Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Brief, Incoherent Theory of Psychic Powers

     "The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." —Arthur C. Clarke

     "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." —the same guy

     This article will discuss such phenomena as sorcery, psychic talents and attainments, miracles, and enlightenment, the existence of which, I realize, are positively disbelieved by the scientific materialists of the West, including many who consider themselves to be Buddhists. If you're not willing even to consider the possibility that the so-called Laws of Physics may be broken, then this article is not for you. You're silly. Read the Wall Street Journal, or just go meditate.
     It is a kind of Western intellectual hubris which believes, takes for granted even, that it understands Reality. (It is a universal law of human nature that we all can accept that other cultures, and even our own culture a hundred years ago, are/were ignorant and superstitious...but that WE have finally found The Truth. Almost everyone throughout history has been like this. "Yeah, but this time we really have found the truth!"—Og of the White Sky Clan, 12551BCE) Really what Western wisdom has is a set of plausible and useful explanations for those aspects of Reality which scientists (and common people) are able to perceive; total Reality is infinite, as many scientists, even, are inclined to suppose, and infinitely beyond the scope of human perception or imagination, very probably even in our immediate vicinity. We, and our instruments, may simply be incapable of detecting most of what is all around us, even what is staring us right in the face. We are like people trying to understand an iceberg without seeing so much as the tip of that iceberg; all we can see is waves and ripples bouncing off of it. Intellectuals may come up with truly ingenious methods for determining the size and shape of its cross section where it emerges from the water, etc., but they can't even know that it is made of ice. Or, we are like blind worms, at least so long as we are trying to understand Reality by thinking about it intellectually.
     Before wading any farther, I will point out that what I intend to write about is primarily about psychic phenomena that are conscious. From a Buddhist or Hindu point of view, we are all performing miracles all the time, through the subconscious or semiconscious (or maybe superconscious) workings of karma. Phenomena are mind-made, as the first verse of the Dhammapada declares. Our karma, consisting of volitional mental states, is conditioning our environment all the time, and in ways that scientists do not recognize (except for a few unorthodox cranks on the fringe of respectable science).
     One of the more primitive forms of psychic phenomena is vulgarly known as "magic." My father was a nondenominational warlock (not Wicca) who ran a coven of witches of sorts for a few years, mainly as an exploration of what he called "the occult," so I figure I know enough about the subject to say a few things about it. First, apparently, magic sometimes really works, especially if the people involved believe that it works. It can cure illnesses, for example; and even if the cure is only the placebo effect relieving psychosomatic symptoms, still, it works. Once a woman in my father's group had a troublesome rash on her skin, so the group got together, did their spells, and removed it. Then the rash reappeared in a different place, so they got together and removed it again. After it came back the third or fourth time, they figured that she had some karmic need for it, so they simply moved the rash to a place where it would cause as little inconvenience as possible (to her leg), and there it stayed.
     One reason sorcery, at least in the form of witchcraft, works, even with worldly people whose concentration may not ordinarily be all that strong, is that gimmicks are used to focus the power of one or many minds onto a single object. Group participation in rituals, with group incantations and synchronized rhythmic bodily movements, help to focus ordinarily weak mental energies into something much stronger, somewhat like a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight sufficiently to ignite paper. Also, of course, the people's belief that it is possible very much helps it to be possible. Many witches are notoriously immoral, so the purity of mind which, according to orthodox Buddhism, allows psychic powers to be performed are not much of an issue here—unless maybe, through a kind of temporary dissociation, a talented witch can briefly accentuate what purity she or he has. But enough about witches.
