Saturday, April 19, 2014

Regmaglypt


     "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.


scene four of Regmaglypt

     
       



Saturday, April 12, 2014

On Lust and Celibacy (part 2)

     
As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys. —William Blake's Devil, who apparently was ignorant of fundamental principles of entomology

(This part is, probably enough, more politically incorrect than part 1. Just saying.)

     I ended the first part of this article, or essay, or whatever it is, with some reflections on my own personal case with regard to the trials of celibacy, and so I may as well begin this part with more of the same. I have been diagnosed as having a "dumbbell-shaped spirit": my spiritual end has undergone some development, and my carnal, lustful end is naturally well-developed, but most of what lies between these two ends is somewhat shriveled—I have little interest in ordinary stuff like money, cars, houses, politics, the news, socializing, collecting electronic gadgets, raising children, clothes, social trends and fashions, etc. etc. So my ideal of fulfillment would be something like living a rough, simple life in a cave meditating with a beautiful, voluptuous, affectionate woman. Or at least to have a spiritual mate who would help me to Wake Up while still being very willing to sleep with me every night with no pajamas on. But thus far it hasn't happened; I have had to choose between wisdom and sex, and chose wisdom.
     My sexual desire has tended to be rather strong, though it seems to be waning somewhat in my old age, and my mindfulness is not strong enough always to observe lust as it arises and to neutralize it through detachment. I often simply don't want to detach from it, because it is so enjoyable. Also, mere repression of these urges tends to be miserable in the long run, as was touched upon in part 1. So in my case I have opted for a kind of partial retreat, a flexible defense: continuing with military images, I've adopted the strategy of yielding limited ground without totally breaking ranks. I read a book on military strategy once that said this type of defense is often much more effective than a rigid, unyielding defense, especially when dealing with a very strong opponent. So I think lustful thoughts sometimes, and look at pornography occasionally, and work on an erotic poem sometimes, and not exactly "spank the puppy," but pet it a little now and then.
     Some may argue that if one's celibacy is imperfect like this, if one cannot be celibate "without blemish," then one would do better to drop out of the monkhood, for one's own benefit as well as for the benefit of the Sangha. But would they say the same thing to an alcoholic? "If you feel you have to drink two beers a day to stay sober, you might as well go back to getting stinking drunk every weekend." Or would they say it to a former narcotics addict? "You're smoking marijuana in order to stay off heroin? You're still taking drugs! You may as well start shooting up again! And here you are counseling others. Shame on you." I would guess that most of these people wouldn't give such advice in these other cases. And they also probably break rules. The less charitable attitude toward lust is partly a result of that sex neurosis that I discussed in part 1, and also of the idea that libido is controllable, also combined perhaps with some vague and not entirely realistic notions about what it is like to be a monk. 
     There is a discourse in the Aguttara Nikāya listing various ways in which a monk's celibacy is impure. I don't have a copy of the Aguttara handy, and have very limited Internet access nowadays, so I won't give precise details, but I will mention a few examples that I remember from the sutta. One imperfection of celibacy or "the Holy Life" is if a monk enjoys talking and laughing with women. I do that sometimes. Another one is if a monk enjoys looking deeply into a woman's eyes. I have done that one also, especially with certain women that I like. (Another one that isn't mentioned in the discourse is the case of a monk looking deeply into a woman's blouse when she is bowing, in the hopes of seeing her breasts.) One rather sad one, which I can't remember ever doing, is the case of a monk who hides behind a wall listening to a woman talking or singing or laughing or crying. The image of that seems really sad to me for some reason. It seems like an act of desperation. I also consider it significant that the discourse mentions a woman's crying, as on some men at least the sound of female crying can have a profound emotional effect. Anyway, monks who are not wholly convinced in their celibacy have apparently existed for a long time, and there are plenty nowadays also, including some famous teachers, so "spotless, unblemished" celibacy may actually be the exception to the rule. After all, if we were already perfect and enlightened, we wouldn't need to become monks in the first place. Renunciation would be completely superfluous. 
     There are a number of reflections which have been very helpful in "protecting" me from disrobing (in both senses of the word) and ceasing to be celibate, reflections which remind me of the disadvantages of being an overtly sexually active person. And there certainly are some pretty weighty disadvantages. Some of these reflections, hopefully at least not all of them, may be considered offensive by some women, since after all they are reasons why a man might be better off without them; but again, I mean no disrespect toward women. I am aware that men are just as messed up and foolish as the female half of our species. For example, stereotypically masculine aggression is just as unskillful and harmful, though arguably not more so, as stereotypically feminine fear and insecurity—despite the fact that fear is much more politically correct nowadays than aggression. (This state of affairs is a very recent development in the human race; a hundred years ago and more, extending all the way back into prehistoric times, "valor" was admired, sometimes even positively required, and "cowardice" was rejected as utterly disgraceful.) So women could come up with equally valid reasons for why they might be better off without men, since B is exactly as far away from A as A is from B, and these kinds of reflections can definitely go both ways. Besides, I'm committed to avoiding Political Correctness Dishonesty, and to calling a spade a spade. So please be patient. You have received fair warning of what follows. I mean you no harm.
