Saturday, July 28, 2012

Buddhism Meets Skepticism


     Being a stereotypical Westerner who thinks too much, I lack the sort of faith that is richly possessed by the majority of people born and raised in a system like Buddhism. I look at Buddhism from the outside as well as the inside, and do not take the truth of the scriptures for granted (the taking for granted of which being practically required in more faith-based traditions). I attempt to use critical thought, compare Buddhism with other traditions, and indulge in some Devil's-Advocate-style skepticism from time to time. Although some conservatives might consider me to be a heretic, possibly not even a Buddhist, I consider a hard look at one's own philosophy of life to be vital for avoiding the unnecessary gambles of blind dogmatic belief; and the following paragraphs are a rather extreme hard look at something which, believe it or not, I consider to be sacred.
*   *   *
     Please consider that nobody on this planet can logically, demonstratively prove the following four points:
  1. That a great Indian sage called Gotama Buddha ever really existed;
  2. Even if he did exist, that he was a fully enlightened being;
  3. Even if he did exist and was a fully enlightened being, that he always spoke the truth (or that any fully enlightened being necessarily always speaks the truth); and
  4. Even if Gotama Buddha really, historically existed, and was a fully enlightened being, and always spoke the truth, that the Pali Buddhist texts accurately, reliably represent what he said.
As I say, nobody on this planet can really prove ANY of the above four points---yet most Theravada Buddhists, and of course most Asian Theravada Buddhist scholar-monks, take for granted the truth of all of them, and even most Western monks stubbornly persist in insisting on at least the first three. (A similar state of affairs is found in other traditions, like Christianity---for example, who can really prove that an ancient Galilean carpenter's son named Yeshua was the only begotten Son of God Almighty, or that he was borne of a virgin, or that he died for our sins?) 
     With regard to the first of the four points, I do consider it very likely that from the point of view of conventional truth (as opposed to Ultimate Truth) Gotama Buddha was a real historical personage. It does seem pretty darn likely. But a hardheaded skeptic could easily retort that even DNA analysis of the Buddha's relics, like pieces of charred bone dug out of a reliquary pagoda, would not really prove his existence. We cannot demonstratively prove even the existence of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, despite mountains of historical evidence, and in Churchill's case people old enough to have known him. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell once pointed out, for all we know some deity with a strange sense of humor could have created this universe half an hour ago, and created us with memories implanted in our heads of events which never actually took place, along with bogus scars, a fossil record, etc. It sounds pretty far-fetched, but there is really no way to prove that it isn't so.
     As for the second point, I admit that I use the Buddha's enlightenment as a very convenient working hypothesis; but I also admit that there is no way to prove it. Even if the Buddha were alive today and standing in front of a panel of experts they couldn't really prove that he was fully enlightened. How could anyone prove such a thing? Perhaps enlightened sages could clairvoyantly look into the past and clearly see that the Buddha really was a Buddha, but how could the sages prove it to anyone else? We couldn't safely take their word for it, partly because we couldn't prove that they were enlightened either.
     The third point is more problematic. For example, in the Pali texts themselves there is some evidence which suggests that fully enlightened beings may occasionally be mistaken. For example in the canonical history of the First Council the members of the Council, who reportedly were all enlightened, did not agree on what constituted lesser, minor rules of discipline (and they presumably couldn't all be right); and in the rules of discipline themselves there is a story in which the Buddha allowed certain medicines for sick monks, but that these medicines, taken in the way the Buddha allowed, only made them sicker. The Buddha is also portrayed as endorsing ancient Indian cosmology with a flat earth floating on water…and so on, and so on. One may argue that with the cessation of delusion one would always know the truth; but perhaps the truth that is realized is largely irrelevant to the phenomenal world of delusion in which we are wallowing. Would an enlightened being necessarily know how to repair a carburetor? How to speak fluent Swahili? How to work out equations in integral calculus? Then again on the other hand, could an enlightened being deliberately tell a lie? The Pali texts say that one cannot, but the reliability of those texts is also at issue. One possible example of a "dishonest" enlightened being in modern times is Neem Karoli Baba, who, according to his own devotees, could not be trusted to keep his promises---yet who was extremely highly advanced spiritually. It would seem that an enlightened being absolutely incapable of lying would be thereby limited, and thus not entirely free. Or so it would seem.
     The fourth point is not all that controversial outside of very Theravadin countries like Burma, where faith far outweighs critical thought on such matters as Religion. Most Western Theravada Buddhists, including most Western Theravada monks, consider the texts not to be 100% reliable. However, many of these who have already renounced a fundamentalist belief in the infallibility of the texts as a whole fall back on a semi-fundamentalist belief in the near-infallibility of the so-called "core texts" which compose roughly one half of the Pali Canon. These core texts, though, also cannot be proved by anyone on this planet to be authentic teachings of a fully enlightened being. A belief in their reliability is essentially a convenient guess. My guess is that they are nowhere near to being 100% reliable. The reasons for this guess will be explained in a different place at a different time, as they are not necessary here. All that is necessary here is room for skeptical doubt, and of that there is plenty.
*   *   *
     So, a reasonable question to ask at this point is, If everything that can be reasonably doubted by a devout Skeptic is set aside, what remains of Buddhism? What aspects of Dharma are reliably true even without Dogma authoritatively backing them up?
     Well, for starters, we could consider the Four Noble Truths. The Truth of Suffering is pretty obvious, at least from a practical, conventional point of view. Even if there is some real pleasure and happiness too, the presence of some degree of chronic unhappiness in everybody's life is pretty obvious, and becomes more obvious the more mindfully the mind is observed. Nobody, except for maybe a hypothetical fully enlightened sage, is always completely satisfied. Furthermore, the Truth of the Origin of Suffering is obvious to anyone who carefully examines his or her own mind---we suffer when things aren't the way we want them to be, or when we worry that before long they won't be the way we want them to be. Even the suffering of a toothache is not directly caused by the pain itself, but by the desire for the pain to stop. This can be seen clearly for oneself. And the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering logically follows from the Truth of its Origin: If desire causes all unhappiness, then the cessation of desire would cause the cessation of unhappiness. If the second Truth is true, then the third Truth is also true. It is really only the fourth Noble Truth, the Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering, that can easily be doubted by one who carefully observes the facts. We won't know if Right View and all the rest will enlighten us until we reach the end of the Path, if we ever do reach it. (Let us trust that we will.) But…a clever Skeptic may doubt such "truths" by appealing to mysticism and the limitations of human understanding, or some such.
     Another self-evident teaching of Buddhism is Dependent Co-arising---so long as one's interpretation of it goes no farther than the idea that one's psychological, phenomenal world consists of states that are only relative, not absolute in and of themselves. "This being, that is; in the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that is not; in the ceasing of this, that ceases." This can be seen through deep mindfulness, and also can be demonstrated logically (as I tried to do in my article "On the Three Marks of Existence," readable on the nippapanca.org website). If we interpret Dependent Co-arising in terms of causation, which is the more orthodox way of interpreting it, we run into the wall built by David Hume, who showed that causation is merely an assumption and cannot directly, really be knownBut perhaps determined skeptics could doubt the validity of any interpretation of Dependent Co-arising, for example by comparing them to some possible monistic Absolute Truth.
     Yet there is one aspect of Buddhism that stands up to the most vehement skepticism, and that is Consciousness. No amount of doubting can make it go away. And this Consciousness is really the essence of Buddhism, and also its ultimate goal; so long as we have not achieved Bodhi, Awakening, then we are still to some degree unawakened, unconscious. It is the full awareness of our Consciousness that is the highest state attainable. 
     I hypothesize that the Buddha (assuming that he existed) was a kind of Skeptic himself, but it wasn't that he was an agnostic, that he didn't know the Truth; he knew that real Truth cannot be expressed in words, but must be experienced directly. And that, my friends, is mysticism. So Buddhism may have begun as a radical, yogic, relatively pure form of "mystical skepticism" before it was converted into a scholastic system and a popular faith. But one problem with mysticism, as William James pointed out in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, is that it has no persuasive power over anyone who has not experienced it. It cannot be demonstrated to anybody. So the essence of Dharma/Dhamma may not be demonstrable, but it can be experienced directly in this very life, if we set our heart on it. 
     A full experience of Consciousness is the ultimate Goal of Buddhism, which can be known more and more fully by those who cultivate it skillfully; and all the methods and theories found in the texts and elsewhere are hypotheses that presumably have worked for others in the past, and may work for us also. If they don't, we may skillfully seek out others that do.



