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It had been two months since I ordained Sunanda. It is not an easy adjustment to become a Buddhist monk. It was especially difficult for Sunanda, who was not only a Westerner, but was born and raised in the Jewish faith in Beverly Hills. He had not been brought up around monks, or in a culture that knew about, incorporated, and honored the sangha as an essential part of society, as it is in most of Asia.
Sunanda had been struggling quietly with a few issues, and he thought I had not noticed. I decided to wait for him to come forward to ask for help, knowing that he needed to choose his own time. As the waters of his frustration rose, the dam holding his silence eventually broke on a clear early sunrise in the spring.
Sunanda usually came to my room in the morning to pay his respects to me as his teacher and abbot, a tradition he seemed to enjoy and appreciate. Even though he was always friendly, he was often quiet and usually spent only a few moments with me, eager to begin his daily work. On this particular spring day his face was full of concern and question, and he stayed with me longer than usual.
He suddenly shouted out loud, "Bhante!" The force of his voice, coming from such a usually quiet monk, sent a shock wave through the room. I turned and looked at him with amazement.
"Bhante!" he called out again. "I think I have to give up my robe. I have to leave the monastery!"
Sunanda's eyes were downcast, and I could tell that he washaving a difficult time getting up the courage to face me. I knew that this was the time to talk at last. "Sunanda," I calmly said, "please tell me what's on your mind. You are obviously troubled. Perhaps I can be of assistance to you."
He looked at me with trepidation, like he wished he had not spoken out so abruptly. "It's OK," I said. "Please feel free to continue. That's how we learn. There is nothing you could say to me that would shock me."
Sunanda looked at me again for reassurance, and I nodded. He took a deep breath and began.
"Bhante, I am so embarrassed about what I am going to tell you. Since I was ordained a couple of months ago, I have been harassed endlessly. People yell out names, whisper as I pass, ask me if I forgot to change my Halloween costume! They say, 'Hey, are you a pumpkin?' They have kicked me on the bus. Sometimes I think I will be beaten up! I am afraid to go outside. How can I live this way, Bhante? I don't know what to do."
Sunanda was starting to sob, thinking about the abuse he had endured. I am sure he was also thinking about the possibility of giving up his vows. He was a devoted Buddhist monk, and I could well understand the pain he was feeling.
"My dear Sunanda," I said, in a reassuring manner. "You are not alone. I have suffered the same treatment on many occasions."
Sunanda looked up at me, absolutely startled. "You what?" he said with widening eyes. "How could anyone abuse someone like you?"
"Well, I will tell you, Sunanda. I'll share a few stories with you and then you'll understand."
Sunanda nodded and then moved closer so he could hear me better. He obviously didn't want to miss a word of what I was about to say.
"Sunanda, a few months ago I was traveling with Bhante Sumedha and Nanda from Los Angeles to Berkeley. Do you remember that trip?"
Sunanda nodded his head and I continued.
"We stopped at a rest area to go to the bathroom. As I was going into the men's room, a man stopped me and shouted, 'Hey, this isn't the women's bathroom!' I ignored him. Then again he called out, 'Hey, lady! Don't you understand English? This isn't the women's bathroom!'
"I removed the knit cap on my head and turned to face the man. 'Sir, I am a Buddhist monk. I am wearing a traditional monk's robe.'
"The man was completely taken aback and he replied, 'Oh, I am sorry, sir. I thought you were wearing an Indian sari!'
"When I walked back outside, the man was standing there waiting for me. He approached, and with excitement in his voice, he asked if he could speak with me. I quietly nodded my head in consent."
"Bhante, please continue," Sunanda urged, filled with curiosity.
I leaned forward and spoke with more vigor. "He wanted to know my name. I told him that I am called Bhante.
"'Bhante, my name is Bill,' he replied. 'I am so curious about your dress. Or rather your robe! Please tell me about its colors. Bright yellow. Hmm. What does that mean?' Bill questioned.
"I replied, 'Yellow is a cheerful, lovely color. Yellow is associated with happiness and is known as the color of the intellect; therefore, yellow represents a sense of mindfulness. The color yellow symbolizes maturitya ripe mango has a saffron hue. Yellow is also the color of the rising sun, which shines equally on everything on this planet. It does not discriminate when it brightens the world. In the same manner, a monk who wears a yellow robe should treat all equally. I'm neither a follower of self-mortification, nor do I lead an indulgent life. I follow a path called the Middle Path, which is represented by yellow, one of the three primary colors, located on the spectrum between red and blue."
"What do you mean 'Middle Path'?" asked Bill, genuinely wanting to know.
"Well, the Middle Path avoids extremes. One is the way of extreme indulgence in or attachment to sense pleasures. In this way one looks for happiness through the gratification of the senses. In the other way, the way of self-mortification, one rejects the senses. One way depends on attachment to the senses, while the other way denies them. Yellow is in between, presenting the idea of the Middle Path. A person who practices the Middle Path can gain vision and knowledge, which leads to a tranquil, balanced personality.