     One major reminder for me has been that if you get a woman, you don't just get a woman: a woman is part of a very large package deal. If you have a woman, you should provide her with a good home, or at least pitch in your fair share in providing it. Then you have to have a good job, and then there are insurance payments and other bills to pay. If nature takes its course, and it usually does, you wind up with children (remember what makes women's pupils dilate)—little egomaniacs who practically enslave you for years until they are grown up enough to leave home, and when they are little they scream, have icky liquids squirting out of both ends, get diseases through a complete ignorance of basic principles of hygiene, and occasionally clumsily stumble and hit their head on the corner of the coffee table. The whole situation becomes huge grounds for attachment and worry, and tends to enmesh one deeply in Samsara. Instead of cultivating bliss in an unattached state, one may find oneself sitting on a chair engaged in long, drawn-out conversations about what kind of curtains to get for the living room.
     In my earlier days as a monk I used to say that the times when I was happiest about being a monk were the times when I heard the sound of a screaming baby. Here's Charles Darwin on the subject:
The earliest and almost sole expression seen during the first days of infancy, and then often exhibited, is that displayed during the act of screaming; and screaming is excited, both at first and for some time afterwards, by every distressing or displeasing sensation and emotion,—by hunger, pain, anger, jealousy, fear, &c.
I really appreciate peace and quiet. Yet making babies is the biological main purpose of the sex act. That's ultimately what it is for.
     Then there is the thought that women themselves are very subject to the law of anicca, impermanence. Women change, and not always for the better. A wise friend once told me a saying to the effect that, when a man and a woman get married, the woman always wants the man to change, and he never does, and the man always wants the woman to stay the same, and she never does. It may not be applicable to all cases, but it does describe a general trend in human affairs.
     Which leads to the reflection that women often want to change, or even to control, a man. Women seem much more likely to try to change someone than men are, especially against the will of the person they want to change. (Men seem to be more likely simply to dismiss someone whose behavior they disapprove of.) Several years ago I read a novel by Pierre Louys entitled Aphrodite, which I freely admit is not appropriate reading for a celibate monk, as it is graphically and literally pornographic, being written about prostitutes in 1st century B.C. Alexandria. To my credit, I had no idea that it would be so lavishly explicit of a novel when I picked it up, considering that it was written in the late 1890's and is considered a minor classic. But once I start reading a book, I don't like to leave it unfinished….Anyway, there's a scene in which a Greek sculptor named Demetrios, lover to Queen Berenice of Egypt (elder sister of the much more famous Cleopatra) is rebuking a beautiful courtesan (beautiful on the outside, rather hideous on the inside) named Chrysis, who has fallen in love with him.
Slavery! This is the true name of love. You women all have but one dream, a single idea in your brain: to use your weakness so as to break a man's strength, to make your futility rule over his intelligence. What you desire, as soon as your breasts start growing, is not to love or be loved but to tie a man to your ankles, to humble him, to make him bow his head so you can put your sandal on it. Then you are able, each according to your ambition, to snatch his sword from him or his chisel or compass, break everything you don't understand, emasculate what frightens you, lead Hercules by the nostrils and make him spin wool.
Now, I fully realize that not all women are like this, and that old Demetrios worded it all rather harshly (after all, he was angry when he said it). But there is a kernel of truth to it, and it applies to many, possibly even most, women to some degree. Some women even brag about how they control their man, perhaps without the man even realizing it. Furthermore, Western women especially may be more inclined to be this way than were women in the 1890's or the 1st century B.C.E. Some appear to feel that the right to insist that a man change is a token of their newly empowered state; and if a man refuses to give in to their pressure, they may be thoroughly outraged by this, feeling that he is trying to deprive them of their empowered rights. 
     Ironically, one main motive of this kind of female "empowered" behavior is insecurity and the desire to feel safe; and I consider it plausible that, for lack of a more descriptive and better word, "nagging," let alone insecurity, is a natural instinct in the human female. For almost the entirety of our existence as a species, and extending back well beyond that into the hazy distance of our tree-dwelling ape ancestry, females have been dominated by males, practically considered as property, and males enforced this attitude without much difficulty, as they can easily be physically twice as large as the females (for instance, 100kg men and 50kg women are not rare). So while human nature was evolving, our females developed a way of getting what they wanted primarily by using their voice, i.e. by persuasion. At one extreme there are sweet-tempered females (and if they are beautiful besides, then the situation can become pretty much ideal) who use affection to get what they want—after a man is thoroughly pleased and glowing with satisfaction, then his mate shares her belief that the house should be painted a different color. At the other extreme there are vitriolic-tempered women who bully their men into giving them their way through shrill, angry complaint ("bitching"), sometimes even working things up into bouts of shouting and the throwing of dishes, so that the man gives in for the sake of calming the inferno, until next time. The Old Testament of the Bible says that it is better for a man to live on top of the roof than under it with such a woman. But the average approach, the middle of the statistical bell-shaped curve of feminine persuasion, is persistent urging, or "nagging." Now, there is nothing at all wrong with giving advice, and it is the duty of a married couple to advise each other; but if A gives B some advice, and B chooses not to take that advice, possibly even giving a detailed explanation of why he chooses not to take it, and then A continues bringing up the same issue, in the same way, again and again, and again…and again, then that's no longer advising—that's nagging. And finally B may give in and let A have her way out of a heartfelt desire for some peace and quiet, plus maybe out of the hopes that it will inspire A to become more affectionate. Again, certainly not all women are like this, but a man might not find out for sure until after the honeymoon is over, and then it may be too late. And it may well be an inborn, automatic instinct in many female humans.