Friday, July 20, 2012

The Spiritual Significance of 2012

     About ten years ago an American monk friend of mine gave me a book by the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe; and in this book the author states the opinion that around the year 2012, at the time of the end of the Mayan calendar, the consciousness of this earth will shift---that an unimaginable heightening of awareness will take place. He also says that there will probably be a fair amount of upheaval and turmoil as the necessary transitions are made, and that more advanced beings, some in human form and some invisible to us, have been arriving on the scene to participate, to help. One other thing he says is that it will be very unpleasant, to say the least, for those who are unready. (This was the first time I remember learning of the Mayan "end of the world.") Paul has some strange ideas, but he also seems to be much more spiritually advanced, much "wiser," than the average person, so I have been receptive to the possibility that what he says is true. In fact one of the many reasons why I came out of the cave in Burma and came back to America last year is to be where the action is and to participate in this shift of consciousness, just in case it actually happens. Since coming back to Bellingham I've had about as many New Age friends and supporters as Buddhist ones, so I have had considerable exposure to the idea of Big Change in 2012.
     I am well aware that there have been many false alarms in the past, going way, way back into ancient times. One of the biggest false alarms began with the ancient Jews, who began prophesying that the world would be destroyed soon, i.e. in ancient times. These prophesies apparently arose out of chronic frustration, as their own earlier prophesies that the Promised Land would never again be occupied by a foreign army after the Babylonian Captivity, and that a Messiah King would lead Israel (or Judea at least) to be foremost among all nations of the earth, were obviously not happening. The early Christians adopted this belief of the immanent destruction of the world (or of secular civilization at least), and most if not all of the founders of Christianity, apparently including Jesus himself, believed that Judgement Day, Doomsday, would come upon the earth within their generation. "This is the final hour." The very last words of the New Testament, and many more before the end, emphatically assert this idea. One reason why Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire and elsewhere, thus ushering in a new, more heart- and spirit-oriented approach to life in the West, is that the early Christians were so utterly convinced that the End was Nigh that they worried, convinced, and converted others around them. It has been said that the world not coming to an end was one of the most severe blows Christianity ever suffered.
     Another big false alarm occurred in the middle of the 14th century C.E., when the Black Plague swept through Asia and Europe. Many were convinced that God was exterminating the human race in retribution for their sins, and at least one chronicler declared, "This is the end of the world." About one third of the entire earth's population died of plague within a few years, so it really wasn't a bad guess, but still here we are, apparently---presumably even better off than people were in the early 1300's.
     Unreliable reports of spiritual apocalypses have continued to circulate in modern times. Back in early 1994, I think, an Australian monk in all seriousness lent me a booklet entitled "Will the End of the World Come in the Year 1994?" by a man named Harold Camping. The booklet was a summary of a much larger book on the same subject, and in it the author appealed to a mountain of biblical evidence to demonstrate that the world would end in mid-September of the aforementioned fateful year. He was very convinced:
"By God's mercy there are a few months left. However, if this study is accurate, and I believe with all my heart that it is, there will be no extensions in time. There will be no time for second-guessing. When September 1994 arrives, no one else can become saved. Within a few days or weeks the world will end."
I have been told that the worldwide Rapture that was supposed to occur in May of 2011 was predicted by this same person. The trouble is that he started off assuming the absolute infallibility of the Bible; and if the starting assumptions are unsound the final conclusions, no matter how logically they are derived, are not likely to be reliable. 
     So…it is naturally justifiable to wonder how wise were the ancient Mayans, and just how accurate was their calendar with regard to making such predictions as the end of the world, whether it be the planet earth as a whole or the present spiritually opaque World Order. I know very little about the Mayans. Perhaps most of what I know about them came from watching Mel Gibson's extremely violent movie Apocalypto, which shows the Mayans performing the same sort of human sacrifices atop pyramids that the Incas and Aztecs also performed. If it is true that Mayan priests really were chopping off human heads, cutting out beating hearts, and so on, then it would seem less likely that they were wise enough or sophisticated enough to chart the spiritual evolution of the earth into the distant future. Also, it seems a little odd that other cultures that were presumably just as wise did not come up with the same prediction. And furthermore, it seems convenient that the Mayan calendar would end around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year; it seems a very convenient time to end a calendar anyway, and it had to end sometime.
     HOWEVER, there does seem to be a strange spiritual tension or charge in the air nowadays; important physical changes in the earth are happening; and few people with much knowledge and sense can deny that this world is rapidly heading towards a crisis, possibly towards a whole slew of crises, and that the human race simply cannot continue moving in the direction in which it is currently moving. Our spiritually bankrupt consumer culture, which we are promulgating throughout the world, is running at cruising speed towards a brick wall, or a cliff---and either way the result is essentially the same. It seems that the earth is nearing an inevitable Great Change; and Paul Lowe may be correct when he says that more higher beings than usual are among us now, for the purpose of helping us through this change.
     Even if the ancient Mayans were unsound in their calculating or prophesying, this whole idea of their calendar coming to an end, combined with worldly stress and the desire of more and more people of wisdom to create something better, may serve as a valuable "gimmick," a skillful means, a catalyst, for human consciousness to expand, much as the early Christian idea that the End was Nigh helped to catalyze Western culture, except this time on an even bigger scale. All of it may get enough people motivated to try earnestly to wake up that the scales tilt and a major change for the better will take place. If not, it is much more likely that the change will be decidedly for the worse. But change there must be. If the Mayans, Paul Lowe, and the New Age community are right about earth transcending into the next stage, then so much the better. Either way, this year is a great opportunity, and it's definitely worth a shot.
     But if we do want a spiritual revolution on this earth, then WE must participate in it. Just sitting back and leaving it up to others, or clicking on a thumbs up "I Like" button, won't work. There have to be enough of US to tilt the scale. The more of US who are as awake as possible this year, today, now, the more likely that the prophecy will be true and this world will come to be in a transfigured state. 
     In order for US to make a real difference, there are a few simple ideas to consider. First, if we wish to become enlightened, or at least to live spiritually, then waking up must be the top priority in our lives; we may have other priorities also, but waking up must be more important than money, than our career, than our home, than our possessions, than our friends, than other people's opinions, than our reputation, than our family, even than life itself. Recently a friend told me that she had formerly participated in a kind of Buddhist discussion group, and that the question had arisen: If you were guaranteed of enlightenment after five years of renunciation of the world (say, by living in a meditation center, ashram, or hermitage), would you do it? And amazingly, some of the members of the group said No, they had too much commitment to their family, etc., to renounce the world even if enlightenment were assured as a result. What a mind-blowing bargain they would turn down! It would be well worth it even if the five years were spent in Hell. This kind of lukewarmness is certainly not going to lead to a spiritual renaissance on this planet; rather, we may safely expect materialism to have its way, and to do its worst. I have occasionally considered that if a pill were invented with instantaneous enlightenment guaranteed (say, a red one, like in The Matrix), many people, many Buddhists, even many Buddhist monks would run from it as though it were a rabid, demon-possessed snake. Personally, I might be scared to death, but I would have to take the pill. There could be no choice. I hope that does not sound like bragging. That is what this world needs if it is to avoid disaster. 
     Another consideration is that for those who are intent on waking up now there can be no difference between Dharma practice and existence. Going to a retreat every now and then, meditating when one has the time, and reading spiritual books is good, but not enough for enlightenment. What is required is constant self-observation and a willingness to take the initially uncomfortable and scary plunge into stark truth---which generally requires listening to and considering what one doesn't like to hear, and maybe sometimes saying what one doesn't like to say…because it is true. Really, Dharma practice IS existence, but most of us don't notice.
     Another consideration is the idea that anything is possible. It is possible to wake up NOW, with or without "impurities" or "defilements" or "imperfections." But if you insist that you can't do it, then almost certainly you will get your way on the matter. Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours.
     If there are going to be enough spirits who are waking up to form a seed crystal, so to speak, to catalyze this world into the next stage, i.e. the adulthood of the human race, then the old-fashioned way of spirituality---gradually evolving, gradually eliminating defilements year after year or even lifetime after lifetime---may no longer be appropriate. We simply may not have time for that. Besides, the spiritual intensity in the atmosphere nowadays is such that it may not be necessary. Change is happening more easily now. Gradually working out issues from the past, to give an example, is pretty risky anyhow, since if it isn't done very skillfully it can merely reinforce the issue by the person dwelling on it again and again. What is more important now is letting go to what is, knocking down Pink Floyd's wall and letting the world flow through our chest without resistance. The approach is reminiscent of  the advice given by the reluctant Messiah in Richard Bach's lovely book Illusions: "If you really want to remove a cloud from your life, you do not make a big production out of it, you just relax and remove it from your thinking. That's all there is to it." It is a simple matter of letting go, and it IS possible, at any time. If you can't do it for your own sake, do it out of sacred duty, or love of God, or love for the Buddha, or love and compassion for the world, or even love and compassion for your mate. It doesn't matter why you do it, just do it. The world needs you, and besides, waking up is the very end of suffering and delusion, and thus the very best thing you can possibly do anyway (if relaxing and letting go can be called doing something). 
     Since coming back to America a year ago I would guess that the number of people I have met who are really intent on waking up at any cost is maybe three. I know you are out there. There are lots of you out there, although you may feel all alone. The time is NOW. It depends largely upon you, on US. Do the best you can, and that will certainly be good enough. 
     My blessings are upon you, and the blessings of many much greater than the likes of me.


