Saturday, 24 August 2019

"Let This Be A Lesson"

The following post "confession" was written by the American monk Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu, who has been a forest monastic in Burma for over three decades. It may be one of the most honest, troubling, and provocative Buddhist pieces you will ever find. It cannot be reprinted here without some kind of "trigger warning" for potential readers that this piece may move, upset, trouble, or unsettle you, as it includes a very honest discussion of the sexual lust felt (and acted on) by a full bhikkhu in robes. Sharing his essay here does not indicate any sort of support of this monastic's message, and the views he states are entirely his own.  

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God. (William Blake, alias The Devil)

Γνώθι Σεαυτόν (the Oracle of Delphi)

I write this in a hut in central Bali in April, 2013, though it may not be published until much later. This is mainly because it relates personal, not entirely positive information about another person, one who furthermore has been a great benefactress to me in many ways; and although she remains anonymous in this story, many people who know me will be able to guess who she is. So, I may wait until she gives permission or else moves to another part of the world before publishing this. On the other hand, my own inclination to get everything out in the open and publicly admit the case, plus numerous accusations of hypocrisy and dishonesty she has leveled against me on this very subject, may result in my not waiting very long. I have nothing to lose but everything, so I may as well go for it.
This is another very long one, possibly the longest one yet, but I don't want to divide it into parts, like a miniseries; I just want to get it done. Those of you who (understandably) savor the scandalous may find it a savory read, as I indulge in some fairly outrageous scandalmongering against myself. I sincerely hope that I will scandalmonger against my main "accomplice" only to the extent necessary for telling the whole story, or at least my side of it.
~ ~ ~
When I was young I was, for the most part, a good student. For example, my cumulative grade point average for my sophomore year of high school was 3.93 – 22 A's and 2 B's. Then, during summer break between my sophomore and junior years I discovered "partying," and also went into open rebellion against The System. I don't remember what my cumulative grade point average was for my entire junior year, but my final grades for second semester amounted to 0.80 – 2 C's and 3 F's. One of the C's was in an Honors class where a C was the lowest grade one could get; and I still don't understand how I got a C in Chemistry: the only experiment I handed in all year was Experiment 1, Observation of a Candle Flame, and I took the final exam under the influence of LSD. (Incidentally, my very next report card, for first quarter of my senior year, was a 4.00 – straight A's.) The academic authorities, plus of course my father, considered me to be messing up horribly, yet despite the fact that I got into masses of trouble and almost flunked out of school, I have no real regrets concerning my 17th year of life. It was the year of my transition into adulthood, and I feel I learned more during my junior year of high school than I did during any other year as a student. One reason for this is that I didn't learn dogmatically from teachers or books, but learned directly from intense experience. I learned from LIFE, and although I encountered a great deal of trouble and anguish during that year, it was all well worth it. One lesson I learned is that we can have all the fun we like, but ultimately, sooner or later, the fun will be balanced out by its opposite. (This may not be true for everyone, but it seems true for me.) Also, the experiences of that year inspired me eventually to become a Buddhist monk. Anyway, just as I have no regrets about my junior year of high school, but am actually grateful for the experiences, even so I cannot really feel sorry for the events I'm about to describe, and so I can't give much of an apology. I am deeply grateful for these experiences, even the painful ones. As always, LIFE is the teacher.
~ ~ ~
I have always had a deep appreciation for feminine beauty. When I was about four years old I proposed marriage to my pretty babysitter Debbie Sandoe; it hurt my feelings a little that she didn't take me seriously enough even to give an answer, not even a refusal. By the age of seven or eight I had begun sneaking into my father's bedroom and looking at his pornographic magazines. (I was mainly fascinated by breasts at that age – female genitalia seemed ugly, and held no attractions for me yet.) Once when I was around nine years old my father caught me with one of his magazines, and he told me, "It is completely natural. It's nothing to be ashamed of." As I grew up I continued occasionally to look at pornography – sometimes the pleasure of looking at a physically perfect woman in the full glory of her nakedness is rapturous, a wide-open "Yes!" verging on the mystical – although I admit that at other times I have looked at it out of sheer restlessness and boredom. Ironically, I think that erotica, like drugs also, indirectly helped me to become a monk in the first place. My fascination for women was such, and I was never much of an "operator" with them (promiscuous "scoring" always felt too dishonest and irresponsible toward the girl, and too karmically dangerous in general, and besides, I was often scared to death of girls I was really attracted to), so that if there were no recourse to "girlie magazines" I may have felt driven to marry young. I have to allow, though, that four was too young.
After a few girlfriends and at least two heartbreaks, I became a monk; and of course at monasteries, especially at Burmese forest monasteries before the age of Internet, pornography was not available, which was fine with me. For about two years after my ordination, largely due to some misinformation I received from a Vinaya teacher, I avoided so much as looking at women. If one came to talk with me I would take a quick glance to see who I was talking to, and then look at the ground or at her foot. But some women have very pretty feet.
Despite my being a sincere monk, my red-blooded male lust did not simply go away. There were times, especially after "beginner's mind" wore off, when I would be so lustful (i.e. "horny") I'd be practically in tears, wanting to climb the walls and/or howl like a dog. I've been told that this is fairly common among Western monks, although I seem to be somewhat more lustful than the average man.
