This answer to this question is complex and difficult to explain. This posting is personal and will not cover all the issues that are relevant to all people. I write from the perspective of a middle-aged male raised in Australia.
I received a couple of queries about this question and this prompted me to write this posting as a response. I suppose I set the question up in the earlier version of the “about me” paragraph under my photo [I must update that photo one day…]. This posting took over a week of writing and editing and I’m still not happy with the quality. It is my longest posting by far, with over 4000 words. I was going to write a short version, a sort of executive summary and a long version for those interested in more detail but then merged the two into what appears here. I’ll move on to other topics for future postings now. I have a few draft posts on Dhamma topics waiting for my attention. I’ll try to post one a week but don’t count on it.
From late 1981 until the end of 2009 I practiced vipassana meditation as taught in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition. It was the early insights from this meditation that convinced me in 1982 to become Buddhist and to ordain as a monk in Thailand. After I disrobed in 1984, I continued to practice vipassana meditation as a lay man though I didn’t do any more retreats until November 2005. That seven day retreat led by Ven. Sayadaw U Lakkhana was intense and reinvigorated my practice once again. I knew I had to keep practicing. At that time I didn’t have much confidence in myself as a meditator and imagined that it would take many lifetimes to make a breakthrough to stream-entry (sotapanna).
In December 2006 – January 2007 I did a 6 week retreat in Yangon with Ven. Saydaw U Janaka (Chanmyay Sayadaw) and once again went up the insight knowledges (vipassana ~naa.na). I reached a difficult stage and left the retreat one week early. I still didn’t have much confidence in my practice. From 2005 onwards I was also beginning to read more Dhamma books and delved into the excellent translations of the Suttas by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. This sutta study and continued practice at home further strengthened my confidence in the Dhamma (saddha) and increased my sense of spiritual urgency (sa.mvega).
By mid 2008, I had decided that conventional lay life in a couple relationship was a hindrance to spiritual development but still wasn’t sure if I should ordain as a monk. At that time I was confident I could live the celibate life so ordaining was a possibility once more. My family situation left me free to choose to ordain or not. So I began preparing for a trip to Asia to go back to Yangon and to visit Thailand where I had been a monk before. I thought that before possibly ordaining I needed to focus on making a breakthrough by doing longer more intensive retreats. This is more important than robes or rules of conduct.
I thought about the 2006-07 retreat at Chanmyay Yeithka in Yangon that I broke off early due to reaching a difficult stage. My own assessment (not confirmed by anyone else) is that I may have reached number 10 (of 16) – Knowledge of reflection (patisa.nkhaa~naa.na). I was determined that I would persevere next time and not give up the retreat so early. In fact whereas I only did a six week retreat in 2006-07, in March-June 2009 (16 weeks) at Saddhammaransi Yeithka, I reached this same stage after the first four weeks and seemed to stay there for the remaining 12 weeks. It was very frustrating. I was restless the whole time and wanted to leave. I struggled very much. Some of my wish to leave was due to uncomfortable environmental factors which I have outlined later in this blog. I believe that most of the restlessness and mental pain was an effect of the insight knowledge itself.
I finally gave up and transferred to Mahasi Sasana Yeithka, also in Yangon, where I continued meditating but not so intensively. There I talked with and helped other resident foreigners. I seemed to stay in the same insight knowledge but with less apparent stress. Maybe it was an immature number 11 (of 16), knowledge of equanimity towards formations (sa.nkhaar’upekkhaa~naa.na)? Again the environment was not ideal for me to meditate. Some Burmese Dhamma friends have criticised me for being weak and not persevering. They said I may have made a breakthrough had I stayed longer and they even encouraged me to ordain despite the obstacles.
I wrote above that I had only practiced insight meditation in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. Prior to leaving Australia for this trip I had been studying suttas and reading about deep concentration meditation (samatha) and meditative absorptions (jhaana). This was attractive to me for many reasons and not least because from what I was reading in the suttas, it was the way that the Blessed One and the Sangha at that time practiced. I believe I had some weaknesses in my spiritual development that may have hindered progress.
