By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
American Buddhism, for the most part, is FUBAR, that is: Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition.
It’s not your fault, American Buddhists. It’s just, well, you haven’t had the advantages I had.
I don’t know that I’ve actually ever finished reading a book about Buddhism, except for Karen Armstrong’s book and a couple of easy ones. I’ve tried a few times, and I have a shelf of books about Buddhism, most with a bookmark in them somewhere. Based on the page the bookmark is placed indicates how boring it was—and they’re all boring.
But I’m not a very good reader, either. I have to read slowly and really concentrate on the information that I’m trying to expose myself to. And of course as a writer I have to stop every now and then to either admire or roll my eyes at the writer’s style. It’s like walking a beagle—I have to stop and sniff everything.
In Sri Lanka I studied Buddhism in its most basic form, the Pali Canon, through dialogue with learned monks.
It was six months of agony, sitting below the teacher on little benches. I got a splinter in my butt once, but that’s a story for another time. Upon returning from Sri Lanka, I studied four years with a Vietnamese monk who was a Zen master, but again, it was the most basic, nitty-gritty form of Zen, directly from Asia. It was as if Buddhism had gone full circle, as I perceived little difference, other than language and chanting rhythms, between my Theravada roots and Zen’s essential doctrines and practices.
And again, I learned from the Vietnamese priest the same way I learned in Sri Lanka—by sitting and talking. The Vietnamese monk and I sat on folding chairs so I could sit for hours at a time meditating with him, but he was a little guy and sat on his chair the whole time in the lotus position. The monk I brought to the U.S. from Sri Lanka looks like he could have played power forward in the NBA—the biggest freaking monk you’ve ever seen. So I continued to learn the Way of the Elders from its source, in the oral tradition.
That was one advantage—dhamma through my best learning modality.
My other advantage was my little village in the jungle, Randeniya (rand-a-NEE-uh), where everyone is poor, and everyone is Buddhist. I was in Randeniya for less than 24 hours before I burst into tears. I told the only other American there, through my sobs, that I felt like I was around my own people for the first time in my life. She said she did the same thing her first day in the village, too.
There were privations, certainly. There was no air conditioning, refrigeration, regular electricity, sit-down toilets, toilet paper, or clean drinking water. Everyone slept under mosquito nets, but the benefits outweighed the deprivations. The best of those benefits was the unconditional love of an entire community. In the village I felt cuddled with dozens of other people—most of whom I couldn’t communicate with. But that didn’t matter. Americans are very rare that far back in the jungle, and everyone wants to be your friend.
The common denominator was tea.
The village wasn’t a small cluster of buildings like you’d see in a Tarzan movie; the homes are strewn through the jungle, in vegetation so thick that no one can see anyone else’s home. I didn’t see them, but I knew there were eyes on me when I took walks in the jungle, watching out for me, in case the clumsy fat American stepped on a cobra or something.
Before I left the village I earned a name, “Lakoya,” which means elder brother. It’s what all the villagers called me.
The second summer I went to Sri Lanka, I lived at Sri Bodhiraja Monastery in the far southern town of Embilipitiya (Em-bill-ah-PIT-ee-ya), and again I found myself enveloped in love, poverty, and happiness.
I was so lucky. Village life is disappearing. They see television, they want, and they move to the big city to make enough money to satisfy their desire for stuff they didn’t know they wanted until they saw it on TV.
I lived in harmony with the poorest people imaginable, but were also the happiest people I’ve ever met.
The Great White American Sangha will never be able to appreciate Buddhism in the raw, where even food is a community commodity. One of my Sri Lankan gurus, the monk D.W. Pemarathana who is a professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Anuradnapura, said with all sincerity and a big smile on his face, that you cannot be happy unless you are poor.
He also advised me not to drink any of the hootch I might be offered in the village, brewed of fermented fruit made in vats. He says rats and snakes fall into the vats and drown. (To be continued)
Photo: Todd Lappin/Flickr
Editor: Dana Gornall