The Quest for the Real Deal: A Tale of Some Monks

 

Photo Credit: The Venerable Chanh Kien

 

 

 

Chubs is a Theraveda Buddhist.  This wasn’t  my doing, or even her mother’s.  It’s a condition that we’ve recognized since she entered a neglected, ramshackle 200 year old wat in Luang Prabang at the age of 27 months, exclaimed “Wow!”, toddled up to the altar, knelt, pressed her hands together at her forehead, and bowed her head to the floor.

 

I think the sequence went:  her head to the floor, then my jaw and her mother’s jaw more or less in unison.

 

Since then, she’s been about 3:2 more likely to demand to “go see Buddha!” after school than to go to a playground.

 

Anyways, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Theraveda Buddhist pagoda in Danang lately.  They regularly host talks by big-swinging-dick monks from other parts of Southeast  Asia, and I’ve been dragged grumbling and muttering to three or four of these batty little dog-and-pony shows over the last couple of months.

 

I think the first one was the worst.  As the expected time of His Most Holy Reverend Augustness’s (actually, the correct honorific is The Eleventh Tipitakadhara)  arrival, the pagoda authorities jostled the crowd into a big V-shaped receiving line at the pagoda gates.  As I recall it, we were each and all required to hold a fucking flower.

 

We stood for about 45 minutes before the mood of the crowd started to turn a little surly.  The managing monk of the pagoda, a nice bloke who was visibly worried, announced on the P.A. system that he had just heard from the deputation, and they would arrive shortly.  Half an hour later, people were dropping out of the receiving line to find a little shade.

 

Announcement:  the deputation was crossing Thuan Phuoc bridge (fifteen, maybe even twenty minutes away).   Revolution simmered.  After another half an hour, the  managing monk whimpered a five minute warning into the P.A., and a scowling crowd gripping wilting flowers was in line when the SUVs rolled up fifteen minutes later.

 

The Eleventh Tipitakadhara and his entourage dismounted their motorcade, glided into the pagoda with their noses in the air, and we all assembled in the upstairs lecture hall, where His Augustness announced that he was a little tired after his day of sightseeing, spoke for fifteen minutes about bugger knows what, and I got to go home.

 

The next one wasn’t as bad because I didn’t have to hold a flower.  But that guy was a manifest asshole too.  He started his talk by announcing that the assembled faithful could present gifts of fruit or flowers to his assistants.  “Anything else” (i.e. envelopes of cash, the other standard offering), they were to give directly to him.  I don’t know what he talked about, either.

 

 

 

 

Man, these guys were small time.  Trifling amateurs to my jaded eyes.  Light-years from impressive to the likes of me.  Buddy, I’ve been to Mooji satsang.  Just this Februrary, as a matter of fact.

 

In case you’re an unwashed philistine who doesn’t know who Mooji is (as I was until three weeks before I went to his satsang), he’s the current reigning successor of the Ramana Maharshi lineage.  And if you don’t know who he is, he’s actually worth googling.  There’s some great talks on youtube by greybeards who knew him (he died in 1950).  This one is my favorite.

 

He’s a legend.  He was a famously simple man, and his idea was simple:  that the road to Enlightenment is by way of Self-Inquiry (or -Enquiry.  I don’t know and I refuse to Google it).   And in terms of technique, it’s absolutely as simple as it sounds.  Ask yourself:  who am I?  And keep asking.

 

I don’t know if it’s because the man himself was so influential, or because truth is truth, but you come across this idea again and again when you read and listen on the Sanatan circuit.  Different tweaks, sometimes.  I spent a richly enjoyable afternoon smoking weed and chatting (well, listening) to a fellow I met at the Moni Baba shrine who put it: “God, please tell me, who am I?”

 

But anyways, that’s the core of the idea, even if the Q&A in Maharshi’s recorded and published satsangs (which are most of his documentary legacy; he didn’t write much) gets pretty deep.   And Maharshi, when he died, was succeeded by Papaji, who wrote books.  And Papaji died, and was succeeded by Mooji (who also writes books, and is as photogenic as fuck).  And man, a Mooji satsang is a spectacle to behold.  He held six per week over a month-long stretch while I was knocking around Rishikesh, and I shared a cab out of Haridwar with a guy who was there just for him, and that’s how I found out about him, and I went to one.

 

Now the Mooji talk was in a building the size of an aircraft hangar, accommodating over two and a half thousands of the faithful on the day I attended.  The building is so big that halfway down from the dais a gigantic Mooji-tron was suspended from the ceiling so those at the back would be denied none of his Moojiness.

