Saturday, February 21, 2015

Life in the Middle of Nowhere


     He's a real Nowhere Man
     Sitting in his nowhere land
     Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

     Doesn't have a point of view
     Knows not where he's going to
     Isn't he a lot like you and me?

     Nowhere Man, please listen
     You don't know what you're missin'
     Nowhere Man, the wor-or-orld is at your command

     He's as blind as he can be
     Sees just what he wants to see
     Nowhere Man can you see me at all?   (—the Beatles)


     Life in Burma/Myanmar is changing slowly but surely out in the rural villages, in accordance with the universal law of Impermanence. For instance, there has been an explosion of cell phones very recently, and solar panels also are becoming common; sometimes one can see some villager riding a bullock cart while talking into his cell phone, and I've seen a crude lean-to made of bamboo and palm leaves, inhabited by a very rustic family, with a solar panel and TV antenna over the roof. Over the past few years young women are more likely to be seen wearing pants, and hair that isn't a natural black. (For a long time after my arrival in Burma in 1993, I remember seeing only one Burmese girl wearing pants, the teenage daughter of an army officer; and Chanmyay Meditation Center in Yangon used to have a sign out front—in Burmese—warning that women wearing pants were not permitted on the premises. And for years I saw no girls with dyed hair except foreigners and movie starlets.) Contrariwise, short skirts and short pants are still taboo in the villages, unlike Yangon. Sampans on the river are on the wane; and I'm kind of sorry to see them becoming outmoded, since they're one of the most comfortable and pleasant ways of traveling in this country. One reason for this decline is the abundance of scooters nowadays, but another reason, as far as I can tell, is that people actually prefer riding in the back of trucks on crummy, very bumpy, dusty roads to comfortably riding on a sampan. Their hair is beige with dust by the time they reach their destination, and some of them wear cloths over their face like train robbers to minimize the amount they inhale, but they prefer this to a comfortable, scenic, non-bumpy, non-dusty ride on a sampan. I don't entirely get this. I suspect that new, motorized land vehicles are simply a higher-prestige mode of transportation than old boats. Human beings take prestige very seriously. Meanwhile, bullock carts are still more numerous than cars. But that is changing too.


