Saturday, April 27, 2013

What Am I Doing in a Cemetery in Bali?

     I am writing this (once again in the prehistoric fashion of ink on paper) in a hut on the outskirts of a Chinese cemetery near a village in the mountains of central Bali. The hut is made of bamboo, with a roof thatched with grass (a much better thatching job than I ever saw in Burma, incidentally), and I share it with one rat and one gooey-looking, mud-colored tree frog the size of a gerbil.
     The purpose of this post is to explain how I got here, and to describe the most noteworthy experiences I've had since my last post on current events more than a month ago.
     When I was still at the little Burmese temple in California, maybe a week or two before coming to Burma in January, I received an email from a person calling himself The Cahyadi Adiguna, offering to donate my plane tickets to and from Burma, and, if I liked, to and from Bali also. Although I like playing up the mysteriousness of The Cahyadi, I had a pretty good idea who he was: A few years ago, shortly before returning to the USA for the Big Experiment, I met an Indonesian monk named venerable Vijaya (Pali for "Victory"), who comes from a wealthy family in Bali, and who had given me a general, non-specific invitation to that island; The Cahyadi is one of ven. Vijaya's brothers. I informed The Cahyadi that I already had a round-trip ticket to and from Burma, but was quite willing to visit him in Bali. We agreed that the easiest way of going about it would be for me to change the round-trip ticket to one-way, and then he would provide transportation from Burma to Bali, and then from Bali back to the USA. I changed the ticket, and then received no further communications from him. There was no reply to my subsequent emails. So, I flew to Burma with no return ticket, no attendant, and no money, but with the faith that something would work out.
     I've already chronicled the adventures of my first two months in Burma in previous blog posts, so I'll take up where I left off—I left Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery on the 7th of March, shortly after the beginning of the hot season, and took up residence in the congregation hall of Migadawun Kyaung, "The Deer's Playground" (named after the park near Varanasi where the Buddha is said to have delivered his first formal sermon), near a town with the ridiculous name of Pyin Oo Lwin, on the cool Shan Plateau, east of Mandalay. The abbot, and often the only monk there, is an intelligent, crusty, interesting, and misanthropic Burmese monk named U Vimala ("Stainless"). He seems to dislike most of the human race—and this despite the fact that he's been declared a sotāpanna, i.e. a saint, by none other than the internationally famous (and similarly crusty) Mahasi U Paṇḍita himself—but he likes me for some reason I don't fully understand. Hopefully he'll continue to like me if he reads this.
     On March 15th, exactly one month and one day after seeing the spectacled cobra at Wun Bo (see "The Cobra," posted March 23), ven. Vimala knocked at my door and said, "Do you want to see a cobra? There's one in the brick pile near my cabin." So off I went to see another cobra. The Balinese monk U Vijaya had arrived at Migadawun the day after I did, so he came along to look at it too. When we reached U Vimala's cabin, the cobra was no longer in the brick pile, but was slithering on the ground nearby. This one was about five feet (1.5m) long and as big around as a person's wrist, and an overall darkish greyish brownish color, with no obvious markings at all—so I guess it was a king cobra. The Balinese monk, apparently knowing my desire, handed me a long stick, and I immediately began pursuing the snake around the compound, poking at it and stirring it in an attempt to get it to stand up and spread its hood. It didn't want to play ball, however; the most I could get it to do was briefly to flick its hood open a couple of times. It mainly just wanted to get away from the weird human that was pestering it. U Vimala also grumbled a little over how I was harassing his snake.
     Another highlight of Migadawun was a visit I received from my friends Damon, Conor, and Juli, who drove up from Yangon partly to check out some kind of retreat/workshop on permaculture and similar Green topics. The workshop was held at a place that Burmese laypeople emphasized was not a monastery, but a "Dhamma training center"—this was presumably because, although monks live there and the place is presided over by a sayadaw, there is virtually no monastic discipline there whatsoever. Conor said that a monk who was one of his roommates during the night he stayed there stayed up most of the night getting drunk as a monastic skunk on gin. Actually, a great many "progressive" monks (certainly not all, but many) are not so different from this; they have little or no interest in Dhamma practice, so they occupy their time in such secular pursuits as public demonstrations, fundraising, rioting, permaculture, gambling, and/or drunkenness. In other words, monks who are most lax in Dhamma practice are often most keen on secularizing the orientation of the Sangha, sometimes in utilitarian ways, sometimes not.
     I have always had a profound appreciation for exquisitely bad jokes, and shortly after his arrival dear Damon facilitated a really lovely one: he was discussing the ridiculous schedules of the international schools in Yangon, and said something like, "The Spectrum School closes in the middle of August! What school closes in the middle of August!?" whereupon I casually observed, "I think that Spectrum one does." Damon turned to Conor and said he was sorely tempted just to get up and walk out of the room, but Conor reminded him that, after all, he had handed that one to me on a platter. I was actually proud of that joke. Gawd what a brilliant dumb joke it was.
