Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Road Trip Through Upper Myanmar


     (This was written on January 20th, but I haven't had Internet access to post it until now. This is my first attempt at Internet cafe publishing.)

    I'm typing this in Nyaung Oo, Burma, in a hotel room (previously cheap, but recently expensive---like all the other hotels in this area). Dylan has finished his sun salutations, and he and Damon are off to a restaurant near the Ananda Temple for dinner.
     This has been a rather unusual stay in Myanmar so far. For one thing, my companions have largely consisted of wealthy Californians, or at least Californians who have been wealthy at some point in their life. My good friend Damon is an inspired architect trying to make his contribution to this exotic country, helping it to open to the West with minimum consumerization, and without selling out the treasures of Burmese culture. I've been hanging out and traveling with him and some of his circle for about a week, which is always interesting.
     The lifestyle of the Westerners here has been giving me a certain amount of culture shock; it's more like the lifestyle in America than like what I am used to here in Myanmar. Here's a little taste of it: last year I went to a French restaurant in Yangon (to use the free wifi) with Damon's wife Stacy, their two little daughters, and one or two other women. The food was relatively deluxe and relatively expensive, catering mainly to foreigners; the only Burmese people in the place were employees; the ladies spoke English and discussed the relative merits of different kinds of Western food; and afterwards they intended to go to a spa and have their toenails done. I told Stacy that the scene reminded me of British colonial times, and she said something like, "Don't even say it." Really, the situation reminds me of the English people described in stories of colonial Asia by Somerset Maugham. Sometimes I jokingly call Stacy a mem sahib, i.e. a very Western lady colonist during the British Raj. Most of this community of expats don't speak Burmese, so they mainly associate with other Westerners or with westernized Burmese people. They drink milk imported from Germany, and fruit juice imported from Italy. They buy and eat things like Brie cheese that are rare and very expensive in this country. They also tend to be beautiful people, really beautiful people, and there's nothing necessarily bad or wrong with the way they live their lives, so I'm not complaining here; but it is a little disorienting to me that people would come to such a physically poor but wise, stoic, and beautiful country, and still prefer, or maybe even insist upon, living at a higher standard of Western comfort than I was used to even in America. With servants. I associate Burma with austerity; not just the austerity of forest monks in this country, but also the austerity of lay villagers. Even most city people here are pretty austere. But everything happens the way it's supposed to happen, and I am grateful for all of it (so far).
     I think one major difference between the colonial British and the new expats in this country is that the ones here now seem more open and friendly to the servants and common people, even though they generally don't speak the language. Sometimes the open friendliness and liberal compliments are confusing to the Burmese, as it may seem to them that the rich Westerners are demeaning their own dignity by lowering themselves to the level of their own cooks, maids, and gardeners. They make allowances for the Western barbarians who keep hugging them or touching their head, both of which are seen as uncivilized foreign customs. Many Burmese were bothered when President Obama put his arm around Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during his recent visit here, and then even kissed her. For a man publicly to touch a woman with his hands, let alone his mouth, is contrary to Burmese custom and seen as inappropriate, even if she happens to be his wife.
     Anyway, Damon, Dylan, a young Burmese man named Christopher, and I left Yangon several days ago for Bagan and Nyaung Oo. We took the new Yangon-to-Mandalay freeway, which has about one car on it per mile of road, and is so rough in places that stuff on the dashboard gets positively airborne. Ironically, I haven't gone to see a single temple in Bagan the whole time I've been here; we did go to see some old cave temples on the outskirts of Nyaung Oo though, and then climbed the platform of a not-very-ancient-looking pagoda to watch the sun go down. In my opinion it was not a very good idea for the government to have the ancient ruins renovated. I liked the old temples better when they were broken and standing in farmers' fields, with perhaps the main Buddha image having his belly ripped away by looters looking for enshrined treasures, yet still sitting and smiling in blissful samadhi. But now almost all the temples have been fixed up, and the torn bellies replaced.


Christopher putting on his anti-snake boots before a foray into the bush


     While in Nyaung Oo we met up with Ian and Scott, two filmmakers working on what they call the "Finding Silence Project," which describes the lifestyles and meditative practices of people in the world and also of people who renounce that world, in an attempt to show busy Westerners the possibility and benefits of living one's life on spiritual terms, especially with regard to meditation. They interviewed both Damon and me, and wanted to follow us to Wun Bo, my forest monastery in NW Burma.
     So, a few days ago we arrived at Wun Bo, which always is a blessing to me. The next morning when I went for alms in Lay Myay village, around 60 or 70 villagers were standing there waiting to offer food. It was like a festival, a cheerful, smiling mob scene. I remember my second night at the monastery, standing in front of my cave wearing only my lower robe in the warm, fresh January air, with the crickets chirping, looking up at the stars and feeling really joyous for the first time in weeks. I felt as though my heart was completely relieved of all burdens, and was, relatively speaking, set free. Then the following day, an uposatha or Buddhist sabbath day, there were so many visitors coming to pay their respects and welcome me back that I started feeling jaded and withdrawn again.
     Scott and Ian were impressed and inspired by the place and by the whole scene, but wanted to leave after the second night. Because it was a sabbath day the boats weren't running, so they hired a sampan to take them into town for 50,000 kyats (about $60 US). One of my good friends and supporters in the village wondered aloud that they preferred to spend 50,000 kyats, possibly a month's pay for a poor villager, than to wait until the following morning and ride into town for free. I told her, "It's OK. They're rich."
     At the monastery the presiding abbot when I'm gone, venerable Iddhidaja, kept teasing me about my lapses from Burmese-ness. He pointed out that I'm fatter now, and asked, "Where is Danielle? (referring to an inspired young pagan priestess who supports me and is my closest friend in Bellingham) Didn't you bring her with you?" He jokingly expressed amazement, more than once, that I'm still wearing monk robes. Then this morning when I was saying goodbye I told him, "May you become a master of Dhamma," whereupon he retorted, "May you not become the master of a wife!" A funny fellow is that venerable Iddhidaja.
     The only other monk at the forest monastery is venerable Khemācāra, who has been a monk for about seven years and was formerly a medical doctor. He doesn't want the villagers to know that he's a physician, however, as he's the only doctor in the area, and doesn't want people coming to him with their ailments. He just wants to be a quiet monk meditating in a quiet place (and technically it's against the rules for a monk to practice medicine on laypeople anyway). He kindly vacated the upper cave while I was there so I could stay in it. That cave is the one place I've lived longer than anywhere else in my life. Strangely, many of the things in the cave were just as I left them, even though ven. Khemācāra had been living there for almost a year. I looked upon the geckoes and the big, brown wall-clinger spiders on the walls as old friends. Dylan, who shared the cave with me for three nights, didn't much like the spiders, especially the big one near his bed.



