"Going Forth into Homelessness"

by Joseph Clark
I think I first became interested in Buddhism when I was 12 years old. I encountered some pamphlets in my sixth grade classroom on Japanese culture: tea ceremony, flower arrangement, haiku poetry, and so forth. I can still remember two of the haikus. The pamphlets all mentioned that much of what we know as classical Japanese art has strong roots in Buddhism.

In high school I encountered Jack Kerouak’s book, The Dharma Bums, and was fascinated by his description of beatnik "Zen". I also tried to read D. T. Suzuki’s works, but they were too confusing.

In 1966, while living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, a little Japanese lady stopped me on the street corner and asked if I would like to attend a "Buddhist discussion meeting." I said, "Far out!" and accompanied her. It was a "shakubuku" meeting of the Sokagakkai, the lay organization of a Japanese Nichiren Buddhist sect. They were well known for militancy and aggressive proselytization.

I joined them and practiced very strongly for two years, rising to become a "Young Men’s Division Corps Chief." I resigned from the organization after I met a young woman (also a member) and got married, against the advice of my leaders. The marriage did not last; and I tried to become a Christian.

Unfortunately, I approached Christianity with a Mahayana Buddhist viewpoint, and thus was at odds with other people in the church. Later I practiced Transcendental Meditation (after paying $125 for my mantra), but eventually returned to practicing Nichiren Buddhism, practicing this time from the periphery. But the Nichiren practice was not totally satisfying to me because it consisted only of chanting. There is no meditation or study of any Buddhism other than Nichiren’s narrow views.

I had read Dr. Gunaratana’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness, as well as How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan (a book notable for its absence of religious mumbo-jumbo). It was no use talking to the Nichiren people about the benefits of meditation, so after about fifteen years of on-again, off-again practice, I finally quit the Sokagakkai altogether.

I was living in Calaveras County, California, and working in the Gold Rush town of Angels Camp, when I met a woman who was the "abbess" of a retreat centre nearby, called "A Centre for the Practice of Zen Buddhist Meditation." (The name seems carefully chosen; as she put it, "We’re not into ‘isms’." I attended two and a half days of a five-day silent retreat at that establishment, and it was a mind-opening experience for me.

When I got home I finally dusted off and read my copy of The Three Pillars of Zen by Phillip Kapleau, a book that had been popular about the time I initially joined the Sokagakkai. I was impressed by his description of the "enlightenment" experiences of his practitioners. After studying this book, I searched the internet for Kapleau’s teachers, that is, the Harada-Yasutani Zen lineage. My research led me to Robert Aitken Roshi and the Hawaii Diamond Sangha, which in turn led me to a branch sangha in Sonoma County, about three or four hours away. My very first contact with organized Zen Buddhism was to attend a three-day Zen "sesshin" (meditation retreat) in December, 1994. The dignified silence and the wonderfully quirky stories the old Chinese Zen worthies enthralled me, and I began Zen practice in earnest. I began working on the koan "mu".

Twice a month I drove from Calaveras County to Oakland to attend an evening meditation, and once every month or two I drove three to four hours to attend a weekend retreat. During this period I tried to meditate daily and also took part in two to three retreats a year, from three to seven or eight days each.

I returned to the "Silicon Valley" to work. During this time I feel my practice deepened; I attended retreats and sittings with other Zen teachers and groups, and even took myself on a solitary seven-day retreat in the woods north of San Francisco.

One day at work a friend told me that I should meet Harsha, a software engineer from Sri Lanka who is also a Buddhist. Always delighted to discuss the Dhamma, I sought him out immediately. (We have since become good friends.) He wanted to talk about such things as "powers", "attainments", and "mental states" that arise during deep meditation. I told him he should practice meditation and find out for himself, instead of discussing theories. We went around and around with this kind of talk for a few weeks. I repeatedly invited him to accompany me to an evening Zen sitting. "It’s easy," I said, "only two sitting periods of twenty-five minutes each, with five minutes of walking meditation between. And then we’ll have tea and a nice chat." Somehow he managed to avoid attending.

In the meantime he asked me if I liked to chant. (I love to chant — the result of my Sokagakkai experience.) He invited me to a Sri Lankan Theravada temple for their annual Piritha chanting. He warned me that the chanting would last all night. That was fine with me; it reminded me of the heady days of my Gakkai youth.

I was entranced by the ceremony. It was solemn, majestic, and beautiful — the monks entering the mandapa led by the laity carrying a cetiya and a copy of the Piritha book written on palm leaves. I immediately understood the symbolism of the Triple Gem. I obtained a copy of the Maha Pirith Pota and tried to follow along. I succumbed to sleepiness and left about 1.30 am, but resolved to attend the entire night the following year (which I did). Some time later another of Harsha’s friends invited the two of us to attend a one-day retreat at a Burmese temple.

For the next few months I continued to attend both Zen and Theravada vipassana meditation meetings. I was meditating with one or another group three to five nights a week, plus an all-day weekend retreat once or twice a month. I found that my Nichiren training helped me to generate saddha and viriya; the Zen practice was very similar to what some Theravada writers call "bare attention", and the Vipassana meditation was a natural complement that led, in my view, to wisdom. Then I attended a five-day vipassana retreat at the Burmese temple, led by Pandita U Janaka Sayadaw from Burma. This was a breakthrough retreat for me, because after it I was able to answer my first Zen koan.

I began spending more and more time at various Theravada temples and viharas in the South Bay: Buddhivihara in Santa Clara, Dharmapala Institute in Campbell, Mettananda Vihara in Fremont, and the Tathagatha Meditation Centre in San Jose. At the vipassana retreats the teacher always stressed the importance of practicing sila before attempting to meditate. I continued to meditate with my Zen group once a week and to attend a weekend retreat periodically. However, Zen’s lack of sila began to bother me.

After attending my second all-night piritha chanting ceremony, it occurred to me that there is nothing holding me back from totally immersing myself in the Buddhist practice. My children are grown and have families of their own, I’m single, and I have no attachments to my job. In other words, I actually could become a monk. The more I thought about it the more appealing it became. I decided to "go forth" a year later, that is, in September, 2001. In the intervening months such normal day-to-day activities as commuting to work, meeting deadlines, shopping, meeting with friends all began to feel hollow and unsatisfactory, even oppressive.

In April, 2001 I participated in the Vesak celebration at the Dharmapala Institute, and there met Bhante M. Punnaji and Bhante A. Kolitha of the Sarathchandra Buddhist Centre (SBC) in North Hollywood. After hearing Bhante Punnaji’s Dhamma talk and Bhante Kolitha’s meditation instructions, I asked for and received permission to visit their centre, and did so in July. I was deeply impressed by monks of this centre, and after some discussion I received permission to "go forth" at their centre.

My plan is to celebrate pabbajja here at SBC, then travel to Sri Lanka for further training and, I hope, higher ordination as a Bhikkhu. Now as the "going forth" draws near I find that I am apprehensive at the enormity of the undertaking. I am humbled to think that I will be walking in the footsteps of Sariputta, Moggallana, and Ananda. I am excited to think that I will actually be able to devote myself 100% to the Dhamma. I am also determined to be a credit to my mentors and Dhamma friends, Bhantes Punnaji, Kolitha, and Sirinawasa.