Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reflections on Materialism, Karma, and Food (part 2)


     Instead of bashing Scientism systematically, as I've already attempted to do elsewhere, I will focus on a peculiar form of scientific materialism that is particularly prevalent in the West, even among good New Age persons who firmly believe in the healing powers of mantra and didgeridoo vibrations and who seek spiritual guidance from card readings and channeled utterances of the Archangel Metatron. In fact this type of materialism seems particularly prevalent in Western Dharma circles of all sorts. I am referring to what may be called "health materialism." 
     When I lived in Burma full-time and was hoping to return to the USA, I thought that in America I'd be eating Good Food (=Western Food) again. No more white rice with every meal, no more smelly bamboo shoots, no more plain boiled weeds, no more pale green eggplant glop (to say nothing of lizard tails, frog eggs, pig spleen, and fried insects). I'd eat bread! Cheese! Italian pasta! Ice cream! Guacamole! But upon returning to the West, I discovered that many Westerners who are inclined to feed monks are also strangely inclined to eat food just as weird, gross, and/or flavorless as the food Burmese villagers eat. While I was out of the country, American people started eating food I'd never heard of before, like quinua, chia seeds, and goji berries. Also they started eating food that I had heard of, but hadn't acknowledged as food, like flaxseed and kale—lots and lots of kale. Lots of it. Once I discussed this phenomenon with a Western monk I knew who had also spent time in the West recently; and he mentioned that while he was over there a lady invited him to a meal of spaghetti, which he accepted readily, since, like most Westerners, he likes spaghetti. But when it was served to him, he found that the "spaghetti" contained no actual pasta at all, but rather some kind of shredded squash. (Why, it's enough to make a tomcat talk French grammar.)
     The Western Dharma movement has progressed hand in hand not only with environmentalism, but with "healthfoodism" also. Most of these folks do not go so far as to be strict vegetarians, vegetarianism apparently being too inconvenient for most post-modern Americans to tolerate, although they prefer their hamburgers to be free-range and organic. Eggs, although uncontroversially considered to be deadly poison by healthfoodists 25 years ago, are now considered to be quite safe—it's the gluten in the toast that's the enemy now. Wheat, a primary staple for Western humankind for many centuries, now leads to gluten poisoning and "wheat belly." People may be very open-minded, in an abstract, philosophical way, about the power of mind in determining our reality, but they draw the line at food. Bread and cheese are junk food, non-organic vegetables can kill you, and steamed (or better yet, raw) kale is a kind of panacea. Sometimes I would amuse myself by pointing out to the new devotees of kale that it is laced with toxic oxalic acid. 
     This health materialism applies not only to food. Now people are afraid to drink from plastic water bottles for fear of "off-gassing." They carry bottles of hand sanitizer around wherever they go, for fear of invisible microbes. At one of the most famous meditation centers in America, incense and candles have reportedly been banned from the altars because people are so freaked out about breathing potentially carcinogenic fumes. A new enlightened strategy for health that I heard about in Bellingham was "pulling," in which one sits for several minutes every day with a mouth full of oil. Not only New Age followers, but also hard-headed, middle aged Vipassana meditators follow along with this materialistic stepsister of American spirituality.
     A typical example of the situation arose in 2012, when I advertised the upcoming second annual forest fast. One of the only official rules of the fast was that our only nutriment would be water from the White Chuck River (a relatively pristine river in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington state), filtering it, if at all, with nothing more than a piece of cloth—so in other words, technologically sophisticated water purification systems were forbidden. Almost immediately after posting the advertisement on the local Vipassana society's list serve, I began receiving complaints from people, most of whom had no intention of going on the fast anyway, requesting that the No Water Filters rule be revoked, and warning me of the dangers of giardiasis. The water of the White Chuck River is probably cleaner than that coming out of the pipes in town, but no matter: if it is not scientifically guaranteed to be safe, then it is unknown, unpredictable, potentially dangerous, and frightening. I tried to explain that if you look after Dharma, Dharma looks after you; and that if you have more faith in high-tech water filters than you have in Dharma, then something like the forest fast isn't for you anyway; but even teachers at the local Dharma Hall just couldn't see it that way. My attitude may have been viewed as fanatical, or just as unrealistically simple-minded. I refused to change the rule though; and after three annual forest fasts at the same river, nobody had any health complaints from drinking clean mountain water. I didn't even filter mine through a cloth.
     People in the West have been so thoroughly conditioned by Scientism, and their faith in materialism is so deep, that they do not recognize it as faith—they see it as simple truth, much in the same way that medieval Europeans considered their Catholic world view to be just plain, obvious Reality. Even most Westerners who consider themselves to be Buddhists have much, much more faith in materialism than in Dharma, and thus accept the concept of Karma in a lukewarm, confused way without looking at it too closely, or else they don't accept it at all beyond what is clearly compatible with scientistic dogma. Yet Buddhists who don't accept Kiriya-vāda, the doctrine of karma and karmic retribution, are rather like Christians who don't believe in God. Thus we have in the West a situation in which most "Buddhists" are really devout followers of Scientism with a smidgen of Buddhism added as flavoring, or as a relaxing hobby. 