 

Before his arrival, a lady spoke on the P.A., directing the audience to the microphones on either aisle at which people with questions could queue, and she asked the crowd not to attempt to touch Mooji’s feet, and she assured us that due to Mooji’s energetic fecundity or whatever,  we would all receive the full helping of Moo just by attending.  No foot-touching necessary.  Which was great.

 

You could feel the crowd ramping up like an F-14 Tomcat hooked up in the deck catapult of the USS Enterprise when Mooji’s approach was announced, and the Mooji-tron lit up with a camera shot of he and a small entourage of flushed and beautiful women in their early twenties approaching the hall.  He paused outside the door, stoked up a smoldering brand of herbs and wafted holy smoke over his entourage, and then in he came.  The crowd was fairly dizzy with awe as he mounted the dais, rumbled over to the chair (he’s an appropriately portly dude of apparently late middle age – I refuse to google it), and settled in.

 

We om’d, he welcomed us, and we went straight to questions.  The first was from an obvious shill, a diminutive hipster type in his twenties, his earnest face, eyes brimming with tears, perfectly centered on the Mooji-tron as he stood with his elbows bent to offer both hands forward, palms up in supplication while he asked his intensively rehearsed and passionately delivered five-minute question, the final three words of which were “Who am I?”

 

Eight ball in the corner pocket for starters, I guess.

 

Mooji spoke for about twenty minutes, and expounded the Maharshi ideology very well, I thought, not deviating at all from the teachings as I understood them (such as I do), but expressed in a way that wasn’t repetitive, a personal way, a Moojified way.  I enjoyed his presentation, and indeed the rest of his answers for the remainder of the satsang.  He was engaging, funny, perceptive, and charismatic.  It was a good talk.

 

But for my money, the crowd stole the show.  The crowd made the experience.  Anyone watching on the internet, just seeing the camera shots and hearing the microphone feeds, wouldn’t have dug the vibe at all.  Because people were having kundalini experiences all over the shop while Mooji spoke.

 

Wild, insane laughter over here, over there.  The hipster kid doing the funky chicken standing at the microphone while Mooji answered his question, Christ he looked like he was being Tasered. (Btw, here’s a video of me getting tasered, when I was younger and precisely as stupid.)   Some chick clearly having the most devastating 40-minute orgasm ever experienced somewhere behind me off to my left (that one was definitely my favorite.)  It was very much like every description I’ve heard and video I’ve seen of hard-core fundamentalist Protestant shindigs, with the speaking in tongues and whatnot.

 

I left about fifteen minutes early in compliance with the demand of my bladder, and indulged in a Mohan Biri in the street outside the ashram while I waited for my friends.  I found myself standing beside a woman in similar circumstances who looked experienced in matters of yoga, and asked her what she thought of the satsang.

 

“He was fine,” she grumped.  “But I can’t handle the circus around him.”

 

I smiled a little.

 

Then, to my delight, Davy strolled out the gates.  Davy’s a blazing smart middle-aged Israeli cat who was travelling India with his son, and I’d had breakfast with them a couple of times at the only restaurant in Lakshman Jula that serves shakshuka.  Davy’s two bits?  “Well…” he fidgeted a bit, “that was quite a show.”

 

In the tuk-tuk back to Lakshman Jula, my friends properly advised me to keep an open mind and not assume that I know anything about the experiential reality of consciousness other  than my own.  Whilst I ranted.

 

 

 

 

 

Last week, Chubs and I drove her mother to Hoi An and dropped her off at a pagoda to spend a couple of nights at a vipassana intensive presided over by a visiting monk from Myanmar.   When we returned to pick her up, she was glowing.

 

She talked about the whole experience, but mostly about the presiding monk, extolling his obvious, unfaltering mindfulness, his humility, the clarity and simplicity of his instruction.  She lamented that the poor man clearly had a cold of some kind, but enthused that he still taught all day, not resting, not excluding himself for a break, there for midnight meditation, there for everything (except meal times – he was always physically distanced from the attendees, and didn’t attend meals at all), giving unreservedly of himself for a group that needed his commitment and sacrifice and humility.

 

He was, she assured me in my own words, “the real deal”.  Only her iron sense of maternal duty brought her home at all.  If not for Chubs, she’d have followed his ass back to Myanmar in a heartbeat.

 

She was making noises about going back for a couple of more days this week, when the news broke that he was coming to Danang to hold a morning-long ceremony, including talk, for the Buddha’s birthday celebration.  The compromise was obvious and agreeable, and Chubs dolled herself up in her frilliest crinoline-puffed princess dress, and we went.

 

The way it worked out, the monk passed right by me as he entered the pagoda.  His expression was priceless:  “Holy shit would you look at all these people!   What am I supposed to say to them?  I don’t know if I’m up to this, man.”

