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The Snobbish Monk

At a feedback session of a course I conducted about 2½ years ago, a participant from Penang commented that I had “changed a lot”. He told the audience that when he first met me (in another event Bhante Aggacitta and I conducted in 2007), he found me quite snobbish.

In my mind, that was one of the best compliments I had ever received, and it still is. There were other nice things that he said about me, but that first comment had already made my day. No doubt, I had been rather snobbish. It didn’t seem so to me then though. Whenever I think of this, I feel grateful for the change that has happened. I sometimes also feel a bit strange; that person seems so remote now.

Snobbish was what that man thought of me back then. I think he was being kind. I think arrogant would have been a more accurate description. That’s the word my teacher, Bhante Aggacitta, used sometimes to point out my behaviour. He said it many times, and I recall a resistance to that every time. Yet, I couldn’t see it.

Perhaps it was rather impossible for me to see it, because I had ‘become’ it. Just as the eye can’t see itself, neither can the I.
Some months ago, I brought up this matter as an example during a talk I gave in Ipoh. The next day, the organiser told me that his wife too commented that I had changed, since I last went there to give a talk. He said that I had earlier seemed like an ‘intellectual snob’, which I immediately admitted to. (To everyone who had to put up with that, please accept my apologies. If there’s anything that I can do to make amends, please let me know.)

I thought about it and told him I had to be a snob. It was my cover. It made me feel good, safer, more confident—except that none of that was real. The cover wasn’t real. I wasn’t real. The first time I really got to see this cover was during a retreat I had in Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Tawya (Myanmar), practising under Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s guidance. At first, I noticed thoughts of pride: thoughts of being a better meditator, thoughts of being from a better country, thoughts of being better-looking, etc.
I recall cringing when I realised that I was having such thoughts, feeling ashamed of myself. After all, I was supposed to be a better meditator. So, no, I wasn’t supposed to have such thoughts. Not me, the meditator who’s too good to have such pride. Yup.
The view of being a better meditator was particularly disturbing for me. A lady from China whom I was translating for was having deep insights and profound joy. Whenever I translated for her, jealousy arose. It had to, since the situation threatened my view of being better.

Looking back, I realise that for a long time I had been relating to such thoughts either by being caught up in them, or trying not to have them. I hadn’t been practising the middle path in regard to them, i.e., meeting them with understanding.
As I became more aware of these thoughts, I came to notice the mental state of pride. I saw it as an energy pattern, which came up strongly whenever I wasn’t alone, and it felt tense. I could be fairly at ease when alone in the room, and as soon as I got out of it, the energy became stronger. Then when I exited the building, it became a whole lot stronger. The more people around, the stronger the energy. To be more accurate, it wasn’t the people, but the idea of people in the mind that mattered. I soon began to see it as an automatic effort to assert presence in the presence of others. Given a voice, it would say, “Look at me! I’m here. I’m great!” Sigh!

When the lady I mentioned earlier was about the leave, she thanked me for being there and translating for her, as otherwise she would have had much difficulty communicating with the teacher. I took the opportunity to tell her about my trouble with pride. She said she was aware of it, and that on one occasion, while walking pass me, she felt it and was shocked at the strength of its energy!
I came to realise that I had been living with it for a very long time. The difference then was I became aware of it. I also saw it as a thorn, and began to look at it as not me. That itself brought much relief.

Then, one day, as I was on the way to the dining hall—a time when many people were around—I felt strangely lighter.
“Something’s missing,” I thought. I looked around my body and found myself fully clothed. Even my pouch was there. Yet, I felt…. naked. As I write this, I’m reminded of the recurrent dreams I’d had, in which I would suddenly realise that I was partially naked. I would feel embarrassed, and anxious to find cover before others realised it too. Yet others in my dream didn’t seem to even notice, much less be bothered by it. The dreams weren’t the same, but the pattern was. I didn’t understand it then, and didn’t bother to think much of it, but now I believe that it’s a reflection of an unresolved issue in me. Come to think of it, I’ve not had that kind of dream for a long time.

That experience felt so strange that I became very curious about it. “I feel naked, yet physically I’m not.” It occurred to me later that the missing thing can only be something psychic: a psychic cover (or, perhaps more accurately, amour).
The naked feeling lasted for some time, and then went away. I suppose I had put the cover back on, or rather recreated it. It wasn’t under my control, and that’s okay. The important thing was that I had a glimpse of being without it, and saw that it wasn’t me, but just a psychic cover, a façade that was so persistent that I had taken it to be part of me. I became very interested in this phenomenon, while feeling a bit anxious. Why? There was a tussle as to whether it would be better to be without it. I felt uncomfortable with the naked feeling.