     During their visit we also went to the botanical gardens (well worth seeing if you ever happen to be in Pyin Oo Lwin) and fed bananas to a takin there; a takin being a creature which inhabits mountainous forest areas of upper Burma, which looks and acts like a cross between a goat and a buffalo, and which prefers its bananas unpeeled. At a different time I explained to Conor that his own name, when pronounced as a Burmese word, literally means "sick pigeon." And Juli enjoyed the honor of being the first and only woman to be allowed to spend the night at Migadawun Monastery. Sayadaw U Vimala's getting soft in his old age. Up until recently even unordained men were not allowed to sleep there, only monks and novices.
     Another highlight of Migadawun is that I served as the reciter of the Bhikkhu Pātimokkha on uposatha day there, something I had not done in years. I had forgotten most of it and had to read it from a book, and still it took almost an hour. 
     It was around this time that the Buddhist/Muslim riots occurred in the city of Meiktila, about 150 miles away. The way it started was explained to me as follows: A Buddhist village woman and a man (I assume her husband) came into town to sell a gold hair comb. They went to a shop run by a Muslim man who, when he was testing the comb to determine its value, accidentally broke it. He refused to pay them what they said it was worth, claiming that it wasn't worth nearly so much. This developed into a heated argument, and the village man was either beaten up or just shoved so that he fell down. The two villagers returned to their village and excitedly complained to all who would listen about the ill usage that they considered they had endured. So, a kind of vigilante committee loaded into a truck, went into town, and wrecked the Muslim's shop. By this time a group of Muslims had accumulated also, the shop probably being in a largely Muslim neighborhood; and seeing a Buddhist monk among the village vigilantes, some of the Muslims invited the monk to come with them to discuss how to settle the situation peacefully. The monk agreed, and he was taken to a mosque or some other kind of Islamic community center—where the Muslim men allegedly splashed battery acid in his face, and then either cut his throat or else cut his head all the way off (U Vimala simply said, "They cut his neck"). 
     The murder of the monk was apparently the spark that got the whole conflagration blazing; and I was told that all of the mosques in Meiktila, about six of them, were burned to the ground, at least one of them with people inside. Muslim houses and shops were also destroyed, and Buddhists armed with machetes were allegedly hacking Muslims to death in the streets, with some of the machete-wielders being (abnormally unvirtuous) monks. U Vimala, after wondering aloud at the suicidal belligerence of the Muslims, who form a small minority in Burma, stated that Sitagu Sayadaw, by far the most famous and influential of the modernizing, secularizing monks in Burma, has declared in his public speeches that the Muslims have gone too far, and that the Buddhists have been too patient.
     Anyway, ven. Vijaya somehow made arrangements for my plane ticket to Bali, and on the 26th of March we arrived in Yangon. Despite riots in a distant city I was feeling very content and serene, often in meditative states even when not sitting, as though my spiritual batteries had been fully recharged in the forest monasteries of upper Burma. Hanging out with Damon, Stacy, their little daughters, and their friends, neighbors, and staff was like a blessing to me, and a fruition of my stay in Burma. I was happy to be a guest of honor at a women's meditation group Stacy leads, and answered questions and gave basic instructions to the Western wives of officials of embassies and charitable organizations. Also I experienced the delight of telling another dumb joke that had Damon threatening revenge. 
     Associating with Westerners and businesspeople as I was, I learned things about the new, open Myanmar that I had been clueless of before. It seems that the businesspeople of Myanmar are in the midst of a shark-like feeding frenzy, gobbling up as quickly and ruthlessly as possible the international funds being poured into the Burmese economy. Burma is practically owned nowadays by approximately eight astronomically wealthy Burmese businessmen who, with the help of generals still pulling the strings of government, are dividing amongst themselves (with a share for the generals) all of the business deals worth having. One gets Toyota, another gets GM, another gets Ford (and I was told that the same guy who got Ford also got Coca-Cola)—plus countless other contracts. Two typical examples of this principle of Open Myanmar for the Sake of Making a Few Very Rich People Even Richer are 1) An American-based NGO was to build housing for poor people in Rakhine State, but was required by the Burmese government to buy all of its building materials in Yangon, hundreds of miles away, and only from specified dealers; and 2) it is illegal to set up any kind of restaurant or shop anywhere along the new 400-mile Yangon/Mandalay highway except at two specified rest stops regulated by the government—obviously in order to have as much money go into as few Burmese pockets as possible. It is easy not to think of such things in remote, peaceful forests.
     One more bit of interesting news I picked up was from my friend Dylan, who left Burma on the same day as I did because he was longing to do things that are not convenient to do in Burma. He told me of yet another Westerner claiming to be fully enlightened: an American man named Daniel Ingram. On his website he actually makes the following claims, and I quote:

