddha statue at the head of the hall, surrounded by sparkling wall ornaments, and through a tide of rapid Thai could be heard, “crystal! Crystal!” He was clearly telling the other monks that the ornaments were made of crystal.

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I couldn’t help but picture a hedge fund investor showing off his brand new OLED, wall-mounted TV to his buddies and rattling off the specs.

But maybe I was expecting too much from him and from the other monks. It seems naïve to me now, but before I arrived at the meditation center, I had very high expectations for Buddhism and for the monks. I had still viewed Buddhism as a very pure philosophy and thought that when monks claimed they were enlightened, that they meant they were above worldly things that hinder the rest of us, like material objects and gender divisions. I thought they were better humans than me, and that I could follow their example.

I think I had gotten caught up in terminology. I viewed religions like Christianity and Judaism and Islam as imperfect, corrupted systems. But a philosophy! That’s another thing entirely. That has a ring of purity to it.

But I had forgotten one key element: humans are still humans. While the original philosophy may be pure, it’s been worn by millions of humans over thousands of years who have managed to put it in a prison of rules, hierarchy, prejudice, and ego (egos they’re not supposed to have). Were not the major world religions once pure philosophies? Didn’t Jesus say we should do unto others as we would have them do to us?

The Buddha himself said that everyone should find their own path to enlightenment, and told his disciples to never follow any leader. What worked for him may not work for the next person, or the person after that. Or it may not work a hundred years from now. But people want guidance. They don’t want to hear that they have to find their own path. They want a Bible or a Quran or 311 precepts to tell them what to do, because this world, admittedly, is a confusing one and sometimes it’s easier to just bow to the man than to gut the system.

But one night near the end of my two weeks, everything clicked into place. It was one of those nights where we received a lecture on Buddhism rather than a meditation session. In the lecture, one of the female monks told us that Buddhism, and the Dhamma, is a way of life. You don’t have to be a Buddhist or a monk to follow the Dhamma. At the end of the lecture, we were allowed to ask questions. Still twisted up with dissatisfaction about the increasingly inscrutable world of Buddhism, I asked something along the lines of:

“If you can follow the Dhamma without being a monk, why did you becomes monks?”

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That night I cried in the Buddha hall as one by one, they told their stories.

The first monk told of her desire to please her parents. She grew up always thinking she had to be a good girl and a good student and a good daughter, and part of that was to one day be a good wife and a good mother. But she didn’t want to be a wife or a mother. She told us she never wanted to be a monk but that the only other alternative she saw was to get married and have a family. So she became a monk.

Punya was a surgeon for nearly 50 years in Chicago and had wealth, houses, and cars. But when she looked around her, she found that none of it made her happy. In her later years, she just wanted peace and happiness, but she couldn’t see a way out of the rat race without a drastic change. So she became a monk.

Pikkhu donned the robe because the pain of love was too much for him to bear. He had a wife whom he loved and who left him. He didn’t want to suffer from desire anymore. So he became a monk.

Then Jotika began her story. As a little girl, her grandfather, whom she was very close with, died. Her grandmother soon followed, and then her parents. She didn’t understand why people died, why they left her. She didn’t understand why there was so much suffering. When she was a young woman, she married a wonderful man. They had a daughter, and when that daughter was 21 she died in a car accident. She spoke of wanting to jump into traffic. She told us she wanted to hug every girl who looked like her daughter. The pain was too much to bear, and she wanted to rid herself of that suffering. So she became a monk.

I cried as they told their stories. I cried because the people in the orange robes before me were so viscerally human. Because they had such big questions about life that they couldn’t answer. Because they were so touched by suffering. Because the world was too difficult and confusing to live in, so they shaved their heads and lived by rules that were two and a half thousand years out of date.

To be human is to suffer. Loved ones leave and loved ones die and we face disappointment after disappointment. That is part of the human experience. To rid ourselves of suffering is to become less human, and I would argue that this is the goal of enlightenment: to become something other than human. To rid oneself of desire and suffering and emerge something shinier and brighter. But I would also argue that nearly everything we do as humans has the goal of reducing suffering. We want to reduce the suffering of hunger and homelessness, so we get a job to pay for food and a home. We want to reduce the suffering of loneliness, so we enter into romantic relationships.

But isn’t it interesting that Buddhism seeks to end suffering by rejecting desire rather than embracing it? Siddhartha Gautama, raised in a life of opulence, was shocked when he witnessed the suffering of the poor outside the palace gates. His conclusion was that you’re never hungry if you don’t desire food.

But what if, as the son of a king, Siddartha had shared his wealth with the people? What if everyone had enough? What if he had removed the expectations of love and the laws of marriage so no one was trapped in an unlivable model of human love? The Buddha never changed the status quo. He just created an institution where people could step out of it. It occurred to me that night that 311 precepts are an easier pill to swallow than the thousands of rules placed on us by society.

What you get in return as a monk is an entire system of support to live on the fringes of society. You’re always welcome to stay at monasteries and you never want for food. With those two staples in the bag, you can spend your time seeking enlightenment and happiness and never have to work a 9 to 5 job. And I’m happy that something like that still exists today. It’s also comforting to know that if I ever do really end up penniless and homeless, I can always become a monk instead of returning to an office job.

During my two-week stay with the Buddhist female monks, I learned a lot about Buddhism and human nature, but arguably very little about meditation. However, right before I left, I did end up speaking to one of the monks about the problem of quieting my mind. She told me that the purpose of meditation is to filter thoughts. When we observe our breath, we train ourselves to observe our thoughts in the same way, so when we have negative thoughts, we can observe them without them touching us. But, if you have happy thoughts, embrace them. That’s all life is about, right?

If you want to volunteer or donate to the Dhutanga Punya Panya Meditation Center, you can contact them here.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Inscrutable World of Buddhism

  1. Haven’t finished reading this just yet but about halfway through and its already excellent, well written and very interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience. The description of meditation is very relatable and well captured. I’d have been wondering if the high stress morning was an omen too.

    Like

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