Bullock cart at the Lay Myay boat landing

     Still, nothing in rural Myanmar has changed as much as has the West over the past several years. Not only is everything digital there now, and not only do even virgins get tattooed nowadays, but even an entire planet has ceased to exist. When I returned to America in 2011 I was amazed to hear that Pluto is no longer a planet. Some astronomers got together and decreed that it isn't a planet anymore. (They gave some trumped up excuses for this, but I suspect the real reason is simply that they feel it demeans the dignity of astronomers to have a planet named after Mickey Mouse's dog. I've heard that there's at least one planetoid out there bigger than Pluto which also isn't really a planet, but my theory is that it is probably named something like Goofy, so the uppity astronomers don't want anything to do with it.)
     Anyway, coming closer to home, the track going through the wildlife refuge between Wun Bo and Lay Myay villages has view pedestrians now, with almost everyone riding motor scooters. Scooters have taken over within the past five years, with a cheap Chinese one costing only a few hundred bucks, with those who can't afford that riding on the back of someone else's. Most of the pedestrian traffic I see is monks, plus the occasional small group of itinerant peddlers. Also, woodcutting and the poaching of jungle fowl (i.e., wild chickens) around the forest monastery is less common now, for reasons I do not fathom; although based upon the scantiness of the bamboo clumps nowadays, I hypothesize that poaching bamboo shoots from the monastery has not yet become outmoded. Very few pothinyo lizards, monitor lizards, and hawks this year (maybe signifying the end of a predation cycle, with the hawks staying away until the lizards multiply again), and also very few migrating hornbills, although there are lots of little green parrots way up high in the tops of the trees. Plus the standard crows, "camera birds," shelducks and egrets by the river, owls, doves, and cuckoos (who don't say "cuckoo" here, but prefer "dooblagink," "gooble-geebik?" and "bunk-BONG!"). 
     Three monks live here now, in addition to me: old U Khemacāra, the retired doctor, who appears very content and healthy nowadays; U Nandobhāsa, who is second in seniority after me, and who is a scholar retreated into the forest, serious and intelligent; and U Puññadhamma, who is rather shy, with a slight stutter and a chronic worried and/or scared look in his eyes. It may be, though, that ven. U P. is just intimidated by my presence, since I'm the semi-famous abbot and exotic recluse; I have been told that I intimidate people sometimes, even when I have no intention of doing so. U Kh., maybe because he is/was a doctor, is an idea man who keeps coming up with innovative improvements for this place while I'm gone, including masonry steps everywhere, and bamboo poles between the trees of the lower monastery, so squirrels are not required to descend to the ground when moving from tree to tree. 
     Because there are four of us, we do sangha uposatha every full moon and new moon. It has been so long since it was my duty to recite the pātimokkha that I read it from a book. Nobody else knows how to recite it. I'm happy to say that Wun Bo has acquired a reputation for being a serious monastery with "good" monks, even if it is becoming more traditionally Burmese, which is inevitable, especially considering that this is Burma.
     As is to be expected at a quiet forest monastery, not much excitement has been going on here lately. One of the most noteworthy occurrences was when a village man came to me and kneeled on the ground silently for some time. Finally I asked him what he wanted, and he said he wanted to offer his body. I wasn't sure what this meant: Did he want to do chores around the monastery? Then he explained that he wanted to be ordained as a monk here. I explained to him that I don't always live here, and I wouldn't be his preceptor, and he would have to have one. He answered that he already had a preceptor. When I asked him who this preceptor was, he named a local village lady. Then I explained that a preceptor is a senior monk who would ordain him and be his teacher for at least five years. If one of the monks at the lower monastery were willing to accept him, then he could be ordained here. He seemed rather simple, so I wasn't sure if that would be a good idea, but I figured the monks downstairs would be able to decide for themselves. Also I don't much like the idea of this place accumulating a large sangha. Four is already a little much. Anyway, when I eventually told U Khemacāra about it, he was not enthusiastic, and said, with regard to the applicant, "သူက psychiatric problem ရှိတယ်.
     For my first month or so here this time around, I was feeling sleepy and just a little bit dissatisfied. Then it dawned on me that I was making almost no effort to be really mindful, to maintain mindfulness throughout the day. So, I started making more of an effort, or rather just being more attentive, and I experienced a very noticeable expansion of consciousness. My sitting meditation remains substandard; and I suspect that my most effective practice at present is more a matter of consciously maintaining dharma throughout the day, especially when interacting with other beings.
     The improved mindfulness and corresponding expansion of consciousness allowed me to live for a few weeks in some relative silence, stillness, and clarity which was really beautiful. I started AUMing spontaneously more often, and found myself blessing other people spontaneously and sincerely, including people I don't ordinarily like all that much. I was starting to love the world, which does happen sometimes. 
     And then, in the midst of this, I received some American visitors, and one Burmese one, two of the Americans being old friends, and the rest being new ones. I was happy to see them, so I'm not complaining at all here; but it was as though the clarity I was enjoying was too fragile to be maintained, and I could feel it crumbling and slipping away rapidly as I entertained and hung out with my welcome guests. It was sort of as though I were shaken from a deep sleep (or in this case a deep awakeness) before getting the rest I needed.
     One of the old friends was Conor, who lives in Yangon; and I had carefully prepared a little speech for him, many days in advance, even working out the exact inflections I should use. I informed him that a guy named Aaron had left me with a little stack of classic pulp science fiction novels which would be bequeathed to him and Damon (the other old friend), and then I added, "…and I got that play by Shakespeare too!" whereupon, as I had planned, Conor said, "Which one?" whereupon I stared at him as though he were an idiot and said, as to a child, "William." Then I rolled my eyes and shook my head as though to imply, "Which Shakespeare. What a maroon." Gawd I love that. I was glowingly gratified for two days afterwards because good old Conor had so obligingly blundered right into my joke trap.
