An Occasional Memoir of Visits to the
Bhavana Society Buddhist Monastery in West Virginia.
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By Douglas Imbrogno
I retire to my kuti. It is, I realize, one of my favorite places to be in this wide, wide world. A small, square orange building in the woods, orange the color of an aged tangerine’s skin. Orange akin to the color of the robes of the Therevada Buddhist monks who designed this place, a monastery deep in the West Virginia woods.
As usual, after my six-hour drive here, I collapse after shutting the kuti door. I’ve traveled thousands of miles since last I slept in these woodlands. Been a busy man, a very proper busy American man, oh-so-busy as the economy of the nation requires of me. And as the personal economy of my ambition requires, that steely-eyed accountant. I collapse onto the thin mattress atop a simple wood-frame bed. Someone has left a neatly folded red towel on the bed’s blue blanket, a box of Dove soap atop it for the next person. It always happens when I first arrive at the Bhavana Society, this collapsing. Sleep and fitful dreams to start my visit.
Since there’s no electric hook-up in the kuti, I’ve nothing to plug in. Bluejays ‘skree-skree!’, ‘skree-skree!’ off in the woods, the story of their lives unbeknownst to me except for the sound of it. Now and again this Saturday afternoon a ‘BOOM-BOOM!’ resounds in the distance, enveloped in the faint penumbra of an echo. Some hunter, hunting something. Or just a shooter, enjoying his gun. Wind whooshes through the forest like a tidal ocean shooshing onto a beach. Silence follows. Then, wind comes again, agitating the million leaves. They show their undersides a moment or two, a paler color than their topsides. It is Autumn so many colors are seen through the tall wide windows set into the three walls of my cabin. The fourth is where the door is, which leads to a narrow porch. Some dutiful monk or past retreatant has left neat buckets and stacks of kindling there: tiny brittle branches, then bigger twigs thick as a finger and logs small to large.
I twist open the kuti’s cast-iron stove in one corner. Tear into strips some papers in my shoulder bag from the Small Business Administration, whose staff is aiding my ambitious self in an attempt to launch a small business at age 55. I look at the forms. Decide I need them less than I will need a fire tonight and some warmth when I return here from evening meditation. The weather has taken a definitive turn to Fall. I place twisted logs of SBA paper at the heart of a careful pyramid of twigs. It should light and catch just fine when I set match to it in the cold and dark of these October woods later tonight.
My ambitious self has been having many tête-à-têtes with my realistic self of late. Coming to terms of acceptance that, after all, we shall not be — all these many selves — one of those widely known writers or cultural sorts of wide repute, whose pronunciamentos are part of the chatter round the communal table of discourse. Joseph Campbell-wise, my ambition to live the Life of the Hero sort of went down in flames. I am learning every day my job description here in the Life of the Village. Where, truth be told, I am an Elder , or growing into one. Which is no small thing to sneeze at, even if I’ve no book reviewed by the NYTBR, or the NYRB, or the LRB. Or even an agent, for god’s sake. Outside my village, I am a nobody.
Inside it, I am a villager people greet, many of whom are happy to see me out and about. And I, them. Here in my kuti, in woods colonized by monks in orange mou-mous, the urge to be notable, to be noted, just seems like yet another tiring thing. Yet why write, then, except to garner your attention? Or to try and explain, to myself even, where I am and what I am seeing out today’s window. You know what I see out the window? Over there, 150 feet or so away, stands a tiny orange building with an angled roof, a thin PVC tube jutting through its roof. A monk’s outhouse in the Appalachian hills.
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I know who built it, too. It was the monastery’s former vice abbot, Bhante Yogavacara Rahula. His old kuti is not far from this one I am in. A small wooden sign near the front door of mine reads ‘Piti,’ which means rapture, bliss or delight in Pali. His is still just called ‘Rahula’ kuti. The main meditation and dining hall, where the bathrooms are, is a hike downhill along stony paths that can trip you up. In the night, when you really have to go, an outhouse would be so much easier. And so, there it is.
Awhile I go, I really had to go. I stalk across the crunching forest floor, through bramble and sticker bushes. Pull open the door. Inside is all cobweb and insect droppings. No toilet paper. No lime or sawdust to send your waste on its way back to compost. I don’t think the outhouse has been used since Rahula left a few years ago. I wonder where he is now, as I gaze down the toilet hole into the pit, thinking of how much old monk poop is down there. He loves — Bhante Rahula does — to hike the villages of India and Nepal, to stroll the foothills of the Himalayas. When he decided to leave Bhavana some years back, to return to a monk’s wandering ways, to ‘Go forth,’ as the Buddha told his monks, he gave me a poster which had hung on one wall of his kuti for years. It depicts some of the tallest peaks in the Himalayan range, their height in kilometers. It hangs today, downstairs in my music rehearsal room. A map of the highest places of his going forth.
