Below is an excerpt from a “sorta memoir” in progress, titled “Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier.” Through ‘fictionalized non-fiction’, the book details stories from the author’s life — from Ohio to West Virginia, New York to Paris, Ireland to Italy. This tale is inspired by events in 2012 at the Bhavana Society, a Theravadan Buddhist forest monastery near Wardensville, W.Va. Like all the tales in the book, it’s almost all true. For news of the book’s release, free subscribe to TheStoryIsTheThing.substack.com
By Douglas John Imbrogno | November 2022 | WestVirginiaVille.com |
I awaken. I lie upon a minimalist foam mattress wrapped in a grey wool blanket. The wood-frame bed rests against one wall in my ‘kuti,’ as they call the small residential cabins sprinkled across the 60-odd acres of the Bhavana Society forest monastery in the West Virginia hills.
I stare up at the cobwebs in the rafters overhead. I am staying in a kuti christened Piti. All the 20 or so cabins on the property bear Pali names from the Buddhist canon. According to the Bhavana library’s thick Pali dictionary, the language of the earliest written-down Buddhist teachings, ‘piti’ connotes:
”Rapture; bliss; delight; joy; enthusiasm. The sensation of physical and mental lightness given by the purity of consciousness.”
It most certainly does not connote “marijuana-enhanced purity of consciousness …” My routinely weed-jacked self these days has been having tete-a-tetes with my realistic self of late about The Story of My Life Thus Far. Coming to terms of acceptance. Or maybe a negotiation of surrender terms?
That, after all, we shall not be — all of these many striving, often warring selves — one of those widely known writers or cultural figures of wide repute, my pronunciamentos part of the chatter round the globe’s communal table of discourse. Joseph Campbell-wise, my ambitions to live an international Life of the Hero have gone down in flames in both Ireland and France, even though I gave it the old college try. Twice.
Craziness will indeed change the rules of one’s game. I have a harder time using the more specific clinical term of ‘mental illness.’
I am learning almost every day, week, month and year the details of my revised job description, here in the middle of my life in the Village of West Virginia. Where, truth be told, I am a fairly well-respected Elder these days. Or growing into one. It is is no small thing to sneeze at. Even if I’ve no book reviewed by the NTBR, the NYRB, or the LRB — to mention a few of the initialed literary publications of the day that note significant writers and the manifestation of their creations.
It is true that outside my village and state, I am a nobody. Inside of it, however, I am a modestly well-known fellow whom a chunk of the villagers know. These folks are happy to see me out and about in the newspapers they hold and the websites to which they click. And a small, yet not insignificant number of people in the sequence of villages known as the state of West Virginia actually desires to read my words and to catch up on my latest written — and nowadays, video — storytelling.
Yet here in my kuti on the grounds of a Buddhist community nudged up against Great North Mountain in the Allegheny Mountain range in the West Virginia outback, the urge — the hunger? — to be notable, to be noted, just seems like another tiring thing.
So, why write, then, except to garner your attention? You, who are reading this right now. Or to try and explain where I am and what I am seeing out of today’s windows.
You know what I see out the window?
Over there about 200 feet away, encircled by a copse of trees, sits a narrow, tiny, upright building of loosely-fitted, weathered boards painted Theravada Buddhist orange. It has a peaked roof covered with black shingles, a silver vent tube jutting out of it. It is a monk’s outhouse in the Appalachian hills. I know who built it, too. He’s a friend of mine.
The outhouse was crafted by the monastery’s former vice abbot, Bhante Yogavacara Rahula, who played a key role in building out Bhavana after its founding in the late 1980s on about 60 acres of land in these hills. His old kuti — now known just as ‘Rahula’ — is not far from the one I inhabit.
I have known the monk long and well enough to call him my friend, as well as a formal kalyana mita. This is the phrase for ‘spiritual friend’ in the Theravada tradition, which does not countenance the concept of gurus, but does encourage long-term, spiritually fruitful encounters between teachers and lay Buddhist practicioners.
Bhante Rahula built the outhouse because of where his kuti sits at the far eastern end of the property. The main mediation and dining hall — where the bathrooms are — is a hike downhill of about ten minutes. You undertake that walk, up and back, via a sinuous, angled path, full of sharp rocks, pads of slippery, zucchini-green lichen, and the occasional fallen branch across your way. You could navigate it with a flashlight in the dead of the night when nature calls. Yet when you really have to go — monks and nuns poop, too, after all — an outhouse would be so much easier.