 The ubiquitous wall (and ceiling) gecko


     On the sabbath day two young village teachers from a school run by one of the local monasteries came to visit us with about thirty children. They wanted to take the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, which all the children knew by heart, along with a long preliminary chant in formal Burmese called "Okatha." Dylan immediately fell in love with one of the schoolteachers, a willowy, big-eyed girl about twenty years old, and he told me so, so I told him how that same girl used to always touch my foot three times while making her bows, after she had put food into my bowl in the village. Her fingertips were exquisitely soft and warm, and I would often think, "Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!" when she would do it. Then one fine day she stopped touching my foot, and I was like, "Hey! What the…. How come?" I really missed those warm, soft fingertips.
     Dylan asked the kids to sing for him, which, after some hesitant shyness, they did, belting out one song after another. Then Dylan practically stole the show by belting out his own rendition of "Naughty Little Fish," a moving ballad about a fish that bit his finger. I suspect that he was turning on the charm partly to impress the pretty schoolteacher. 


 Village children taking the precepts


     This morning after the third happy mob scene of an alms round in succession, and after I had "removed my hand from the bowl" (i.e., after I finished eating), a troop of Burmese damsels came to help us carry our luggage back to the village, where Damon's car was parked. Dylan expressed some feelings of discomfort, as I also used to feel, with the idea of girls carrying heavy loads for men. They really insist upon it though, and refusing to let them do it hurts their feelings. We went down the hill and collected Damon, who was sitting near the congregation hall playing his wooden flute, and we walked half a mile through a forest of dahat trees (Tectona hamiltoniana, which may not even have a name in English) to the village and the car.
     We were invited by a lady named Ma Htay-I to her house, so we walked there after we stowed our bags in Damon's vehicle. Possibly fifty people packed into the room we were in to watch Damon and Dylan and me. Damon kept expecting me to stand up and make a speech, or something, but I learned long ago that being interesting increases the size of the crowds; there is safety in being boring. The friendliness and hospitality of Burmese villagers is always amazing, and I was continually experiencing pangs of gratitude, especially during alms rounds. I kept feeling like I ought to give something to them in return---blessings at the very least. These people are probably the most virtuous large community of people I have ever encountered, and they are obviously much happier than we Westerners tend to be---regardless of their physical poverty, and regardless of the fact that we Westerners, in our compassion, are trying to make them more like us. As Dylan said the other night, the Burmese are "OK with discomfort," while we Westerners generally aren't. We have higher standards, and so, among other things, we are more fussy and harder to satisfy. And our patience is nowhere near to that of a villager in Lay Myay or Wun Bo.
     So, we drove back to Nyaung Oo today. We've narrowly missed several potential serious accidents due to the practical nonexistence of traffic rules in this country. Also we've seen sights one just doesn't see in the West, like a dozen or more live chickens hanging upside down from the handlebars of a bicycle, or an entire family, including a baby or a couple of live goats, loaded onto a motorcycle and zooming down the highway. Damon checked out a house he has rented here for $150 US per month (which includes electricity and water), but rent will probably increase greatly soon, as property values here are rising almost exponentially. Tomorrow they will drop me off at Taungpulu Kyauk Sin Tawya, near Meiktila, the first forest monastery I stayed at in Burma, so that I can finish ecclesiastical penance there for rules I broke while staying in America. After that I'll go back to Wun Bo, where I'm still the king. It's good to be the king. It's also good to feel welcome, and very much loved.
     Dylan's back, and doing his yoga postures again.


 Damon, ven. Iddhidaja, me, and Dylan at Wun Bo monastery









Saturday, January 26, 2013

When Godhika Took the Knife


     Well, let's face it: Pali Buddhist texts tend to be pretty dry. For one thing, they are so repetitive that even the official editions of the Tipitaka, in the original Pali language, contain plenty of abbreviations (called peyyāla) to shorten the redundant parts. The Pali texts were composed with ease of memorization in mind, and I can speak from experience when I say that when one is memorizing a text, repetitions are welcome, as they make the job easier. This however doesn't fully account for why Dhamma is told in such a repetitive way. If I see three cows in a field, a red one, a black one, and a spotted one, does it make sense for me to say, "Today I saw three cows in a field. What were these three cows like in that field? Listen, and I will tell you. Today I saw a red cow in that field; that was what the first cow was like. And today I also saw a black cow in that field; that was what the second cow was like. And today I also saw a spotted cow in that field; that was what the third cow was like. That was what the three cows were like that I saw today in the field." I think not. It doesn't work for me. Some discourses are unnecessarily expanded out to many times the length necessary to say what needs to be said. Sometimes it is rather tedious to read. I suppose this is one reason why Burmese laypeople usually prefer to read books written by modern Burmese monks, and why American laypeople usually prefer to read books written by modern Western lay teachers. Less tedious, even though the Dhamma therein may be secondhand at best.
     Even so, the Pali texts are the closest documents we have to the Buddhism taught by Gotama Buddha himself, and the Tipitaka contains some real treasures---inspiring profundity as well as fascinating stories. Also if one looks one may find some refreshingly mind-bending strangeness. One may have to do some patient searching, however.




     Some of you may have noticed that I like looking at Dhamma from unusual points of view. It helps to keep the Doctrine fresh and interesting, and also helps one to stay out of some of the deeper dogmatic ruts. So my favorite Pali Suttas tend to be unusual in some way or other. Some, like the Suttas of the Aṭṭhakavagga, or the Dīghanakha Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, are fascinating because they teach a profound and radically different sort of Buddhism than do most Pali texts. Others, like the Bāhiya Sutta of the Udāna, contain an extraordinary story of ancient India in addition to some deep philosophy. I like the following discourse because of its strange story (with an unexpected view of suicide) and also because it seems to endorse an interpretation of enlightenment which has become unorthodox and unacceptable to developed Theravadin tradition. It is from the Sayutta Nikāya (S.1.4.23).