It is a violation of a relatively major rule of Discipline (the first of the 13 sanghādisesas) for a monk deliberately to cause himself to have an orgasm, and I think I can honestly say that I've never deliberately caused myself to have one since my ordination. I haveaccidentally caused myself to have them though. The first time this happened, I had been a monk for about four years. I was living alone under a tree in a forest in southern Burma, and I was feeling very lustful and, well, acting lustful too. Just a few moments before the unintended surprise climax, a beautiful, metallic green jungle dove landed on the rock on which I was sitting, directly in front of me, about six or eight feet away, and walked past me cooing, as though making sounds of disapproval. A metallic green dove had never landed so near to me before, and as I'm no materialist I couldn't help but feel that it was a messenger from the gods warning me, or rather a symbolic manifestation of my own karma; but I was already too "far gone" to pay much heed. The accident happened, and after the momentary panic subsided I remember my whole body went hot, as though I were blushing with shame from head to foot. Since that time such accidents have happened too many times to count. (For cases in which I had serious doubt as to whether the event was deliberate, I did formal penance, twice.) As with anything else, the more we do something, the easier it is to do it. The first time tends to be the most difficult.
While living in a cave in northwestern Burma, after being a monk for many years, I went through a phase in which I developed a hobby, or habit, of drawing pictures of naked women, to "work off my frustrations." I draw well, and some of them turned out real works of art. (As they say, one has to suffer to create; and desire is the cause of all suffering.) I also composed a long, very erotic epic poem. I still have it, and some of the pictures also, but I suppose it would be inappropriate to publish them here as "evidence." In 2005 I went to America briefly to visit my family, and while at my father's house I took the liberty of looking at some X-rated websites, infecting my stepmother's computer with at least one nasty virus in the process. I copied some photos and took them back to Burma with me, although after looking at the same picture 30 or 40 times it stops having much of an effect. Unlike some men I suppose, I felt deep gratitude to the women in these pictures, and blessed them again and again, sincerely wishing for their happiness and safety in such a dangerous world. Although I've been accused of being cold-hearted in the past, I can't understand not feeling gratitude and even respect for someone who shares such beauty, and gives something so pleasant. It may be that their minds were not beautiful or pleasant, but that's not what they were sharing in the photographs.
As for the technicalities of monks looking at erotic pictures, it could legalistically be argued with some plausibility that it's not against the rules at all. I'm unaware of any clear, unambiguous rule against it, and it may be that the ancient Sangha simply didn't think to formulate a specific rule for this case. Maybe they didn't have naughty pictures in fifth-century B.C.E. India. There are some activities, like swearing, that seem to have slipped through the cracks of the monastic code. On the other hand, even if it is against the rules it would be a dukkata offense, i.e. a rule of the least severity, on the same level as growing one's fingernails too long, growing a mustache, opening a door with a bowl in one's hand, deliberately killing the seed of a plant, deliberately looking up in public, or, ironically, punching a layperson in the nose. But of course even if it isn't technically against the rules, it is still obviously an act motivated by desire or lust – rāga. So there's no point in trying to justify it, and I won't make the attempt. It's simply the way things have been.
At any rate, after living in Burmese forests for many years, I felt that it was time to come back to the West – despite the fact, which I well knew, that it is much easier to be a rascal in the West. Long before my return I prophesied that, if I ever became a Dharma teacher in America, it would be only a matter of time before some sweet thing with stars in her eyes started considering me to be her savior, and…who knows what would happen. In fact, one of the many reasons why I wanted to come back was I wanted to find out what would happen. As Arthur Schopenhauer says in his classic book The World as Will and Representation, the prayer "…and lead us not into temptation" really means "…and let us not know who we are." One of the great burning questions I have wrestled with for many years is, Do I really want to be celibate for the rest of my life? The jury is still out on that one. So far the answer seems to be a hesitant, quiet Yes.
~ ~ ~
And so, carrying this luggage with me, I came back to America in May of 2011. Shortly after I arrived, I spent a week at the home of a dear friend of mine whom I've known since I was a teenager. Her husband invited me to use their computer however I liked; so, in addition to looking up many other things, I looked up a few pornographic websites. When the husband became aware of this (everything one clicks on leaves its trace) he was outraged, and I was accused of "violation of trust," possibly for the first time in my life, and informed that I was not welcome to stay at their house in future. Most of this originated with the husband; the dear friend remains a dear friend, and a true one. As Neem Karoli Baba used to say when accused of hanging out with crooks, hunters, and rascals, "What friends do is all right."
From the start it has been Plan A to settle in Bellingham, Washington, where I lived for several years before going away to become a monk. Upon returning there I stayed with another dear old friend, practically the only person in town that I still knew; I didn't want to wear out my welcome with him though (although I eventually wore it out anyway); so I immediately began searching for some other shelter. I offered my services as a teacher to the Bellingham Insight Meditation Society, as far as I know the only organization in town that professes Theravada Buddhism. My reception was a relatively cool one: few people were enthusiastic about having a monk in town, and I received a total of one offer of shelter. This came from a young woman who, for the purposes of this narrative, I will call the Priestess.
