Saturday, March 30, 2013

...And One of My Teachers Was a Wild Chicken



     My father often lamented that after helping me to acquire a university education I wound up becoming literally a penniless beggar. My degree in Biology has helped me to be a monk, however; in fact Biology and Buddhism have one very important characteristic in common: they are both the study of life. The main difference herein is that Biology studies it from the outside and Buddhism, if it is practiced and not just followed dogmatically, studies it from the inside. One of the main spiritual advantages I've gotten from having a degree in Biology is that I see much of human behavior, and my behavior in particular, as deeply conditioned by reflexes and animal instincts.
     I think it is scandalous that throughout the 20th century most psychologists, who supposedly should know the human mind better than anybody, were of the opinion that human beings are without animal instincts. Some would admit that babies have a suckling instinct, and that they also instinctively know how to swim, but still these were considered to be anomalous vestiges, and we humans were confidently declared to have replaced instinct with culture and reason.
     Yet it seems to me that we are chock full of instincts, and recent cognitive science seems to corroborate this. I don't think it is purely cultural, something to be learned completely from society, that boys like girls, girls like babies, babies like sweet food better than sour or bitter, we smile when pleased, laugh when amused, frown when displeased, and run or freeze when scared---etc. etc. 
     Living in Burmese forests gave me plenty to study, outwardly and inwardly, with regard to Biology. For example, Burma being a tropical country, there were lots of small, many-legged creatures to watch. I noticed, for instance, that there are several species that mimic ants---I saw at least two species of spider, two species of beetle, and a kind of wingless wasp that all resembled ants (because ants are very acidic, and most insect-eaters don't like to eat them, so looking like an ant reduces the odds of being eaten). I consider it very likely, though, that none of these imitation ants realize that they actually resemble ants.
     Also I saw lots of strange butterflies, many of which looked backwards: that is, they were shaped in such a way that the head end looked like the tail end, and vice versa. Many had an eyespot on the backs of their hind wings and tendril-like extensions sticking back that looked like antennae. The backwards butterfly would sit there rubbing its hind wings together slightly to draw attention to its wiggling "antennae." (The survival value of this is that a predator is likely to go for the wrong end of the butterfly, missing the head and just breaking off the back part of the wings, allowing the rest of the butterfly, sometimes, to escape.) But it's a pretty safe bet that not a single one of these butterflies knew that it looked backwards, or knew why it was rubbing its hind wings together. 
     Once long ago I was sitting under a tree in a Burmese forest during the dry season, and a breeze was blowing, causing dry, brown leaves to flutter down from above. In the corner of my eye I noticed that one leaf fluttered upward and stuck to a large boulder. Its unusual movement drew my attention and I looked at it: it was a dry leaf stuck in a spiderweb and fluttering in the breeze…until I looked more closely. Then I saw that it wasn't a leaf at all, but a butterfly mimicking a dead leaf, holding onto the boulder with only one foreleg in order to flutter and twist just like a dead leaf stuck in a cobweb. Probably no hungry bird or lizard would have looked at it twice. It struck me at the time that the butterfly had absolutely no idea why it was holding the boulder with only one leg, or that it even looked like a dead leaf. It just did it.
     But insects are pretty mindless creatures; an insect's "brain" may have only a few hundred neurons. This could be called mindless, mechanical reflex, not instinct.
     I also observed frogs. One thing I noticed is that when a frog is caught by a snake it often squeals, but if caught by a bird it rarely does so, and if caught by a human it never does (as far as I've heard). I figure the reason is that, first of all, it takes a while for a snake to swallow a frog: it has to maneuver the frog around so it can swallow it head first, which the frog tries to prevent; and also there is the complication of the frog gulping air and inflating itself like a balloon to make it bigger and harder to swallow. It squeals to draw attention to itself---and to the snake---during this sometimes prolonged struggle. A larger predator may hear the squeals and come to check out the situation, and sometimes the startled snake lets go of the frog to save itself. Presumably the strategy allows the frog to get away from the snake, and from whatever the sound attracts, only a small percentage of the time; but it works well enough with snakes that it has evolved into instinctive behavior. I know from my own experience that it saves a frog now and then, because sometimes the squeals would attract a weird American monk who wanted to see what kind of snake was there, sometimes startling the snake so that it released the frog. The frogs, however, really don't know that they are strategizing in the case of snakes. It just happens that when they're caught by a snake they very much feel like making noise and gulping air, but when caught by a bird or cat they don't. They don't know why they feel this way, or even care. But a frog is also a pretty stupid animal, with presumably rudimentary perceptual powers, and its behavior may not seem very applicable to humans who want to understand themselves and their own behavior.
     But birds are getting closer to humanity in their capacity to be perceptually aware of their surroundings; and I watched plenty of birds also. One of the most common birds in the forests of Burma is the red jungle fowl, the ancestor of the domesticated chicken. They are smaller than common barnyard chickens but larger than bantams, and they fly like pheasants---it is a strange sight to see a flock of chickens flying over the treetops. (I suppose the reason domesticated chickens don't like to fly so much is that all the ones that liked to fly flew away, leaving behind the more ground-loving chickens to pass on their ground-loving genes to their progeny. Consequently, sometimes a chicken will ridiculously try to outrun a dog instead of simply flying up into a tree.) The wild roosters all look pretty much the same, like the standard little red rooster, rather like a brown leghorn, with glossy green-black tail feathers, golden hackles, and lots of orange and red on the wings and body; the hens all look the same also, an earthy yellowish color with a lacy pattern like a partridge. They seem to be more intelligent than barnyard chickens, and have a more varied "language." For example, the chicks (which also all look the same, light brown with a darker brown racing stripe) are able to fly by eight or ten days of age, and the mother hen has at least two different alarm calls for them: if the danger is from above, as from a hawk, she gives one call that sends the chicks scurrying under bushes and dead leaves for cover; but if the danger is from below, as from a cat, she gives another call that has the chicks fluttering up into the trees.
     Anyway, I lived for years in a small wildlife refuge where the local king of the wild chickens was a majestic rooster that I named Chickenlord. He was a benevolent and noble bird, truly worthy to be a king, and I actually respected him. I would avoid walking towards him quickly, as it would cause him to behave like an ordinary chicken and run away, and I considered it to be demeaning to the dignity of such a king to run away. I had consideration for his dignity, and liked him very much.
     Once jungle fowl learn what peanuts are they come to especially like them, and I would often keep a jar of peanuts on hand to feed the jungle fowl and squirrels. One day, instead of coming with his flock (as was usually the case during the cold season), or with a little harem of hens (as was generally the case in the mating season), he came alone. I tossed some peanuts on the ground for him, but even though I knew he liked them, he didn't eat any. Instead he started making a crooning sound which in chicken language means "Hey come here, I found something good." But his bevy of hens were too far away to hear it. So, he walked away from the peanuts (which, as I say, he very much liked) and strutted up a hill a little way and crowed. (Red jungle fowl don't give a throaty "cockadoodledoo" like their domesticated brothers; they crow with an abbreviated soprano "cockadoot-doo.") Two or three of his hens came running, whereupon he led them back down to the peanuts, made the "Come here, I found something good" sound again, and even picked up a peanut with his beak and held it out for one of the hens to take.
     I was impressed by this. In a human being that sort of behavior would be called generosity, even gallantry. But in a wild bird it would more likely be called only animal instinct. Obviously, it is to the advantage of a wild rooster to find food for hens; that makes him a "good provider," and when he calls they come running. Then, if he happens to be in a rather different kind of mood, he crows, a hen comes running, and he chases her down and rapes her, thereby passing on his DNA sequences to another generation and making him quite a biological success.
     Anyhow, I began comparing Chickenlord's behavior with my own. I remembered that in the past I used to get a rush of pleasure from giving presents and being sweet to girls that I liked. It really made me feel good, and I felt drawn to doing it. It didn't take much logical deduction for me to arrive at the hypothesis that this behavior (giving things and being sweet to attractive females and feeling good about it) was conditioned by human animal mating instinct---like so much else in the behavior of male/female relationships.
     This is not to say that my behavior, or Chickenlord's behavior, was not generous; it's just that even our generosity and love is conditioned until we get to a stage that completely transcends conditioning and conditions, and I'm not so sure that even a fully enlightened being ever becomes completely unconditioned in his or her behavior.
     Another similar comparison is with regard to a mother's love for her children. Almost the only time I saw red jungle hens behaving in a generous, unselfish way was when they were raising chicks. That's when they would make that same "Hey, I found something good" sound and not simply gobble up the food themselves. They squabbled awfully with each other sometimes, but were nurturing and patient with their own chicks. In wild birds, again, this may be called animal instinct; but the love of a human mother for her child is considered to be something noble, even holy. I think in mainstream humanity the closest to be found to absolute, unconditional love is with a mother and her children. She loves them whether they are beautiful or ugly ("a face only a mother could love"), intelligent or stupid, healthy or sickly, good or bad. In fact a mother may give more love to the ugly, sickly, bad child, knowing deep down that this one is more in need of love. Yet a mother's love for her child is almost certainly also conditioned by animal instinct reinforced by motherhood hormones. Her selfless love is still conditional---she still loves the baby so much on the condition that it is hers. She may adore babies in general (another instinct), but the greatest love is for her own.
     Even if this is true, it doesn't nullify her love, any more than conditioned generosity or gallantry, in a man or in a rooster, is nullified for not being absolutely unconditioned. So long as there is goodness, that goodness will have its positive effects. Conditioned goodness has its conditioned reward, and unconditioned goodness has its unconditioned reward. Small causes produce small effects, big causes produce big effects, and infinite causes instantaneously produce, or rather are the same as, their infinite effects. When one gets to the Unconditioned, cause and effect are transcended. But we animals do the best we can.
     Orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition asserts that animals (non-human ones) usually are incapable of generating good karma; but I have seen too many cases of remarkable goodness in animals, especially dogs, to believe it. Also I've read stories of, for instance, dolphins trying to help harpooned whales and saving humans from drowning. It may be largely instinctive, but I don't see how it matters whether our behavior is conditioned by instinct or by such cultural artificialities as religion. Goodness is still goodness, and there can never be too much of it, regardless of where it comes from. Conditional acceptance is incomplete and temporary, but it is better than no acceptance at all. Even a lecher's lust or a junkie's love for his heroin contain some spark of genuine love, which is a tiny spark of Divinity.
     In conclusion, I would like to recount a traditional Buddhist story of an exception to the rule of animals being incapable of "earning merit": it is a story of a frog that went to heaven. It seems that one time the Buddha was delivering a discourse to a large audience outdoors, and a frog happened to be there. It couldn't understand what the Buddha was saying, but the soothing, resonant sound of his voice as he spoke fascinated the frog, and it listened in rapt attention. Then, suddenly, a shepherd who was also listening moved his sheep-goading stick and accidentally crushed the frog's head with it. The frog at the moment of death was in such an expanded, uplifted state from hearing the voice of a fully enlightened being that at the moment after death it spontaneously reappeared in Tavatimsa Heaven, and became known as Manduka Deva, "The Frog God." ɵ_ɵ