Godhika Sutta: The Discourse on Godhika 

     Thus have I heard: At one time the Blessed One was living at Rājagaha, in the Bamboo Grove, at the squirrels' feeding place. And at that time the venerable Godhika was living at the Black Rock on the hillside of Isigili. 
     Then, venerable Godhika, living with unclouded mind, ardent, applying himself, attained to temporary liberation of mind. But then venerable Godhika fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A second time, venerable Godhika, living with unclouded mind, ardent, applying himself, attained to temporary liberation of mind. But a second time venerable Godhika fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A third time, venerable Godhika, living with unclouded mind, ardent, applying himself, attained to temporary liberation of mind. And still a third time venerable Godhika fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A fourth time venerable Godhika…attained to temporary liberation of mind…and fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A fifth time venerable Godhika…attained to temporary liberation of mind…and fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A sixth time venerable Godhika…attained to temporary liberation of mind…and fell away from that temporary liberation of mind. A seventh time, venerable Godhika, living with unclouded mind, ardent, applying himself, attained to temporary liberation of mind. 
     Then this occurred to the venerable Godhika: "For the sixth time I have fallen away from temporary liberation of mind. Why don't I just take the knife to myself [that is, why doesn't he just cut his own throat before losing it a seventh time]."
     Then Māra the Evil One, having known by his own mind the thought in the mind of venerable Godhika, approached the Blessed One. Having approached the Blessed One he addressed him in verses:

          "Great hero, great in understanding, 
          Blazing with power and glory,
          Gone beyond all enmity and fear, 
          Endowed with vision, I worship at your feet.

          Your disciple, great hero, 
          O overcomer of death, is planning 
          And intending on death;
          Prevent him, O bearer of radiant brilliance!

          How indeed, Blessed One, can your disciple
          ---One who delights in your wise instruction,
          One in training who has not fulfilled his intention---
          Take his own life, you who are listened to by the people!"

     By that time venerable Godhika had already taken the knife. Then the Blessed One, realizing "This is Māra the Evil One," addressed Māra the Evil One with a verse:

          "Thus indeed do wise men act;
          They do not yearn for life.
          Having pulled out craving with its root,
          Godhika is completely blown out."

     Then the Blessed One called on the monks, "Come on, monks, let's go to the Black Rock on the hillside of Isigili, where the gentleman Godhika has taken a knife to himself." 
     "As you say, venerable sir," the monks replied to the Blessed One.
     Then the Blessed One along with many monks went to the Black Rock on the hillside of Isigili. From a distance the Blessed One saw venerable Godhika lying on a bed with his body rolled over to one side. Then at that time a cloudiness, a darkness, was moving in the eastern direction, moving in the western direction, moving in the northern direction, moving in the southern direction, moving upwards, moving downwards, moving in every direction between.
     Then the Blessed One called to the monks, "Monks, do you see that cloudiness, that darkness, that moves in the eastern direction, then moves in the western direction, then moves in the northern direction, then moves in the southern direction, then moves upwards, then moves downwards, then moves in every direction between?" 
     "As you say, venerable sir."
     "That indeed, monks, is Māra the Evil One searching for the consciousness of the gentleman Godhika, thinking, 'Where is the consciousness of the gentleman Godhika established?' But with his consciousness unestablished, monks, the gentleman Godhika has completely blown out." 
     Then Māra the Evil One, having taken up a lute of yellow marmelos wood, approached the Blessed One. Having approached the Blessed One he addressed him with a verse: 

          "Above, below, and across,
          In all the directions and everywhere between,
          I search but do not find
          Where that Godhika has gone."

          [The Buddha:]
          "This wise man endowed with wisdom,
          A contemplative always delighting in contemplation,
          Applying himself day and night,
          Devoid of desire for life,

          Having defeated the army of Death,
          Not returning to another existence,
          Having pulled out craving with its root
          Godhika is completely blown out."

                                 *   *   *

          In his sorrow and affliction
          The lute dropped from under his arm,
          And that unhappy spirit [Māra]
          Disappeared right then and there.
                   

     Well, of course this is a strange story; it even has a visitation from the Buddhist devil in it. Some of it may be made more clear with some commentary provided by me.
     Isigili Hill is nowadays, I think, called Sona Hill, not far from Rajgir in the Indian state of Bihar. Rajgir (Rājagaha) during the Buddha's time was capital of the kingdom of Magadha. Isigili Hill is considered to be sacred by Buddhists as well as Jains, as the Buddha and Mahāvīra, reputed founder of Jainism, both spent time there. Isigili means something like "Sage Swallower" because it has caves that have served for millennia as the abodes of spiritual renunciants. According to Buddhist tradition many paccekabuddhas (enlightened beings living solitary lives at times when Dhamma is unestablished in the world) had formerly lived on the hillside and in the caves. One other claim to fame for Isigili is that it is the reputed site of the murder of Mahā Moggallāna, one of the Buddha's two chief disciples. According to tradition, even though he was a fully enlightened being who was foremost among the Buddha's disciples for his psychic powers, he was literally beaten to a pulp by a group of enemies of Buddhism; when his assailants were finished not a single one of Moggallāna's bones remained unbroken. But that's another story.


Allegedly the place on Isigili Hill
where Mahā Moggallāna was murdered

     Godhika's "temporary liberation of mind" (sāmayikacetovimutti) means essentially jhāna, an advanced contemplative state in which the thinking process has stopped, and the mind becomes clear and still. It is only a temporary liberation because it depends on delusion being stopped through the temporary stillness of mind; permanent liberation of mind occurs when one is completely detached from samsaric delusion even when one is thinking and moving around. This is a radically more subtle state than clarity relying upon simplicity and stillness.
     According to the commentarial tradition, Godhika kept falling away from jhāna because of bad health; although it may be that he was simply high-strung, and his meditative attainments were consequently unstable. I think there are plenty of meditators like that, especially Western ones.
     He decided to commit suicide before losing his clarity a seventh time because, again according to the medieval commentary, he reasoned that if he died with jhāna he would be guaranteed at least of rebirth in a Brahma Realm, a very exalted heaven. On the other hand, since he wasn't technically a saint yet, if he died without jhāna there would be no guarantee at all, and he could be reborn even in a lower realm. He decided to play it safe. 
     He probably cut his throat with the razor for shaving his head, one of the traditional eight requisites which any Theravada monk should own (i.e. three robes, a belt, a bowl, a razor, a needle, and a water strainer). The commentary states that he twisted his body in death because he wanted to assume the "lion's position," that is, lying on his right side with one foot atop the other, as this is considered the proper position for a sleeping monk. (Some of you may have noticed that statues of the Buddha in the "parinirvana mudra," or the position representing his death and final Nirvana, almost always have him lying in this position.) However, my guess is that he wanted to hold his bleeding throat over the side of the bed so as not to ruin it. It probably wasn't his bed, but one owned by the Sangha.
     Māra the Evil One---the Buddhist devil---rushed to the Buddha and spoke very respectfully to him because he was worried that Godhika might actually become enlightened if he died in his state, considering how resolute and unafraid of death he was. He knew he could't talk Godhika out of suicide, but that the Buddha could, theoretically. But of course it didn't work. The only way to escape the Buddhist devil is to become enlightened, as he holds the entire phenomenal universe, including the highest heaven realms, in the palm of his hand. In fact Māra himself, unlike Lucifer who reportedly lives chained up in the lowest pit of Hell, lives on a magnificent estate in the highest heaven in the so-called Sensual World. (Those of us who do not believe in devils may accept this part of the discourse as a metaphor.)
     The Buddha and the monks went to Isigili to dispose of Godhika's body, probably by cremating it. There apparently was no great stigma associated with suicide in ancient India, unlike in the modern West. Nowadays taking one's own life is considered a terrible thing, and in America it is even against the law to attempt it. Those who do attempt it are not only criminals but are likely to be committed to a mental hospital. But even in the West long ago, before Christianity became the predominant tradition and while death was still considered to be a normal part of a violent world, suicide was considered to be socially acceptable and "politically correct." To give just a few famous examples, Demosthenes and Hannibal poisoned themselves; Cato the Younger, when he learned that Caesar's army had defeated the Republican legions, "opened his veins" and bled to death; Cleopatra had herself bitten by a snake; and her lover Mark Antony adopted the most honorable way for a Roman soldier to kill himself---he fell on his own sword.


