10-24-10 - Excerpts from Correspondence on Theravada Buddhist Monasticism in October, 2010, between Steven Mandelker and Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore. Dinsmore was in the U.S. at the time.
Dinsmore is a former zen priest (through Austin Zen Center) who is currently an ordained Theravada monk in the Burmese Sangha through Sitagu Vihāras, Austin, TX and Maplewood, MN. He has spent much time in Burma as a monk.
Steven Mandelker: "Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore" is an odd way to combine your name....Are you still legally John Dinsmore?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: I am legally still "John Dinsmore." Monks in Asia tend to combine their Dhamma names with their home towns because you often get multiple monks with the same Dhamma name, like Ananda. I actually did meet another monk named Cintita. Last names in the West are more natural choices than home towns. Having many Buddhist connections from my days of a Zen priest is a second factor in using Dinsmore; it is easier for people to connect me with my previous life. Bhikkhu is often used as part of the name for Westerners, either at the beginning or at the end. I followed Bhikkhu Bodhi's lead for this. In short, my name is my own combination.
Steven Mandelker: Are you following the vinaya about not touching money?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: Yes.
Steven Mandelker: Not eating after noon?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: Yes.
Steven Mandelker: Not touching persons of the opposite gender?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: Yes. In the West it is sometimes awkward to be too strict about this with non-Buddhist strangers, so I fudge a bit sometimes.
Steven Mandelker: Not eating bananas partially peeled in the usual manner but rather peeling them entirely and then cutting them up with a knife before eating them?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: I am not aware of this. There is a rule about not eating fruit with seeds unless it has been cut into, but that does not apply to bananas. These rules all have explanations in terms of Buddhist practice, but sometimes they make sense only historically.
Steven Mandelker: I heard the banana rule from a Thai Buddhist monk.
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: I'm sure he did not lie about it. There is a standard set of 227 rules for Theravada monks. It is clearly not in that set. However there are additional rules that monks take on regionally or unusual interpretations of the 227 rules. For instance, the rule about touching a woman specifically mentions "with lust." Lust can arise suddenly, so it is important to be on guard, but how guarded you should be varies regionally. In Thailand a woman would never hand a monk something directly, lest their fingers touch, in Burma they never worry about this. Thailand seems to have the strictest interpretations. But I can't think of what the source of the banana rule would be.
The Vinaya, the monastic code, goes to great pains to explain the origin of each rule so that monks understand the reasoning. It further recognizes cultural or environmental conditions change the usefulness of the rules, so stipulates that the rules be reinterpreted accordingly. For instance, there is a rule that monks cannot ride in an ox-drawn cart. The reason is that it was a luxury at the Buddha's time. So, how do you interpret that in modern America? It is actually not clear, but this is one of the ways regional interpretations arise.
Steven Mandelker: [Dinsmore was a zen priest before he became a Theravada monk.] How is being a Theravada monk better than being a Zen priest? A question you've probably been asked many times.
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: Indeed. Living as a monk is a certain kind of Buddhist practice, much like meditating every morning is a practice. It is a practice of renunciation, of going through the day doing nothing in your own behalf and setting limits on what you may accept from the world. At the same time it is to take on a role in the structure of the larger Buddhist community, and in maintaining the integrity of the Dharma and passing it on to future generations. This is all clearly laid out in the Vinaya by the Buddha, and observed in every Buddhist country except Japan. The lineage of Zen priests in Japan goes back to this monastic tradition but has been tinkered with so much through history, largely through government edicts, that there is very little clarity about what a Zen priest is. This is why being a monk is different from being a Zen priest, not why it is better. There are some very dedicated Zen priests.
Steven Mandelker: Yes, I agree that there is very little clarity about what a Zen priest is. In fact, as one senior zen practitioner once told me, there is virtually no real distinction anymore between priest & non-priest. For instance, a non-priest like Flint Sparks of Appamada in Austin, TX (see http://www.appamada.org/ ) without dharma transmissionhas become a well-respected zen teacher travelling and teaching all over the world. By the way, I was sorry to hear that you are now doing nothing in your own behalf. As it says in the Talmud (a Jewish text), "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: Lay people! That is what makes monastic practice work. It is a symbiotic relationship. The Burmese take better care of me than I ever did of myself. Being for yourself is bondage; if you can let that go it is liberation, according to Buddhism.
Steven Mandelker: Sure, the Burmese take better care of you than you ever did of yourself. And the Thais would. And maybe the Sri Lankans would. But not the Americans. And not anyone else probably. So you aren't really free to go wandering around the US, or, say, Europe, alone, due to being a monk who can't take money, etc.
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: The quick answer is that as monasticism develops in the West, so will the lay tradition. The Buddha saw the Buddhist community as necessarily involving these two complimentary roles, and Buddhism has always established itself in every Buddhist country in this form.
Steven Mandelker: Don't you see the Vinaya as a huge impediment to a normal life? How do you even fly into the US without money? Does someone get you at the airport & take you where you want to go? This looks to me like a monstrous problem. (Incidentally, a Thai monk in Thailand told me the monks almost all carry and use money despite the Vinaya!)
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: It has worked fine so far, but it does sometimes make complications in modern times. This is why some Asian monastics do not observe this strictly. I anticipate the time when I will have to pay for a bus ticket. Most American monastics are much more strict about this than our Asian counterparts. We will have plenty of opportunity to get lax later.
