"One is wealthy in direct proportion to one's contentment with what one already has. One is in poverty in direct proportion to what one feels one lacks."
A few years ago I told a wise monk, a Burmese sayadaw named U Jotika (or in Burmese, Mahamyaing U Zawtika), about some experiences I had had, and he advised me to share the story with others. Also, I have a strange tendency to make embarrassing confessions to people I hardly know, or in this case even to total strangers. So, bearing this in mind, I would like to describe a counterintuitive development in my spiritual progress that occurred several years ago. I suspect that the introductory story leading up to this development will be somewhat long in telling.
Since the time of my ordination I have had a reputation for being very strict in my practice. I studied the rules of monastic discipline intensively and extensively, inside and out; and there was a time when I could go for weeks without being aware of breaking any rules or having anything to confess, except perhaps for looking into a mirror when I shaved. (A monk is not allowed to look into a mirror unless he is inspecting a sore on his face; although a famous Thai book on monastic discipline says looking into one for shaving should be allowable.) I held a dim view of lax monks and of commentarial loopholes in the rules. (For example, a monk is not allowed to eat sugar in the afternoon unless he is unwell---but the commentary says that being hungry is a kind of unwellness. Another example: a monk is not allowed to keep more than one set of robes, but later tradition says that if a monk calls them "accessory cloth" (parikkhāra-cola) he may keep as many robes as he likes. Because of these loopholes, which even some strict monks exploit, there is a Burmese saying, "If one is skillful in the rules one may kill a chicken.") I also practiced some of the optional ascetic practices called dhutaṅga. I used to be accused of being overly strict, a fundamentalist, and even "Hassidic." I would read ancient Buddhist texts like the Sutta Nipāta and, comparing myself with the iron monks described therein, despise myself for being so wimpy and lax---sleeping too much, reading too much, living in an almost comfortable monastery, knowing exactly where I would sleep that night and exactly where I would receive my next meal.
So, trying to live up to a lofty ideal, I eventually started living alone in Burmese forests, and once during the year 2000 went approximately ten months without entering a building. I slept on the ground under a rock ledge, bathed in a creek, and crapped under the open sky like an animal. It was possibly, all in all, the most miserable year of my life. I would go out and wrestle with the devil in the wilderness, so to speak, and the devil usually cleaned my clocks. He mopped the floor with me. I felt as though my conscious mind had become a battlefield, with the opponents being, in Christian terms, flesh and spirit, or in Freudian terms, id and superego; although the terminology of J. Krishnamurti may be more apposite: the real and the ideal. It seemed that all the easy spiritual gains had been made, and that the situation had degenerated into World War One style trench warfare, with tremendous efforts expended for barely noticeable results. I was frustrated, hysterical, and unhappy much of the time. It seemed that the best I could realistically hope for was the third individual described in a text called the Cūḷadhammasamādāna Sutta (M45):
And what, monks, is a Way taken upon oneself that is uneasy in the present but has the fruition of ease in the future? Here, monks, someone by nature is very prone to desire, and continually experiences unease and unhappiness borne of desire; he is by nature very prone to aversion, and continually experiences unease and unhappiness borne of aversion; he is by nature very prone to delusion, and continually experiences unease and unhappiness borne of delusion. Yet with unease and with unhappiness, crying and with tearful face, he lives the Holy Life complete and pure. He, at the breaking up of the body, after death, arises in a Higher Realm, in a heavenly world.
Visions of gorgeous, voluptuous celestial nymphs in a paradisical Buddhist afterlife fueled my strivings for a while. I became a follower of the Rocky Balboa school of Buddhism: not so much trying to win the contest as just refusing to throw in the towel and endeavoring to stay on my feet the full twelve rounds.
Then, late in 2002, I became ill with what the local villagers called "seasonal fever," a malady apparently caused by violent swings of temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure at the tail end of the monsoon season knocking one's metabolism out of kilter. It deprived me of the few pleasures still allowed to a Theravada Buddhist monk---eating, sleeping, bathing, and of course meditation. Food revolted me (it wasn't all that great even when I was well); I lay awake nights with insomnia and cold sweats; due to the fever I was exhorted by a doctor to bathe as little as possible; and my meditation was absolutely on the rocks. To make matters worse, the situation arose at the beginning of a blazing tropical heat wave and a streak of karmic bad luck. Almost the only joy I experienced was inspired by visits from a relatively attractive young Burmese village woman who brought me medicine, fruit juice, and kind words; but that is a rather troubling sort of joy for a celibate monk. I began falling in love with her.