          I make the following claims to attainments:

               I am an arahant, having attained that in April, 2003.
               I have mastery of the samatha jhanas, including Pure Land One and 
                    Pure Land Two, The Watcher, and Nirodha Samapatti
               I have some experience with some other traditional attainments.
               I can access the state that this place calls No Dog.

I think that, based on first impressions, I have more faith in the attainments of Wayne Wirs. (You can check him out for yourself on YouTube, or Here.) As the Tao Te Ching and J. Krishnamurti have said, those who know do not say, and those who say do not know. Which renders me a little skeptical of some of the Buddha's alleged claims as recorded in the Suttas, and may render many of you even more skeptical of me. 
     For many years I have worked with the hypothesis that it is a good sign for things to go wrong at the beginning of a journey. The idea is that any "ripe" bad luck is being worked out of the system and cleared quickly, and thus won't crop up later on, in the middle of the trip. If that is the case, then this trip to Bali has some major positive fruitions in store.
     The first wonderful omen was simply a week of hot, very sticky Yangon hot season weather. In such weather an electric fan has little effect but to evaporate one's sweat, leaving behind a residue of sticky, salty grease.
     The second omen of great fortune occurred on April Fool's Day, the day before I left Burma. I had an opportunity to check my email account, and found that a young woman I know had written me two or three long, complicated emails describing, for the umpteenth time, what she considers to be my defects, and earnestly urging me to adopt her view of my case and to act accordingly. I wrote back to her, after consideration, making a few observations, especially 1) that she is literally addicted to finding fault with virtually everybody, including herself and me; 2) that she has an unrealistic ideal about how people should be and behave, and when NOBODY lives up to that ideal (except possibly for Ammachi the Hugging Saint), instead of discarding the ideal she puts the blame on everyone, making herself, and those close to her, miserable; and 3) that whether we see people positively or negatively depends upon whether we have a positive or negative point of view—it is a matter of our own attitude. Although she has freely admitted to all three of these points on previous occasions, on this occasion her immediate reaction was fury, and she fired off a retort in which, again for the umpteenth time, she appeared to regard me as the most foolish, arrogant, hypocritical, dishonest, wrong-headed, rigidly egocentric, and insensitive heart-retard in existence, informing me that we are no longer friends and that someday I will realize my pain and loss, and requesting that I never write to her ever again. Ever. In all typicality, within 48 hours of this "Final Communication," as she called it, she had sent me five or six more emails, including a request that I contact her, and also including more or less of an apology to the effect that, upon a second reading of my response to her, she realized that her rage was not called for. However, considering that this sort of episode has become a horribly regular occurrence, I am inclined to go along with her earlier judgement that our friendship is over. Up until recently she was my main supporter and dearest friend in America; so it is not surprising that my heart has been full of bitterness since that day, sometimes swelling into silent bouts of disgust, resentment, and anger, not so much at her as at the whole situation…but still at her sometimes. At times like that it seems like the best we can do is just watch it come up and not identify with it. It is only on the morning that I write this, a week after the aforementioned events, that I have begun feeling some joy again, and have begun settling back into a meditative state of mind. Over the past week I've been reminded again and again of the feelings, despite my profound appreciation for the glories of femininity (from a man's point of view at least), that facilitated my decision to become celibate almost 25 years ago. If this post seems less upbeat and at a lower vibration than most, this incident is mainly why. Even monks can have woman troubles, and may the gods have mercy on all of us.
