Saffron Days in L.A.

By Bhante Walpola Piyananda


Copyright © 2001 Bhante Walpola Piyananda. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-57062-813-0

Chapter One

The Robe

It had been two months since I ordained Sunanda. It is notan easy adjustment to become a Buddhist monk. It wasespecially difficult for Sunanda, who was not only a Westerner,but was born and raised in the Jewish faith in BeverlyHills. He had not been brought up around monks, or ina culture that knew about, incorporated, and honored thesangha as an essential part of society, as it is in most ofAsia.

    Sunanda had been struggling quietly with a few issues,and he thought I had not noticed. I decided to wait for himto come forward to ask for help, knowing that he needed tochoose his own time. As the waters of his frustration rose,the dam holding his silence eventually broke on a clear earlysunrise in the spring.

    Sunanda usually came to my room in the morning to payhis respects to me as his teacher and abbot, a tradition heseemed to enjoy and appreciate. Even though he was alwaysfriendly, he was often quiet and usually spent only a fewmoments with me, eager to begin his daily work. On thisparticular 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 hisvoice, coming from such a usually quiet monk, sent a shockwave through the room. I turned and looked at him withamazement.

    "Bhante!" he called out again. "I think I have to give upmy robe. I have to leave the monastery!"

    Sunanda's eyes were downcast, and I could tell that hewas having a difficult time getting up the courage to faceme. I knew that this was the time to talk at last. "Sunanda,"I calmly said, "please tell me what's on your mind. You areobviously troubled. Perhaps I can be of assistance to you."

    He looked at me with trepidation, like he wished he hadnot spoken out so abruptly. "It's OK," I said. "Please feelfree to continue. That's how we learn. There is nothing youcould 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 totell you. Since I was ordained a couple of months ago, I havebeen harassed endlessly. People yell out names, whisper asI pass, ask me if I forgot to change my Halloween costume!They say, 'Hey, are you a pumpkin?' They have kicked me onthe bus. Sometimes I think I will be beaten up! I am afraidto go outside. How can I live this way, Bhante? I don't knowwhat to do."

    Sunanda was starting to sob, thinking about the abusehe had endured. I am sure he was also thinking about thepossibility of giving up his vows. He was a devoted Buddhistmonk, and I could well understand the pain he wasfeeling.

    "My dear Sunanda," I said, in a reassuring manner. "Youare not alone. I have suffered the same treatment on manyoccasions."

    Sunanda looked up at me, absolutely startled. "Youwhat?" he said with widening eyes. "How could anyoneabuse someone like you?"

    "Well, I will tell you, Sunanda. I'll share a few storieswith you and then you'll understand."

    Sunanda nodded and then moved closer so he could hearme better. He obviously didn't want to miss a word of whatI was about to say.

    "Sunanda, a few months ago I was traveling with BhanteSumedha and Nanda from Los Angeles to Berkeley. Do youremember that trip?"

    Sunanda nodded his head and I continued.

    "We stopped at a rest area to go to the bathroom. As Iwas going into the men's room, a man stopped me andshouted, 'Hey, this isn't the women's bathroom!' I ignoredhim. Then again he called out, 'Hey, lady! Don't you understandEnglish? 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 traditionalmonk'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 standingthere waiting for me. He approached, and with excitementin his voice, he asked if he could speak with me. I quietlynodded my head in consent."

    "Bhante, please continue," Sunanda urged, filled with curiosity.

    I leaned forward and spoke with more vigor. "He wantedto know my name. I told him that I am called Bhante.

    "'Bhante, my name is Bill,' he replied. 'I am so curiousabout your dress. Or rather your robe! Please tell me aboutits colors. Bright yellow. Hmm. What does that mean?' Billquestioned.

    "I replied, 'Yellow is a cheerful, lovely color. Yellow is associatedwith happiness and is known as the color of the intellect;therefore, yellow represents a sense of mindfulness.The color yellow symbolizes maturity—a ripe mango has asaffron hue. Yellow is also the color of the rising sun, whichshines equally on everything on this planet. It does not discriminatewhen it brightens the world. In the same manner,a monk who wears a yellow robe should treat allequally. I'm neither a follower of self-mortification, nor doI lead an indulgent life. I follow a path called the MiddlePath, which is represented by yellow, one of the three primarycolors, located on the spectrum between red andblue."

    "What do you mean 'Middle Path'?" asked Bill, genuinelywanting to know.

    "Well, the Middle Path avoids extremes. One is the wayof extreme indulgence in or attachment to sense pleasures.In this way one looks for happiness through the gratificationof the senses. In the other way, the way of self-mortification,one rejects the senses. One way depends onattachment to the senses, while the other way denies them.Yellow is in between, presenting the idea of the MiddlePath. A person who practices the Middle Path can gain visionand knowledge, which leads to a tranquil, balancedpersonality.