I shall provide some doctrine before continuing this theme.
There are five controlling faculties (panc’indriya) which include:
These must be well-balanced to make good progress in meditation and achieve a breakthrough. I self-assessed myself as being relatively weak in mindfulness and concentration. From what I was reading in the suttas, it seemed that a period of intense deep concentration meditation (samatha) perhaps up to the level of developing mental absorptions would increase mindfulness and concentration. With these two important factors strengthened, all the five controlling faculties would balance and a breakthrough may occur. At least this was the theory as interpreted by myself.
In secondary materials such as popular books on meditation and audio lectures by Buddhist teachers, even Theravada Buddhist teachers, there is a lot of talk about developing the ten perfections (paramis). These are not in the suttas or the commentary literature (A.t.thakathaa) at all. The doctrine of perfections only appear in the sub-commentary literature (Tiika) and later than that. The Theravada tradition adopted the doctrine of perfections from the Mahayana tradition more than 1000 years after the Blessed One attained Nibbaana without remainder (about 500 BC). The ten perfections are often referenced by modern teachers as a way to measure progress on the spiritual path. They may say “the perfections are not sufficiently mature, be patient and keep practicing. Maybe next life-time …” and so on. I believe a more appropriate reference is the five controlling faculties.
Ok, now back to the theme. I left Yangon and went to Bangkok where for about two weeks I did little meditation while relaxing and meeting with old friends. I ate lots of food and talked with friends about my plans to find a suitable meditation centre or monastery to practice samatha meditation. However, soon after meeting Pi Yai, she persuaded me to try insight meditation in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw one more time at Section 5, Wat Mahadhatu. She arranged everything and I stayed there for 2 weeks and then 8 weeks. These two retreats were interrupted by a week when I travelled to Laos to renew my visa for Thailand for 3 months. The 8 week retreat at Wat Mahadhatu was the best. I had a few environmental difficulties but persevered. Pi Yai was a great meditation coach and a fantastic Dhamma teacher. Once again I reached that difficult insight knowledge, number 10 and maybe flipped over into number 11 sometimes, I’m not sure. It was not so uncomfortable this time though. Even so I gave up again after 8 weeks. I missed talking about the Dhamma and sometimes thought of my plans to try samatha meditation. I stayed in Bangkok another 4 weeks helping Pi Yai teach drop-in travellers who went to Wat Mahadhatu to learn meditation and get an introduction to Buddhism. It was fun and quite rewarding.
I then went to India for a month to do the pilgrimage of Buddhist sacred sites. This was very important to me. I wrote a lot about this in the December 2009 postings. Then I went to Sri Lanka to Na Uyana Aranya with the specific purpose of beginning samatha practice and hoping to possibly attain one or more of the four mental absorptions (jhaana). The plan was to use the jhaana as a base to then do insight meditation in the manner outlined in the suttas.
There were more obstacles at Na Uyana Aranya and I didn’t attain jhaana. Even so, my time there was very useful and productive. I learned a lot about samatha practice, Sri Lanka, Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka as well as having many interesting and penetrating Dhamma conversations.
The journey was primarily about doing retreats aiming for a spiritual break through. Evaluating monasteries as possible places to ordain was very much secondary. All the time, I knew that ordination was a possibility but not certain and not a goal in itself. The goal was to make a spiritual breakthrough regardless of worldly status or livelihood.
The only place that came close to being suitable for me to ordain is Na Uyana Aranya. I did not visit all possible venues for ordination. As I passed through each place I decided, ‘this place doesn’t suit me’ until I reached Na Uyana Aranya. It was the best of all the places I’d been and the only place I seriously considered ordaining. In the first two months I even told Ven. Ariyaananda twice of my intention to ordain. Then in the second two months the average temperature and humidity increased. I was unable to do regular walking meditation between sitting sessions because either there was no shade or there were too many insects.