     One image from that visit which made a peculiar impression on me is of Spencer, the Californian vegan organic ayurvedic herbal specialist and permaculture guru, bathing naked in the Chindwin River at the monastery, and then, before climbing out of the water, standing there, naked as I've already mentioned, and solemnly (or joyously, I dunno) saluting the setting sun like a devout Hindu yogi. That is an image not frequently manifested here. 
     After a few days I accompanied Damon and his cadre back to his property near the ancient city of Pagan, on a bank of the Irrawaddy. I broke a personal record by going to Pagan without visiting a single ancient temple. I spent almost all my time on Damon's property, which he was converting into an agricultural labor camp. The general conversation was so compost-oriented that I started experiencing symptoms of compost traumatic stress disorder (CTSD, known a hundred years ago, around the time of World War One, as "shit shock"). Spencer, bless his heart, is able to orate passionately for half an hour at a stretch on the topic of compost, which, after all, is decomposing vegetables and dung. Also, I was exposed to modern English to which I was unaccustomed, like "snap" used as an interjection, and "epic" this and "stoked" that. There were several Burmese people there too, in addition to the Americans and some French guy named "Fran Swah"; and it was interesting to see the two cultures, Western and Eastern, coming together and blending somewhat like oil and water—really coming into contact, but not absorbing much from the other side. 
     The first morning after arrival, Adam, a bearded young organic guy from California, asked me, "Did you sleep good last night?" I replied that I actually hadn't slept all that well; it was cold, and I had been only slightly above the threshold for shivering, and furthermore I had slept on a wooden floor, so that I was waking up every hour and a half with a sore hip, and would have to turn over carefully to find a more or less comfortable position. After giving my reply I noticed, from his open mouth and blank expression, that I had given an incorrect response. If I had been playing the game aright, I would have cheerfully effused, whether it was true or not, "Slept like a baby! Never better!" whereupon he would smile approvingly and enthusiastically and say something like, "Right on!" A day or two later, after a fellow named Travis had gone for a swim in the river, Adam (who is really a good guy by the way) asked him, "Did it make you feel good?" and upon receiving the expected affirmative reply he gushed appropriately. Based upon my rather limited exposure to American culture over the past few years, it seems to me that this sort of game has become standard practice in some subcultures in American society, including some that are smack dab in the mainstream.
     Now, I am not at all opposed to seeing the positive side of life. Sincere gratitude is a powerful vehicle toward Enlightenment; and one is much better off, probably, seeing the good in life than moaning and complaining all the time about how totally things suck. But even so, when the positive attitude morphs into a game requiring one to ignore, reject, or deny plain facts, then it degenerates into bogus image projection and hypocrisy, a subtle form of dishonesty. 
     The meditation society I was briefly associated with in the West played this game implicitly. Apparently one of the group's main aims was to feel happily "dharmic," and at the Dharma Hall people glided about smiling benevolently and serenely at each other, being, as one member called it, "pathologically polite." But if someone gauchely announced something not altogether positive and outwardly tranquil, a brick would be dropped in the midst of the assembly, causing the atmosphere to change suddenly and radically, bringing on a mood of uneasiness, possibly even tinged with mild panic—whereupon one of the senior teachers would quickly jump in and change the subject, allowing the group to go back to projecting cheerful serenity again.  
     Travis told me that this game is played in American academia also: University professors stand around effusively rhapsodizing over how great their classes are, how great their students are, and how great their academic world is in general; whereas Travis, having been a professor himself, knew full well that, for the most part, they were spouting hogwash, for the sake of projecting an idealized and socially acceptable image of "I am happily successful," in accordance with the rules of the game they didn't realize that they were playing. But I could write an entire article about this kind of aversion for reality, yet don't want to, so I'll just drop the subject and continue moving forwards.
     As though my manifesting karma was acknowledging my aforementioned need for more "solitude mode" and out-chilling, the trip to Pagan and much of my stay there were somewhat inconvenient and frictiony. For example, we had three flat tires on the day of the trip there. Almost as soon as we got there the weather turned abnormally cold, grey, and wet, which rendered bathing problematic for me—the only place to bathe was in the river, which meant I would have to wear one robe while doing it, yet the only way to dry it out afterwards would be to wear it wet and let my body heat dry it. Furthermore, I am somewhat allergic to my own skin oil, so if I don't bathe for more than two days I gradually inflame into a dermatological mess. Finally, after three days of no bath, Conor drove me into town for access to a bathroom. The second time I did this trip the electricity was out, so no warm water, and a centipede was stubbornly positioned right underfoot, with the water pressure from the shower being so weak that it couldn't wash the centipede away. I spent much of the cold, wet days sitting in my hut, since I had little interest in compost anyhow; although I enjoyed hanging out around the campfire in the evenings. I have to admit that I hang out more like a layperson than like a stereotypical monk. Rather than quietly sitting there thinking holy thoughts I listen to the music and crack jokes. I did seriously (well, semiseriously) warn Conor that he was blaspheming, though, after he sang a song about eating chocolate Jesuses. 
     One reason why I came in the first place was to see Damon's wife Stacy and his two little girls. I like all of Damon's family, plus female company often has a tonic-like effect upon me. I was very impressed by four-year-old Amara (now turned five), who, since I saw her last spring, has reached the miraculous age when a vibrant, complex personality is unfolding, yet she is still extraordinarily spontaneous and unselfconscious, not yet having built up the screen of a projected image.