Of all the people I have met in the West, she is one of the very few that I would call a true Dharma warrior. I think that if she knew Enlightenment could be found at the top of a mountain of needles and razor blades she would try to climb it; and if she were given a choice between comfort and security on the one hand and a 10% increase in the likelihood of Liberation on the other, she would renounce the comfort and security for the sake of that 10% – she might be scared to death, but I think she would feel compelled to do it. During that first year she was the only person who was eager, even hungry, to learn what I could teach (and although I may be somewhat of a rogue, I suspect some of you who have been exposed to my writing will admit that I do know a few things which may be of value to a spiritual seeker). She was not wealthy, but she had an old greenhouse in her back yard where she said I could stay if no better place turned up.
I realized that living practically alone with a young, healthy, unmarried American woman was a risky venture for a celibate monk, but there were some mitigating factors. First, she had a rich, handsome boyfriend who appeared to be a good fellow. Second, she was not the type of woman that I tend to be attracted to physically, and I felt no significant chemical attraction to her (at first). And third, of course, she was the only person in town to offer shelter. (The only other offer I had received from anywhere at that time was from a Thai house-temple about a hundred miles away; I checked the place out, but for reasons which need not be discussed here, it was an obvious nonstarter. I much preferred to take my chances with Plan A in Bellingham.) I postponed by a month the start of the three-month rains retreat, during which time a monk is supposed to stay in one place, just in case a more suitable offer came up, but none did. So, I determined the greenhouse as my "rains residence."
Within about two weeks of my moving into the greenhouse, the Priestess began falling in love with me. I've always been slow on the uptake with such matters, and I remained clueless of the situation for another month and a half. I was informed of all this afterwards. Four days before my rains retreat began, she broke up with the rich, handsome boyfriend.
Even in Burma I enjoyed indulging in a little gallantry with village women – not outrageous flirtation, but being very attentive and complimentary. As a general rule, if I would offer some gallantry to a Burmese Buddhist lady, she might giggle and/or blush and/or smile appreciatively, and then demurely change the subject. If I indulged in a little gallant flirtation with the Priestess, however, her eyes would brighten, and she'd start flirting back! It was a little unsettling to realize that I couldn't rely on the modesty of an American woman to keep me out of trouble. The Priestess was not particularly modest, so I had to fall back on my own modesty, what little of it I had. Very, very naturally, we grew more and more fond of each other, and our flirtations became more frequent and free. A few times it seemed to one of us that things were getting a little too out of hand, which resulted in conversations on how we should be more restrained in our speech and behavior; but the effects of these conversations rarely lasted longer than about half a day.
As our relating progressed I continually sent emails to my good friend Damon, who, in addition to being an inspired architect has also been a Dharma teacher in the West, giving him updates and asking for his advice on the situation. He sent back many long replies, which could be condensed down to two words: "Be careful."
It should be emphasized that throughout this time the Priestess and I were fairly overflowing with appreciation, respect, and gratitude for each other. I have never in my life been so overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude toward another human being as I was toward her in the summer and autumn of 2011. Not only was she, a person who hadn't even known me a few months previously, happily providing me with shelter, and most of my food, and most of everything else I needed, but she was also providing me with what I had been quietly yearning for for so many years – sweet, close-up, feminine companionship. She also exposed me to a fascinating new perspective on Life, as her point of view was very different from mine. In the other direction I provided her with some spiritual instruction and encouragement which she accepted gratefully and joyfully; I apparently had a calming, steadying effect on her tumultuous spirit; and maybe most importantly, I accepted and appreciated her as she was (or at least as I perceived her to be), without requiring her to become different. It is a very powerful experience to have a beloved person spontaneously weeping tears of joy and gratitude for one's existence; and before the autumn had ended we had both wept these tears for each other, numerous times – but I'm getting ahead of the story. In short, we had an uplifting effect on each other. We seemed to bring out the best in each other, and were consistently (with few exceptions) expanded and joyous.
One beautiful agreement we had from the very beginning was that we concealed nothing from each other, which seemed the plainly obvious thing from a spiritual point of view. If one of us had a thought that felt embarrassing, like we didn't want to say it, we would then feel that it must be said. This agreement, which occurred naturally and spontaneously, helped to inspire in us a bond of mutual honesty, trust, respect, acceptance, and love.
Possibly the loveliest aspect of that time was that we were falling in love with each other's spirit. We were falling in love without touching each other physically, or even strongly desiring to. The main thing about her that really struck me, from the very beginning, was the brightness, aliveness, and strength of her spirit. That has always been what I have mainly admired about her. I told her sometimes that we were having a "spiritual romance."
But by the end of the first month of the rains retreat, less than two months after moving into the greenhouse, I was certainly falling in love in the traditional sense also. After so many years of observing my own physical and mental states I was like a physician diagnosing my own symptoms: first a warm, glowing feeling in the chest, as though I'd just drunk a shot of hard liquor, then sighing, heart palpitations, insomnia with continual thoughts of her, a buzzing sensation in the pelvic region, etc. etc. She was experiencing similar symptoms in her bedroom after our evening conversations, and after I had retired to the greenhouse to lie awake in the darkness with my chest pounding.
