The Difficulties of a Monk

The Venerable Walpola Piyananda is Chief AbbotAn abbot or abbess is the title of the superior of a monastery or convent. Some scholars and practitioners have used these titles to apply to the ranking monk or nun of a Buddhist monastic community as well. of DharmaDharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings ... Vijaya Buddhist ViharaVihara means “residence” in Sanskrit and Pali; the term is used to designate the living quarters for Buddhist monks, i.e. a Buddhist monastery. In addition to the living area for the monastic community, a Vihara will typically include a Buddha image, ... in Los Angeles. He arrived in the United States just in time to celebrate the bicentennial at Gold Mountain MonasteryA monastery is the residence of monks, or monastics; the term is commonly used in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. Monasticism refers to the life of work, study, and discipline led by monks and nuns., a Chinese Buddhist monastery in northern California, on July 4, 1976. He then relocated to Los Angeles. His personal introduction to life as a Buddhist monkA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... in the United States, presented as a talk at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993, reveals some of the challenges and changes:

Los Angeles certainly wasn’t made for TheravadaTheravada, literally “the way of the elders,” was one of the eighteen earliest sub-schools of Buddhism. Today, the term designates the various traditions of Buddhism most prominent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Although these traditions differ in i... village monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord...! When I first arrived, food was quite a problem. Of course I had no money and no notion of cooking for myself. I avoided dying of hunger because I found some local Thai people who were more than happy to feed the strange monk who spoke no language they knew.

My initial experiences were trying and embarrassing: I was mistaken for a Hare KrishnaThe International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), often referred to as the Hare Krishna movement, was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) who brought his tradition of devotion to Krishna to the United States in 1965. Thi... devotee; I was spat upon, laughed at, and verbally abused. My ignorance of U.S. culture and geography led me to arrive in Chicago on ChristmasChristmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Since the fourth century this observance has been held on December 25 in the Western church. Day wearing only my traditional robe and sandals. Fortunately, I learn fast!

The Sri Lankans here, though they had emigrated to the U.S. of their own free will and knew they were not in Sri Lanka, expected me to be an ideal, perfect village monk. They didn’t want to see a monk wearing shoes, socks, or sweaters. They couldn’t bear to see a monk even shaking hands with women. This was difficult, as in dealing with Americans, if I refused to shake hands, people took offense.

The conflict between trying to live up to somebody’s idea of what a monk should be, and trying to bring the essence of my beliefs to the U.S. finally led to a breakup with the first templeA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... I was associated with. There the lay people wanted to have a monk fit their image. They did not even want me to work with other Buddhists. Finally, I was led to start a temple with my colleagues Venerable Pannila Ananda and Venerable Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara.

I constantly faced the challenge of meeting the social customs of the U.S. head on, dealing with things which did not seem to coincide with the letter of the VinayaVinaya is one of the three main canonical categories of the Buddha’s teaching: vinaya (code of discipline), abhidharma (treatises on metaphysics), and sutra (discourses). Vinaya refers to the rules which guide monastic practice. Although various version..., our Buddhist monasticA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... code of discipline. I needed to drive, as Los Angeles is virtually uninhabitable if you can’t get around, and it certainly makes a monk useless if he cannot reach his community. In addition, I studied at several universities and was myself often invited to give talks to groups which were not necessarily Buddhist. This often meant shaking hands with all in the audience, regardless of sex. I had to take a rational attitude towards the application of my discipline to the social realities of life here.

