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Kathinā Report

November 17, 2013

When Buddhism was first established in ancient India, there were few monks and nuns. The monks did not stay in temples but moved from one place to another. It was their mission to spread the teaching of the Buddha for the happiness and welfare of all living beings. In those days there were no paved roads, so the Buddha allowed his disciples to stop wandering and take up temporary abodes during the rainy season.

This season is called Vassā in Pali, meaning “Rains Retreat”. It begins in early July and continues through late October. This is a time of deep meditation and austerity, ending in a celebration where the congregation gifts new robes to the monks.

Nowadays, lay followers prepare robes for the monks, who benefit them by accepting offerings of robes and other necessities. The Kathina ceremony takes place during the month immediately following the full moon day of October. Today a number of customs and practices of a collective life, including the recitation of rules and the distribution of robes, became incorporated into the annual cycle of monastic life.

This historic ceremony, continuing through the ages, has evolved from culture to culture. Today in Sri Lanka, the Kathina ceremony provides one of the most popular occasions for merit-making. Buddhist people celebrate the robe-offering ceremony with profound respect and devotion to the monks, who have just spent three months in the monastery observing the Vassā. In rural Sri Lanka, everybody in a village participates in the Kathina ceremony at nearby temples as a community activity lasting from one to three days.

Among the Buddhist of Southeast Asia, there is a very grand festival at the end of the observance of the Rains Retreat. People offer food to the monks in monasteries and prepare the special robes that are offered to the Sangha. This special offering is called the Kathina Offering Ceremony. It is done only during the period of time starting from the end of Rains Retreat to the first day of the waning moon of the 12th Lunar Month.

Yesterday we celebrated Kathinā at our forest monastery in Sri Lanka. It was very beautiful, and a profound experience for me personally. Most importantly, I finally got to meet some of my superiors in the Order, and found the senior monks to be truly venerable and admirable beings.

I have been deeply involved in religious and spiritual organizations since childhood. I was raised in a Christian household, but left that because of its hypocrisy. That started a search for truth that has taken me all over the world, researching the roots of all the major faiths in their countries of origin.

Sadly, spiritual life and community are in sorry shape on our planet at this time. Error, deviation and corruption are much easier to find than authentic versions of any tradition. For many years I followed the Vedic spiritual path, and while my personal spiritual master was an admirable personality, his organization was rife with phony renunciants into power politics and the worst kinds of hypocrisy. I could never feel at home in that organization; and even when I left and started my own, it never felt right.

I first encountered supposedly Buddhist teachings in America in the late 1960s. As a young man in search of truth, I naturally visited important places like Esalen, Tassajara Zen center and others. But something about the American ‘Buddhist’ teachings put me off. I wound up becoming a yogi, studying the Vedas in India and eventually becoming a guru myself.

That feeling has only increased with time. Now that I actually know something about the Buddha’s teaching, whenever I hear what is being taught as ‘Buddhism’ in the West, I have to cringe. It is unrecognizable as Buddha’s teaching, mixed up with all kinds of mundane knowledge, or so twisted in its social manifestation that it resembles a business or a fundamentalist church more than the Sangha as the Buddha conceived it.

One of my most severe doubts about accepting ordination as a Buddhist monk was that I would find the same nonsense here as well. I was fully prepared to spend the rest of my life as a recluse, rather than join another organization where the so-called ‘leaders’ are really wicked men posing as monks.

My first experience of Buddhist society was in Thailand, where I went to study meditation. However, I found the best teacher in the books of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, who unfortunately departed this world some time ago. The same corruption I experienced in India was quite prevalent in Thailand—jet-set monks showing up at the temple in chauffeured Mercedes, wearing Rolex watches and surrounded by pretty young boys. I’m sure there are some monasteries like that in Sri Lanka, but fortunately they are in the minority.

The Buddha predicted that the Dhamma would be preserved in Sri Lanka better than anywhere else. My experience confirms the truth of this. The upland forest tradition monks are genuine and very strict. However, they are reclusive and difficult for a Westerner to approach. There are some monasteries that offer meditation retreats to Westerners, but they are more like vacation hotels—not my cup of tea. I wanted authentic discipleship, a lifetime relationship with a traditional Buddhist community.

Luckily I got an introduction through a relative of a friend, and was able to visit a deep forest monastery high in the mountains. I stayed there for almost two months, forming a nice relationship with the Chief Monk. He introduced me to his primary student, who has an even smaller and more obscure monastery in a tiny mountainside village. I went there to visit at his invitation, and liked it so much that I have never left except for short journeys.

Since I moved here we have had two major festivals: Vesak at the end of April and now Kathinā. Vesak was beautiful and I have done a short video about it. But especially now that I am a monk, Kathinā seemed much more powerful and significant. There was so much wonderful devotion from the congregation, I was overwhelmed. You can see it for yourself in the video.

3 Comments
  1. peaceandwisdom2013 permalink

    “The Buddha predicted that the Dhamma would be preserved in Sri Lanka better than anywhere else.”

    I understand your experience has confirmed this, but I am curious to know why the Buddha would predict this rather than in India?

    “I wound up becoming a yogi, studying the Vedas in India and eventually becoming a guru myself.”-

    You have discussed your background with us, but what exactly prompted or triggered you to begin to question the authorities in that tradition after so long? I understand that by presenting your experiences, there is a lesson to be learned.