Burmese Red Jungle Fowl
(Some of Chickenlord's Descendents)












Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Cobra


     There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: An eagle flying across the sky, a snake crawling across a rock, a ship finding its way across the sea, and a man and a woman falling in love. (—Proverbs 30:18-19)

     Ever since I was a little boy I have loved snakes. If I am walking through a forest and see a snake – especially if it's a big one – I am overjoyed and spontaneously gush love and blessings to it. This isn't a conscious strategy for protecting myself from them by sending metta, as with the Khandha Sutta (see Appendix). I just genuinely love snakes.
     I'm not entirely sure why this is. I feel that part of the reason is that snakes are beautiful and powerful in a very alien, non-human way, and I like that. It intrigues me. Octopi are the same way, and the octopus is another one of my favorite non-human creatures. For most of my life I have not had a profound love for the human race, and have tended to prefer the company of trees, reptiles, molluscs, etc. That's something I've been working with over the past several years.
     Perhaps another reason for loving snakes is that, assuming that rebirth (a.k.a. reincarnation) happens, I may have been a member, maybe even a priest, of a snake-worshipping cult in some place like prehistoric India. Cobras especially have been venerated religiously; and there are still places on this earth where they are regarded as sacred. It's not difficult to understand why: a king cobra, for example, can grow almost twenty feet (6m) long; when it stands up on its, eh, hind legs it can be more than six feet high, with a spread hood more than a foot wide; and if it bites you, you die. It's no wonder that since prehistoric times all sorts of mysterious superhuman powers have been attributed to them. 
     Judging from the Pali texts, there were such cobra cults in the Buddha's time in northern India. The cobra (nāga) is portrayed in the texts as having approximately human intelligence and the power of human speech, the ability to assume human form at will, the capacity to grow to really immense size, and, interestingly, the ability to breathe fire. I make a wild guess that this fire-breathing trick had its origin in some cobras' ability to spit their venom: spitting deadly, eye-burning poison may have been poetically translated into spitting deadly fire. 
     I also guess, maybe less wildly, that the legends of fire-breathing dragons found across the supercontinent of Eurasia may have had their origin in this kind of cobra-worship, possibly centered in the Indus Valley Civilization, on which ancient Indian culture was largely based, and which apparently had cultural ties with China and the Middle East in prehistoric times. I suspect that some fire-breathing dragons were artificially introduced into medieval Europe by crusaders returning home with souvenirs of Asian culture. (The dragon destroyed by St. George was not a cobra, however: it was in fact none other than St. Athanasius of Egypt, a much saintlier saint than George was – but I digress.)
     Anyway, since my arrival in Burma more than twenty years ago I wanted to see a cobra. I think if I ever came across an eighteen-foot king cobra standing up as tall as I am and looking me right in the eye, and making the wheezing, moaning sounds they make instead of hissing, I'd drop dead of sheer rapture right then and there; it wouldn't even have to bite me. The last word to leave my mouth would be "Cool!" I toyed with an idea that I saw on and old TV show called "Kung Fu"; in it, a Shao Lin Buddhist monk named Kwai Chang is told by his master that when he can snatch a pebble from the master's hand, it will be time for him to leave. Sometimes I would think that seeing a cobra would be the sign that it was time for me to leave Burma.
     But I didn't see one. I saw all kinds of other snakes, including venomous ones: Russell's vipers, banded kraits, some kind of little green viper with a red tail that I met at Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park, and a snake that I assume is a krait which the villagers called a than gwin sut ("iron chain"). I also saw monitor lizards and several species of turtle. But although I lived in cobra country for many years I never saw a wild cobra. In 1999 I was staying at a monastery known to be haunted by at least one large cobra, and once I saw a big, dark-colored snake chasing a pothinyo lizard through the weeds outside my window. I was sorely tempted to run outside and get a better look at it to see if it was in fact a cobra, but I was bathing at the time and had no clothes on. (I was still tempted though.) A few years later a man brought me a little baby one someone had caught in a bucket, because he knew that I wanted to see one, but it just wasn't the same as coming upon a wild one in the forest. I was glad to see it, but still somehow it didn't count.
     It seemed like everyone was seeing cobras except me. An American monk friend of mine stayed in a forest area that he said was "teeming" with cobras – also with leeches and anopheles mosquitoes, although I wasn't eager to see those. I heard of one monk who actually had a cobra crawl over his lap while he was meditating; he wisely continued meditating instead of jumping to his feet in alarm. A Burmese village lady told me that once after visiting me, on her way back to the village, she saw one on the hill above the cave, standing erect with its hood spread. When venerable Iddhidaja's father came to Wun Bo for a visit, on the very first day he claimed to have seen a big black king cobra; venerable Iddhidaja says he's seen it too. And at one point the only other monk who lived at Wun Bo with me was very likely mortally bitten by a cobra (see "The Noble Flight of U Nandiya," posted March 2). The situation reached such a stage that when somebody would come tell me about another cobra they'd seen, I'd be like, "Don't even tell me. I don't want to hear about it." After 18 years in Burma I returned to the USA without having seen a cobra – except for one unverified sighting and a baby one in a bucket that didn't count.
     So on this, my latest trip to Burma, I made a special effort to see one, or maybe more than one. While staying at Wun Bo I went down the hill and bathed at around sundown, and prowled around the lower monastery compound and by the river, when and where they were most likely to be seen. 
     Then on my 11th day there, on February 14th – St. Valentine's Day – which by the Burmese reckoning was also my birthday (i.e. a Thursday), I was outside in front of the upper cave, when two village dogs that came almost every day to eat my leftovers were barking their fool heads off on the hill above the cave. I hollered at them to be quiet, but they paid no attention. Finally I became rather annoyed at their constant noise, and I grabbed a handful of rocks and sand clods and charged up the hill to chase them away. When I got up there I saw that they were intently barking at something in a pile of leaves. At first I thought maybe they were ganging up on another dog; but when I drew closer I beheld, to my unspeakable delight, an Indian spectacled cobra (Naja naja), or in this case a Burmese one, standing up out of the leaves, hood spread, staring down the two hysterically barking dogs. It couldn't have been much more than two feet (60cm) long, certainly less than two and a half, but it was magnificent. It was a dead-leaf brown in color, with the characteristic black and white "spectacle" mark on the back of its hood, and in front two eyespots, one on either side of its throat. I chased the dogs away, partly for the snake's sake and partly for their own, as one of them was poking his nose within a handspan of the snake's head as though he wanted to sniff it. The dogs moved away, and it slowly sank down and disappeared into the leaves. 
     Then I did something that might have some good Burmese villagers throwing fits: I took a stick and stirred the leaves in order to get another look at it. It rose up again with its hood spread, and then silently glided away, still with the front third of its body erect. I was in a state of exultation and gratitude almost continuously for the rest of the day. Sometimes I still get a rush from thinking about it.
     The emotional exhilaration inspired by the sight of that cobra puts it on a relatively short list of other sights I have seen in my life that have had a similar effect on me. A bright starry sky in the mountains, with no air pollution or city lights to obscure the sheer miracle of it; an electrical storm in upper Burma at the end of the hot season, with thunder roaring continuously and the entire sky flashing like a bank of strobe lights from horizon to horizon; a heavy downpour in the desert after weeks or months of no rain (with that heavenly smell, almost like baking bread), bringing life and, to one foreign monk at least, intense joy; a beautiful naked woman, flushed with passion (I've been a celibate monk for a long time, but still I gotta admit…); the raging of a stormy sea from the vantage point of a ship's helm, with the wind screaming and the waves like grey hills moving, the ship climbing up, up, up a huge wave and then Smash! down the other side, green water gushing over the prow, the whole fore end of the ship shimmying as it rises out of the water to ascend the next surging hill; and a really good fireworks display can do it too. In all cases except, I suppose, for the fireworks, the stirring impact is inspired by the stark power and awesome beauty of nature (with, in the case of desert rain and the naked woman, some intense, though temporary, relief through fulfilled desire). I've had many lovely experiences on this most recent trip to Burma, but I think seeing the cobra was the highlight of the whole journey.
     After that day I remained on the lookout, just in case, and the very next day I got the frosting on the cake: not another cobra, but another kind of snake I'd never seen before. It was a speckled water snake swimming in the river, its body compressed and narrow like the body of an eel. 
     So, I have seen the necessary sign; I have snatched the pebble from the master's hand, and don't have to come back to Burma any more. I may come back anyway though.

