A Charming Glimpse of a Man in Saffron and His Mission

Peter Clothier is the author of "While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man's Heart."

I thought about my late father often as I read "Saffron Days in L.A." Like the author, Bhante Walpola Piyananda, he was "a man of the cloth"--though separated by a vast cultural divide from this Sri Lankan, who has been abbot of the Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, a meditation center in Los Angeles, for the last quarter-century. My father habitually wore the black cassock of an Anglican minister; Piyananda writes of his experiences wearing the saffron of a Buddhist monk. For both, to judge from Piyananda's tales, the cloth was an external mark of difference that distinguished them from other mortals, whether for special respect, or for ridicule or hostility from the ignorant. In Piyananda's case, this means being mistaken frequently for a Hare Krishna, with often hilarious, often humiliating consequences.

But I thought about my father mostly because he saw his work as a priest in an English country parish in much the same way as Piyananda sees his in the metropolis of Los Angeles, as a pastoral practice of ministering not only to the spiritual needs of a particular community but also, often, to their emotional, psychological and moral needs.

These needs turn out to be not much different for the cultural and geographical divide: a marriage falling victim to alcoholism, an unfaithful wife and an emotionally distant father, a rebellious teenager acting up, a colleague of the faith confronting self-doubt or spiritual crisis. At times of such deep need, the cloth attracts the faithful and skeptics alike for comfort, reassurance or forgiveness, whether in the cool aisles of church or temple, or on the streets and byways.

A storyteller gifted with great compassion, wisdom and humor, Piyananda engages us in his pastoral adventures: A trio of punks, drawn by the saffron, assail him with ridicule as a "shaved pumpkin" and a "real live alien" on Venice Beach, only to end up fascinated by his discourse on the ocean as a teaching aid. A woman first gains his innocent attention when she approaches him after meditation with a gift-offering envelope and insists that he open it at once. Acceding reluctantly--and against tradition--to her insistence, he is astounded to find $300 and discovers, only later, from his embarrassed fellow monks, that she is what he quaintly calls a "lady of the night." And so on. The cast of characters is as diverse as the population of the city, red-blooded, true to life--and hurting. They speak to us out of a humanity that is instantly recognizable because it is also our own.

Piyananda is also a canny teacher of the dharma. He grabs our attention with his stories, but as we read further, we realize that there is pedagogical method and organization in his book: It teaches the basics of Buddhism in an orderly progression, from the life story of the Buddha and his discovery of the Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path to enlightenment, to the "four efforts" and "five precepts" that lie at the heart of Buddhist practice, and so on.

No, I'm not about to attempt elucidation of the finer points in this short space. Those curious to know more will find ample satisfaction in Piyananda's book. Enough to say that each point arises from a particular story, which prompts a sermon or a parable judiciously chosen from the sutras, the sacred texts. Thus, the case of an interfering mother-in-law affords the opportunity to explore the "sublime states" (sometimes called the "Four Immeasurables") of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

This kind of writing can get preachy, and Piyananda does not escape entirely from this pitfall. At times, he becomes so deeply engrossed in his exegesis that the story--and its subject--seem for a while to have been forgotten. But not to worry. To compensate, there's a kind of rapturous engagement in the gloss that, if it does not lose us, can carry us along by its almost Talmudic passion for moral argument. By the same token, drawing on the ancient source of centuries-old Buddhist texts, Piyananda's wisdom can seem at times naive or simplistic in his solutions to complex contemporary social problems. But then, I suppose, so can Christian, or any other religious teaching, to the reader who brings along the baggage of an ingrained skepticism toward moral principles. The advice he offers remains fundamentally sound.

One last quibble: As a nonnative speaker, Piyananda occasionally misses on the cadences of idiomatic language. His punks, for example, do not truly sound much like today's street kids. But these are minor distractions in the generally smooth flow of his stories. "Saffron Days" otherwise offers an unusual and charming glimpse into the life of one of those smiling men in saffron robes and his pastoral mission in the heart of a modern Western city.

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