"Bill thanked me. His wife was signaling him to return to their RV, which was parked under a tree on the other side of the rest area. We parted company with a smile."
Sunanda had been listening to my story in amazement. Again he urged me to tell him more.
"In 1977, while at Northwestern University, I went on the El and got off at State Street. I was waiting for a bus that would take me to the Thai Buddhist Temple. Two young women and three young men came up to me, threatened me with foul language, and forced me to go with them. They kept calling me a Hari Krishna. They even accused me of being involved with some recent news headlines regarding the Hari Krishnas, one of which involved the kidnapping of a girl. They said they were going to kill me. Finally I got them to calm down somewhat, and I showed them my Northwestern ID card. They looked back and forth at one another, completely baffled, and I explained that I was a Buddhist monk.
"One girl asked, 'Then why do you wear Hari Krishna clothes?'
"I explained to them that it was a traditional Buddhist monk's robe. Eventually they apologized, saying they were convinced I was not a Hari Krishna. I told them that Hari Krishnas always have a ponytail, and I do not have a ponytail. I showed them my clean-shaven head. They finally got the message and let me go.
"Another incident occurred about a year after my arrival in Los Angeles. This time a Thai family had invited me for dana at their apartment in the Mid-Wilshire district. Kamal, a layman residing in the temple, drove me there. We got to the lobby of the apartment complex about forty-five minutes early. So, while Kamal went looking for a place to park the car, I waited for him in the lobby, where a woman was seated on a couch in the corner.
"As I waited, I decided to make sure that my robe was worn according to Theravada customs. Donning the robe is a reflection of the philosophy of dhamma, and an art in itself. Every crease and every fold has a meaning and a purpose. Carefully, I rolled one corner of the outer fold of the cloth and shaped it into a robe. While doing so, I spread the other fold of the cloth over my head, which completely covered my face. Then I wrapped the rolled fold of the robe around my neck before bringing the fold covering my head and face down over my shoulders. While my face was still covered, I saw the shadow of the woman on the couch rush past me to the elevator.
"No sooner had I finished arranging my robe than I heard the fire sirens approaching around the corner. Within seconds, police cruisers and an ambulance pulled up in front of the lobby. The policemen and paramedics came running, and as they approached I could see looks of utter astonishment on their faces. One officer stepped forward and asked me brusquely what I was trying to do. I was totally confused by then, and I asked the group of would-be rescuers if someone would please explain what was going on.
"The first police officer said, 'A woman called nine-one-one and reported an attempted suicide in the lobby. She told the dispatcher that an Indian guru was trying to suffocate himself with his long dress!'
"By now Kamal was just coming into the lobby. He, too, asked what was happening. Quickly, an officer took him aside and began questioning him.
"After realizing the mistake made by the caller, I explained to the officers what must have happened. I demonstrated the folding of the robe to the delight of the officers and paramedics. They promptly apologized for the inconvenience the whole episode had caused.
"When the news that the police were questioning a monk in the lobby filtered up to the seventh-story apartment of my Thai hosts, they came running down to save me. We all enjoyed a good laugh over that one."
Sunanda couldn't help but laugh, and I could feel his mood lightening.
I continued. "Another time I had to go to Minneapolis for religious services. I went to O'Hare Airport to catch the plane. I didn't know what gate to go to or how to find out. I asked many people, but everyone looked at me with disdain. Not one person responded to my pleas for information. Even the woman at one of the counters told me, 'Go away! You are not supposed to be here.'
"Then I ran up to a police officer. Before I asked him where to go, he said, 'If you don't leave this airport, I will arrest you! Get out of here right now!'
"I shouted back at him, 'I don't want to go to jail, officer. I want to go to Minneapolis!' Then I showed the officer my boarding pass. He blushed and very sheepishly told me where the gate was. Relieved, I ran off, wondering why all the people were being so unfriendly toward me."
"Oh Bhante, you are so brave," exclaimed Sunanda at this point. "They, too, must have thought you were a Hari Krishna."
"Not an uncommon mistake," I replied, watching Sunanda's reaction.
I continued. "Let me tell you another story. Once, in 1976, I was standing at a bus stop at the corner of Vine Street and Hollywood Boulevard. I was on my way to the bookstore. A couple of other people were also waiting at the bus stop. Suddenly, a gentleman in a Mercedes Benz stopped at the curb, ran up to me, and spit in my face. He screamed at me, 'You do not belong in this country. Go away!'
"Then I responded politely, 'Thank you so much for your advice.'
"The other people were both sad and angry. One lady reached into her purse and gave me a tissue so I could wipe off my face. She said, 'Don't worry, sir. He must be some kind of crazy fundamentalist. Not all Americans are like that.'
"I said I understood. Then she expressed her opinion that if I could travel in regular clothes, not in my monk's robes, people probably wouldn't harass me. I responded, 'No, I am a Buddhist monk. I choose to wear these robes to teach people about the Buddha."
