Book Reviews

Bhikkhu:

Disciple of the Buddha

by
Kristiaan Inwood

Second revised printing Orchid Press 2005 (1st ed. privately Printed 1981). 208 pp., 178 b&w pl., 215 x 152 Softcover

ISBN-10: 974-524-059-1 $22.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-059-9



The Westerner in SAFFRON

Closely observed, an expat shaves his head, dons the robes of the Thai monkhood and begins a noble quest
Book review by John Cadet

(The Nation, Sunday, September 4, 2005)


If you’re an average Westerner like me, society will have taught you to believe that life is a rather jolly affair. Moreover, if you’re a middle-class Westerner, like the subject of this book, you’ll have internalised the belief that, so long as you strive, very little that’s desirable in life will be denied you.
      This roseate view is in no way darkened by the fact that the West’s global economic dominance ensures that, while others have to struggle for the necessities, we are virtually guaranteed the enjoyment of a great deal more.
   Even if life has its disappointments, we tend to feel safe in the security of our ego bubble. A little more money, a better house, a more understanding partner, and I will be finally fulfilled, which is precisely the way life was meant to be - at least for me.
   Well, we shouldn’t feel too bad about this. The Buddha himself took a while - as a prince - to come to the shattering realisation that old age, sickness, death - all would actually, physically, come to him, eventually. And we know the result: a view and way of life so changed we’re still confronted by their challenge 2,500 years later.
   Mind you, those of us - East and West - who’ve had our lives modified by the Buddha’s message, prefer to put off the more drastic changes his doctrines advise. Chat na, we’re inclined to say, next time round. Let’s not rush into this.
   That wasn’t the response, though, of 38-year-old Californian Roger Clarke Welty, the subject of Inwood’s meticulously conducted, excellently written and beautifully photographed study of his year in the Buddhist monkhood.
   Welty decided to go for it in this life, to ordain and, under expert instruction, actually practise what the Buddha taught. You know: shaven head, forest robes, bare feet, no sustenance after midday, meditation, 227 privative rules - the whole bill of goods, in other words.
   There was nothing capricious about this decision. A student of oriental languages and culture, Welty had had 15 years of doing and having it all - much of it in Manhattan. Also sessions on the analyst’s couch.
   In his own words, though, “It became plain to me that pursuing the rainbow ends of the rat-race was purposeless; it was busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness.”
   Already partly liberated by his readings of Walden and the Dhammapada from “untrammelled materialism, the infamous tyranny of things”, Welty sought a sanctuary in which to go further. He visited India and was the guest of monastics in Sri Lanka and Nepal, but in Bodhgaya, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he received a rebuff.
   “There I first asked about becoming a monk and received some concrete advice: Don’t.”
   Foreign monks hadn’t been a success, he was told, ordaining for the wrong reasons, not knowing what they were after, and finding “it didn’t work out”.
   But following more positive advice, he came to Bangkok, where he became a university lecturer. But he still felt that the monkhood would provide “a magnificent opportunity to seek and benefit from the eddy of calm in the world’s current that is life in a Thai wat”.
   Inwood follows this introduction with admirably concise summaries of the Buddha’s life and doctrines, the courses Buddhism has taken over the millennia, and its manifestation in Thailand. “And if Buddhism is the jewel,” he writes, “its Thai setting is no less remarkable.”
   Then comes the description of Welty’s year-long odyssey, which Inwood follows almost literally step for step, writing and photographing as he goes. The journey begins in Wat Pleng in Thonburi, where Welty’s preceptor is the abbot, Ajarn Praderm, one of the country’s finest meditation teachers. And after a month or so of settling in, it continues with the next step, ordination.
   Now I have to admit, long in the tooth as I am, I have a strong attachment to my hair, and regret that it’s gradually leaving. Lobha, of course: craving, clinging. Nothing stays the same, impermanence one of the basic Buddhist teachings.
   But there’s a particiflarly fine series of photos of Ajarn Praderm, smiling calmly, cutting the aspirant’s hair, with Welty also calmly smiling as he receives a couple of locks in his cupped hands and becomes a naag, or serpent-novice.
   The following day, with the performance of a complex of ceremonies, “Welty” is no more, replaced by the fully ordained monk Phra Mahaviro.
   For the majority of ordinands, this is the point beyond which they do not venture, but Mahaviro’s journey continues. As well as adjusting to the routines of daily monastic life, he continues to study the Thai and Pali languages so as to benefit fully from his abbot-preceptor’s personal tuition. And when the time comes, the serious practice of meditation begins, in retreat.
   Inwood presents a concise description of the processes of meditation, as well as a vivid analysis of both the physical routines and the mental struggles the meditator faces in the 500 hours of awareness.
   But avoiding the pitfalls, the outright dangers that observing the mind and seeking to tame its wilfulness entail, Mahaviro comes through unscathed, and continues both to meditate and perform the monastic routines.
   The final section of the book takes us to a hillside refuge on Koh Pangan, where his practice is now conducted with the island’s bays, beaches and flowery forest as background. And there we leave Mahaviro, reflecting on his year’s experience of monastic life, and pondering what lies ahead: verdancy all round, and the sea a shining mirror below.
   This is a remarkable book, not only because it provides a uniquely intimate picture of the monastic way of life and the communities and environments sustaining it, but because Inwood himself is nowhere to be found in it.
   Think of that. He followed Welty/Mahaviro like his shadow for a year, and yet manages to exclude himself entirely, a testimony to the decision of the prefatory note, that he would “allow the facts to speak for themselves”.
   One final fact that deserves a voice here is that “Bhikkhu”, faultlessly produced by Orchid Press, deserves a place in the bookcase of everyone interested in Southeast Asia.
   Both as a narrative and an artwork, it is outstanding.

Read a review from The Phuket Gazette [More Orchid Press Reviews]