"I am Nag. The great god Brahm put his mark
upon all our people when the first cobra spread his hood
to keep the sun off Brahm as he slept. Look, and be afraid!"  
Rudyard Kipling, from The Jungle Book

Appendix: The Khandha Sutta

     This text is found in a section (Kandhaka) of the Vinaya Cullavagga, which is said to account for its title; it is also found in the Aguttara Nikāya. According to the story, a monk was bitten by a snake and died, so the Buddha told the Sangha to cultivate mettā by reciting this Sutta. If the Sutta is recited as a protection chant (paritta), even if one is bitten one will not die. So sayeth the Vinaya Pitaka.

     virūpakkhehi me metta
     metta erāpathehi me
     chabyāputtehi me metta
     metta kahāgotamakahi ca

     apādakehi me metta 
     metta dvipādakehi me
     catuppadehi me metta 
     metta bahuppadakehi 

     mā maapādako hisi
     mā ma hisi dvipādako
     mā macatuppado hisi
     mā ma hisi bahuppado

     sabbe sattā sabbe pāā
     sabbe bhūtā ca kevalā
     sabbe bhadrāni passantu
     mā kañci pāpamāgamā

     appamāo Buddho
     appamāo Dhammo
     appamāo Sagho
     pamāavantāni sarīsapāni
     ahi vicchikā satapadī
     uṇṇanābhī sarabū mūsikā

     katā me rakkhā kata me paritta
     paikkamantu bhūtāni
     soha namo bhagavato
     namo sattanasammāsambuddhāna

                                   *   *   *

     With the virūpakkha snakes is my loving-kindness;
     My loving-kindness is with the erāpatha snakes;
     With the chabyāputta snakes is my loving-kindness;
     My loving-kindness is with the kahāgotamaka snakes.

     With legless beings is my loving-kindness;
     My loving-kindness is with two-legged beings;
     With four-legged beings is my loving-kindness;
     My loving-kindness is with many-legged beings.

     Let the legless being not harm me;
     Let me not be harmed by the two-legged being;
     Let the four-legged being not harm me; 
     Let me not be harmed by the many-legged being.

     All beings, all breathing things,
     And all creatures entirely, 
     May all encounter blessings;
     Let them not come to any evil.

     Limitless is the Buddha,
     Limitless is the Dhamma,
     Limitless is the Sangha;
     Limited are crawling things:
     Snakes, scorpions, centipedes,
     Spiders, lizards, and rats.

     Completed is my guard; completed is my chant of protection;
     Let the creatures go away.
     I pay respect to the Blessed One;
     I pay respect to the seven Truly, Fully-Enlightened Buddhas.


A few notes:
     ~The traditional form of the Sutta used as a protection chant in Burma includes two non-canonical introductory verses which are omitted here. Probably most Burmese monks, and many Burmese laypeople, have the whole thing memorized by heart and chant it regularly.
     ~The four kinds of snakes mentioned in the first verse are supposedly named after four nāga kings, although this may not have originally been the case. Virūpakkha literally means "ugly eye," so maybe the name refers to vipers(?). I think I remember reading somewhere that the kahāgotamaka ("dark cow herder") snakes are cobras.
     ~The sarabū mentioned in the fifth verse is allegedly the large house gecko, or tokay gecko, which, however, strikes me as being completely harmless. Venerable Pah Auk Sayadaw has said that the turds of this gecko, if they fall into water, cause the water to become poisonous; and other monks have assured me that they can indeed bite; but I remain skeptical. Perhaps the word refers to a kind of biting or stinging insect? I don't know.
     ~This Sutta belongs to the so-called Core Texts, and so presumably was part of the earliest orthodox Buddhist Canon; yet there are signs showing that the development of the cult of Buddha-worship had already begun – an obvious example being the seven Sammā-Sambuddhas invoked in the very last line of the Discourse. These seven are, at least in the established tradition, the Buddhas of this world cycle, or kappa: Vipassī, Sikhī, Vessabhū, Kakusandha, Koagamana, "our" Buddha Gotama, and the future Buddha Metteyya, who will arise some time after "our" Buddhism disappears from this world. (For a discussion of whether or not it already has disappeared, see "On the 500-Year Lifespan of Buddhism," posted on September 8.) 