In the second two months, my lower back ache was bothering me. Climbing the steep hill every day was a hassle in the humid weather. There were other minor issues that all accumulated to the point when I finally decided not to ordain at Na Uyana Aranya. By that time, my funds were low and I had to return to Perth to earn money. If I had more money then I might have looked around Sri Lanka at other monasteries or maybe travelled back to Thailand to look around there. I might have gone back to India to visit pilgrimage sites. I might have gone to other places in the world to meet with Buddhist teachers and get more advice about practice and Dhamma.
Some readers may wonder if there are some issues that I have not covered in this posting that may be relevant to my decision not to ordain. Although I have written rather a lot for a blog posting, I have not covered every detail. Even so, I would like to briefly outline those issues that are not relevant to my personal decision not to ordain: lust, anger, insanity, criminality, fatal or disfiguring diseases (not including ageing), non-human being, drug addiction, physical disability, physical deformity, indebtedness, obligation for military or government service, incomplete masculinity (for men wishing to ordain as a bhikkhu), family dependents and so forth. Most of these issues are identified in the Vinaaya as obstacles to ordination.
Though still capable of lust, anger and delusion, these conditions are not strong enough to prevent me form ordaining. For example, some people might not have the ability to live a celibate life – they need a sexual outlet. Experienced meditators learn to manage lust and anger. Samatha (concentration) meditation is particularly suitable for temporarily purifying mental states. This is why it is a good idea to spend some time (at least six months) as a lay person on eight precepts to learn how to manage lust and anger and also to sample monastic life. The Blessed One recommended meditation on the body, particularly parts of the body and various decaying corpses in order to reduce the impact of lustful mental states. He also recommended loving-kindness meditation for reducing the impact of angry mental states. I personally verified the effectiveness of these techniques and routinely applied them for short periods each day.
The following section indicates places I stayed during my trip and provides some indication of why I chose not to ordain at each place or stay longer even as a lay man.
Saddhammaransi Yeithka, Yangon, Myanmar (March 2009 – June 2009)
Good: Sayadaw U Kundala is the abbot is an inspiring presence despite not being available for teaching due to old age and poor health. Good room with ensuite. City conveniences such as Internet, hospitals, shops, embassies and international airport. Dr Than Than is an excellent translator and teacher.
Bad: Very noisy city monastery in a noisy neighbourhood. Extremely crowded with 80 per cent women. Oily food. Diarrhea every week or second week. Resident monastics are mostly late-in-life ordinations (retirees). Monastics depend largely on savings acquired in their own previous lay life and regular stipends earned by chanting. Monastics have bank accounts and use money. Many temporary ordinations coming and going with little knowledge of Buddhism. Slack management of lay men doing ten day, one month and 3 month resident retreats. Strict routine of taking 8 precepts every morning and listening to Dhamma talks every afternoon.
Saddhammaransi Yeithka has a branch monastery located outside Yangon in a rural area that is reputed to be less crowded and much quieter. I heard that foreigners have ordained as monks and nuns and stayed there for years to practice successfully. I requested the opportunity to go there but the lay officials at Saddhammaransi Yeithka discouraged me. If anyone were to consider Saddhammaransi Yeithka, they should insist from the start that they wish to go to the rural branch monastery. It is also important to consider whether a competent translator is available.
Mahasi Sasana Yeithka, Yangon, Myanmar (June – July 2009)
Good: Large grounds with many trees close to the centre of Yangon. Mahasi Sayadaw museum and mausoleum. Good room with ensuite. City conveniences such as Internet, hospitals, shops, embassies and international airport.
Bad: Monastics and lay people constantly spitting on the walking paths. Oily food. Diarrhea every week or second week. Poor quality teachers. Slack vinaaya – even the senior teachers use money. Many temporary ordinations coming and going with little knowledge of Buddhism. Corrupt senior lay management request bribes for facilitating foreign meditators’ visas (regardless of being monastic or lay person).
Wat Mahadhatu, Section 5, Bangkok, Thailand (July 2009 – November 2009)
Good: Pi Yai is an excellent vipassana meditation teacher in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. Meditators at all levels would benefit by talking with her. A good place for absolute beginners to get an introduction to Buddhism and Mahasi method meditation. Excellent food (though not vegetarian).