     Psychic powers, such as knowing the minds of others, remembering one's own past lives, or, in more extreme cases, disappearing in one place and instantaneously reappearing somewhere else, which are relatively very rare in the modern West but are allegedly more common in places where modern Westernism does not yet predominate, are, according to texts like the Visuddhimagga, dependent upon great purity of mind and intense concentration (samādhi). This may be one reason, in addition to widespread positive disbelief, why such phenomena are so rare nowadays. 
     A saint who has cultivated his or her mind to the extent that he or she can, say, look into another person's mind and see where they are stuck, or, like Sai Baba was reportedly able to do, even to materialize solid objects, has not really acquired a new power, but has simply cleared away the rubbish which had previously obscured it. The more evolved one is, the fewer mind-made limitations one has. After all, Infinity is flowing through us all the time. An unenlightened saint who still cherishes a sense of self, however, may still exercise some power of will over the exercise of these powers. 
     I may as well add that this issue of intensive mental cultivation and purity may help to explain why Western teachers who claim, or are claimed, to be enlightened, or just very highly advanced, tend to be what in Theravada is called "dry-visioned"—that is, highly advanced without having corresponding psychic powers. I would imagine that strange coincidences ("synchronicity") happen all the time around such people, yet as far as I have heard, people like Eckhart Tolle, Paul Lowe, and Byron Katie do not have a reputation for performing miracles. On the other hand, many Eastern renunciants like Neem Karoli Baba and Sai Baba allegedly had miracles happening around them all the time. Westerners, even those who experience some kind of transcendent breakthrough, tend not to have dedicated nearly so much effort into cultivating deep concentrative states, or into purifying their mind and body sufficiently to cultivate them. Furthermore, they live in a culture which, for the most part, considers such things as psychic powers not to exist anyway. A wall of disbelief is still a very effective wall. The deep need for the miraculous in Western humanity has to manifest itself in a way that Western disbelief can accept, mainly in the form of the miracles of technology. This computer that I am typing on now, to me, is a miracle. But it is a miracle much limited by the limitations of modern belief.
     Another possible reason why saintly people from spiritually-oriented cultures are more likely to have psychic powers, which may, maybe paradoxically, go hand in hand with the former explanation, is that people are more likely to have faith in saintly people. They are more likely to believe that this person is able to perform miracles or psychic feats. Those of you who have read the Bible may recall that after Jesus would heal a sick person, the person would often thank him, whereupon Jesus would reply that it was that person's own faith that had healed him or her. Also, there is the story of Jesus's return to his own home town of Nazareth, where the people didn't see him as an inspired prophet, but just as an uppity carpenter—the result of which being that he was unable to perform many miracles there. He healed a few sick people, cast out a demon or two, and went away, saying, "No prophet is without honor except in his own home town." Nowadays the proverb could be modified to say that no prophet is without honor except in a place that is westernized. In a culture without veneration, nobody is venerable; in a culture without divinity, nothing and nobody is sacred. Our thoughts have incredible power to condition our world, and if someone believes in you, it makes you stronger.  
     When a being evolves (or whatever happens) to the state of being fully enlightened, there would seem to be some fundamental differences from the unenlightened variety of psychic power, since 1) enlightened beings cherish no sense of self, or of any doer of any action; 2) they do not create karma either, and thus presumably perform no volitional actions at all (karma and volition being essentially identical); and 3) they have knocked down all barriers against Infinity, or at least have transcended them, so that the flow of Infinity (if it can be called a "flow") moves through them without obstruction. So it would seem that the "miracles" associated with some enlightened being or other are not actually done by them, but spontaneously happen, effortlessly, in accordance with the karma of those around them. Neem Karoli Baba, who was a constant focus of seemingly impossible occurrences, often denied doing anything, insisting, "sub ishwar hai," or, "It's all God." Following are a couple of examples of his behavior, extracted from Ram Dass's beautiful, graceful, magnificent book Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba.

