Professor ordained a Buddhist monk- DB pg

Reid Stratton

Gene Biringer is the chair of the Music Theory and Composition Department here at Lawrence. For six weeks last year, he exchanged his academic robes for those of an ordained Buddhist monk.
Biringer was on sabbatical for the 2002-2003 academic year, and spent the first four months of it at intensive meditations retreats, including six weeks in Myanmar at the Hse Main Gon Forest Meditation Center, about 25 miles north of the capital city of Yangon.
Prior to his trip to Myanmar, Biringer had practiced meditation for many years, and had attended numerous 10-day meditation retreats here in America. He took the opportunity a sabbatical affords to attend this much longer and more intensive retreat in Myanmar. Making it into this retreat wasn’t easy, though. In order to even enter Myanmar, Biringer had to be sponsored by the monastery. He used some of the connections he had made during prior meditation retreats to obtain this vital sponsorship. After he made it over that hurdle, however, the rest of the trip was free; all of the food, supplies, and facilities were donated by the people of Myanmar.
A well-known meditation master, Sayadaw U Pandita, led the retreat. One of the most respected Burmese meditation masters, U Pandita also has a reputation for being the fiercest and most demanding. Biringer knew this going in, and in order to intensify his experience further, decided to ordain as a Buddhist monk. U Pandita gave him the name “Kondanna,” which was the name of the youngest of the five ascetics who were the Buddha’s first disciples–and the first of them to become enlightened. “So perhaps there’s hope for his namesake,” Biringer added.
For these six weeks, Biringer and one hundred other participants (30 monks, 70 lay persons) awoke at 3 a.m. each morning to the sound of a suspended, hollow tree trunk being hammered upon by a skinny, frail monk. They had two meals during the day, the second of which ended at 10:30 in the morning. The rest of the time, about 14 hours each day, they spent meditating. They went to sleep around 11 p.m., and awoke 4 hours later to repeat the cycle. For the entire six weeks retreatants followed the traditional Buddhist practice of “noble silence.”
So what happens when you are stuck with yourself all day, every day? Biringer explained that having that kind of time allows you to “relentlessly watch the workings of the mind. In the everyday world we so identify with our minds that it’s difficult to step back and accept that it is not in control of things. Much of the time, we don’t think our thoughts; our thoughts think us. In meditation we have an opportunity to watch this process–to watch our thoughts and emotions arise and pass away, and not get caught up in acting on them or reacting to them.” At times this meant bringing acceptance and equanimity to such difficult physical and emotional conditions as hunger, physical pain, sleep deprivation, anger, judgment, pride, and desire.
Naturally, spending a solid six weeks meditating in such a foreign environment would change a person. Biringer went to Myanmar hoping to both intensify his own meditation and take time to reassess the priorities in his life. After his stay in Myanmar, Biringer says that his “intentions for [his] life have been clarified.”
Little things have changed as well. “I’m able to step back and trust a little bit more,” he says. “I feel more patient and tolerant. I’m able to let the different parts of my life fall into place now, rather than trying to push them around.” Through the example of his fellow monks, Biringer also learned humility. When he first arrived in Myanmar, Biringer knew nothing of the routine of a monk’s life, and had to learn such basics as how to tie his robes, how to do prostrations, and how to accept with gratitude food prepared with a generous heart but in extremely unsanitary conditions. “Meditation is less about having powerful experiences on the cushion than about integrating these smaller things into one’s everyday life and work.”
Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is the bond the Biringer made with the other monks and meditators. One monk in particular, U Oak Ta Ma, really connected with Biringer, despite the fact they could not speak. Their friendship grew out of something more than conversation, and is something that Biringer holds very dearly.
So will Biringer ever return to Myanmar and the Hse Main Gon retreat? He hopes so. “As a professor of music theory, I spend a great deal of time championing the life of the mind and the treasures of art it has produced. But if I have learned anything from my meditation practice, it is that the world of phenomena is a manifestation of something far greater. To keep that relationship in mind is, for me, the key to living a life of purpose and joy.”
Visit to see pictures and learn more about Prof. Biringer’s trip.