Marcus Antonius, or rather Richard Burton

     But Christianity has long considered suicide to be a sin, the rejection of a divine gift from God; and not so long ago suicides were not even allowed to be buried in consecrated churchyards. Sometimes they would even be buried with a wooden stake through their chest to prevent them from becoming vampires or zombies. Dante gave them a special place in his Inferno, where they assume the form of thorny trees with blood for sap, and are denied even the ability to resume their original form on Judgement Day. This condemnation by Christianity, combined with the modern materialistic notion that death is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person, causes suicide to be viewed with severe disapproval in the West.
     Sometimes suicide is looked upon not only with disapproval but with resentment. It is often called "the coward's way out"---which is ironic considering that the suicide has willingly brought upon himself that which the disapproving one fears more than all else. It is a similar kind of resentment that I have noticed a few times directed toward monks: in both cases, suicides and monks, the very thing that the other most valued was renounced and thrust away with both hands. Their own life, or their lifestyle, was in a sense spat upon. Or so they seemed to view it.
     But even though Buddhism does not necessarily condemn the act of killing oneself, it is still the killing of a living being---oneself---and rarely solves the problem it attempts to solve. From the Buddhist point of view, unless the suicide becomes enlightened as Godhika did, he or she will simply be born again, and with essentially the same issues to contend with. We cannot really run from our problems because we take them with us when we run; we are the ones who generated them in the first place through our own karma, and we take our karma wherever we go, even into death. So it's best to face our issues and make peace with them as best we can; otherwise we will continue to be oppressed by them. Elsewhere in the texts the Buddha says that one shouldn't commit suicide unless one's business is done. (Which, however, was not the case with Godhika, as he didn't finish his business until after his neck was already carved.)
     Also, when a person commits suicide, especially in a modern world that is not so stoic about death, he or she is usually in a state of utter despair, or some equally negative mental state; and it is considered very important to die with as conscious and expanded a mental state as possible, as that last thought in life largely determines one's momentum into the next stage, or whether there will even be a next stage. It has been wisely observed that death is the most important part of life, and that life is a decades-long preparation for it. 
     After Godhika's death Māra searched for his consciousness but failed to find it, because Godhika's consciousness had become "unestablished" (appatiṭṭhitena viññāena). I consider this to be interesting, and possibly very important philosophically. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi in the editorial notes to his translation of the Sayutta Nikāya assures the reader that, according to the commentary, Māra was searching for where Godhika had been reborn (reincarnated), and that "When the monk is said to attain final Nibbāna with consciousness unestablished, this should not be understood to mean that after death consciousness survives in an 'unestablished' condition…for enough texts make it plain that with the passing away of the arahant consciousness too ceases and no longer exists…." Yet there are very old texts which also may support the idea of consciousness surviving the death of an enlightened being. The most famous is probably the controversial verses found in the Kevaṭṭa Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, which begin "Consciousness unmanifest, infinite, shining all around" (viññāa anidassana, ananta sabbatopabha) which evidently is describing Nirvana. Instead of the consciousness of an enlightened being simply vanishing from existence, it may be more like an individual raindrop falling into and merging with the sea.
     But it all depends on how one looks at it. How does one describe what no longer has boundaries? One can say that it no longer exists, as has become the orthodox approach in Theravada; or one can say that it has become unmanifest and infinite. They are both equally valid (or equally invalid) ways of describing what is now Completely Off the Scale.
     This may be why again and again the Buddha absolutely refused to answer whether or not an enlightened being exists after death. Ultimately, one cannot really say whether or not he or she exists even before death. The duality of existence/nonexistence doesn't really apply. 
    Last and probably least, the marmelos wood of which Māra's lute was constructed comes from the marmelos tree, also called the bael tree or bilva tree (Pali beluva), which grows throughout the drier areas of South Asia. In India it is sacred to Shiva, and it bears a kind of fruit that does not taste very good unless it is candied---thus, marmalade. 
     
     
      
       
Appendix: The Verses of the Godhika Sutta Translated into Actual Poetry

     The following are the same verses translated above, except in real metre. They were written by Henry Clarke Warren almost a century ago in his pioneering book Buddhism in Translation:

          "Thou Hero Great, profoundly wise,
          Whose magic power full brightly shines,
          Who hast o'ercome all sin and fear,
          Thy feet I worship, Seeing One.

          "Thy follower, O thou Hero Great,
          Although o'er death victorious,
          Doth long for death, and plotteth it;
          Dissuade him, O thou Radiant One.

          "Pray, shall thy follower, Blessed One,
          Whose keen delight is in thy law
          With goal unreached, not perfect trained,
          So soon expire, O Chief of Men?"

          "Thus, verily, the valiant act,
          Nor think to hanker after life!
          Lo! Godhika uproots desire,
          And, dying, has Nirvana gained."

          "Always in meditation found
          That brave, strong man his best delight;
          Each day and night he practised it,
          And recked not, cared not, for his life.

          "Thus vanquished he Namuci's host;
          No more to rebirth he returns.
          Lo! Godhika uproots desire,
          And, dying, has Nirvana gained."

          The Demon sorely mortified,
          Down from his side let fall the lute;
          And in a sore, dejected mood,
          He straightway disappeared from sight.

(Māra's final verse to the Buddha, asking the whereabouts of Godhika's consciousness, was rendered by Warren in prose.)