 

But there was more.  He had this look about him.

 

It was the way his skin stretched paper-thin over the bones of his face.  It was this very specific shade of bleakness in his gaze.  The instant I saw him, the word “tuberculosis” burst in my head like a firework.

 

I shook it off.  No reason to suspect that, none at all.  A few cold symptoms did not constitute substantial empirical evidence, right?  And of course he’d look a little drawn, he’d been fasting for three days.

 

The main seating area in the lecture hall was packed, so we hustled into the wing, which worked out well because we got right up to level with the dais, off to the monk’s left, and as he sat down at the front of the room, I was sitting down on the floor maybe twelve feet from his chair.

 

I saw his thorax spasm, heard the deep wet rumble.  He drew a handkerchief  from the folds of his robe and brought it to his mouth as surreptitiously as possible under the gaze of hundreds.  From the side, I watched him carefully spit into, and then quickly stow, the handkerchief.  An assistant handed him a microphone, and he led a recitation of Pali mantra, and then he spoke.

 

He spoke softly and methodically, half sentences in English, then waited for an intelligent, alert Buddhist nun kneeling some distance to his right to translate into Vietnamese.  I had trouble hearing because of the trio of Laotian girls twenty feet behind me opening packets of crinkle wrap to arrange piles of snacks for the putting-stuff-in-monk’s-bowls ceremony which was due to follow.  But he talked about mindfulness, specifically mindfulness on one’s own self, limiting attention on what others were up to, on saving the lion’s share of one’s awareness for inside.

 

Profoundly useful material for anger-wracked, grudge-nurturing, shit-talking, accusatory ol’ me.

 

While he spoke a few words at a time, he only restarted a sentence once.  He said a couple of words, and halted abruptly.  I saw the ghost of a spasm in his chest.  He sat, still, controlled, eyes switched off, everything he was turned in.  The pause was long.  And then he started his sentence over.

 

Now I don’t know, right?  I’m not a doctor.  I don’t know the man, I don’t know any of his inner circle, I haven’t seen or heard of a professional medical opinion of any kind whatsoever relevant to the man.

 

But that fucking guy has tuberculosis.

 

And he’s not resting at home under the care of physicians and nurses.  He’s travelling the world, working round-the-clock , teaching, speaking, staying up all night guiding meditations, fasting for days at a time.  Every fucking thing a man in that condition shouldn’t be doing.  Spreading the dhamma, utterly refusing any weakness in himself by continuous act of superhuman will.  Living, probably, to a higher standard of tireless beneficence than he would if he wasn’t dying of goddamn consumption.

 

Why?  Why would that guy do that?

 

Because, I suppose, that’s how you roll when you’re the real deal.

 

I’ve met just a small handful of those guys in my lifetime, and all in the last few months.  They’re as rare as hen’s teeth, but they’re out there.  The real deal dudes.  They’re fucking out there.  I was reaching a place where I was prepared to accept that every last bugger presenting himself as a spiritual teacher was a con man of some stripe, you know?  But the real deal dudes are out there.

 

 

 

 

 

Honorable mention to a couple of guys.  The first has to be my big brother  Guru Sharm Dass, who as I write this will be sitting in his orange loincloth outside his stone hut in the woods a couple of kilometers up in the hills outside Rishikesh, sipping a cup of chai and perusing a copy of the Hindustan Times biked up by a devotee.  I owe him.  Big.  Thanks for helping me keep my feet on the ground, Baba-ji.

 

The other is the man with the credit for the Chubs photo at the top, the Venerable Chanh Kien  (translation:  Right Understanding), straight-up the coolest Buddhist monk I’ve ever met.  He was another of the visiting monks down the local temple.  I didn’t understand much of his talk as it was all in Vietnamese, and I can’t usually catch anything more complicated than “Sorry, we don’t have Tiger Beer.  We can give you a La Rue if you feel like shitting blood for four days.”

 

But he cautioned the crowd about Buddhist practice as a quid-pro-quo for earthly gain, delivering a bit that went something like “Okay, Buddha, here, I give you a banana.  Now you give me success in endeavor  X.”

 

In short, he’s one of those funny, down-to-earth, approachable, practical monks who give you material you can work with, and he spent a good hour hanging out with us after the talk, and he gave us these bracelets and his blessing:

 

Photo credit: Chubs

 

 

And you know where his home pagoda is?  Fucking Langley.  He’s from Saigon, I met him in Danang, and he calls Langley home.  For my friends and family in Greater Vancouver, go see him when he’s back from his world tour.

 

Take him a banana, and tell him it’s from me, and I tell him I want a Ferrari.  Red.  Gotta be red.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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