     

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Morality and Observances


     In the various spiritual traditions of the world there are differing views on how it is that a person becomes enlightened – or rather on how a person prepares to become enlightened. If these differing views were arranged on a continuum, one extreme would represent the belief that we must, through our own efforts, relentlessly eradicate all impurity, defilement, and delusion in action, speech, and mind, in order to attain Liberation. In other words, it is necessary to be a saint in order to be a sage. The other extreme would represent the idea that all such effort at purification is futile at best, and at worst an actual hindrance to enlightenment. Or in other words, becoming a saint is irrelevant to becoming a sage. Liberation is attained, according to this second theory, by other means, such as Divine Grace, the power of faith, or the very intensity of our desire to Wake Up – or, Liberation is not attained by any process at all, but manifests in accordance with its own mysterious nature. At the former extreme would be Jainism, and also orthodox Theravada Buddhism as expounded by the great commentator ven. Buddhaghosa. At the latter extreme, if we set aside for the sake of simplicity the mystery of Divine Grace, might be found the teachings of such masters as J. Krishnamurti and Paul Lowe. (I don't know if they would be situated all the way at the other end, completely dismissing the value of attempted self-purification, but they come about as close to it as anyone I know of. Maybe U. G. Krishnamurti would come closer still, but I know almost nothing about him.)
     The very fact that Dhamma, the Middle Path, appears to be located at one extreme of a spectrum may already be seen as something of a warning sign. Nevertheless, the trinity of sīla, samādhi, and paññā (morality, concentration, and understanding) is much emphasized in Theravada, and is usually viewed as a linear progression: sīla comes first and leads to samādhi, which in turn leads to paññā. The idea is more developed in the notion that only through purity of morals (sīla-visuddhi) can one possibly attain purity of mind (citta-visuddhi), which is identified with Right Concentration, and only through purity of mind can one possibly attain vimutti, Liberation. The commentarial exegesis on the Discourse on the Simile of the Stagecoaches (M24) gives a monumental, elaborate analysis of the idea of purity of morals leading to purity of mind, leading to purity of view, leading to purity of the overcoming of doubts, leading to… and so on and so forth, all in a linear, temporal sequence. The notion that sīla, samādhi, and paññā may simultaneously dependently co-arise would seem to have some merit: for example it does seem plausible to assume that some wisdom is necessary to want to practice morality in the first place, or that wisdom and the peace of mind deriving from concentration would facilitate virtue. The three might be viewed as a tripod, with each leg holding up the other two. But the traditional emphasis is on systematic cultivation and progression.
     It should be noted that there is some warning in the ancient Pali texts concerning potential danger in morality and observances (sīlabbata). For instance sīlabbata-paramāsa, adherence to morality and observances, is considered to be one of the ten fetters holding one back from Enlightenment. The commentaries, though, almost always define the morality and observances so dangerous to adhere to as the arguably silly ancient Indian ascetic practices of imitating the behavior of dogs or cattle – going about naked on all fours, never speaking, sleeping outdoors on the bare ground, eating without the assistance of one's hands, etc. This would appear to leave the door wide open to adhering to less ridiculous, more serious codes of conduct.


Diogenes, one of the first Western canine ascetics

     But consider the following discourse, the Paramaṭṭhaka Sutta, in the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta (which, incidentally, is one of my very favorite Suttas in the Pali Canon), which mentions morality and observances several times:

     EIGHT-VERSED DISCOURSE ON THE ULTIMATE

     Abiding in views, thinking “It is the ultimate,”
     A person makes out one in the world to be outstanding; 
     Therefore he says that all others are “inferior.”
     Thus he has not passed beyond contentions.

     Whatever advantage he sees for himself
     In the seen, in the heard, in morality and observances, or in the felt, 
     He having seized upon that very thing there
     Views all others to be inferior.

     But adept ones call that a tie
     Dependent upon which he views another to be inferior.
     So upon the seen, the heard, or the felt,
     Or upon morality and observances a mendicant would not depend.

     Also he would not conceive a view in the world
     Based on knowledge or also morality and observances. 
     He would not present himself as equal,
     Nor would he imagine to be inferior, or superior.

     Having abandoned what was acquired, not taking up anything, 
     He would not be in dependence even upon knowledge.
     He truly is not a partisan among the schoolmen;
     He does not fall back on any view at all.

     For whom there is no intent here for either extreme,
     For this or that existence, here or hereafter,
     For him there are no entrenchments
     Seized, having discriminated, from among the philosophies.

     By him, here, in the seen, the heard, or the felt, 
     There is not contrived even the slightest perception. 
     That holy man not adopting a view—
     By what here in the world would one judge him?

     They conceive nothing, they set nothing before them;
     Also, no philosophies are received by them.
     A holy man is not to be led on by morality and observances. 
     Gone to the other shore, one who is such does not fall back.

Consider also this succulent verse from the Discourse to Māgandhiya, also of the Aṭṭhakavagga, describing how one opens oneself to Enlightenment:

     Not by what is viewed, not by what is heard, not by knowledge
          (Māgandiya, said the Blessed One),
     Nor by morality and observances is morality said to be;
     By absence of what is viewed, by absence of what is heard, by non-knowledge,
     By amorality, by nonobservance – also not by that.
     So having let go of these, not taking hold of anything,
     A peaceful one, not being dependent, would not have longings for existence.

And also consider these two verses from the Great Discourse on Tactical Deployment (or on Dispositions), from the same group of texts:

     If he is fallen away from his morality and observances
     He is agitated, having failed in his action;
     He longs 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.