     What all of these mating-conditioned phenomena amount to, is loss of freedom. Women tend to crave security, and security is practically the opposite of freedom. But freedom is essential to living a truly dharmic life. Some unhappily married men may become philosophers and thereby gain some inner freedom at least.
     Another major consideration is that almost everyone is sexually active, and at the same time almost everyone is unhappy. So being sexually active is obviously unlikely to make people much happier. It's more just a matter of scratching a chronic, exasperating itch. On the other hand, wise and happy people are often celibate. This is an easily seen and very sobering reflection.
     One consideration that is applicable to any person who has practiced intensive Dharma for years, male or female, is that if the opposite gender was so psychologically challenged and/or challenging as to dissatisfy one and inspire one to renounce the world and become celibate in the first place, then it is unlikely that these same challenged/challenging non-meditators or beginning meditators would be much more satisfying after years of one's intensive practice and clarity and "chilling out." At least the veteran Dharma practitioner would probably have more patience and compassion for interacting with such an undeveloped mate. And developed ones are hard to find, though not impossible.
     Yet another reflection, one that may or may not have any persuasive effect depending on one's metaphysical point of view, is that, ultimately, the way things really are, we are not separate from anyone else. Thus my essence, in a sense the same "me," is in every rock star and porn star and virgin in love on her wedding night. I'm ultimately doing all of that, in a way, even though I may be a grey-haired recluse living in a cave. Everyone is doing just about everything, and through compassion and spiritual connection we share in all of it. And upon enlightenment, we have direct, conscious access to this infinite experience. Enlightenment is INFINITELY beyond mere orgasm or mere romance. It is beyond the wildest orgy in an Emperor's palace, and is beyond finding your true soul mate and living happily ever after. And all of us have access to that. It's here already, but we're not quite awake enough to notice.
     An alternative to settling down with a mate is sexual promiscuity, consorting with easy dates, "party girls," and/or whores. But this leads to rather intense karmic and moral complications, plus probably emotional ones also. Even if you stay away from the wives of other men, there are sexually transmitted diseases that are not good to have. There are also accidental babies to be born—what do you do if a drunken, emotionally very challenged party girl, clearly the wrong girl for you, informs you that you got her pregnant? Refuse to take responsibility for your own child? Pay for her abortion? Do the "honorable thing" and marry her? Any of these choices results in humungous karma. And what if this drunken, confused person informs you that she's in love with you, that you are the only man she has ever really loved, or that has ever treated her with respect and consideration, as another human being and not as a mere sex object? What do you do then? Brush her off and break her heart worse than anyone ever has before? Things get very messy very easily with that lifestyle. Trying to do it spiritually is playing with big fire.
     So if you don't have a deep need for constant, close companionship, or children (not such a good idea nowadays anyway with the world the way it is), or a live-in cook and housekeeper (and many Western women are too busy for very much of that), or someone to keep you out of trouble and to see that you "behave," then you may be better off celibate, with or without pornography and masturbation, even setting aside the issue of Nirvana in this very life.
     On the other hand, if you can find a mate who yearns for Freedom, who truly loves you—and not with the mere mating instinct and insecure, conditional emotional attachment which inspired the author of Ecclesiates to declare a woman's love to be like snares and nets, and her arms around you to be like chains—who supports you on your spiritual Path, yet who challenges you, and who thereby helps you to Wake Up (plus, well, being totally, breathtakingly uninhibited in bed), then you are truly blessed. In one of Ram Dass's earlier books he said that the ONLY valid reason for a spiritual seeker to take a mate is if the marriage would actually help that person, or both, to become enlightened. If enlightenment is your top priority in life, then the deciding question should be, "Will this help me to Wake Up?" And it seems probable that some people make better spiritual progress by having a mate and even by having sex. Plus some people just plain can't live without it.
     Sometimes in the past I used to think that the case was a hopeless one—sexuality and lust have been bred into us through literally hundreds of millions of years of evolution, assuming that biological science is true, while spiritual seeking is a much more recent phenomenon. How can something relatively new and superficial compete with something bred right into the nuclei of our cells? I used to think like that, especially when I was growing frustrated and discouraged. But finally I realized that the situation is really the other way round, practically the opposite: Ultimate Reality, the goal of Dharma practice, saturates us, and is closer to us than the marrow of our own bones, constantly accessible, while lust and all other mental/physical states are just ephemeral forms, and only relatively real. So now I know that spirituality is stronger than lust, infinitely stronger; but lust is so goddam much fun that we just don't want to let go of it.