     On one occasion a caravan of army trucks stopped at the gate, and hundreds of soldiers came and stood in line. Maharajji was talking to a farmer sitting beside him. One by one the soldiers and officers came forward, bent over and touched Maharajji's feet, looked at him for another moment, and then turned away. That experience was all most of them seemed to want. But every so often one would come forward who seemed different—perhaps seeming to have a bit more light or perhaps seeming to suffer more. Many times I watched as such a person bent forward. Maharajji would hit him on the head, or give him a flower, or interrupt his conversation to say something to him, such as, "Your mother will be all right," or "You shouldn't fight with your superiors," or "You love God very much." We could see only the tiniest fraction of what Maharajji saw.
     The soldiers wanted pictures of Hanuman (the protecting deity of the Indian army) and of Maharajji, to carry as protection in war. Maharajji said, "The army has good and simple and spiritual men." It was not as if Maharajji were "deciding" to do this or that; rather, the nature of the seeker was eliciting from him, as from a mirror, this or that response.

     A number of us Westerners were meditating together at a Buddhist ashram in Bodh Gaya. After a time, some of us were ready to take a break and go on to Delhi, several hundred miles away, to celebrate Shiva's birthday. One of the women in the group, who had come to India overland by charter bus, reported that the bus driver wanted to hang out with us, too. So thirty-four of us left Bodh Gaya and met the bus in Benares and started to drive to Delhi. 
     One of the men in the group, Danny, had left the courses briefly in the middle to visit Allahabad, in order to experience a Kumbha Mela. He had returned deeply impressed and bringing us each small medallions depicting the monkey, Hanuman, which he had purchased on the mela grounds. 
     When it turned out that the bus route went right by Allahabad, Danny pressed us to visit the mela grounds. I protested that the mela was now over and it would just be an empty piece of river bank. But he pointed out that it was one of the most sacred spots in India. Some of us were tired, for it was only our first day out in the world after such sustained meditation practice, and all we really wanted was to get to the dharmasalla where we planned to stay overnight. The thought of even driving the few miles out of our way to get to the river was not appealing, and yet it was a very holy place. I weighed the merits of the alternatives and finally agreed that we should go to the river for a brief stop to watch the sunset. 
     As we approached and drove down into the mela grounds, which were now quite deserted, the driver asked where he should park. Danny pointed to a place that he said was near a Hanuman temple and also was the spot where he had purchased the small medallions. 
     As the bus was pulling up to that spot, someone yelled, "There's Maharajji!"
     Sure enough, walking right by the bus with Dada, there he was. We all scrambled off the bus and rushed to his feet. I was having an hysterical crying-laughing fit. I remember kissing his feet in bliss and at the same moment my mind being aware that the spot of sand on which he was standing smelled strongly of urine. 
     Dada later told us that as the bus came into view, Maharajji had said, "Well, they've come." 
     Maharajji instructed us to follow them, and the bus followed the bicycle rickshaw to Dada's house on the suburban street of this great university city. Within minutes we were given food, and arrangements were made for us to lodge at a nearby estate with another devotee. I was told that since morning the servants had been preparing food under Maharajji's orders in anticipation of our coming. But if that were so, which of us thought he was making a decision in the bus about whether to visit the mela grounds? Apparently all was not as I "thought" it was.

     Setting aside alleged feats of teleportation, being in multiple places simultaneously, walking on water, defying the law of conservation of matter by multiplying food, etc., there is nothing against the laws of physics for someone to say, for example, "You were thinking about your mother," even if the other person really had been thinking of her, with no ordinary way for the first person to know. It could just be a remarkable coincidence, a "lucky guess." I suspect that this is the way it works. The enlightened being isn't "doing" anything; subjectively at least, there's nobody even there. An enlightened being is nobody, except maybe for a reflection of whomever he or she is interacting with. The sage simply responds spontaneously, not necessarily knowing or not knowing any particular thing, and it just happens, repeatedly, to blow people's minds. Without rigidly narrow-minded beliefs about what is possible and impossible, Infinity flows unhindered.
     For that matter, our everyday behavior and our everyday karma are manifestations of the flow of Infinity, in these latter cases flowing through the channels of our unenlightened limitations, our limiting beliefs and semiconscious habits. Even scientists may agree to this, at least to the manifestation of Infinity aspect of it. Positive disbelief is a huge creator of such channeling limitations. A thought has much greater power than almost anybody realizes. All in all, it is a good policy to be skeptical in the classical sense of the word—that is, neither believing nor disbelieving, but simply suspending judgement. After all, the Universe is absolutely Infinite, and totally beyond a blind worm's mental capacity to comprehend it fully.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Poetry and Precepts

     Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air;
     Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

     The following is in no way intended to denigrate my good and gifted friend Conor, who writes free verse poetry that doesn't rhyme.
     Although I'm not very poetically inclined, being more of the "scientific" temperament than the "artistic," or more philosophical than religious, more idea-oriented than feeling-oriented, still I do write a little poetry. Much of it has been limericks and general fooling around, like this one, decomposed a long time ago:

     This is Sayadaw all worried and worn
     Who despairs of U Khema all scoffing with scorn
     Who laughed at the hpone-gyi addicted to porn
     Who ogled the woman who cooks chewy corn
     Who gave birth to the children who shouldn't be born
     Who threw rocks at the cock who crows in the morn
     Who woke the preacher all shaven and shorn
     Who married the man all tattered and torn
     To the maiden all forlorn
     Who milked the cow with the crumpled horn
     That tossed the dog that worried the cat that chased the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

