As the rest of the song goes.. “And I don’t know when I’ll be back again.”
It has been almost 1.5 years living on Kaua’i. I have had an incredible experience here by doing an experiment to see if a monk can establish a monastery any place he travels to through the lost art of wandering for alms. A practice done in the name of the Buddha but rarely practised anymore. I’m not just talking about collecting food with a bowl (also rare in the West), I’m talking about travelling to an unknown, uncharted land and literally living in a tent and seeing what happens with the goal of starting a monastery some time in the distant future. Did I succeed or fail? Well, not yet, and I’m leaving without knowing when I will come back. However, a real estate offer of $100,000 cash was made on some land. I will explain the details at the end. But it is the other stuff which makes me feel confident about my travels to Kaua’i.
How It Normally Works
Normally, monks are invited by immigrant circles living in America and the monks live in a small residential house that very few people know about. Likewise, most of the activity, if not all of it, is done in the native language of the immigrant circle that imported the monks. That means that little or no propagation is done outside the immigrant circles. Nearly all of these monks use money which was never allowed by the Buddha and many of them can bank $8,000-10,000 USD per year. Below is a video of a typical day’s gain. Take note that there are 6 bowls on the table to collect money, yet there are only 5 monks present. For them, bowls are not used for eating and they are just a symbol. About 98% of all Thai/Lao monasteries in the USA are like this. There is no Theravada Buddhism on Kaua’i and I wanted to do things right for their first exposure. However that does not mean it would be easy.
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Anini Beach Park
I landed in Kaua’i with no invitation and only one friend named Friedemann who is “Buddhist friendly” and he is a little more street smart than the people shown in the above video. For the first 6 weeks, Friedemann helped me get my camping permits at Anini Beach Park, helped me relocate on Tuesdays when the park is closed, and he fed me breakfast on Tuesday and Wednesdays. Throughout my stay, he monitored my status very closely, continued to feed me when I stopped by and was very helpful, especially in the early stages.
Everyday, 6 days per week, I would need to leave the park and collect my food. On Sundays, the 7th day, I rested and the park residents usually fed me because many of them collected free food at the Saturday Food Pantry. Most of the people who stayed in the park were poor, and I was no exception. The residents liked me and helped me. Below are some pictures from when I first landed. The big flood of April came only 3 days after I landed. I was there through the whole storm and the horses across the street were up to their bellies in water.
Anini Beach Park was quite far from the villages where I could collect food, so I needed to find rides. I had decided to use signs rather than using my thumb because I didn’t want to ask for rides and instead simply advertise where I was going. Then people could infer that I needed a ride without my asking. It seemed more right to do things that way.
Links below are:
Me at Anini Beach Park
Tent at Anini
My tent Ocean view
Second tent after storm damaged the first
Second Tent View
My handmade signs. Later my father sent me some signs from his shop.
Princeville Botanical Garden
After my sixth week in the park, I was headed back to Anini Park from my alms round in Kilauea while it was raining. A person, who turned out to be the owner of the Princeville Botanical Gardens, picked me up. He had just finished a meditation retreat at Spirit Rock in California. He had a vision of turning his garden into a retreat center and then he saw me on the road two weeks later. He showed me his “monk hut” and invited me to stay for a few days. It was like nothing I had ever dreamed of seeing before because it takes a whole team of people to keep the place tidy. People usually pay $70 for a three hour tour, while I was lucky to actually live there for 5 months. This link here has more https://americanmonk.org/a-walk-in-the-gardens/
Kapuna Road, Kilauea
Again, using my signs, a friend I had known for a few months named Uncle Gene saw me standing on the side of the road and offered me a ride back to the garden even though it was 8 miles beyond his own house and where he was headed. I offered him a walk in the garden and he offered me a new place to stay if I ever needed one. Shortly after that, I relocated to Kilauea and stayed there for about 5 months again. Below is a picture of my tent and the view of the mountains near my tent. This link has more https://americanmonk.org/kauai-update-3/
All the while, I had developed a schedule. If you look at my calendar, you will see all of the days filled up. Below is a sample from the month of August, 2019. https://americanmonk.org/calendar/
Above you will see the same pattern repeat again and again. Everyday, I did something, but many times, I was a little weak to update the calendar. You can see a clear schedule from January 2019 to September, 2019.
- Monday: Hanalei Big Save
- Tuesday: Anatta’s Food Truck
- Wednesday: Kilauea Village Alms
- Thursday: Sukhothai Café (Triple Gem and 5 Precepts)
- Friday: TImes market
- Saturday: Farmers Market
- Sunday: Times Market
- Random: Go to Lotus Garden or House Dana (one time per 2 months)
Hanalei Big Save
Below is a rare picture of me collecting alms food from some tourists who originally tried to give me money. I have permission from the shopping center owner to stand there because I normally don’t make eye contact with the people coming into the store and passively wait for them to approach me. Usually people approach me to ask questions or to try to put money in my bowl (which is politely refused). After that, we talk and they usually figure out that I am looking for food, or they simply leave. In the picture below, this couple first tried to give me money, and then later returned with alms food. Afterwards, I gave them a blessing which more or less explains “cause and effect” for what they did for me and how it comes back to them. Depending on their expressions, I can elaborate further on the details of cause and effect which can be very wide. My blessing explains that if you do good things good things will come back to you, so always practice loving-kindness because that will come back to you. They were very pleased with the blessing/teaching, so I also explained to them, “The rules prohibit us from storing food from the previous days, not eating food that is not offered directly to us, or using money. Because of this, we must collect our food everyday from lay people. This helps with Buddhist propagation and because I don’t accept money, or store food, we are speaking at this very moment.”