Bad: Extremely crowded, with noisy and inadequate facilities. Many lay women visiting and staying for short retreats. Noisy environment for meditation and sleeping. Many rats, cats and cockroaches. Many monastics smoke cigarettes in the accommodation areas. All monastics use money except a few visiting monks. Lots of chanting and rituals. Monastics depend largely on savings acquired in their own previous lay life and regular stipends earned by chanting. Monastics have bank accounts and use money. Many temporary ordinations. Ven. Raajasiddhimuni “Luang Por Jodok”, passed away about 10 years ago and there is no-one else of his quality. Most monasteries depend on a senior and venerable figurehead. Section 5 is missing one though some try hard to fit the role. As a lay woman, Pi Yai lacks worldly status and influence while ostentatious monastics flap and squawk.
Ven. Luang Por Jodok was my preceptor (upajjhaaya) when I ordained as a bhikkhu in 1982. Ven. Ajahn Kao Titawano was the abbot and my principle teacher (aacariya) at that time too. He also passed away about 10-15 years ago. I miss them and other monastic teachers from that time. It would be great if they were still alive and available for me to consult with.
Na Uyana Aranya, Pansiyagama, Sri Lanka (January 2010 – May 2010)
Good: Ven.Ariyadhamma. Ven. Ariyaananda is cool and an excellent teacher and leader. 500 hectares of forest. Many paths for hiking through the forest. Good accommodation with en-suites. Good vegetarian food with no tummy problems at all. Strong vinaaya. Support for various meditation traditions including Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw and Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw. Excellent collection of books.
Bad: Few kutis have suitable walking paths for meditation. Many kutis are very hot. Many unpaved paths up steep hills. Deadly snakes and insects. Monkeys. Ants. Far from Internet and health facilities. Library room is hot and small. Centralised management. Ants cross the paths at random places each day and many mosquitos and other biting insects attack at night. My kuti was too small for walking inside.
Other yogis encouraged me to ask Ven. Ariyaananda for a bigger kuti but I didn’t want to bother him. He had given me that kuti to use and I didn’t want to be another grumpy, spoiled Westerner. I felt privileged to have a kuti to myself since all the Sri Lankan lay people had to live in dormitory buildings. Perhaps if I had stayed and ordained I could have upgraded to a larger kuti in a shady area with a short walking path inside. I was not so patient.
There were suggestions that at 50 years old and with minor health issues, I may be too old to ordain at Na Uyana. But this wasn’t a firm and final matter. I had confidence that were I to demonstrate determination and sincerity as a lay man for one or two years, there would be no problem ordaining. Some people suggested a way around this would be to ordain somewhere else and then return to Na Uyana to seek residence. That idea didn’t appeal to me. I prefer to be straight forward.
Finance: I started with a budget of about A$14,000. I spent it on living costs, travel and donations. By the time I was making my decision about whether to ordain at Na Uyana Aranya, I had little of those funds left (no debts though). I felt uncomfortable making that decision as though someone (mostly myself?) might criticise me for ordaining to escape poverty and work. This is complex but only one of many minor factors in the ordination decision.
Health: I have some minor health issues that are more conveniently addressed in layman’s life. I like to see doctors and other allied health specialists from time to time. As a monk I would be totally dependent on lay support for medical attention. As a lay man with employment and a reasonable income living in an economically prosperous country I can easily access high quality medical services. These provide a greater degree of physical comfort and possibly a longer life for Dhamma study and practice. I wouldn’t want to be too great a burden to other monastics or the local lay communities.
Teacher and local monastic community: As a newly ordained monastic it is good to have a teacher and appropriate community support for conduct, meditation and requisites. I have confidence that strict monastic conduct leads to deeper concentration and wisdom. There are many teachers who may have strict conduct themselves but live among a community that is slack. There are good meditation teachers who are not good at monastery management. Ideally communities would have a solid tradition and culture that is sustainable in the long term despite changes in abbots and teachers (due to death, sickness and travel). Successful monastic communities are dependent on devoted lay communities.
