Saturday, September 13, 2014

Technical Matters: Ecclesiastical Precints (Sīmā)


     Recently I was recruited as Sangha technical advisor for a new Buddhist ashram to be constructed in the highlands of central Bali. Monasteries can be extremely simple; so with regard to the monastic area of the ashram, the only technical advice really required concerns the formal ecclesiastical precinct, or sīmā. So lately I've been brushing up on the subject of sīmās.
     According to the Pali text Vinaya Mahāvagga, in the chapter on Uposatha, monks were uncertain as to how to know whether they were in the same congregation as other monks living nearby—that is, whether or not they should perform formal acts of the Sangha together. They brought this matter to the Buddha, who said, "Bhikkhus, I allow an ecclesiastical precinct (sīmā) to be authorized. And thus, bhikkhus, should it be authorized: First, boundary markers (nimittā) should be announced—pabbatanimittaṁ (a mountain or hill), pāsāṇanimittaṁ (a rock), vananimittaṁ (a forest or grove of trees), rukkhanimittaṁ (a single tree), magganimittaṁ (a path or road), vammikanimittaṁ (a termite mound), nadīnimittaṁ (a river or stream), udakanimittaṁ (any body of water)…." And after this a formal act of the  Sangha is conducted to authorize the new precinct.
     There are a few other kinds of sīmā that are more or less "automatic," and do not require a formal act to authorize them. For example, monks living within the boundaries of a village or town may use those boundaries as a gāmasīmā, or "village sīmā." Monks living in a remote forest area may use an automatic sīmā with a radius of seven abbhantaras, an abbhantara allegedly being a unit of measurement about 14m in length. Also, monks completely surrounded by water may use a kind of water sīmā with a radius equivalent to the distance a man of average strength can fling water in all directions. (I once used this sort of sīmā in Yokohama Bay, in Japan; the sayadaw I was with had a boat rented so we could do uposatha inside a valid sīmā.)


an illustration from ven. U Silananda's book,
showing a kind of water sima
(the circle around the raft represents the sima boundary,
defined by the distance a man of average strength 
can fling water in all directions)

     All the monks who live within the same agreed-upon boundaries are considered to be of one congregation, and are thus required to participate in the same formal acts, or at least to agree to them. (Interestingly, the main definition of a schism, or saṅghabheda, is a situation in which two separate communities of monks perform separate formal acts within the same sīmā.) Thus it is clear that a sīmā was a kind of parish—the size of some of the allowable boundary markers (a mountain, a forest) indicates this, as does the fact that the maximum allowable size for a sīmā is three yojanas on a side; so assuming purely for the sake of argument that a yojana equals 15km, the maximum allowable ecclesiastical precinct or parish would be about 2000 square kilometers, or 780 square miles. This maximum limit is to prevent monks from being unable to arrive easily at the congregation place within a single day. There is another rule which specifies that a sīmā may not be divided by a river unless there is a permanent means of crossing it, such as a bridge or ferry. This also is to ensure that monks living within the sīmā can reach the scene of a formal act without undergoing an ordeal.
     At the other end of the scale, the minimum allowable size is just big enough to allow 21 monks to sit together. This is because the largest formal act of the Sangha (called abbhāna) requires a minimum of 21 monks to participate in it. But despite this relatively tiny minimum size, still it is clear that the original purpose of a sīmā was to be a territory or "home turf" determining which monks were members of the same community.
     Ironically though, if one goes to a monastery in Myanmar one will find that a sīmā, or thein, usually refers not to any bounded territory within which a community of monks resides, but rather to a single building, the monastery's congregation hall—which, as often as not, has zero monks residing there. So the average ecclesiastical precinct has come to have a total population of zero. This situation is the inevitable result of corruption in Vinaya, which in this particular case is largely due to a peculiar glitch in the monastic rules themselves, unforeseen by the ancient formulators of the Theravadin monastic code.
     This appears to be an opportune point at which to point out that this article is not intended to be a comprehensive exposition on sīmās. As far as I know, no such comprehensive exposition exists in the English language, unless maybe it is in volume III of the English translation of the Vinayamukha, authored by the Thai Sangharāja ven. Vajirañāavaroraso. The definitive work in Burmese is considered to be a book entitled သိမ် သင်တန်း (Thein Thintann), by ven. Sayadaw U Sīlānanda. Otherwise, curious monks should consult the Vinaya itself and its commentaries, the latter especially with regard to how to do the boundary marker announcements. The main purpose of this article is to discuss how the concept of sīmās has been corrupted, and how the Sangha can cope with the corruption in order to keep things legal and "ritually pure." Consequently this article may be of little or no interest to laypeople. 
     All or almost all ecclesiastical acts in Burmese monasticism have become corrupt, and the situation appears to be only slightly better in Thailand; I'm not sure what it's like in Sri Lanka, but I would guess that it's not so good there either. But the fact that a Sangha's "home territory" has shrunk down to a single building which may be home to nobody is not entirely the fault of the Burmese, or the Thais. It's due in part to the likelihood that ancient Indian monks did not realize that Buddhism would exist for more than 2500 years, and that the boundary markers of sīmās could be forgotten or could even disappear altogether, with no way of knowing whether there is or is not a pre-existent sīmā in a given place, and no convenient way of eliminating one if there is one. A sīmā has no expiration date, even though its boundary markers may have been trees, roads, ponds, or termite mounds that ceased to exist centuries before. 
     The establishment of a new sīmā, as mentioned above, involves first naming all the boundary markers in all (eight) directions; but although there is a formal act for abolishing an old sīmā, it does not mention any boundary markers. The key words in the act of abolishment are simply, in Pali, "That sīmā agreed upon by the Sangha as the area of common communion, of one uposatha observance—that sīmā is abolished as the area of common communion, of one uposatha observance." The assumption is that the boundaries of the sīmā to be abolished are known, and that by performing this formal act within those known boundaries, the act is accomplished. There is no provision for invisible, forgotten, ancient sīmās
     The Vinaya explicitly specifies that no new sīmā may be authorized which overlaps with an old one. Such a sīmā is invalid. Consequently, especially in Asia, before a new sīmā is established, a very complicated ritual is performed to ensure that there are no invisible, pre-existing sīmās overlapping with the intended new one, which might invalidate it. This ritual is very labor intensive, and is by far the most difficult part of creating a new sīmā.
     The way it is done in Burma is that the entire ground which will contain the new "precinct" is divided up into rectangles a few feet on a side, and a formal act of abolishment is performed inside each rectangle, just in case an ancient, invisible sīmā is there. Thus new sīmās tend to be scarcely bigger than the area of a single building; dividing up 2000 square kilometers into little rectangles and doing formal chanting in each one simply is not feasible.
     Of course, an obvious solution to this problem would be to change the words of the formal act, stating that any sīmā existing within such and such boundaries is officially abolished. There may be some Sanghas that have actually tried this. But the trouble is that conservative Asian theras may consider such a deviation from the actual words of the Vinaya to be invalid; and if a sīmā is suspected to be invalid, all formal acts conducted within that sīmā, including the ordinations of new monks, could also be suspected of invalidity. A sīmā must be like Caesar's wife—above suspicion. Thus a new ecclesiastical precinct must have two qualities: it must be valid according to Vinaya, and it must also be uncontroversial and acceptable to as many monks as possible, preferably all of them. If Burmese sayadaws consider Thai sīmās to be invalid, or if Thai ajahns consider Burmese ones to be invalid, or Western monks consider both types to be invalid, it simply breeds problems. So it's best to be as conservative as possible when making sīmās. 
     As it turns out, I am one of those aforementioned Western monks who considers most sīmās in Burma and Thailand to be pretty much invalid. The situation has to do not with abolishing old sīmās, or with the tininess of new ones, but with the boundary markers used, the nimittā
     For some bizarre reason that I can only begin to guess at, the standard method for establishing a new sīmā in Myanmar is as follows: After any old sīmā is abolished (which abolishment also may be invalid, although I'll get back to that), holes dug where the boundary markers are to be are filled with water, again and again, until the ground is saturated and the water doesn't immediately seep into the ground and disappear. Then the formal act is conducted after declaring these holes full of water as udakanimittā, or bodies of water used as boundary markers. A few hours later the water is gone, and the Burmese set up marble or concrete posts to show where the real boundary markers are supposed to be. But of course the boundary markers have evaporated, and are nonexistent. There used to be an ancient commentary which specified that any water boundary marker should have water in it all year round, like a pond or a well, in order for it to be a valid marker. The official Theravadin commentary, however, rejects this, claiming that a water boundary may be nothing more than a temporary mud puddle that animals have wallowed in. (It is interesting, and justifiable, that the venerable author of the Vinayamukha declared the orthodox commentator to be "shameless" for having said this.) Clearly, in order for something to be a boundary marker or nimitta it should not only not be easily movable, it should not be invisible! This is simply common sense. Consequently, at my own ordination at a Burmese monastery in California, I disregarded the nonexistent water nimittā and relied on one of those automatic sīmās, like maybe the seven-abbhantara one. 
     Based on what I have been told, the situation in Thailand is hardly better. I have been informed that boundary markers in Thailand are often pāsāanimittā, or rock markers. The thing is, though, that the rocks are the size of cannonballs, and are buried in the ground where no one can see them—with quasi-markers similar to the ones the Burmese used to show where the small, invisible rocks are supposed to be. Again, it is hardly to be expected that a boundary marker which nobody can see would be a valid marker. Also there is the issue of how small a rock can be and still be a valid nimitta. Obviously, it should be large enough not to be easily moved, unlike a pebble or a cannonball. The commentary suggests the size of an ox as reasonable, although the size of an elephant would make the rock a hill, not just a rock. Hills are allowable markers too, though. Better too big than too small.
     I remember once a Western monk I knew mentioning that at one Western monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition the Sangha used big concrete blocks as boundary markers for their sīmā. He considered this to be invalid, not considering concrete to be rock, or any of the other allowable kinds of markers. But it seems to me that concrete is pretty clearly a kind of artificial rock—man-made, but still rock. So if it's too big to be moved, I would consider it to be valid. But the fact that some monks would consider it invalid may be sufficient reason for seeking a different kind of marker. Again, a sīmā must be above suspicion.
     All in all, the best, most uncontroversial nimitta to use would be a tree. It's clearly allowable in accordance with the ancient Indian texts, and nobody is going to argue with it. One just doesn't argue with trees. The only limitation is that it must be a kind of tree with its hardest wood, its heartwood, on the inside; in other words, bamboo and palm trees are not allowable rukkhanimittā. And banana trees, having no hard wood at all, are completly out of the question. (Incidentally, the new sīmā planned in Bali will be completely surrounded by a moat, and thus will have water nimittā all the way around. I've never seen a sīmā like that before; and considering that the congregation hall will be designed like a temple besides, if it ever materializes it will be very cool. My idea is to enter the hall by crossing a narrow bridge and passing between two fires—a symbolic purification thing. But I digress.)
     It may be assumed that Theravada Buddhist monasteries being constructed in non-Buddhist Western countries need not bother with abolishing any ancient, invisible sīmā before establishing a new one, considering that it is extremely unlikely that there have ever been sīmās officially established there before modern times. If this is the case, then I don't see any good reason why new Western monasteries should not establish sīmās which encompass the entire monastery, in accordance with the original purpose of sīmās. On the other hand, there is still the issue of conservative Asian monks suspecting the validity of a new sīmā established without making sure there are no old ones already established there. For example, some monks consider sīmās established even in the dispensations of prehistoric Buddhas to be still potentially valid. If so, then no place on earth, including the continent of Antarctica, would be guaranteed of having no invisible ancient sīmā which could muck up (invalidate) the establishment of a new one. Also, it is known that monastic Buddhist missionaries came to western North America with a Chinese expedition well over a thousand years ago, long before Columbus ever discovered the place; so in North America at least there may actually be a few invisible ancient sīmās. But in my opinion most Sanghas in countries that have never been Buddhist needn't worry too much about ancient sīmās, and may as well establish new ones without going through the laborious abolishment rituals beforehand. But doing the abolishment may be the only way to create 100% confidence in the most conservative of Asian theras. As for myself though, I'm way too skeptical ever to arrive at 100% confidence in anything.
     As mentioned above, Burmese Sanghas divide up the area intended for a new sīmā into little rectangles, and chant the formal acts of abolishment inside each rectangle. In ven. U Sīlānanda's definitive Burmese book, he points out that since the smallest possible sīmā is just large enough to accommodate 21 sitting monks, the rectangles for abolishment need be no smaller than this. This used to make good sense to me, and seemed to make the abolishment process easier…until I realized that there is one complication with it. What if the area of an intended new sīmā really does have an invisible, very small, ancient sīmā contained within it, and what if the rectangles drawn on the ground bisect this small sīmā? Then when the Sangha is doing the formal act of abolishment inside each rectangle, some of the monks may be inside the ancient sīmā, and others outside of it; and thus the formal act may be invalidated by having some of the monks outside the sīmā and an insufficient number within it. A minimum of four bhikkhus must be within the boundaries, and within arm's reach of each other, in order for the formal act of abolishment to be valid. So it seems that in order to avoid this possibility and to ensure that the abolishment of any tiny invisible sīmās is valid, the rectangles should be just big enough for four or five bhikkhus to squat within them and do the ritual ceremonies. Maybe in future if there is ever another Great Council, this glitch in the monastic rules could be straightened out somehow; and maybe that troublesome bhikkhuni issue could be officially settled also. Then again, the monks who participate in Great Councils tend to be too conservative to deal with controversial issues, and content themselves with little more than rearranging Pali punctuation marks.
     There is one other way that I know of for creating a large sīmā without having first to divide up the entire area into little rectangles, and that is to establish a gāmasīmā, or village parish. This is done sometimes in Myanmar. The way it is done is to have the government officially declare the precints of the monastery to be its own village. This may work in a Buddhist country like Myanmar, but whether politicians in Western countries would give enough of a damn officially to declare a Buddhist monastery its own village is another matter. It may be worth a shot, though. One disadvantage of a gāmasīmā, however, like all "automatic" sīmās, is that the priviledge of avippavāsa does not apply, that is, the right of any bhikkhu inside the sīmā to be separated from any of his three robes at dawn without committing a nissaggiya pācittiya offense. But nowadays even strict and "exemplary" bhikkhus tend not to follow such rules about being with all three robes at dawn, etc. The Byzantine complications of Theravadin monastic discipline render corruption and laxness a virtual inevitability in the Sangha. But still, the validity of ordinations is a relatively important issue, so all this stuff about precincts and little rectangles may not be totally irrelevant.    


A pseudo sima marker, 
showing where the real sima marker is supposed to be



Saturday, September 6, 2014

13 Days in the Life


     I heard the news today oh boy
     About a lucky man who made the grade… (—the Beatles)

     For most of the year 2000 I lived alone under a huge rock ledge called Wun Cha Ote-hmin, or "Belly Fall Cavern," at the northern boundary of Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park, in northwestern Burma. During that time I kept a journal, one of the main purposes of which was to give me something to refer to in later years, to help me determine to what extent, or whether or not, I was making progress in Dharma. The first of two volumes has already been published on the website nippapanca.org; the following is a "preview" of volume two, being the entries of the first 13 days of the rains retreat of that year.
     For some details on my rock ledge, or cavern, and its surrounding environment, one may refer to the Introduction to "Cave Journal," published on the website. Here I will just add a few details concerning some important characters in this part of the chronicle, a family of "jink birds" who had a nest almost directly above where I sat and slept under the ledge. The villagers called them "water crows"; and although they are about the same size and shape as crows, they aren't crows. Their plumage is a dark indigo blue, with silvery streaks on the head and neck, and the beak is rather smaller than a crow's beak, and if I remember correctly, it is bright orange. Their usual call was a shrill, metallic sound like "jink," hence my name for them; although the male especially (named Jinky) had a more varied repertoire, and would occasionally sit on a tree branch and quietly warble out strange music sounding like some kind of avant-garde jazz. 
     The birds live near water and hunt for small animals, such as frogs, near the water's edge—yet they do not seem well adapted to being predators, since their pheasant-like beak is apparently not designed to tear flesh. Watching them kill and try to eat a frog was a painful spectacle, as they would grab the frog by an arm or leg and beat it against the ground again and again until it was not only dead, but starting to fall apart. They would eat only the pieces that would come off in this way, and leave the rest. They are a very hard-beaked, ruthless kind of bird, and they made it easier to relate to the scientific theory that birds are actually a kind of dinosaur. More than once I felt gratitude that I was bigger than they were; otherwise they would no doubt have beaten me against the ground till I started falling apart. I've looked in a few bird books, but I still don't know what kind of bird they are. If any of you are knowledgeable regarding birds of tropical Asia and have an idea of what their official name is, please let me know.
     Reading this journal while typing it up for publication is sometimes humbling, as it reminds me of the relatively intense motivation for "intensive practice" that I used to have, but now have only vestiges of. On the other hand, I have clearly made some progress since those days. I am in much less of a state of friction with the surrounding Universe, and am calmer and (usually) happier. I suppose that is partly due, ironically, to the chronic dissatisfaction which used to drive me through life, driving me out into Asian forests to "wrestle with the devil in the wilderness." Practice has its results, like everything else does. Anyway, the rest is what I wrote under the wasp-infested ledge under the bird nest.  



PLACE: midway between everywhere
and nowhere
DATE: midway between always
and never

7-16 (13:21) Imasmi vihāre ima temāsa vassa upemi (×3). The 1st day of vassa today; it hasn't started out very well. Last night after 22:00 I tried to sit in meditation, but it was still too hot, & the sweat began flowing immediately. So I gave up & lay down in anger to go to sleep, but lying on my right side was too hot, & the sweat continued flowing. Had to go to sleep last night lying on my back, as it radiates heat more efficiently & is slightly cooler. Had several long, complicated dreams last night; in one I was the assistant to a garbage man (influenced no doubt by my thinking last night about a garbage man I met once); in one I was a college student who went to an on-campus snack bar & ordered a large chocolate milkshake, then spoke semi-flirtatiously w/ the girl behind the counter, & briefly discussed art; & in the last one the bamboo screen covering problem wasp nest #1 had to be taken down for some unremembered reason, so I was warning people to beware of the wasps, as the nest was very large; a blonde woman didn't heed my warnings & apparently thought they wouldn't sting her, so she kept getting closer & closer, trying to get a good look, until finally her face was very near the nest, whereupon the wasps came out & stung her several times on the face & neck. Cameo appearances were made in that dream by my father, &, if I remember correctly, the actress Bernadette Peters. Anyhow, I got up in the morning & tried to meditate, but was unsuccessful, partly because I had to get up & go relieve an attack of diarrhea. Then the weather-induced anger returned, as the rising sun had resumed blazing. Went for almsround in Kuzeit & received lots of unappetizing food—the people don't like to offer peanuts & beans (i.e., good food) on festival days, & instead offer things like bamboo shoots & icky glop that I would rather not even look at, much less eat; received so much food in fact that my bowl was full & I had to turn back before even reaching the main group of people, which I'm sure they didn't like. Returned to the cave & fanned myself for about 15 minutes to partially dry the sweat, then hunkered down behind my umbrella to stay out of the sun's fiery blaze, half-heartedly picking at the unappetizing food, stopping once or twice to fan my sweat some more. My mood steadily deteriorated as the day steadily got hotter, indulging in much disgusted bitching & moaning to myself about how the monsoon season here is even hotter than the hot season, & wondering why I do this shit to myself. After washing the bowl & my perpetually stinky upper robe I lay down for about 2 hours, fanning myself & feeling slightly sick. It's probably just borderline heat prostration, altho I think it could possibly be the onset of another bout of malaria. Now it's gotten relatively windy, & has clouded up a little, so it's not quite so hot, & I am not quite so disgusted w/ the universe. But, I really am fed up w/ blazing sun, sweltering heat, dripping sweat, & bloodsucking flies. I could be at a comfy place in town reading lots of books, & even getting a cheese sandwich w/ my food now & then; but for some reason I want to do this shit to myself.
     (20:24) Critter Update: There are 3 baby jink birds in the nest this time around, & the parents are hard at work trying to keep them fed. Today there was a large stick insect, the tail of a lizard, & what appeared to be the head of a baby rat littering the ground beneath the nest—evidently baby jink birds are fussy w/ their food. I actually saw the baby rat being killed. A parent jink bird found a rat nest in a crevice over by the (now dry) waterfall, grabbed a baby, & flew over the pond w/ it while the mother rat squeaked in alarm. The baby made a few attempts to get away, but was eventually beaten to death against the ground & torn into pieces. Shortly thereafter the mother rat was running around inside the cave w/ a different baby in her mouth, looking for a new hiding place. Compassion for little rats. As for the wasp situation, some gentlemen came today to pay their respects on the 1st day of "Lent," & at least 2 of them were stung, one of them by a nest that, as far as I know, had never stung anyone before. It's directly above the path & not easily avoidable, which is not good. On the somewhat morbid bright side, on the other hand, most of the nests don't look much bigger than they were a month ago. This is because there is a different kind of wasp that is preying upon the larvae of the paper wasps. They infiltrate a nest somehow & pull larvae out of their cells; if a larva is big, the wasp flies away w/ it, but if it's small, the wasp just drops it & pulls out another one. Most of the paper wasp larvae appear to be dying in this way; some nests have very few pupae. Most of the larvae that fall to the ground are collected by jink birds & taken up to the nest, w/ most of the remainder being eaten by rats & ants. Lately when I do walking meditation at night 2 little bats that fly in tandem flutter & swoop around my legs, which is rather distracting. I presume they are attracted to the mosquitoes which are attracted to my blood. Meanwhile, down at the pond, the mysterious turtle is still there (I don't know how it could go elsewhere, unless it is a kind of turtle that is skillful at climbing steep terrain). There are relatively few tadpoles left—most of them have either metamorphosed or been washed down into the creek to become fish food. A wilderness is a battlefield. Life requires death. So why do I love forests & nature? Maybe it's irrational animal instinct.

7-17 (13:56) Ah, semi-luxury…the weather cooled down somewhat & there was a brief shower yesterday evening, & so far today it's been overcast, relatively breezy, & occasionally sprinkly. At midday it was almost cool enough to be comfortable. I realize, tho, that my dualistic preferences are just prolonging my stay in Sasāra. Comfort is better than discomfort, contentment is better than misery—Bah! Rubbish!* Clearly, nondualism & no preferences are much better than dualistic preference. (humor)
     (17:11) Surprise, surprise, meditation isn't going very well today. Possibly as much as half of the last sit was occupied w/ truly perverted & unarousing sexual fantasizing. The main problem now seems to be lack of enthusiasm & motivation for practice. Also lack of momentum. Kamma is momentum. 
     (18:29) Further tragedy in the rat family—When I was over at the pee pot I suddenly noticed a baby rat running up the slope into the cave. Then I heard a commotion down below & saw a brown snake about 4 feet long tumbling down the slope w/ the mother rat chasing after it. The snake threw itself into the pond, & the mother rat jumped in also, in hot pursuit—possibly because the snake had one of her babies; I couldn't see well enough to tell. The snake looked large enough to eat the mother rat under ordinary circumstances, but she was being desperately ferocious in an attempt to protect her children. One of the babies ran north toward the dry waterfall, & a jink bird swooped down & grabbed it. The baby squeaked in distress, & the mother started to hurry toward it, but she was too late & too far away; the jink bird flew away w/ it, beat it to death, & started tearing it apart, just as w/ the one last night. The other jink bird was on the alert, but another baby was able to make it to the shelter of some rocks in time. More compassion for little rats. They're really not bad—they almost never mess w/ my stuff, plus they're kind of cute—sandy brown little forest rats w/ long hind legs. They remind me that I am fortunate that my main causes for complaint are nothing more than hot weather & feeling slightly unwell, plus being foolish in general. Existing.

* Good is better than bad—what nonsense! 

7-18 (12:02) Last night while looking at the TBGL [i.e., the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, the text of which I had written down in a little notebook] my thinking mind came to a screetching halt upon reading the following words:
     "…there are no two such things as existence and non-existence."
How can such a statement be understood? Nevertheless, it seems to be pretty much in agreement w/ one of my working hypotheses: There are no two such things as Everything & Nothing. Everything is Nothing. Incidentally, the Kalahavivāda Sutta says that existence & non-existence (bhava & vibhava) are founded in phassa—"contact," or maybe "stimulation"—apparently a mental state in this context. 2 other passages that I lingered over last night were,
     "The non-created, self-radiant Wisdom here set forth, being actionless, immaculate, transcendent over acceptance or rejection, is itself the perfect practice." and,
     "By not taking the mind to be naturally a duality, and allowing it, as the primordial consciousness, to abide in its own place, beings attain deliverance."
But all the names like "Wisdom," "mind," "primordial consciousness," etc., seem too positive, too suggestive of positive existence. As it says near the beginning,
     "Although the One Mind is, it has no existence."
The Great One Mind/Zero Mind. To be completely undifferentiated is to be Voidness. And bare consciousness is completely undifferentiated. The TBGL is exceedingly profound, & thus I don't understand it well enough.
     After writing that the rats almost never mess w/ my stuff, last night one of them chewed up my bowl bag. Will require a few hours of sewing to fix it.
     This morning I saw a veritable crowd of poachers on their way into the so-called "national park," taking advantage of the non-rainy weather. They are like big brown flightless jink birds. The human race seems to be a hopeless case—we wallow & roll in Sasāra because we want to wallow & roll in Sasāra. Intensely want. As the Good Book says, "To the large brown flightless jink bird wisdom appears as foolishness (and vice versa)." (—Californians 5:18) Life requires death. Wisdom requires folly. Happiness requires suffering.
     Walking thru the fields to Kuzeit nowadays involves wading thru a sea of waist-deep weeds w/ occasional sesamum plants interspersed. The farmers in these parts are apparently not particularly keen on cultivation (or hard work in general). The biomass of the fields looks to be about 80% weeds. Compare & contrast w/ farms in Japan, where the fields look as tho they've been manicured & sterilized, w/ all the crops perfectly spaced in neat rows, & w/ plastic sheeting on the ground & shiny ribbons stretched above the plants to vibrate & hum in the wind, & thus scare the birds away.

7-19 (18:49) Another frequently thought thought to supplement those recorded in the previous volume of this journal:
     "'Big rain here during the rainy season' they said. 'Big rain, Big rain.'"
     I sit under the mosquito net fanning myself, w/ little Anopheles mosquitoes all around me trying to get in.

7-20 (11:25) This morning while returning from my daily pre-almsround dump I was entering the cave & slowly easing my way past problem nest #2, when a wasp—probably not a paper wasp, I think, but one of the larva-stealing kind—zipped away from one of the nests there & bounced off my shoulder, causing my heart to skip a beat. I froze, & a moment later wasps began angrily boiling out of the nest. I don't think it was because of me, but I was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time, so I turned & fled as fast as I could go, bloodying one of my feet as I bounded at full speed down the steep, boulder-strewn slope. But, I still had to get into the cave, so I collected myself & made a 2nd attempt, which was successful. Got ready for almsround & set out for the village still slightly shaky w/ adrenalin. Upon my return, while carefully & slowly moving past PN2 I suddenly heard a loud buzz near my head, causing my face to contort w/ fear/dread; but, altho a few wasps have bounced off of me I haven't been stung even once today—in fact, I haven't been stung since the Bad Day of 6-15. Several visitors have been stung since then, tho.
     On my way to the village this morning saw plenty more poachers heading into the forest. One fellow, when he saw me coming along the creek, began singing loudly, apparently to demonstrate his lack of regard for monks, & Buddhism in general. I experienced feelings of hate, & contempt, & disgust w/ human animals. They truly are animals, too—but then again so am I. Well, maybe not truly are; as the TBGL would say, "human animals" is merely an illusory conception of mind.
     "The Qualityless and Formless" is also a mental concept.
     While walking back from the village it occurred to me that lately my meditative practice has become virtually Rinzai Zen, w/ the TBGL being my koan. I have been in a quandary for days trying to clearly understand it; trying to clearly understand the Primordial Consciousness which is, yet does not exist; trying to understand what transcends understanding. Going around w/ a confused & serious look on my face, trying to see through Sasāra, trying to penetrate. Ultimately struggling in vain? I don't know. Ha, maybe this strange mental state I'm in is just a symptom of pre-malaria. 
     This morning after lunch I noticed something largish and dark making ripples in the water near the edge of the pond. Couldn't tell what it was from up here; thought maybe it was a big black butterfly. When I went down there I saw that it was a baby jink bird, which presumably had fallen out of the nest & tumbled all the way down the hill into the pond. It was still alive, & after some 2nd thoughts I fished it out of the water & brought it back into the cave. I put it on the sand directly below the nest in the hope that one of its parents would see it & carry it back up to the nest, but, of course, neither of them did. So after racking my brains for a while I tied my plastic drinking cup to the end of a long bamboo pole, put the baby into the cup, made a brief prayer to any angels that might be willing to help, & lifted the baby way, way up to the nest. Getting the baby out of the cup was rather difficult, but after repeated & very careful shaking of the pole it finally fell out onto the rim of the nest, where it lay precariously balanced. So, I took the pole down, quickly removed the cup, & then lifted the pole back up & nudged the baby farther into the nest. It was a difficult & risky operation, as the nest is about 18 feet up, & for the 2nd time this morning I was a bit shaky w/ adrenalin. The little bird seems to be alright now, altho it may just fall back out again. Ironic that I consider it proper to save lives, & at the same time consider life to be an affliction. Oh, well, maybe the merit from this deed will to some degree counteract the demerit from all the vampire flies I've been unconscientiously smashing this year (one more last night). It occurs to me that maybe I shouldn't even write about helping birds. As Jesus says, it is better to keep one's good deeds secret than to advertise them. So, I suppose I shouldn't tell anyone about it, & if anyone else reads this, well, reader, I share my merit with you. Ahmya, ahmya, ahmya. I didn't do it for merit, tho; I did it because I felt sorry for the bird. (13:09—more than an hour & a half of writing.)

7-21 (14:30) A baby bird fell out of the nest again a few minutes ago. Don't know if it was the same one as yesterday. The replacement operation has already been effected, & ran much more smoothly than yesterday's. I sincerely hope this won't become a daily occurrence. It may just be the harsh way of jink birds to hatch more chicks than will survive, w/ the smallest & weakest eventually being jostled out of the nest; but how can I let it lie there on the sand 8 feet in front of me w/o doing anything to help it w/ its problem? They're almost fully fledged now, & their eyes are open. Not much bigger than a newly hatched chicken. The nest looks much too small for 3 half-grown jink birds—I think I may become a foster parent in the near future.
     (20:02) The 2 main preoccupations of animals are personal survival & reproduction; and, naturally, these are the 2 main preoccupations of the human animal. A bhikkhu is supposed to be more or less indifferent to the 1st, & is to absolutely avoid the 2nd. All desire for a mate, for sex, or for children is essentially blind, irrational animal instinct w/ some cultural conditioning & habit added as reinforcement. A bhikkhu is a man trying to stop being an animal. 
     A fundamental problem, tho, is that perception itself, which is the very foundation of all human thinking & so-called "reason," derives from irrational animal reflex & instinct. To perceive (believe, attribute significance to) anything is to be in the grip of semiconscious animal mind. Perception is semiconscious animal mind. But, on the other hand, "semiconscious animal mind" is itself a false perception. "False perception" is also a false perception. 

7-22 (12:17) Well, I woke up this morning to find the baby jink bird lying on the ground in front of me again. Probably the same one as yesterday; obviously its nest mates don't like it very much. It seems futile to keep putting it back into the nest again & again, so today I switched to plan B & started trying to be a surrogate mother jink bird. Made a nest out of my smallest clay pot & collected wasp larvae from the floor of the cave (the ones that aren't dead are utterly doomed anyway once they fall from the nest, regardless of what I do or don't do to them; nevertheless, feeding them to a baby bird is still technically depriving them of life, & is against Vinaya). The problem is that the baby bird doesn't trust me, & when I try to feed it it just cowers at the bottom of the nest in fear. So, given the choice of letting it starve or force-feeding it, I strangely & perhaps foolishly chose to force-feed it. I open its mouth w/ my fingers & stuff a few larvae into it, whereupon the little guy falls into a kind of swoon, lying motionless w/ the food still in its mouth; after a while, sometimes several minutes, it revives & swallows the food. Often it is the sound of a parent at the nest up above & the hungry peeping of its siblings that causes it to revive. I hope it gets used to me soon, as I don't want to force-feed a bird 12 times a day for the next 2 weeks. (14:17) Was hoping to receive some fish or meat during almsround, but got no suitable jink bird feed. On my way back from the village I happened to meet U Thein Maung & told him about the bird situation, asking him to bring me some unsalted dry shrimp or fish. He said he'd come, but he showed up a little while ago empty handed, saying there was no shrimp at the market, & suggesting that I just dump the bird somewhere. What would an arahant have done—would he simply have let the baby bird die of exposure at the edge of the pond 2 days ago? Depends on the arahant, I suppose. 
     I have done almost no meditation so far today, due mainly to self-inflicted difficulties. I am a fool.
     (21:15) After devoting the daylight hours of this day to a very stressed-out little bird, continually searching the ground for fallen wasp larvae w/ which to feed it, continually trying to get the little being to eat what little I could find, shortly before dusk I rested from my labors & sat down to meditate, & at around 20:30 I got up to take a pee, lit a candle to see my way to the pot, & what do I see? Another baby jink bird lying on the ground before me—causing me to say to myself, "Another one. Jesus." (Is this some kind of practical joke? Am I on Candid Camera?) It seems to be the hard, harsh jink bird way for the biggest, strongest, most psychopathic chick to push the others out of the nest. If so, I don't want to put tonight's victim into the little clay pot nest w/ last night's victim, as one of the victims will simply revictimize the other one. So, what to do? Ignore the new one & let it starve? Construct another nest & try to scrounge up enough food to raise 2 jink birds to maturity? Put it back up into its nest & hope for the best?—Maybe. I shouldn't spend another rainy season in this cave, if only to avoid the problem of falling baby jink birds. Everything is Dukkha. Tonight's little victim sleeps upon the sand; & a certain selfish, heartless part of myself secretly wishes that mother rat will find it there & have her revenge upon jink birds, thus neatly solving the problem. Or, messily solving it—but solving it anyhow. I think there is a good likelihood that I will dream about birds tonight.

7-23 (19:07) Today's bird dukkha was worse than yesterday's. Yesterday afternoon the little jink bird in the clay pot started trusting me, sort of, & eagerly accepted my food, opening its mouth wide for it. It ate everything I had to give it, which unfortunately wasn't much. This morning also it was inclined to accept food from me. But after lunch, for reasons of its own, it started fearing me again & went into a long fear-induced trance. I couldn't even force-feed it today, as it would simply spit out whatever I put into its mouth, even if I poked the food way back. It probably ate more yesterday than today; & I doubt it will survive, especially so long as it fears the only friend it's got in this world. In retrospect, maybe I should have left it in the water 3 days ago. My efforts are merely causing it to die a slow death instead of a fast one. As for the one that fell out of the nest last night, it is larger & more developed than "my" bird, & is able to hop around a bit; so, after a few futile endeavors on my part, which need not be described here, it eventually hopped off the ledge & tumbled down to a flat, rocky place near the pond, where I assume it still is. Surprisingly, the parents continued feeding it; in fact it received much more food today than the one still up in the nest. Presumably the parents instinctively "know" that the one on the ground is extremely vulnerable, & needs to eat as much as possible in order to grow & mature & get off the ground as fast as possible. I doubt that it will survive, tho—there are carnivorous animals, including a large civet, that regularly prowl around the pond at night. I considered bringing it up into the cave at night, but it seems as tho all my efforts to help just make things worse. Let nature take its course. Experiencing frustration, exasperation, & even a little despair over the little bird who is terrified of the only being willing to feed it; & sadness when seeing the healthy, well-fed one sitting completely helpless & vulnerable on the ground near the pond. Nature is truly a horrible thing. It seems to require so much misery & death. Life for one means death to another, & vice versa. Sometimes one must simply look on w/ compassion & make no effort to help.
     Needless to say, my meditative practice has been completely derailed for 2 days in a row. The prospects for tomorrow don't look so good either.
     I have often wondered if I am in a situation similar to that of the baby jink bird in the pot—are there beings vastly superior to me who try to help, w/ me being too blind & idiotic to let them, or even to begin to comprehend the situation? I beg you to please be patient w/ me, O Venerable Ones. Please have mercy upon me a sinner.

7-24 (11:05) My baby bird was still afraid of me this morning & continued to refuse my offerings of food. So, it became obvious that it was going to die so long as its parents didn't feed it; & so I made one last attempt to save it, by putting it back up into the nest again in the hope that it would at least get something to eat before being pushed out again. Everything seemed to go smoothly—I lifted it up on the pole, & it slid out of the cup right into the nest…but w/in just a few seconds I saw it flop over the rim of the nest & plummet to the ground. The best explanation I can give is that its big, cruel brother or sister immediately shoved it back out again. I picked it up off the ground, whereupon it went into some feeble convulsions & lapsed into unconsciousness. I put it down on the rock near its earthbound sibling, & it died shortly thereafter, if not while still in my hand. Apparently when it fell out of the nest it landed on a small rock which put a dent into its belly, but I think it probably died more from starvation-induced weakness & sheer fright than from any injury sustained from the fall. During the whole time I was "helping" it it probably considered me to be a big terrible monster continually menacing & threatening it w/ death, which I practically turned out to be, despite my good intentions. Later on I helped the jink bird family one last time by removing the dead chick from the vicinity of its former sibling & tossing it into the pond (from whence I originally retrieved it), & now it floats in the water on its dead side. Ah, well, at least its problems are over now. May it have a good rebirth—if, that is, the affliction of rebirth is really necessary. I do hereby abandon all efforts to save baby jink birds. Let nature & the law of kamma take their respective courses. 
     Sometimes kamma simply will not allow one to be relieved of one's suffering, regardless of external help. Kamma (habit energy, formative perception) is the Logos, the Creator & Lord of this world. The will of a seemingly diabolical God.
     (18:21) Still feeling occasional urges to (try to) help the baby bird down below, which is now crouching in a rain channel among the boulders. All I'd have to do is take some dental floss &…too much. Already gave my word (& attained some peace of mind by doing so). 
     The metaphysical question I would most like to know the answer to: "What is Reality?" (the metaphysical question)
     The ethical question I would most like to know the answer to: "What should I do?" (the ethical question)

7-25 (12:28) Today is the 37th birthday of Mr. John David Reynolds, altho few people call me that nowadays. When I was much younger than I am now I used to often wonder what my life would be like in the year 2000, at the age of 37. It seemed so far away then; 37 was well into middle age. I could hardly have guessed 20 years ago that I would become a celibate & slightly neurotic Buddhist mendicant hermit, disenchanted w/ the world & w/ myself, living in a wasp-infested cave in a forest in tropical Asia, w/ possibly hundreds of people, mostly female, literally worshipping me. A laboratory technician w/ a relatively lovely wife, a house in the country, a nice car, a big book collection, & maybe a beagle would have seemed a more likely guess. Somewhere in this Universe such a John David Reynolds probably exists.
     Speaking of wasp-infested caves, this morning I discovered a small new paper wasp nest inhabited by 3 medium wasps of a new yellow variety I have never noticed before, attached to the plastic tarp about 6 feet from my mat. 6 feet from the mat is too close for comfort, & besides, when it finally comes time to take the tarp down 3 months or so from now I would rather not have any large wasp nests connected to it; so, I seemed to have little choice but to knock it down w/ the trusty bamboo pole. The material of the nest wasn't as papery as the usual variety; it was translucent & more plasticky. I counted 13 eggs in it. I have been deliberately depriving far too many insects (& insect eggs) of life this year, & also last year. Non-killing is one of the more important rules of discipline. While I'm on the subject of wasps I might as well gratuitously mention that a tree shrew hunting for dropped wasp larvae at the south end of the cave was swarmed & apparently stung this morning. 
     (21:43) The weather was actually comfortable today—almost no sweat. But, received no birthday cards, & aside from the usual daily food, no gifts. Don't plan to go out partying tonight either. 
     I noticed today that despite a very restless mind, making meditation difficult, I've been unusually unlustful lately. No humming vital energy in the area of the loins, & almost no sexual thoughts. The graceful little beauty of Pwingah village still fascinates me when I see her, tho. Dreamed about beautiful women last night, but they kept all their clothes on. (Strangely, I also had another revolutionary political dream, the details of which should not be written down in this country.)

7-26 (15:21) The baby bird up in the nest has been peeping hungrily & very loudly all day long. The sound is high-pitched & piercing, like a metal spoon being rapped against a glass bottle again & again & again & again. The murderous little bastard would be getting fed a lot more if it hadn't pushed both of its brothers out of the nest. The noise is starting to give me a headache. I hate noise, especially the sound of crying babies. 
     Cloudy & hot today. Usually cloudy nowadays.
     (18:04) This morning while I was walking to the village I saw 3 guys wading across the creek packing a bunch of equipment. Guys packing gear into the forest are usually poachers, so I indulged in contemptuousness (atimāna) & said to myself, "Shitheads." Then I noticed that one of them was packing an iron cauldron, which caused me to start thinking that maybe they were from Sine Teh & were coming to help me dye my robes; on the last full-moon day I told a dayaka from Sine Teh that I needed to dye my robes, & that it would require a cauldron. Sure enough, that's who it turned out to be (was overly hasty w/ the "Shitheads" remark), & they didn't come a day too soon, either. My upper robe has faded to a hue somewhere intermediate between lavender & pastel pink, & just last night I noticed that both robes that I wear every day in public* were rather stinky. Wearing a stinky pink robe in public is an embarrassment, & would have been even more so if I had come out of the forest & back into "civilization" w/ it. Actually, the upper robe had been more or less stinky for about 2 months; washing it did not make the stink completely go away. Mildew or something living in the cloth. But, now the color of the robes is much improved, & more importantly, the boiling hot dye made the stink go completely away. I didn't get the shade of brown that I asked for (the upper robe is now sort of a cranberry color—Burmese people seem to think that cranberries are brown), & I got chemical dye instead of vegetable dye as I requested, but I shouldn't make a fuss. May my dayakas get lots of "kutho." 

* It's still way too hot to wear the thick wool outer robe. I don't think I've even unfolded it, much less worn it, in over a month. Haven't worn it since May.

7-27 (05:48) Well, so much for unlustfulness—yesterday afternoon one of my "meditations" consisted almost entirely of romantical fantasizing, followed by some slightly autoerotic behavior, & last night I had my 2nd NE in 2 nights. The dream involved a cute little blonde that I had never met before, & one of the longest French kisses in dream history. In the dream I was a bhikkhu & was travelling around w/ ven. Pakhokku Sayadaw & 2 other monks, plus sayadaw's usual retinue of laypeople. I think the other monks were the same ones that are to accompany Sayadaw, & possibly me, to America next year. 
     (08:23) Could last night's dream have been a warning of danger? America is a dangerous place, especially for me. A land of encouraged sensuality & temptation. For me, avoiding falling back into a state of animality & sexuality is like trying to avoid being sucked into a whirlpool while already slowly spiraling around it. But, I would like to see Dad again, & mooch some more books, & eat pizza, & maybe get high, & maybe look at a few pornographic pictures…ack! I'd be better off staying here & seeing nobody, & having few books, & eating rice & icky bamboo shoots, & taking no stronger drug than "Wild Buffalo," & having nothing more erotic to look at than my own skinny body & the occasional grungy village woman nursing snotty-nosed baby.
     (12:25) It appears that baby jink bird #2 finally cashed in what few chips it had last night. No sign of it at all today. It made the fatal mistake of moving farther & farther away from the cave & nearer & nearer to the lower waterfall, where there is a lot of nocturnal animal traffic. Oh, well. Life requires death. If I help them they die, & if I don't help them they die. So, from now on I should neither help them nor not help them. "Helping" & "not helping" are illusory conceptions of mind. Supposedly.

7-28 (08:11) Today's meal (collected in Kuzeit) consisted of rice, boiled bamboo shoots, peanuts, stir-fried bamboo shoots, corn, bamboo shoot fritters, green mystery glop, bamboo shoots cooked into a cakey mass, & a few boiled chick peas. Selectively targeted on the peanuts & corn. Shouldn't complain about the food. 
     My robes are embarrassingly red now, red enough to be a borderline Vinaya offence. I always ask for brown & usually get red. Struggling against the juggernaut of mindless Burmese tradition. Shouldn't complain about robes & mindless Burmese tradition.
     (16:23) I remember long ago figuring that I ought to be entered upon the Holy Life by the age of 30, to be well under way by the age of 33, & to have everything I want to attain in this life attained by the age of 37 (as the world might end then, or I might at least die). I jumped the gun w/ regard to entering the Holy Life & became a monk at 27. As to whether or not I was well under way at 33, that is difficult to say, as "well under way" is a rather ambiguous term. And now I am 37, & have I attained all that I think I ought to attain? Not hardly! I can't even say w/ any degree of certainty that I am "well under way" now. I have made progress over the past 10 years, tho, or so it seems.
     Despite my practice, despite my philosophical beliefs, despite reading the TBGL again & again, I am still swimming thru a dualistic, pluralistic, perceptual sea of Sasāra. Caught myself today telling a digger wasp, "Some of you guys are good, & some of you guys are bad!" (Have been having problems today w/ one digger wasp in particular.) (Plus ants.) All of you guys are illusory conceptions of mind. Neither good nor bad, nor both nor neither. (I'm starting to get dizzy from blowing ants off this mat.)


an old picture of an emaciated, ascetic me, 
after several months at Alaung Daw Kathapa







Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Deer's Playground


"Expect poison from the standing water." —William Blake's Devil

     I just noticed that a "current events" post hasn't been posted since April, so I reckon it's time to catch up.
     The melodramatic saga of The Bhikkhu Without a Country left off just after a short, yet formidable, fast atop a mountain in Bali. The remainder of my stay in Indonesia was rather mild, and I spent most of my time in town, trying to get as much accomplished with my musical friend Marcus as possible, as we've been working on a kind of musical Dharma project together, (two roughish samples of which may be found on the website nippapanca.org). Aside from this, possibly the most noteworthy occurrences during my stay there was that I got fatter than I've ever been in my life, and for several days, I somehow acquired the rather distracting ability to smell my own nose. After two luxurious months in Bali, I flew back to Burma.
     I spent one month in Rangoon/Yangon with my dear friends, the family of Z. In addition to being dear friends they are also great and generous benefactors to me, and I really have no desire to criticize them on this blog. That being said upfront, I still will remark that staying with them always reminds me of Somerset Maugham stories about English colonists living in Southeast Asia during the days of the British Raj. It's not just them; there appears to be a whole new breed of Western expatriates in Burma—or if they're not new I simply didn't know that they existed until recently. 
     Prominent themes in my thoughts and feelings of Burma are bullock carts creaking down dusty roads, village girls gracefully balancing clay pots on their heads as they walk barefoot to the river or well to fetch water, sampans slowly motoring up and down rivers, faithful Buddhists standing in front of their houses in the morning to offer food to wandering monks, and little kids and village maidens with their faces done up with cosmetic thanakha bark paste so that they look like little witch doctors. Staying with the venerable Z family is more like staying in Marin County, California, than like being in the same country as the bullocks and little witch doctors. Most Western expats appear never to learn the Burmese language, even after years in the country, so they mostly associate with each other, and with Burmese people mainly on business or if they are servants. Otherwise, the few Burmese friends that they have seem to be thoroughly westernized and speak fluent English. The expats live at a standard of living almost beyond the imagination of most of the inhabitants of the country, buy expensive imported food (even the fruit juice is imported), watch tennis on TV, and go to restaurants in which the only Burmese people present may be the serving staff. It is as though they spend most of their time in Burma inside a kind of western bubble, like temperate zone plants protected from the foreign, tropical climate by a special, artificial environment. I don't see that there's anything necessarily wrong with this…but still it seems bizarre. A certain sweet person who I sometimes call the "mem sahib" (which is what British ladies were called in colonial times) has requested that if I write about her lifestyle I should mention that she is happy.
     Speaking of a high standard of living, rents and property values in Burma, presumably still a fourth-world country, have skyrocketed into the stratosphere since the grand opening to the West, and continue to skyrocket higher. I've been told that land, bare dirt, in some of the better suburbs of Rangoon may sell for $85 US, or more, per square foot, or approximately $3.7 million per acre. A simple bungalow in Rangoon may rent for $5000 per month, even though it may also flood in the monsoon season, be infested with cockroaches, and have electricity that goes on and off at random. Property values in the less remote areas of Burma have increased twentyfold over the course of a few years. (Meanwhile, the average Burmese family probably earns the equivalent of about $1200 per year.) I've been told that UNICEF pays a rent of $80,000 per month for its headquarters in Rangoon (almost a million dollars a year), for no better reason than a desire to have their headquarters in a stylish neighborhood—thereby lavishly donating UNICEF's funds to rich landlords as well as to poor children. Some of the people who work for NGOs in the new Myanmar, not to mention embassy staffs, live in relative opulence; so those of you who make charitable donations to such organizations might want to investigate a little to see what proportion of the donation goes to the poor, and what proportion to the rich. (In America, I have been told, the rich receive more in charitable handouts than the poor do.)  One more observation on Burmese urban society is that more and more houses are being surrounded by brick walls topped with military-style razor-sharp concertina wire. Those who are making the most money obviously intend to keep what they've managed to rake in.
     One of the great highlights of the month in Rangoon was the privilege of hanging out with two little blonde girls, one seven years old, one four. Once I was requested to read a story to the four-year-old. She asked where I would sit, so I pointed to a chair and said, "How about there?" But she informed me that we couldn't both fit on it, and suggested I read to her on her bed. So I, the bhikkhu, wound up reclining on a bed with a little girl right beside me, reading a story about Girard the dancing giraffe. She didn't understand all the words, but it didn't bother her at all, because understanding the words wasn't really the point of the thing. Afterwards we had a uniquely enjoyable conversation about pink bugs. Later I discovered about this little person that when she plays cards ("go fish"), with me at least, winning or losing is totally irrelevant. In fact, if the game is disrupted before reaching its conclusion it doesn't matter to her at all. The whole point of all of it, as far as I can tell, is simply interacting with another person. I've had relatively little experience with small children since I was one myself; and I don't know if this is an individual character trait, or if children in general go through a stage like this. By comparison, when her seven-year-old sister plays a game, she's out to win.
     But by far the most important event of my visit occurred two days before I left for the north. It started when a friend gave me a small amount of ayurvedic butter infused with "sacred plant medicine" of a non-hallucinogenic variety, because she believed it would be good for me. I took the stuff, and when it was starting to have some effect I met my friend Conor, and mentioned that I'd like to parasitize his cell phone sometime before I left town, as I had a few things to do with Internet, and didn't know if I would have access to it at Migadawun monastery, which is where I was headed. He said something like, "OK, let's do it now," which was not what I had in mind, considering the ayurvedic butter. But, make hay while the suns shines, and all that, so I used the digital aura of his phone to check emails. As is not at all uncommon in Rangoon, the Internet connection was so slow and crummy as to be virtually nonexistent; and I was barely able to read one email, from my brother in America. He was totally distraught, and informed me that our mother had just died. She was 80 years old, and her sense of balance and reflexes were not so good anymore, and she fell down sometimes. I had encouraged her in the past to use a cane, but I think her female pride would not allow that. Anyway, she was in a parking lot, and fell down, and hit her head (I suppose on the pavement), and she died. That's all the information I received about it, and to this day that's still all I know about it.
     So I felt that I really should contact my distraught and weeping brother and find out more if I could, like, was he sure? and if so, what kind of funeral arrangements there would be, and whether or not I should immediately start looking around for some way of flying back to America. With the ayurvedic butter kicking in, I went to Conor, explained the situation, and asked if he could take me somewhere where the Internet might actually be functional. He kindly escorted me to a French restaurant with free wifi, we drank some fruit juice, and I sent an email to my brother asking for more information and consoling him as well as I could. 
     Upon hearing that my mother was dead, my heart was thrown into a strange turmoil. I certainly was not totally unmoved, yet the main thought that bothered me was, Why am I not more bothered than this? It wasn't that I didn't love her, but I didn't cry, or really get upset. In fact I felt a sort of relief in that she was able to leave this world so quickly, painlessly (I hope), and mercifully. I used to worry about her; I used to wonder what would happen if her health became so broken down that someone had to feed her, bathe her, and wipe her behind, and all that. I didn't like at all the idea of her going to a nursing home, and felt that I might be the one who wound up feeding, bathing, and wiping her—which I was willing to do, although it would have been a feat for an ordained monk with no money. As it was, she was pretty much self-sufficient up until the day she fell, hit her head, and suddenly left this world. So very much better than dying slowly in a hospital bed with a plastic tube up one's nose! Along with the other elements of chaos in my chest, there was gratitude that she, who I think was really afraid of death, was allowed to make her exit so easily.
     Still I wondered, is my lack of tears indicative of wisdom, or simply of a cold heart or of being "shut down"? Buddhism teaches that even grief over the loss of a loved one is unskillful, or "bad karma." This particular kind of unwholesome suffering, in addition to being called soka, sorrow, is called macchariya in Pali, which includes any kind of aversion or unhappiness concerned with loss. As the Salla Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta declares, "lamentation is useless." It may seem inhuman and politically incorrect by Western standards, but that, as far as I'm concerned, is totally irrelevant. Buddhist training and wisdom may be part of my lack of tears, but it's almost certainly not the whole story, and that has troubled me.
     Edgar Cayce, in trance, once said that we usually have a strong karmic connection with one of our parents, but rarely with both. If that's the case, my strong karmic connection obviously was with my father. My mother was my mother, who loved me very much, as mothers do; but my father, in addition to being my father, was also a close friend with whom I could communicate deeply, and also my first important guru (—going with Indian lingo, he was just an upaguru, not a satguru). I loved him more than anyone else on earth, with the possible, occasional exception of a young beauty I was passionately in love with; yet even when he died, although I felt a deep, hollow, empty sensation in my chest, like I had never felt before, for about a week, I didn't shed a tear. It's very strange. I've cried over dead dogs before, and I remember once even getting choked up and teary-eyed while watching a claymation version of The Little Prince (it was during the scene in which the snake who speaks in riddles informs the Little Prince that it's time for him to die), but when my own parents die, I don't cry. I've pondered this, and am still not sure exactly why it is. One guess is that crying over little things is a kind of luxury, but when something big happens, like the death of someone close to me, a wiser, or at least more objective, level of consciousness takes possession of this meat puppet I call "myself." That's just a guess though. A soldier may have tender feelings at home, and may dearly love his comrades as brothers, yet on a field of battle he may see one of his dear brothers get his head blown off, and he may simply run over the top of the body as though it were a log of wood. I don't know.
     So anyway, I did my best to scavenge Internet access for the next two days, but heard no further news from my brother. Also, I had no obvious, viable way of getting back to America at very short notice. So I left Rangoon, according to plan, for Migadawun monastery, knowing essentially no more about my mother's death and its aftermath than what I have already related here.


Mother (1933-2014), with little Davey (1963-    ), a long time ago


     Migadawun Monastery was established in the early 1980's, on the western edge of the Shan plateau about 45 miles east of Mandalay (by winding road), mainly as a refuge for Western monks ordained in the Taungpulu tradition who just couldn't stand the blazing, furnace-like heat of Taungpulu country, i.e., central Burma, especially the area around Meiktila, south of Mandalay. It was named after the deer park near Varanasi where the Buddha, according to tradition, delivered his first formal sermon after his enlightenment. The original purpose of the place has almost come to an end, since, as far as I know, I am the last and only Western Taungpulu monk remaining in Burma—the last of my kind, sort of like that last swamp sparrow at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The total number of Western Taungpulu monks on earth is probably only two or three now, four at most. I am sure of only one other, and he has followed the Mahasi tradition practically since his ordination. The last I heard, he was living in Mexico.
     If one looks at this area on a map it may still declare a large area east of the monastery to be a "wildlife refuge"; but long before I first came here in 1993 it had been chopped down, allegedly with the connivance of the Forest Service, except for a smallish last stand of trees used by the Burmese movie industry for filming forest scenes. Within the past few years the brushy wasteland which remained has been, illegally I've been informed, divided up into parcels and sold as real estate; so Migadawun, which had been a forest monastery situated on the outskirts of Yay Chan Oh ("Cold Water Pot") Village, is now being engulfed by some giant real estate amoeba, and now has masonry walls enclosing new properties, some of it topped with broken glass or razor wire, on almost all sides. 
     So inside the monastery boundaries there is still thick forest, and it is relatively quiet, but I suspect there are no more deer (little barking ones the size of German shepherd dogs), and no jackals or mongoose anymore, and since coming here in July I have heard no owls and only one half-hearted nightjar, although they were numerous here just a few years ago. Maybe they died off from trying to perch on razor wire. I would guess that there are still a few cobras though, one of which I saw last year. And I am very sure that there are still myriads upon myriads of mosquitoes, although fortunately no malaria. If one is courageous or foolhardy enough to pee outdoors, one is practically required to pee while marching in place, to keep them from clustering up on one's legs and ankles and feasting on human blood. This trick (of peeing and marching simultaneously) takes a little practice, and I've peed on myself many times in my efforts to answer the call of Nature while feeding as few mosquitoes as possible.
     There are only two of us spending the rains retreat at Migadawun this year, Sayadaw U Vimala being my only companion here. (He lives on the other side of the property, and we see each other only about twice a week.) And this despite the fact that this monastery is really a pleasant place, relatively speaking, as Burmese monasteries go. The weather especially is quite comfortable up here in the hills, except during the cold season, which is actually cold. 
     I suppose the solitude of this place is largely due to ven. U Vimala's rough edges: he doesn't get along with everybody, and to this day I'm unsure as to why he seems to like me, and even welcomes me here. He is much mellower nowadays than he used to be, but his reputation persists. One reason why Burmese monks in particular don't stay here much is because the place is just too peaceful. When I arrived here in July there was a Burmese monk here who had almost reached the end of his rope, in a state of mild desperation to hang out with someone. I was not in the mood for satisfying his social instincts at the time, though, and neither was U Vimala, so the visiting monk moved out in search of a less quiet place to spend the rains retreat. One reason why some Western monks don't like it here is because of the rough food. Most of my alms food is offered by poor people, some of whom live in simple shacks; and so I receive a lot of unidentifiable glop, flavorless boiled weeds, and smelly bamboo shoots that would be better if they were flavorless. There is a little mohinga (a kind of Burmese noodle soup) stand by the Mandalay-Lashio-China highway, the proprietors of which offer their specialty almost every morning; and sometimes I hit the jackpot, like when a nice Gurkha lady offers a big bowl of fried potatoes; but some days the smelly bamboo shoots are offered relentlessly. I'm not nearly as fat here as I was in Indonesia. Living on rough food is good practice though. In general, outside the epicurean westernized bubbles in the largest cities, Burma is not a good place for fussy eaters. A handy rule of thumb: Don't Eat Anything You Can't Identify.
     About four days after I arrived, I somehow became sick as the proverbial dog. At first I was a little worried that maybe I was sick from drinking stagnant water, as the rainwater in my water tank had a film of fungal and bacterial scum on the surface almost thick enough to be opaque; but I figure in retrospect that it was some kind of flu. I'm happy to say that, after a three-week long, almost daily ritual of scum-skimming when fetching water, the film of decaying dead spiders, etc., is almost gone. The water's fine now. Anyhow, while I was sick I was practically incapable of reading anything heavy, so I flipped through a few old Reader's Digest magazines from the 1950's that had somehow found their way to the Migadawun library. Approximately two weeks after remaining tearless at my mother's death, I was moved to tears while reading stories about dogs in a 1955 Reader's Digest. I don't fully understand this.
     While on the subject of dogs, I may as well mention that my favorite dog here, named Wa-dote, went blind a few years ago and then recently disappeared. I have had very bad luck with favorite dogs in Burma, and have occasionally considered that I should avoid having a favorite, for the dog's sake. I suppose Wa-dote may have been hit by a car, since he was never very alert with regard to traffic even when he could see; but U Vimala is convinced that some people who live nearby caught him and ate him. Some people do eat dogs in this country; but then again back in 2010 U Vimala was reluctant to give some excess puppies to a Franciscan convent, even though the sisters were quite willing to accept the dogs, because some of the sisters belong to the Karen ethnic group, and Karens allegedly eat dog meat. So I figure if ven. U Vimala can suspect Christian nuns of killing and eating dogs, he can suspect anybody. 
     Due to the aforementioned rough edges and solitude, along with the material poverty of most of the people in the vicinity of Migadawun, I as a newcomer, or rather a very infrequent inhabitant, have almost no supporters other than the good people who put food into my bowl when I walk for alms down a dirt road and then down the highway. Back at Wun Bo, "my" monastery, I'm the Sayadaw, practically the king, and a little too famous for convenience, but here I'm nameless, just a visiting foreign monk. I have everything I need: food, water, shelter, soap, etc.; but there was one thing I very much wanted to have for six weeks without getting it, and that was access to the Internet. 
     A computer is like an extra sense organ, and a computer with Internet is like a fully functioning extra sense organ. Once I got used to having it, suddenly being deprived of it was almost like going deaf, and definitely more inconvenient than, say, suddenly losing my sense of smell. After a few weeks of no supporters coming forth with an offering like, "If you ever want anything, Bhante, please tell us," I began to be rather frustrated. By the time I had been here almost six weeks with no Internet access at all, not even bad Burmese Internet access, I was very frustrated, and disgusted, and wanting to leave Burma and never come back. On my 51st birthday I remember thinking, "I wonder if screaming into a pillow would help me feel better. Probably not. Besides, someone might hear me." Then I looked over at a little umbrella that someone had donated, and thought, "I wonder if smashing that umbrella into little pieces would help me feel better. Probably not." Later that night as I lay sleepless on my bed, I considered punching the wall a few times to relieve my frustration, but decided that punching a brick wall would very likely mess up my hand. 
     When I am unhappy I am in the habit, or practice, of carefully assessing what it is that I desire, since according to the Second Noble Truth all unhappiness is caused by desire. So first of all, of course, I wanted Internet access. That general desire also contained some more specific sub-desires, like the desire to contact my brother and find out more about the situation with our mother. Also, I desired not to lose contact with friends and supporters beyond U Vimala. I lived in almost total isolation of that sort for many years, and I do not wish to revert to that. Also, and I hope at least a few of you out there can sympathize with this, I desired to keep this blog going. This blog is possibly my greatest and most satisfying means of communicating with other members of my species most of the time, and I like it. And helping to motivate those last two sub-desires, to some degree anyway, was the desire to return to the West and live there, in some kind of association with beings who can appreciate what I have to offer—at the very least, an unusual and not particularly stale approach to Dharma. Breaking off contact with friends and supporters and breaking off the upkeep of this blog would probably not be helpful in that regard. I have found that being famous can be a pain, but I've also found that being a completely unknown Buddhist monk in America can easily lead to starvation. So it seems appropriate to "put myself out there." Also, I very generally had a desire for sufficient physical freedom to do as I please, especially when it's not something completely, outrageously unreasonable. To the average person who handles money, walking (or even driving) to an Internet place, or getting it hooked up in one's home, is no big deal at all. It's easy. But for me it was like having to scale an iron cliff, or maybe having teeth pulled. So, to recapitulate: I was frustrated.
     I observed the frustration, and analyzed the desire, and was humbled to think that just a few years ago I had no computer at all and no Internet access at all, and it simply was not an issue. (In those days just to make an ordinary phone call required an all-day trip by sampan into town and back, leaving at dawn and returning at dusk.) Now it was a big, icky issue. I remembered some humbling passages from Schopenhauer that I had come across recently while looking up something else, with regard to the ancient Cynic philosophers, like: 
"…the Cynics followed a very special path to this goal [of happiness], one that is quite the opposite of the ordinary path, that, namely, of carrying privation to the farthest possible limits. Thus they started from the insight that the motions into which the will is put by the objects that stimulate and stir it, and the laborious and often frustrated efforts to attain them, or the fear of losing them when they are attained, and finally also the loss itself, produce far greater pains and sorrows than the want of all these objects ever can." 
and this:
"…the fundamental idea of cynicism is that life in its simplest and most naked form, with the hardships that naturally belong to it, is the most tolerable, and is therefore to be chosen. For every aid, comfort, enjoyment, and pleasure by which people would like to make life more agreeable, would produce only new worries and cares greater than those that originally belong to it." 
Buddhism teaches much the same thing of course, although in a more ancient Indian manner of speaking. I knew that all I had to do was to say Yes to the situation—"Yes, I have no Internet access, and I can accept that, even if I lose contact with friends, don't find out about Mother for a few more months, have to shut down the blog, and even if I am required to live here in Burma for the rest of my life." I knew this, but rebelled against the thought. I also reminded myself that I could still make efforts to avoid terminal isolation, and that being frustrated didn't help anything. I could clearly feel the relief in acknowledging this…but old habits die hard, and I quickly lapsed back into chronic frustration. I could exhort myself with monologues like, "Look on the bright side: It could be a lot worse than this—and undoubtedly will be soon. I mean, compared with how bad things are going to be, this is practically nothing! So cheer up!" But even that didn't work. I obviously had a stubbornly rooted desire that resisted relief. I acknowledge that I just do not want to be cut off from communication with friends, and with the "outside world," for more than, say, 15 days at a time. 
     Back in May a friend of mine, a layperson (formerly a monk) who lives in Burma, offered to help me obtain Internet access while I was at Migadawun. He drove up here from Rangoon, with me still in Rangoon at the time, but was too preoccupied with his own affairs to attend to the monastic Internet project. Upon return he asked if I could wait till his next trip upcountry, which would be between July 5 and July 17. That seemed like a long time to wait, but since I had no other supporters who were in a position to help, I said I could wait. I was told that he came up during this time, but stayed only a short time and then went back to Rangoon. Around the 20th he returned, dropped by for a few minutes, said he would help, and then didn't come back for more than a week. Now, one of my life-long pet peeves is having to wait for people; and this combined with the aforementioned chronic frustration contributed to my becoming rather disgusted with my friend—even though I was fully aware that I had no right to insist upon anything. Around the same time that I was contemplating the value of screaming into a pillow, I had halfway decided that if my friend did actually show up again I wouldn't open the door to him. I'd just stay in my room in the congregation hall and refuse to come out and meet him. But then, when he did eventually show up, I opened the door readily; and after one or two gruff statements regarding his lateness he was my good friend again. One of the greatest blessings I have gained over the past few years is that, although I can still find fault with people at a distance, in their presence I automatically forgive them and accept them as they are. Almost always. Looking through one eye, everybody in the world is hopelessly messed up. Everybody. Looking through the other eye, everybody in the world is divine and perfect. Being close to someone helps me to see them through the second eye. I am deeply grateful for this.
     To make a long story even longer, my good friend's help was simply coming too slow for my tastes (and I really shouldn't criticize, since he's handling my visa stuff in Rangoon too), so ven. U Vimala, not nearly so crusty as he used to be, compassionately helped me out by contacting a generous shoemaker in town who lives next door to an Internet place, and was happily willing to pay my tab there. The Internet is crummy, slow Burmese Internet, but it's enough to check my emails sometimes, and to maintain this blog. The website nippapanca.org, on the other hand, may require a faster connection than I am likely to find for awhile. 
     Sayadaw U Vimala's help was all the more appreciated since I have heard through a certain Balinese grapevine that he is of the opinion that computers, and a desire for fame(!), will eventually destroy me. He knows of "Let This Be a Lesson," so why he didn't throw in desire for a woman too, I don't quite understand. Maybe it's because deep in his heart he also desires a woman—as most monks probably do. 
     Anyway, during this whole issue of support, and lack of it, it occurred to me that having to rely on another person, when that person loves you and when you are an important part of his or her life, can be part of a truly beautiful relationship; but having to rely on a person who is otherwise often becomes uncomfortable and unpleasant for both parties. It can still be beneficial for both however—it may help to cultivate generosity and other skillful states in the giver, and encourages gratitude, consideration, and contentment with little in the receiver. All in all, it is best for a monk to ask for as little as possible. The Dhammapada contains a verse comparing a monk walking for alms to a bee, lightly moving from flower to flower without causing any disturbance to any of them. Such considerations help to explain why Westerners are less likely to support monastics: not only are monastics not a very important part of their life, but they suppose that the lifestyle of a monk is necessarily expensive, since their own lifestyle is expensive. Monks may easily live under rough circumstances that Western laypeople would consider so unacceptable for themselves that they do not consider the possibility or advisability of anyone living that way. Plus in America, living below a certain standard of living is simply illegal. But I digress.
     So here I sit as one of the two bhikkhus spending the rains retreat at the Deer's Playground, with no more deer. I spend my days "chilling," reading, writing, sweeping (with a soft grass broom indoors, with a stiff bamboo and palm-frond one outdoors), meditating sometimes, pacing back and forth in the mosquito-free congregation hall, carrying water, and thinking compulsively (let alone eating, drinking, sleeping, bathing, using the toilet, doing laundry, and hanging out with a dog named Uncle Wiggly, an old friend and associate of my old favorite who went blind and disappeared). Any blessings directed toward my mother, which might help her in the transitions she is currently undergoing, if any, would be gratefully appreciated. 
     And now we're caught up again, more or less.

               
    



Appendix: Two Dog Stories from an October 1955 Reader's Digest

     The dog I can never forget is Verdi, a lovely Alsatian. Physically superb, she turned out to be incurably shy and timid. Strangers and loud noises would make her cower and shiver with terror. I despaired of making her a watchdog.
     One day I was alone in the house when Verdi pawed frantically outside the back door and, when I opened it, ran down the basement stairs. A rough-looking man pushed his way in behind her and grabbed me. Just before he clamped a hand over my mouth I shrieked, "Verdi!"
     As I struggled to get free, I heard swift claws clattering up the steps. The next instant a tawny whirlwind struck my assailant. A snarling dog and a terror-stricken man rolled on the floor as I stood by and watched, my knees weak as water. The man managed to wrench himself loose from the slashing jaws, and plunged out of the door. Verdi, in one tremendous moment of indomitable will, had found her birthright.
     A few days later, without warning, she died. The vet said that she appeared to have undergone some unbearable strain on her heart. —Mary Kyle


     We had raised Rawleigh, our black Alsatian, from the time he was a pup. For three years we had treated him almost as a child—and then there came into our life a real baby of our own.
     Rawleigh resented the baby deeply. When he heard us baby-talking, he would come running, thinking we were speaking to him—and when he saw we weren't, he would slink away in misery at our neglect.
     Then one day I left the baby in her cot while I went out to work in the garden. Looking up presently, I saw the most terrifying sight of my life. Our dog was lumbering down the kitchen steps. In his mouth he held our baby. I screamed and fainted.
     When I came to, my baby was lying across my breast, unharmed. Over me stood Rawleigh, licking my face. All around me swirled smoke. Our house was in flames.
     In that hour of emergency, a great-hearted dog had stifled all his hurt and jealousy and saved the life to which our love had been transferred. —Mrs. I. H. Raney


Postscript: Shortly after writing this, my friend who I considered not opening the door to came through in a big way, and provided me with some relatively excellent Internet access. So the blog will continue, insh'allah. Also, another monk showed up for a late rains retreat, so now there are three of us. Plus just a few nights ago I heard a barking deer, and an owl.