Also I have gone to some trouble to improve the meter and rhyme of some of my father's poetry, since he had, at the same time, a preference for meter and rhyme as well as a cavalier attitude toward doing it anywhere near to perfectly. But most of my experience with writing poetry, aside from translating Pali poetry into English prose, is with a lavishly erotic "epic" which I have tinkered with, from time to time, for years. I recently added two new verses to it. Sometimes I think fondly of John Donne, who, although one of the most respected Christian clergymen in his day, and who wrote some really beautiful religious poetry, also wrote some of the steamiest love poetry in the English language.
     Anyway, the writing of poetry, even the erotic stuff, has taught me much about the English language, and about verbal communication in general. Languages are very powerful in their capacity for conveying feelings and information, yet at the same time they are extraordinarily limited. And since we think in languages, and even feel in languages (more basic emotional ones), our own experience of life and understanding of it is very rigidly limited in certain ways. We simply cannot think what the limitations on our thinking prevent us from thinking. This idea may have ben expressed most famously in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, "that the structure of a language determines a native speaker's perception and categorization of experience." 
     In English, for example, there is no exact word, or words, describing or expressing the feeling of having to take a pee. It is a distinct feeling, unlike any other, yet the only way to describe it is to say, "I feel like I gotta take a pee." There are also some Burmese flavors and attitudes which do not translate easily into English. On the other hand, in Burmese, and probably in many other Asian languages, there is a full spectrum of words for what in English is just called "rice." Rice still on the plant has one name, or set of names; rice that is harvested, yet still unhusked, has another; husked, polished, uncooked rice has another; cooked rice has another; and cooked rice offered to monks or to an altar or shrine has yet another—and that is setting aside the various names for different varieties and qualities of rice. Yet the Burmese language has no word for "lizard," or for "owl," despite the obvious fact that lizards and owls are all over the place. Each kind of lizard and owl has its own specific name, yet there are no generic terms for the categories as a whole. Some words in a language have many synonyms, while others may have none: in English, for example, there are several terms for the female bosom, even setting aside the raunchy ones, and each with its own set of implied connotations, yet there is only one word for knee. These kinds of peculiarities clearly affect the way we speak in our own languages, and also how we think in them, so that our ways of understanding the world we live in are conditioned in ways we usually do not notice. 
     With poetry the limitations are much greater—at least they are with regard to the old-fashioned kind, with regular meter and sometimes even rhyme. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to say, but can come up with no way of saying it, say, in three syllables, with the accent on the second syllable. And rhyme reduces one's options drastically. There are lots of important words out there that rhyme with just about nothing. (For example, what rhymes with "nothing"?) Also, sometimes changing just a single word in a verse may start a chain reaction, with other words having to be adjusted to harmonize with the newly added one. A word too strong may require softer words around it to generate the right effect, and vice versa.
     I don't know much about the history of poetry in English literature; as far as I know, Walt Whitman was one of the first who tossed not only rhyme but also meter out the poetical window. I can appreciate that he was trying to create a style of poetry suitable for the exuberant new freedom of young America. And I personally like and respect Leaves of Grass, and have read the whole thing, including…

     When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
     When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
     When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
     When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
     How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
     Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
     In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
     Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars. 

…yet I can't help but feel that Whitman's new style of free verse flung the door wide open to a subsequent deluge of bad poetry, and prose that is just called "poetry" because it is semi-coherent and the lines don't reach all the way to the right-hand margin (although I freely admit that when bad poets attempt meter and rhyme the results are even more horrible). I think Picasso did something similar to painting. Some free verse poetry is good, I freely admit that, and I read it sometimes, and enjoy it…but still, I am old-fashioned in certain ways, and have a deep appreciation for good poetry which, even if it doesn't rhyme, has the classical form of some recognizable meter. It seems to me that good poetry with meter is better than good poetry without it. It is more of an accomplishment, more of an achievement of skill and beauty.
     America, and probably Western society in general, has come to favor amorphous free verse in many of the arts of life, including religion and spirituality. Seemingly arbitrary, restricting rules are resisted with impatience, not so much because of Whitman and Picasso, but more because of a whole nebula of issues, including consumerism and a programmed aversion for inconvenience. Plus, maybe, a desire to be "free," and thus to avoid, whenever it isn't obviously necessary, self-discipline. Yet if we aren't wakeful enough in our freedom we may become enslaved to sloppy habits less beneficial than the restricting rules we dislike.
     Freedom from restricting rules may make things easier, but, in poetry for example, classical forms can be conducive to the creation of extraordinary beauty. Classical forms can also be conducive to extraordinary beauty in religion. And without the structure of such forms one's attempts at elegance and grace may simply collapse into messy chaos, or just so much mushy flabbiness.
     Besides, a skillful poet may learn to create metrical beauty spontaneously, even within the limitations of a formal tradition, much like a skillful dancer or musician may improvise masterfully. My favorite example of this is Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," one of his most famous poems, which he composed, seemingly effortlessly, while more or less unconscious and under the influence of a narcotic drug.

