Filed in Theravada

Hunting and Gathering the Dharma

An American abbot in California, trained in the Thai Forest tradition, chooses the fringes of wilderness over domesticated urban Buddhism and extols the virtues of the wandering, mendicant monk.Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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© Ray K. MetzkerDawn. I'm sitting at the edge of a mesa in southern Utah. Above me is a vast, pale expanse of sky; below me, the town of Rockville; and beyond it rise the rose—and salmon—colored cliffs of Zion National Park.

If this were Thailand, I could go down into Rockville for alms. Then I'd be free to wander the mesas—meditating under rock ledges by day and on top of them by night—for weeks on end. As it is, the friend who drove me here will soon be fixing our meal, and in only a few days we'll have to retUrn to our responsibilities in California: his to his family, mine to my monastery.

The life of a monk in America is far less free than it can be in Thailand. Having trained there for fourteen years, I feel the difference in my bones. There you can roam for months at a time, fairly assured that someone will put food inyour bowl when you go for alms in the morning. Most monks, of course, prefer to trade the dangers and uncertainties of forest wandering for the security of life in a village or town monastery, bui: the wandering ideal has always been there in the background, not simply as an abstraction, but as a living option.

For centuries, meditating monks have been roaming the wilderness of Southeast Asia, living in symbiosis with the subsistence farmers scattered through the jungle. The monks' rules require that they live entirely outside of the market economy, avoiding any activities that would separate them from a pure wilderness life; farming, herding animals, engaging in trade, or storing food. In a sense, they are hunters and gatherers, although-because they can't kill animals, pluck from plants, or dig up the soil-they hunt and gather with a difference: they forage daily from the generosity of the farmers. To compensate for the burden they place on their supporters, they have to make themselves worthy of that generosity by living frugally and virtuously, keeping their needs to an absolute minimum . . .

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