     These good people (and I know they are good people) may insist that the existence of physical matter is a plain fact, and that scientific evidence is a juggernaut that it is foolish or stupid to resist. Even enlightened beings like Gotama Buddha were culture-bound products of societies that just didn't know the scientific truth. Obviously, some foods (for example) are more conducive to good health than others. Smoking tobacco clearly increases the likelihood of lung cancer and emphysema. There have been a few glitches in the system, like the completely uncontroversial knowledge 25 years ago, backed up by plenty of scientific experimentation and verification, that one's lifespan would be increased by an average of x number of years if one simply stopped eating eggs; but such snafus are trivial. Food materialism simply cannot be argued with, not even by New Age people, aside from a few breatharians. 
     Even so, I can still argue. I offer as a hypothesis for consideration another way of looking at what does and does not cause good health, which is much more spiritually-oriented than materialism, and takes karma into account much more comprehensively. It is based on the idea that we are literally creating our own versions of reality, that this world is a dream.
     First of all, it should be pointed out that we are imprisoned by our beliefs. Whatever we believe, especially if it is believed deep down, with profound faith, and is furthermore reinforced by the beliefs of practically everyone around us, becomes our reality, whether we like it or not. There are some, like the Christian Scientists to some degree, and also a multidimensional entity called Seth who allegedly was channeled through Jane Roberts during the early 1970's, who declare that in this world we all have a kind of subconscious, telepathic agreement with everyone else on certain rules, on a certain degree of law and order necessary for our stable, shared samsara to exist. (Even without the telepathy, this stability could be explained by something along the lines of, but more metaphysically potent than, Jung's collective unconscious.) The habitual, automatic, subconscious nature of these beliefs indicates that they are karmic. And karma, according to Theravada Buddhist philosophy at least, determines everything that we sense in our world, either pleasant or unpleasant. It is a manifestation of habitual beliefs coming from deep within our psyche. This idea serves as a kind of foundation, though, and isn't the main idea I'm getting at.
     The main idea is that, in any stable universe, positive and negative must remain in balance. A mind stuck in samsara is such a stable universe—not absolutely stable, obviously, but stable enough to persist over time. Thus pleasure and displeasure tend to balance out in the long run. So if we derive great pleasure from something, it eventually comes back to bite us, with that bite manifesting itself within the context of the underlying belief system. It is proverbial that what we love most is what hurts us most; and in Buddhism it is said that whatever a man delights in, that is what Mara, "The Killer," catches him with. So if we love good food it tends to result in obesity or other health problems like diabetes or bad teeth. We can stave off the pain of tooth decay by following the dull, not-pleasant ritual of brushing and flossing, by way of compensation. If we love our tobacco, our love for it creates the psychic imbalance that eventually levels out in the form of lung or throat diseases. If we love sex and indulge to excess, we can get big problems from that, like unwanted pregnancies, dysfunctional relationships, cancers of the sexual organs, or the more obviously retributive venereal diseases. Heroin, which induces profound euphoria, consequently messes its users up profoundly. And so on. And so, according to this hypothetical interpretation, health food is good for us not because it has this or that material nutrient, or because it is free from deadly cholesterol or gluten, but because it is bland, chewy, expensive, and somewhat inconvenient. We derive relatively little pleasure from eating it, so there is little negativity to be expected by way of maintaining a karmic, cosmic balance. Maybe if deep beliefs about nutrients shifted sufficiently, Vipassana meditators and New Age folks could thrive on lovely, flavorless sawdust. 
     Because of the communal, contagious nature of beliefs, it is to be expected that if we have a healthy attitude, we are more likely to stay healthy by avoiding the masses who are sure that we are poisoning ourselves, or that at our age we shouldn't be able to do such-and-such anymore, etc. If you're going to get old, you might consider moving to a society where old people are respected, and not viewed as decaying, burdensome wrecks with one foot already in the grave. Also, we should be careful that our own beliefs don't harm others. Recently an American friend of mine said that she considered dismissing her night watchman because he sits every night surrounded by lit mosquito coils to avoid the bugs, and she didn't want to be present while he poisoned himself to death. But it seems to me that her belief that he was poisoning himself was itself helping to poison him. If you believe that someone is going to get sick, it helps them to get sick; and if you believe that good things will happen, it helps them to happen. Our beliefs, especially our deepest ones, condition our reality, and influence the reality of everyone around us.
