Saturday, May 16, 2015

Three Enlightened Beings (???), part 1

"Never bet against Maya. Truth is infinitely simple, delusion is infinitely complex. There's no over-estimating our ability to avoid making eye contact with the obvious." —Jed McKenna
     The time seems to be ripe for another current events post. The thing is, though, that mainly I want to write about one theme of current events in particular which has bugged the crap out of me, in a strangely exhilarating way. This theme will become apparent as I work my way through the story.
     I left the cave in northwestern Burma in late March, and spent more than two weeks in Rangoon/Yangon in preparation for the next trip to Bali. A primary objective was to get an Indonesian visa before leaving Burma, so I wouldn't take the risk of being stranded in the Denpasar, Bali airport again with no way of buying a visa on arrival, since I have zero money. Almost the only time that having no money can get a bit panicky is when I'm traveling alone internationally. I suspect every major airport has a special room where derelicts are deposited who are unable to pay the new airport tax or whatever; I found myself in one of those rooms in Japan once, with a disgusted-looking black guy lying across the seats who looked like he'd been there for weeks. So it's good to be prepared.
     In Yangon I spent almost three weeks in the special monk building in the yard of U Han Toe, an excellent old fellow who has supported the Taungpulu tradition for decades. As it turned out, lots of Taungpulu monks were in town at the time, and I wound up being roommates with ven. U Kovida, one of the senior sayadaws in the tradition. He kindly allowed me to be accommodated in his room, since his was the only one with an air conditioner. So after four months alone in a cave I suddenly switched to having almost no privacy, with groups of people coming in and out to visit with the semi-famous sayadaw. I even had a few visitors myself, which struck me as strange at the time, since the sayadaw is the one who's supposed to have visitors. The main times when I had the room to myself were when ven. U Kovida and the other monks were out doing protection chants (paritta) at people's houses, which was pretty much every day. The monks of Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya specialize in the chanting of protective suttas, and spend a lot of time doing it. When I lived at a Taungpulu monastery I knew lots of it, but have forgotten most of it now. 
     So I got the Indonesian visa and made it to and through the Denpasar airport without any more mishap than security guys insisting on taking everything out of my alms bowl to inspect it. (The bowl is thick iron, and x-rays don't penetrate it so clearly, and I keep suspicious-looking things in there, like a computer backup disk and jars of instant coffee, plus maybe I'm suspicious-looking, so this happens quite a lot.) I spent a few days luxuriating in the city of Sanur with the family who invited me, and realizing that I was face to face with the very real possibility of obesity (Balinese food is too excellent to be quite decent), and then was sent off to meditate in the hills, at the Chinese cemetery on the outskirts of the small town of Baturiti. 
     I miscalculated with regard to how much reading material I should bring. After about ten days, I had already devoured two novels (Kafka's The Castle and Huxley's Island), and was burning out on Jean Baudrillard's Simulations (I think it's the book that Neo hides bootleg computer programs in in the movie The Matrix), so I started looking around in the bamboo huts at the cemetery for something interesting. One book I found, left behind by a previous monk resident, was Fear: Understanding and Accepting the Insecurities of Life, by Osho, earlier known as the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I'm not a particularly fearful person, but the book looked more interesting than the Theravada stuff I found, so I started reading it, partly in the hopes that I would be able to make a less tentative guess about whether or not Osho/Rajneesh was really an enlightened being. 
     In a previous post ("The Cult of the Enigmatic Bhagwan," 22 Nov 14) I put forth the tentative guess that Rajneesh was a relatively wise, very clever, charismatic rascal who was glorified by his followers, and maybe by himself also. He had a mystical streak which allowed him to see what most others can't see, and an eloquent tongue for explaining it, but still, he was not an Arahant (according to my guess). Reading Fear added a little reinforcement to that guess, although I admit it is still only a guess—I don't know how one could really be sure about such matters, except by deferring to dogmatism, in which case, one could still decide either way, depending upon which dogma one deferred to. Osho was clearly a very knowledgeable and clever person, and was very eloquent; but much of what he says in the book struck me as more glib than wise; that is, he said it more because it sounds good than because it's true. At one point a therapist remarks to the Bhagwan that in his/her work he/she continually finds the same three fears in his clients: the fear of going insane, the fear of losing oneself in orgasm, and the fear of death. The Bhagwan explained the three separately, and not very deeply in my opinion. I wasn't satisfied with his answers. To me it seemed immediately obvious that the three fears mentioned were essentially the very same fear: the fear of losing one's identity, one's ego, "me." It is essentially the fear of No Self, which is practically the same as saying the fear of the unknown. I find it somewhat amazing that some people are afraid of losing "themselves" even for the few seconds required to have an orgasm; that seems rather extreme to me. It causes me to wonder if some people are afraid to sneeze, thereby losing their perceptual identity for a quarter of a second. Some people are afraid of deep meditation for essentially this same reason. But anyway, because of little things like this in the book, I felt a little vindicated in my position given in the previous post, and glad that I wasn't required to go back and make an apologetic retraction, or some such. 