detail from Aguera, "Temptations of Buddha"




      

Saturday, April 5, 2014

On Lust and Celibacy (part 1)


evaṁ me sutaṁ – ekaṁ samayaṁ bhagavā sāvatthiyaṁ viharati jetavane anāthapiṇḍikassa ārāme. tatra kho bhagavā bhikkhū āmantesi "bhikkhavo"ti. "bhadante"ti te bhikkhū bhagavato paccassosuṁ. bhagavā etadavoca – 
nāhaṁ bhikkhave aññaṁ ekarūpampi samanupassāmi, yaṁ evaṁ purisassa cittaṁ pariyādāya tiṭṭhati, yathayidaṁ bhikkhave itthirūpaṁ. itthirūpaṁ bhikkhave purisassa cittaṁ pariyādāya tiṭṭhatīti. 

Thus have I heard: One time the Blessed One was residing at Savatthi, in Jetavana, in Anathapindika's Park. Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus: "O bhikkhus." "Venerable Sir," the bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this:
"Bhikkhus, I am not aware of any other single form which obsesses a man's mind as does, bhikkhus, the form of a woman. The form of a woman, bhikkhus, obsesses a man's mind." (Or, more literally, "the mind having absorbed it, it stays.")


     The discourse above is the very first sutta of the Aguttara Nikāya (A1.1). It is usual for the first sutta in a collection of texts to be a key discourse; its foremost position suggests that the compilers and editors of the Canon considered that text to be of special importance. So this discourse of the Aguttara is probably no exception. Ancient monks probably considered the message of the sutta to be of great importance, something very beneficial for members of the Sangha to know.
     As it turns out, modern science has corroborated the essential theme of this presumed cardinal sutta. For example, back in the 1970's a famous psychology experiment was conducted at an American university to determine what forms or images people in general especially like to see. A large sample of people, mostly college students, sat in a room one at a time, and were shown, one at a time, many pictures of many different kinds projected on a screen, and the pictures each person especially liked were noted. Now, humans are not entirely ingenuous, and it was anticipated that experimental subjects might claim to dislike pictures that they really liked, but which were of a socially unacceptable nature, or might claim to like pictures to which they were indifferent at best (like maybe a picture of an American flag, or the President); so, to prevent this kind of political correctness dishonesty (PCD) from biasing their data, the scientists measured the subjects' liking of what they saw by measuring pupil dilation. When we see something that we really like, our pupils dilate. After doing a statistical analysis of the final data, the researchers found that only one kind of image consistently, to a statistically significant degree, caused men's pupils to dilate: and that was pictures of naked women. On the other hand, interestingly, there were two kinds of image that caused women's pupils to dilate: pictures of naked men (remember, these were American college girls), and pictures of babies—cute, cuddly, adorable little babies. Whether we men are more fortunate for having simpler, one-track emotional drives, I can't say.
     Needless to say, the human being is a relatively very lustful animal. We apparently are not the most lustful of all animals, however. For example, the billy goat's libido is strikingly obvious and proverbial; and I have read that the chimpanzee, biologically our nearest relative, has sexual intercourse an average of about twenty times a day in his/her natural state, and that's when the females are not in estrus; when the girl chimpanzees are "in heat," the number of times goes up considerably. But still, we are up near the top of the lustfulness list. Most animals are sexually active only during mating seasons, and some, like a salmon or a praying mantis, may have sex only once in their life, if they are lucky; but the human is one of the relatively few animals who is sexually active all year round, with the females having "concealed ovulation" so the males will want to have sex pretty much all the time, to make sure of reproductive success, among other reasons. (Of course, in some human cultures this more or less constant sexual receptivity of females occurs especially after marriage, or the forming of a "pair bond"; although I've been told by more than one married American man that the American female may be the other way round, being more sexually receptive before marriage. This may be a consideration to be remembered later on in this article, in part 2.)
     But although we are rampantly lustful beings, we are also neurotic about this rampant lustfulness. From a more spiritual point of view, this is largely because of the sheer emotional and karmic power of sex; sometimes it can overwhelm us. From a more biological perspective, it can be said that we are somewhat confused because we as a species are in a transitional state between the orgiastic polygamy of our tree-dwelling ape ancestors and the monogamy of more prolific ground-dwellers. A female chimpanzee, for example, can usually have only one small child at a time, since she must carry it through the trees with her, and thus she is limited to about one baby every six years. After our ancestors phased into a more ground-oriented existence, the females could have several small children at a