Saturday, July 27, 2013

One of Many Middle Paths


     "We can never tell how patient or humble a person is when everything is going well with him. But when those who should cooperate with him do the exact opposite, then we can tell. A man has as much patience and humility as he has then, and no more."—attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

     The Middle Path, or Middle Way, in Pali majjhima paipadā, is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism; and according to tradition it was discovered by the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment, and was the main point made in his first formal discourse after his enlightenment, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("The Discourse on Rolling Forth the Wheel of Dhamma"), given to the five ascetics who became his first Buddhist disciples.
     As it turns out, though, there are many Middle Paths. The Purābheda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, for example, sets up a number of pairs of opposites which a good monk wisely passes between. He is not attracted to gain, and has no aversion to loss; he is not opposed to craving, yet he is not in favor of it either; he is not impassioned, nor is he impassive; and so on. In the Aṭṭhakavagga, of which the Purābheda Sutta is a part, it is said repeatedly that a monk should have nothing received (atta) and nothing rejected (niratta), which also obviously is a pun: he should have no self (attā) and no not-self either.
     Another good example of this multiplicity of Middle Paths is the Lokāyātika Sutta of the Samyutta Nikāya (S.12.48): In it, a non-Buddhist philosopher called a lokāyātika comes to the Buddha and asks him some questions about the nature of the world. Lokāyātikas, incidentally, were the ancient Indian predecessors of modern scientists; they were not so much interested in enlightenment, or the difference between right and wrong, as in determining natural law and understanding the world in general. In Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Samyutta Nikāya the Buddha's questioner is called a cosmologist. Anyway, this worldly philosopher comes to the Buddha and asks, "How is it, Mr. Gotama, does everything exist?"
     "'Everything exists':" the Buddha replies, "That is the oldest philosophy of the world."
     Then the philosopher asks, "Well then how is it, Mr. Gotama, does everything not exist?"
     Whereupon the Buddha replies that this is the second oldest philosophy of the world.
     The worldly philosopher follows up by asking if everything is One—which turns out to be the third philosophy of the world; and then he asks if everything is a multiplicity—which of course is the fourth philosophy of the world.
     Then the Buddha says that he avoids such extremes by adopting the Middle Way, or the Dhamma by the middle (in Pali, majjhena dhammo), which he identifies with dependent co-arising. Thus in this case dependent co-arising is a Middle Way which passes between the extremes of existence and non-existence, which is rather a mind-bender, and between the extremes of one and more than one, which is also a mind-bender. (Nāgārjuna's Madhyamaka school, one of the most important and mind-bendy philosophical systems of Mahayana Buddhism, is based upon this kind of thinking.)
     However, all of this is some rather dizzying philosophy; and although I'm certainly not opposed to dizzying philosophy, I'd like to discuss a simpler, more practical version of the Middle Path, which is a version of the one taught in the Buddha's traditional first discourse: the Middle Path between self-indulgence and self-torture. The Sutta itself has the Buddha saying this:
     There are these two extremes, bhikkhus, which he who has renounced the world should avoid. What are these two? A life following pleasures, devoted to pleasures and luxury: this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble, and without benefit; and [the other is] a life following self-mortification: this is painful, ignoble, and without benefit.
     By not approaching these two extremes, bhikkhus, the Tathāgata has realized the knowledge of the Middle Way which leads to vision, which leads to knowledge, resulting in calm, in higher knowledge, in full Enlightenment, in Nibbāna.
After this the Buddha identifies the Middle Way with the Noble Eightfold Path, then teaches the Four Noble Truths, and then declares his own Enlightenment.
     This Middle Path/Way between self-indulgence and self-torture is often conveniently interpreted to mean no gold Rolls Royce on the one hand, and no sleeping on a bed of nails and broken glass on the other. These kinds of extreme extremes actually have precedents in the Pali texts themselves; in fact, according to tradition, the Buddha before his Enlightenment indulged in extreme extremities on both sides. It is written that in his youth he was provided with three palaces, one for the cold season, one for the hot season, and one for the rainy season; that he was also provided with a harem of beautiful dancing girls and female musicians; and furthermore that his entire household staff was composed of young, beautiful females. On the other hand, shortly after he renounced the world he began the traditional ancient Indian regimen of extreme austerity and continued it for six years. According to one strange text, the Mahāsīhanāda Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M.12), he followed such ascetic practices as going around naked, not bathing, eating only once every two weeks, and feeding on cow dung; and he eventually became so malnourished that if he rubbed his arms the hairs on his arms would simply break off, and if he grasped his belly with his hand he could feel his own backbone. So, people nowadays often equate the Middle Path with avoiding such extremities and give the whole concept of the Middle Path little thought. They don't want to sleep on nails anyway, and can't afford the gold Rolls Royce. Plus harems are politically incorrect nowadays.