    "Bill thanked me. His wife was signaling him to return totheir RV, which was parked under a tree on the other side ofthe 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 onthe El and got off at State Street. I was waiting for a busthat would take me to the Thai Buddhist Temple. Twoyoung women and three young men came up to me, threatenedme with foul language, and forced me to go with them.They kept calling me a Hari Krishna. They even accused meof being involved with some recent news headlines regardingthe Hari Krishnas, one of which involved the kidnappingof a girl. They said they were going to kill me. Finally Igot them to calm down somewhat, and I showed them myNorthwestern ID card. They looked back and forth at oneanother, completely baffled, and I explained that I was aBuddhist monk.

    "One girl asked, 'Then why do you wear Hari Krishnaclothes?'

    "I explained to them that it was a traditional Buddhistmonk's robe. Eventually they apologized, saying they wereconvinced I was not a Hari Krishna. I told them that HariKrishnas always have a ponytail, and I do not have a ponytail.I showed them my clean-shaven head. They finally gotthe message and let me go.

    "Another incident occurred about a year after my arrivalin Los Angeles. This time a Thai family had invited me fordana at their apartment in the Mid-Wilshire district. Kamal,a layman residing in the temple, drove me there. Wegot to the lobby of the apartment complex about forty-fiveminutes early. So, while Kamal went looking for a place topark the car, I waited for him in the lobby, where a womanwas seated on a couch in the corner.

    "As I waited, I decided to make sure that my robe wasworn according to Theravada customs. Donning the robe isa 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 thecloth and shaped it into a robe. While doing so, I spread theother fold of the cloth over my head, which completely coveredmy face. Then I wrapped the rolled fold of the robearound my neck before bringing the fold covering my headand face down over my shoulders. While my face was stillcovered, I saw the shadow of the woman on the couch rushpast me to the elevator.

    "No sooner had I finished arranging my robe than I heardthe fire sirens approaching around the corner. Within seconds,police cruisers and an ambulance pulled up in front ofthe lobby. The policemen and paramedics came running,and as they approached I could see looks of utter astonishmenton their faces. One officer stepped forward and askedme brusquely what I was trying to do. I was totally confusedby then, and I asked the group of would-be rescuers if someonewould please explain what was going on.

    "The first police officer said, 'A woman called nine-one-oneand reported an attempted suicide in the lobby. Shetold the dispatcher that an Indian guru was trying to suffocatehimself with his long dress!'

    "By now Kamal was just coming into the lobby. He, too,asked what was happening. Quickly, an officer took himaside and began questioning him.

    "After realizing the mistake made by the caller, I explainedto the officers what must have happened. I demonstratedthe folding of the robe to the delight of the officersand paramedics. They promptly apologized for the inconveniencethe whole episode had caused.

    "When the news that the police were questioning amonk in the lobby filtered up to the seventh-story apartmentof my Thai hosts, they came running down to saveme. We all enjoyed a good laugh over that one."

    Sunanda couldn't help but laugh, and I could feel hismood lightening.

    I continued. "Another time I had to go to Minneapolisfor religious services. I went to O'Hare Airport to catch theplane. I didn't know what gate to go to or how to find out. Iasked 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, 'Goaway! You are not supposed to be here.'

    "Then I ran up to a police officer. Before I asked himwhere to go, he said, 'If you don't leave this airport, I will arrestyou! 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 myboarding pass. He blushed and very sheepishly told mewhere the gate was. Relieved, I ran off, wondering why allthe people were being so unfriendly toward me."

    "Oh Bhante, you are so brave," exclaimed Sunanda atthis point. "They, too, must have thought you were a HariKrishna."

    "Not an uncommon mistake," I replied, watchingSunanda's reaction.

    I continued. "Let me tell you another story. Once, in1976, I was standing at a bus stop at the corner of VineStreet and Hollywood Boulevard. I was on my way to thebookstore. A couple of other people were also waiting at thebus stop. Suddenly, a gentleman in a Mercedes Benzstopped at the curb, ran up to me, and spit in my face. Hescreamed at me, 'You do not belong in this country. Goaway!'

    "Then I responded politely, 'Thank you so much for youradvice.'

    "The other people were both sad and angry. One ladyreached into her purse and gave me a tissue so I could wipeoff my face. She said, 'Don't worry, sir. He must be somekind of crazy fundamentalist. Not all Americans are likethat.'

    "I said I understood. Then she expressed her opinionthat if I could travel in regular clothes, not in my monk'srobes, people probably wouldn't harass me. I responded,'No, I am a Buddhist monk. I choose to wear these robes toteach people about the Buddha."