time, thus being more efficient at reproduction—although they needed a devoted male for steady support, especially during the time that the children (and pregnant female) were most vulnerable to danger. But our trend toward monogamy is nowhere near complete; men especially may be polygamous if they get a convenient chance, but taking lovers is apparently built into the biological system even for females. A human female will naturally wish to have a steady mate, but may still be unfaithful, especially with a male of higher status than her spouse. Scientific studies have found that a woman is more capable of conceiving (getting pregnant) with a lover than with her own husband, and that if a man has been away from his mate for at least several hours, he will emit more spermatozoa than usual the next time he has sex with her, presumably as an evolved mechanism to compensate for any lovers she has been with during his absence. To add to the neurotic confusion, many women cover their body with clothing, etc., to prevent men from getting out of control, but then wear clothes that reveal and tantalizingly accentuate the contours of their body, accentuate their sexual attractiveness with cosmetics, and so forth, practically nullifying the effect of the non-nudity. And then there are culturally conditioned sexual ideals that people feel pressured into living up to, and which may be the source of severe anxiety if they fail.
     Add to all this that the female body is designed to arouse lust in men, in accordance with mechanisms of Darwinian sexual selection. One magnificently obvious example of this is the female breast. I would guess that most people naturally assume that women have rounded, protruding breasts all the time, even when they are not lactating, for the purpose of nursing babies; but this is certainly not the case. Most female mammals do not have protruding breasts unless they are nursing babies, or are soon to do so; consider dogs and cats, for instance. The fascinating rounded contours of the female bosom are created not by milk-secreting mammary glands, but by subcutaneous fat deposits. In fact, the zoologist Desmond Morris in his revolutionary book The Naked Ape pointed out that the rounded shape of the human female breast actually makes breastfeeding babies less efficient: the large breasts of a buxom mother may actually interfere with the baby's ability to nurse from them. The smallness of women's nipples also sometimes causes problems. All other primates, including our cousins the chimpanzees, have flat chests (or almost flat) when they are not lactating, plus much longer, more easily suckable nipples. So the rounded protuberances on a woman's chest really are not for nursing babies, but are essentially sexual ornaments, for the purpose of alluring men (or at least one man) into wanting to have sex with her. Desmond Morris put forth the fascinating hypothesis that the curvaceous female breast evolved as a result of our ancestors coming down out of the trees and, partly because of our altered posture, adopting the missionary position for coitus—instinctively the males retained a liking for two smooth, rounded globes to stare at and grope, so when sex transitioned from front-to-back to front-to-front, they favored females who had such shapes on the front side. So we have the rather strange theory that a woman's breasts are actually imitation buttocks! This theory may seem so bizarre as to be dismissed out of hand by most, but it is the only plausible explanation I have ever come across for the existence of perennially protruding breasts in women, aside for Schopenhauer's idea that men are attracted to large-breasted women because of a perception that they would be better at nursing babies. But, as has already been mentioned, this is not actually the case. Regardless of the exact reason why our prehistoric female ancestors began growing a bust-line, the process was very probably reinforced by an evolutionary phenomenon called neoteny, i.e. the retention of infantile characteristics in the adult form, which is common to human evolution—in this case, a profound fascination for Mama's titty. And even if female breasts are not false buttocks, it remains extremely likely that they are there primarily as sexual ornaments, for the purpose of arousing males, not primarily as milk factories.
     Another example of the female body's design to arouse male lust is the fact that a woman's armpit sweat contains relatively high concentrations of pheromones, i.e. chemical sexual attractants. It is no coincidence that this is also one of the few places on a woman's body where she is likely to grow relatively thick hair (unless maybe she shaves it off or is East Asian). So the hair under a woman's arms (and male armpit hair has essentially the same purpose) is to act as a scent trap for concentrating and prolonging the arousing, musk-like aroma of sex. I could give many more examples, but this is enough for present purposes. Maybe I'll write another article someday systematically cataloging the sexual ornaments and attractants (at least 14 of them) of the female human body. I'll do my best to resist the urge to give it a title like "The Female Sex Machine."