     Although the commentaries stubbornly persist in equating the above-mentioned morality and observances with the imitation of dogs and cattle, it is fairly obvious that phenomena much more subtle and much more widespread are involved. Morality and observances are mentioned along with the seen, the heard, the felt, knowledge, and beliefs in general. The idea seems to be that we shouldn't cling to or rely on anything, including moral codes and ideals of virtue – or their absence.
     The Aṭṭhakavagga, from which the quoted verses were extracted, is a very considerable source of information on Dhamma. The text is so ancient that some modern scholars have offered the opinion that it is pre-Buddhistic in origin, and was adopted as authoritative by early Buddhists despite its problematic unorthodoxy. I consider it more likely that the Aṭṭhakavagga represents a large fragment – apparently the largest fragment still in existence – of primitive, pre-orthodox, pre-systematized, pre-Theravada Buddhism, and thus that its message comes closest temporally to the teachings of Gotama Buddha than any other largish text in the Pali Canon. And thus, potentially at least, it may be the most fundamentally important document in all of Buddhist literature. (Which is one reason why I refer to it so often.)
     If this is the case, then it seems probable that the original teachings of the Buddha, in certain respects at least, more closely resemble those of the Madhyamaka philosophy of Mahayana, the Krishnamurtis, Paul Lowe, and even (although I hesitate to say it) Paul of Tarsus – "The letter killeth, the Spirit maketh alive" – than the teachings of ven. Buddhaghosa and established Theravadin tradition. Hence moral codes and ideals, let alone mere amoral observances like shaving one's head at least once every two months or wearing robes made of cloth cut and sewn in accordance to a prescribed pattern, would be ultimately irrelevant to the Holy Life.
     An obvious objection arises: What about Vinaya, the ancient Buddhist monastic code? Wasn't it established by the Buddha himself? Isn't it the first part of the Tipitaka because it was considered to be the most important by the monks at the First Council? According to tradition, so long as monastic discipline still exists, Buddhism still exists, and no longer.
     In the Pali texts themselves there are two distinct traditions explaining the origin of Vinaya. The most well-known tradition is that the Buddha himself laid down each rule as the occasion for it arose. Thus every single rule was decreed by the Buddha himself, including the detailed regulations concerning how robes should be sewn, the use of the toilet, the allowable length of one's fingernails and nostril hair, and much, much more besides. Some of the stories of how the Buddha came to establish certain rules seem obviously to be contrived after the fact, for the purpose of lending his great authority to their existence as authoritative.
     The other tradition is found in the canonical history of the First Great Council, recorded in the Cullavagga of the Vinaya Piaka. The story goes that after the Buddha's death many of the monks, understandably, were grieving. Then an old monk who was nevertheless recently ordained told them, essentially, "Hey, why all the long faces? Now we don't have Venerable Gotama telling us 'Do this, Don't do that' all the time. Now we can do as we please!" Venerable Mahā Kassapa, who was the Buddha's successor as senior monk in the Sangha, heard the remark and, although he was fully enlightened, was alarmed. So he promptly decided to convene a Great Council for the purpose of establishing a systematic monastic code, so that Buddhism would not collapse into mediocrity, instability, chaos, and an early demise. There are further hints along these lines in a narrative in which a monk asks the Buddha why the systems established by previous Buddhas hadn't lasted very long. The answer was that those previous Buddhas had not established monastic codes for their monk-disciples to follow. The implication between the lines is that Buddhas tend not to lay down formalized codes of conduct.
     It is very likely that the Buddha did give moral advice to his disciples: Don't tell lies, Don't mess around with women, Don't make a business out of Dhamma, exchanging wisdom, or a semblance of wisdom, for material gain, etc. This sort of advice is found even in the radical no-rules Aṭṭhakavagga. But I consider it unlikely that he would deliver a mandate that performing such and such action entails the violation of such and such rule, of such and such category, to be expiated by performance of such and such ritual. I hypothesize, and I share this hypothesis with others, that the purpose of the First Council was to formulate such a code of rules – probably the Pātimokkha (the central list of precepts) not including the Sekhiya rules at the end (which, unlike the rest of the Pātimokkha, varies widely among the ancient schools of Indian Buddhism), plus probably some protocols for ordination procedure, and so forth. A formalized system based on the Buddha's discourses (Suttanta) may also have been worked out; but another name for the First Council is the Vinaya Sagīti, "the Convocation on Monastic Discipline," and Discipline was apparently its main issue. 
     By pointing out this stuff I'm really not implying that ordained bhikkhus should not follow the ancient rules of monastic discipline. By volunteering to undergo ordination a person is ipso facto volunteering to enter an established system of monastic discipline, the very act of ordination itself being necessarily in accordance with Vinaya. Ordination is essentially an entrance into Vinaya. So, so long as one is ordained, one is obligated to follow the rules if he is able, or at the very least to expiate his transgressions of the rules in accordance with the established rules for doing so. If one does not want to follow these ancient regulations, then one is not required to be ordained – which does not necessarily mean one would consequently live a worldly, self-indulgent life. One could still renounce the world, along with all systematic traditions, and wander homeless with no official status whatsoever. This path would certainly more closely resemble the state of bhikkhus in the Buddha's time; but most of us lack the courage, commitment, and faith to make such a radical renunciation.
     Even so, this sort of courage, commitment, and faith in Dhamma/Dharma may be essential to successfully living the Holy Life. It may simply be, regardless of all dualities like purity/impurity, virtue/vice, or even success/failure, that we have to be totally intent on Waking Up, in each moment, and willing to do whatever it takes, no matter what. Paul of Tarsus seems to have had the idea, and J. Krishnamurti seems to have agreed with him, that if we have this total intentness on being as conscious, or as close to God, as possible, then we will spontaneously, naturally do what is appropriate to that, regardless of traditions, public opinion, or rules in books. Sadly, St. Paul could not foresee what effect abolishing Mosaic Law would have: he turned Christianity into a popular, mainstream religion, and with the very same stroke doomed Christianity at large to spiritual lukewarmness and mediocrity. Most people just don't have the total intentness successfully to transcend mundane formalities. They do not "die to the world," as he called it.
     The lifestyle of Buddhist monks in very ancient times pretty much ensured that they would be very intent on Waking Up – the whole-hearted renunciation involved in wandering around homeless and penniless in a spiritual yet predominantly non-Buddhist environment probably did much to separate the sheep from the goats from the very get-go. But Buddhism also became a popular mainstream religion.
     A handy rule of thumb is that any established tradition is bound to be rife with lukewarmness and mediocrity. This includes Asian monastic traditions, Evangelical Christianity, the New Age, and the "elite" Vipassana movement of the West. It's simply a matter of human nature and the law of statistical averages: a mainstream is bound to be mediocre, and even a majority within a subcultural tradition will be relatively mediocre, spiritually and otherwise. If there is a movement with an enlightened teacher who is still alive, or if the movement is going through a phase of great vitality and inspiration (which does happen sometimes), then it may be advisable to follow along. But once a movement settles into dogmatism, or once it conforms to worldly values, which includes political correctness, then it is spiritually and essentially Dead on Arrival.
     Buddhism, and Christianity too, began as movements of renunciation of Society, that many-headed monster that Swami Vivekananda used to call The False God. And that's really what is still required, if not physically, then at least mentally.



Burmese monks making confession before
participating in a formal act of the Sangha









Saturday, March 9, 2013

Caffeine Guilt

     For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. (Romans 7:19:20)


     Don't worry—I'm not going to say that good Buddhists shouldn't drink coffee.

     Years ago there were times when I would feel anxious and ill at ease in the afternoon. It felt as though my conscience were bothering me about something I had done recently. Being of an introspective nature, I would often psychoanalyze myself to try to find out what was bothering me. "What was it that happened this morning? It must be something." As Ravi, a monastery attendant of long ago, used to say, When the morning is ugly, the whole day is ugly.

     For a monk, alms round, his trip into the village to obtain his daily bowl of food, provides the richest opportunities for troublesome experiences, as the village is "where the action is," so to speak. So, I would review my experiences on alms round, endeavoring to remember what put me into such a nervous mood. Sometimes I would actually come up with something: "Ah, it must be because I was looking down that girl's blouse when she was bowing down to me," or "Oh, it must be because I was irritated when that old lady poured soup right on top of my piece of cake. That must be it." Then suddenly it would strike me: "Nawww….wait a minute! It was those four packets of instant coffee I drank today!" I called it Caffeine Guilt.

     Once I realized that the anxious feelings were simply a case of sensitivity to caffeine, I could let it go. The nervous sensations didn't disappear, but I no longer felt the need to take them seriously. It wasn't me at all, it was just a visiting chemical temporarily affecting the system. No problem.

     This in itself could be called a genuine insight, as I had learned to detach mindfully from a certain kind of unpleasant feeling; but what I learned subsequently was more important. I found that I was able to detach in exactly the same way from feelings of genuine anxiety. After all, the feelings were essentially the same. By detaching from the feelings they don't necessarily go away, but at least one stops identifying with them, or taking them too seriously. This is good, especially from a Buddhist point of view, not only because of the idea of No Self, but also because feelings of anxiety, worry, guilt, or remorse (all called kukkucca in Pali) are considered to be unskillful, or "bad karma," and generally make the situation worse than it already is. They add more negativity to the mess, assuming that there is a mess already. If one is to experience scruples of conscience, one does well to experience them before one does the deed, and not afterward. Then it is called hiri, and is skillful, or "good karma," especially if it actually prevents one from taking the last cookie, kicking the dog, or whatever.

     This is one of the teachings of Buddhism that I have really taken to heart, sometimes to the exasperation of others. I rarely feel sorry for what I have done, even if it was a mistake, and consequently I rarely say "I'm sorry." Civilized society may require it, but to say it would be untrue and, for me at least, dishonest. This is sometimes a complication in the West. But I'm not sorry.

     There really is no use in crying over spilled milk—although it does make sense to clean up the milk as well as one can, if appropriate, and to become more careful about not spilling milk. On the other hand, if one's "misdeed" is nothing more than an act of political incorrectness or failing to live up to someone's unrealistic expectations, then one might as well just keep doing it.

     I consider this ability to detach from feelings and mental states to be possibly the greatest benefit I have received from my years as a Dhamma-practicing Buddhist monk. I've received plenty of other benefits too, of course; for example I've stayed out of trouble, more or less, and have a much deeper (but still uncertain) understanding of such notions as karma and the illusory nature of Samsara. But being able, to some degree at least, not to identify with my mentality (let alone my body) is truly invaluable. (To be able to disidentify from one's mentality by temporarily stopping the mental process is also invaluable, but much more difficult to accomplish for most people in the West, that part of the world being a veritable carnival of distractions and agitations.)

     Really, anything you can observe is not you; because you, if you are anything at all, are the observer, not the thing or process being observed. Right? So if you can observe your name, you know your name is not you. If you can observe your hand, you know your hand is not you. If you can observe your anger, you know your anger is not you. And if you can observe your fear, you know your fear is not you. And because it is not you, it's not entirely under your control, either. There's no need to take it too seriously.