     It should perhaps be borne in mind, however, that the Middle Path between luxury and self-torture taught by Gotama Buddha involved wandering around homeless, wearing rags, sleeping under trees, having no family and no money, and silently begging for one's food in the street. This was the Middle Way, even though nowadays most people, including perhaps most monks and nuns, would consider it way beyond the range of acceptable austerity. As ancient Buddhism became more of a popular religious movement a new Middle Path developed, which was the Middle Path between self-indulgence and...the original Middle Path. This may be called the traditional Middle Path. And then when Buddhism came to the modern West, yet another Middle Path developed, which is the Way between self-indulgence and the traditional Middle Way. And although the Middle Path is now hugging up close to self-indulgence, still most people are veering off even closer to the pleasant extreme.
     It may be that what is called for is an interpretation with a more psychological emphasis. After all, Buddhist ethics are primarily psychological. Whether what we do is right or wrong (or rather, skillful or unskillful) depends upon our mental states. Karma is volition. For example, if we prevent a snake from eating a frog, whether we do a good deed or a bad one depends on our intentions: if we do it out of compassion for the frog, we have done well; but if we do it out of aversion toward the snake, we have done not nearly so well.
     Bearing all this in mind, I'll try to describe a variant of the Middle Way that may be easier for Westerners to relate to, and may have some real practical application in everyday life. Of course there are many Middle Paths, or interpretations of it (including the Eightfold Path), and the following is only one of them.
     Many of us, (maybe most of us in the West, where we have more opportunity for such things), try to arrange our life so that it runs smoothly, so that nothing uncomfortable happens. We may settle our life into a standardized routine which is relatively predictable and "safe." It may involve something like, get up, have breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. We may go out and have some fun sometimes, go on a vacation sometimes, go for a walk, and so on, but for the most part it's all set up to make sure nothing unpredictable and unpleasant happens. The lifestyle may not be all that pleasant or fun, but at least it's more or less predictable, familiar, and non-scary. It seems like especially in America we worry about what might go wrong, and then try to fix it before anything has even happened—and much of the time the worrying about what might go wrong causes more suffering than if whatever it is really went wrong.
     We tend to avoid people who push our buttons, if we can. We generally tend to avoid reading books or watching documentaries that we know in advance we'll disagree with, in order not to feel uncomfortable; and if we find out partway through one that we disagree, we may not stay with it till the end. In other words, we avoid being "triggered." 
     "Triggered" is rather a new concept for me, largely because it is discussed very little in the Buddhist texts. One might try to study triggers in the Abhidhamma literature, for instance, and not find very much on the subject. It's not an outstanding issue in a Buddhist country like Burma. But it's mentioned often in American conversation nowadays, and strikes me as an interesting and important thing to mention.
     It could be said that each of us has at least two personalities: the nice one when everything is running smoothly, and the triggered one, when everything isn't. The triggered personality may be angry, or bitterly complaining, or full of guilt and self-loathing, or even humbly obsequious and eager, even desperate, to please; there are many different ways of being triggered, and each of us has our own favorite version of it. The "smooth" personality is generally pretty nice: we may seem like we've got it all together when everything is calm. Most of us are pretty good people when we're not triggered. In fact most of us want to identify with the untriggered us, and consider the triggered version to be a kind of insignificant anomaly. Some of us even fear the triggered version. So we try to keep things unfluttered, unruffled, and "safe."
     But the berserk version is just as much "us" as the smooth version. For example, a notoriously vicious dog is probably not vicious most of the time. Most of the time even a really mean dog may be quietly, calmly lying there on the ground scratching himself, licking himself, peacefully sniffing something, or whatever it is that a peaceful, friendly dog would be doing under the same circumstances. But that minority of the time, maybe less than 5%, is sufficient to qualify that dog as "vicious." Humans are not so different. Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire was pretty calm and even rational most of the time, although his bouts of hitting people, ripping things off walls, and smashing windows were still key features of his personality.
     Consequently it has been said, for example by Saint Francis of Assisi, that we really don't know someone until we've seen them when things go wrong. People may seem good, wise, and "together" so long as everything's fine, but they may appear very different when the fecal matter hits the fan, so to speak.