     In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
          A stately pleasure dome decree:
     Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
     Through caverns measureless to man
          Down to a sunless sea…. 

Really, we do essentially the same thing all the time, spontaneously creating beauty and performing miracles within the infinite limitations of our language, our body's feeble capabilities, and our own human mentality.
     I see the monk's life with all its rules, regulations, traditions, and observances, and also a classical Dharmic culture like traditional Burmese Buddhism, to be poetic, in the old-fashioned way—that is, to involve the creation of Beauty within the constraints of a classical formal system. Not all monkish rules are practical, especially outside of ancient India, and some seem to be downright impractical; yet I assume that some of the monks following along with these restricting conditions have become fully enlightened, which is itself a miraculously beautiful thing. 
     The trouble is that one may easily become attached to mere form, and lose sight of the original purpose of that form, the essence that the vessel is supposed to contain. Paul of Tarsus in the Christian Bible was apparently well aware of this potential trouble, and interpreted Christianity such that he rejected the old Jewish rules and insisted that a true Christian would live his or her life in such a way that every act, every thought and feeling, would itself be the container of Spirit, and would be pervaded by it. Krishnamurti saw the danger of rules also—he once said that one could find a twig in one's garden, set it atop the mantelpiece, and offer it a cup of water every day, just for the heck of it…and within a week or two the person would be afraid not to offer the water, for fear of committing an offense against the twig, or the twig "tradition." Early Buddhism also acknowledged this hazard of confusing the teapot with the tea; the following verses are from the Mahāviyūha Sutta of the Sutta-Nipāta:

     Those who think morality is supreme say purity is by self-restraint;
     Having taken upon themselves an observance they are dedicated to it.
     "Let us train ourselves right here and now, and then there would be purity"— 
     Claiming to be adepts, they are brought up to further existence.

     If one is fallen away from his morality and observances
     He is agitated, having failed in his action (kamma).
     He longs for and aspires to pure freedom from wrong (suddhi)
     Like one who has lost his caravan and is far from home.

     But having abandoned all morality and observances,
     And that action which is criticized or uncriticized,
     Not aspiring to "purity" or "non-purity,"
     He would live refraining, not taking hold even of peace.