Towards the middle of September, near to a month and a half into the three-month rains retreat, occurred what we later called The Great Acceleration. One night, after some very enjoyable hanging out, the Priestess had an erotic dream about me, and candidly described it the next morning, which sparked some rather animated flirtatiousness between us. Later that day she sunbathed in the front yard in a little bikini, and I ogled her through the window. That evening she offered to me one of the most beautiful speeches I had ever heard, about how, for the first time in her life, she knew what it was like to have a true mate, to be a wife (these were not her exact words, but the gist of them as well as I can remember). I then dared to broach a subject that I had been considering for many days: I suggested that we continue not touching each other for the duration of the rains retreat, as was agreed from the beginning, but that afterwards we should touch. It would be a violation of the rules of monastic discipline requiring at least six days and six nights of penance, but I considered it would be well worth it even if the penance were for six months. She gladly agreed to this proposal. The following morning she gave an even more beautiful speech than the one the night before, saying that in the past she had broken up with men because she always felt that something was missing, even though she didn't know what it was, but that she had finally found it with me. I was so drunk in love that day that I was practically staggering; and at one point I was laughing and sobbing at the same time. It is the only time in my adult life that I have ever done that.
We began dedicating one evening per week (usually Saturday) to what we called Tantra. Some of it really was spiritual Tantra in my opinion, although a lot of it was simply sex play. One of the loveliest Tantric practices we did, which became one of our favorites and the first practice we would do after the initial ceremony, was as follows: She would close her eyes, and then I would take my clothes off and sit down in meditative posture; then I would close my eyes and she would take off her clothes and sit cross-legged facing me, only inches away, being careful not to look at me while she did this; then we would both open our eyes – not looking at each other's body however, but gazing only into each other's eyes as an object of meditation. Eye gazing, with or without clothes on, is a truly magnificent meditation, especially for people who love each other and wish to meditate together. There are various ways of practicing it. One can use the perfect circle of the other's eye (it is best to focus on the dominant eye of the other person, the one they mainly look through) as a kind of "consciousness kasina." Also, it is a magnificent way of practicing mettā meditation, as love and blessings may simply gush like a fountain. My favorite way of going about it, though, and the deepest, was to gaze into her dominant eye and empty my mind, letting go of any arising thoughts or perceptions that would come between us as a barrier; in other words, I would evaporate Pink Floyd's Wall as consciously as I was able, thereby eliminating any energetic division of "me" and "her," leaving only an undifferentiatedus. I had considerable success with this at times – sometimes eye gazing was the deepest meditation I would have for several days – and I think some people could easily attain jhāna (absorption) by practicing it. Sometimes an uncanny feeling would arise that I was looking into a mirror. One disadvantage of this method is that keeping one's eyes open and focused on an object as small as the pupil of an eye can result in some eyestrain after 15 or 20 minutes. The lighting should be from above or from the side, and not too bright or too dim. Doing the practice naked emphasized that we were acknowledging, loving, and honoring each other's spirit more than each other's body, although naturally there was an element of play involved too. Another "Tantric" practice we did involved one of us sitting in meditation, eyes closed and minimally clad, while the other did with the meditator as he or she pleased using "implements" such as an artist's soft paintbrush, a flower, a smooth, wadded-up cloth, or her/his warm breath. As the "distractee" I was capable of some success at remaining mindful if in a very upright meditative position, but in any other posture it was hopeless. Eventually we progressed to the point of bathing each other, using a thick, wadded-up cloth so we wouldn't actually touch. She kept her underpants on for this. Not touching became more and more challenging.
During the second half of the rains retreat yet another event occurred, through karmic coincidence, which brought us even closer together. Before the rains retreat started, the Priestess had emailed her landlady, informing her that she intended to let a Buddhist monk stay in the greenhouse for a few months, and expressing her hope that the landlady wouldn't mind. She received no response, so she naturally assumed that the landlady didn't mind. Then, much later, the Priestess received a message from the landlady, the first words of which were, "I am very upset…" Although the Priestess had sent the explanatory email, and it was, I think, in her "Sent Mail" box, through a fluke the landlady somehow didn't receive it; and eventually she heard, possibly from a non-Buddhist neighbor, that a strange man in brown robes was staying in the greenhouse. The landlady insisted, ostensibly for reasons of legal liability (this is America), that I vacate the greenhouse immediately. The Priestess duly apologized and received permission for me to stay inside the house as a guest until eight days after the rains retreat ended, in November. So, I moved out of the greenhouse and onto the living room floor of the little temple-house. If the landlady had received the first email I probably would have had no place to stay in Bellingham; as it turned out, I was practically required to share the same dwelling with the Priestess. At that time I had still received no other offers of shelter, and both of us were too happy about our situation to want me to stay elsewhere anyway. I half-jokingly suggested to the Priestess that she thank the landlady on my behalf for evicting me from the greenhouse.
We savored with joy and gratitude almost every moment of this time; it was so rich and so fulfilling that it seemed an obvious miracle, like God had grabbed her, and grabbed me, and stuck us together, saying, "Here you are!" Time did not pass quickly because we were savoring it so fully, but it passed nevertheless, and our planned Time of Touching arrived. We had agreed on eight days of touch – penance for eight days of unconfessed offenses plus the additional mandatory six days amounted to two weeks of penance, although for reasons we need not go into here it wound up amounting to a bit more than that. But, as I said before, it would have seemed well worth it even if the penance had been for six months. For the first time in twenty years I deliberately touched a woman other than my mother. We kissed, hugged, snuggled, indulged in love play, and slept in each other's arms every night, practically wrapped around each other. In short, we did just about everything except what would instantaneously excommunicate me from the Sangha, i.e. everything except sexual intercourse, "straight," anal, or oral. No description could do justice to those days of ecstasy, so I won't attempt it. My beloved Priestess told me more than once that the happiest day of her entire life was one of those days of touching that we shared. She also said that the whole of our time together in 2011 was, hands down, the happiest time of her life. As for me, there are different kinds of happiness, and different ways of measuring it, but I can honestly say that our time together then was the most positively, intensely joyful of my life.