    

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bodhisattas and Bodhisattvas


     One of the most common answers to the question "What is the difference between Theravada and Mahayana?" is the answer "The Bodhisattva concept." Mahayana teaches that one should not try to become enlightened as soon as possible, as Theravada advises, but should strive to become a fully enlightened Buddha, or even postpone enlightenment indefinitely until all beings are liberated from the wheel of Samsara. This answer with regard to the difference, however, is not 100% accurate. There are other differences too of course---for example Mahayana metaphysics are rather more sophisticated and, I think, more profound---but Theravada has a Bodhisattva concept also, or rather a Bodhisatta concept.
     Before going any further in that regard I'd like to discuss briefly what the term Bodhisatta means. The term bodhisattva was translated from bodhisatta in Pali, or perhaps more likely a Buddhist Prakrit language very similar to Pali. The term is a combination of two words, bodhi and satta; the first part is the same in Pali and Sanskrit and means "awakening" or "enlightenment." The second part, satta, is not so certain. In Sanskrit the word sattva means "creature" or "being"; thus Bodhisattva means "Enlightenment Being." But this is not necessarily what the word originally meant. It does seem a little odd that a being who is not yet enlightened, and in Mahayana Buddhism may not even be trying to become enlightened any time sooner than the end of the Universe, would be called an Enlightenment Being. The word satta in Pali has more than one possible meaning, and its rendering into Sanskrit as sattva could possibly be a mistranslation.
     Mistranslations from an older language like Pali into Buddhist Sanskrit have happened before. For example, in the doctrine of the Two Truths, ultimate and conventional, the very ancient term sammuti---"convention, consent, tradition"---somehow got converted into the Sanskrit word savti, which means "covering" or "concealing." Thus from sammuti sacca, conventional truth, arose savti satya, concealing truth (although the philosophical implications are practically the same).
     Getting back to satta, however, in Pali it can also mean "seven" (in Sanskrit, sapta), but I think we can easily rule out "Enlightenment Seven."
     Also, satta can be a past participle of the verb sapati, "to curse," but "Enlightenment-Cursed" also appears very unlikely.
     Yet satta in Pali may also be a past participle of the verb sajjati, forming an adjectival noun. Sajjati means "to be attached to," "to be hung on to." Thus the original meaning of the word bodhisatta may have been "One who is committed to enlightenment" or "One who is bound for enlightenment." This would seem to make more sense, and is apparently more in harmony with the older Theravadin conception of the idea.
     In orthodox Theravadin tradition a bodhisatta is indeed one bound for enlightenment, or rather bound for full-blown Buddhahood. He is one who is destined to become a fully enlightened Buddha, one who rediscovers Dhamma after it has been lost to the world, and then teaches it, thereby reintroducing Dhamma (and Buddhism) into the world. He reaches this state by bringing various qualities called pāramī, including generosity, truthfulness, loving-kindness, and so on, to perfection over a period of incalculable eons, lifetime after lifetime. According to the commentarial literature there are certain other requirements for a true bodhisatta: for example he should already have a mastery of jhāna, or deep contemplative states, and he must also make a vow to become a Buddha in the presence of one who already is a Buddha---and receive a prophecy from that Buddha assuring him that he will ultimately succeed. "Our" Buddha Gotama reportedly received his prophesy from a Buddha named Dīpakara more than 2 incalculable eons in the past, on a different world.
     Looking at the most ancient texts available, it seems likely that originally there was no difference between Buddhas and ordinarily enlightened Arahants. "Buddha" literally means awakened or enlightened, and Arahants are certainly that, otherwise they wouldn't be Arahants. And the Buddha himself is sometimes called an Arahant, as in the famous formula namo tassa bhāgavato arahato sammāsambuddhassa---Reverence to him, the Blessed One, the Worthy One (Arahant), the Truly, Fully Enlightened One. I feel that in all probability the Buddha, like Jesus also, was saying essentially, "Look, I'm a human being like you, and I did it. If I can do it, you can do it too. You can be like me." 
     However, it is human nature to glorify great leaders, political, military, cultural, or spiritual. So as Buddhism developed into a popular religion followed largely by simple and not very spiritually talented folks, the Buddha became more and more glorified, and eventually even worshipped. For many this worship replaced the way of life taught by the master, as also happened with Christianity. Jesus became the Son of God, and Buddha became higher than any god, including the Mahā-Brahmā, who allegedly descended to earth to worship Buddha. Sakka the King of Gods reportedly became one of the Buddha's chief followers.
     The Buddha's glorification involved an ancient genre of literature called Jātaka, which described the Buddha's former lives as a Bodhisatta, often in moral tales portraying talking animals, similar to the fables of Aesop. Many of these stories were common Indian legends which were appropriated and modified by the Buddhists. Anyhow, the idea developed that the Buddha heroically strived for eons to perfect himself to the point of Buddhahood, sometimes as an animal, sometimes even in hell…which implied that he was somehow more noble, more wise, and more enlightened than even his most successful disciples. Thus the discrepancy between an "ordinary" enlightened being and the extraordinary Buddha; and thus also the genesis of the Bodhisatta/Bodhisattva concept.
     I am no expert on Mahayana Buddhism, but I have been led to understand that Mahayana Buddhists are supposed to shun ordinary enlightenment as something selfish and perhaps even cowardly (running away from Samsara), and to strive to become fully enlightened Buddhas---or even to forgo enlightenment altogether until all other beings in the Universe have also been liberated. One of the four main vows made by Mahayanist Bodhisattvas is, "Beings are numberless: I vow to save them."
     It seems to me, though, that this idea involves some faulty logic. According to Buddhist philosophy, this Universe (or, if you prefer, this endless series of Universes) has no creator and no beginning; so it has existed already for an infinite length of time, and there are still an infinite number of suffering, unenlightened beings. This would seem to suggest that there will always be an infinite number of suffering, unenlightened beings. If an infinite length of time has already passed and the number of suffering beings is still numberless...
     It may be that the vow mentioned above is a noble gesture of rejecting enlightenment since everyone can't have it. It would, however, seem to be practically the exact opposite of what Gotama Buddha reportedly taught, as indicated by the oldest Buddhist texts we have. The time for enlightenment is Now.
     There is another approach to the apparent dilemma which I came across in a profound Chinese Zen text called the Sutra of Hui Neng, also called the Platform Sutra.* It has been a long time since I read it, but if I remember correctly Hui Neng, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch of Zen, says essentially that once you become enlightened you look around and see that everyone else is enlightened too. In other words, when you see with perfect eyes all that you see is perfect. "To the pure man all things are pure." As Benedict Spinoza said in his Ethics, "By reality and perfection I mean the same thing." This world of suffering is a creation of our own delusion. Consequently, the only way to liberate all beings would be to liberate ourselves; then we see that, ultimately, there are no beings to liberate.
     There is another way of looking at the issue: I have found that the directions for Bodhisattvas in Mahayana texts like the Diamond Cutter Sutra are very similar in details to descriptions of the psychology of a sage in ancient Theravada texts like the Sutta Nipāta. It could be that once one realizes a certain stage of wisdom, labels such as "Arahant" and "Bodhisattva" no longer stick. One has gone off the scale, and quibbles about what label to apply become irrelevant.