     After more than two weeks in Baturiti I was invited to stay for awhile at the home of a man named Tony, who lives near the city of Ubud. There was some behind-the-scenes strategizing by the family in Sanur involved in this: Ubud is probably Bali's main center for Western expats with Buddhist, Yogic, New Age, and/or artistic orientations, and since the family wants me to be involved in the Buddhist ashram they are planning for Baturiti, they conspired to give me more reasons for staying in Bali. So I was invited to Ubud mainly to meet some Western Buddhists there, as well as Tony and his family. Judging from his name, I was expecting Tony himself to be a Westerner, maybe Italian—but he turned out to be completely Indonesian.
     Tony is the proprietor of the Tonyraka Art Gallery on the outskirts of Ubud, and my week at his home was the most paradise-like experience I have had since notoriously falling in love back in 2011. His "house" is really a compound of elegant, artistically designed bungalows interspersed with ornamental gardens, Hindu statuary, fish ponds, shrines, and outbuildings to the gallery filled with fine art and exotica. (I looked through a price list for the contemporary paintings, and the average asking price is around $12,000 US.) In addition to the beautiful place filled with beautiful buildings filled with beautiful (and strange) art, Tony's family also is beautiful. Just for starters, his wife is easily one of the prettiest Indonesian ladies I have ever seen; she's so pretty it was difficult not to look at her more than was politely necessary. Sometimes I would briefly consider that Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, so that looking at another man's wife too much might get a guy stabbed…but I trust Tony, and besides, I'm harmless in that respect anyway. I don't even try to mess around with married women. The whole family is beautiful, in more ways than one: for example, they obviously love each other, with plenty of physical contact, and when they go to a restaurant together they are continually swapping their plates back and forth, and taking spoonloads from their dish and reaching over to give someone else a taste. The religious masonry standing about the home compound is mainly there for artistic reasons, and for sale; although Tony's devoutly Hindu mother makes the rounds every day and makes offerings to them. The two Nandin bulls guarding a side entrance to the main gallery, for example, receive a fresh piece of banana leaf loaded with a fresh spoonful of rice pilaf every day. I had never met any of these people before being invited there, and the little girls were a bit shy at first, but within about three days I was pretty well integrated into the family. 
     I suppose I should also add that Tony, who was raised as a Balinese "Hindu" (rather different from Indian Hindus), had relatively recently taken a great interest in Theravada Buddhism, so much so that it has literally changed his life. Learning meditation and introspection has taught him enough self-discipline and self-knowledge to lose weight, improve his health, improve his disposition (not nearly so angry or morally irresponsible as before), and fill him with enthusiasm and gratitude, although he still knows relatively little about the philosophy. An American friend of his told me that after learning some Dhamma Tony has become a remarkably changed man. One of his daughters explained to me that he used to be much angrier than he is now. I don't meet very many like him.
     Anyway, less than 24 hours after arrival in Paradise, Tony casually handed me a book that he thought I might like to read. It was entitled Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing, by Jed McKenna. I wasn't finished with Fear yet, let alone Baudrillard, but I started reading it out of idle curiosity, and because it's a "spiritual" book by someone I'd never heard of before…or at least I don't remember having heard of him. I was astonished. I was exasperated. I've never read anything like it. I wanted very much to consider the author a damn fool, and sometimes succeeded, more or less, but I could never quite throw out the possibility that the man was, as he repeatedly claims, a Fully Enlightened Being. Another one. Just when I had gotten some sort of handle on Rajneesh. 
     Mr. McKenna claims that he is the enlightened teacher of a kind of ashram based in a large old farm house in Iowa. He doesn't just hint at being enlightened, mind you, nor does he imply it in a clear yet roundabout manner; he flat out asserts it, repeatedly. He says, and I quote, "I am fully enlightened." The first paragraph on page one of the book ends with the sentence, "I'm the enlightened guy." In fact, it seems that at least one third of the book consists of this person essentially bragging about how enlightened he is, that is, fully. Some people may consider me arrogant, but I assure one and all that I am the humblest of foot-wiping cloths in comparison with this fellow. Consider this little morsel, for example: 
I basically believe that I know everything and nobody else knows anything. I think I'm sane and everyone else is insane. I've never met another like me and I have to search through centuries and civilizations to find anyone similar. The greatest men and women who have ever lived are just children on a playground to me. I think that I know the mind of God, that the universe does my bidding, and that all of creation exists for my amusement. (p.141)
Some of his poetry is included in the book, including one which begins,