    On a side note, the scenery and nature in this video is quite beautiful!

    • Well, look what happened. The atrocities of the Indian Brahmans, in league with the Islamic invaders against the Buddhists in India, are well-documented only in Buddhist historical works. They are heavily redacted elsewhere. The Brahmans were extremely jealous of Buddhism’s popularity and terrified of its egalitarian social policy. Buddhism meant the end of their class oppression and religious exclusivity. Thus they used every means, both fair and foul, to exterminate it. As a former student of the Vedic Brahmans during his life as a prince, certainly the Buddha foresaw this. Sri Lanka became a safe haven for the Dhamma, and remains so to this day.

      I became disenchanted with Vedānta after performing a detailed ontological analysis on its most confidential teachings. The doubts began in 2003 when I attempted to write a commentary on the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, an esoteric work in the Vedic devotional line. After reading through it several times, I felt very confused. I used Protégé software to analyze the terminology and structure, and sure enough there were serious problems. So I abandoned the effort until I could get an original manuscript in India.

      In 2005 I wrote a 4-volume commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra. Following my lineage at the time, I based my work on the Govinda-bhāsya commentary of Baladeva Vidyabhūsana. I uncovered many temporal inconsistencies and logical contradictions that I was unable to resolve. My doubts only increased when I went through the most highly esoteric work in that line, Bhaktivinod Thākur’s Secrets of Confidential Bhajan. This work, originally in Beṅgalī, was translated into English by the author, so there was no chance of ambiguities introduced by the translator.

      Basically Bhaktivinod (my great-grand-guru) admitted that the so-called ‘eternal relation with God’ glorified in Vedic bhakti is a fabrication of the devotee. Although the guru was supposed to give his realization of the devotee’s eternal identity in the spiritual world, if this didn’t work the disciple could go back and exchange it for another one. This became a serious stumbling block for me.

      Later in India I got hold of an original copy and clean English gloss of Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, and this time the terminology was ontologically consistent. But this time, analysis revealed that the authors considered themselves above the authority of the scriptures and had basically made up the teaching out of whole cloth. Well!

      By this time I was a guru, with an enormous personal investment in the lineage, a temple in India and many followers worldwide. I started having great difficulty maintaining my vows. I couldn’t keep up the pretense of being guru in a lineage I didn’t believe in anymore. But there was no precedent of a guru voluntarily resigning, no way out that allowed me to keep my integrity and status in the Vedic community.

      After some time of dealing with this internal pressure, I kind of lost it. I resigned as guru and told my disciples to go home. I even bought them tickets and gave them money to reestablish their lives. Nevertheless they were extremely angry with me and manufactured a huge scandal to punish me. In a few weeks I lost everything, and everyone I had known for most of my adult life betrayed me. It was devastating, but it had to happen. I went to Europe and with the help of one of my former students, researched what happened and what went wrong.

      After a year of intense work while suffering constant character-assassination attacks from the ‘devotees’, I came to the conclusion that the Vedic lineage was fundamentally a fabrication. There were just too many irresolvable discrepancies. This was a basic lack of integrity that permeated the entire teaching and the community based on it. I now believe that the principal Vedic works like Vedānta-sūtra, Mahābhārata and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam were written about 2000 years ago as part of the program to eliminate Buddhism and cosy up to Islam. Had they predated the Buddha, surely he would have mentioned them; but he references only the original Vedas.

      The lesson is that religion in general is actually of human creation and often, if not always differs from the actual history. In other words, it is a lie. Look at the opportunism the Romans displayed towards Christianity, for example. Here Jesus, teaching something that at least superficially resembles Buddhism, is executed in the most prejudiced manner possible at the instigation of his fellow rabbis. 250 years later he is ‘rehabilitated’ and becomes the worshipable deity of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’! Quite an interesting exercise in the manipulation of meaning and redefinition of terms, there.

      No doubt something similar happened in India after Emperor Ashoka had institutionalized Buddhism. Lord Kṛṣṇa was transformed into the ‘Supreme Personality of Godhead’, and later a religion based on erotic attraction and sexual service to God, meant to compete with the heavenly virgins of Islam, was fabricated by the sages of Bengal. Of course it’s a great story, just like the story of Jesus—but how much of it is true? We’ll never know, but so much of it is certainly false that it must be rejected.

      I started my quest for spiritual understanding all over again, feverishly working through Heidegger’s masterwork Being and Time. This was not just an exercise of armchair philosophy; I was desperately trying to find a reason to continue my existence, discover a purpose worthy of a human being in the full sense of the word. I sweated every sentence and paragraph of Heidegger until I realized it for myself, and the result is in my video series Being in the World.

      That effort, which by the way was done in an isolated cabin in the mountains of southern Spain, led me step-by-step to the teaching of the Buddha. As soon as I started reading books by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, I knew I would have to become a Buddhist monk. So today I find myself in an isolated cabin in the mountains of southern Sri Lanka, meditating on the inexpressible beauty of it all.

      • peaceandwisdom2013 permalink

        Thank you for taking the time to present this information. There is quite a bit to respond here. Lots of discussion can stem from this. But I need to research some of the works and people you mentioned for a better dialogue.

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