 
(An old Mayan depiction of a sacrifice)







Saturday, July 14, 2012

Technical Matters: The Ancient Buddhist Star Calendar


     There is an obscure rule of monastic discipline which states that any monk who lives in a forest must know how to use the night sky as a calendar. So, wanting to follow the rules correctly and also wanting to live in a forest, I tried to learn this ancient art. One of the first things I learned is that almost nobody knows it any more, and that information on the subject is hard to come by. I eventually found an old Burmese Sayadaw who specialized in Indian astronomy and had written at least one book on the subject, but it turned out that the Indian astronomy studied by Burmese monks is medieval, not ancient, and thus not the form of it that was mentioned in the ancient Buddhist texts. So, being stubborn and fussy, I kept searching. 
     Finally I came across an old book at a bookstall on a sidewalk in Rangoon---it was a medieval Indian astronomy text called the Surya Siddhanta, translated in the 1800's by a Christian missionary named Ebenezer Burgess. The text itself was practically unreadable: an English translation of Sanskrit poetry teaching Ptolemaic astronomy with the sun, planets, and stars going around the earth, circular orbits adjusted by epicycles, etc. Who wants to take the trouble of grinding through poetically complicated trigonometry calculations based on an astronomical system that has been obsolete for centuries? Certainly not me. BUT, some of the editorial notes to this edition discussed the Indian astronomical calendar as it existed in very early times, which was exactly what I was looking for. The information in this article is based mainly on those editorial notes, plus information in the Pali texts themselves and my own attempts to make good sense out of all of it. 
     The ancient Indian calendar, accepted and used by ancient Indian Buddhists, may be interesting to some people, especially to Buddhists with a desire to understand such things (like strict Theravāda monks living in forests), so I am happy to share my knowledge on the subject, incomplete as it is. Anyone able to fill in blanks or to correct mistakes in my interpretation is welcome to contact me, so that any future version of this article may be more informative and useful.
*   *   *
     The Indian calendar, and consequently the calendars of other cultures based on classical India, appears to be prehistoric in origin, possibly going back to the pre-Vedic culture of the Indus Valley civilization, one of the earliest advanced urban civilizations known to archeologists. The ancient Chinese and ancient Arabic systems bear remarkable similarities with the Indian, and they are all probably related.
     This calendar is lunisolar in that it is based upon the position of the full moon among the stars. A month is a lunar month, lasting 29 or 30 days; and although in later centuries the system was adjusted so that the months followed a standardized system of alternation between 29 and 30, with the full moon day always on the 15th waxing and the new moon day alternating between 14th and 15th waning, in the Buddha's time the full moon day was determined primarily by just looking: if it looked full, it was full. Likewise for the new moon. As a result of this, different communities might have a day or two of difference between their observance of the full moon and new moon days; and the Pali rules of discipline give guidelines with regard to proper protocol when monks disagree on which days to observe them. (Nowadays, because of the later standardized system accepted by the Pali commentaries, sometimes the phases of the moon as officially determined in Theravāda Buddhist countries like Burma are obviously off by a day or two.) On the other hand, even as far back as the 5th century BCE the designated half moon days were already standardized to be always on the 8th day of the waxing and waning moons, regardless of how the moon actually looked.
     Because a year of 12 lunar months is only 354 days long, in order to keep the year in sync with the sun and stars an extra "intercalary" month is added every two or three years. In the Buddha's time it apparently could happen at any time of year when the full moon appeared in the same group of stars twice in a row, but in the texts there is a case of a king declaring an intercalary month in Āsāha (around July, at the beginning of the monsoon season at the time), and it may be because of this that in Burma, at least, the extra month is always added at this time. 
     As the month depends upon the full moon's position among the nakkhatta or asterisms (sometimes called "lunar mansions"), the 27 asterisms recognized in the Buddha's time will be described here. (In later times a 28th one was added to fill a perceived gap, plus maybe to make certain calculations easier, but it is unrecognized in the Pali; its Sanskrit name is Abhijit.) I am very rusty on my astronomy jargon, and forget the proper words for explaining the positions of stars in the sky, so the positions of the stars will be described as though one is looking up at them with one's back to the North Star, so the series of asterisms progresses from right to left. A star map would be helpful to anyone wishing to learn these asterisms, plus of course plenty of real-life gazing at the night sky.