            I am He.
            I am The Sage.
            I am The Supreme Man.
            I am the Crown of Creation. (p.151)

The remaining 15 lines of the poem contain 15 more "I"s, plus a sprinkling of "me," "my," and "mine." He interrupts people when they speak to him, or ignores most of what they say, sometimes watching TV or playing a video game at the same time. He bullies people with the force of his personality, especially if they are not attractive young females. Assuming for the sake of argument that the man really is what he says he is, then he is the most egomaniacal Arahant I've ever heard of—a swaggering, egocentric fellow who, by his own admission, became fully enlightened by annihilating his ego. He says, "Ego-death as a means to no-self is what this journey is all about." (p.255) 
     He doesn't like people all that much, unless, as I've already touched upon, they are attractive young females. Some say that when you become enlightened you look around and see that everyone else is enlightened too, that everyone is a manifestation of "God" and/or love, but when Jed McKenna looks around he sees zombies and loonies, sleepwalkers who are pitiable, maybe, but still full of shit. "There is no commonality….No two humans could have less in common than any human and me….I am effectively set apart from humanity." (p.50) He has little use for the notions that an enlightened being experiences universal love or compassion. He puts it like this:
Let me state it plainly…I don't do heart. To the extent that I advocate any path, it is a path without heart, devoid of compassion, totally free of any thought for others whatsoever. (p.63)
     So then, why not just dismiss him as a crank? Well you see…that's the exasperating part. I can't be absolutely sure that an enlightened being couldn't apparently be an arrogant egomaniac who attributes little or no importance to love and compassion. I'm sure he could easily answer all objections, to his own satisfaction anyway, and he does answer them to some degree in the book. And the trouble is, he often answers them profoundly.
     For starters, before even considering Mr. McKenna's explanations, it is obvious that, according to the Pali Suttas, Gotama Buddha himself indulged in some pretty grandiose boasting—beginning on the day he was born. This sort of thing is one of several reasons why I could never accept the suttas as infallible, and I have never considered the Buddha's recorded braggadocio to be authentic history; but who knows? I certainly don't. Most Asian Buddhists accept it without raising an eyebrow.
     With regard to lack of compassion, one explanation of his is one that I have considered many times, namely, that in reality there are no beings, and no self at all, so all compassion for "beings" is delusional. The way he puts it, if you are watching fictional characters acting on a movie screen, and fully realize that they are fictional, then is it wise to feel compassion for their plight in the movie? Ultimate Reality contains nobody to feel compassion for.
     He explains the egocentrism issue a number of times in the book, and I find his explanations philosophically very problematic. Here is one of his statements of the case:
There is no such thing as an enlightened person. The person writing these words, the person that speaks to the students, isn't the enlightened one. My personality, my ego, what appears to be me, is just an afterimage, a physical apparition based on residual energy patterns. (p.67)
That residual afterimage stuff is supported to some degree in Buddhist philosophy, where it is called past karma. Even the Buddha allegedly had it. Thus, if he is enlightened in accordance with Buddhist philosophy, then he would be running on old karma without creating any new karma; but whether he is actually doing that I certainly cannot say. So anyway, according to him, after ruthlessly annihilating his ego and becoming enlightened, "he" (who?) realized that he still needed some psychological entity, that is, a personality, in order to function in the world. And so, seeing his defunct, castaway ego lying there, he put it back on like an old suit. So apparently it wasn't really "annihilated," and now it is reanimated or undead, like a mighty vampire. He refers to himself as an invisible man wearing his old personality so he can interact with other people. But as for who he really is, whoever that is, he, or it, or whatever, is constantly abiding in non-dual awareness.
     One of the problematic parts, which might be problematic for any enlightened being, is that the non-dual awareness, the Nirvana, is not the one who is doing the teaching. Somehow the non-dual awareness must be filtered through the "Jed" before we hear it or see it, at which point it would seem to be no longer pure or real enlightenment. Well, then, isn't that how we all are? Ultimate Reality filtering through an ego? This would seem to imply that there really are no enlightened beings in this world. In a previous post ("Notes on Nirvana," 26 Oct 13) I mentioned the presumed fact that, since Nirvana (or any non-dual Absolute) transcends the duality of existing and not existing, one cannot say that it does or does not exist—and so, by that very same token, we cannot say whether or not any enlightened being exists. But if Jed McKenna is right, then he must be wrong, since enlightenment must be filtered through an unenlightened ego in order to be manifest in this version of reality. In which case, a relatively selfless saint would come much  closer to conveying an un-messed-up version of perfect wisdom than would a guy who watches TV and plays video games while teaching his disciples. 
     This leads to one objection toward his book, and his explanations of enlightenment, that I would like to see answered, preferably by him, namely, his claims on the one hand of abiding non-dual awareness, and on the other his repeated dualistic insistence upon certain things, like "I am fully enlightened." He insists that there is truth distinct from falsehood, which is supposedly non-dual, yet still somehow sharply distinct from falsehood. He insists on the duality that one either is enlightened, a "butterfly," or one isn't, a "caterpillar" (although he does admit that his housekeeper is neither). Plus of course he insists upon the duality of Jed McKenna versus everyone else.
     Another little point which is of some interest to me is that Mr. McKenna admits that he doesn't meditate all that much, and that he has little use for mindfulness and "abiding in the present moment." I presume that the enlightened aspect of him is abiding in some constant Now, but the guy who wrote the book is not. So this would seem to discredit the enlightenment of Eckhart Tolle, with his primary emphasis on the Power of Now, or else the enlightenment of Jed McKenna himself. I'm not sure how both of them could be enlightened. Maybe neither of them is.
     I may as well criticize Jed's use of words while I'm at this point. One reason he downplays the importance of love, compassion, or "heart," and has no use for statements like the Bible's "God is love," is that he apparently considers love in particular to be a mental state, an emotion. But I would say that the essence of love is not an emotion, although it is powerful stuff and easily inspires them; love, especially in a spiritual sense, is acceptance, or, to make my point clearer, non-separation. So non-dual awareness would have to be full of love, since there would be no duality separating us from each other, or anything from anything. That would be the perfection of love. 
     He is also emphatic that enlightenment is very different from mysticism; yet my definition of mysticism is pretty much the same as his definition of enlightenment: direct, non-symbolic experience of Reality. Mysticism is not necessarily euphoric, as McKenna seems to imply; and although it may be induced by suppression of thought (one is much less likely to identify with symbols while one is no longer generating them), it is not necessarily a state in which one cannot function normally in the empirical world. Most so-called mystical states, however, are impure and temporary; for example, the ones relying on suspension of thought last only while thought is suspended. So my impression is that full enlightenment would be a perfected mystical state, not something completely different. 
     Another strange or arbitrary use of words is his claim that enlightenment has nothing to do with consciousness. I assume he means "mental states" when he says "consciousness"; I fail to see how one can be awake without being more conscious than someone who isn't awake. 
     But, as I say, he does say some very profound stuff, and stuff that almost all spiritual seekers would do well to consider. One of his main themes in the book, and evidently his main task when teaching individuals, is to help people see that practically everything they do as "spiritual practice" is just a matter of adjusting Samsara, of trying to sleep more comfortably, of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Enlightenment is a matter of letting go of the dualistic illusion, not working within it. What one does within the context of the unenlightened, unreal dream is pretty much irrelevant. (This is probably a big reason why he admires Krishna so much—the manifestation of perfection, and of course enlightenment, who indulges in all sorts of naughtiness, like having sex and killing people. He, Vishnu, is the god of everything, not just the god of goodness.) 
     This point leads directly to another valid point that he brings up: The apparent total failure of standardized techniques in the modern West for producing enlightened beings. Most spiritual seekers don't even really want enlightenment, largely because of that fear of non-identity that was mentioned earlier; but even the ones who sincerely are seeking the Absolute are failing miserably, mainly because they're not even headed in the right direction. They want to be better and happier and blissful, yet, according to McKenna, non-dual awareness (alias enlightenment) has nothing at all to do with this.
     What is the success rate of American Theravada Buddhism—regardless of whether it's monasticism, the Goenka system, or IMS-style "elite" Buddhism? How many Arahants has it produced thus far? That is really the test of "true Dharma," and a very fair and embarrassing question to ask. As far as I can tell, thus far, it has a 0% success rate. That's not good at all, and is rather an indictment of what is being called "Dhamma" in the West. It may be that witchcraft and knowledge of the future by means of Tarot cards may be more effective and practical than American Vipassana as a means to enlightenment. The author really pounds away at this remarkable failure rate in Western spirituality. At one point he says this:
…I keep thinking that spiritual aspirants, East and West, are going to someday awaken at least to the degree of realizing that, by any reasonable standard of success, the pursuit of spiritual awakening has proven to be the most abysmal failure in the history of man. 
McKenna claims that one or two of his students become fully enlightened every year, which would put his success rate somewhere in the neighborhood of 1%, infinitely higher than that of other methods. (I let his split infinitives slide, since there's no rule saying an enlightened being must be grammatically correct.)
     Before discussing his method for becoming enlightened, though, I may as well try to reconcile his wisdom/profundity with his egocentric swaggering. One image that occurred to me while reading the book was of a window in a brick wall. Unlike McKenna, I consider it possible to be partially enlightened. In fact, it may even be that everybody who has a "buddha nature" is partially enlightened. There can be such a thing as limited infinity—cut a Euclidean plane in half, for instance, and you've got only half a plane, but it's still infinite; bisect it again, and you've got a quarter plane, which is still infinite; cut an extremely narrow pie wedge out of a plane, and regardless of how narrow it is, it's still infinite. So anyway, one guess is that the author of the book attained something, maybe even an infinite pie wedge, and, partly because he asserts that there's no such thing as partial enlightenment, and can't see anything better, he has equated it with the full version. Light can shine through some people very clearly in one place, yet they may remain remarkably opaque in other places. Hard-heads are less likely to be this way, though, and Jed McKenna seems pretty hard-headed.
     Another idea that arose while reading the book is that arguing with McKenna would be like arguing with Paul of Tarsus, who apparently was extremely hard-headed. St. Paul also was absolutely, vehemently convinced that he was right…even though I personally don't think he was. St. Paul also had his spiritual First Step, on the road to Damascus, leading to two years or so of intensive processing in Arabia before "seeing the light" and inventing Christianity. (McKenna insists that about two years of ruthless, relentless, excruciating processing to annihilate the ego is a virtual necessity.) For that matter, arguing with McKenna might also be a little like arguing with Adolf Hitler, whose vehement certainty that he was right (at least while he was arguing), combined with sheer force of ego, could bully people into abandoning their own beliefs in favor of his. I really don't think McKenna is a minor league Hitler, though. 
     Another person he reminds me of is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley also had a method which relied heavily on backing people against the wall with powerful arguments, battering them with ruthless force of personality until they would literally have a mental breakdown—after which, with a little guidance, they would be Born Again. McKenna's method, for good or otherwise, seems to make use of ruthless dialectic to demolish people's cherished beliefs, causing them to break down or break free, depending on how you look at it. That aspect of his method may actually be very useful and beneficial. Most people are just too stubborn to let go of their unenlightened belief systems, so a little bullying may make the process if not easier, then at least more likely to get to Step One of an actual process.


the god with three faces



Saturday, May 9, 2015

Invisible Walls (with Invisible Doors)


     I've mentioned elsewhere on this here blog that, when I first came to Burma I was struck by the plain fact that the Burmese, bless their hearts, were totally oblivious to how thickly, obviously culturally conditioned they were. Recently (I'm writing this in Yangon, although by the time it's published I'll be in Bali) I've been seeing much of it: For example the peculiar fact that monks are supposed to sit on a sitting cloth when riding in a car—Burmese monks are sure to have their sitting cloth ready to spread on the car seat, and laypeople sometimes become uneasy if I don't use one. My robes are clean, and the car seat looks clean, so I don't see the point, and often don't bother to have a sitting cloth with me. Sometimes the good folks providing me with transportation have difficulty accepting this, and there may be a last-minute scramble to find a towel or some such for me to sit on in the car. As another example, yesterday I reminded the host of the place where I'm staying that fresh fruit with seeds in it has to be "made allowable" (=damaged), otherwise it's against the rules for a monk to eat it. So he said, "I'll get a leaf." A little later, while I was eating, he showed up with a leaf for making some grapes "allowable." I personally do not see how damaging a leaf held against the fruit, rather than damaging the fruit itself, makes anything allowable; but my host is 91 years old, and I love him like a grandfather, so I didn't want to make trouble. So I quietly handed him a bag of grapes. He stood there in silence, holding the leaf against a grape, waiting. Then I experienced a minor bout of perceptiveness and asked him, "Are you waiting for me to say 'kappiyam karohi' (that is, in Pali, 'make it allowable')?" He assured me that I had to say it. I assured him in return that it wasn't necessary, but, as I really didn't want to trouble him, I said it anyway. Whereupon he simultaneously tore the leaf pressed against that grape and said "kappiyam bhante" ("It is allowable, sir"). Then he handed me back the grapes which, in my opinion, were no more allowable than they were before. Even so, I ate one, so that his efforts were not entirely in vain.
     But if one were to venture to suggest to a thickly culturally conditioned Burmese Buddhist that his or her behavior is in fact thickly culturally conditioned, he or she very probably wouldn't see it at all. It would elicit a confused, uncomprehending look, or maybe a response like, "What do you mean? We follow the teachings of an omniscient enlightened being, who obviously knew what was the correct way to live. It's just common sense. You Westerners are the culturally conditioned ones."
     And then of course I came back to America after many years of being immersed in Burmese culture…and I was struck by the plain fact that Americans, bless their hearts, are just as thickly, obviously culturally conditioned as the Burmese—although in some very different ways. Once when I was in Bellingham a leader of a local meditation society told me that, although people were slowly warming to me at the time, my generalizations regarding the members were seen by the group as objectionable. (This statement of his also was a generalization, which apparently he didn't notice.) But the fact remained that every single American member of that meditation society resembled every other member much more than they would resemble any member of, say, a Burmese village Dhamma organization. It may be that Americans more than anyone else want to see themselves as unique individuals acting in accordance with their own free will, yet they, like virtually everyone else in the world, are pervaded by and led by cultural conditioning that they simply do not notice.
     We tend to be oblivious to much, probably most, of our own basic human nature also—a kind of genetic cultural conditioning. Boys like girls, girls like babies, babies like sweet food better than they like bitter food, we all experience anger, greed, fear, boredom, pride, exhilaration, and on and on, usually without understanding why we are this way instead of some other way, or understanding that being this way isn't plainly neutral and sensible. "Well of course we like babies because they're so cute," but why is a baby so irresistibly cute, and not, say, an old person? "Well of course I hate and fear snakes because they're so creepy," but why do so many of us automatically feel this way? I have read that the human brain actually has a special area for identifying snakes, and probably for getting nervous about them. We probably have a baby-liking center also. Almost certainly we have a sweet-food-liking center. We are saturated by animal instincts, automatic reflexes, and cultural conditioning (much of that last fed into us by a rather Machiavellian system which is trying to manipulate us into doing what it wants us to do, much as Mother Nature manipulates us into surviving long enough to have babies), and usually we don't notice it because we are so used to it. It's like a fish not noticing that it is wet. We think that we are free, but really we are not.
     The situation is similar with accents when we speak. Once I met a South African man who was married to an American woman from California. He was amused by the fact that his wife considered him to have an accent, and herself not to have one. He assured her that she had just as much of an accent as he did, but she didn't see it, or hear it, at all. Presumably, the Queen of England has an accent when she speaks English, and people from Brooklyn, New York or Mobile, Alabama may have accents, but American newscasters and people from the West Coast do not. How did that happen? How did even the English acquire an accent when they speak English, but not American news reporters?
     The fact is that people are people, and although we have different individual differences and different cultural differences, our similarities greatly outweigh the differences. We're all members of the same species. Thus even the fact that we all (well, almost all of us) consider our own way to be simple common sense, while everyone else may be superstitious, ignorant, or just irrationally contrary, is a pretty much universal facet of human nature. We don't hear our own accent, and that also is just plain human nature.
     Bearing this in mind, two good fellows way over on the continent of North America have recently been telling me about Stephen Batchelor, who has been calling for a new kind of secular, non-dogmatic Buddhism appropriate for modern times. They say he invokes the Atthakavagga, which is a major part of my Buddhist "Bible," and which asserts that a Dhamma practitioner, a person living the Holy Life, should not believe anything—which thus would be more suitable to the modern Western mind than to a traditional Asian one.
     I can easily agree with the call for a different form of Buddhism for the West—unless somehow large numbers of people suddenly get the urge to live like Indians of the ancient Ganges Valley. However, the "secular" part may be somewhat problematic…consider the following verses from the Paramatthaka Sutta which nicely represent a "point of view" recommended repeatedly by the Atthakavagga:

     Whatever advantage he sees for himself
     In the seen, in the heard, in morality and observances, or in the felt,
     He having seized upon that very thing there
     Views all others to be inferior.

     But adept ones call that a tie
     Dependent upon which he views another to be inferior;
     So upon the seen, the heard, or the felt,
     Or upon morality and observances a mendicant would not depend.

     Also he would not conceive a view in the world
     Based on knowledge or also on morality and observances.
     He would not represent himself as equal,
     Nor would he imagine to be inferior, or superior.

Western relative disregard for morality and observances, and for religion in general, may actually be helpful with regard to detaching from such things; yet if people are living a crazy busy lifestyle, running in hectic circles most of the time, then such utter, radical detachment, even from knowledge, even from our own senses, will be like scaling an iron cliff—not exactly impossible, yet extraordinarily challenging to say the least. I'm pretty sure some laypeople do manage it, though.
     But this comes back to the idea of most people being fish unaware of their own wetness. As a general rule even veteran meditators, even meditation instructors, tend to be oblivious to much of the baggage of cultural conditioning and implicit assumptions that they carry around with them. Being non-dogmatic applies not only to standardized religion and formal philosophy; it applies to everything, absolutely everything, including secular value judgements, unexamined assumptions about right and wrong that we picked up in our childhood, and much else besides, including the very notion that we exist, that we have a "self." This is a major reason why Gotama Buddha had his most advanced disciples wandering around as homeless beggars—by stripping life down to a bare minimum and releasing oneself from most of the worldly obligations that keep a person too busy to seriously (or playfully, but nevertheless consistently) reflect upon one's entire field of experience throughout the ever-changing present moment, a person is much more likely to succeed in being non-dogmatic and in not believing anything, not even "I exist." So if monasticism is rejected in the West, at the very least there should be some option for radical simplification, perhaps in intentional communities like ashrams—but not, however, in luxury meditation resorts that pander to much of our conditioning, thereby not encouraging us to see it. To be "secular," and at the same time to be without any belief or attachment, is almost self-contradictory. There must be some clarity and stillness, as well as some detachment from The System, for us to see our invisible burdens and limits. It may be that anything is possible, including a business person with a hectic schedule becoming fully enlightened, yet there should be some possibility, maybe even encouragement, to try it with a minimum of unnecessary handicaps.
     It requires consistent mindfulness, plus a bit of bravery (or reckless desperation), more than just an hour or two of relatively quiet sitting per day (and interestingly the Atthakavagga mentions sitting meditation almost not at all), to allow us to see our own autopilot's programming and limitations sufficiently to let go of it all. It is difficult to let go of something which you do not even know that you have, yet which you are habitually clinging to. It is easier to wake up from a dream if we know that we are dreaming. It is easier to escape from a prison if we can see that we are in one. Otherwise we are just trying to upgrade our detention cell, and improve the living conditions of the prison. Really, there's nothing necessarily wrong with this. This is essentially the human condition. This is the world. Most people, including most monastics, simply haven't had their fill of Samsara yet, so to speak, and aren't ready to fling themselves into the unknown Void of total non-reliance, which is true liberation. We do the best we can manage. But still, if real Dhamma or Dharma is to thrive in the West, to be a true, living spiritual system, it must be equipped to take us all the way to liberation if we are ready for it, and should give us the best possible chance at it. This means, very probably, that there will have to be some accommodation and support for renunciants of some sort, for people living a radically simplified lifestyle, even if they don't shave their head and wear a dun-colored toga. Even if the new Buddhism has no monastics, it will still have to have thoroughgoing spiritual radicals.






Saturday, May 2, 2015

Who Is Right and Who Is Wrong?