There were no monks nearby that I could make confession to in person, so I made my detailed confession via email to a Western monk in Canada. He was outraged, and asked why I didn't disrobe, have my fun, and then re-ordain, if that's what I wanted.
I admit that by this time the Priestess herself had expressed some moral scruples with regard to what we were doing together, sometimes invoking something called "integrity." After all, I was a monk, and she wasn't giving me all of my support. Other people in town were supporting me too, presumably with the belief that I was more or less strictly, conscientiously observing my monastic "vows." On the other hand, I never claimed to be anything I was not; and if anyone had publicly accused me of anything, I don't believe I would have denied it if the accusation were true. It just seemed to me that publicly announcing what she and I were sharing together was not yet expedient. Even so, once or twice I offered to do it, but the very idea seemed to alarm her somewhat. I think the closest I came to experiencing conscious scruples of conscience was an occasional deep feeling of, "Do I really want to be doing this?" I did. She and I both felt that our relationship was so intense, so profound, so expanding, so joyous, and so obviously a fruition of powerful karma that neither of us could really regret it.
We discussed the possibility of my dropping out of the monkhood and our getting married. We agreed that at our wedding reception we should have at least one juggler, and maybe a few acrobats. But she had a romantic idea that a man and a woman should know each other for 13 moons before concluding such a decision, and I agreed. But long before the 13 moons had elapsed, our relationship had begun to turn very sour. (As I write this a black wasp paralyzes a large spider with its sting on the floor of the hut, right in front of me.)
~ ~ ~
This next part of this narrative is very difficult to write. I'm not sure how much detail I should go into. I will write unpleasant and probably embarrassing details about a person I have deeply loved, and for whom I still feel shreds of love. I sincerely do not want to "badmouth" the Priestess, or to get revenge on her for anything by writing this; nor do I particularly want to justify my own position. I mainly just want to describe how I found myself in a painful situation as the result of my own actions. My account will necessarily be one-sided, from a man's point of view. I have been exposed to her point of view plenty, of course, and will try to bear it in mind, as best I can, as I write this. Maybe if she reads this narrative she may be willing to add her own comments at the end, giving her side of the story. At any rate, her own repeated accusations of hypocrisy have helped to urge the movement of this pen, and I trust she will forgive me.
I have a friend who, in addition to being a courageous spiritual seeker, is also a part-time professional dance instructor, and once he told me something that really stuck with me: He said that, although he is a well qualified dance instructor, once a woman becomes his lover he can't teach her anything anymore, because she just argues back at him. A similar phenomenon occurred between the Priestess and me. When she saw me more as a spiritual being than as a man, she had me on a pedestal, considered me to be wonderful, and accepted me wholeheartedly (and acceptance is Love); but after she began seeing me more as a man, she not only pulled me down off the pedestal, but apparently dug a hole for me, and would become very upset if I refused to let her push me into it. She became, and she has freely admitted this herself, literally addicted to finding fault with me. She would disapprove of me repeatedly, and insist that I agree with her disapproval and change myself accordingly.
The first such situation occurred towards the end of our time of touching and Paradise, just a few days before I left her house in November of 2011, over the issue of pornography. Months before, I had told her of the incident in which I had looked at erotic websites on a friend's computer and the relative uproar that had resulted from it, and, surprisingly, she had cheerfully invited me to look at pornography on her computer whenever I liked. (I had already determined that I wouldn't look at porn sites on her computer, however, and I didn't.) But now – and I don't remember how the topic even came up – she was vehemently insisting that looking at pornography is tantamount to violence against women, and that even looking at an erotic picture, even though it's anonymous and free on the Internet, literally causes harm to the woman in the photograph (with no mention of what happens to the men in these photographs). I did not see things this way, and did not agree; but I was deeply in love with her at the time, and patiently let her intense indignation at me run its course. Later she explained, by way of an apology, that the main reason for her outburst was the painful knowledge that we were soon to part, and that it was an emotional attempt to ease our impending separation, which made sense to me at the time. But such incidents continued to happen.
On one occasion the following year we were hanging out in what we called a "doting session," enjoying each other's company, when the Priestess began speaking, as she occasionally did, about how we may have to go our separate ways in life. I remember taking care to say, gently and lovingly, "This isn't a very 'dotey' conversation, is it?" as a relatively affectionate way of changing the subject…whereupon she came down on me like the proverbial load of bricks, insisting that I had used "harsh and hurtful language." She angrily rejected anything I said in my own defense and also refused to let us drop the subject. After several minutes the situation became nightmarish; I felt like a prisoner in an interrogation room being hounded by my interrogator to confess to a crime I didn't commit, with changing the subject of course being completely out of the question. Finally in desperation I swore, flung down a towel I had been holding, leapt to my feet, and started for the door…and then realized I had nowhere to go. So I sat down on the couch and quietly rode the storm out.