     Someone, noticing that I was being rather withdrawn much of the time, offered me some cannabis as "medicine." So, on the day before we left Pagan, I sat on a rock by the Irrawaddy and "smoked out," occasionally looking around to see if anyone was watching me, rather like I was a high school student smoking dope in a parking lot or back alley during lunch break. The fact that I'm a lightweight now helped me to experience something profound. After taking about four small pipeloads I was doing walking meditation by the river in a state of chemically-aided exaltation. I could feel, very clearly, that there was a full spectrum of "realities" available simultaneously, from everything sucking and being horrible to everything being divinity, perfection, and "God," with everything in between, with all of them right there, equally available; and it is up to us which one to choose. It wasn't just a matter of various possible thoughts or attitudes, but different levels of experiential reality, different "vibrations" that can be accessed, all existing simultaneously. Also I sensed vividly that Enlightenment also is always right there, or rather here, looking us right in the face. It is always an option. I could see this very clearly, and the thought arose in my mind, "There is always a way out"—signifying that there is always, right here, right now, Nirvana. It seemed so obvious. I feel that there must always be beings in this world who realize this with total clarity.
     I also felt that, with all of those potentialities being there available and equally possible, there was a higher level of consciousness flowing through me even when I was unaware of it. It wasn't a feeling of being some kind of messianic "chosen one" with a higher power working through me; it was more a feeling of a reality higher than the functioning of my perceived ego which was very real and working at its own level through this system, just as "I," the perceptual ego, was working on its own stuff. I suspect that this is a good reason to be openminded: so as not to be totally closed off to whatever is higher than "me." To use some theological lingo, God is looking us right in the face all the time, calling to us, and our own habitual, tiny ideas of what reality is prevent us from seeing This, from being This. God is looking out through our eyes too. And some blessed beings know this and experience this totally and effortlessly, without even being high on dope.
Part of the process of awakening is recognizing that the realities we thought were absolute are only relative. All you have to do is shift from one reality to another once, and your attachment to what you thought was real starts to collapse. Once the seed of awakening sprouts in you, there's no choice—there's no turning back. (—Baba Ram Dass)
     Drugs are not necessarily an "escape from reality." For many people drugs are a means of acquiring an alternative point of view, a realization that what most people consider to be "reality" is not necessarily real at all. Before monkhood the use of drugs like marijuana and LSD were a major part of my spiritual practice (which is one reason why Ram Dass was one of my first spiritual heroes). Even so, it is true that most people take drugs as an escape, as a way of feeling different from the way they feel, as a way of not facing what's coming up spontaneously—like so many other activities, including watching TV, having sex, eating unnecessarily complexly-prepared and delicious food, and even practicing meditation itself. As Sayadaw U Jotika ("Mahamyaing U Zawtika") has said, there are people out there who use meditation as a substitute for narcotics. They do it in order to feel different. Anyway, the generous Someone offered to me most of what she had, which was maybe a gram; and so I finally fulfilled a dream I have had for many years: smoking out and getting magnificently high in my cave. It's especially good for walking meditation. 
     After several days of the aforementioned karmic inconvenience near Pagan, my trip back to Wun Bo was as smooth as proverbial silk. It was as though the Powers that Be were helping me to come back, to continue with what I started and wasn't finished with. As soon as I got off the bus in Monywa, intending to walk across town to the Mahasi Center where I was to spend the night, a man walked up to me and offered me a free ride on his beat-up three wheeler. At the Mahasi Center the venerable Sayadaw who continually exhorts me to stay at an American Burmese monastery near "Poat Wayne" was temporarily away to Yangon. And during the night I had almost-fast Internet access, which allowed me to catch up on about three hours of computer stuff, including maintenance of this blog. I was offered a deluxe ride back to Wun Bo in a fancy SUV with Angry Birds decor owned by the generous and devout proprietor of a beer garden in town (the sampans, being outmoded, were not running on that day); and upon arrival at the cave I found, curled right behind the door, a rat snake about four feet long and about as big around as a banana. How a snake that big got into the cave with the door closed I'll never know; anyway, it was my auspicious welcome back. I love snakes. 
     Very recently I was reading a book by Ram Dass (Polishing the Mirror, the same book quoted above) which pointed out that by adding one little hyphen "nowhere" becomes "now-here." So, nowadays I'm living in the middle of now-here, being more mindful than usual, being more expanded and blissful than usual, spontaneously AUMing quite a lot, and blessing the beings I encounter, including birds, squirrels, humans, dogs, and a little, lime-green praying mantis I found on the water pot this morning, and probably the same auspicious rat snake this afternoon. Solitude mode is flourishing nowadays. Blessings are upon all beings...except maybe certain kinds of insect.
     Yet, despite the blissfulness of this cold season at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, I'm not sure if I'll ever come back. Then again, it's also possible that next time I may come back to stay, until I'm too old to stand the savage ruthlessness of the environment here during the hot and monsoon seasons. (I have cussed the deva in charge of the weather here so many times that I can't expect much mercy.) 
     And even life here in the cave is changing, in accordance with the universal law of Impermanence. I now wallow in the decadence of owning three spoons, all of which I use. Also I wallow in the decadence of a solar panel and alternating current, using my computer whenever I want to, and no longer reading by candlelight. After several weeks I'm finally overcoming the habit-ridden urge to lean over in the morning and blow out the lightbulb before setting out for almsround.
   