     Indeed, if by another’s word someone is inferior
     Then oneself also comes to be of inferior understanding. 
     Then again, if of oneself one is a realizer of Truth, a wise man,
     Then among philosophers no one is a fool.     (—Cūaviyūha Sutta, v.13) 

     Imagine the following extremely common scenario: Two people, A and B, disagree. A considers B's behavior and/or beliefs to be wrong and unacceptable, whereas B considers his own behavior and beliefs to be right, or at any rate much righter than A's. They are both convinced that they are right. But of course they can't both be right, because each of them considers the other to be wrong! If they are both right, then they are both wrong. Even so, each of them has it all worked out that they themselves are justified. They have plenty of reasons backing up their own side. It's plainly obvious to them. Each of them is obviously right, and thus both are wrong, too. This happens all the time—in fact it's happening right now, at this moment, in thousands of interactions all over the world.
     Of course if the disagreement is over something external and "objective," like, What is the capital city of Nevada?, then the person who asserts it's Carson City may be considered, for practical, conventional, and obvious reasons, to be more right than the person who asserts that the capital of Nevada is Paris, France; but there is no purely objective truth independent of a believing mind. Subjectivity is always involved. Ultimately according to Buddhist philosophy, Nevada doesn't really exist at all; it has no intrinsic, ultimate self-existence; so, ultimately, how could it have a capital? The existence of the state of Nevada, and of its capital city, depends upon human perception. (This is, to me, a fairly obvious observation, but people of the West are conditioned to assume the existence of an objective world independent of perceiving minds, so I'll eventually return to this point.)
     But setting aside the issue of a presumed external material world for the time being, if two people disagree over some kind of value judgement, then all bets are off. The "objective world" may shrink down to one person's individual mind, which may be going with some very different assumptions from those of the other person's individual mind. The disagreement becomes a disagreement over mere matters of opinion. Still though, each person thinks and feels that he or she is obviously right, even as he/she also thinks/feels that the other person is obviously wrong. 
     In such cases one may appeal to the values and assumptions of the majority; yet whoever is considered by the majority to be right may simply be closer to the cultural mainstream, or to the mainstream of human animal instinct. Is killing someone who is "evil," or maybe who just disagrees with you, right or wrong? Well, it depends on what culture you are in, and who you talk to. Should a Buddhist monk just stand there and watch a girl drown rather than swim out and save her just because it is against the rules for a monk to touch girls? Well, there are actually a few hard-nosed monks out there who would be inclined to say Yes. It is very much against the rules, especially if the monk cannot restrain his own mind while doing it, and if the girl drowns it's the fruition of her own karma, her own doing. Technically, from a Theravada Buddhist point of view, such a monk doesn't necessarily do anything wrong at all by letting her drown (although that would ultimately depend upon his own mental states). If the majority determines what is right and wrong, then in the modern world Enlightenment would seem to be wrong, and self-centeredly running in circles would be right.
     What people consider to be "truth," even "scientific truth," is conventional; it is only relative, and not ultimate. But we have been trained since infancy, or toddlerhood at the very latest, to assume that there is one real, objective Truth out there to be discovered—what early scientists considered to be the way God would see the Universe, as opposed to the way human apes see it. (So it is a bit ironic that most scientists nowadays have dismissed the Being whose point of view they are trying to discover, striving for the point of view of omniscience while denying omniscience itself.) But it would seem to me that "God," assuming that such an entity exists, would see everything in space, time, and whatever other dimensions there are from all possible angles, simultaneously, without separation. An infinite "point of view" simply cannot be reproduced by a finite mind, or symbolically. "God" would see that Reality is ultimately formless, just as "God" Itself is formless, since Reality is "God." A thinking mind cannot really understand Truth. It can only understand what a person believes to be true. And as I've attempted to explain elsewhere, belief and genuine knowledge are very different.
     From a Dharmic point of view, "right" is what takes you closer to Enlightenment, and "wrong" is what takes you farther away from it. (This would seem to indicate that for an enlightened mind there is no right or wrong.) Thus right and wrong are more practical than matters of objective verification. And what takes one person closer to Enlightenment may take another farther away—living alone in a cave, for example—so "right" is not necessarily universal. Furthermore, history has shown that some very peculiar and "superstitious" beliefs may help people to become very advanced saints; it may even be that weird, faith-based "superstitions" may bring one closer to Enlightenment than can logical, critical, and almost necessarily lukewarm empirical objectivity. (This is a paradox that bothers me sometimes, but it nevertheless remains evidently true.) So objective facts, from a Dharmic point of view, may have little to do with rightness.
     One lesson to be learned from this tale of confusion and woe is, It All Depends On How You Look At It. You can see the very same thing as beautiful or ugly (and our moods and health may cause the very same thing to look/taste/smell/feel good now and otherwise later); one may see the very same person as wrong and stupid, or as a beautiful miracle, and easily find justifications for either way of seeing.       
     But, even so…it appears to be human nature, reinforced by cultural conditioning, that there is one Right Way, and one objective truth, standing in resplendent glory above an infinite multitude of wrong ways…and as a general rule, we each consider ourselves to have found that one Right Way. Virtually everyone in the world is supremely wise, because virtually everyone has found the One True Way! This is just human nature.
     This whole notion of "objective truth," with us being the right ones and those fools over there being the wrong ones, makes for a hell of a lot of unnecessary problems in this world. (Sometimes it's obvious that they're wrong—but it's just as obvious to them that we're wrong, and their version of reality is just as valid or invalid as ours is.) It's wiser to assume that we're all wrong, or that right and wrong, in the worldly sense, are mere matters of opinion, and therefore, to some degree, silly. 