    Sunanda said, "I heard that Theravada senior monks inEurope and on the East Coast wear coats over their robes."

    "It could be because of the climate," I replied. "I've neverheard of a senior monk wearing one because of prejudiceagainst him. They wear coats over their robes when they gooutside the temple in cold weather."

    "Why don't we introduce this attire here?" he asked.

    I told Sunanda that the Buddha designed this robe becauseit 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 teachingabout impermanence. In autumn, the leaves are yellowand orange. Do these leaves belong to the tree or to theground, Sunanda?"

    "Bhante, they don't belong to either. While they are onthe tree, they belong to the tree, but at any moment theymay fall to the ground and belong to the ground."

    "That's right, Sunanda. We must understand that everythingis subject to change, even as we are. As Bhante Gunaratanasays, even as I am talking to you, every moleculeand particle in our bodies is constantly changing. The neuronsin our brains die, and millions of our blood cells dieevery moment without our realizing it. Change is continuouslytaking place without our even being aware that it ishappening. Can we relive our most pleasant feelings exactlyas we experienced them the first time? Can we recreatethose exact situations and enjoy those same feelings again?No, my friend, we cannot. Similarly, the feelings you are experiencingnow may change at any moment. They may eventurn to disappointment or to pain."

    "Does this apply to human relationships also, Bhante?"

    "Yes, people find that they make mistakes in their associationsbecause they fail to be aware that both parties areconstantly changing. One must realize that people and situationsare impermanent."

    "Oh yes, Bhante, I recall how disappointed my parentswere when I became a monk. They even disinherited me.However, today they are pleased with my decision, andeven consult me on important issues. Now they have appointedme as a trustee of my father's estate."

    "I am glad you have come to understand the impermanenceof life and feelings, Sunanda. A person who wearsthis robe is an embodiment of peace, harmony, and universallove."

    "Why did the Buddha design this robe?" he asked again.

    "In ancient times, monks wore a single piece of whatevercloth they could find. Some wore one color; others wore anothercolor. Once, a group of monks went to bathe at theGanges River. Upon returning to the riverbank they noticedthat their robes had been stolen. Then they went to the Buddhato complain. The Buddha used that incident as the opportunityto design new robes for the protection of themonks, as well as to give them their symbolic meaning.

    "The Buddha contemplated the rice paddy fields thatcovered the land. He said to his disciple Ananda, 'Do yousee 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 goodfarmers. Therefore, the robes should be modeled after apaddy field. The paddy field is made up of irrigated segments,an excellent arrangement for developing a goodfield. 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 allowingcows, pigs, elephants, birds, or wild animals to destroy thefield. He prevents the destruction of the field in every wayhe can. Similarly, monks have to prevent the misuse of theirfive senses, which helps them to protect themselves frombeing destroyed.

    "As a good farmer removes weeds, rocks, and any materialsharmful to his field, likewise a monk removes any defilement,such as anger, hate, ill will, and jealousy, from hismind. When a thought comes to his mind that produces defilement,he removes that anger or ill will and his mind becomespure again, just as a field becomes ready forcultivation once weeds and rocks have been removed.

    "In the same way as a farmer cultivates his field with thebest rice seed and plants in the right season at the righttime—first fertilizing the soil and making sure the seedshave the best conditions for growth—so monks must cultivategood deeds like love, compassion, sympathetic joy, andequanimity.

    "So you see, Sunanda, the robe has an important meaningthat we must keep in mind, and by wearing it, we canuse it as a tool to teach those around us."

    I could tell that Sunanda had understood what I was tryingto share with him.

    I kept a close eye on Sunanda for the next few weeks. Isensed 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 withyou here.

The Robe
Ochre and Citron
Yellow and Orange
Flowing Movement Told
Of Sacred Robe's Presage
Divine Symbol's Folds

Farmer of Five
Fields of Festivity
Sown Together

Fisher of Men
Dhamma Teacher
Of Fields
Of Inquiry
Your Tools—
Seeds, Weeds, Wind, Water

Dhamma, Hindrances,
Sun's Soft Touch
Morning's Warm Caresses
Breathing Dew
From Her Children's Coats
Precipitating Liquids
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
Lifted Beyond
Horizons Bounds
Force of Water-Wind

Sequence Overflow
Gating into Transformations
Moving Channels
Ever Changing River

Without Bounds?
Within Boundlessness?
Boundlessness of Neither
Within or Without
Endless Seas of No Dimension

    I am glad to say that Sunanda is now a very learnedmonk who regularly practices meditation and serves thecommunity with all his heart.

Whoever is master of his own Nature,
Bright, clear and true,
He may indeed wear the yellow robe?