It occurred to me that if after so many years of diligent Dhamma practice I could still hit rock bottom like this, that I could still be deprived of virtually all contentment and consolation in life, then my efforts to liberate myself from suffering and delusion were probably in vain. I brooded upon this continually and became depressed. The fever lasted a month or so, and the depression lasted a few months longer, but for more than a year there was a lingering sense of futility and hopelessness in what I was doing with my life. It seemed that I could not properly live the Holy Life complete and pure and could not be a good monk. I developed a deep sympathy for certain passages that I would find in books, like this one by Martin Luther:
I remember that Staupitz was wont to say, "I have vowed unto God above a thousand times that I would become a better man: but I never performed that which I vowed. Hereafter I will make no such vow: for I have now learned by experience that I am not able to perform it. Unless, therefore, God be favorable and merciful unto me for Christ's sake, I shall not be able, with all my vows and all my good deeds, to stand before him." This (of Staupitz's) was not only a true, but also a godly and a holy desperation… (---quoted in The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James)
Or this somewhat less optimistic one by Schopenhauer:
Hence we get the strange fact that everyone considers himself to be a priori quite free, even in his individual actions, and imagines he can at any moment enter upon a different way of life, which is equivalent to saying that he can become a different person. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but liable to necessity; that notwithstanding all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning to the end of his life he must bear the same character that he himself condemns, and, as it were, must play to the end the part he has taken upon himself.
And so, with all this weighing heavily in my mind, I finally threw up my hands in despair and gave up. I wrote a letter to my teacher and great benefactor ven. Taungpulu Kyauk Sin Tawya Sayadaw telling him I had given up, that I was apparently unable to eradicate my imperfections in this life and had reconciled myself to being a mediocre monk. I had no intention of dropping out of the monkhood, as I deeply resonated with the simple, quiet, and rough lifestyle, but I just wanted to stop struggling and to have some relative peace of mind. I wrote a letter to my father saying essentially the same thing. Then, about two days after finishing the letters, mainly to give myself an excuse not to sleep all day long, I began writing an essay on the Three Marks of Existence---inconstancy, unease, and no self---an intuitive, experiential understanding of which is considered to be the essence of true insight in Theravada Buddhist philosophy. And within a few days of beginning the essay, something remarkable happened: I began spontaneously entering mild trance states, so that I would be walking around with my eyes wide open and my feet barely touching the ground. Furthermore, I began experiencing some really lovely, lucid mindfulness intermittently throughout the day, which was also spontaneous and seemingly effortless. For example, while drawing water at the well I would experience very clearly the feelings of the well rope in my hands, the movements and sensations of my muscles as I pulled the rope, the heaviness of the bucket, the feel of the breeze on my skin, and on and on. Also, my meditative practice became drastically improved, so that I was able to sit with my mind wide awake, silent, and clear like glass every day for several months, which for me is unprecedented. I do not often meditate very well.
Also during this time valuable insights arose. A strange one occurred one afternoon when I was descending a stone stairway on my way to the well to take my daily bath. As I walked down the steps I suddenly began experiencing rather severe abdominal cramps. This was not very unusual, as the weather is hot and the villagers who fed me have no refrigerators; so it was pretty likely that I had eaten some curry that was a bit "off" that morning. Anyway, I was doubled over in pain, and anyone who saw my face might have thought I was dying. I considered that in all likelihood I'd be making around three emergency trips to the outhouse that night. Right about that same time it also started raining unexpectedly; and because I own only one set of robes and had not brought an umbrella I was also considering that I'd be wearing a wet robe the following day. Then, as I slowly walked down the steps doubled over in pain and getting soaked in the downpour, a spontaneous shift in perspective occurred: It seemed as though all the commotion---the pain, the expectations of midnight trots to the outhouse, and the gratuitous drench in the rain---was like waves at the surface of a body of water, but that "I," the center of awareness, was deeper down where it was quiet and still, looking up and noticing the waves at the surface, but not being moved by them. I was still doubled over in pain, and anyone who saw me might still think I was dying, but the experience was so beautiful and so profound that I nearly wept for joy; just the knowledge that such a blissful, detached state is possible, even in the midst of trouble, was and is an indescribable blessing.
