Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Middle Way of Mediocrity

     "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 dhutaga. 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 Cūadhammasamādāna 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, 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. 


  1. Why not disrobe instead of being a "mediocre" monk? With your confession of NOT "seeing danger in the slightest fault" (last paragraph) you made a fool of yourself (considering that you are a bhikkhu). It's a shame that others applaude you for this pathetic display.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Well, there certainly was a time when I would have been in complete agreement with you.

      It seems to me that "seeing danger in the slightest fault," as exhorted in the texts, may stray into the realm of silabbata-paramasa, adhering to morality and observances, which is considered to be a hindrance to spiritual development. The commentaries limit this adherence to the obviously absurd practices of imitating the behavior of dogs or cattle, but even rigid adherence to monastic discipline (depending upon the volitions of the monk) may qualify as silabbata-paramasa. One possible example given in the commentaries is the case of a forest monk who was tied up with living vines by robbers. As they left they started a forest fire, and the monk preferred burning to death to damaging a living plant in order to escape his bonds. The commentary justifies this monk's behavior by saying that he became enlightened at the moment of death (how could anyone know that?), but his rigidity in following a relatively amoral rule strikes me as rather extreme. Another more extreme case might be a monk letting a young girl drown rather than risk breaking a rule by rescuing her.

      There is a rule of discipline which states that a monk is not allowed to open (or close) a door with his alms bowl in his hand. So, I used to go through the following ritual: I would approach a door, put my bowl down, open the door, pick the bowl back up, go through the doorway, put the bowl down again, close the door, pick the bowl back up, and continue on my way. I performed this ritual for 17 or 18 years. But, the rule was formulated because in very ancient times alms bowls were mostly made of clay, not iron like mine, and might break if knocked against the door; also, in Burma there are plenty of mosquitoes, including anopheles ones, that one would prefer not to enter an open doorway. So, I finally decided that following the rule "just because," seeing danger in the slightest lapse, was not serving me all that well. I break that rule almost every time now.

      Whether you are a monk or not I don't know, but you are very welcome to follow the rules as strictly as you like, with my blessings upon you. I admit that some rules are more important to follow than others, and any monk who breaks one of the 4 parajika rules is simply no longer a monk. Handling money is also a messy one, because technically a monk cannot even make confession for it until after he has forfeited all his money and all that he had bought with it. And if he doesn't forfeit his loot, then if he listens to the patimokkha recitation with other monks he's also technically guilty of lying, and lying is a lapse from fundamental virtue.

      As for the issue of my disrobing, it is always a possibility, but I'm not planning on it anytime soon.

  2. This post is amazing, and it speaks volumes to me in how my practice is not all that far off the mark. Thank you for your candor, Bhante.

  3. Great article Panyo, I really enjoyed it, felt a connection in it.

  4. Well, I don't exactly know what kind of pressure you get from the Sangha of Bhikkhu's in order to be seen as being a "good" monk but as a lay person waking up, I value this post.

    Such honest omissions are rare so thank you. What are we if we cannot be honest about ourselves and our experiments along this strange and often confusing journey? We are all so human after all.

    There is nothing mediocre about acceptance! To do it perfectly is worthwhile.

  5. Is this essay your confession?

    1. It is certainly A confession, although not an official one to the Sangha.

  6. Om Shanti, my brother. To carry the raft beyond the opposite shore is foolhardy. Strict adherence led to understanding, understanding led to an abandonment of strict adherence. I, too, have come to such understanding, though by a somewhat different path.

    I was told recently by someone who views me as their teacher that it is the fact of my humanness that enables her to see me as a teacher. Pain happens: so? Happiness happens: so? Strictness happens: so? Laxness happens: so? And then we die. Perhaps we are reborn. Perhaps enlightenment is the result of a stroke. Perhaps there is a heaven. Perhaps there is extinction. Guess we'll find out once we get there, eh? :-) One thing is sure, we are safe in our mortality so live like you know you are going to die! :-)

    Gassho for the post.

  7. I so appreciate you sharing your struggles Pannobhasa. It demonstrates courage, challenges us who read it to consider our own process and difficulties along the path of waking up, and teaches the values that the Buddha pointed us to, in being open to all our experience as teacher. There really isn't perfection except in seeing what is, without denial, without judgement and comparison, definitely without shame and with an open heart of forgiveness for ourselves and others for whatever we might perceive to be incorrect. That's compassion! How I see it is that you realized thru your trials something important, something valuable enough to share with others in how to explore the duality we live with daily. Thanks for the quote from Kristnamurti, well worth reading again, and for letting us know you so intimately.

  8. Interesting blog entry which I only just read. It gave me some comfort.
    Though I have not been striving in any way near as you described here. So, though it is not cold comfort, it is kind of a luke-warm comfort for me. One who has been striving very hard, and then come down, may feel much warmer comfort in this. That's the way of kamma.
    I much appreciate your sharing this. And I hope you are well on your way, and not getting lost and arriving at any wrong end of the maze of "the Bhikkhu life". But I have confidence you won't get off track in a serious way.
    In any case, may the force be with you.
    I think the idealized monk's life as it existed in the time of the Buddha, as much as especially we onlookers from outside who have not experienced it by ourselves would like to see it still extant, is in decline on the large scale, even though there may remain some last islands, in Burma or some other Buddhist countries. But they will also be eaten up, slowly slowly, in the course of some decades, by Samsara and swept away by the great flood. It can't persist for long anymore in this world. That's how I see it. Sabbhe sankharam anniccam. What do you think? Still it is good to see those still striving to follow the path to the best of their abilities.
    You might be one of the last mohicans actually. That's how I see it. What do you think?

    PS: But really, reading about your killing moscitos was not nice.
    Anyway, may the force be with you!

    1. Dear Unknown,

      I've long considered that in all probability the overwhelming majority of Buddhists have almost from the very beginning of the Sasana been not very spiritually inclined, simply because it is human nature to be that way. So it may be that Buddhism is not so seriously in decline as it seems. I doubt that the political correctness hysteria, consumerism, etc. being inoculated into Dhamma in the West nowadays is any worse than other kinds of silliness that were inoculated into it in other cultures at other times.

      The mainstream of any spiritual tradition is bound to be unenlightened and unenlightening. At least the mainstream tradition serves as a platform or "jumping off point" for those who want something more real.

      At least, that's what I think.

    2. Thanks for your answer. That sounds like a healthy perspective.
      May the force be with you!