     The philosopher David Hume was an abnormally open-minded person; but unfortunately he was involved in an intellectual movement called "The Enlightenment" which had a hidden agenda for abolishing religion from the face of the earth—i.e., to replace "blind superstition" (especially religion) with "reason and knowledge" (especially science). In his book An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding he included an axe-grinding chapter entitled "On Miracles," which was essentially an underhanded attack on the idea that miracles are possible, since Christians have used this idea in support of the truth, validity, and superiority of their religion—"Look at all the miracles!" Anyway, one argument Hume raised was that rumors of miracles (i.e. events which cannot be explained by empirical science, and which furthermore are not common and consistent enough to be uncontroversially nonfictional) have been most likely to arise in barbarous, ignorant countries—the implication being that the people's barbarous ignorance is what caused them to mistakenly believe in miracles at all. Thus, for instance, the legend of a sage walking on water arose among rustic Hebrews in backwater Galilee rather than among urbane Greeks or Romans. But there is another possible explanation for this same data: It may be that rumors of miracles are most likely to arise in culturally unsophisticated, more "magical" societies because the members of such societies have more faith in their possibility, and thus miracles are more likely really to occur there. I would not be at all surprised if supernatural phenomena really did occur with greater frequency in premodern times, in ages when people had much greater faith in their possibility. Our beliefs condition our reality. I also would not be at all surprised if the next Copernican revolution in science, which might cause scientific knowledge to evolve into something beyond mere science, will be the realization that energy and consciousness are one and the same; that what a physicist calls energy is just a very simple, elemental form of what a psychologist calls consciousness, and what a psychologist calls consciousness is a very complicated and organized form of what a physicist calls energy. This one realization, if proved sufficiently for enough people to believe it, might radically change this world, and probably very much for the better, let alone evaporate the mind/brain problem.
     Of course there's no proof of all this, but by the same token there's really no proof of material matter like omega fatty acids and poisonous wheat gluten either. None of us has ever seen a molecule of oxalic acid, but we have implicit faith that what our priests tell us is true—that not only does oxalic acid exist, but it exists even if no conscious mind is perceiving it, and is poisonous regardless of our mental states. Yet it may all be just an elaborate dream; and modern Westerners are, in their own way, too intellectually unsophisticated to see the metaphysical shifting sands upon which Scientism is based, or else too emotionally insecure and in need of a stable Samsara to want to see. 
     Even if my hypothesis is valid (and I'm certainly not the first person to propose it), there are admittedly some troublesome facts to consider. For instance, it appears that even enlightened beings are to a great degree enslaved by what appears to be a physical system. Ramana Maharshi died of cancer; and Neem Karoli Baba, who reportedly sometimes ate twenty full meals a day as a way of helping people work through karmic energies, and who was quite obese, died of heart failure and/or diabetic shock, despite the fact that he was apparently extremely highly advanced, and had astonishing psychic powers (regardless of materialists' refusal to consider this possibility). Mary Baker Eddy, who considered taking medicine to be a sin (because it demonstrated a greater faith in materialism than in the goodness and mercy of God), still ate food, which after all is a kind of medical prophylaxis against starvation. And Therese Neumann, a Catholic Franciscan lay sister who reportedly was so free of physical necessity that she ate only one communion wafer per day as her sole nutritive intake, plus maybe a little communion wine, still died, like everyone else. The Buddha died too. So ultimately we all appear to be enslaved to the system, or at least our bodies do, regardless of whether the system is physical, or a mentally generated illusion. This may be due largely to the overwhelming reinforcing effect of the beliefs of all the beings participating in the system.
     One thing is fairly certain, however: Positive mental states are more conducive to positive results, and negative mental states are more conducive to negative results. So it's probably much better to eat bread and cheese, or Snickers bars, or even lizard tails and frog eggs, with gratitude or equanimity, than to consume organic kale, chia seeds, and filtered, sterilized water out of worry and fear about being healthy.
     I haven't written all this to persuade you that physical matter doesn't exist. That would be pretty naive, wouldn't it, and foolish besides. I'm simply appealing to whatever open-mindedness you have, and challenging a huge, spiritually bankrupt prison of belief that captivates most of the people of the West, and more and more in the East now too. Just try to consider what I've said as a hypothesis. Actually to believe it would just be subjecting oneself to another imprisoning system, right? Whatever we believe will very probably be fundamentally wrong anyway. In fact it's pretty easy to demonstrate that all beliefs are fundamentally invalid. But don't believe that either. Consider the value of open-mindedness, and of suspension of judgement with regard to beliefs which potentially can enslave us, or even kill us. And be happy and healthy. 

         
      I had discovered that I had diabetes and wasn't supposed to eat anything spicy, starchy, greasy, or sweet. Right after that, I went to Kainchi for the first time and was served a big plate of puris cooked in grease, same halva, and some spicy potatoes—all precisely the things I shouldn't eat. The doctor had told be that if I ate such things I could get very ill. I thought about what the doctor said and looked over at Maharajji, who was twinkling. I was trying to decide whether to have faith in the doctor or faith in Maharajji. (At that time I didn't even know if he was my guru.) It was my first day "on the job" as Maharajji's devotee.
     I finally decided to eat the food. In fact, I was so hungry I ate two big plates of it. Every day thereafter, I would come and stuff myself. After a few weeks, I went to Nainital and had my blood-sugar level tested. It was down to borderline low. The doctor said, "I don't understand how this could have gotten so low so quickly. This doesn't make sense."
     I said, "Well, I think I know what happened."