And, so, there it is.
Bhante Rahula has moved on from Bhavana. He may, right this very moment, be wandering a high Himalayan path or meditating in a cave in the Sri Lankan outback, for all I know. He has done all those things. He is an old-school monk who loves to walk the world’s faraway places as part of his “going forth,” as the Buddhist call to the robes is sometimes described.
And he has left behind this evidence of his “going forth” to the bathroom in the woods.
And I really, really have to go.
I exit Piti kuti. The forest crunches beneath my feet as I stalk through bramble and sticker bushes which tear at my hands, opening up red tracings of minor wounds. I come to the outhouse. Pull open the door. Inside it’s all cobwebs and insect droppings. There is no toilet paper on the spool, which looks to be a spindle of wood from one of the forest’s trees.
Plus, there’s no lime to send your waste on its way back to compost as in a well-equipped — a still-equipped — Appalachian outhouse. It appears the outhouse has not been used since Rahula departed Bhavana a couple years ago.
I gaze down the outhouse hole into the pit hollowed out in the forest’s floor, thinking of how much monk shit is down there. When he left to wander distant mountains and misty valleys hemispheres away, Bhante Rahula gave me a colorful, cardboard-backed poster that used to hang on a wall in his kuti. It depicts some of the tallest peaks in the Himalayan range, their height in feet noted in script with an arrow identifying specific mountains.
5 QUESTIONS: Bhante G on meditating via ZOOM, daily mindfulness and facing death: April 17, 2021: It is perhaps not as well known as it should be that a much-beloved, 93-year-old global figure in Buddhism has called West Virginia home since 1985. We check in with him on ZOOM meditating and more.
The poster now hangs above my workbench in the garage of my Huntington home, five hours and hundreds of miles to the west of this hillside, a map of the highest places of the monk’s going forth.
Beneath the shelf in my garage prominently showcasing this homage to the Himalayas, I stash a wooden Arturo Fuente cigar box behind a toolbox full of hammers, screwdrivers, tape measures, and other fix-it accoutrements. Open the hinges on the well-made cigar box and you’ll find my stash of high-end West Virginia weed. Hand-grown by a dear friend in the outback of a county far from mine. Were weed legal in the state, my friend’s marijuana — sweet, powerful, pungent — would be a craft brew. A single-malt scotch.
I call it ‘Jesus Weed.’ I keep trying to quit it, but keep coming back to it, although not in the week before a visit to Bhavana.
Very high, it gets me.
Two very different kinds of high on that one workbench.
I decide to restock Rahula’s outhouse. I walk back down a snaking path through the woods, careful not to twist my ankle on a rock. I head inside the main hall to a store room around the corner from the library. Nab two rolls of toilet paper. I decide that I should also go to my car and get the fancy, collar-less, white linen shirt I will wear tomorrow. For I am not at the monastery for a formal retreat, but have come for an auspicious occasion.
This weekend marks the annual Kathina event on the Buddhist calendar. The festival occurs at the end of the traditional three-month-long rains retreat. The event marks the time back in the day when monks ceased their peripatetic ways during rainy season and hunkered down in place.
Buddhist lore has it that some monks struck off to visit the Buddha just as torrential rains pelted the land. To avoid squishing newly planted crops, the monks sheltered in place until the wet season ended. Meanwhile, they discovered how this rainy sojourn deepened their practice. When they finally got to their Buddha meetup, their robes were torn, muddy, and soaked from sleeping in the elements. The Buddha gave them props for dedication. Then, he passed out new cloth given to him by a pious lay woman, which they could use to fashion fresh robes.
Lo, these centuries later, nuns and monks traditionally receive new robes (or bolts of cloth to make the robes) at Kathina time. In Bhavana’s version of the tradition, on this weekend its monks and nuns will dye the cloth orange and then cut and sew it into robe form, using an old Singer sewing machine. In a meditation hall ceremony, the fresh-made robe will be awarded to one monk or nun, a vote of encouragement for their Rains Retreat devotion and practice ahead.
I figured I should dress up for the occasion.
Several hundred people who view Bhavana as their spiritual locus will crowd the monastery tomorrow. A sizeable chunk will head to the West Virginia hills from Sri Lankan communities in and around Washington, D.C. Why? The abbot, Bhante Gunaratana — known worldwide as ‘Bhante G’ — is a Sri Lankan native, who served as chaplain at D.C.’s American University, where he got a PhD. in international religion. That was before he cast his attention to the green, green hills to the west, dreaming of a Buddhist forest monastery.
