In the previous installment of this essay I said that I suggested BGR make hunger and malnutrition the center of our mission on the basis of my personal experience of hunger during my first years as a monk in Sri Lanka. Here is the first part of this account, which will continue in the next post.
I arrived in Sri Lanka at the end of October 1972. A week after my arrival I traveled inland to the town of Balangoda, where months earlier, while I was still living in Los Angeles, I had arranged to take ordination under Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Mahanayaka Thera, a prominent English-speaking Sri Lankan scholar-monk, who was then 77 years of age. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks take as their first name the name of their native town or village. This explains why Ven. Ananda Maitreya’s first name is identical with that of the town where his monastery was located. I intended to stay with him and to study Pali and Theravada Buddhism under his guidance.
Surprisingly, though Ven. Ananda Maitreya was one of the most respected monks in the island, his temple was poorly supported. The temple was located on the outskirts of a small village named Udumulla about two miles from Balangoda, a town in the southeast hill country about twenty miles east of Ratnapura, “the City of Gems.” Apart from Ven. Ananda Maitreya, the other monks at the temple were all young samaneras (novices) between the ages of 8 and 16. They were studying at the pirivena, the monastic school, which was about five miles away on the other side of the town.
Discipline at the temple was, to put it gently, lax. It’s not that the novices were actually bad, but they were not subjected to any adult supervision. The Mahanayaka Thera lived in a kuti (a small cottage) on the hillside a few hundred meters from the main temple building. I lived in another kuti lower down on the same hill. The only time I went to the temple was for meals and to get my thermos filled with tea for the evening. There were no senior monks to look after the novices, and thus, left to themselves, the boys would play and shout and carry on as they pleased. Their unruly behavior must have made an unfavorable impression on the lay devotees, who expect monks, even young ones, to display dignity and decorum. This, along with the poverty of the village, may explain why the temple was not well supported.
Lacking adequate support, the temple could provide only the simplest food for the resident monks. Breakfast consisted of a watery rice porridge called kenda, which might be accompanied by a couple of cream crackers or a slice of bread and margarine. We had the same thing virtually every day, except on the full-moon poya (uposatha) day, when we would be treated to milk rice (kiribath), hoppers (rice flour pancakes), or string hoppers (padded noodles), along with coconut gravy and a spicy condiment. We would also get South Asian bananas, the kind called ambul keselgedi, which are about four inches long. Normally, the novices prepared the breakfast, and, since there were some twelve monks (ten novices, the Mahanayaka, and myself), they seemed to think they could increase the quantity of the porridge by adding more water to it.
Lunch was also uniform, consisting each day of red country rice with a watery dahl (curried lentils), a potato or yam curry, and a green vegetable, usually string beans or kunkun, a fibrous, leafy water plant. Occasionally there would be a dish of sprats (haelmasa), small dried fish similar to sardines, but since I was vegetarian at the time, I did not partake of this. For desert there would be a small banana, and sometimes slices of mango, pineapple, or papaya.
The red rice was exceptionally nutritious, but it was the only substantial food at the meal and on its own was not sufficient to satisfy hunger. In accordance with the monastic rule, I did not eat after mid-day. I was already 28 years of age and had reached the peak of my physical growth, but I could not understand how the novices, still in their teens, could subsist on such meager fare. I suspect that, at night, when Ven. Ananda Maitreya was in his kuti and I was in mine, the rice and dahl left over at lunchtime would find its way into their bellies. Though this was a violation of their precepts, I could hardly grudge them this extra food, considering their age and their need for more nutrition. Their indulgence, if it took place, certainly did not smack of gluttony.
At the time, Ven. Ananda Maitreya was the Mahanayaka Thera or chief prelate of the Amarapura Nikaya, the monastic fraternity to which he belonged (and to which I belonged by virtue of taking ordination under him). In this position, he would be invited several times a week to monastic functions, which would always feature a sumptuous alms offering. Thus, while he also consumed the simple fare served at our temple, a few times a week he could enjoy a substantial mid-day meal. At first he occasionally invited me to come along with him and I relished the opportunity. But I found that these outings would usually take up the entire day. We would depart around 9 am, drive 90 minutes or two hours to our destination, and return only around 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon. I therefore excused myself from attending these functions.
Several times I asked my teacher for permission to go on alms round, but he insisted I take my food at the temple. I believed he wanted to feel he was a cordial host and so I acceded to his request. He was very kind and compassionate, but he just didn’t understand my need for more nourishment. I also took the situation as a challenge to my own ability to cultivate patience, equanimity, and contentment. I was still fired up with the enthusiasm typical of a newly ordained monk, who is apt to put high ideals above concessions to the harsh demands of reality. I thought that as one who had entered “the homeless life” I should be ready to endure the challenges such a life presented, including that of living on a sub-standard diet.
Because the red rice was filling, I did not immediately feel the impact of the daily reduction in my nutritional intake. This occurred gradually, but after several months the lack of adequate nutrition began to take its toll. I felt the vitality and energy ebbing from my body, until a point was reached where almost all I could think about was food. This was not, I must stress, a craving for delectable tastes, but a physical craving anchored in bodily need. My mid-day meal would be fully digested by 2 or 3 pm, and then an insistent feeling would swell up and gather momentum like a giant wave rising up on the surface of a tranquil sea. I could almost feel the cells of my body crying out for amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. That feeling would persist through the evening and night. I could hardly wait for the next morning to arrive, when food would again become allowable. After waking I would hope some supporter from Colombo would turn up bringing a generous breakfast, but almost always it was a novice from the temple who would arrive with the usual bowl of porridge and a slice of bread. Still, even from a distance I could hear the patter of his feet against the earth as he made his way to my kuti, and I grew to anticipate and welcome that sound as if it were sweet strains of music.
The force of hunger increased day by day, leaving me feeling weak, sometimes even listless. I don’t want to compare my condition to that of the children we see in pictures from famine-struck countries in Asia or Africa. I was a light year away from their desperate plight, but I was definitely experiencing intense hunger that cannot be imagined by those who think they’re famished when they miss a couple of meals. I knew that my body was being incrementally deprived of the nutrition it needed for optimal functioning, and this was not at all pleasant. Incredible as it may sound, on some days I would even look at my rubber slippers (“flipflops”) and wonder whether or not they were edible. Thankfully I managed to withstand the temptation.
Since my teacher was going to England that summer—the summer of 1973—for the annual rains retreat, I decided to spend my own rains retreat elsewhere. I decided on Island Hermitage, located in a lagoon in the southwest of the country. This monastery was founded in 1911 by the German bhikkhu Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera, the first Buddhist monk from Continental Europe, and it had been the base for several distinguished Western monks, including Ven. Nyanaponika and Ven. Nyanamoli. Here I found the food far more satisfactory than in Balangoda, and I felt my strength, energy, and health come back. I even considered staying on at Island Hermitage, but I wanted to continue to study with Ven. Ananda Maitreya. Thus, after the three months of the rains retreat, I returned to Balangoda.
I was apprehensive, of course, that I would again have to grapple with hunger, but this time I was determined to be more assertive. I will explain what happened in the next installment of this blog.
– Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi