"Give orange me, give eat orange, me eat orange, give me eat orange, give me you." —Nim the Chimpanzee (his longest recorded sentence, using sign language)
Well, by golly, I haven't written a current events post in months, aside from "The Elder Sister of All Alms Rounds," which was mainly about a single morning. Aside from that, my current events info ran out once I arrived in Bali last December. Meanwhile, I've capitalized on a clearer mind and have been writing more challenging stuff. Ordinary narration felt too easy to be worthy of my mettle, so to speak. But all kinds of things have been happening, so catching up in an adequate manner now would be too much hard work for a lazy person like me. So I'll just mention some of the more remarkable events of the past few months, starting where "The End of the Rains" left off, up until just before Pucak Mangu, which will be discussed in the next post, probably.
The original plan was to stay in Bali for only a week before moving on to Myanmar, but the family who sponsors me here, who practically adopted me actually, requested that I stay for an extra week so I could attend the grand opening of their new vihara (more of a Dharma center for laypeople really, with facilities for housing visiting monks), so I stayed. It was pretty amazing that something like this could happen in a technically non-Buddhist country: hundreds of people attended, including most if not all of the Theravada Buddhist monks in Bali. A large motorized float, shaped like a karavika bird and containing a Buddha image to be installed in the new temple, drove slowly from Sanur in the lowlands up to Baturiti, where the new vihara is located; and the highway through the small town (which in Bali means a two-lane road about six meters wide) was actually rerouted to allow for a parade-like procession once the float arrived. We monks chanted and circumambulated the new temple, and since it was raining we each had a layman holding an umbrella over us (I remember that my umbrella holder kept hitting me in the head with it—accidentally, of course). Then as the float approached, we marched to the highway and sat on folding chairs arranged for us. A large carpet had been spread over the highway, and when the float arrived, along with a procession of traditionally dressed Balinese, it stopped so a troop of traditional Balinese dancing girls could dance in the image's honor. In all typicality, my karma had placed me front row center, with the best possible view of the voluptuous maidens dancing and glistening wet in the rain. The over the top nature of the whole thing though, a group of monks sitting up close watching suggestively clad pretty dancing girls performing for a Buddha statue, had me a little embarrassed, which prevented me from fully appreciating the performance. It wasn't for me anyway; it was for the statue. Whether the statue appreciated it I can't say.
one of my roommates in Bali
A few days later I flew to Myanmar, which I prefer to call Burma, because I think it sounds better. (I used to say that if the government didn't like it they could always kick me out, and I would move to Siam.) As I was standing towards the back of a long, very slow line at the airport, I started wondering if Burma had been modernized sufficiently not to give special privileges to monks at airports; but finally someone with authority saw me standing there and ushered me to an immigration counter for VIPs. A little later, when I went to the back of the line for customs, two young airport employees came up, and with reproachful smiles informed me that I should just crowd up to the front, which I subsequently did, with them carrying my luggage. It will take some doing to fully westernize Burma.
One highlight of my week-long stay in Yangon/Rangoon before heading upcountry was visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda with my friends Conor and Juli (in alphabetical order), and with Juli's sister and Juli's sister's biological mate. There's lots of tourists there nowadays, but it's worth it. The Shwedagon is magnificent. While we were there I told Conor that I had brought him a copy of Riddley Walker, a novel about post-apocalyptic England (called "Inland" in the degenerate English of the story's narrator). He said that Juli would especially like it, since she likes the end of the world. At this statement my response was like, "Why?!" but Juli's explanation was somewhat along the lines of, "I don't know, I just like it." Shortly afterwards I remembered that I also like the end of the word; post-apocalyptic fiction and movies are up among my very favorites, so I considered why I like the end of the world. I came to the conclusion that what we like is the idea of an imprisoning cultural machine being destroyed. It represents a kind of freedom. Maybe that's why the Jews and Christians 2000 years ago were so keen on praying for Armageddon. When I told Juli my theory as to why we like end-of-the-world stories, she agreed, so maybe that's it. We want freedom, even if all shit breaks loose in order for it to happen. (By the way, I'd like to mention that Conor has an interesting new blog containing some of his poetry, at predatoryclouds.tumblr.com. I like it, although I give fair warning that his poems DON'T RHYME.)
The day I left Yangon for the hinterlands, a Burmese friend/supporter visited me, and towards the end of our conversation, after a little hesitation, he asked me, "Is it possible for a person's hair to continue growing after he has died?" I replied that there are some Buddhist monks and Hindu sadhus who, after they die, still have growing hair and fingernails. He replied, "No, I mean after it has been cut off." I am relatively openminded, so I said something like, "Well, I suppose it's possible." Then he led me into his family's shrine room, a very deluxe and elaborate one by the way, and showed me a little vial of greyish razor stubble, which he said was given by the late very venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw. When they first received it many years ago it was only about one-fourth full; but now it was almost completely full. Burmese monks usually shave their head once a week, but the hairs in the vial looked about one centimeter long, although no thicker than ordinary hairs. He said that Sayadaw's hairs in the shrine at his other house were the same way. I've heard of the growing razor stubble of saintly monks before, and I doubt that there is a nationwide conspiracy of sneaking gradually longer hairs into the vials and bottles on people's shrines, so unless human hair naturally gets longer (but not thicker) during the process of decomposition, then it would seem to me that the stuff is really growing. I don't know how or why.
Then I returned to my old home of Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, where I have lived longer than at any other place in my life, and where I am still considered to be the abbot. I was greeted by ven. Iddhidaja, who could hardly wait to brag to me about how he had been bitten by one of those gigantic orangey-red centipedes. They can be more than a foot long and as big around as a finger, and the clicking sound of one scrabbling across a cement floor gives me the willies. I had heard that their bite was excruciatingly painful, but U Iddhidaja's account was interesting: he said that the pain didn't really start until the day after the bite, and that it was accompanied by vomiting, severe diarrhea, and such dizziness that he could hardly stand up for about two days. He told me all this cheerfully, because that's what forest monks do.
I have occasionally wondered why forest monks, and guys in general, like to brag about the personal afflictions they have sustained. Even little boys do it, like in the following example, which is typical of what is going on in back yards and playgrounds all over America, or at least was typical when I was a kid:
A: I got twelve stitches in my knee.
B: So? My brother broke his arm.
A: Yeah, but you didn't break your arm.
B (defensively): So? (then, after thinking desperately of some way of saving face): I had a operation when I was six.
A: You just had your appendix out. Lots of people have their appendix out.
B: Yeah, but I had a allergic reaction to the medicine. My mom says I almost died.
A: (finally impressed): Really? Goll….
I'm the same way. I've bragged about having had malaria seven times (and always the worst kind, too), plus "amoebic hepatitis," plus all the times I've been stung by scorpions. But I don't think anyone I know could beat an Australian friend of mine who used to say that one rains retreat he had malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis all at the same time. He spent most of the rains on the flat of his back.
The other monk at Wun Bo was a quiet old retired doctor named U Khemacāra. It is a tribute to his Dhamma that he had just spent months with a large wasp nest attached right to the middle of his front door. He had been stung several times (although he didn't brag about it). Luckily, by the time I moved into the cave all of them had left except for a few that apparently still had some unfinished business. I didn't get stung.
U Khemacāra's wasp nest, with one last sentinel remaining
(the sheet metal was nailed to the door by a previous occupant,
ven. Suruttama, to keep rats from climbing up it)
It was a blessing to be back at my old home. The aloe vera was in bloom, as were the mysterious trees in the small canyon not far away that grow huge blossoms while devoid of leaves in winter. I don't know what kind of trees they are. Also there were other reminders of the world I used to live in full-time: the hole in the cliff near the cave door where a monitor lizard used to live, and where, at another time, a baby owl kept falling out, so that I made a little basket at the end of a bamboo pole to put it back; the little custard apple grove at the bottom of the gully below the cave, caused by all the overripe custard apples I threw there over the years, plus the seeds of the good ones I spat out; the sound of motorboats and shelducks on the river; and the two village dogs that immediately moved in on me. Also I received a nostalgic welcome back to rural Burma on the very first day back by experiencing the dreaded phenomenon known as a "shart." If you don't know what a shart is, don't ask. The answer is not pretty.
aloe vera in bloom
the mystery tree
But the biggest welcome back was from the people. What do you do when a man that you hardly know informs you that every morning, even before he washes his face (he mentioned that specifically), he blesses you and sends you love? What do you do when you are in a car to go catch a boat (which is already waiting for you), but have to wait so a lady can help her ancient mother hobble up to the car for your blessing…and after her a doctor limping up on crutches for the same reason? I can write about this, but being in the situation is a little embarrassing, because these good, simple-hearted people seem to have an exaggeratedly high opinion of me, based mainly on the facts that I am a monk, live in a cave, and am not obviously a charlatan or rogue. I received so many visitors at Wun Bo that sometimes I would just hide in the cave and refuse to come out, like a bear at the zoo.
One time I was inside the cave not feeling very well, and was not in an expansive mood besides, when I heard voices and footsteps approaching. Often people would ask for "mettā water," i.e. water that I have chanted over and infused with my loving-kindness, and on that day I simply didn't have any mettā to share—and I didn't want to refuse to give any, much less hand out bogus mettā water with no real mettā in it. So I determined that I would just stay in the cave and not meet with them. Just moments later I recognized one of the voices: a young man who had visited me before who was not exactly possessed by evil spirits, but was troubled by them often. (I don't know how Western psychology would diagnose his case; but he clearly was not living in a "normal" state of consciousness.) Previously I had advised him to memorize the Mettā Sutta and chant it regularly, which is the standard treatment for malevolent spirits in Burma. Anyway, I was sorry to disappoint him, as I really have compassion for the guy, but, as I say, I didn't feel the love in me to be much help, and was not inclined to undetermine my determination. They waited outside the cave, occasionally calling to me, for hours, almost until dark—which is actually pretty common when I don't come out. I just stayed inside and didn't go down the hill to take a bath that day.
The very next day, the same thing happened, except this time I heard many voices, including voices of women and children. This time also I was determined not to go out, regardless of who it was. I just wanted to be alone. Then I recognized the voice of the headman of Wun Bo village, who is a really nice guy. But I felt I should make no differences between a headman and a poor farmer or basket weaver, so I didn't respond. About 45 minutes later, I heard the voice of one of my main supporters in Lay Myay village, explaining that waiting outside the door were the chief administrative officer of Butalin township (a township being roughly the equivalent of an American county) and his family, plus an immigration officer and his family, come to pay their respects. I still kept silent and refused to come out, and even peed into a plastic bag so I wouldn't have to open the cave door and make an appearance. Maybe half an hour after this, old U Khemacāra appeared outside the door with the same announcement. Still I kept silent. Anyhow, at this point I figured it would be more polite not to respond and let them think maybe I was meditating or unconscious or whatever, than to come out after making them wait for more than an hour, with no better reason than I didn't want to meet anyone. But then I heard venerable Kh. fiddling with the cave door, as though he were trying to loosen the bolt from the outside or make a breach in the fly screen to reach in and unlatch the door from the inside. Now this made me angry—or rather, it served as a sufficient excuse for anger—and I picked up and empty plastic water bottle and chucked it against the inside of the door. It sounds like a pistol shot, and history has shown that it is very effective at creating distance between overly aggressive visitors and my door. So he too quickly gave up. The visitors waited for about three hours, and then gave up and went home.
In Burma, which is a very class-conscious society, it is simply unthinkable essentially to snub a high status person like the highest-ranking politician in the township. I explained to people that I shouldn't discriminate, and they saw the point, kind of, but still…unthinkable. But the administrative officer of the township was not put off, and he immediately made an inquiry as to what would be a convenient time for him and his family to meet me. I said any time, and they came a few days later, very respectfully. When it was time for me to go back to Yangon he even picked me up at Lay Myay village, took me to his home in Butalin, then drove me to the bus station in the city of Monywa, where he introduced me to the chief administrative officer of the city (approximately the mayor), plus his family. I can sort of brag about this stuff, but I don't exactly feel worthy of such deference. I feel almost as though I've been arbitrarily chosen to be idolized. It's something to look at. But I can say that the excess of faith in Burmese people, including many Burmese politicians, is more conducive to their own happiness, and to the happiness of others, than the lack of faith in the people of the West. I can say that based on many years of experience on both sides of the world.
So I returned to Yangon/Rangoon in preparation for a return to Bali. The main highlight of this was the whole time, hanging out with my good friend Damon and his tribe, including the aforementioned Conor and Juli (in alphabetical order). One highlight of the highlight was filming a brief yet profound video on the existential meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition. I call it Regmaglypt.
scene one of Regmaglypt
And then I came back here to Bali. Before the relative odyssey of Pucak Mangu, possibly the most noteworthy event here so far (I'm not sure that I'd call it an actual highlight) was meeting the famous and notorious Ajahn Brahm. He struck me as a real missionary and Dharma politician, attempting to please people into wanting to be Theravada Buddhists; although it is noteworthy that he does object to laypeople calling themselves "Sangha." That's apparently where he draws the line in his concession making. But although we certainly don't see eye to eye on many issues, I have no desire to find fault with the man. Besides, there are some who think that he has jhāna.
So now the updating process is almost complete. I conclude with another brief scene from Regmaglypt. Enjoy. Be happy. It all depends on how you look at it.