     Before proceeding any further with this article, I may as well point out the rather obvious fact that it is written from a male's point of view, mainly for the benefit of other males, especially celibate ones, or those considering celibacy. I may make some observations (like the ones above about breasts) which women may dislike, especially when I get to reasons why a man might be better off celibate. Some men also may dislike them. But I assure one and all that I intend no disrespect to women. I am fully aware that women are equal to (but not the same as) men. I love women. I'm sure a woman could write a similar article from a female point of view, and no doubt such articles have already been written. That's fine with me, especially so long as it is intended to tell the truth, and not to be some kind of sexist propaganda. Anyway, women might find the discussion presented herein to be interesting as offering insights into the male perspective. Feel free to read it as an anthropological study. Plus some advice is equally applicable to both genders, and goes both ways.
     I must admit that human sexuality is a fascinating subject for me as well as for a few billion other humans. I wouldn't be surprised if this article gets significantly more hits than the average posting on this blog. If you find the subject interesting also, yet PCD inspires you to conceal this fact from others, feel free to go into a bathroom and lock the door before you continue reading this.
     I should also point out that this is just an assemblage of ideas on the subject(s) of lust and celibacy. I could never hope to exhaust the subject, and make no attempt to be comprehensive.
     That said, an important point about lust which should be remembered from the beginning is that all libidos are not created equal. Some people are naturally, constitutionally hornier than others. Anyone who has read the Kama Sutra may remember that toward the beginning of that book it divided people up into categories with regard to sex drive. (I don't remember now, but I think the male with the highest level of intrinsic lust was called a "bull man.") So someone with a weak libido may find a raging hormone case incomprehensible, or even willfully perverse. But for many it just comes naturally.
     I derived some insight into this matter by reflecting upon my attitude toward obese people when I was young. I would think things like, "How can they let themselves get like that? Don't they have any self-respect? They're practically crippling themselves out of craving for food. All they have to do is just eat less!" Food has never been one of my major attachments in life. But then I became celibate, and found myself in a similar position to a food addict. We often don't realize how stuck we are so long as we indulge our desires, but when we renounce and stop following the current, we may realize with a shock that we have very deep, very strong desires that are veritable forces to be reckoned with. So a person whose major attachment is not sex should think twice before judging a struggling lecher, and perhaps should even experiment with having compassion, even though the other's position may seem something incomprehensible. (Also, those who think that renouncing worldliness and living in seclusion in a forest is just some kind of arbitrary career choice should think again. To the worldly, renunciation seems unnecessary, maybe even easy, but most of them couldn't do it themselves, because they don't see how stuck they are.)
     When my father was about 80 years old, his wife (not my mother), almost 30 years his junior, had surgery for uterine cancer, and much of her female plumbing, so to speak, was removed, rendering her no longer capable of fulfilling her "wifely duty." My father—about 80, mind you—was sitting in his chair one day with a wistful look on his face, saying that he was sorely tempted to be unfaithful to her, but their marriage was based on trust, and he couldn't bear to do anything that would hurt her…so he realized he must reconcile himself to the fact that he would just have to be celibate for the rest of his life. And I, apparently, am a chip off the old block. Once I was lamenting to him about the challenges involved in celibacy, telling him of how I recently had had three erotic, sticky dreams (ESD) in four nights, and he said, "Give it up, David. The whole family's oversexed." It really can run in families, not only because of upbringing, but because of genetically conditioned constitutional factors. All libidos are not created equal. And as William Blake's Devil has said, "Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling."
     Which leads us to the issue of restraint, or REPRESSION. Considering that some people's lust is weaker than that of others, repression is clearly more effective for some than for others. Nevertheless, it does work, at least superficially, and if you practice it strictly you probably won't explode. If one's hormone-conditioned desire for an orgasm becomes strong enough to create sufficient strain on the system, the system has a kind of self-regulating capacity. In my own case, I had an ESD on average about once every three weeks until around the age of 42, when they mysteriously stopped (and I missed them after they went away). This self-regulation of the bodily system may not be entirely satisfactory, but it helps to keep one from exploding or going completely insane.