Another insight arose more gradually, as I meditated day after day: I had long considered that suffering is essentially a matter of refusing to accept the way things are, of struggling against What Is---but it finally dawned on me that this applies not only to external circumstances like weather, bad food, and bad company, but to one's own internal mental states as well. In other words, if I wish to be enlightened I should patiently, consciously, compassionately, and whole-heartedly accept my own "defilements." This doesn't mean that I should wallow in them or reinforce them, but it does mean that I shouldn't struggle against them either. Wallowing in ("taking up") is one extreme, and struggling against ("putting down") is the other; the Middle Way goes between these two. And if out of weakness or foolishness I do wallow in unskillful mental states or struggle against them, well, then I should whole-heartedly accept that too, without struggling against it. As the teacher Paul Lowe says, don't be against your own againstness. Conscious, aware acceptance is key, with control being largely if not wholly irrelevant.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with yogic effort, of course, but if we strive spiritually it should be out of love for spiritual striving, not out of aversion for our own supposed imperfections. And if you who is reading this are able to be a perfectly virtuous saint, then by all means be one, with my sincere blessings upon you; but if you are not able, then don't. It may not really matter. A saint and an enlightened sage are not necessarily the same person. It may be that one logical conclusion of Schopenhauer's quote above is this statement by Krishnamurti:
You have a concept of what you should be and how you should act, and all the time you are in fact acting quite differently; so you see that principles, beliefs and ideals must inevitably lead to hypocrisy and a dishonest life. It is the ideal that creates the opposite to what is, so if you know how to be with "what is," then the opposite is not necessary. (---from Freedom from the Known)
Or consider the following verses from the Mahāviyūha Sutta, a very ancient discourse from the Sutta Nipāta:
If he is fallen away from his morality and observances
He is agitated, having failed in his action;
He prays for and aspires to pure freedom from wrong
Like one who has lost his caravan and is far from home.
But having abandoned all morality and observances
And that action that is criticized or uncriticized,
Not aspiring to "purity" or "non-purity,"
He would live refraining, not taking hold even of peace.
Or in the words of the Devil (alias William Blake), "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion." As some of you may recall, it was the knowledge of Good and Evil that got Adam and Eve kicked out of Paradise. Compassion is heavenly, but judgements of right or wrong are hell. Yet hell isn't necessarily right or wrong; it's just hell.
Incidentally, after the expansive experiences described above I considered the possibility that I had seen a glimpse of enlightenment and was consequently, in Buddhist terms, an Ariya; but, like anything else that has a beginning, the expanded states also had an end, and eventually passed. It is interesting that these experiences began while I was working on an article on the Three Marks (now included on the website nippapanca.org), as a knowledge of these marks is considered by orthodox tradition to lead to liberating insight. More interestingly, it began very shortly after I threw up my hands and gave up. Much of the spiritual literature of the world endorses the idea that simply letting go of the struggle is often a key factor in significant spiritual growth, or even in full awakening---especially if the letting go occurs when the tension of the struggle has approached the breaking point. Mere laxness, or giving up almost as soon as one has begun striving, tends not to work so well.
The insightful experience of the winter and spring of 2004 resulted in a great experiment. The experiment was essentially to continue living a monk's life, but within a context of unrepentant mediocrity. My years of strictness established some pretty good habits, so I haven't gone entirely to seed, plus my temperament remains pretty much the same as before, although I certainly am not quite as strict as I used to be, and am less frustrated and "uptight." After the experience, even while still living in caves in Burma I would look deeply into the eyes of pretty girls, work off frustrations by occasionally drawing erotic pictures (I can draw well), and slap the occasional mosquito, to mention just a few of my lapses of virtue. Since my return to the USA I've gone even wilder---I've listened to music, watched movies, consumed a few mind-altering chemicals, and have even enjoyed the physical touch of a female, although I have willingly undergone the required penance for such breaches of the rules. I suspect that next year I'll be somewhat more restrained in my behavior, although I really can't say I regret my relative relaxation of restraint, and make no apologies. I have called it my Great Experiment in Mediocrity.