In America we were faced with another new reality: not only did we have Christians and Jews all around us, we found ourselves faced with something equally unique: a plurality of Buddhist groups—Theravada and MahayanaMahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” is a form of Buddhism the originated in India and spread to Central and East Asia, encompassing schools in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Its primary characteristics include a more supernatural view o..., Thai, Cambodian, Burmese, Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Tibetan. We came into contact with groups like the Japanese Jodo ShinshuThe Jodo Shinshu or True Pure Land school of Buddhism was founded by the Japanese monk Shinran Shonin in the 12th century. This tradition regards chanting the name of Amida Buddha as the most appropriate form of practice in the current degenerate age. Tod..., which is staffed by lay ministersMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam).. It suddenly became necessary to overcome linguistic, ethnic, national, and denominational differences and find common ground as Buddhists, for the good of all our communities. A lot of pioneering work in this area has been done by the Founder-President of the Buddhist SanghaThe Sangha is the community of monks or, more broadly, the community of Buddhists. To formally become a Buddhist, one takes refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and Sangha. In its widest sense, “sangha” refers ... Council of Southern California, Venerable Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara.

Encouraged by the warm reception we have had over the past fifteen years, we Theravada Buddhists have seen the need to overcome restrictions which were clearly cultural, and have found the courage to help our understanding of BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... become part of late 20th-century America. For example, in the Theravada tradition, due to social circumstances, the order of nunsA nun is a woman who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully or... called bhikkhunisBhikkhunis are Buddhist nuns. Although the lineage of fully ordained women monastics died out long ago in the Theravada traditions of South Asia, it has been preserved in the Mahayana traditions of East Asia. In fact, there are currently more nuns than mo... became extinct. Due to legalistic interpretation of texts, it was determined to be impossible to ordainOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... nuns. So women in Theravada countries have had their opportunities to participate in religion somewhat limited for many centuries. In Mahayana traditions, the tradition of nuns has lived on strong. This led many forward thinking Theravada leaders to look into the possibility of reinitiating the order of nuns. According to early texts, this would be permissible, but was given, at best, reluctant support by high ranking Sangha members in Sri Lanka.

Yet the leading Theravada monks in the U.S., including Ven. Dr. Ratanasara of our Vihara, Ven. Dr. Henepola Gunaratana of West Virginia, and Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa of New York, all came out in favor of ordinationOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... of women and encouraged us to continue. At our temple as well as at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, women novices have been ordainedOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi.... It is a first step, but not yet a complete success. There have been great financial difficulties because, according to tradition, bhikkhunis should be housed in their own monastery. There has not yet been money or staff for this endeavor. At any rate, the ice has been broken, and it is just a matter of time before TheravadinsTheravada, literally “the way of the elders,” was one of the eighteen earliest sub-schools of Buddhism. Today, the term designates the various traditions of Buddhism most prominent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Although these traditions differ in i... no longer have to make excuses for the position of women in organized religion. The BuddhaBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther... fully respected the capacities of all human beings, and we follow in his footsteps to the best of our abilities.
There have been other innovations, in keeping with the social needs of America. One was the simple matter of creating a marriage ceremony which would satisfy Western tastes and legal requirements yet keep a Buddhist flavor. We now have a very simple but sincere ceremony, which marries couples American-style, in a Buddhist context.

Anagarika DharmapalaAnagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) is best known for the important role he played in restoring Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which had badly deteriorated after centuries of neglect. In order to raise funds for this project, Dharmapala... planted the seeds of Theravada in America one hundred years ago at the World’s Parliament of Religions, but no roots grew from this immediate effort. However, since 1966, with the founding of the first Theravada Vihara in the United States, the Washington Buddhist Vihara, the progress has been positive. There are now over 200 Theravada centers in North America, including about a dozen Sri Lankan centers, with the others being principally Thai, Cambodian, and Laotian.
It has been a long time since I arrived, just in time for the ‘rocket’s red glare’ on Independence Day in 1976, and since I discovered what cold really is that Christmas day in Chicago. Yet the time has flown by. We have put all our efforts into making Buddhism a part of America, helping members to profit from it and helping others to understand it. Yet there is still a long way to go. In the spirit of the World’s Parliament of Religions and in memory of Anagarika Dharmapala, I would like to conclude with a short Buddhist blessing:

May the sick be free from illness.
May the grieving be free from grief.
May all be well and happy.
May the sufferers be free from suffering.


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