(Incidentally, the Sutta was composed in a regular Pali pentameter verse form, and demonstrates one intriguing advantage of verse over prose: This section of the Sutta-Nipāta contains many puns and other plays on words, which are more suited to the evocative nature of poetry than to more precise and pedestrian prose. For example, in the second verse above the word suddhi, usually meaning "purity," is also taken more literally as "well-placement," or security. Thus one may exploit poetic idiosyncrasies by saying two or even three things simultaneously, which very probably wouldn't work out so well in, say, a prose science text or law book. That is a sophistication in early Pali verse that I really like. But coming up with an equivalent pun in English is virtually impossible, which points right back to the limitations of human language.) 
     With regard to becoming attached to form and thereby neglecting essence, with poetry I can fall into this hole pretty easily. When writing a verse and a rhyme is imperfect (or just plain bad), or the meter is irregular, it bugs me. I shouldn't lose any sleep over it, and usually don't, but still, it bugs me. I may stew over it for hours and hours and hours until I finally get it right, or just give it up as a lost cause, blaming the limitations of the language rather than my own lack of imagination. Even the greatest poets have perpetrated irregular meters and imperfect rhymes. Some say that Shakespeare's verse is great because of its irregularities. But a much more dangerous hole to fall into is making the same confused mistake (confusing form with essence, teapot with tea) with regard to morality, observances, and precepts. I'm pretty sure I'm less likely to fall into that one. One teaching of Buddhism that I have really taken to heart is that Regret is always an unskillful mental state—that is, "bad karma." Living one's life is rather more like orally improvising poetry than writing it: One doesn't get to go back and change what one has already done. One may compensate, but what has been done remains done, and there's no point in sitting around regretting it. And as for living in the present moment, being Here Now, being bugged by the way things are Now isn't so good either. (I'm still not always in the present moment though.)
     Anyway, the Burmese (or archetypal Asians) are more likely to cling to the container of Dharma, confusing it with what is to be contained, while Americans (Westerners) appear more likely to reject the container before it has had much of a chance to contain much of anything, thereby being left without a suitable container—maybe nothing but bare hands, maybe just a flimsy plastic bag when something more rigid would be more useful. Ideally, Spirit needs no container; or, rather, every act is suffused with Spirit, as inspired teachers often teach; but it usually doesn't work out that way, especially for beginners, and most Western Buddhists are beginners, regardless of how long they've been practicing. (I can appreciate St. John of the Cross's idea that anyone who hasn't yet mastered contemplation is still a beginner—with Catholic contemplation apparently being the equivalent, in Buddhist practice, of at least 2nd jhāna.) 
     I suspect that the success of the Goenka system in the West is partly because ven. Mr. Goenka succeeded in creating a stripped-down version of Dhamma and vipassana practice that was sufficiently rigid to contain the fundamentals without the whole thing collapsing into fluff, yet was simple and no-nonsense enough to be acceptable to Westerners who are fundamentally non-Buddhist (that is, not conditioned by a Buddhist culture). It is true, though, that the relatively rigid container of the system has resulted in many Goenka meditators adopting an almost Jehovah's Witness attitude toward it; but Goenka seems to have found a workable middle way between Asian Buddhist tradition and Western aversion for same. It does strike me as rather elementary, though; yet orthodox Theravada as found in ancient Indian texts, although able to contain much more, is just too alien to Western culture for it to be widely accepted, thus far, even by people considering themselves to be Buddhist. For ancient Indian Theravada to be accepted by modern Westerners would be somewhat like those same Westerners accepting ancient drama acted entirely in verse, with the actors wearing masks—possibly with a goat sacrificed to Dionysus at the beginning by way of a prelude. 
     I suppose that if Theravada is ever to thrive in the West, a form of it will have to be developed, possibly a brand new form, which has enough backbone to contain enough real Dhamma to inspire, uplift, and even enlighten us, and enough difficulty to challenge us and give us the satisfaction of really attaining something, even if it's just the survival of a strictly austere retreat. We may require a new form of renunciant monasticism also, one that is not ordained Sangha, yet is much more conducive to serious practice than merely adopting Buddhism as a hobby. What America needs may be a new Buddhist lay order, with regulations more harmonious with the modern West. An amorphous, easy, no-rules approach is just too weak and floppy for the majority of Western meditators and Dhamma students to get very far with it. Or so it seems to me.
     Living a spiritual life may be viewed as a game, a dance, a poem, endeavoring to realize something profoundly beautiful within the constraints, and with the support, of a somewhat confining and rigid system of rules. With, of course, the possibility of breaking some of those rules, if it seems appropriate, with no regrets. Yet ultimately, Enlightenment cannot be held inside a container; an enlightened being may be plausibly compared to a jar submerged in water—the same water, or essence, is outside as well as inside it. The container, and any moves it makes, becomes practically superfluous. But it seems that even most enlightened beings, assuming that they exist, do not reject the traditional containers of their spiritual culture; enlightened Buddhists stay Buddhists, Hindus stay Hindus, Christians stay Christians, peyote eaters stay peyote eaters, bad poets stay bad poets, etc. The limitations of the form, as well as the effective support, remain in effect, no doubt for an enlightened reason.

Appendix: Poetry Corner

     The following little bit of poetry was composed in the form of a sonnet, and is a good reflection on the attachments of romantic love. I bet a lot of people can relate to it. It reminds me of a passionate girlfriend I once loved in college, and in the college parking lot.

     Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part;
     Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
     And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart
     That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
     Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
     And, when we meet at any time again,
     Be it not seen in either of our brows
     That we one jot of former love retain.

     Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
     When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
     When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
     And Innocence is closing up his eyes— 
          Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
          From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.     (—Michael Drayton)

I consider this sad, mainly because it was written to a real, live, beautiful young woman…who grew old and died 400 years ago, as did the man who loved her. (Drayton was a contemporary of Shakespeare.) It may be sexist and foolish and all that, but still, to me one of the saddest things in the world is that beautiful young women have to grow old, and get sick, and die. My male protective instincts would like to protect them from that. Anyway.
     This next one is sad too, but in a different way.


     Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
     Over the hill between the town below
     And the forsaken upland hermitage
     That held as much as he should ever know
     On earth again of home, paused warily.
     The road was his with not a native near;
     And Eben, having leisure, said aloud, 
     For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:

     "Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
     Again, and we shall not have many more;
     The bird is on the wing, the poet says, 
     And you and I have said it here before.
     Drink to the bird." He raised up to the light
     The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
     And answered huskily: "Well, Mr. Flood,
     Since you propose it, I believe I will."

     Alone, as if enduring to the end
     A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
     He stood there in the middle of the road
     Like Roland's ghost winding a silent horn.
     Below him, in the town among the trees,
     Where friends of other days had honored him,
     A phantom salutation of the dead
     Rang thinly till old Eben's eyes were dim.

     Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
     Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
     He set the jug down slowly at his feet
     With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
     And only when assured that on firm earth
     It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
     Assuredly did not, he paced away,
     And with his hand extended paused again:

     "Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
     In a long time; and many a change has come
     To both of us, I fear, since last it was
     We had a drop together. Welcome home!"
     Convivially returning with himself,
     Again he raised the jug up to the light;
     And with an acquiescent quaver said:
     "Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might."

     "Only a very little, Mr. Flood—
     For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do."
     So, for the time, apparently it did,
     And Eben evidently thought so too;
     For soon amid the silver loneliness
     Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
     Secure, with only two moons listening,
     Until the whole harmonious landscape rang— 

     "For auld lang syne." The weary throat gave out,
     The last word wavered; and the song being done,
     He raised again the jug regretfully
     And shook his head, and was again alone. 
     There was not much that was ahead of him,
     And there was nothing in the town below— 
     Where strangers would have shut the many doors
     That many friends had opened long ago.                  (—Edwin Arlington Robinson)

I assume the second moon was his jug? 
     And partly to demonstrate that I do have some appreciation for modern free verse, I include one last one, about a man who is beyond pity.

     When in the soul of the serene disciple,
     With no more fathers to imitate,
     Poverty is a success,
     It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
     He has not even a house.

     Stars, as well as friends,
     Are angry with the noble ruin.
     Saints depart in several directions.

     Be still:
     There is no longer any need of comment.
     It was a lucky wind
     That blew away his halo with his cares,
     A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.        (—ven. Thomas Merton)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Autopilot