     



Saturday, February 14, 2015

Scientific Objectivity (or: Beneath the Revenge of the Reloaded Bride of Why I Keep Bashing Scientism)


     The object is an object for the subject. —Seng T'san

     The purpose of this post is really not to "bash" Scientism. Instead, I'll try to explain certain limitations of science and scientific method which show that the transition of science into Scientism is without a valid foundation. I'm trying to be a little careful here, because it is too easy to adopt the attitude that, if one finds oneself confronted with a brick wall, then one should commence beating one's head against it. 
     Science, then, is based on objectivity. It is also based on lots of other psychological phenomena like symbolism and logic, but let's focus on objectivity. Let's make it our objective, and let's begin with an objective definition of it. The New Oxford American Dictionary says this:
(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts: historians try to be objective and impartial. Contrasted with subjective.
• not dependent on the mind for existence; actual: a matter of objective fact.
That second definition following the bullet is indicative of the juggernaut-like importance objectivity has acquired in modern attempts to understand Reality, but maybe I'll get back to that. Right now I'll add another definition which I'll be working with, or chewing on, in the following discussion: 
objective refers to an attitude which emphasizes the object, rather than the subject, in the act of human perception. 
In a way, this is just another way of stating the first dictionary definition exhibited above; yet my version may be a less objective way of saying it.
     The ordinary process of human perception involves artificially dualizing our world of experience into object and subject—the entity being observed, and the "self" doing the observing, which latter may be nothing more than the unobserved mental context surrounding that observed entity. Thus objectivity, or observed objects, make up only half, roughly, of our world of experience. It forms only half of the duality. We may try to objectivize different aspects of the subject end of the duality, thereby bringing into the realm of objectivity; but by this very process it changes and becomes something different than it was, somewhat like an organ pulled out of a living body or a cup of water pulled out of the ocean. Furthermore, if science tries to objectify the subject, as with psychology or cognitive science, it only perpetuates the duality, since objectivity, as mentioned above, necessitates a subject as well, and half the world as it immediately presents itself to us is still inevitably ignored. 
     To further complicate matters, mentality in general cannot be adequately observed under laboratory conditions as "hard science," as it cannot be quantified precisely, so our immediate experience is interpreted by science in terms of brain chemistry, which is a far cry from what we are actually, directly experiencing. Mentality is all that we really know, since knowing is itself mental, yet science must convert it into something else in order to measure it and thereby "understand" it. Thus, ironically, attempts to develop systems based on our immediate experiences instead of on abstracted theories of epiphenomenal brain chemistry may be dismissed as unscientific, lacking an adequate methodology for understanding Reality, or, in spiritual, non-objective attempts, they may even be dismissed as "blind faith"—despite their being based on direct experience instead of abstracted theory. 
     Fundamental aspects of human existence, like ethics, justice, compassion, love, beauty, etc., are not primarily objective (for example, hard science is essentially amoral, with ethical considerations affecting it from outside the system); and attempts to objectify them—not in terms of Buddhist mindfulness techniques, but in terms of brain chemistry, genetically conditioned animal instincts modified by cultural input, etc.—mutate them into something else, so that they cannot really be understood as they are. So all this is one big consideration.
     Yet because subjectivity is (roughly) half of our psychological, perceived world, it is inescapable even within the laboratory conditions of science. It is not just ignored background either, but is integral to scientific method itself in various ways.
     Scientific method involves the observation of natural phenomena, the formulation of hypotheses regarding patterns repeated in nature, and the testing of those hypotheses through experimentation which limits as well as possible all variables except the ones tested, and which makes predictions. If it passes its tests, then a hypothesis becomes a theory; and the value of a theory lies in its ability to make predictions regarding future natural phenomena. (That is a very simplistic way of explaining scientific method, and I hope I didn't botch it badly enough for serious followers of science to jump on it and tear it apart.) Now, the thing is that hypotheses do not generate themselves, and they do not follow logically and inevitably from the data collected from the observed natural phenomena; the formation of hypotheses is certainly guided by objectivity, but is fundamentally subjective. 