  1. Assayuja (in Sanskrit, Avinī, "The Horsemen")---β and γ Arietis (The second- and third-brightest stars in Aries, forming a close, diagonally-slanting couple. Some later systems include the brighter α Arietis also, but the original version of the asterism was almost certainly a pair, as the Avins were twins in Indian mythology much like Castor and Pollux in the Greek myths, plus often the Sanskrit name has the dual suffix, representing "twoness." Why the asterism did not originally include the more obvious pair α and β Arietis is somewhat of a mystery.)
  2. Bharaī (Bharaī, "The Bearer")---35, 39, and 41 Arietis (A small triangle of dim stars over the back of the Ram, supposedly representing the female pudendum. In the West it is also called Musca Borealis, or "The Northern Fly.")
  3. Kattikā (Kttikā, "The Cutter")---η Tauri plus 5 others, a.k.a. the Pleiades (A well-defined group in Taurus, supposed to look like a straight razor by the ancient Indians; it looks somewhat like a tiny version of the Big Dipper. Originally, in very ancient times, this was the first asterism in the series.)
  4. Rohiī (Rohiī, "The Red One")---α (Aldebaran), θ, γ, δ, and ε Tauri, a.k.a. the Hyades (The head of the Bull, another well-defined group in Taurus resembling a sideways V; it includes the reddish Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus, after which the asterism derives its name.)
  5. Magasira (Mgaśīras or Mgaśīra, "The Head of the Stag")---λ, φ1, and φ2 Orionis (A small triangle of faint stars serving as the head of Orion in the Western system.)
  6. Addā (Ārdrā, "The Moist One")---α Orionis, a.k.a. Betelgeuse (The upper shoulder and brightest star in Orion. It may be called The Moist One because it rose in the sky at the beginning of rainy weather.)
  7. Punabbasu (Punarvasu, "The Twice-Resplendent")---β and α Geminorum, a.k.a. Castor and Pollux (The two brightest stars in Gemini.)
  8. Phussa or Tissa (Puya, "The Nourisher")---The nebular cluster Praesepe plus δ and γ Cancri (A triangular configuration in Cancer supposed to resemble a cow's udder, or sometimes a bow and arrow, with the whitish blob of Praesepe in the middle pointing to the right, serving as the milky teat or the arrow, respectively.)
  9. Asilesā (Āśeā, "The Entwining One")---ε, δ, σ, η, and ρ Hydrae (A somewhat flattened ring-like asterism serving as the head of Hydra in the Western system, almost at the same meridian as, but lower than, Phussa.)
  10. Maghā (Maghā, "The Bountiful")---α (Regulus), η, γ, ζ, μ, and ε Leonis (The head and elbow of the Lion; forming a well-defined group of stars resembling a hook, sickle, or backwards question mark, with Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, at the bottom or south end.)
  11. Pubba-Phaggunī (Pūrva-Phalgunī, "The Fore Ruddy One")---δ and θ Leonis (The front, or right end of an almost perfect rectangle of stars forming the haunches of the Lion, and in the Indian system supposed to resemble the head end of a bed.)
  12. Uttara-Phaggunī (Uttara-Phalgunī, "The Hind Ruddy One")---β (Denebola) and 93 Leonis (The back, or left end of the same rectangle in Leo, forming the foot end of the bed.)
  13. Hattha (Hasta, "The Hand")---δ, γ, ε, α, and β Corvi (Essentially the constellation Corvus, a conspicuous group of stars shaped somewhat like a hand with the fingers together.)
  14. Cittā (Citrā, "The Bright One")---α Virginis, a.k.a. Spica (A beautiful white star, the only bright star in Virgo; so probably its beauty and solitariness are what gave the Virgin its name.)
  15. Sāti (Svātī, "The Lovely One")---α Boötis, a.k.a. Arcturus (A bright star in Boötes, rather far north of the ecliptic and Western zodiac.)
  16. Visākhā (Viśākhā, "The Out-Branching")---α and β Librae (The two brightest stars in Libra, "branching out" from the Scorpion with one branch leading up to Sāti and the other leading over to Cittā.)
  17. Anurādhā (Anurādhā, "Success")---δ, β, and π Scorpionis (A north-south row of brightish stars at the head of the Scorpion.)
  18. Jeṭṭ(Jyeṣṭ, "The Eldest")---α (Antares), σ, and τ Scorpionis (A row of three stars in the body of the Scorpion, with the bright, reddish Antares in the center.)
  19. Mūla (Mūla, "The Root")---λ and υ Scorpionis or λ, υ, χ, ι, θ, ε, ξ, μ, and ε Scorpionis (The sting or the entire tail of the Scorpion; possibly called The Root because it is the beginning of the series giving birth first to The Eldest and eventually leading to the branches ending in The Lovely One and The Bright One.)
  20. Pubbāsāha (Pūrva-Aāhā, "The Fore Invincible One")---δ and ε Sagittarii (The front or right half of a regular parallelogram of stars in the body of the Archer, supposed to resemble, as in the case of Pubba-Phaggunī, the front end of a bed or couch.)
  21. Uttarāsāha (Uttara-Aāhā, "The Hind Invincible One")---σ and ζ  Sagittarii (The back or left half of the same parallelogram in Sagittarius, not very easy to make out because so cluttered with similar-looking stars; the easiest way to see the Asāha asterisms is to locate Sagittarius and then seek out the parallelogram of brightish stars in the group.)
  22. Savaa (Śravaa, "The Listening")---α (Altair), β, and γ Aquilae (A row of the three brightest stars in Aquila, at the head end of the Eagle; imagined as looking like an ear to the ancient Indians, relatively far north of the ecliptic; relatively easy to find if one seeks the very bright Altair.)
  23. Dhaniṭṭ(Śraviṣṭor Dhaniṣṭ, "The Wealthiest")---β, α, γ, and δ Delphini (Essentially the constellation Delphinus, looking much like a little Dolphin near Savaa, and supposed to look like an ear ornament adorning the aforementioned ear in the Indian reckoning.)
  24. Satabhisaja (Śatabhisaj, "Having One Hundred Doctors")---Described as λ Aquarii plus approximately 100 faint stars in the knee and water stream of Aquarius (The constellation Aquarius looks rather like a crude stick figure of a man lying on his side with his head to the left, and with a cloud of very faint stars below it; presumably these are the doctors attending the sick man, although the sick man seems the more reasonable figure for the asterism; either way, the position in the sky is the same.)
  25. Pubba-Bhaddapadā (Pūrva-Bhādrapadā or -Proṣṭhapadā, "The Forefeet of the Ox")---α and β Pegasi (The two bright stars on the right side of a large, conspicuous rectangle called the Square of Pegasus, just to the right of Pisces.)
  26. Uttara-Bhaddapadā (Uttara-Bhādrapadā or -Proṣṭhapadā, "The Hind Feet of the Ox")---γ Pegasi and α Andromedae (The two bright stars on the left side of the Square of Pegasus.)
  27. Revatī (Revatī, "The Prosperous One")---ζ Piscium and 31 other stars in Pisces (A roughly circular asterism composed of more or less dim stars in the area between the two fishes, with ζ, zeta, being the southernmost of the group. In medieval times an Indian astronomer calculated that very, very long ago there was a conjunction of the sun, moon, and all the planets at the meridian containing ζ Piscium, and it was assumed that our universe must have begun with such a conjunction, so the conclusion since then has been that our world cycle or eon began with the sun in this asterism; and so in Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand and Burma the new year officially begins when the sun passes through the meridian of this star in Pisces. Indian astronomy in the Buddha's time was not nearly so sophisticated that it could back up such an extrapolation, however.)