On another occasion we were briefly staying at the same house, and she came home from her work and almost immediately became sarcastic, complaining that I had been doing what I wanted and hadn't cooked dinner for her. Before long she had worked herself up into a pitch of high indignation, accusing me of not doing enough for her. Without raising my voice I brought the tirade to a sudden halt by pointing out two things: first, that she was wallowing in a state of trigger; and second, that on the very previous day I had literally worked all day, from morning till night, helping her to pack her belongings, to move them to a different house, and to clean the house she was moving out of, and for at least two days previous to that I had helped her for several hours every day doing the same. The fact that I could work all day helping her, and the very next day receive angry complaints that I don't help her enough, had a very sobering effect upon me.
The last time we saw each other before my most recent trip to Asia was through a "video chat" on the Internet while I was at a Burmese temple in California preparing for the journey. During a conversation which lasted maybe twenty minutes, she disapproved of my choice of language three or four times, brought up the topic of my limitations and emotional non-development two or three times, and at one point asked the loaded question of whether I thought my ability to accept the harshness of life was simply shut-down insensitivity, or genuine "Zen-like" equanimity. I answered that at my best it is Zen-like, whereupon she smirked in derision at the very idea. Seeing what kind of mood she was in, I stopped taking her very seriously and began blithely agreeing with anything she said. This angered her, and, without so much as a goodbye, she slammed her laptop shut, thereby hanging up on me.
I realize these examples may seem like very biased exaggerations, or at least carefully chosen ones, but I am being as accurate and honest as I know how. These are just a few examples, taken almost at random. I could give many more. In fact, similar incidents of approximately this degree of unpleasantness occurred at least twenty times during the year 2012. During the several months I was staying in Bellingham they occurred, on average, about once every seven to ten days (although they were less frequent when I was out of town).
Not only was she strongly inclined to find fault with me, for a time she was also inclined to find fault with my father – a man she had never met, who had been dead for years, and about whom she knew very little. One thing she did know about him, however, was that he was macho; and she thoroughly disapproved of certain aspects of machismo, and resented my exuberantly masculine father's influence upon the formation of my character. On at least four occasions she ruthlessly bashed him in my presence in an attempt to discredit my memory of him. But he was the one person I have loved more than any other in this world (partly because I've never had a wife or children); my life is, in a sense, a continuation of his, and we had a strong karmic connection; and so her attempts to vilify him resulted in little more than discrediting herself and arousing my annoyance and disgust. Possibly the angriest I ever got with her was after a several-minute-long tirade about what a "sick" person he had been. Eventually she promised to stop speaking ill of him, and, as far as I can remember, she has kept her promise.
The thing is, I know my father's weaknesses and shortcomings better than the Priestess ever could, and I loved him anyway. Love is not a matter of insisting that someone change in order to become worthy of our love. Love accepts another person warts and all, faults and all. In fact, love transmutes faults: if we accept a fault wholeheartedly, it is no longer a fault. If we totally accept a shortcoming, it is no longer a shortcoming. One could say that what is totally, absolutely acceptable, is perfect; thus totally, absolutely, wholeheartedly to accept somebody with love renders that person, in a sense, perfect. This is really the only way to find perfection in this world – through complete acceptance and love, without saying, "Oh, you're too much this way and not enough that way. If you stop being too much this way and not enough that way, then maybe I'll love you." If I told these things to the Priestess in 2011 she could accept them; but afterwards, as though I had become a dance instructor, she would often just argue back at me, or wave them aside. After all, I'm just a head-oriented man: how could I possibly know about love?
Anyway, while all this was going on, and closely related to it, she also began coming up with reasons why she should distance herself from me. One of the first reasons was my rigidity. Cases of it would flare up especially when she would pressure me to change myself; I would refuse, sometimes calmly, sometimes curtly, and a few times in exasperation, telling her that if she couldn't accept me the way I am, without me having to change to fit her ideas of acceptability, then it simply wasn't going to work. I've tried changing myself before, and met with much misery because of it (see "The Middle Way of Mediocrity," posted November 10, 2012).
My occasional curt or exasperated reply helped to generate another reason: my tendency toward harsh speech.
Another reason for our separation was a big and rather complicated one. She said that my mind is so strong and egocentric that it is like a theater; thus if anyone interacts with me they have little choice but to be hardly any more than a character projected on my movie screen. Putting it more into my own language, she seems to be saying that I perceive everyone around me as nothing more thanstimuli: a person standing before me is just a visual image, like a naked model in a picture, when a person talks to me it registers simply as auditory impressions, etc. Thus there is no room for give and take, no potential for an us to grow and thrive. In 2012 she informed me that she cannot be herself with me, but must be an actress on my theater stage; yet, confusingly, in 2011 she told me with tears of joy and gratitude that with me, at long last, she could be herself. This continues to confuse me. I suppose it is true that in the summer and fall of 2011 she was not her "usual self," and so, in a sense, was someone artificial and unsustainable in the long run.
An occasional variation on the preceding reason is that I have a pathetic need to think I am special, and better than anyone around me. Hence my emphasis on the identity and status of "the great monk." My being a spiritual mendicant facilitated our love in the beginning, but for obvious and natural reasons it became an obstacle later on.
