Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Swami Army

Almost no Buddhist monks today live the way the Buddha and his direct disciples did, although many like to think they do. The Buddha was a homeless wanderer, we Buddhist monks are, virtually without exception, permanently ensconced in comfortable, well-appointed monasteries where our every need and most of our wants are provided for by the surrounding community. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this; things have changed since the 5th century BCE. But I do think we should stop pretending that we are something we’re not. Yes, yes, I know that there are ‘forest monasteries’ but all the ones I’ve seen differed from the city monasteries only in that they were set in ‘extensive grounds.’ If you want a glimpse of how the Buddha lived you have to spend time with wandering Hindu swamis. While empires have come and gone and civilizations have risen and fell these men (and a few women too) have wandered India’s dusty paths without security and owning nothing more that what they can carry. In the Buddha’s time the main sects of wandering swamis were the Ajivakas, the Niganthas (Jains), the Mundasavakas (the Shaven Ones), the Jatilas (Matted-hair Ones), the Paribbajakas (Wanderers), the Magandikas, the Tedandikas (Those of the Triple Staff), the Aviruddhakas (The Passive Ones), the Gotamakas (The Disciples of Gotama, not the Buddha) and the Devadhammaikas (God’s Way, A.III,276). Today there are many more; the Khannapathas, Naga Babbas, Aghoris, Kapalikas, Avidhutas to name but a few. The Buddha’s reminiscence about the period in his life when he practiced self-mortification suggest that he studied and practiced with swamis other than Uddaka Ramaputta and Alara Kalama. He said he ‘pulled out his hair and beard’ and ‘had compassion even for a drop of water’ exactly the things Jain monks do even today. When he said ‘…sakam yeva sudam muttakarisam aharemi’ one is reminded of the more revolting Aghori practices (M.I,79).
I have always found the swamis I have met to be simple, devote, good-natured men (except Aghoris who tend to be psychopaths) who treasure the freedom that life on the open road offers them. Of course there are plenty of rogues too but these are balanced by those who have genuine and sometimes very considerable spiritual attainments. On my way to Gangotri and Gomuk a few years back I passed and sometimes traveled for a few days with, several bands of swamis making the pilgrimage. All of them were shoeless and owned nothing more than a staff, robes and what they could fit into a shoulder bag. They had no supplies but ate only what they beg for on the way. Many of these swamis told me that they spend the winter hanging around village or town temples or famous pilgrimage sites and as the summer comes on they make their way up into the mountains. There they spend spring and summer doing the rounds of sacred places, find a strategically situated place near a temple where they can easily get alms, build themselves a hut in a forest near a village or find themselves a good cave. Contrary to popular opinion, a good number of these swamis are quite learned and have regular meditation or devotional practices, although it is true that there are many lay-abouts and conmen too. In short, they are just like the Buddhist sangha. But what I have often found amongst wandering swamis which is rare in the Buddhist sangha is a strong sense of fellow-feeling. They extend an almost immediate welcome to anyone they perceive to be another swami. Burmese monks will not bow to a Western monk senior to them or even return a greeting with anything more than a grunt. Thais are the same although they will at least smile back. And being of a different race is not the only barrier either. In Burma and Thailand monks of one sect will not stay in nor are they welcome in, the monasteries of a different sect. Even a slightly different practice of the Vinaya will evoke frowns or comments of disapproval. ‘Stuck up’ is not a term that immediately comes to mind when thinking about Hindu wanderers. They have a kind of camaraderie that grows out of shared hardship, of always being at the bottom of the heap. When they find out that you are of a different sect, as I always am to them, they are usually genuinly interested in knowing what you practice and believe. And as long as you state your position gently, the conversation remains cordial. When I say I am a follower of ‘Bhagawan Buddha’ this is almost always followed by a good-natured chorus of ‘Buddang Sharanang Gachami.’ I feel a bit of a fake staying with or traveling with these men because I always have my passport and my return air ticket to Singapore in my bag. But that never seems to worry them – they accept you as you are, treat you as one of their own for as long as you are with them and wish you well when you go.
I would like to share with you pictures of some of the swamis I have met over the years. Hamsaswami in the fourth picture is a quietly joyful man I met in Uttarakashi who has been a swami since he was 15 and he is now 79. When I asked where he is from he said ‘Wherever I am.’ At Badranath I shared a meal with the two swamis in picture five. They have traveled together for as long as they can remember. Both of them were as happy and as at peace as they looked.


Ser Ming said...


That's why even as a lay-buddhist, something I feel ashame that many of our own cannot live up or should I say don't even seems to attempt to live up to the Buddha's ideals.

In retrospect, I sincerely and truly revere these swami, and many other non-buddhists who are ever steadfast in their faith and literally live to what they believe.

Mark said...

Bhante, I just want to take this opportunity to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. Mark.

Anandajoti said...

Although most Buddhist monks (including myself) live in well-appointed temples or monasteries, still we should remember others like the recently deceased German monk Ven Nyanavimala who spent most of his ordained life on carika (walking tour), often in the most difficult conditions. He was truly the most inspiring monk I have ever met.

From personal experience I know there are quite a few more monks living in a similar way in Sri Lanka today, and we should not forget them.

Robert said...

The wandering monks aren't totally gone, just almost gone. I'm reading the biography of Ven. Ajahn Khao Analayo. There are still Dhutanga monks and monasteries that are out in the jungle miles from a village, just very very few I think.

I knew one American guy (maybe 19 or 20) who went to Thailand to become a monk. He went to a monastery that really was way out in the middle of nowhere, miles from the village where the monks went for alms round. Unfortunately he didn't end up staying.

Justin Choo said...

I notice in the photo that you are a left-hander. No wonder they say left-handed people are very clever and also artistic. Your profile shows that you are also interested in art. Ha!Ha!Ha!