In the mid-1960s, while in high school, Bhante Dhammapala discovered the Dhamma. Or rather the Dhammas, as there are a multitude of them. He found commonality with many of the teachings, and discovered, at the age of seventeen that he was Buddhist. He also discovered a hunger for more knowledge and a greater understanding. So he studied.
He studied the many, many, many versions of what was set out as the Dhamma. These versions he found in various translations of the Tipitika, and the commentaries on the Tipitika, and the summaries of the commentaries, and the commentaries on the summaries, and the sub-commentaries on the commentaries, and so on, and so on, and so on. And he found a lot of different ideas on what “Buddhism” is and is not. On what the Dhamma is, and is not. Bhante not only read, he sought out teachers and academics and practitioners to engage in discussion.
He encountered a vast selection of teachings, all attributed to the Buddha, or one of many Buddhas, or a Bodhisatva, or an Arahant, or somebody. These teachings are extensive; these teachings are varied and discordant; these teachings lack internal consistency; and these teachings lack congruence with modern reality. Furthermore, there was a lack of agreement about the most basic, most important aspects of the Dhamma. For many practitioners, the problem seemed to be ignorance, and the solution “Enlightenment.” For others, the problem was “karma” and “rebirth, and the solution was to earn merit. For most of the academics, the problem was “mis-information” and/or an incorrect understanding of the teachings.
It became clear to Bhante that the multitude of teachings are so extensive and so incompatible with each other and with modern that there was no way to consolidate them into a unified doctrine. There was no way to distill a cohesive, effective practice from them. What Bhante eventually took away from all of this intellectual effort was the understanding that, for the historical Buddha, the “problem” is dukkhā. And the solution to the problem is the individual realization of the end of dukkhā.
This doctrine, the fact of dukkhā, rang true, vibrated sympathetically, with Bhante. But for all the reading, for all the questioning of scholars and experts, for all these efforts he found himself no nearer to a personal realization, no nearer to the achievement of the cessation of dukkhā.
Quatrain XXVII, The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door where in I went.
Quatrain XXXII, The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam
There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil through which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed–and then no more of THEE and ME.
Quatrain LXIV, The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam
Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.
Bhante came to understand that realizing cessation of dukkhā will not come from studying texts; does not come from study; can not come from intellectual pursuits alone. Nor could he find any connection between the careful observance of a set of rules or customs, and the diminution of dukkhā. The cessation of dukkhā can only come from practicing the Dhamma. So Bhante set aside the academic and intellectual pursuit of “understanding” and devoted himself to practice, with the intent on “realizing” the Dhamma. Initially he centered his practice on meditation; on “samādhi.” And he sat with Chinese and Japanese Zen masters, and he studied Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and he practiced contemplative meditation in Catholic monasteries and sat, listening silently in Quaker meetings.
But as he practiced, Bhante found the teachings of the Theravāda and Zen schools most congruent with his experience, and through his study and from his interactions with practitioners, Bhante realized the validity of the Dhamma, of the Four Noble Truths, and the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Bhante Dhammapala ordained with a Theravāda bhikkhu from Sri Lanka in 1979. Along with a group of 19 others, he practiced in the forestlands of northern California for two years. However there was extremely little support for a Theravāda saṅgha at that time and place, so the group disrobed, and disbanded, and pursued education and a livelihood. Bhante’s commitment was strong however, and he continued to practice religiously, daily for the next 30 years.
In July, 2011 Bhante re-ordained as a bhikkhu, and set forth as a missionary, taking the Dhamma to the people. A vocation he continues to energetically pursue.