Another of her reasons why I am not a suitable companion for her, at least not anytime soon, is that she has a deep unease in her spirit (not her exact words), and I am much too head-oriented to help her, even with the aspects of her trouble that are head-oriented in nature, as her special path is of the heart. The best I could do would be to help a little, but I'd more likely confuse her and/or lead her onto a path unsuitable for her. I hope I came somewhere close to accuracy in describing that one.
One reason she has given for wanting to give up on me, or us, is that I do not take responsibility for myself, or my actions – I do not "own" them. I have to admit that I don't really "get" this one; it's hard for me to wrap my head around it, and I can't fully grasp what she means. So I won't even try to give it an explanation that does it justice.
She has probably presented other reasons that I don't remember now. One last one that I do remember is that she admits that, with regard to us, she can't stop attacking; so we should avoid each other for my sake as well as hers.
I assume all of the reasons she has provided have validity, especially from her point of view. I would not say that any of them is wrong. However, the fact that the main emphasis has moved from one reason to another, and then back again, and so often, adds to my feeling that there may be a deeper, more fundamental reason for her wanting to be away from me that she cannot or will not see. My purpose here is not to make a theoretical psychoanalysis of her though, so I'll leave it at that.
I may as well mention that we enjoyed another brief time of touching after I moved out of the Priestess's temple in late 2011, shortly before heading off to California to confess again and start the formal penance for sanghādisesa. After I returned to Bellingham in spring of 2012, over the course of many months, we had about six more times of touching, each lasting from less than a week to more than two weeks. Two of these times started off more or less accidentally: it is always against the rules for a bhikkhu to touch a woman with desire in his heart, but there is no rule whatsoever against a woman touching him; and sometimes my dear Priestess would take advantage of this absence of a rule, touching, kissing, rubbing, sometimes even climbing onto my lap. But if I would make the slightest effort or motion to facilitate or prolong the contact the rule would be broken, and I would be like, "Well, may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb," and we would "go for it." The other times were more premeditated, for example our bittersweet commemoration of the completion of our 13 moons. (I usually confessed to a Burmese monk in America, and once to a Canadian monk I know in Burma, and in January I finished the final penance.)
Despite the blowout and/or meltdown every week or so, we still loved each other, and were still essentially mates in spirit. And sometimes after a blowout, apparently by way of compensation, the Priestess would be sweeter than honey for two or three days. Breathtaking. But the miraculous glory and uplift and joyousness, the feeling that God, or at least our own powerful karma, had thrust us together for some very important, beautiful reason, had faded significantly, manifesting only as a glimmer or a brief, star-like sparkle every now and then. There were times during our times of touching when we didn't even want to touch each other.
Also, that thing called "integrity" had become more of an issue, partly because I was somewhat more popular in 2012 and had more supporters, at least some of whom presumably trusting that I was a "good" monk.
The Priestess considers herself to have been "deluded" in 2011, and recently admitted that there are experiences that we shared then that she is reluctant even to remember. It may be true that she was more deluded then, but if so it is a paradox to me. Can one be more positive, more expanded, more loving, more balanced, more grateful, more joyous, AND more deluded all at the same time? It may be possible, I can sort of see how it could be possible, but I don't understand it.
So anyhow, on April Fool's Day, as I mentioned in a previous blog post ("What Am I Doing in a Cemetery in Bali?", posted April 27), we had the big blowout over email, she informed me that we are no longer so much as friends, and I am able to accept that information with shut-down insensitivity, or Zen-like equanimity, or whatever it is that I have. It seems that my two most realistic options are avoiding her altogether, and being alternately loved and used as a kind of emotional whipping post. I do feel deep down, though, a strong moral obligation or compulsion never to lose faith in her, never to stop believing in the miracle of her spirit, never entirely to turn away from her, no matter what. Back when we first became friends and I was still fresh from the forests of Burma I used to tell her sometimes, mysteriously, "You are a woman of the tribe, and it is my duty to protect you." I still feel the truth of that.
~ ~ ~
As I wrote way, way up toward the beginning of this extremely long confession, or self-exposure, or whatever it is, I really am not sorry for any of the events described herein, and so I can't make much of an apology. On the other hand, I'm not trying to brag either. I'm just trying to tell the truth. I am deeply grateful for the experiences I shared with the Priestess, even the painful ones. I learned more from them, from her, from LIFE, than I could have learned from reading ancient Buddhist scriptures alone in a cave, or from dogmatically believing the words of some wise old Sayadaw or Ajahn. As the Priestess beautifully said recently in an email, after I told her of my intention of telling our story,
You see, what most people won't understand because most people would never put themselves in such a difficult situation, is that I needed to do what we did so I could see what was still working inside me. As ____ recently said to me, "You sure met your match didn't you?" I was only seeing the dysfunction as I was doing it, and I needed to do it in order to see it and I needed to do it with you because 1. you were strong enough and different enough to do it with me and 2. I respected and loved you enough to begin taking responsibility for what I was doing and 3. you were the first person I ever wanted to really be vulnerable with. The very reason I ever could embarrass myself was because you were you and I wanted it so badly to work (I would have left sooner otherwise, thus never acting dysfunctional and never having that stuff to write about). But there was a great deal more to it all than that!!!