Which explains why there is a monk outhouse out there in those rolling West Virginia hills.
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Because of the Kathina crowd, starting about noon tomorrow, the line to the restrooms in the main hall will grow long from this crush of visitors. Might be good to have an alternative. Not to mention having a place to go at midnight, when Nature demands my attention in the dead-of-dark monastery night, way the hell out in the Appalachian woods.
Heading to the lot, I pass beneath fluttering banners hung for the weekend overtop the blacktop driveway that leads to the main hall. The bunting displays stripes of orange, white, blue, red, yellow, and a mix of them all. These six-colored rays were said to have emanated from the Buddha after attaining enlightenment.
Right now, my aims are simpler. I wish to attain my fancy shirt from a hanger in my car. As a longtime member of the Bhavana board of directors — Bhante G asked me to join a decade or so ago — I need to look presentable at Kathina.
“You are now one of the longest serving board members, Douglas,” the monk reminds me in a recent email exchange, asking whether I will make this year’s Fall celebration.
This surprises me. Not that he might ever have asked me to serve on the ten-member board. My tenure has been a long peek into how much like herding cats it is to run even a spiritual-minded institution, not to mention its behind-the-scenes drama.
Wherever two or more humans are gathered….
Buddhist daily life in backwoods West Virginia: March 13, 2022: A picture show and video of an unexpected place in the West Virginia woods — the Bhavana Society Buddhist forest monastery deep in West Virginia’s hills are vital.
Even ordained ones.
Yet his observation stirs a reminder of how time passes like a flood. And how many decades of my life have unfolded at this monastery as a backdrop or forefront to my life. Strolling back onto the grounds, shirt in hand, I ponder my own life’s sequence.
Ohio. West Virginia. Ireland. Ohio. West Virginia. France. Ohio. West Virginia …
Add in a couple of left turn into mental hospitals, including this one Dickensian ward up a side street from downtown Dublin, and you’ve got yourself a story or three.
Hoisting the shirt on its metal hanger, I head back around the meditation hall towards a path that spurs off into the woods. As I stalk past the rear of the hall, engulfed by thoughts, I feel something underfoot. Stop. Look down. See the silky white shirt has slipped off its hanger. I have trampled it. I lean and grasp it up. Hold it out. It now has a muddy shoe print on one side, a smear of brown-black dirt on the other.
“JesusfuckingCHRIST!” I cry out.
I have lately been a foul-mouthed sailor and this is the favorite curse that erupts from my lips. And frequently. I have been trying less offensive variations to soften its edges. In case I lose it in the newsroom. Or, for that matter, that I am overheard taking the Lord’s name in vain — not my Lord any more, maybe yours — by someone expecting less heat from the longest-serving board member of a Buddhist monastery.
I have tried: ‘JESUS on a BICYCLE!’
And (with a Spanish lilt): Jay-seuss-friggin CHRISTO!
Yet when I truly erupt like Vesuvius in my most earnest, unchecked rage this still remains my go-to oath. One day, if I’m not careful, I’m going to lose the affection of Belinda, the sweet young, born-again Christian copy editor, who sits at my back near my desk in the crowded Charleston Gazette newsroom in West Virginia’s capital. She really is a lovely human being and I would rather not offend her. Or maybe I have already muttered it savagely beneath my breath and she HAS heard it. And is too polite or incapable of remonstrating with me about my speech to point it out.
Right Speech, after all, is one of the key elements of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, the lifelong discipline essential to wending one’s way to enlightenment and the ending of all our tenacious, self-administered suffering. Mindfulness of one’s speech is not just a way to encourage Buddhist practicioners to avoid shocking people like my buddy, Belinda. In wrestling with my increasing malefaction of calling on Christ so rudely, I have somewhere written in my journal a definition of Right Speech found in a Buddhist magazine:
“Right Speech is defined as the avoidance of four types of harmful communication: lies, divisive speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter. Even with these clear directions, though, factoring Right Speech into our daily lives can be exceedingly difficult …”
“True!” I scrawl beneath this transcription.
My father had different curses, not this specific one. (If I recall, he left out the f-word when calling on Jesus Christ.) But the intonation, the ferocity, the sheer angry-at-the-world exasperation of my cussing is quite akin to his. Like father, like son? Yet I can hardly blame my Dad — or the world — for dropping a pristine dress shirt and grinding it into the dirt of Great North Mountain, while lost in my usual place …
The Land of the Interior Monologue, that is to say.