     One of the first scientific all-stars to publicly acknowledge this fact was Jules Henri Poincaré, a French mathematician and philosopher of science who was reputed to be the foremost scientific authority in the world at the turn of the 20th century. Among other things, he prophesied relativity theory before Einstein worked out the math. Anyway, he was intrigued by the way mathematical proofs would occur to him sometimes. For example, on one occasion he was on vacation and was pretty much ignoring mathematics, when suddenly, while stepping onto a bus, he realized that his "Theta-Fuchsian Series" of functions was perfectly congruent with non-Euclidian geometry. This sort of thing happened to him more than once, and after considerable reflection he eventually arrived at the idea that scientific formulation of hypotheses was largely subjective—which other scientists at the time didn't like at all.
     Poincaré said, "If a phenomenon admits of a complete mechanical explanation it will admit of an infinity of others which will account equally well for all the peculiarities disclosed by experiment." In other words, anything in physical nature can potentially be explained in an infinite number of ways, all of them being equally plausible. Later in the 20th century Bertrand Russell also emphasized this idea, for example in his book Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits. Also, if any of you have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance you may recall that this same idea inspired Robert Persig (alias Phaedrus), a teenage prodigy with a measured IQ of 170, to drop out of the university he was attending and to forsake a career in science. His version was, "The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite." Decades later, while writing his classic book, he added:
     If true, that law is not a minor flaw in scientific reasoning. The law is completely nihilistic. It is a catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity of all scientific method!
     If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge. 
     Getting back to Poincaré though, he said that our subjective sense of balance and elegance is what guides our search for a suitable hypothesis. We choose from a multitude, potentially an infinite number, of possible ones, and we choose the ones that are interesting, the ones that we like. And that is subjective. And the ones we can even think of to test are limited by our subjective imagination. The more imaginative we are subjectively, the more and better hypotheses we can think of to put to the test. But human imagination is limited, not to mention human, and it's hardly likely that, objectively or otherwise, we'll ever figure it all out. There may be, for all we know, obvious facts staring us in the face which our humanity prevents us from seeing. And we'll never be able to test all plausible hypotheses.
     Add to this that, as was mentioned above, scientific method tests hypotheses by their predictive power. Thus science is not so much explaining Reality as setting up an elaborate system, first and foremost, for making predictions. It's not primarily the reasonableness and plausibility of a theory that causes it to be accepted as valid, but its ability to predict the future behavior of phenomena (or its logical derivation from a theory which does make accurate predictions). And it seems to be a more or less unexamined axiom of science, or rather of Scientism, that making accurate predictions at the observational level is an adequate means of determining the metaphysical nature of Reality.
     Just because a system can make consistent, accurate predictions along certain lines does not mean that it actually understands Reality. For example, a computer program could be devised (and I'm sure many have been devised) which can predict with fair accuracy what groups of people will buy in grocery stores, but this does not imply that the program, or even the programmer, understands the reasons why people buy this or that. It's simply, for the program especially, a processing of certain patterns of data. On the other hand, a more "realistic" explanation of Reality, one which deeply understands the situation to some degree, may be less useful in making predictions. A standard, classic example could be "God made it that way"—or, for Buddhist analogs, "Karmic volition made it that way," or "Ignorance made it that way." It may be true, but it's not so good for making predictions.
     So combining the last two points, 1) that valid hypotheses are potentially infinite in number for explaining any particular phenomenon, with scientists choosing their favorites with a profound and limiting subjective bias, and 2) that science is more a system for making accurate predictions than for actually explaining Reality, then we may arrive at the following hypothetical conclusion: that science is as much a matter of invention as of discovery, a kind of intellectual technology analogous to material technology. To give a crude example, a ball-point pen does not explain Reality, but it is much more efficient and useful for writing about Reality than its predecessors, the fountain pen, the steel-nibbed pen dipped into an inkwell, the sharpened goose quill, and the reed or stick or whatever it was that preceded goose feathers. And whatever comes after ball-point pens, like a gel pen with some kind of polymer fiber tip (or an advanced word processor), will still not explain Reality, but will be ever more useful and efficient in writing about it. I doubt that anyone insists that pen manufacturers are working toward producing the true and perfect pen—they're just working toward producing better and more useful ones. The true and perfect pen does not, and probably cannot, exist, not even in Plato's heaven.