     A typical case in point occurred yesterday afternoon: I went to the monastery bath house to take a bath. Unlike most Burmese people, I prefer to bathe naked, so I go in mid afternoon because other monks usually don't bathe then, and I can close the door. But yesterday another monk was bathing when I got there, so I waited outside. But he seemed to be dawdling in there; he was taking a long time. (Maybe he was shaving his head or something. I don't know.) Having to wait for people has been a lifelong pet peeve for me, so after a while I noticed irritation arising…then resentment toward the dawdling monk…then some critical, spiteful thoughts directed at him. However, instead of believing these thoughts and feelings, regarding that monk to be a no-good so-and-so, or whatever, I acknowledged that silly mental states were arising, based on cause and effect and years, maybe lifetimes, of adding momentum to unskillful habits ("bad karma"). Eventually the venerable monk finished his business, came out and hung up his bathing robe to dry, and went away, and I went in and took a bath, the impatience and resentment not lasting much longer than they took to arise in the first place. In all likelihood that monk is a good person; and I take longer than necessary in the bath house too. This kind of thing happens all the time. What arose near the bath house is obvious and relatively easy; more subtle states are a more advanced game. Everyday life is Dhamma practice.

     By the way, I'm writing this buzzed on three packets of Coffee King, plus one cup of straight black Nescafé.








Unimportant Appendix: Ironically, even though I really like coffee, I went for many years without drinking it. This is because every time I would drink coffee (but never when I drank water or other beverages) I would experience an intense, jabbing pain in my eye. Finally, out of a desire to drink coffee again, I went to a doctor about the situation; and after explaining the jabbing pain in my eye whenever I drank the stuff, he knew exactly what the problem was, and cured me of it immediately. All he said was that I should take the spoon out of the cup before I start drinking. He was a very good doctor, and only charged $200.






Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Noble Flight of U Nandiya



     While I am staying here at Wun Bo, I suppose it would be appropriate for me to compose a tribute to my old friend U Nandiya. This is a very long one, but, I hope, worth reading.
     When I first moved into this place the only other person living here was U Nandiya. I considered his name to be possibly auspicious, as it was also the Pali name of the late venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw, the founder of the tradition in which I was ordained. He was in his early 70's, I think, and his face was dark brown and very wrinkled, like a dried apple, and he had maybe eight or ten teeth in his entire head. He gave me a cheerful welcome, and I moved into the cave on the hill, while he lived in a wooden cabin with no windows down by the river, about a four-minute walk from my place.
     He had lived in various parts of Burma, but his native village was Wun Bo, about half a mile away. He had seven or eight grown children, some in the village, some in the nearby city of Monywa. Nobody seemed to know the exact number of his grandchildren, but the general estimate was around fifty. I never heard a word about his wife, and I assume that she was dead. Although many of his family lived close by, he had let it be known that he didn't want to be pestered; he wanted to live quietly in the forest and devote his remaining years to Dhamma, and to peace and quiet in general.
     Although he was more than thirty years older than me, it turned out that I was a few months senior to him in the Sangha, because he had become a monk later in life, after his retirement from being a subsistence farmer. (In Burma it's pretty common for people to be ordained as monks or nuns after they retire. They are called taw htwet, one who goes out into the forest.) So I was technically and officially the senior monk at the forest monastery, and he called me Bhante ("venerable sir") when we did confession, etc., together. I was slightly embarrassed about this at fist, but it was fine with him, as he was pretty passive and easygoing, and not much interested in overseeing a monastery. There wasn't a whole lot to oversee anyway.
     Like probably at least 97% of Burmese monks, U Nandiya paid little heed to monastic discipline. He had received almost no monastic training, and had lived at Wun Bo alone for most of the time since his ordination. He went beyond the norm by sometimes going for almsround in the village without even his upper robe on, wearing a red or brown sweatshirt instead and/or going wrapped in a blanket. Like almost all Asian monks he handled money, and I suspect that he had a niece or granddaughter sell some of the brooms he made – he made really good ones by hand out of bamboo and palm fronds – at a village market to get money for cigars and betel. (I'm not sure how he managed to chew betel nut, considering the fewness of his teeth, but he managed somehow.) I also suspect that he cooked dinner for himself sometimes. But, I didn't want to know these things, and didn't try to find out. In my younger days I had a strong tendency to despise lax, sloppy monks, and I still occasionally experience residual twinges of it; but U Nandiya was an old man, and he had lived here much longer than I had, and anyway I hadn't come here to look for trouble.
     We got along fine – up until the end of my second rains retreat here. The issue was over a kathina ceremony. Judging from the ancient Vinaya texts, the original purpose of the kathina ceremony was to be a kind of test: if after living together for the three months of the rains retreat the Sangha are still harmonious and cooperative enough to accomplish the difficult task of receiving cloth and measuring it, cutting it, sewing it, and dyeing it into a regulation monk's robe, all before dawn of the following day (and if there is sufficient cloth it is required to be a two-layered outer robe), then they are awarded an extra three months of "kathina privileges" in addition to the standard one month: for example they have the right to keep as many robes as they like. (The usual limit is three robes, with any additional clothing having to be relinquished within ten days.) However, I've never had any great desire for these privileges, and U Nandiya, as already mentioned, didn't pay much attention to monastic discipline, and casually allowed himself the kathina privileges all year round, ceremony or no. So from the perspective of Dhamma and Vinaya, the ceremony would be practically pointless. In fact, the kathina ceremony in Burma has degenerated into a kind of festival where the monks don't cut, sew, or dye anything, but just receive a store-bought, factory-made robe (which in most cases isn't made according to Vinaya anyway). There's music sometimes, lots of eating, a senior monk delivers a sermon, the Sangha does a brief ceremony of "rejoicing" at the donation of the robe, and then comes the big climax of each monk receiving a pile of donated loot, including envelopes of money. For many monks the kathina ceremony is the number one money-making opportunity of the year.
     My first year here I considered myself to be a newcomer and looked the other way; I didn't come out of the cave for it. But the second year I put my foot down and refused to allow a kathina festival at the monastery, as was my right as a member of the Sangha, even totally setting aside the fact that I was senior monk. (It is a little-known fact that the tradition of an abbot being lord and master of a Buddhist monastery is completely alien to the ancient rules of monastic discipline. According to Vinaya, the Sangha is governed my consensus, with every monk in a community required to give his consent to a formal act in order for it to be valid. If even the most junior monk does not agree, then it's no go.) A few lay supporters of the monastery who were keen on festivals began maneuvering behind my back, and in front of it, continuing to invite monks from town, and so forth; but after I informed them, with considerable heat, that if they wanted a kathein pweh (a kathina festival) they were going to get a sit pweh (a battle), they backed away. Possibly because of blowing the number one money-making opportunity of the year, U Nandiya would hardly look at me for two or three months afterwards. I was told that sometimes he grumbled about me, and suggested that it would be good if I lived somewhere else. But the cave here was too good to leave; and the forest was too good; and besides I really had nothing against U Nandiya. So I stayed.
     A few years later I had the occasion of throwing out of this place a truly amazing old crook of a part-time monastery attendant. (He's so remarkable he deserves his own blog post. Maybe some other time.) After finally realizing that his obvious strategy of gradually easing back into the monastery wasn't going to work, he attempted to have me thrown out (so he could move back in) by going to the local branch office of the central government and formally accusing me of being a political agitator. So I came under investigation by the military government on political charges. On the day of my second visit from the police I was down at the well drawing water, when old U Nandiya walked by. I smilingly said to him, "The police were here again today." He said that he knew, and then, with shining eyes and obvious heartfelt emotion, he told me, essentially, "Don't worry. I'll always stick up for you. So long as I'm around, I'll always protect you. Don't be downhearted!" I figure that if the military government really wanted me arrested there wouldn't be much that a humble old monk, formerly a village subsistence farmer, could do about it; but I was moved and heartened by his obvious feeling on my behalf. I realized then that he had become a true friend.
     (In all fairness to the Burmese military government, they did a responsible job of investigating my case. The township chief of police could see clearly enough that a meditating forest recluse living alone in a cave was hardly likely to be a dangerous political agitator, and all the villagers that he questioned vouched for my lack of interest in politics. I'm not sure that I even knew who the leader of the country was at that time. My accuser was scolded and fined; I assume the fact that one of his sons was an army officer helped to keep him out of jail – which, however, was exactly where he belonged. Gawd he was amazing.)
     As the years went by, I developed a genuine love for U Nandiya, regardless of his almost total lack of monastic discipline. I adopted the habit of checking on him at least once a day, usually under the pretext of bringing him the best of my extra food. If I found him asleep in front of his cabin (he eventually stopped sleeping indoors for some reason) I'd check, just to make sure, to see if he was still breathing. As he got older his eyes started turning a hazy bluish color, and he became very hard of hearing. Those of you who have read Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby may recall deaf old Peg Sliderskew, who would participate in conversations like the following: 