     (—from Miracle of Love: stories about Neem Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass (Hanuman Foundation, 1995))





Saturday, September 20, 2014

Reflections on Materialism, Karma, and Food (part 1)

"The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in."—Rupert Sheldrake (a famous scientist)
"What opposes the heart is not admitted by the head. All through life we cling to many errors, and take care never to examine their ground, merely from a fear, of which we ourselves are unconscious, of possibly making the discovery that we have so long and so often believed and maintained what is false." —Arthur Schopenhauer (a German philosopher)
     Imagine what would happen if, one day, a cup on somebody's table (maybe yours) were suddenly to levitate into the air and remain floating there, slowly bobbing and rotating with no visible means of support. Well, perhaps after first ascertaining that the phenomenon was not some practical joke, with no string or other gimmick holding the thing up, the average person's most likely reaction would be alarm, possibly even terror, possibly accompanied by shouts, screams, or exclamations of "Jesus Christ!" Why would a person be terrified by a coffee cup suddenly floating into the air? The cup wouldn't be threatening anybody with immanent harm; it would just be quietly floating there. The main reason why a person might be terrified by this cup would be the fact that they could not explain what was happening, and that the situation had suddenly become unpredictable, and therefore perceived as potentially very threatening.
     Here is a somewhat similar situation that I encountered many years ago in a short story by Ambrose Bierce: A man looks out his window and sees a clump of trees, yet one of the trees seems somehow different from all the rest—not with regard to what kind of tree it is, but with regard to how it feels to perceive it. This unexpected strangeness inspires alarm and dread in the heart of the man, until he realizes that the strange tree is actually a small tree much closer to him than the rest, which through an optical illusion he perceived as a member of the group of trees farther away. This momentary inability to explain a perceived phenomenon was sufficient to inspire fear in the person looking out the window. I would guess that this really happened to Mr. Bierce at one time. Similar things have happened to me; for example a fear-inspiring violent hailstorm that I encountered in a tropical semi-desert during very hot weather several years ago. The scariest thing about it was that I didn't know why it was happening.
     People are like this. This is human nature. We have a profound emotional need to explain everything around us. The explanation doesn't even have to be particularly sensible, or even true; all it has to be is emotionally satisfying. 
     This is one of the main, original reasons for religion and philosophy. Even in the stone age people couldn't stand not being able to explain what caused thunder or diseases, or what the stars are, or what brings bad harvests, or good hunting. And if they couldn't explain such things themselves, it was generally enough to have the simple faith that the witch doctors or priests or philosophers could explain them. This is one reason why witch doctors, priests, and philosophers have received so much respect and support over the ages. They help to give their people a feeling of emotional security. 
     This profound need for explanations results in human beings becoming addicted to and passionately defensive of whatever paradigm they depend upon as a world view. We don't want to examine too closely the basic foundations of our paradigm, for fear that we may find something unbelievable, with nothing conveniently available to replace it. Such an event could inspire fear and chaos in an entire population.
     700 years ago, people just as intelligent as we are, although with different cultural conditioning, were absolutely sure that God Almighty created the entire Universe in six days, taking the seventh day off as a holiday. This was really a very powerful explanation for everything: The LORD, in His infinite wisdom, made it that way. And if a simple medieval peasant couldn't explain it any better than that, he had faith that the priests certainly could, The LORD willing. The medieval European world view was actually in some ways stronger than the modern scientific world view; it all fell back on "God made it that way." That was good enough and comprehensive enough to keep people from worrying. It explained literally everything. Nowadays there are many things that the new religion of Scientism can't explain, although the average person is ignorant of this, or else has a simple faith that the scientists will figure it all out very soon. At first many people vehemently resisted science as a new way of explaining Reality, or else simply ignored the situation; but science could not be argued away like a rival dogma of Christianity could, as it had practical results that not only were obvious, but often useful besides. Science had reproducible, obvious evidence supporting it, it fueled technology, and, furthermore, it made sense. Gradually, more and more as it developed, science became a stupendous super-system which, for the most part, was comprehensive and self-consistent. This kind of explanatory system is very emotionally satisfying. (At a much smaller scale, a paranoid psychotic's ability to fit everything into his perceptual system in a way that supports his perceptions of persecution, etc., makes his world view extremely convincing, at least to him personally. It all makes perfect sense, in a way.) This helps to explain why the Western world has been sucked into an intellectual monoculture as limiting, in its own ways, as the intellectual monoculture of medieval Christianity, and much more spiritually bankrupt.
     But although scientific realism, or Scientism, is accepted without question by most Westerners, even by most humans nowadays, what are the odds that it will be accepted as the most correct interpretation of Reality by people 700 years from now? It may even appear as naively unrealistic to people 170 or even 70 years from now as medieval Scholasticism appears to scientists today. We naturally assume that scientific materialism is the correct interpretation of Reality, and do not want to question that because it would inspire some fearful insecurity, but in all probability Scientism itself will eventually be outmoded and replaced by something even more satisfyingly explanatory. Most people nowadays do not realize that Scientism is a huge, elaborate guess, or system of guesses. They may say that science has proof, but even philosophers of science know that there is no real proof, and furthermore those medieval Christians had their own proof that Christian theology was the correct interpretation—miracles produced by saints, or even by the relics of saints, were pretty solid evidence to people in those days. The danger of being burned at the stake for doubting the system was just icing on the cake.