I decide to restock the outhouse of the monk. Walk down the hill and get from the main hall’s store room two rolls of toilet paper. I decide I’d also better go down to my car in the parking lot, get the fancy, collarless, silky-white shirt and suit jacket I will wear tomorrow. For I am not come to the monastery on retreat, but for an auspicious celebration. This weekend marks the annual Kathina celebration, one of the big events on the Buddhist calendar. But we are also marking on this same weekend Bhavana’s 30th anniversary as a monastery and retreat center to the world. And we will mark the 85th year of its founding abbot, my meditation teacher and a man known and beloved around the world, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana Mahathera.
Alas, Bhante G, as he is known by all, had emergency bypass surgery some weeks back and is too weak to come. He remains, recuperating, at a nephew’s home in Maryland. But the new vice-abbot has the place hopping in preparation, with more than 30 visiting monks coming from all directions of the compass. I pass beneath four successive pieces of bunting erected overtop the driveway leading into Bhavana. The bunting is the colorful orange, red, white, blue and yellow of the traditional Buddhist flag, supposedly the colors of the Buddha’s aura after he attained enlightenment.
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I gather up the hanger from my car on which hangs my dress shirt and jacket, retrieving also a rucksack. I arrange it all, toilet paper under one arm, and walk back up the hill then round the meditation hall. At Sunday’s Kathina ceremony, Bhante G will be Skyped in to speak upon a big screen inside the hall. He has asked me in a phone call last week to deliver brief remarks on behalf of the Board of Directors, since — he notes — I am one of the longest serving board members. This surprises me. Not the request, but how time passes. I am one of the longest serving board members? As I step past the rear of the hall, wrapped in thoughts, I feel something underfoot. Stop. Look down. See the silky white shirt has slipped off its hanger. I have trampled it. It has now a muddy shoe print near one button, a smudge of dirt another place. I begin to curse, taking another religious tradition’s avatar in vain. “Jesus f*cking CHRIST!”
I have been of late, a foul-mouthed sailor, despite my long tenure on a Buddhist board. Or maybe just a short-tempered Italian male. This is the curse that keeps coming out of me, and often. I try to train myself in less offensive variations to soften its sharp edges: ‘Jesus on a bicycle!’ And a Spanish version: ‘Hey-seuss frigging CHRISTO!’ But when I boil over in earnest, it’s always this vile curse tumbling out my lips. One day, if I’m not careful, I’m going to say it out loud at work and lose the affection of the sweet young, born-again Christian copy editor who sits to my back in the newsroom where I work. Maybe I have already uttered it bitterly beneath my breath when my computer goes haywire and she is too polite or incapable of remonstrating with me about my speech. Right Speech is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path and this is certainly not quite Right. Why are you so pissed sometimes these days, I keep pondering, when this curse erupts out of me? I think what I’d think were someone near to me to give the curse a Buddhist makeover: ‘Shakyamuni f*cking Buddha!’
To be honest, I think the curse is a shorthand ‘f*ck you!’ to onrushing anxiety about old age and uselessness. And the general aging angst of the artist who feels he’s never quite found his audience. Meanwhile, Mister Death awaits at a toolbooth for his toll, somewhere not too far down the interstate of life. On the other hand, any would-be notable writer who’d employ Death in a tollbooth and write the phrase ‘the interstate of life’ probably does not deserve to be notable.
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Right now, though, this instant, I have a muddied shirt to deal with. I scoop it up. Rest my head against the wooly bark of a great old oak tree. Listen to the surging blood between my ears. It’s just a shirt. I have another (though I won’t look as fabulous at the ceremony). A few breaths later, instead of hearing ‘Hey-seuss frigging CHRISTO!’ echo through the woods, I’m able to hear the wind. It vaults through the forest’s upper branches, a sound like a hidden waterfall back in the trees. What can you do? I can take the dirty shirt as symbolism: This is how you are muddying up your life! You’re tramping dirt into the clean white spaces of your life! You are so lost in self-absorption you’re making a mess of things…
The wind whooshes by again. There is something I can do here. I have a choice. I secure the shirt tightly underneath my arm. Adjust the rucksack. Walk off into the woods. I must restock a monk’s old outhouse with some toilet paper.
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