     The next great omen occurred at the Yangon Airport, when I was attempting to check in my luggage and acquire a boarding pass. The lady behind the counter asked if I had a return ticket from Bali, and when I said No she frowned, and went away to consult with someone officially higher up than her. She came back to the counter and asked if I had a letter of invitation. I said No, but if she had Internet I could show her my email of invitation. She seemed to find that amusing, and went to consult with the higher-up again. I began experiencing a sinking feeling that I would not be allowed on the airplane on the very day my Burmese visa expired; but she finally came back with a kind of release form I was required to sign, promising not to sue Malaysia Airlines if I was denied entry into Indonesia, or denied access to my checked luggage there, and furthermore promising to reimburse Malaysia Airlines for any damages they might incur for letting a vagrant such as me go to Bali.
     The next auspicious sign for my journey was a 16-hour overnight layover at the Kuala Lumpur Airport. I spent the night sitting in a chair with no headrest, so I never managed to become all the way asleep. Considering that I was a Buddhist monk coming from a country where a Muslim minority was very recently burned and hacked to death, I was a little apprehensive at spending the night in a strongly Islamic nation like Malaysia; but it turned out that there were so many scantily-clad non-Muslims running around the airport distracting people that nobody paid much attention to me. I have been told, though, that Malaysia is such a devoutly, officially Islamic country that it is actually illegal for anyone to teach a non-Muslim system to a Muslim there. For example, if a Buddhist or Christian gives religious instruction, he or she must ascertain that no Muslims are in the room. If even one Muslim is in attendance during the talk, the teacher may be arrested and prosecuted. This explains the strange warning I have seen on Dhamma books published in Malaysia: NOT FOR MUSLIMS. It turns out that it's not any sign of spiritual snobbishness or "casteth not your pearls before swine"—it's simply the law, enacted by the Muslims themselves.
     The final omen for my prosperous journey occurred at the Denpasar Airport in Bali. I arrived to find that the "free visas on arrival" I was told about cost $25 US, which was infinitely more than I had on me, and a sign was saying, in capital letters yet, that visas would be issued only to people with a return ticket or through ticket from Bali. I stood there in the airport with the aforementioned heart full of bitterness, no sleep the night before, frazzled nerves, and no idea what to do. I mentioned my predicament to a young Balinese woman that I had met at the airport in Kuala Lumpur (she was returning from India, where she had been with her guru Swami Shivananda), and she very graciously volunteered to help—it is interactions with people like this that give me faith that there is hope for the human race. She didn't pay the $25 for me, but explained my situation to the officials, and I was allowed to leave my passport at an Immigration counter and go out in search of The Cahyadi Adiguna.
     The Cahyadi hadn't come to fetch me, however, nor had his brother ven. Vijaya. I was met by a young Javanese Buddhist nun dressed in white. Fortunately she kept eight precepts, not ten, and was able to pay for the 30-day visa. She had brought with her a car and a driver, so we walked out into the sunny, colorful streets of Denpasar, climbed into the car, and went off to meet ven. Vijaya's family.
     At this point I will mention that I had already heard some of the details of this nun's life. She was, and is, pretty and graceful, with a sweet, musical voice and a very humble and very sweet disposition; and this beauty of hers had caused her a great deal of trouble earlier in her life. I suppose one of the main reasons why she became a nun was to rise above this kind of trouble (although even nuns can have man troubles). For a spiritually-oriented woman, outward beauty may be much more of a liability than an asset. This goes for some non-spiritually-oriented women too.