During the next discussion session, I told the matter to the teacher. He listened with interest and said that a yogi from Canada told him the same thing. I must have looked a bit worried then, because he tried to assure me by saying, “No problem.” Then raising both his hands up high, he smiled and said, “Naked is freedom!” (sic)
That was a little bit funny, but to me it was hardly comforting!

This psychic cover gradually became clearer to my awareness. I came to see it as something formed out of the desire to be somebody, and it made me grab at anything that could give me a sense of being somebody. The chief of those things was my intelligence—no, not ‘my’ intelligence. It’s ‘me’ the intelligent one. See where that intellectual snob came from?
While the cover provided a (poor) sense of security, it effectively capped my spiritual growth. In be-ing somebody, naturally the ego becomes stronger. I began to realise why I often looked down on people whom I regarded as less intelligent, and felt intimidated by those I regarded as more intelligent. The stranger effect was getting offensively irritated when I met with seeming obtuseness. That used to baffle and bother me.

I-dentifying with these attributes, I got to feel gratified thinking I was an intelligent person, a good looking guy (Big deal!), a good monk (This one caused me a lot of problems!), an emotionally strong person (Hogwash!), somebody with a good voice, somebody who had the answers, somebody who could save others from their problems. I was all these things, and more. I was SOMEBODY.
What an amazing load of I-dentifications! So many be-ings to be liberated from this crowded mind!
Realising the burden of that, I wondered, “Why do I have to be somebody? Isn’t it okay to be without it?” The question was immediately answered with a clear No, and profound fear. I was shocked. Why no? Why fear? I didn’t know then. All I knew was it somehow just didn’t feel safe.

I clearly didn’t enjoy the discovery, yet I knew that it was exactly what I needed to look into—if freedom was to be gained. As the Buddha said, the noble truth of suffering is to be comprehended. So, if I ignore even such gross suffering, how then can I comprehend Suffering? And what good is practising the Dhamma if it doesn’t free me from such suffering?
When a yogi brings up some emotional issue during a discussion with Sayadaw U Tejaniya, he often encourages everyone present to face these issues with wisdom, so that they can be cleared off one by one. Once I asked him whether it was possible to avoid facing emotional issues on the path to awakening. He said, “No. I don’t think so.” I thought so too, but asked just to check with someone more experienced.

I left that retreat with the issue largely unresolved. Besides, it wasn’t the only issue that came up. Another significant one was the sense of not being cared for enough, particularly by authoritative male figures in my life—but that’s another story, though it links with this one. It was a retreat where much unresolved heart matters surfaced. Though out of formal retreat, I continued practising as much as I could back in Malaysia—with a keener eye for these issues.
Months later, a dear friend called up to convey a few things about me:
– I do much to help others solve their problems.
– This has been helpful to them.
– However, I do so to feel good about myself.
– The reason is I don’t feel good about myself. I think that I’m not good enough.
– This has to do with (a family member).

I immediately understood it, and a profound sense of unworthiness welled up from within. And sadness. Deep sadness. I ended the phone call, and cried….

It had been been a long while since I cried that much, and that deeply. It was wonderful! Writing about this brought up a memory of sobbing on my pillow in the bedroom when I was about 10. Can’t recall why I cried so much then though. I suppose it’s too hurtful for the mind to feel safe enough to visit. I’m curious though.

As I noticed myself crying, I felt immense gratitude that it had finally come up, and gratitude for my friend too of course. After all that crying, it felt like something had lifted. I felt clearer, lighter—not just due to the loss of tears. It gradually became clear to me that the whole show was but a coping response to the fear of becoming a nobody, or rather becoming somebody who’s unwanted, because he’s not good enough. It explained why I felt so hurt, and sometimes even resentful, whenever someone put me down. It explained why I felt so bad when I did something that I deem ‘bad’. It explained why I desired attention and praise; yet when given attention, I felt anxious, and when given praise, something within rejects it. These are issues that I used to avoid facing or blamed others for.
As I write this, I notice a residue of these old feelings. Seeing it as not me, I can let it be, and it passes away. Hmm… so much of this life has been under this influence. Poor fellow. So funny. So lamentable. So wonderful.
I wonder what other gremlins lurk in here….

Āyasmā Kumāra resides in Sāsanārakkha Buddhist Sanctuary (www.sasanarakkha.org) and is a student of Āyasmā Aggacitta Mahāthera and Sayadaw U Tejaniya (www.sayadawutejaniya.org). Although still very much a work-in-progress, he often gets a bit lazy. However, when suffering prods him hard enough, he is reminded to be a bit more diligent and vigilant. May he suffer more.

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