     "Well, my Slider!"
     "I hear you," said Peg, receiving him very graciously.
     "I've come according to promise," roared Squeers.
     "So they used to say in that part of the country I come from," observed Peg, complacently, "but I think oil's better."
     "Better than what?" roared Squeers, adding some rather strong language in an undertone.
     "No," said Peg, "of course not."
     "I never saw such a monster as you are!" muttered Squeers, looking as amiable as he possibly could the while; for Peg's eye was upon him, and she was chuckling fearfully, as though in delight at having made a choice repartee…
     
Some of my conversations with U Nandiya were rather similar, except without the strong undertones. Once somebody offered me a fancy cigar from town, and knowing that U Nandiya liked cigars, I gave it to him. A few days later I asked him how the cigar was, and his response was something like, "Is that so?" Our dialog proceeded as follows:

     ME: No. The cigar. How was the cigar?
     HIM: I ate it! I gave some to Ko Myint Oo also.
     ME: No. (picking up a hand drill resembling a screwdriver and pretending to smoke it) Cigar! Cigar!
     HIM: Oh, that's for making holes.
     ME: No. (roaring at the top of my lungs) CIG-A-A-A-R!!!
     HIM: (sheepishly at this point) Oh, I haven't smoked that yet. I have it in the cabin there.

     I could relate to his pretending to understand what he couldn't hear. Possibly the closest I've come to positively lying since becoming a monk has been when I have pretended to understand what people have said to me in Burmese. (I do speak "like a lawyer" sometimes though, avoiding telling the whole truth without actually lying.) After all these years I still haven't bothered to master the language, and speak it about as well as a seven-year-old Burmese child.
     One afternoon we did the uposatha ceremony together, on the full moon or the new moon – I don't remember which it was. U Nandiya had never memorized the formal chanting for pārisuddhi uposatha, or for confession, so he read it from a book, wearing glasses with lenses like the bottoms of pop bottles. The last thing he said to me before we parted was, "My eyesight is growing very dim."
     The next morning I came down the hill to bring him the best of my extra food, as usual, and I found him lying on the wooden bed in front of his cabin in a delirium. A young village guy was there, who with wide eyes explained that earlier that morning he had passed through the monastery compound and found U Nandiya lying on the ground. He was afraid to touch him (he said because he was a monk), so he found two older men herding cattle by the river, who came and put him on his bed, and had then gone into Wun Bo village to get help. What happened was that U Nandiya had a condition which required him to pee frequently, and so in the middle of the night he went out to pee, and because of his dim eyesight he didn't see a snake, which apparently he stepped on, and it bit him two or three times. No snake has venom powerful enough to knock someone down immediately, so I assume the reason why he spent the night lying on the ground is the shock and horror of stepping on a poisonous snake, being bitten by it, and knowing that in all likelihood he was a dead man. I hesitate to imagine what was going through his mind as he lay on the ground for hours in the darkness. Maybe he fainted.
     In his delirium U Nandiya was asking for his "blood medicine," some traditional herbal concoction that he had somewhere, but he was in no condition to explain clearly where it was, and we couldn't find it.
     I admit that I really didn't know what to do. Nowadays they say that you shouldn't cut open the fang marks and suck out the poison; and besides he had been bitten several hours previously. Nowadays they say you should simply immobilize the bitten body part until medical help is forthcoming; but U Nandiya was already pretty much entirely immobilized. In retrospect I think maybe the best I could have done would be to lay hands upon him and pray, or do my best to send healing juju into him, or maybe just stay with him, but I didn't. After a few minutes of indecision I hurried into Lay Myay village to fetch U Nyunt, the medical officer there.
     I wasn't sure where U Nyunt's house was, plus I was bare-chested, wearing only my lower robe, so I stopped at a monastery at the edge of the village and told the people there, including the abbot, what had happened, and requested that someone quickly go and call U Nyunt. But nobody seemed to "get it." The sayadaw was like, "You say somebody was bitten by a snake? Was it you?" 
     "No, it was U Nandiya. He may be dying. I need U Nyunt to come to the forest monastery."
     But then the sayadaw just stood there in silence. Two ladies who had brought food offerings were transferring their food into monastery containers, and seemed to be in no hurry. A middle-aged guy wearing a big towel turban beamed at me merrily, as though he were tickled just to be hanging out with the foreign monk. Again, I wasn't sure what to do. Finally, after the ladies finished ladling their food into different containers, I urged them to go and fetch the medical officer, and they said they would. Then I hurried back to the forest monastery with a young village monk following.
     U Nyunt and the medical officer from Wun Bo village arrived at about the same time; and several minutes of confusion ensued for me, or rather continued. At one point the officer from Wun Bo stated that U Nandiya's blood pressure was zero; but afterwards she was explaining to me the inadvisability of using antivenom, as she couldn't be sure what kind of snake had bitten him. So I assumed that he was still alive, and that a blood pressure of "zero" meant that it was too weak to measure, or some such. Then I was told that if I wanted, they could find a vehicle to drive him into town, but that the road was very rough, and that in his delicate condition it wouldn't be good for him. They didn't seem very enthusiastic about the idea. But I was like, "Of course you should find a vehicle to take him into town. We have to do something." Then U Nyunt gave me a penetrating look and with some impatience said, "His blood pressure is zero." Then I got it. They didn't want to say that he was dead. As for me, I hadn't wanted to assume that he was dead. But he was.
     The medical officers had done all they could, which was simply to ascertain that U Nandiya had died; so, rather late, I instructed the village monk, who was sitting on the bed next to the body, to start chanting Paritta.
     As the day progressed, more and more of U Nandiya's family, friends, and supporters showed up at the forest monastery. I was struck by the fact that none of his relatives, even his own children, seemed particularly sad about the state of affairs, and one or two of them were even smiling. I prefer not to believe that they didn't love their father; and I'm sure they weren't smiling over any rich inheritance they were to receive. I have little choice but to attribute it to the astonishing stoicism of Burmese villagers. Besides, they're devout Buddhists, and know that death, like everything else, is only temporary. There were some tears shed later on though, at the funeral.
     It was decided to cremate him the following day, because it was the beginning of the hot season, and meat goes bad fast in hundred-degree heat, and we had no refrigeration. Young guys started collecting wood for the funeral pyre, and I donated to the cause from my own firewood, including a really nice little teak log that I'd been saving for a special occasion. Some of U Nandiya's male relatives carefully bathed his body, and even shaved his head. After they had finished with this, I noticed lying next to him on the bed a little lattice-like object made out of bamboo sticks. I considered tossing it because it didn't seem to belong there, but then I considered that I'd better ask first, just to make sure. When I asked Ko Myint Oo, U Nandiya's nephew, what it was, he said, simply, "A ladder." It was a traditional Burmese Stairway to Heaven.
     The Burmese have very poetic language with regard to Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha; there is a whole different vocabulary involved when speaking of them. The words used for monks' eating, sleeping, going, speaking, etc., are different from the words used for laypeople. Even the word for "human being" is not applied to monks. So when a monk dies, he doesn't just "die," he nobly flies.
     I had been having very difficult times even before my friend suddenly died, or nobly flew away – lots of "stuff" had been coming up, and I still hadn't fully recovered from the blazing hot drought of the previous "rainy season." I remember looking closely into U Nandiya's completely motionless, peaceful face and sincerely thinking, "You are the lucky one." After this I touched his forehead at the "third eye" (which didn't feel cold at all because of the weather), partly as a contemplation of death, and partly just to say goodbye. Goodbye, my friend.