     Long ago, before I ever became a Buddhist monk, I used to consider karma to be some kind of mechanical law of the Universe that science hadn't discovered yet, something like a psychic law of conservation of energy, or, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." I had the notion that karma had the effect of some sort of cosmic accounting, with our goodness and badness recorded for future compensation.
     But after studying Dharma a little I realized that, according to Buddhist philosophy, karma equals cetanā, with this cetanā being a purely psychological state, nothing outside of us at all. A famous sutta in the Anguttara Nikāya (sometimes known as A.VI.63) has the Buddha declaring cetanāha bhikkhave kamma vadāmi—"Bhikkhus, it is cetanā that I call karma." And of the five khandhas, or "aggregates," which in relatively non-technical Buddhist philosophy constitute the entirety of a conscious being in this world, the fourth of the five, sakhārakkhandha, or the "aggregate of karma formations," is identified in the suttas with cetanā. 
     The most common rendering of cetanā into the English language is "volition," although this may be somewhat misleading. At the very least it may cause English-speaking students of Dharma to see karma in a very restricted way, which limits their appreciation of the fact that karma is of fundamental importance in conditioning our life in each moment; and an understanding of it is very helpful for gaining an understanding of ourselves. 
     Cetanā as volition should not be confused with mere decision-making, or identified with just making up our mind and intending to do something. It's not so much the shape of the pipes as what's flowing through the pipes, so to speak. It might be more useful to see it more as urge than as mere intention, something more like Schopenhauer's will—although it is not the ultimate Reality upon which everything is based, as Schopenhauer philosophized it to be. Cetanā, and thus karma, is the momentum of our mental energy, the mind's "habit energy." It is the habitual force of our perceiving mind, derived from the past and reinforced by it, which acts as a kind of automatic pilot for running us when we are not entirely awake…which is pretty much all the time, isn't it.
     The more mindful we are, which is to say the more conscious we are, the less we identify with the automatic pilot, and the less it controls us and runs our life for us, based upon the past, which is when it acquired its habits. The more conscious we are, and the more in the present moment, the more possibilities and options we are able to see, and thus we can act accordingly, rather than mechanically following the one option that our habitual reaction has served up. If we eventually manage to wake all the way up, and thus are fully mindful, then the habitual mental energy from the past may still manifest itself, but it no longer has any power to control our lives.
     We really have little if any control over what thoughts and feelings arise in us. We can maximize or minimize the chances of some sort of mental state arising, by various means, but we really don't know what is going to turn up until it turns up. It is the momentum of karma, based upon the past, which determines what arises in the mind. Only after it arises we may observe it and, if conscious enough to manage it, see whether or not it is appropriate to follow along with this thought or desire. So we may not be able to control what karma brings up, but at least we are able not to be enslaved to it. We can still be free from its rigid, limiting control. All this is one way of understanding the idea that an enlightened being creates no new karma, and thus has no "volition," thereby not adding to the habit energy/momentum already there from the past.
     Moha, often translated into English as "delusion," goes hand in hand with karma. Moha is essentially a state of semiconscious stupor which allows our karmic momentum to control us like puppets. In other words, we're not awake enough to take full responsibility, so the automatic pilot, the "ego," does the best it can. So if one is fully mindful, moha as well as enslavement to karma disappears. 
     The idea of enlightenment in terms of Waking Up is easy to disregard; we may see it as just a kind of poetic metaphor, and let the significance of it slide off us like water off the proverbial duck's back. Yet if we really are wise and devoid of moha, then we really are in a state that is comparable to the ordinary state the way a person who is wide awake is compared to a sleepwalker, or someone who rolls over or scratches himself without completely waking up. A conscious person is aware of many things the ordinary person is unaware of—how often do we feel the cloth against our skin, or hear the sound of the refrigerator, or feel the breeze on our arm? How often do we blink or swallow with conscious awareness? How many of us can see that a feeling of desire or fear that arises (maybe strongly arises) is just a kind of habit that isn't us, but is just a kind of robotic program designed to get us through life somehow? Full mindfulness and full wisdom really are a matter of being fully awake.
     Sometimes if I suddenly notice that I'm being unmindful and start being more aware, there is a subtle yet really obvious feeling of being more expanded and more conscious; it really is very similar to snapping out of a dozy, groggy state. Also there is a feeling of loss of limitations, as though invisible walls are falling away. It is a feeling of spaciousness and freedom, with complete freedom being another synonym for Enlightenment. We tend to be much groggier, more limited, and more enslaved than we realize, controlled by semiconscious habits, lurching around like sophisticated robots.
     Theoretically we could just "snap out of it" and Wake Up, just start being really alert and take full responsibility for our every choice and action; there's nothing necessarily stopping us from that; but it tends not to work out that way in "real life." Instead, we practice Dharma, which gradually clarifies what faculties we have, allowing us to make a little more progress (if we are sincere about making progress). Instead of relinquishing the ego once and for all, a Dharma practitioner systematically cleans it up and lightens it by replacing crude karmic habits with finer ones, or at least diluting the cruder ones down. It's difficult to go the whole way when we identify with the autopilot instead of with consciousness itself, though. Spiritual progress is a matter of letting go of what is familiar, of that to which we are "habituated"; it is a matter of becoming free, which is scary—at least the autopilot is scared. Waking Up is like death for the autopilot. So again, we wind up taking hesitant baby steps toward being able to "do" what is ultimately effortless.
     Enlightenment ultimately is not a result of "doing," and is not the gain of anything. Rather, it is the dropping away of unnecessary limitations, including semiconscious stupor, karmic momentum, and identification with the ego, with "me."
     And all this is setting aside the issues of transcendental knowledge, psychic powers, and the notion that karma creates our reality, with some of the habitual momentum of past karma coming from previous lives. That may be true also, but for the present moment it is practically irrelevant; the "law of Karma" applies anyway. 
an example of karma and its fruition
(in this case happening very quickly)