     But as Freud pointed out, and Freud knew what he was talking about here, simply repressing a desire does not really make it disappear. It pushes the desire under the surface of the mind, where it accumulates and builds up pressure in the subconscious, until it finally builds up enough pressure to manifest itself as hysterical symptoms. Celibacy through sheer force of will may keep you from breaking rules or social taboos, and may keep you out of trouble at a superficial level, but it also leads to frustration, chronic strain, hysteria, and misery, and may eventually result in such an imbalance of the physical system as to manifest in severe illnesses. This leads to the interesting spiritual question of which is preferable: to be "pure" yet clearly hysterical, or to be more easygoing and also less saintly. It seems to me that many great saints of various spiritual traditions have been very repressed and hysterical; and many have been afflicted by strange health problems that may have been conditioned by the strain of their unnatural virtue. The answer to this question is for each person to answer for himself, or herself. Hysterical sainthood may be well worth it, but it may not be completely healthy.
     One piece of advice that I can give without reservation is that struggling to be celibate, like a fat lady struggling to stay on a diet to lose weight, for example by counting how many days since the last orgasm (maybe even making corresponding marks on the calendar), applying irritants to one's genitalia, visualizing rotting female corpses hanging from meathooks and crawling with maggots, etc., doesn't work. Making a big deal of it doesn't work—because making a big deal and struggling are simply making more sexually-oriented karma that is reinforcing the whole problem. Struggling against something tends to strengthen it. So make little of it: for example, if temptation arises, and you are able, just dismiss it with "not appropriate" and don't give it another thought. It's not a big deal. There are some methods short of stinging one's gonads with nettles that do have some beneficial effect, though. For example, ven. Taungpulu Sayadaw's advice to spiritual seekers to eat less and sleep less can reduce one's sex drive. If one is tired and skinny one may have less extra strength to indulge in orgiastic behavior. Also a vegan diet may help, or a "sattvic" one, using Hindu terminology—i.e., a relatively bland vegetarian one heavy on grains, fruits, nuts, and dairy products.
     Also—and this is an important one—it is much, much, MUCH easier to do something a second time than to do it the first time. Not to mention the third, fourth, and five hundredth time. So don't give in the first time and start up a new, troublesome habit. You can learn indirectly from my own adventures on that one. Or take it from The Mother, former spiritual leader of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in India: "…as soon as one yields to temptation, even 'just for once,' one lessens the resistance of the willpower and opens the door to every failure." But no regret if you don't fully succeed, as regret (as opposed to intention to do better in future) poisons the system with unnecessary negativity, and makes things worse than they already are. Regret is an unskillful mental state.
     Sexual karma that has been made, and that one continues to make in one way or another, is something that must be dealt with. It consists of the momentum of our past sexual habits, mental and physical, as well as the new karma we add through our struggles. The following example, or long digression, is a classic example of this from my own experience.
     In early summer of 1992 I decided to take a bus trip from the monastery in California up to Washington state to visit my parents before the big trip to Asia. In those days I had been a monk for a little more than a year, and had been living in relative sensory deprivation in a tiny shack (about 7½ feet by 5 feet) in a forest, practicing intensive meditation the whole time. I was very strict, and would look at a woman's face only with a single quick glance to see who I was talking to, and then modestly avert my eyes. Sexual urges would be pushed away with impatience, although I still had plenty of them, naturally. Anyway, I figured that as a monk I would fit in better riding the Green Tortoise "hippie bus" than by riding more mainstream mass transit, so that's what I did.
     On the trip north a young woman was riding in a bunk directly above me, and she was very friendly and curious about my life as a monk; so occasionally she would twist her body over the side of the bunk and hang her head upside down in front of me to ask questions. All she was wearing from the waist upwards was a tank top, and on one occasion when she contorted her body to look at me her left breast poked out right through the large arm hole of the tank top. I looked up when she addressed me and found myself looking right into a large, brown, bare nipple. I could easily have reached right out and touched it. But, being strictly modest in those days, I immediately looked downward and answered her questions without ogling. Later the bus stopped at some property owned by the bus company, a kind of combination headquarters and neo-hippie community, to have lunch. I didn't want to break the rules by helping myself to food, nor did I want to hint around for someone else to offer me some, so I decided to fast that day. After turning down an offer to sit in the clothing-optional sauna, I went out to the creek and sat on a large flat rock to meditate. After I had been sitting there a few minutes I heard a fast thumping sound steadily growing louder behind me, so I turned my head just in time to see a completely naked young women bouncily run past me and *sploosh!