     Remarkably, the very next morning, the day after U Nandiya was bitten, and the day we cremated his remains down by the river, I went to my outhouse, opened the door, started to go inside…and then suddenly noticed an adult Russell's viper – the deadliest snake in Burma – coiled up right next to the water pot. It is not the deadliest snake in Burma because it has the most potent venom; that honor belongs to the many-banded krait, whose bite packs enough wallop to kill twenty full-grown men, according to the scientists. The Russell's viper is the deadliest because it's the meanest, and by far the most likely to bite and kill someone. I once had a baby one about a foot and a half long actually come after me on the road, lunging again and again...but I digress. Anyway, needless to say, I changed my mind about taking a dump just then, and slowly backed away and closed the door and left it there. 
     It probably wasn't the same snake that bit U Nandiya though. First, my outhouse is rather a long way from U Nandiya's place. Second, judging by how far apart the fang marks were on his foot and ankle, it would have to have been a huge viper, as Russell's vipers have pointy snouts with their fangs close together. Third, U Nandiya didn't seem to be in great pain after he was bitten, and viper bites are very painful. Fourth, the places around the bite marks were not swollen or discolored, as is generally the case with viper bites. And fifth, U Nandiya's cabin was only about twenty feet from a hole in the ground which people had seen, on various occasions, a cobra going in and out of. So he was probably bitten by a cobra.
     The funeral was not so different from the kathina festivals that I strictly forbade several years before. Music was blasted over a loudspeaker, village monks were invited and fed, a sayadaw delivered a sermon and the monks did some chanting, and then offerings were made to them, including envelopes of money. I exercised my authority only to the extent of having the music turned down a few notches. I walked around and observed, but otherwise didn't participate in the festival aspect of the thing. I didn't much like the way the "cremation festival" was going, but out of consideration for U Nandiya's family I kept such feelings to myself.
     I had requested that the actual cremation take place in the afternoon, to allow the heat to abate somewhat, and to allow any of U Nandiya's relatives and supporters in town time to arrive in time; but the village sayadaws decreed otherwise, more or less. The proceedings began at one p.m., with the sun blazing full blast. The traditional gong/horn/xylophone music was cranked up to a crescendo, U Nandiya's closest male relatives shouldered the decorated, open wooden casket, and at a semi-trot they began a swaying, circuitous, sinuous course through/around the monastery compound before heading down to the riverbank. It was at this point that people began weeping, especially the women. It was essentially U Nandiya's Last Hurrah.
     The casket was placed on top of the stacked wooden pyre, and then, grotesquely (maybe just in order not to waste a good set of robes), U Nandiya's clothes were removed and he was flopped, naked and face down, back into the casket. I remember spontaneously exclaiming, in English, "That's undignified!"
     The only monastics who stayed to watch the body burn, aside from myself, were a junior monk and a little novice. Many of the laypeople also left before the fire was lit. It seemed to me that the most important part of a cremation ceremony would be the cremation itself; but, obviously, many Burmese people see things differently. To my surprise, before the fire had died down people began flinging bucketfuls of water onto it to extinguish it. This was so there would be something remaining to entomb. The next day one of U Nandiya's sons and a few of his granddaughters were cheerfully picking through the ashes looking for pieces of bone.
     I can totally understand how people have come up with all sorts of taboos and strange beliefs about death, even in very early and "primitive" stone age cultures. It seems so counterintuitive, even paradoxical – one day there is this human being, a living person, walking around and maybe cracking jokes, with hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, a wealth of experiences; then just 24 hours later all that remains is a lifeless "it," already starting to decompose and smell bad in the heat; and 24 hours after that all that's left of this being is a little clay pot full of ashes and fragments of charred bone. How could that personality, all that complexity and richness, that life, simply disappear? It is an enigma, and regardless of scientific materialism, the traditional belief in something surviving death feels more reasonable, and more likely. Anyway, we enshrined U Nandiya's remains above the lower cave, where centuries in the past there had been some other shrine or tomb – all that was left of it was some old scattered bricks.
     Starting on the afternoon of the cremation, some of U Nandiya's relatives took upon themselves a one-week vigil of sorts at the monastery, meditating and keeping eight precepts. They set up a little shrine in front of U Nandiya's cabin, putting on it, among other things, some of his favorite kinds of food and some of his favorite cigars, just in case he might somehow be able to enjoy them. However, on the fifth day after his death a very strange event occurred which disrupted everyone's plans. I was doing walking meditation inside the cave when I heard the wind start blowing very violently. I went to the cave entrance and looked out to see what was happening, and saw that the sky had turned brown. Everything on the ground looked brownish, as though I were looking through brown-tinted glasses. Then hailstones the size of strawberries began falling out of the sky, hitting the ground at an angle because of the wind. They fell so hard and so fast that within seconds they were piling into drifts, with entire areas of ground completely covered with white ice – in a tropical semi-desert, during the hot season. I do not frighten easily; for example, finding the viper in the outhouse didn't scare me. But, seeing what I was seeing outside the cave, genuine fear arose in me. It was the eerie kind of fear which comes from being completely unable to make sense of what is happening. It was the same kind of feeling that might arise if you were looking right at somebody who then suddenly vanished – poof – or if a cup on a table right next to you were to levitate into the air and then hang there motionless. I recalled a scene I had read as a teenager in a science fiction novel (Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) about a comet that smacks into the Pacific Ocean: a man is walking down a city street in California on a bright, sunny day, when suddenly the sky blackens and rain starts lashing down in sheets. Some of the rain trickles down his face into his mouth, and he tastes that it is seawater – and then he realizes that something terribly wrong is happening. Watching the hailstones battering down out of a brown tropical sky, I think I felt like that guy. But, the world didn't come to an end. There was no comet impact, and no nuclear holocaust. It was just freakish weather. Although the world wasn't destroyed, many thatched roofs in the area were, including the one under which the village men were conducting their vigil. So, they gave up on it and went home.
     After that I was left alone here. I moved down into the lower cave in order to better keep an eye on the main monastery compound – which mainly meant keeping village rascals with slingshots and snares from killing off the semi-tame red jungle fowl that wander around the place. I stayed in the lower cave for only a few months, though, before I became very sick, and was required to spend most of the rainy season in town. A doctor in Rangoon informed me that dysentery amoebas had invaded my liver…but that's an entirely different story.
     I apologize if this story is more about me than about venerable U Nandiya. I feel that the best I can do here is just to record my experiences in relation to him.
     I still think U Nandiya was lucky. Seriously, to be bitten by a cobra at the age of eighty is not at all a bad way to go. As it was, his health was faltering but not completely shot, his sense faculties were fading (although his mind was still intact), and in all probability he would have lived just a few more years, in increasing feebleness and decrepitude, until some illness, possibly a slow, icky one, finally finished him off. Instead, before his health had broken down, he was bitten by a snake in the middle of the night, and before noon of the next day his business was finished, at least for this round. (There is still that unpleasant question of what was going through his mind as he lay there on the ground in the dark, though.) I've told this opinion about U Nandiya's good luck to some of the villagers here, but most of them just don't agree. They are convinced that being bitten by a snake is always a bad thing.
     In conclusion, I will say that I've occasionally considered that U Nandiya would have been more venerable if he had not been a monk. Perhaps even more than most Burmese monks, he didn't give the proverbial tinker's cuss for ancient rules of monastic discipline; but he did live the life of a genuine spiritual recluse, or at least a religious one. He handled money, but people didn't give him very much of it, so he lived in modest poverty; and he voluntarily took upon himself a life of rough, humble simplicity, solitude, and silence. And I think that is truly venerable. Besides, he was a good person. Wherever U Nandiya is right now, if anywhere, I hope he's in an even better place than the one he left.
     (Written at Wun Bo, on rough, blotchy paper)
      


The tomb of U Nandiya
anicca   dukkha   anattā