     Science is designed for making predictions, and the attempted explanations of Reality which happen to accompany these predictions may ultimately be irrelevant "filler," especially with regard to the metaphysical assumptions involved. This is arguably the case with the alleged pseudoscience of astrology today: it may somehow make useful predictions, at least when they are made by a talented and skillful astrologer, but the predictions may have little if anything to do with the attempted explanation of the reasons behind these predictions—in this case, the positions, movements, and influences of stars, planets, and the moon. Thus, if this is a valid way of looking at the matter, and science is an invented device used for making accurate predictions, with the accompanying explanations of Reality being ultimately superfluous or irrelevant, then science is still valid and useful, even if we don't know exactly why, but it is not worthy of being elevated to the religion of Scientism, i.e. the belief that science has Reality figured out. As though Reality could be figured out. (This approach to science, by the way, is called instrumentalism, and has been around for a long time, with one of its more eminent advocates being the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach.)
     There is a famous Zen story about a scholar who visits a Zen master. The master, as is often the case in stories about Zen masters, serves his guest a cup of tea. He pours tea into the scholar's cup until it is completely full, and continues pouring. Tea overflows the cup and runs all over the table, and the master just keeps pouring, until finally the scholar can't contain himself any more and exclaims, "It's already full! No more will go in!" The Zen master then replies, "Yes. Your mind is the same way. It is already full of its own ideas, and no more will go in. So I can't tell you anything about Zen." This is reminiscent of some of my attempts to teach Dharma to people in America. Their minds are so full of the American point of view, which in many respects is at odds with fundamental principles of Dharma, that not much goes in. From an outsider's perspective it is easy to see…but we are all human. People nowadays, even in the West, are just about as stuck in their belief systems, which is to say, in Samsara, as they ever were. So I can point out some of the limitations of science and especially of Scientism, and receive comments like, "But science is based on evidence," which statement is true, but was never at issue; and worse yet, comments implying that a yogic system like Buddhist Dhamma, the essential core of which is direct, personal experience, is based upon "blind faith" because it is not wholly in accordance with laboratory objectivity, going with the idea that what is not scientific, or Scientistic, is therefore invalid. True, some aspects of spirituality and "yoga" may be invalid from a scientific point of view, but it remains to be demonstrated that all of Reality necessarily follows the rules of science, or of objectivity. It seems to me that Reality, as opposed to the world of perceptual symbols in which most of us are stuck, doesn't follow the rules of science, or of any perceptual system. I may as well add that to dismiss as invalid any system not in accordance with the axioms of one's own belief system (which is what the medieval Christians, who were just as intelligent as us, did also) is a matter of begging the question, i.e., of using the restrictions of one's own point of view to justify one's own point of view, and to invalidate others.
     The best advice I can give for one trying to appreciate Reality is to adopt a way of seeing which ignores nothing and excludes nothing, especially not half of our world of experience. A comprehensive perspective would thus include both subjectivity and objectivity—although if one becomes adept at this art one may find that the two halves of the perceptual world merge together and transcend the duality altogether, with no object, and no subjective "self" observing the object. This may be viewed by objective hardheads as soft-headed, touchy-feely mysticism, but Reality itself is not objective or subjective (or symbolic, or rational), so this approach of non-exclusion and non-ignorance, and maybe of mysticism besides, comes much closer to Reality as it really is, not as it is theorized.
     Finally, as mentioned already, ethics, compassion, love, goodness, beauty, divinity, etc. etc. will always be beyond the grasp of mere objectivity; and attempting to dismiss or invalidate what cannot be objectified from our interpretation of Reality, and from our functioning in the world, can result in a civilization composed of robotic heart retards, or zombies—and Western civilization seems already to have taken a few steps in that direction. So let's accept science for what it is, and not take Scientism too seriously. Just be as awake as possible, and materialism doesn't stand a chance.
     I suppose all this could still qualify as "bashing," couldn't it. Oh well. 