* into the water she went. On the return trip  from Washington I was required to stop at a meditation center in San Francisco to await a convenient ride back to the monastery. I was climbing a flight of stairs on the outside of the building to wait on a sun deck on the back of the building, when I happened to look down into the neighboring yard—and saw a magnificently beautiful woman, maybe in her early 30's, sunbathing there, wearing nothing but a scanty bikini bottom and, furthermore, with her generously endowed, shapely breasts (false buttocks or no is irrelevant) all oiled up and glistening in the sun. My first impulse was to stand there staring with my mouth open, but I quickly decided that that would be inappropriate. My second impulse was to look for a knothole or a crack in the boards so I could ogle her without being so obvious about it, but that was ruled out also. I finished the climb up the stairs with an aching heart.
     The thing is that never before in my life had I had women that I didn't even know (three of them) exposing themselves to me in practically public places like that, during a single road trip. It was remarkable; and the fact that it happened at a time when I was particularly repressed sexually makes it seem very likely to me that it was a manifestation of my own sexual karma, which was having few opportunities to manifest itself in those days. Hence a sexually repressed person may have temptation thrust upon him in ways that a more self-indulgent person may never experience, as a result of blocked momentum and the karma that results from it.
     Another readily apparent case of the fruition of sexual karma in a lustful yet frustrated celibate person is my experience with The Priestess, especially in 2011. It was such a glorious, miraculous, beautiful case of deep wish fulfillment for both of us that we were firmly inclined to believe that the momentum of our own longing, over the course of years, resulted in its manifestation. It also had the invaluable purpose of showing me ways in which I was very undeveloped; and it also eventually reminded me of reasons why I became celibate in the first place. That whole time is something that I can never regret, regardless of others' disapproval. How can one regret a dream come true? I am a better and happier person for it, even if less popular.
     So if one is repressed, the temptations may become bigger and stronger, as though the natural workings of karma imitate the conduct of Māra, the Buddhist tempter. Māra is built into the system, but sometimes may be of service to spiritual seekers.
     The key to victory for one wishing to be purely celibate seems to be absolute faith, the wholehearted certainty that one should not indulge in sexuality. As Blake's Devil says, those whose desire is weak enough to be restrained may be successful; and absolute stainless-steel faith can overcome any desire. This is one reason why medieval saints and devout Asian Buddhists may be more successful than modern Westerners: we Westerners have insufficient faith. So if we don't have weak enough lust to begin with, our celibacy may be a chronic struggle, and for most, an eventual defeat. Sheer brute willpower cannot be maintained indefinitely. Sooner or later it flags, so absolute certainty is practically essential. Or else maybe a weak libido to begin with.
     And as for me, I'm still not 100.00% convinced that I would be better off without a woman. I can't stop desiring a woman (at least one) because I can't wholeheartedly even want to stop desiring one. I like liking women. I do realize, though, that my liking for them is conditioned by blind animal instinct, and is not so much a deep desire for a mate as something more esthetic—a deep appreciation of feminine beauty, not just physical, although that is obviously important, but emotional too. My acceptance of the glories of womanhood is such that my heart opens much more easily than it does under just about any other circumstances; I can see perfection and "God" in a beautiful woman more easily than I can in almost anyone or anything else. But thus far living a deeply spiritual life and getting gloriously laid has not been feasible, and may never work out. If that's the case, then that's the way it's supposed to be, in my case anyhow. I can live with that.
     Even if our deep desire is not entirely stoppable, and we reconcile ourselves to living with it, it is very important to remember that if desire is unstoppable, then suffering, dukkha, is also unstoppable. So we should do our best to accept and bear that suffering with as much equanimity as we can manage. The Second Noble Truth: Desire is the cause of all suffering. Especially if we insist upon getting what we want.
      
(End of Part 1)