I wouldn't recommend that other monks follow in my footsteps, but I wouldn't recommend them not to either – we all have to make our own choices. (How many monks fantasize about what they could do with a beautiful woman without actually committing pārājika, if such a golden opportunity, like a ripe peach, were to fall into their hand? I know some do.) I would recommend to anyone, though, that if you are tempted to indulge in a pleasure, you should ask yourself if it is worth so much to you that you are also willing to accept an equal amount of its exact opposite. The pluses and minuses of existence tend to balance out in the long run. If you don't want pain, you should detach from pleasure also; and if you really want pleasure, you should be willing to accept the other side of the same coin. We can have all the fun we like, but ultimately, sooner or later…. As for me, I will very probably look at erotica again someday (not today or tomorrow, but someday); although I have no more intention of committing sanghādisesa offenses. It may happen, but I'm certainly not planning on it. If I really want a woman in my arms, I should do as the outraged bhikkhu in Canada suggested and drop out of the monkhood. The events of the past year and a half have left a rather bitter taste in my mouth; they remind me of some of the reasons why, despite my love of women, I became a monk in the first place. I have considerably less desire for a woman now, although I'll probably never be entirely devoid of such desire, unless maybe I live to be ninety. Maybe not even then.
Although, as I say, I feel no real remorse, I am concerned that my behavior, and my subsequent writing about it, may harm the reputation of the Bhikkhu Sangha, an institution to which I am very much indebted. If so, I sincerely apologize for that. Also, I hope I have not broken the hearts of some devout Burmese supporters who have believed for many years that I am a great saint (although certainly without me telling them that I was). I also apologize to the Priestess for any way that I have caused her pain. I may also thoroughly ruin my own reputation and credibility, in the West and in the East, by writing this, and it is a little scary, but it feels right to do so. It has to be done.
Several years ago a British monk offered, or offloaded onto me, a book called The Intimate Merton, which consists of interesting extracts from the famous Catholic monk Thomas Merton's personal diaries. I was surprised to find that Father Merton had a secret girlfriend – he had a passionate romance going with a young nurse less than half his age, whom he (or his editor) calls M. in his diary. (The situation was apparently facilitated by the convenience that it is not against the rules for a Trappist monk to touch women.) One evening he was having a steamy conversation with her from the telephone in the monastery's wine cellar, and another monk eavesdropped on the conversation by listening in on another phone, and then ratted on him to the abbot. The abbot was outraged, and ordered Merton to make a "clean break" with the girl immediately; but Merton evidently broke his vow of obedience by continuing to see her a few more times before finally breaking it off. About a year later, when he was preparing for his fateful, fatal trip to Asia (while in Bangkok an electric fan fell on his head and electrocuted him), he was going through some old papers and found M.'s love letters to him. In his diary he said that he burned them all without looking at any of them, and he marveled at how foolish he had been to have gotten involved with her. I read this years before I ever met the Priestess, but it seemed excessively coldhearted and "unromantic" to me. At least he could have sent her his blessing, or wished for her happiness, instead of impatiently ridiculing himself for having loved her as he did. Regardless of all else, I hope I don't prove as coldhearted as this. Love is the only thing that makes life worth living, even if romantic love is not the purest or most reliable form of it.
Some of you may perceive that the preceding paragraph is a kind of smokescreen, distracting blame away from myself by mentioning another monk more famous than me who had a secret girlfriend. I compensate by drawing the blame back to myself by pointing out the smokescreen. At the risk of laying another smokescreen, I'd like to conclude by respectfully offering some advice. So many of us – maybe all of us who are not perfected saints and/or extremely boring people – have naughty or otherwise embarrassing secrets that we are afraid to admit publicly, out of fear of our reputation, our social status, or our career being ruined, or of people being disgusted with us, being angry at us, laughing at us with contempt, withdrawing their love, or whatever. But living this way is living in fear, and living in fear is a chronic disease. Also, even if we don't tell lies to cover our tracks, we still put up walls to conceal our embarrassing secrets, which not only keep others out but keep us in, like prisoners. These walls restrict the flow of energy, of consciousness, of love, and of life. So even though some of these things we fear will probably happen – we may lose friendships, a marriage, a career, maybe everything – still, ultimately, spiritually, it is better to free ourselves by honestly blurting out the truth. As a famous Hebrew spiritual teacher once said, "The truth will make you free."
Let's say you want somebody to love you, but you're afraid that if they know about this or that, they won't love you. So you hide it from them. But then what kind of love do you get? They can't love you completely, because you don't share yourself completely. What they get is a projected image, a distorted, incomplete reflection. But if you share yourself completely and they love you anyway, then what you have is True Love. And if they can't accept you as you are, well, then at least you can accept their nonacceptance.
With respect to the Priestess, my miraculous Great Benefactress, my (at least for a season) spiritual mate, one of the few true Dharma warriors I have ever known – May that dear one progress toward Liberation swiftly and strongly; may the gods continue to smile upon her; may she always be protected; may she receive all she needs; and may she always be surrounded by blessings and love. I offer this same blessing to all of you who read this, including (and I assume there will be some) those who utterly despise me for having written it.
Enough for now. (Or too much.)


  1. Ha, I wasn't expecting to find this here. I would like to point out that I really haven't lived in Burmese forests for more than thirty years. I haven't even been a monk for that long (this is my 29th vassa). I've lived in Burma for well over twenty years though. Also I might observe that I really did learn a lesson from all that. Among other things it was a strong reminder of why I became celibate in the first place, and I have not repeated the experiment.

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