     There have always been people who, for whatever reasons, have interpreted Reality in a way that rejects not only scientific materialism, but any materialism. Mahayana Buddhism and Hindu Vedanta are two of the most advanced and profound spiritual/philosophical systems devised by the human mind, and both deny the ultimate existence of physical matter. Further west, Christian Science and the Idealist philosophies (predominantly German, and mostly of the 19th century, before the monoculture took over) have advocated the idea that the world is an Idea. Immanuel Kant considered it a great scandal that no philosopher had ever been able to demonstrate the real existence (or nonexistence) of physical matter; and philosophers a hundred years ago and more, very intelligent people by the way, often dismissed materialism with condescending disdain. In fact if one looks at logical demonstrations, one finds that the Idealists have more in their favor than do their materialistic rivals. But the practical results of Scientism, and the faith-inspiring, satisfying integratedness and self-consistency of the system, have drowned out logical demonstrations.
     Before getting back to Buddhist philosophy I will point out the strange paradox of scientific "certainty": Science begins by assuming what is uncertain, namely a physical world which goes on with its business unaffected whether or not a conscious mind is perceiving it—which cannot possibly be proved—and traditionally rejects, or at least tries to ignore, what is certain, i.e. the subjective existence of consciousness itself. During the 20th century there were even psychologists who denied the validity, or even the existence, of consciousness in their attempts at scientific objectivity. And to this day Scientism has no real explanation for how a physical brain could possibly generate consciousness. Modern technological peasants, in their simple faith in the priests of Scientism, either ignore all this or else assume that the scientists must have it figured out, or will figure it out soon. And if they can't figure it out, then it must not be important. Non-scientific modern philosophers have frequently adopted the obviously sensible strategy of starting with relative certainty, i.e. the existence of consciousness itself, and working from this in their attempts to understand reality, yet, ironically, science has adopted practically the opposite approach.  
     Many years ago in a used bookstore in Mandalay I latched onto an old college textbook on Indian Philosophy, written by two Hindu professors with long, unrememberable names like Dr. Sri Ramanujandas Krishnakumaraswami. Their discussion of Buddhism followed the method of medieval Hindu texts on comparative Indian Philosophy by dividing Buddhism into four categories, based largely on their respective epistemological doctrines. The first category was Madhyamaka, which, according to the Hindus at least, asserts that neither mind nor matter is ultimately real, and thus that neither can really be known. The second category, also Mahayanist, is Yogacara, which asserts that mind or consciousness is ultimately real, and can and is known directly, although matter, being ultimately illusory, cannot be really known at all. Thus the two main Mahayana schools are both non-materialist. (H. H. the Dalai Lama, considered to be a great sage in Western Dharma circles, is a leading member of the Madhyamaka or "Voidness" school.) The next group discussed is the Sautrantika school, a reform movement of "Hinayana" which rejected the authority of all Abhidharma texts. According to them, mind is ultimately real and can be known directly, while matter, also ultimately real, can be inferred with logical certainty, and thus can be known, with certainty, indirectly. The last on the list is called Vaibhashika, which in all likelihood is the same as Sarvastivada, an old school closely related to Theravada. This ancient school claimed that not only are both mind and matter ultimately real, but that they both can be known directly, and thus with absolute certainty. Apparently this last school was not taken very seriously by medieval Hindu philosophers, who hardly bothered to take the trouble to argue against it. This sort of reasoning had come to be considered naively unsophisticated by that time. It does, however, come closest to the Theravadin view—the Theravadins themselves having been mostly driven into southern India and elsewhere by early medieval times, no longer being a significant enough philosophical force in northern India to be mentioned in the comparative philosophy texts of the day. 
     One major difficulty that all the materialist/pluralist schools had, as represented on the Hindu list by Sautrantika and Vaibhashika, was in their explanations of how mind, which was considered to be ultimately, qualitatively different from matter, could affect or even generate (ultimately real) physical matter. Karma is a central and fundamental teaching of Buddhist philosophy; and karma is declared to be predominantly a mental state; yet karma somehow profoundly influences the seemingly physical system of our samsaric world. The Sarvastivadins converted karma into a quasi-material substance, much like the Jains did, although this didn't really solve the problem. In the Theravadin Abhidhamma philosophy there is mention of kammaja rūpa and cittaja rūpa—karma-born matter and mind-born matter—although, as far as I know, no serious attempt was ever made to explain how mind or mental states could create or even influence ultimately distinct physical matter. The whole situation was an early forerunner to the "mind/brain problem" in modern science. I doubt that anyone has ever really figured it out within a context that acknowledges materialism.
     But from a Buddhist point of view at least, an obvious, simple, effective solution to the problem is to allow physical matter to drop out of the equation. The existence of matter is not logically necessary anyway, and just leads to apparently insoluble problems, at least in Buddhist and Vedantist philosophy. After all, the word "Buddha" can be interpreted to mean Awakened; the implication being that Samsara is a kind of illusory dream state from which we awaken. Thus the more sophisticated systems dismissed matter, much as the successors of Kant in Europe dismissed it. It was seen as more of a logical embarrassment than an intellectually satisfying, actual explanation of the phenomenal world.  
     But of course, the assertions or even certainty of Mahayana Buddhists and other Idealists are no guarantee of truth, any more than are the assertions and certainty of modern scientific materialists who lean in the opposite direction. Or of medieval European Christians, for that matter, who were pretty damn sure of themselves too. Certainty appears to be no guarantee of anything, not even if it is the certainty of entire civilizations, regardless of what they consider to be obvious "proof." It is the nature of civilizations, including our own civilization, to be deludedly unenlightened. The primary purpose of a civilization, and also the primary purpose of a religious system, a social movement, or an individual being, is to perpetuate itself, not to understand Ultimate Reality. The understanding of Ultimate Reality may even be detrimental to self-perpetuation.


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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Technical Matters: Ecclesiastical Precints (Sīmā)


     Recently I was recruited as Sangha technical advisor for a new Buddhist ashram to be constructed in the highlands of central Bali. Monasteries can be extremely simple; so with regard to the monastic area of the ashram, the only technical advice really required concerns the formal ecclesiastical precinct, or sīmā. So lately I've been brushing up on the subject of sīmās.
     According to the Pali text Vinaya Mahāvagga, in the chapter on Uposatha, monks were uncertain as to how to know whether they were in the same congregation as other monks living nearby—that is, whether or not they should perform formal acts of the Sangha together. They brought this matter to the Buddha, who said, "Bhikkhus, I allow an ecclesiastical precinct (sīmā) to be authorized. And thus, bhikkhus, should it be authorized: First, boundary markers (nimittā) should be announced—pabbatanimittaṁ (a mountain or hill), pāsāṇanimittaṁ (a rock), vananimittaṁ (a forest or grove of trees), rukkhanimittaṁ (a single tree), magganimittaṁ (a path or road), vammikanimittaṁ (a termite mound), nadīnimittaṁ (a river or stream), udakanimittaṁ (any body of water)…." And after this a formal act of the  Sangha is conducted to authorize the new precinct.
     There are a few other kinds of sīmā that are more or less "automatic," and do not require a formal act to authorize them. For example, monks living within the boundaries of a village or town may use those boundaries as a gāmasīmā, or "village sīmā." Monks living in a remote forest area may use an automatic sīmā with a radius of seven abbhantaras, an abbhantara allegedly being a unit of measurement about 14m in length. Also, monks completely surrounded by water may use a kind of water sīmā with a radius equivalent to the distance a man of average strength can fling water in all directions. (I once used this sort of sīmā in Yokohama Bay, in Japan; the sayadaw I was with had a boat rented so we could do uposatha inside a valid sīmā.)


an illustration from ven. U Silananda's book,
showing a kind of water sima
(the circle around the raft represents the sima boundary,
defined by the distance a man of average strength 
can fling water in all directions)

     All the monks who live within the same agreed-upon boundaries are considered to be of one congregation, and are thus required to participate in the same formal acts, or at least to agree to them. (Interestingly, the main definition of a schism, or saṅghabheda, is a situation in which two separate communities of monks perform separate formal acts within the same sīmā.) Thus it is clear that a sīmā was a kind of parish—the size of some of the allowable boundary markers (a mountain, a forest) indicates this, as does the fact that the maximum allowable size for a sīmā is three yojanas on a side; so assuming purely for the sake of argument that a yojana equals 15km, the maximum allowable ecclesiastical precinct or parish would be about 2000 square kilometers, or 780 square miles. This maximum limit is to prevent monks from being unable to arrive easily at the congregation place within a single day. There is another rule which specifies that a sīmā may not be divided by a river unless there is a permanent means of crossing it, such as a bridge or ferry. This also is to ensure that monks living within the sīmā can reach the scene of a formal act without undergoing an ordeal.
     At the other end of the scale, the minimum allowable size is just big enough to allow 21 monks to sit together. This is because the largest formal act of the Sangha (called abbhāna) requires a minimum of 21 monks to participate in it. But despite this relatively tiny minimum size, still it is clear that the original purpose of a sīmā was to be a territory or "home turf" determining which monks were members of the same community.
     Ironically though, if one goes to a monastery in Myanmar one will find that a sīmā, or thein, usually refers not to any bounded territory within which a community of monks resides, but rather to a single building, the monastery's congregation hall—which, as often as not, has zero monks residing there. So the average ecclesiastical precinct has come to have a total population of zero. This situation is the inevitable result of corruption in Vinaya, which in this particular case is largely due to a peculiar glitch in the monastic rules themselves, unforeseen by the ancient formulators of the Theravadin monastic code.
     This appears to be an opportune point at which to point out that this article is not intended to be a comprehensive exposition on sīmās. As far as I know, no such comprehensive exposition exists in the English language, unless maybe it is in volume III of the English translation of the Vinayamukha, authored by the Thai Sangharāja ven. Vajirañāavaroraso. The definitive work in Burmese is considered to be a book entitled သိမ် သင်တန်း (Thein Thintann), by ven. Sayadaw U Sīlānanda. Otherwise, curious monks should consult the Vinaya itself and its commentaries, the latter especially with regard to how to do the boundary marker announcements. The main purpose of this article is to discuss how the concept of sīmās has been corrupted, and how the Sangha can cope with the corruption in order to keep things legal and "ritually pure." Consequently this article may be of little or no interest to laypeople. 