Steven Mandelker: Does following the Vinaya help you reach nibbana, and if so, how?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: Monasticism has two functions: a social function, in keeping the Dhamma honest, encouraging lay participation in the Dhamma and perpetuating the Dhamma into future generations. And a personal function, in that it is a practice, as is meditation and Dhamma study, that aims at Nibbana. In the latter function, Monasticism is a practice of selflessness, of not doing anything for your own benefit. It is highly conducive to deconstructions the sense of self.
Steven Mandelker: Let's take a specific example. How does not eating after noon help you reach nibbana?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: It keeps you from snacking. Actually the main purpose for this is the social function of monasticism" it burdens lay people less to receive offerings only once a day.
Steven Mandelker: How does not using money help you reach nibbana?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: Much of our self-serving energy centers around money. Most fundamentally it is something we can accumulate and identify with, and use to our own advantage.
Steven Mandelker: If using money could help you get to meditation retreats (hypothetical example) in the US or Europe, then wouldn't using money help you reach nibbana? In that case, wouldn't using money be better for a monk than not using money?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: There would be a trade-off, but this is splitting hairs.
Steven Mandelker: Does following the Vinaya help you attain better dhyana (in the sense of meditative experience, and if so, how)? Couldn’t a layman who isn't following Vinaya have high meditative experiences just as easily as a monk who follows Vinaya?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: No. Monasticism is a practice, like meditation is a practice. Each contributes to samadhi. Monastic practice probably makes the greater contribution, but meditation is good for that extra thrust. I think of the two practices as multiplicative: Depth of absorption = discipline in conduct x discipline in meditation. It is commonly taught that sila ([good] conduct, of which monasticism is an extreme version) must be established before meditation can be fruitful, though few teach that in this country. [Sila is variously translated as good conduct, virtuous behavior, morality, moral discipline, or the taking of precepts, which are commitments to avoid killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication, etc.]
Steven Mandelker: Isn't the tradition of becoming a monk & following Vinaya usually nothing more than a national custom (e.g. in SE Asia)? That is, wouldn't an aspiring meditator in that part of the world or anywhere in the world be just as well off remaining as a layman?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: No to both. First, Vinaya is an integral part of the Buddha's teachings, which he almost always called "Dhamma-Vinaya." Second, the monastic tradition based on the Vinaya is common to all of Buddhist Asia, except Japan. Third, Buddhism has never spread nor long endured without this tradition, though for many years the Japanese got by with a substitute Vinaya in response to government effort to restrict ordination. The lay life is preferable for most people, and can become a very powerful vehicle for development on the path, but only if a degree of renunciation or sila is incorporated into a lay life. Meditation alone is never sufficient. This is a primary role of a monk, as an example of the value of renunciation.
Steven Mandelker: Do you equate nibbana with a high level of meditative experience?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: I like to describe Nibbana as the perfection of the human character, which involves conduct, equanimity and penetrating insight. Often Nibbana is described as an experience, and then confused with Jhana. That is a mistake. Of course one does experience Nibbana, I think more and more as one progresses on the path. It is instructive, though, that Dogen states that those who are enlightened do not know they are enlightened.
Steven Mandelker: On the topic of Theravada Buddhist monastics spreading Buddhism in the West, I have encountered very little of this apart from Goenka's vipassana organization (which isn't even necessarily Buddhist but is designed to be used by anyone of any religion, though it draws heavily from Theravada Buddhism), despite having investigated the matter whenever I can. There are not many Sri Lankan, Thai, or Burmese Buddhist centers in the US. The ones that I have encountered (six or seven, I'd say, over the years) have catered to SE Asians and have been tolerant, at best, to Westerners, and often somewhat unfriendly to Westerners. It seems that they are largely SE Asian social clubs where SE Asians can hang out and meet other SE Asians. I've encountered virtually no Theravada Buddhists in the US who are a specifically trying to spread Theravada Buddhism among Westerners in the US. Could you comment on this?
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore: Of course the SE Asian temples are there primarily to serve the respective ethnic communities. Many of the SE Asians are refugees, they are not very comfortable with our very foreign culture or language, and in fact alarmed at the rudeness of many Americans, and the high crime rate. Their main concern is to keep their culture, language and religion alive. The temple is the center of their community life. Few of them are aware that Americans are interested in Buddhism. So the last thing they are thinking is the need to spread Buddhism in America. Of course they find jobs, and their kids go to school, so there is a gradual process of acculturation. Generally they invite monks to come from Asia after a community of sufficient size has established itself. Unfortunately the monks acculturate more slowly than the lay people, because most of their contact is with their own ethnic and linguistic group. If a Westerner comes to the monastery, they feel very out of place, like getting off the plane in a foreign land.
On the other hand, some of the monks start taking ESL classes and reaching out to Westerners. The abbot of the monastery I am at now [Sitagu Vihāra, Austin, TX] has quite a few Western students. He teaches in English, holds vipassana retreats, which many Westerners come to. The monastery I just left in Minnesota [Sitagu Vihāra, Maplewood, MN] involves many more Westerners now since I first arrived, and the abbot there and most of the lay community very much want to reach out to Westerners who are interested in learning Buddhism. Of course Theravada is still very small in Western America, compared to Zen or Tibetan Buddhism.