The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 
the earlier (male) version of Kuan Yin

* I used to think that the Sutra of Hui Neng was, finally, a Buddhist text whose authenticity was relatively certain, as it is reportedly a verbatim transcript of a Dharma talk given by the Patriarch, recorded by a professional scribe who attended the talk. I figured one couldn't be more trustworthy than that, and I trusted this for years. Then I came across a different translation at a library in Rangoon, written by a fellow named Yampolsky, of Columbia University. In his introduction he made a number of very interesting and disillusioning statements. First he declared that his translation was based on a recently discovered manuscript of the Sutra which is older than the traditionally accepted version and differs from it in many respects. Then he went on to deduce that the Sutra doesn't really represent a discourse of Hui Neng, but is a forgery written by one of the Patriarch's disciples, which then underwent extensive modification over many years…although it was in all likelihood originally based on the teachings of the master. Not only that, but he further wrecked the illusion by hypothesizing that Hui Neng probably wasn't really the Sixth Patriarch at all, and that the story of his receiving the emblems of the Patriarchate secretly from the Fifth Patriarch, and so on, are apocryphal. The real Sixth Patriarch was presumably the timid senior monk belittled in the story, who wrote inferior poetry on the monastery wall; but his school, "the gradual school" of the north, died out, so no one could contest the claims of the forged Sutra declaring that Hui Neng was secretly the Sixth Patriarch. This would explain, among other things, why the lineage ended with the Sixth, with no Seventh. It all goes to show the hopeless unreliability of "authentic" sacred scriptures, and the unscrupulousness even of dedicated spiritual practitioners when it comes to recording them. The moral of the story is that the effect of a text---its usefulness in expanding consciousness, or at least in knocking us out of ruts---is of real importance, not its supposed authenticity or even its factuality.


























Saturday, January 12, 2013

The East in the West and the West in the East


     Well, here I am in Burma again. Or maybe it would be fair to say that since I'm still in the city I'm in New Myanmar, but not in Old Burma yet. But I suppose first of all I should explain how I got here two days ago.
     In my latest current events post, "The Journey to the South," I described my trip to California with Wayne "the surfer dude" and my first few days at Kusalakari, a small Burmese house-temple in the suburbs of Fremont, about half an hour's drive south of Oakland. My five weeks there passed rather uneventfully, which is standard for monks at monasteries. Perhaps the highlight of the stay occurred about three days after I arrived, when I was requested to go to the recently acquired branch monastery and help chant pabbājaniya kammavāca there. In the books of monastic discipline pabbājaniya kammavāca, or the "formal act of banishment," is a formal act of the Sangha for ejecting a badly behaved monk from a certain area, but I have never heard of this being done by the Sangha in modern times. Such disciplinary acts appear to be obsolete in Burma, where it could be argued that the majority of monks, technically speaking, are badly behaved. Instead, this act of expulsion is a different one modeled on ancient formal acts, but as far as I know it was invented in Burma; anyway, it's not canonical. Its purpose is to use the authority of the Sangha of monks to drive away monsters. An English translation of the Pali text of it is as follows:
     Venerable sirs, may the Sangha hear me. These inhuman beings: ogres [yakkha], sprites [gandhabba], goblins [kumbhaṇḍa], and dragons [nāgā], are wild, fierce, violent, cruel, and troublesome, and their wildness, fierceness, violence, cruelty, and troublesomeness have been seen and heard. Furthermore, families troubled by them have been seen and heard. If there is readiness of the Sangha, the Sangha should perform an act of expulsion of these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, from this dwelling, from this monastery. This dwelling, this monastery, should not be inhabited by these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons. That is the motion. 
     Venerable sirs, may the Sangha hear me. These inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, are wild, fierce, violent, cruel, and troublesome, and their wildness, fierceness, violence, cruelty, and troublesomeness have been seen and heard. Furthermore, families troubled by them have been seen and heard. The Sangha performs an act of expulsion of these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, from this dwelling, from this monastery. This dwelling, this monastery, should not be inhabited by these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons. Whichever venerable one consents to performing an act of expulsion on these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, that this dwelling, this monastery, should not be inhabited by these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, he should remain silent. Whoever does not consent, he should speak. 
     And a second time I speak on this matter…[repeat the second paragraph] 
     And a third time I speak on this matter…[repeat it again] 
     Executed by the Sangha is the performance of the act of expulsion of these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, from this dwelling, from this monastery. This dwelling, this monastery, should not be inhabited by these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons. There is consent of the Sangha, therefore they are silent; thus do I hold it.
     A senior monk visiting from Yangon, my two three-day temporary disciples, two young women (including the girlfriend of one of the temporary monks), and I went to the new monastery grounds, some chairs were set up in the middle of the field near the center of the property, and the senior monk and I chanted the formal act while the others listened. Then we got back into the van and were driven to one corner of the property. No chairs were set up this time, as the senior monk decided it was too cold outside; so we sat in the van, with the young ladies waiting outside, and chanted the act of expulsion again. Then we drove as far into another corner as the bushes would allow and chanted it again. Then again in the two other corners, and one more time at a seemingly random location. Then we went inside the main building and chanted it one last time in front of the altar---a total of seven times.
     A while back I was told the opinion that monks are "performance artists," implying, I assume, that we do bogus ceremonies (among other things) for the sake of fooling gullible Buddhist laypeople into thinking we have special abilities. But this formal act was insisted upon by a monk, for the sake of monks; so can he be called a performance artist if he believes in it himself? My guess is that since he was going to stay at the new place alone for a few days he wanted to make sure there were no monsters that might get him in his vulnerable position. Burmese monasteries in America are usually more like Burma than America.
     Some more examples of this tendency are: much more Burmese is spoken than English; much more Burmese food is eaten than any other kind; and almost all of the visitors are Burmese, or at least South Asian. The only Euro-Americans to come to the place while I was there, aside from me, were the mates, and one mother-in-law, of Burmese women. Plus maybe a guy reading the electric meter or something.
     Most of the time I spent alone in my room, sometimes meditating, sometimes reading, sometimes meeting visitors, sometimes sleeping, and spending lots of time messing around on this computer. Every once in a while, especially on weekends, the monks would be invited to the homes of Burmese people to chant protection chants, deliver the refuges and precepts, preach sermons, conduct water-pouring ceremonies for the sharing of merit, and receive alms. I was almost always the only person of European ancestry present at such functions, and English was seldom spoken. In addition to a meal, the monks were also offered envelopes of money, whereupon one of the senior monks would inform the generous donors not to offer me any as I don't touch the stuff. I was the always the only monk who didn't accept an envelope, although I still consented to someone accepting it on my behalf to be applied to the cost of my plane ticket. Technically, it is against the rules for a monk even to consent to money being donated on his behalf, but that is so extreme that few monks I know of, even relatively strict ones, bother to follow it. I decided long ago, however, that if I can't live without handling it myself I would drop out of the monkhood, and I've managed for more than twenty years to get along fine without owning money. But I digress.
     A good person in Canada who likes what I write offered a train ticket, so I gratefully took advantage of the generous windfall to spend time with a few dear ones back in Bellingham during the big holidays---the winter solstice (i.e. the end of the Mayan calendar), and Christmas. I spent most of my time as an honored guest of the Zawoysky family, Steve, Wendy, and two-year-old Olivia; and I wonder sometimes that people invite me, a relatively strange person, into their homes as generously as they do. Possibly even more wondrous was that Steve wanted to drive me all the way back to Fremont in his car. So we did a road trip together very different than the one I did with my friend Wayne a month earlier.