     The first star named after each asterism above is called the junction star: After the Buddha's time, when Indian astronomy became advanced enough to predict conjunctions (of the moon, planets, etc.) with a fair degree of accuracy, it became necessary to narrow down an asterism to a single point in the sky so that the exact time and place of the conjunction could be determined. Eventually, at least in some systems, the asterisms themselves were reduced to a single star each. But in the Buddha's time astronomy was used mainly just for determining the time of year, and proper times for conducting certain ceremonial rituals. Junction stars seem to have been a much later innovation.
     As there are 27 asterisms and only 12 months, the asterisms are combined into 12 groups, the month being determined by the group in which the full moon appears. There is some disagreement in the ancient Vedic literature over how the asterisms are grouped together, however. The Pali months are listed below, with the corresponding asterisms listed by their corresponding numbers in the preceding list:

  1. Citta or Citra (Apr-May) 14, 15
  2. Vesākha (May-Jun) 16, 17
  3. Jeṭṭha (Jun-Jul) 18, 19
  4. Āsaha (Jul-Aug) 20, 21
  5. Sāvaa (Aug-Sep) 22, 23 or 22, 23, 24
  6. Bhaddapada or Poṭṭhapada (Sep-Oct) 24, 25, 26 or 25, 26, 27
  7. Assayuja or Pahama-Kattika (Oct-Nov) 27, 1, 2 or 1, 2
  8. Kattika (Nov-Dec) 3, 4
  9. Māgasira (Dec-Jan) 5, 6
  10. Phussa (Jan-Feb) 7, 8
  11. Māgha (Feb-Mar) 9, 10
  12. Phagguna (Mar-Apr) 11, 12, 13

     One detail I was never able to determine was exactly when the transition occurs between one month and the next---does the moon actually have to reach the next group of asterisms? Is there an imaginary line equidistant between them that divides them? Later refinements of the system resulted in the sky being divided into 12 equal portions, which, however, causes some of the asterisms to be in the wrong month. The distance between Dhaniṭṭhā (23) and Satabhisaja (24), for example, is very great, so that the month Sāvaa could involve much more than 1/12 of the sky.
     At the time that the canonical Rules of Discipline were composed the full moon day was the first day of the month; however, by the time of the commentator Buddhaghosa the full moon day was the last day of the month, and in the modern Burmese calendar the full moon day is the middle of the month. These alterations are largely due to a troublesome phenomenon called precession of the equinoxes. The Indian calendar, being based upon the observed movement of celestial bodies through the night sky, is based upon the sidereal year, the time it takes the earth to pass all the way round the ecliptic. On the other hand, the Gregorian calendar used in the West is based upon the seasonal year, the time it takes the earth to pass from, say, one winter solstice to the next. As it turns out, there is a discrepancy between these two ways of measuring the year, amounting to about one day every 70 years. Consequently, over the past 2500 years the Buddhist calendar has gotten about five weeks out of sync with the seasons. For example, the monsoon season officially begins in Āsaha, around the middle of July, but nowadays it actually begins around the start of June; and the coldest time of year by the traditional Buddhist reckoning is approximately the middle of February, but in modern South Asia it is more like the first half of January. The commentarial method of counting the full moon day as the last day of the month largely corrects the difference---except for the full moon day itself, which, unfortunately, is by far the most likely day on the Buddhist calendar for important events to occur, for example the beginning and end of the Rains Retreat.
     Precession of the equinoxes is caused by a wobble in the earth's axis of rotation, rather like the wobble of a spinning top that is starting to slow down. One effect of this wobble is that the ecliptic now is tilted slightly differently than it was in ancient times. This may be why there is so little space between the meridians of the asterisms Phussa (8) and Asilesā (9); nowanights they are practically stacked one on top of the other. Another peculiarity of the precessional wobble is that the North Star in the Buddha's time, in Pali Dhuva, "The Everlasting One," was not the same North Star that we have today. 2500 years ago the North Star was β Ursae Minoris, or Kochab, at the opposite end of the Little Dipper from Polaris, "our" North Star. Which just goes to show that nothing really lasts forever.








Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Notion of Free Will

     I've given a few public talks over the past year or so addressing the issue of Free Will, and why we probably don't have any; and rather surprisingly, nobody in the audiences has gotten upset. There have been plenty of responses starting like "Yeah but…" and some difficulty and discomfort in people wrapping their head around the idea, but no indignation, no heckling, and that is comforting. This may be partly because the audiences have been largely Buddhist, and Buddhists intellectually accept the notion of No Self, which pretty much implies No Free Will. Also, I guess, some of my listeners have been scientific materialists, who consider themselves to be soulless meat robots anyway.
     The Buddhist doctrine of anattā or No Self is set forth in the Anattalakkhaa Sutta, traditionally an account of the Buddha's second formal discourse after his enlightenment, as well as the occasion of the full enlightening of his first five disciples. In this discourse the Buddha points out that with regard to any of the five aggregates which make up the phenomena of a human being we cannot say, "Let it be this way, let it not be that way," and have it happen---in other words, we do not have real control over them---and one of those five aggregates is sakhārakkhandha, the aggregate of conditions, which the texts identify as volition, or will. Thus Free Will would be ruled out by the interpretation of anattā promulgated in this Sutta. 
     Another Buddhist complication is the fundamental doctrine of paicca-samuppāda or Dependent Co-arising, which states that anything in this universe, including a volitional action, is relative to other things and dependent upon other things. On the other hand, Free Will implies some degree of independence from extraneous circumstance, the existence of a free agent undetermined by the rest of the world. (Consequently it should be no surprise that the great Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna essentially identified Dependent Co-arising with No Self, and with Voidness besides.)
     However, a non-Buddhist could simply dismiss evidence from Buddhist philosophy as non-authoritative. But there are other kinds of evidence.
     For example, I have some experiential evidence of my own. There have been times when my mindfulness has been good enough that I have been able to see "my own" decision-making processes happening spontaneously, as though I were observing something foreign, something not me. One of the most memorable occasions of this type occurred in a cave in northwestern Burma several years ago. My absolutely necessary sweat-wiping rag was disintegrating, so I had delved into my stash of extra washcloths and was deciding which one to use. I had the choice narrowed down to two: a yellow one and an orange one. There was no obvious reason to choose one over the other, so I was in a state of slightly stumped indecision---when suddenly the thought arose, "I'll use this one." It was as much a surprise to me as if someone else had said it. If one thinks about it though, it does make sense that we can be surprised by our own decisions, as we can't know how we will decide until we find the decision suddenly arising in our mind. If we knew in advance how we were going to decide, then we would have already decided. Even so, for a while after it started happening I felt like I might be losing my mind; I had read that schizophrenia has symptoms like that. You can check out this automatic decision-making phenomenon for yourself through a little introspection: it works best if you have two or more options with no obvious decision to choose one way or the other, like with my sweat rags, otherwise the obvious decision quickly chooses for you. (As it turned out, a few moments after the surprise choice of the one cloth I changed my mind and used the other one.)
     But someone who doubts the soundness of my judgement may easily dismiss my epiphany of the sweat rags. After all, I am a rather eccentric person. But the evidence against no Free Will is not exhausted.
     In modern scientific materialism ("Scientism"), for example, there is empirical evidence that our brain cells start firing to make a decision at least one-tenth of a second before we are aware of starting to make that decision. I recently heard that the brain may start its decision-making as much as six seconds before we are aware of starting the wheels in motion. Those who take Scientism to heart seem to have little choice but to be determinists, or to harbor mutually contradictory beliefs. But one may have reasonable doubts about scientific materialism also. Its findings are not really proof.
     But the worst is yet to come…From the perspective of simple Logic, Free Will is not only impossible, but it doesn't even mean anything. It's just empty words with nothing backing them up. Albert Einstein, who was no moron incidentally, used to say that he had no idea what people were talking about when they spoke of Free Will. It may be that some young wise-guy logician has invented a new kind of logic that can account for Free Will, but I have never heard of it. And classical Logic is pretty darned persuasive.
     The classical argument runs something like this: Either something (in this case a decision) has a cause, or it doesn't. It has to be one or the other, or perhaps a combination of the two. Now, if it has a cause, then it is determined by that cause, and is not free. On the other hand, if something happens without a cause, then it happens at random; and although random chance may be considered a kind of freedom, that is apparently not what libertarians are talking about in their assertions of Free Will. Truly random actions would be more like an epileptic seizure than what people would desire as Freedom. Yet logically it has to be one or the other. We seem to be stuck between the rock and the hard place of Determinism and Random Chance. Science may allow a combination of macroscopic determinism tempered with a bit of submicroscopic quantum uncertainty, but it seems even that would not account for Free Will.
     Some may reply that our own Free Will is the cause of our decisions. All this does, however, is to move us back one step: Our Free Will chooses this decision instead of that one...for a reason, or without a reason---and thus we wind up with the same dilemma. Presumably even an infinite regress of reasons for reasons for reasons wouldn't bail us out of the difficulty.
     To confound things even more from a Buddhist point of view, some Pali texts also rule out Determinism and Random Chance---which would seem to rule out all possibilities.
     The question naturally arises that if Free Will is flatly impossible, then why do so many people believe they have it? Even most Buddhists and classical logicians assume they have it when they are not being philosophical, which, naturally, is most of the time.
     One pretty basic explanation for it is that we have, using Buddhist terminology, the conceit "I am," a deep, natural, mistaken belief that we are intrinsically real individuals distinct from everything else. This is combined with literally boundless ignorance; as the great philosopher Spinoza observed, we believe that we are free because we are ignorant of the causes of our own behavior. (Spinoza, by the way, was the one who made the famous statement that if a thrown rock were conscious it would believe that it was flying through the air of its own Free Will.) Sometimes we assume that we are making a free decision, not realizing that we habitually decide in that same way every time the same set of circumstances arises, or that we are subconsciously biased and influenced by feelings of being punished when we were three, or whatever. The philosopher David Hume elaborated on the ignorance issue by observing that we may believe in Free Will because we can imagine having chosen the other way; but just because we can imagine it is no proof that we really could have done so under the circumstances.
     Another reason for the belief in Free Will here in the West is that our culture, and thus our way of thinking, is heavily influenced by Christianity, and Free Will is necessary for Christian dogma to work. To give just one example, if Adam and Eve had no Free Will and were constrained by circumstance to eat the fruit of Knowledge, then God Almighty would be a cruel tyrant for punishing the world all these thousands of years for something that couldn't have been helped, except maybe by Himself. (This incidentally suggests the idea that if there is no Free Will then there is no moral responsibility, and therefore punishing criminals is unjust. However, from a more or less Buddhist perspective apprehending and locking up criminals is mainly for the purpose of protecting society by removing dangerous people, regardless of why they are dangerous, and to serve as a deterring example to others considering criminality as a viable livelihood.)
     Another important reason for why we consider ourselves free is that deep down we simply feel free. And as it turns out, there is something in that. 
     This is the Good News: There is freedom. But, it is not will or volition that is free, it is consciousness that is free. 
     But it should be pointed out to philosophical followers of Theravāda that it is not viññāakkhandha, the aggregate of consciousness in the five aggregate theory, that is free. Consciousness as an aggregate is hardly more than the vehicle of mental states, and thus no more free than the volitions, perceptions, etc. that it supports. The consciousness I am referring to is the kind described in the Kevaṭṭa Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya (D.11), and also mentioned in the Brahmanimantanika Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M.49): "Consciousness unmanifest, infinite, shining all around" (viññāa anidassana, ananta sabbatopabha). It is evidently a description of Nirvana, and is rather unorthodox from the traditional Theravādin point of view, being more like the philosophy of the Upanishads; although it is endorsed in ancient texts and was presumably accepted by many before relatively early developments in Theravādin philosophy moved in a different direction, leaving infinite consciousness behind.
     But remember---we do not have this freedom of consciousness, because we do not really exist, or at least we Buddhists with No Self do not. This infinite consciousness of the texts is unconditioned, and is free in and of itself.
     Getting back to our friend Spinoza, the unmanifest consciousness of the Kevaṭṭa Sutta is free just as Spinoza's God is free: According to Spinoza, even God Almighty does not have Free Will, because Free Will is a manifest impossibility. (Spinoza and his followers, like Einstein, tend to be rationalists.) God is absolutely free because He is infinite and contains within Himself all possibilities. Another analogy is the Tao Te Ching's "nameless uncarved block": The Tao is like an uncarved block in that it contains within it all possible forms or images, and maybe even some impossible ones.
     The thing is that this Unmanifest Consciousness, or Brahman, or God, or Tao, or whatever, is infinite and formless, without boundaries. It is beyond the duality of existence and nonexistence, beyond the duality of "is" and "isn't." It is completely Off the Scale.
     But regardless of whether or not you can accept this mystical, paradoxical verbiage, the fact remains that the more conscious we are, the more free we are. However, it is not necessarily the freedom to do what we want---it is more like freedom from what we want, as what we want is generally what enslaves us. When we are free, we have more options, and thus we have more freedom to do what is right, or best, or perfect---what the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe calls "living up to our maximum potential." The less conscious we are in our everyday lives, the more automatic and habit-ridden we are, and the more likely we are to make the same mistakes over and over again.
     An obvious example of heightened consciousness increasing our chances of being perfect is dangerous sports like rock climbing or motorcycle racing, in which a single moment of carelessness can easily result in disaster. One's consciousness expands and one feels very alive at such times, in addition to being at one's best. The trick is to maintain this level of awareness (although hopefully not this level of adrenalin) even if one isn't dangling from a rock face or riding a motorcycle at 200 miles per hour.
     Another example of expanded awareness facilitating perfection is the well-known observation that true inspiration, in both Art and Science, arises from a still, quiet, waiting mind, not from figuring anything out. In traditions like Theravāda this clear mind, which gives rise to insight as well as inspiration, is cultivated deliberately through more and more subtle levels of meditation. In other systems like Zen the clear mind is sometimes attained by being stumped, by working on a riddle which has no answer (a koan, like "How do you know your Buddha-nature from the sound of a chirping cricket?") until the mind hits a crisis point and simply gives up. In this state of being stumped, in this "I don't know," not only insight, but also enlightenment may arise. 
     In fact, this latter method of being jolted awake by a crisis is the usual way that people in the West wake up---not by practicing Zen, but by having a disaster. A car crashes. Somebody gets cancer. The house burns down. Someone loses all of their money. Someone suddenly just can't stand life anymore. They hit a brick wall and are slammed out of a lifetime of ruts. This is the "method" of being dragged to enlightenment by the hair kicking and screaming, and is the origin of the old Christian saying, "Man's extremity is God's opportunity." This unpleasantness may be avoided by voluntarily following a more peaceful, loving, joyful, spiritual path; but if one is ripe, then it is going to happen, if not voluntarily then kicking and screaming. We do have a choice, however. The whole world has a choice. The trick now is for us to be awake enough to see that choice.
     Of course a part of the more peaceful, more joyful path is meditation, although I won't give detailed instructions here. This is a rather long one already, and I would guess that most of the people who read this already know something about how to do it. I will say though that one of the most fundamental purposes of meditation is to reduce the mind's content of symbolic perception (also known as "belief"), and also, getting back to the notion of Will, to reduce its content of volition---since, according to Buddhist philosophy at least, perception and volition necessarily go hand in hand and cannot exist independently of each other. As practice continues and volition is reduced, effort consequently also becomes less, until at the arising of liberating insight Dharma practice does not stop, but becomes effortless.
     It is said in the texts that an enlightened being creates no more karma; and it is also said that karma is essentially volition, or will. (Thus karma is a mental state: Our minds radically condition our reality at all levels.) So it would seem to follow logically that even if an unenlightened being could somehow manage to have Free Will, an enlightened one has no Will at all, Free or otherwise. It is interesting that the great Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross said something very similar about Catholics who have attained the stage of Perfection (also called Spiritual Marriage, and Being God Through Participation): They reach this stage partly by "mortifying self-will," and thus they become a kind of Divine Puppet no longer motivated by their own will but moved always by the Will of God. So everything they do is perfect, even though it might not seem perfect to imperfect bystanders. By the way, it is also interesting to me how these two very different traditions teach similar techniques and seem to arrive at similar states of enlightenment, but explain those states by radically different theories. 
     Regardless of the theory, when consciousness is cultivated and we outgrow our automatic behavior, our habits and addictions, our spinning off of Karma, then we have attained Vimokkha or Liberation; that infinite, shining consciousness shines through us without obstruction or opaqueness; we have infinite possibilities before us; and we are Free.
     May all of us become free, and may we have the wisdom to do it voluntarily in these precarious, spiritually charged times, without requiring the world to go kasplooey and slamming us into enlightenment kicking and screaming. The choice is ours, and the time is NOW. 
     Bless all of you.