Below is a rare picture of that exact moment. On this particular day, an ex-monk friend wanted to meet me here to offer food before he left the island. He came exactly at the same time when I was giving the blessing/teaching as stated above and he caught the Kodak moment. Afterwards, my friend filled up my bowl to supplement my meal for the day.
Collecting alms at Big Save Supermarket
Alms In Kilauea
Below was my experience collecting food in the village of Kilauea. I had many adventures there. You can see various links listed below. There is also a picture of my alms map, which later became shorter as my time spent in front of each house became longer. It would take me nearly two hours to get through the route because I would practice loving-kindness meditation in front of each house. After some time, the neighborhood started to adopt me. One person bought me a bus pass so I could continue to come to his street after I moved to Lihue (I will talk about Lihue below). As time poured on, I learned about the neighbors’ lives and they also learned about me too. As they learned about me, they also learned about Buddhism. This was how the majority of my teaching happened. My main message was about loving-kindness and cause and effect. It was all part of the standard Thai blessing I would give after receiving my food. In short, I taught them that they made their own blessings through cause and effect. By not using money, I soon gained respect and Westerners don’t fall for the money collection video that was shown above. Using money is against the Buddhist monastic rules, and we have a second nature to know that monks should not touch money.
Wednesday Alms Route in Kilauea
That is me going for alms on Aalona Street Kilauea.
Some Of My Donors in Kilauea
Auntie Sharon and Uncle Jack (my regular alms donors)
Results from one day of collecting food.
Below is a picture from one of our weekly Thursday meetings at Sukhothai Café in Kapa’a where 5 precepts are given. If we ever get land, it will be possible with the seeding of the Thai/Lao community, especially the owner of Sukhothai Café who started the whole process with a very large donation. Quite a few of the ladies shown here speak English and have American husbands. There is also a Thai farming community too, but they don’t speak English very well.
Getting ready to give 5 precepts and Triple Gem at Sukhothai Cafe
Some of the regular donors Sukhothai
Receiving alms from a Laos woman at Sukhothai Café
Receiving Alms at Sukhothai Cafe
The last leg of my stay was in Lihue. I spent almost 6 months there. The owner of the condo and sushi shop is U Htin Aung. One day, I went to Lihue to do some sewing at my “Thai Uncle’s” house and U Htin Aung spotted me walking to the bus on my way home. He introduced himself and then visited me a few times with his wife. When I told him that I was leaving the island last April after a year’s stay, he invited me to stay at his place. He separated the master bedroom from the condo according to the monks’ rules. He and his wife took care of me very well. You can read more at this link here https://americanmonk.org/kauai-update-lihue/
Kalapaki Villas in Lihue
Landing The Deal?
And so, “This is where the story ends…” or does it? There are some tentative plans to come back on a yearly basis to keep the interest alive, but we don’t really know for sure what will happen. The idea was to make a monastery. We came very close on acquiring some land but everything fell through when one of the sellers died. My Thai Uncle started a nonprofit organization and there were pledges bringing the total to $70,000 from the Thai community alone. There were several other donors not included in the totals across america and on the island who were willing to donate with substantial donations. Another $30,000 was also internally available to Kauai Theravada Buddhist Association to put a $100,000 cash offer on some land. The land was pretty bad and had an unregistered collapsed home along with some abandoned cars on it. We were not totally 100% sure it was legal to build on it and it needed a lot of “Due Diligence.” Unfortunately, 3 days after we made the offer, but before we could lock the property up and do research, one of the six owners died and the property was taken off the market. It was more or less one of the only properties we could afford that showed some promise to build a simple residential house. The Thai people are simple and don’t think about loans even though $100,000 cash is enough to something much more. There is still a chance we can get that property once it is put on the market, or even better, before it is put on the market. Just to give you a perspective, the cheapest house in Kilauea right now at the time of writing is $551,000, and it is a foreclosure too. Kauai is not easy, but I am quite happy with the results so far in the past 18 months. In the end, I have been without my fellow monks for a long time and I need to reconnect with my monastic community.
Where to Next?
I will fly to Chicago for a 2 week visit to the only Lao monastery in America that does not use bowls for collecting dirty money. Then I will visit my folks for about a week. After that I will go to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar. I plan to stay in Myanmar for a long time to come. I have lived in Sri Lanka for 6 years and Myanmar for a total of over 10 years already. I will return to Maymyo and wrote about that monastery here. My friend who bought my Sri Lanka ticket is a disrobed monk who was once a monk with me in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar. When I asked him about a ticket, he got reminded about the monk life again. He is thinking about ordaining again and I hope to see him again soon.