     The ignorant cherish the idea of rest and unrest,
     The enlightened have no likes and dislikes;
     All forms of dualism
     Are contrived by the ignorant themselves.
     They are like unto visions and flowers in the air:
     Why should we trouble ourselves to take hold of them?
     Gain and loss, right and wrong—
     Away with them once for all!     (—Hsin Hsin Ming, Suzuki's translation)

     Several months ago, while absent-mindedly gazing at a blank wall, a theory of spiritual death spontaneously popped into my mind. It's somewhat similar to Dostoevsky's definition of hell: being completely cut off from God. It's like this: the more rigid and closed off a system is, the more it is enclosed in a shell, the less alive it is. Life has some formlessness to it, it is flexible, and thus with regard to an attitude, the more dogmatic, the more dead; and the less certain, the more alive. Nirvana itself is absolutely formless, and at its best, "I don't know" also is formless. As soon as one thinks one has things all figured out, one becomes locked into a coffin (especially considering that one is extremely unlikely to be correct in that assumption), or at best becomes locked into a mental prison. But the Western mind is trained to assume that there is one objective reality which can be determined intellectually, and that science is in the process of determining it. What science taught fifty years ago is laughably out of date now, and what is taught now will be laughably out of date fifty years from now, but intellectual hubris inspires us to think that we know the truth intellectually—which closes us off from real Truth, which simply is not intellectual, and cannot be translated into something intellectual. Science and the Western mind are locked into a rigid way of seeing the world, and insist that the world really is that way, and thus, especially from a spiritual perspective, are well on the way to death. Rigidity is symptomatic of death.
     Thus with regard to things that a materialistic point of view cannot explain, like, for instance, the findings of parapsychology, or the alleged datum that a person like Therese Neumann could live without eating and regularly manifested the stigmata (bleeding wounds spontaneously appearing on the hands, feet, side, and forehead), such individuals insist upon a mundane, materialistic explanation, like, "They're frauds." I once read a theory about Therese Neumann to the effect that she had post traumatic stress disorder from an extremely difficult youth, a kind of eating disorder in which she had severe aversion for food, and also a form of hysteria in which she would mutilate her own body without realizing she was doing it. Upon reading something like this many followers of scientific realism would probably jump at it, thinking, "Aha! That must be it," even though the explanation doesn't fit some of the empirical information about her. (I considered including a picture of her as an illustration for this post, but the photos of her with blood streaming down her face gave me the willies, so I changed my mind.) The truth simply can't be spiritual, since spirituality is a mere superstition, or a relaxing hobby necessarily lying entirely within the context of materialism. Or so some people think.
     The Jehovah's Witnesses have essentially a very similar attitude toward interpreting the Bible: They begin with the notion that the Bible is infallible truth, and then adopt the most plausible-sounding explanation they can come up with in accordance with that. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon involves the case of the death of Judas Iscariot. In one book of the Bible he returns the thirty pieces of silver to the Pharisees and goes off and hangs himself, with the Pharisees then buying the Potter's Field with the money, because they didn't want "blood money" to go into the Temple treasury—with the alternate name of "The Field of Blood" going to the Potter's Field because it was bought with this same blood money. In another book of the Bible Judas keeps the money, buys the Potter's Field himself, and then, while standing there, suddenly pitches forward, with his bowels spontaneously gushing out of his body, and with this gory incident giving good reason for the name "Field of Blood." These two stories would appear to be irreconcilable, right? He couldn't have kept the money and given it back, and he couldn't have died in two different ways, right? Wrong! Not even! The Jehovah's Witnesses explain it like this: Judas did return the money, but the Pharisees bought the field in his name, so it was as though he bought it himself; then, he did hang himself, from a tree branch at the field, but then the rope broke or the branch broke, causing him to fall upon a rock, which caused his bowels to gush out; and of course a field could get its name for more than one reason. So there, you see, there's no contradiction at all! The Bible can't be wrong. They really believe this, and nobody can prove them wrong. Jehovah's Witnesses, scientific materialists, and pretty much the entire human race can work out the information at hand in accordance with their own rigid, limited way of looking at things.
     Yet the Universe we live in is infinite, and our poor little brains just can't work it all out. They're not designed for working it all out, and even if they were, they still would not be able to do it. A finite blob of grey meat cannot comprehend an infinite Universe. It can detect patterns and label them and come up with some really ingenious techniques for compensating for some of its many limitations, but infinity must remain beyond its range. Anyway, even if scientific materialists or this or that other person are "right" in a worldly, objective sense most of the time, still, open-mindedness is an infinitely superior attitude, and "I don't know" is still more likely the correct answer to any question. Again, a rigid attitude in which one thinks one has it all figured out is spiritually dead, or at least comatose. Rigidity is a symptom of death. 
     Whether we realize it or not, we are living a spiritual life, and this is the most important aspect of our lives, even though most people may disregard it at the superficial, "conscious" level of the ego. We are working through spiritual entanglements, although we may identify them or ignore them in very different ways. And at the highest, purest "level" of spirituality—mere words fail to explain it—that is, Nirvana, there simply is no wrong or right. 
     So what if you're right, and so what if you're wrong! It all depends on how you look at it. Just do the best you can in the present moment, and be as awake as you can, and you'll be right enough.