    

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The New Bhikkhunis


     When I was a junior monk studying the rules of monastic discipline the rules concerning bhikkhunis, or fully ordained Theravada Buddhist nuns, were attended to but not studied much, as it was common knowledge among my Asian teachers that the Bhikkhuni Order had become extinct hundreds of years ago, so the rules concerning them were purely academic. At the uposatha ceremony conducted on every full moon day and new moon day it is ancient tradition for the Sangha to acknowledge a designated monk's "exhortation" (Dhamma talk) to the bhikkhunis; and it is a common practice at monasteries throughout Burma simply to announce as part of the preliminaries to the ceremony, "There are no more bhikkhunis." In fact, I've been told more than once by Burmese monks that the only way the Bhikkhuni Order could possibly be revived would be for at least five fully ordained monks to spontaneously, instantaneously be transformed into women, as they would then be fully ordained nuns; if the transformation were gradual, like by surgery, it would be invalid, as a eunuch (castrated man) cannot be a monk, much less a nun, so any interval of time between complete man and complete woman would break the validity of the status of ordination. And five would be needed because any new nuns must be ordained by a Sangha of at least five fully ordained bhikkhunis---if the necessary five do not exist, the lineage is broken. This is what I was told, matter-of-factly, for years.
     So it was a bit of a surprise last year, just a few months before I returned to America, when an Australian fellow told me about how the famous Ajahn Brahmavamso in Australia had become infamous by unilaterally taking upon himself the authority of Gotama Buddha and ordaining some new bhikkhunis. He had been censured by the Thai ecclesiastical council and by the abbots of other monasteries in the Ajahn Chah tradition, but he had refused to back down and had been essentially ostracized for what was considered to be an ecclesiastically illegal act. Monks who lived at his monastery were banned from staying at any other monastery in the same tradition, so most of the Sangha there bailed out to avoid the stigma. Or at least this is what I was told by that Australian fellow.
     Then a few months ago, during a return visit to Burma, I heard a little more about the issue, and looked into a book of articles written on the subject of reviving the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the title of which I no longer remember. It seems that Ajahn Brahm wasn't the first, but that some monks in Sri Lanka started participating in bhikkhuni ordinations quite a few years ago. The book had a few articles attempting to explain the standard objections to modern bhikkhuni ordination, but it was in order to refute these objections, as the book was decidedly in favor of the idea, mainly, it seems, because of the politically correct issue of Gender Equality.
     Before going any further I would like to assure one and all that I have no objection to the idea of gender equality. I consider women to be different from men but equal to them, especially in the realm of spirituality. It may even be that spiritually women have a slight advantage over men in general. I can't really say for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised. But this whole issue and controversy concerning bhikkhuni ordination strikes me as a case of Western Enlightened Political Correctness losing touch with practicality.
     First of all, for the sake of gender equality efforts are being made to revive an Order which according to the Pali texts is necessarily to be discriminated against, and thus would not have gender equality. For example, according to the rules of monastic discipline any nun, regardless of her seniority, is required to pay respect to any monk, even though he may have been ordained that very same day. Thus any nun is automatically lower in precedence than any monk. Also, the rules in general are stricter for nuns than for monks (for example, there are four pārājika rules for monks, the breaking of any one of which entails immediate excommunication from the Sangha, while there are eight of them for nuns); and even the ordination ceremony for bhikkhunis, if done according to the book, requires them to answer several rather embarrassing questions concerning their private parts that bhikkhus are not required to answer. Consequently, the only way bhikkhunis will have equality with bhikkhus is by changing the ancient rules, which nobody really has the authority to do, or by breaking the rules, which is a strange way of reviving a tradition---not exactly starting the tradition "purely," on the right foot, it seems to me. Changing the rules is precisely what was suggested by that book I was looking at, but I'm sure that would go over in the Sanghas of Theravada Buddhist countries like a lead balloon.
     Which brings up another difficulty: In order for there to be a major change in the ecclesiastical status quo there must be unanimous consent of the Sangha, or at least the agreement of  a representative sample of the Sangha---and the overwhelming majority of the Sangha consists of conservative Asian types who no doubt would be very reluctant to make such a change. According to the Pali text, the Buddha himself considered bhikkhuni ordination to be a bad idea; and although Western scholars may doubt the authenticity of the passage (found in the Chapter on Bhikkhunis in the Vinaya Cūḷavagga), traditional Asian Buddhists tend to be psychologically incapable of doubting the legitimacy of their sacred scriptures, and will likely see the aforementioned Westerners as arrogant troublemakers flouting the teachings of Buddha. In fact I was told recently that it is more difficult for Western men to be ordained as monks in Thailand nowadays as a result of the Thai monks' reaction to "illegal" ordination of women in the West.
     Of course one reason why the Order of Bhikkhunis became extinct in the first place is because the rules were so off-puttingly strict and discriminatory; although there were some practical reasons for this. In addition to the standard explanation that desire between monks and nuns within a community leads to problems, there is also the fact that Indian women often are obligated to marry men that they do not love, and in some cases have never even met. This resulted in many unhappy marriages in ancient India, and many women fled into a convent to escape an unhappy home situation. One reason why the rules of discipline are so hard on nuns is to weed out those women who did not have a true spiritual calling and were merely using the nun's life as an easy way of escaping an obnoxious husband. (There is also a rule stating that any married woman must be married for at least 12 years before she may be ordained, which I suppose gives her time to perform her "wifely duties" and possibly reconcile herself to married life before bailing out.) Things are very different for modern Western women, but changing ancient rules in the most orthodox, unchanging school of Buddhism is bound to lead to problems, possibly even to schism.
     As I see it, there is absolutely nothing preventing any group of women from designing any set of rules they please, dressing however they please, calling themselves whatever they please, and seeking enlightenment however they think is best. They could design a system specifically for the modern West, which no doubt would work better than more or less illegally modifying an ancient Indian version which never was well suited to women anyway. It seems that the only thing that prevents this is a desire for the security of Official Status. That really seems to be the crux of it. And Official Status is essentially a worldly phenomenon which has no bearing on Enlightenment.
     Women could design from scratch a system as strict and austere as they saw fit, and although they would not be technically ordained bhikkhunis, it would have almost no practical effect on their life of renunciation as far as the Sangha is concerned, as ordained women and unordained ones do not get treated very differently by monks---in fact unordained ones would seem to be treated a little more respectfully.
     I have to admit that my Official Status as an ordained bhikkhu certainly has its advantages in Asia; in Burma I'm a Mahathera ("Great Elder") and the abbot of a forest monastery there. But here in America it doesn't seem to count for much. People don't care much if I'm a Mahathera, or if I was ordained this way or that way. So long as a group of nuns agrees to a code of mutual respect for, say, seniority within the system, possibly with a non-canonical, unofficial recognition from the Asian Sangha, then it would seem to be the obvious solution---so long as there is no need for worldly Official Status as fully ordained bhikkhunis. 
     I have considered that something similar could be done for men also, here in the West---establishing a kind of unofficial quasi-monkhood more adapted to Western society, as rules based on the ancient Ganges Valley do not seem to fit the culture very well. It could be a new subsystem endorsed by the Bhikkhu Sangha, or not. It wouldn't be exactly Theravada though, more like Navakavada; not the Doctrine of the Elders, but the Doctrine of the Juniors, the Newcomers. It would not be schismatic however, as the new Sanghas would not technically be ordained at all. (Lest anyone suspect that I'm planning to become an unofficial quasi-monk, I assure you I'm not.)
     On the other hand, if modern women really insist on being officially, fully ordained bhikkhunis, then it seems that one prerequisite for this goal to be fully realized would be a Western-style Political Correctness propaganda media blitz throughout the Theravada Buddhist countries in Asia, for the purpose of changing the traditional way of thinking over there. It is feasible I suppose, if enough rich sponsors feel strongly enough about enlightening the Buddhist countries to get behind it. There does seem to be a certain audacity, even arrogance, to the idea of us worldly Westerners trying to enlighten the monks of a much more spiritually-oriented cultural system though. Oh well! We are what we are. Sometimes wisdom comes from the mouth of babes, or in this case, newcomers.
     I've never actually met a modern bhikkhuni, but from what I have heard they are very sincere, and are conscientiously striving on the Path to Enlightenment. The courage to go against the grain as they have helps to ensure this. I have no desire to discourage them or anyone else from striving for Enlightenment, or from renunciation. This sort of thing is what will save the world. However, I would point out that Waking Up is not a matter of what in Theravada is called sīlabbata-parāmāsa, adherence to rules and observances; and insisting upon the Official Status of ordination in a system which would have to be overhauled to be acceptable anyhow seems to be a pretty clear case of this kind of adherence. It really is not necessary. Or anyway, that is my opinion.
     May nuns, monks, laypeople, and all beings be well in body, peaceful in mind, and Free.

A "theela shin," or traditional Burmese Buddhist nun, in meditation