     Anyway, we drove through the suburbs of Denpasar, past shrine after shrine, religious statue after religious statue, tourist after tourist, until we reached the guarded entrance to a family compound of small villas, with a partially constructed Dhamma center in the center. Ven. Vijaya was here, and I met most of his immediate family including The Mysterious Cahyadi, who I was slightly disappointed to see wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans. Ven. Vijaya's wise, virtuous, wealthy, and influential mother has decided to devote her remaining years on this planet (and I hope they will be many) to practicing and supporting Dhamma. One of her movements in this direction was to acquire some forest land in central Bali where the family intends to start a kind of spiritual community with monks and nuns, an old folk's home, a school for children, and a meditation retreat center, all free of charge, with the economy of the community possibly being supported by the profits of a hotel and/or restaurant, plus maybe some farming. It was mainly for the sake of having "good" monks living at the forest center that I was invited to come check out the place. The whole idea is very similar to what my friend Damon is trying to set up in Burma, and through a lovely turn of events he and his family, after a trip to Nepal, will be coming to Bali soon, where he plans to learn environmentally friendly techniques for preserving structural bamboo, and where he will meet the family here and possibly help design the forest center. Also I suspect he'll hang out with me a little.
     And so, here I sit in a bamboo hut between a tiny patch of jungle and a cemetery in the mountains of Bali, with a rat and a gooey frog, looking out at the rain. (Last night while I was sitting inside the hut I heard a loud thump, like something big was in the hut with me. I grabbed a flashlight and shone it around, and found that the resident rat had fallen out of the thatching in the roof and had landed right beside me. He seemed as startled as I was.)
     So, where do I go from here? Probably in a few weeks I'll be back in Bellingham, Washington, ironically the one place I have lived as a monk where the Buddhist community in general is not happy to support me. Not coincidentally, it is also the one place I have lived as a monk where the Buddhist community in general is of European ancestry. After all, American lay Buddhists call themselves Sangha, and take Refuge in their own meditation societies. They seem to have little use for monks, or at least for this one. Lukewarmness and indifference, plus my own limitations and incapacity thus far to improve the situation much, may result in my becoming a homeless street person there. Oh well, I've lived under trees before, and I know my friends there won't let me starve or freeze to death. Besides, as I've taught many times, it is a virtual impossibility to make significant spiritual progress without discomfort. Who knows, maybe my presence in Bellingham will cause some beneficial spiritual discomfort in others there also.
     But my heart sinks a little at the thought of giving up and spending the rest of my life in tropical Asia, possibly even starting from scratch in a new foreign country with a new culture and a new language to learn. Some people might consider it ridiculous for me to turn down being supported by wealthy patrons in about as close a place to Paradise as there is on this planet; but, for better and for worse, I'm an American, and I'm tired of sweating in tropical Asia. Plus I really think America has more need of someone like me than Asia does, even though there seem to be few Americans who agree with me on this point.
     One of my favorite mottoes: Everything happens the way it's supposed to happen. For me it's almost a mantra. A fundamental principle for a deeply spiritual life, which almost everybody rejects, is "Give no thought for tomorrow, what you will eat or where you will sleep. Let tomorrow take care of itself." If we have enough faith in Dharma, in God, or even in our own deepest selves, then everything will work out. (It may not work out the way we want it to, but it will work out.)
     May all beings be well and peaceful. 

P.S. I should add here that Conor has his own blog, chronicling the trials, tribulations, and odd experiences of an American layman living and working in the new Burma. It's one of the very few blogs I read, and the man writes with true panache! Panache, I tell you. His site is at:


  1. Just wanted to let you know that I read all your blog posts and thoroughly enjoy most of them. This last one was very nice again.

  2. Panache is one of those Pali words, right?

  3. a long slow read.... thank you so much, and.... there is always the most pervasive of thoughts.... to apply as a professor of SE Asian Studies.... :)