I am, after all, at a monastery founded by one of the world’s leading Buddhist lights. An esteemed, beloved monk who has been instructing me in meditation, mindfulness, and the Buddha’s way for a couple decades, now.
You might expect better from the circumstances.
I rest my forehead against the wooly bark of a thick oak tree, which likely has hung out on this hillside for more than 100 years: ‘WHY are you so pissed?!’ I return to this question each time the curse surprises me with the force of its murderousness. Is something afoot in me when — this happened last week — I explode twice into a cursing fit on the self-same day? What is the taproot of this rage?
I try to imagine what it might be like if I spewed a Buddhist version of my preferred curse around Bhante G or my other Bhavana board members:
(‘Shakyamuni’ meaning the historical figure who was born Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, who became known as Shakyamuni after he became the Buddha, thus signifying the “Sage of the Śākya clan.”)
It just doesn’t have the same satisfying ring.
About all I can figure is that my increased curse-to-life frequency — this is not the only phrase in my lexicon — is a shorthand ‘Screw you!’ to the anxieties of feeling like I may have missed my best shot.
Perhaps it is the pent-up frustration and general angst of the artist who feels he has never quite found his audience. All the while, Mister Death awaits his required toll at the last tollbooth up ahead, not too far down the interstate of life.
On the other hand, any would-be notable writer who would employ Death in a tollbooth — and then write the phrase ‘the interstate of life’ — probably does not deserve to be notable.
Right now, at this very instant, however, I have a messy shirt problem. The tree bark is strangely soothing. I place both hands upon the thick tree’s trunk, which is so wide my arms barely go halfway around.
My now not-so-dressy shirt drapes from my hand as if the tree wears a white scarf — and now a brown one, too. I have long communed with trees this way. It may have begun as a boy, fleeing on my Schwinn bicycle from an older era of my father’s vile imprecations in my family’s house growing up. Seeking Nature’s far safer-seeming embrace miles from home.
I listen to the blood surging and retreating between my ears. I resist the urge to pummel something. It would hurt to punch an old oak tree. And besides, the Spirit of the Tree feels wise and welcoming:
‘You can hang out here. I’ve got you, young one. Stay in place. Breath. Rest …’
It is just a shirt. I have another (although it is more mundane and I won’t look quite as good at the ceremony). Several long breaths later, at first shuddering and then smooth and regular, I am able to hear the wind in my ears, instead of ‘jay-seuss-effing-christo!’ The breeze tumbles through the forest’s upper branches. It sounds like a waterfall heard off in the deep woods that you desire to find.
What can you do?
Well, I can secure the shirt and hanger tightly under my arm. I can stride off purposefully up a hilly path defined with cut branches laid down by monks and retreatants in years past. Maybe branches I once cut and laid on a past visit years ago. I can cross an arched wooden bridge over a burbling stream and head deeper into the property’s eastern toehold.
I can restock a monk’s old outhouse with new toilet paper.
For news of the release of “Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier,” free subscribe to TheStoryIsTheThing.substack.com.
A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR: The “sorta memoir” author above is describing past events. He realized the better part of a decade ago that cannabis sativa, in whatever form, is just not good for him, much as it might juice his self-worth for a short and glorious period, requiring ever more constant infusions to keep the party going. He has been sober (yes, we weed addicts use that term quite forthrightly) for eight years, now. He highly recomends — should you, yourself, be among the 10 to 15 percent of weed users who end up overturning your life as weedaholics — to check out the many daily world phone meetings of Marijuana Anonymous at https://ma-phone.org.
PS: Bhante Yogavacara Rahula is now director and principal teacher at the Paññāsīha Lion of Wisdom Meditation Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
NOTE: Douglas John Imbrogno is editor of the 2020 Wisdom Publication book “WHAT WHY HOW” Answers to Your Questions on Buddhism, Meditation and Liviing Mindfully.” The book features answers to common questions the estemmed Buddhist teacher and abbot of the Bhavana Society Theravada Buddhist monastery and retreat center has been asked in 50 years of teaching. Wisdom is offering a free online article series based on the book or to order it. The book is also now available in Italian and German translations. SEE THIS LINK: https://wisdomexperience.org/wisdom-article/ask-bhante-g
Knowing Douglas as I do and intimately familiar with the Bhavana Society, I find this ‘sorta memoir’ quite entertaining yet reflecting much of our conditioned and unliberated mind’s undercurrent dialogues, while yet yearning to be ‘free’.