Sunanda said, "I heard that Theravada senior monks in Europe and on the East Coast wear coats over their robes."
"It could be because of the climate," I replied. "I've never heard of a senior monk wearing one because of prejudice against him. They wear coats over their robes when they go outside the temple in cold weather."
"Why don't we introduce this attire here?" he asked.
I told Sunanda that the Buddha designed this robe because it has great symbolic meaning.
"What is that?" asked Sunanda. "Why did the Buddha ask us to wear this robe?"
"As monks, we have to understand completely the teaching about impermanence. In autumn, the leaves are yellow and orange. Do these leaves belong to the tree or to the ground, Sunanda?"
"Bhante, they don't belong to either. While they are on the tree, they belong to the tree, but at any moment they may fall to the ground and belong to the ground."
"That's right, Sunanda. We must understand that everything is subject to change, even as we are. As Bhante Gunaratana says, even as I am talking to you, every molecule and particle in our bodies is constantly changing. The neurons in our brains die, and millions of our blood cells die every moment without our realizing it. Change is continuously taking place without our even being aware that it is happening. Can we relive our most pleasant feelings exactly as we experienced them the first time? Can we recreate those exact situations and enjoy those same feelings again? No, my friend, we cannot. Similarly, the feelings you are experiencing now may change at any moment. They may even turn to disappointment or to pain."
"Does this apply to human relationships also, Bhante?"
"Yes, people find that they make mistakes in their associations because they fail to be aware that both parties are constantly changing. One must realize that people and situations are impermanent."
"Oh yes, Bhante, I recall how disappointed my parents were when I became a monk. They even disinherited me. However, today they are pleased with my decision, and even consult me on important issues. Now they have appointed me as a trustee of my father's estate."
"I am glad you have come to understand the impermanence of life and feelings, Sunanda. A person who wears this robe is an embodiment of peace, harmony, and universal love."
"Why did the Buddha design this robe?" he asked again.
"In ancient times, monks wore a single piece of whatever cloth they could find. Some wore one color; others wore another color. Once, a group of monks went to bathe at the Ganges River. Upon returning to the riverbank they noticed that their robes had been stolen. Then they went to the Buddha to complain. The Buddha used that incident as the opportunity to design new robes for the protection of the monks, as well as to give them their symbolic meaning.
"The Buddha contemplated the rice paddy fields that covered the land. He said to his disciple Ananda, 'Do you see how the land of Magadha is laid out in squares, strips, borders, and cross lines?'
"'Yes, Lord,' replied the faithful disciple.
"'Then try to arrange robes like that for the monks, Ananda.'
"The Buddha thought that good monks were like good farmers. Therefore, the robes should be modeled after a paddy field. The paddy field is made up of irrigated segments, an excellent arrangement for developing a good field. Monks cultivate a field of wholesomeness for themselves, as well as for the community in which they live.
"A good farmer protects the paddy field, not allowing cows, pigs, elephants, birds, or wild animals to destroy the field. He prevents the destruction of the field in every way he can. Similarly, monks have to prevent the misuse of their five senses, which helps them to protect themselves from being destroyed.
"As a good farmer removes weeds, rocks, and any materials harmful to his field, likewise a monk removes any defilement, such as anger, hate, ill will, and jealousy, from his mind. When a thought comes to his mind that produces defilement, he removes that anger or ill will and his mind becomes pure again, just as a field becomes ready for cultivation once weeds and rocks have been removed.
"In the same way as a farmer cultivates his field with the best rice seed and plants in the right season at the right timefirst fertilizing the soil and making sure the seeds have the best conditions for growthso monks must cultivate good deeds like love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
"So you see, Sunanda, the robe has an important meaning that we must keep in mind, and by wearing it, we can use it as a tool to teach those around us."
I could tell that Sunanda had understood what I was trying to share with him.
I kept a close eye on Sunanda for the next few weeks. I sensed that he was more serene and collected in his behavior. I gave him a copy of a poem written by one of my students, Sama Dede Whiteside. I would like to share it with you here.
Ochre and Citron
Yellow and Orange
Flowing Movement Told
Of Sacred Robe's Presage
Divine Symbol's Folds
Farmer of Five
Fields of Festivity
Fisher of Men
Seeds, Weeds, Wind, Water
Sun's Soft Touch
Morning's Warm Caresses
From Her Children's Coats
Returned as Fire
Seeds, Weeds, Wind, Water
Dhamma, Hindrances, Lovingkindness
Generate, Remove, Harvest
Crop of Freedom Shared
With and For Each Hearing Heart
Rice Fields' Irrigation
Force of Water-Wind
Gating into Transformations
Ever Changing River
Boundlessness of Neither
Within or Without
Endless Seas of No Dimension
I am glad to say that Sunanda is now a very learned monk who regularly practices meditation and serves the community with all his heart.
Whoever is master of his own Nature,
Bright, clear and true,
He may indeed wear the yellow robe?