Vinaaya (rules of conduct for monastics): It is conceivable but not convenient for experienced monastics (maybe over 5 years in robes) to move around without money in these countries. Despite the vinaaya (rules of conduct for monastics) most monastics use money.
Location: There is greater support for monastics in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos than in Australia. This is due to the higher proportion of Buddhist lay supporters in the population and the higher number of monasteries. There is much less choice in Australia for a suitable place to ordain. The Ajahn Chah lineage monasteries have a strict age-limit policy for ordinations and would not ordain a man aged 50 plus. Most other Theravada monasteries in Australia would have smaller communities of monastics and may not have sufficient facilities for ordaining, accommodating and training new monks. I have not fully investigated the options though, so I may be wrong. Most of my research on Australian monasteries is via the Internet.
Having Thai language and cultural skills, I could find and settle at many monasteries in Thailand (and Laos). Myanmar and Sri Lanka have many English speakers and probably after 6 months of effort a newly ordained monk could learn enough local language to survive. Certainly within 2-3 years, I would expect to be literate in the local language. In my case, I’ve done that already with my experience ordaining in Thailand so doing it again in another country does not scare me. In Thailand, I’m not keen on the political structure and culture of the Sangha, the non-orthodox ideas (magic, Hinduism, crystals, astrology, money, status) that hinder access to true Dhamma. These are common problems in Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka though manifested in different ways. I expect that some monasteries in Australia may have these problems too.
Location is linked with access to climate, health and communication facilities. Asian countries tend to feel hotter and more humid than most places in Australia (north Queensland and northern Northern Territory excepted). I can live with that though I prefer a temperate climate.
Family, children: I have two children aged 18 and 16 who live with their mother (first wife) in Canberra. While I was traveling from March 2009 to May 2010 I was in intermittent contact with them. As a layman I could be more directly involved in their lives. They need support and guidance sometimes. Now that I’m back in Perth, my daughter is keen to come and live with me later this year.
Family, mother and siblings: My mother is in good health and well. She is always anxious when I’m travelling overseas and encourages me to return to Australia. Even when I lived in Canberra she invited me to live in Perth close to her. My siblings enjoy my company and the exotic flavour I add to the family blend (and meals) in Perth. I’m the only Buddhist in my family – everyone else are pragmatic agnostics (my label for them). Like the majority of Westerners, they seem to accept the common Western materialist paradigm. They don’t like philosophising and prefer me not to question their assumptions about life.
Age: There are guidelines for ordination in Australian monasteries that discourage or prohibit ordination for men aged 50 or over. I just missed out there. I could easily ordain in Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka or Laos whatever my age. Though there are monasteries in Thailand and Sri Lanka that may not allow me to ordain because of my mature age. (More details in the Longer Response below.)
I turned 50 in early 2010. I regard this as middle-aged, the prime of life. However, some monasteries regard the age of 50 as being ‘too old’ to ordain. Nevertheless some of those monasteries with an age policy for ordinations seem to consider each case on its merits. It seems that they want to discourage monks from using the monastery as a retirement home. They would assess each case and judge whether the candidate was sincere and had a strong sense of spiritual urgency (sa.mvega). I gather that some monasteries have a very strict policy of not ordaining men aged 50 and over, regardless of their spiritual urgency.
Now I am open to the next stage. I retain the preference to be single, celibate and free. I shall get a job, save money and maybe travel again. Though I am less likely to consider ordination in future.
Maybe in a couple of years I can find a cottage in a remote area with convenient access to food where I can quietly do a retreat on my own. This is relatively cheap in Sri Lanka. I believe it maybe possible in Thailand or Laos too. This would be a longer retreat – maybe 3-4 months or longer. I’d like to try continue doing samatha meditation – namely mindfulness of breathing (aanaapaanasati) and see how far it can go.
This could be a model for the future. Work for a while, save money, go on a long retreat for a few months, return to Australia, work for a while, save money, go on a long retreat…. and so on. I am aware that life happens despite our plans.
I shall continue studying Dhamma. I have a fantasy about learning Paali and possibly Sinhala languages. I’m not sure if I can retain the discipline to do so. I’ll probably keep posting on this blog too.