Olivia Z. and me, at Christmas time

     Instead of staying at hostels, friends' houses, and communal farms we slept "in style" at nice hotels, and ate in style too. At one restaurant in Portland, Oregon I reportedly received several incredulous scowls from the man sitting behind me, and a lady at the next table took my picture. 
     Steve wanted to do some snowboarding on the trip, so we wound up at two ski resorts also. I was the only person at the Mount Shasta resort wearing flip-flops in the snow, and no jacket. I didn't ski, but hung out in the lodge reading Sun Tzu's The Art of War, where I received more stares and had my picture taken again. The next morning I did a little wandering around in approximately 0o F (-18o C) weather, which is the coldest I've managed in traditional monk's attire. I had already started wearing sandals by then, as I figured shoes might be required at nice restaurants. It's against the rules for monks (we're not allowed to wear shoes in public unless we're unwell), but possibly required nevertheless. Wearing thick denim robes instead of the standard light tropical stuff helps me to go without shirts, sweaters, thermal underwear, etc. without also freezing to death in the temperate zone.
     After one more week at Kusalakari, I got on the plane to cross the ocean. It is strange that I have felt almost no excitement about this trip; one day before liftoff I felt a little bit of a rush at the thought of my impending return to tropical Asia, but it passed quickly. Lately I've been in a state which might be called spiritual numbness, although I don't actually feel numb. Good books don't impress me, music doesn't impress me---I remain unmoved by just about anything, even when I know that it should be great, and would be considered great by me at other times. I've come to Burma with little more excitement than if I had simply walked across the street. It may be equanimity, but I suppose indifference would be the more explanatory word. Last winter when I came back I immediately came down with a case of the willies: I felt like I was returning to a place that I had escaped from only with difficulty. It lasted only a day or two however, and before long I deeply appreciated the opportunity to recharge my spiritual batteries, as my friend Damon puts it. America can take a lot out of a guy.
      I spent the night at the Taipei airport, where they have a very nice transit lounge for crashing without money. They also have a prayer room, or rather three prayer rooms, one for Muslims, one for Buddhists, and one for Christians. The Buddhist room had a painting of the Buddha on the wall, flanked by two Bodhisattvas, at least one of them being Kwan Yin (the two looked almost identical). The Christian room had a Slavic-looking icon on the wall. The Muslim room of course had no pictures. I meditated in the Buddhist one; and I was apparently the only person in any of the three rooms at the time. It was very early in the morning though.
     When I arrived at the Yangon Airport I suddenly became of high social status again: I was asked to go through the immigration line for diplomats, and when I put my iron bowl on the conveyor belt for the x-ray security screening, an official just smiled and handed it back to me. I was met by Damon and Stacy, two American dear friends who have been living long term in this country. It feels good hanging out with them here. Even though I'm still in Yangon, the biggest city in the country by far, there is still less tension in the air than I am used to, and more peace.
     Myanmar is changing fast though; for example there are probably about twice as many cars on the streets of Yangon as there were just a few years ago, resulting in the most messed-up traffic I've ever seen without an accident causing it. Also there seems to be smog now.
     Another difference is the accelerating Westernization of attitude, which, like just about everything else, has its bright side and its dark side. As a small example of the dark side, yesterday when Damon and I were walking to the Australian Club to meet some people, a fancy, new-looking Mercedes drove by with three young Burmese guys in it. One of them shouted out of the car window at me, in English, "Don't wear that, motherf____!" referring to my monk robes; then they stopped and waited for me to pass, and the same guy yelled, "Take that off!" On the way from the airport I saw a sight I would never have seen in Burma fifteen years ago: a Burmese girl wearing a miniskirt and orange hair. Buddhism among the younger generation in the city seems to be losing its effect. Soon I head for the country though, where life is pretty much the same as it ever was.  
        
The Shwedagon Pagoda at Night













Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Simile of the Block of Marble