     All or almost all ecclesiastical acts in Burmese monasticism have become corrupt, and the situation appears to be only slightly better in Thailand; I'm not sure what it's like in Sri Lanka, but I would guess that it's not so good there either. But the fact that a Sangha's "home territory" has shrunk down to a single building which may be home to nobody is not entirely the fault of the Burmese, or the Thais. It's due in part to the likelihood that ancient Indian monks did not realize that Buddhism would exist for more than 2500 years, and that the boundary markers of sīmās could be forgotten or could even disappear altogether, with no way of knowing whether there is or is not a pre-existent sīmā in a given place, and no convenient way of eliminating one if there is one. A sīmā has no expiration date, even though its boundary markers may have been trees, roads, ponds, or termite mounds that ceased to exist centuries before. 
     The establishment of a new sīmā, as mentioned above, involves first naming all the boundary markers in all (eight) directions; but although there is a formal act for abolishing an old sīmā, it does not mention any boundary markers. The key words in the act of abolishment are simply, in Pali, "That sīmā agreed upon by the Sangha as the area of common communion, of one uposatha observance—that sīmā is abolished as the area of common communion, of one uposatha observance." The assumption is that the boundaries of the sīmā to be abolished are known, and that by performing this formal act within those known boundaries, the act is accomplished. There is no provision for invisible, forgotten, ancient sīmās
     The Vinaya explicitly specifies that no new sīmā may be authorized which overlaps with an old one. Such a sīmā is invalid. Consequently, especially in Asia, before a new sīmā is established, a very complicated ritual is performed to ensure that there are no invisible, pre-existing sīmās overlapping with the intended new one, which might invalidate it. This ritual is very labor intensive, and is by far the most difficult part of creating a new sīmā.
     The way it is done in Burma is that the entire ground which will contain the new "precinct" is divided up into rectangles a few feet on a side, and a formal act of abolishment is performed inside each rectangle, just in case an ancient, invisible sīmā is there. Thus new sīmās tend to be scarcely bigger than the area of a single building; dividing up 2000 square kilometers into little rectangles and doing formal chanting in each one simply is not feasible.
     Of course, an obvious solution to this problem would be to change the words of the formal act, stating that any sīmā existing within such and such boundaries is officially abolished. There may be some Sanghas that have actually tried this. But the trouble is that conservative Asian theras may consider such a deviation from the actual words of the Vinaya to be invalid; and if a sīmā is suspected to be invalid, all formal acts conducted within that sīmā, including the ordinations of new monks, could also be suspected of invalidity. A sīmā must be like Caesar's wife—above suspicion. Thus a new ecclesiastical precinct must have two qualities: it must be valid according to Vinaya, and it must also be uncontroversial and acceptable to as many monks as possible, preferably all of them. If Burmese sayadaws consider Thai sīmās to be invalid, or if Thai ajahns consider Burmese ones to be invalid, or Western monks consider both types to be invalid, it simply breeds problems. So it's best to be as conservative as possible when making sīmās. 
     As it turns out, I am one of those aforementioned Western monks who considers most sīmās in Burma and Thailand to be pretty much invalid. The situation has to do not with abolishing old sīmās, or with the tininess of new ones, but with the boundary markers used, the nimittā
     For some bizarre reason that I can only begin to guess at, the standard method for establishing a new sīmā in Myanmar is as follows: After any old sīmā is abolished (which abolishment also may be invalid, although I'll get back to that), holes dug where the boundary markers are to be are filled with water, again and again, until the ground is saturated and the water doesn't immediately seep into the ground and disappear. Then the formal act is conducted after declaring these holes full of water as udakanimittā, or bodies of water used as boundary markers. A few hours later the water is gone, and the Burmese set up marble or concrete posts to show where the real boundary markers are supposed to be. But of course the boundary markers have evaporated, and are nonexistent. There used to be an ancient commentary which specified that any water boundary marker should have water in it all year round, like a pond or a well, in order for it to be a valid marker. The official Theravadin commentary, however, rejects this, claiming that a water boundary may be nothing more than a temporary mud puddle that animals have wallowed in. (It is interesting, and justifiable, that the venerable author of the Vinayamukha declared the orthodox commentator to be "shameless" for having said this.) Clearly, in order for something to be a boundary marker or nimitta it should not only not be easily movable, it should not be invisible! This is simply common sense. Consequently, at my own ordination at a Burmese monastery in California, I disregarded the nonexistent water nimittā and relied on one of those automatic sīmās, like maybe the seven-abbhantara one. 
     Based on what I have been told, the situation in Thailand is hardly better. I have been informed that boundary markers in Thailand are often pāsāanimittā, or rock markers. The thing is, though, that the rocks are the size of cannonballs, and are buried in the ground where no one can see them—with quasi-markers similar to the ones the Burmese used to show where the small, invisible rocks are supposed to be. Again, it is hardly to be expected that a boundary marker which nobody can see would be a valid marker. Also there is the issue of how small a rock can be and still be a valid nimitta. Obviously, it should be large enough not to be easily moved, unlike a pebble or a cannonball. The commentary suggests the size of an ox as reasonable, although the size of an elephant would make the rock a hill, not just a rock. Hills are allowable markers too, though. Better too big than too small.