The object ceases when the subject is quieted. —Seng-T'san





Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mettā Meditation: The Pebble Method


     In the past I have written a few posts on the rather important subject of love, compassion, and "heart," and sometimes people have posted comments asking about how to develop these invaluable treasures. Also, I have looked back on my posts for the past several months, and they seem to be predominantly negative in tone—pointing out how this or that is messed up, or reflecting upon death and destruction, or just indulging in nondescript cynicism. (In Dharma, tearing down samsaric systems is much more important than building them up, but still there can be too much of a good thing.) So, in this week's post I'd like to write about the uplifting and relatively non-negative subject of mettā meditation.
     Before getting any farther, though, I should admit here that I don't like practicing formal mettā meditation. My love and benevolence do not switch on and off like an electric light, and attempting to formalize them as a systematic practice feels too hokey and artificial. I've found that the best way to cultivate mettā is to interact closely with another being; then I'm not sitting back in a cave abstractly beaming love to "all beings," but am in a position where I can lower Pink Floyd's wall directly and feel the divinity in another being, another version of "me." I can feel, not just conceptualize, that that other being is just as important as I am, and just as much of a "me" as I am. And the more difficult the person, the more advanced the practice. So for me, the best mettā practice involves interacting with others and letting it develop more or less spontaneously, with a little volitional guidance, like reminding myself to be open and accepting, and sharing blessings. Mostly it's spontaneous. (This is one reason why living alone helps me to be cynical.)
     But there are all kinds of people in this world, and I have no doubt that many do derive much benefit from practicing some form of systematic mettā meditation. You might be one of them. If you do practice formal mettā meditation, I would just suggest that you make sure you're really radiating love, and not just pretending. The following example may illustrate what I'm getting at.
     I once knew a Burmese lady who boasted to me once about how every morning she practices mettā meditation and sends love to all beings in the Universe. This particular lady, though, bless her heart, is a real combatant, with an attitude and a flinty look in her eye like the Apache warrior Geronimo. If she weren't continually feuding with someone or other (and she's not very fussy about who it is) she'd be bored stiff. At this particular time she was at war with a fellow named U Toe about some old pagodas on her family's land which U Toe had restored, and then, in Burmese fashion, he had put up an advertisement/inscription with his name on it—on her pagodas. So they were battling over his right to put his name on her pagodas. And thus, at the time, he was her archenemy. Bearing this situation in mind, when she bragged to me about her mettā practice, I reminded her that when she sends mettā to all beings in the Universe, she's also sending it to good old U Toe. At this she suddenly flared up and exclaimed, angrily, "No! Not him!"
     So it is important not to deceive oneself; and if one is doing a systematic (and therefore somewhat artificial) practice of cultivating goodwill, it is important to be sure one is really, sincerely cultivating goodwill, and not just pretending with a kind of warm, sentimental feeling, or just words.
     Anyway, long ago I read a book by a famous Burmese sayadaw named U Uttamasāra, who lived in a remote mountain forest and was believed by many to have psychic powers. (He seems to have bragged a little about these powers, which may help to explain why so many people believed he had them.) In his book he included a really nice method for sending mettā to a difficult person, that is, one who is so difficult that it is hard to work up any actual mettā when thinking of them directly. Even though I don't do formal mettā practice, I feel intuitively that this method could be really effective. 
     Before explaining the method though, I will point out that feeling love for your enemies—or rather, feeling love for people who consider you to be their enemy, or who are otherwise hostile or obnoxious toward you—is at once a difficult, advanced, and very beneficial practice. The Theravadin tradition advises a mettā meditator to begin with someone neutral, who is neither beloved nor hated, and then to progress to loved ones and enemies after becoming more proficient. But the following method is specially designed for the difficult, obnoxious ones. Even if you're a beginner, it may be useful in an emergency.
     The method requires a clear glass tumbler or similar vessel, fresh water, and a pebble—ideally the cutest little round pebble you can find. Find that cute little pebble, and name it after the person who gives you trouble. Let's call it Zolnar. So what you do with this pebble is to honor it in place of the person you can't honor directly without cringing with distaste. Every day, mindfully fill the little glass with fresh water, and gently and carefully place the pebble into it. Then place the glass on a place of honor: if you have an altar, put it there, or otherwise place it on a high shelf, or some such (and not in the bathroom, or in a closet). Then, for just a few minutes every day, or more if you're really into it, beam love into that pebble. Think things like, "Just as Zolnar the little pebble is surrounded by fresh, clean, cool, clear water, so may the other Zolnar be surrounded by blessings, light, happiness, and love. May the gods ever smile upon his journey, just as I smile upon this pebble." Repeat this short ritual every day, keeping the water freshly changed, and the pebble honored. And don't let the words degenerate into a mere repeated formula, but come up with your blessings as spontaneously and sincerely as possible. That's all there is to it. Just love Zolnar indirectly, by way of a pebble representative.
     One reason why it is so difficult to love people who make trouble for us and make our life more difficult than it would be otherwise, is a natural primate instinct of justice, or maybe just revenge. We feel that a person who acts like a bitch or a colossal ass shouldn't be rewarded by returning their hostility with love. It just doesn't seem fair. Why should they be happy when they make others around them so unhappy?
     But here's the thing: As a general rule, only unhappy people are inclined to make trouble for others. Happy, smiling, contented people are quite willing to live and let live. In fact, if one is expanded, then one feels intuitively that hurting another actually hurts oneself also, and brings one down. A really happy person naturally recoils from it. Being hostile is a contracting, unhappifying experience, regardless of any animalistic, hooting laughter it may elicit. If a person is being deliberately or uncaringly obnoxious, it is usually because that person is hurting, and doesn't want to be the only hurting one, or the most hurting one. So by forgiving and loving them—and forgiveness and love have real power, and the method I just described also has real power if one isn't pretending—then they become less inclined to hurt others because they themselves are hurting less. They may even become loving themselves. There is one case in ven. Uttamasāra's book of a woman who practiced the pebble method with regard to her supervisor at work, who suddenly one day approached her and sincerely apologized for his past behavior, having experienced an inexplicable change of heart. The power of mettā, of loving acceptance and goodwill, really can uplift both people involved, both the giver and the receiver, even if the receiver has no conscious knowledge of the giver's pebble. Revenge, or closed-off alienation, doesn't really work.
     Now go out there and love somebody.