     Imagine, if you like, a block of marble resting in the midst of a barren plain. Since there is nobody and nothing around with which to compare it, we may consider its size to be quite arbitrary. Now, contained within that uncarved block of marble, in virtual form, is every statue that has ever been carved---the Venus de Milo is there, both with and without arms, Laocoön and his sons being strangled by snakes, Michelangelo's David, the plump, effeminate-looking Buddha that sits on the altar in my cave in Burma, etc. etc. Every molecule of stone required for the composition of each statue is already there, already in exactly the correct position; all that would be required to manifest a certain statue would be to remove the extraneous rock. But each statue is already there, completely, in potential or virtual form. Not only is every statue that has ever been carved in there, but every statue that ever could be carved is in there. In fact, an infinite number of statues that could not possibly be carved are in there also, for example, Myron's Discus Thrower with legs as thin as hairs; if it were carved it would immediately collapse, but it's there just the same, and just as real as the others. That one sizeless block of marble contains a literally infinite variety of equally real statues, or "images," one superimposed upon the other; but at the same time it is nothing more than a block of completely homogeneous rock. 
     Now instead of a block of marble let us imagine a sizeless, dimensionless point or field of infinite energy. (The closest analogy to this in modern Science might be the Big Bang singularity at the very instant the explosion begins, or maybe a black hole---I don't know.) Contained within this infinite mass of formless energy, in virtual form, is every possible configuration of energy, an infinite variety of stable ones and an infinite variety of unstable ones; but at the same time it is really just formless, infinite energy. It may be that an infinite number of these energy patterns are complex enough and reflexive enough to be self-conscious to some degree. (It seems pretty likely to me that what psychologists call "mind" is just a complexified, organized, and finely-tuned form of what physicists call "energy," and that what physicists call "energy" is just an elemental form of what psychologists call "mind": Consciousness=mc2.) We would then have the virtual existence of every possible mental state, an infinite variety of images and experiences, including what I am experiencing now and what you are experiencing now. Self-conscious, perceptual energy patterns might mistakenly attribute a distinct, intrinsic reality to themselves, or to part of themselves, seeing only what their virtual limitations allow them to see, and being oblivious to their true nature of undifferentiated Infinity. It seems to me that only (virtual) perception could make this (virtual) mistake. Bare sensations, along with physical matter, would remain merged in the sea, or dimensionless point, of Infinity, because they would lack the (virtual) wherewithal to mistakenly differentiate themselves. Perception is Samsara.
     The Great Paradox is that the aforementioned infinite, absolute, undifferentiated energy, or consciousness, or Everything, is completely indistinguishable, perceptually or otherwise, from infinite, absolute, undifferentiated Emptiness or Nothing, and is thus practically identical to it. The only Western philosopher I'm familiar with who has seriously addressed this idea is Hegel. (I consider his philosophy to be nonsense in many respects, and reading his Phenomenology of Spirit was the most horrible ascetic practice I've ever done as a monk, but this part of his philosophy is, in my opinion, really good.) In an analysis of Hegel's Logic in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, the Hegelian scholar J. N. Findlay says:
Pure being, we are told at the beginning of the dialectic, claims to be the absolute opposite of mere nothing, the absolute absence of any sort of being. It cannot, however, substantiate this claim, since both notions are so void of determinate content that they melt without trace into each other. Only when the notion of Bestimmtheit (determinateness) is added to that of mere being, can the claim to other than mere nothing be substantiated or be more than a mere claim.
     Just as size is purely relative, being dependent upon comparison with something else (at least with marks on a measuring stick), so is existence itself purely relative. Despite the unawareness or disdain of most Westerners and Western philosophers concerning this point, the identity of absolute Everything and absolute Nothing is a recurrent theme among the various schools of Mysticism, and appears to be represented to some degree in modern Science---for example, the notorious Casimir effect seems to indicate that empty space contains both zero energy and infinite energy: the math works out both ways. This absolute, undifferentiated Everything/Nothing may be what the Mahayana Buddhists call "Dharmakāya," "Ultimate Source," "One Mind," and much else besides, what the Vedantists call "Brahman," what the Tao Te Ching calls "Tao" (and also, interestingly, "the uncarved block"), what some religious mystics call "God," and what I might be inclined to call in Pali "nibbānadhātu," the element of Nirvana. So the Universe must contain absolute everything in order for it to be nothing at all (and the apparent existence of this world is the greatest miracle and paradox of all); and what we are is essentially a kind of falsely differentiated voidness.
     Thus, according to this point of view, the answer to the question "Why do I exist?" or "Why does this or that happen?" is simply, "Because it is possible." Everything that possibly can exist or happen must exist or happen (if not in this version of reality, then in another) in order for the Universe to be infinite enough to arise from Nothing. Thus we do not have to do spiritual practice in order for God to develop through us and become infinite, or self-conscious, or any such thing. Everything already necessarily exists. As Spinoza said, God is completely free because It contains within Itself all possibilities.
     The theory also conveniently answers the question of why the universe bothers to exist in the first place.
     But what, you may well ask, causes this "falsely differentiated voidness" to seem so real, stable, and intricately interrelated? The answer to that, my friend, is Dependent Co-arising (in Pali, paicca-samuppāda). But I won't attempt to explain that here. Even the Buddha couldn't explain that effectively, and according to legend almost remained silent and didn't teach Dhamma because he figured nobody would understand that one idea.
     Of course, this philosophizing is rubbish. I seriously doubt that Gotama Buddha would endorse such speculative metaphysical ranting and raving as what I have just produced, except, I suppose, for the Dependent Co-arising part. (In the standard list of the various types of horizontally-moving "animal talk" that monks should not indulge in, the last one is talk of "whether things are or are not real.") We would no doubt be better off if we were sitting in meditation right now, or even just mindfully clipping our toenails. Even so, it is possible occasionally to salvage something useful from rubbish. At the very least one may be reminded that things are not necessarily as they seem, and that there is more than one possible way of accounting for our experience of this world---and the above account, especially the part about an infinite variety of virtual realities being differentiated from one undifferentiated ultimate one, appears at least as logically self-consistent and explanatory as any other, including orthodox Scientism. And if this interpretation of Reality is valid, then the implications and ramifications are literally infinite. Also, remembering "The Simile of the Block of Marble" causes me to experience somewhat less vertigo when I come across such passages in Mahayana Buddhist texts as: 

     "Form is emptiness; the very emptiness is form." (---Heart Sutra)

     "What is is the same as what is not;
     What is not is the same as what is…" (---Hsin Hsin Ming)

     "…there are no two such things as existence and non-existence." (---The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation) 

     Even orthodox Theravada, committed as it is to the ultimate reality of physical matter, contains within its ancient texts statements that the duality of existence and non-existence is only relative. In fact the Buddhist theory of everything, i.e. Dependent Co-arising, may have been originally based upon this idea. It all goes to show that we should never be too sure of ourselves, or of our beliefs, or of anything really.

(Laocoön and his sons being constricted by snakes)



APPENDIX: A Little More Heady Stuff from Findlay
It is plain, in fact, that although this notion of mere entity purports to be something wholly different from the opposed notion of absolute nonentity or nothing, it affords no purchase for this distinction....As metaphysical abstractions, the two notions are indistinguishable; we must therefore progress to some notion not so metaphysically abstract. Such a notion Hegel first finds in "becoming," a notion that arises dialectically when we reflect on the transition between our two previous notions....But the dialectical commentator finds logical instability as well as emptiness in this latter notion, and accordingly passes to the stabler notion of "being determinate" (or Dasein), a being thought of as one with a certain quality or determination, and which pertains to a Something set off by its quality from otherwise qualified somethings....That which is, if it is to be conceived at all, must manifest qualitative contrast.... 
Being determinate is now said by Hegel to lead on to an "infinite qualitative progression"....Each determinate entity seems to be of the quality it is without regard to the qualities that other determinate entities exhibit. The dialectical observer sees, however, that each qualified entity depends for its quality on the other qualified entities which hem it in and show it up, and that it has, in a sense, these others within itself, as conditions of its own determinateness. (---ibid.)