     I remember once a Western monk I knew mentioning that at one Western monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition the Sangha used big concrete blocks as boundary markers for their sīmā. He considered this to be invalid, not considering concrete to be rock, or any of the other allowable kinds of markers. But it seems to me that concrete is pretty clearly a kind of artificial rock—man-made, but still rock. So if it's too big to be moved, I would consider it to be valid. But the fact that some monks would consider it invalid may be sufficient reason for seeking a different kind of marker. Again, a sīmā must be above suspicion.
     All in all, the best, most uncontroversial nimitta to use would be a tree. It's clearly allowable in accordance with the ancient Indian texts, and nobody is going to argue with it. One just doesn't argue with trees. The only limitation is that it must be a kind of tree with its hardest wood, its heartwood, on the inside; in other words, bamboo and palm trees are not allowable rukkhanimittā. And banana trees, having no hard wood at all, are completly out of the question. (Incidentally, the new sīmā planned in Bali will be completely surrounded by a moat, and thus will have water nimittā all the way around. I've never seen a sīmā like that before; and considering that the congregation hall will be designed like a temple besides, if it ever materializes it will be very cool. My idea is to enter the hall by crossing a narrow bridge and passing between two fires—a symbolic purification thing. But I digress.)
     It may be assumed that Theravada Buddhist monasteries being constructed in non-Buddhist Western countries need not bother with abolishing any ancient, invisible sīmā before establishing a new one, considering that it is extremely unlikely that there have ever been sīmās officially established there before modern times. If this is the case, then I don't see any good reason why new Western monasteries should not establish sīmās which encompass the entire monastery, in accordance with the original purpose of sīmās. On the other hand, there is still the issue of conservative Asian monks suspecting the validity of a new sīmā established without making sure there are no old ones already established there. For example, some monks consider sīmās established even in the dispensations of prehistoric Buddhas to be still potentially valid. If so, then no place on earth, including the continent of Antarctica, would be guaranteed of having no invisible ancient sīmā which could muck up (invalidate) the establishment of a new one. Also, it is known that monastic Buddhist missionaries came to western North America with a Chinese expedition well over a thousand years ago, long before Columbus ever discovered the place; so in North America at least there may actually be a few invisible ancient sīmās. But in my opinion most Sanghas in countries that have never been Buddhist needn't worry too much about ancient sīmās, and may as well establish new ones without going through the laborious abolishment rituals beforehand. But doing the abolishment may be the only way to create 100% confidence in the most conservative of Asian theras. As for myself though, I'm way too skeptical ever to arrive at 100% confidence in anything.
     As mentioned above, Burmese Sanghas divide up the area intended for a new sīmā into little rectangles, and chant the formal acts of abolishment inside each rectangle. In ven. U Sīlānanda's definitive Burmese book, he points out that since the smallest possible sīmā is just large enough to accommodate 21 sitting monks, the rectangles for abolishment need be no smaller than this. This used to make good sense to me, and seemed to make the abolishment process easier…until I realized that there is one complication with it. What if the area of an intended new sīmā really does have an invisible, very small, ancient sīmā contained within it, and what if the rectangles drawn on the ground bisect this small sīmā? Then when the Sangha is doing the formal act of abolishment inside each rectangle, some of the monks may be inside the ancient sīmā, and others outside of it; and thus the formal act may be invalidated by having some of the monks outside the sīmā and an insufficient number within it. A minimum of four bhikkhus must be within the boundaries, and within arm's reach of each other, in order for the formal act of abolishment to be valid. So it seems that in order to avoid this possibility and to ensure that the abolishment of any tiny invisible sīmās is valid, the rectangles should be just big enough for four or five bhikkhus to squat within them and do the ritual ceremonies. Maybe in future if there is ever another Great Council, this glitch in the monastic rules could be straightened out somehow; and maybe that troublesome bhikkhuni issue could be officially settled also. Then again, the monks who participate in Great Councils tend to be too conservative to deal with controversial issues, and content themselves with little more than rearranging Pali punctuation marks.
     There is one other way that I know of for creating a large sīmā without having first to divide up the entire area into little rectangles, and that is to establish a gāmasīmā, or village parish. This is done sometimes in Myanmar. The way it is done is to have the government officially declare the precints of the monastery to be its own village. This may work in a Buddhist country like Myanmar, but whether politicians in Western countries would give enough of a damn officially to declare a Buddhist monastery its own village is another matter. It may be worth a shot, though. One disadvantage of a gāmasīmā, however, like all "automatic" sīmās, is that the priviledge of avippavāsa does not apply, that is, the right of any bhikkhu inside the sīmā to be separated from any of his three robes at dawn without committing a nissaggiya pācittiya offense. But nowadays even strict and "exemplary" bhikkhus tend not to follow such rules about being with all three robes at dawn, etc. The Byzantine complications of Theravadin monastic discipline render corruption and laxness a virtual inevitability in the Sangha. But still, the validity of ordinations is a relatively important issue, so all this stuff about precincts and little rectangles may not be totally irrelevant.    


A pseudo sima marker, 
showing where the real sima marker is supposed to be