     The thing is, though, that triggering experiences are a valuable spiritual resource, and should not always be avoided. Triggers point out to us what our attachments are. Suffering in general shows us, or at least has the potential to show us, where we are still stuck. In a way the entire Universe is designed to bring up our "stuff," to show us again and again where we're stuck until we finally work it through and clear it up. Our existence is a matter of karma untangling itself, or at least trying to, like water seeking its own level.
     If stuff doesn't come up and ruffle our feathers, so to speak, we often lack the opportunity to clear it, or even to become aware of it. Ram Dass used to tell the story of a swami who meditated alone in a forest for years until light shone from his face. He figured it was time to go back into the world to share what he had learned, so he walked to a nearby town. Almost as soon as he got there somebody jostled against him on the sidewalk, and he flared up with indignation and—poof—his equanimity and seeming enlightenment were gone. Practicing in a sheltered, peaceful environment definitely has its advantages, but largely it prepares us for dealing with chaos, and the chaos also is necessary to help us to develop. This is one reason why in Buddhism it is said that a human birth is the best for spiritual development: beings in the lower realms lack the wisdom and opportunity, but beings in the higher realms have it so good, with so little trouble to trouble them, that their latent "stuff" doesn't come up, and they are little motivated toward improving their situation.
     The reason why suffering shows us where we are still attached, and is thus an invaluable spiritual resource, is because, in accordance with the Second Noble Truth, all suffering is caused by desire and attachment. Whenever we are unhappy, it is because we want something. So it is a useful spiritual practice, whenever we are unhappy, to ask ourselves "What do I want?" Sometimes, like if one is slightly depressed, the answer may not be obvious, although usually it is. And sometimes the answer may be completely ridiculous, and our desire totally silly or futile. For example, let's say we want to go on a hike, or a picnic, or some other outdoor activity, and it starts raining. Well, we may be upset and disgusted, maybe even swearing and being rude to someone; and why? Because we want it not to be raining, which is an utterly futile desire causing an utterly futile unhappiness. All the wanting in the world may not cause a single raindrop less to fall. It's good to be aware of these things.
     But being aware won't necessarily make the feelings of unhappiness go away. I remember once I was living at a monastery in Burma where my friend the abbot assured me the electricity stayed on 24 hours a day. Of course I didn't believe him, because there may be no place in all of Burma where the power is on all the time. Sure enough, it was on only 22 or 23 hours a day (certainly nothing to complain about, considering), with the one or two hours of blackout occurring at random, in a very unpredictable way. Also, this monastery was in the hills, and the well water was so cold that one gallon of boiling water added to ten gallons of well water got it up to just lukewarm enough to make bathing bearable. So sometimes I'd start boiling my bathwater on a little electric stove I had access to…and the power would cut off. Immediately I would observe frustration and disgust arising. I could easily remind myself that the desire wasn't going to make the electricity go back on, but still sometimes I'd be sarcastically criticizing the incompetent so and so's in charge of…and then suddenly the electricity would come back on, and my frustration and disgust would disappear almost as quickly as the power came on. It would be a sudden feeling of relief—ahhh…….
     Still, observing such feelings is very useful and valuable, even if they don't just disappear as a result. By observing them we detach from them to some degree, which decreases our reinforcement of them, and which also decreases our identification with them. By observing anger, it's no longer "I'm so pissed off" but simply "Anger is arising." By observing mental states, it's no longer we who are disgusted, or scared, or guilty, or hateful, or whatever. We withdraw support to some degree, which helps the karma fueling its arising to run its course and expend itself. But it doesn't necessarily disappear all at once.
     Paraphrasing venerable Ajahn Chah, a negative habit (like anger or disgust) is like a stray dog: If you feed it, it won't go away; but even if you stop feeding it, it may take awhile before it finally gives up and clears out.
     Anyway, a psychological interpretation of the Middle Path is one in which we don't deliberately trigger ourselves by making icky things happen to us, but we don't run from triggers either, we don't necessarily avoid them. To some degree, actively making unpleasantness for ourselves, like by actively seeking out the company of people who bother us, is just making new karma, and not necessarily clearing out the old. But even this may be more spiritually effective than hiding or running away or building a wall around ourselves to keep the world off our back. It isn't necessary to make bad things happen to us anyway, as they will happen when the conditions are ripe, without us having deliberately to accelerate the process. Things we don't like will keep happening, naturally, until we eventually learn how to be OK with them. That's the way the Universe works. 
     Many spiritual teachers have recognized the value of being triggered. For example, George Gurdjieff, an Armenian sage of the early twentieth century, had a kind of ashram in France which also housed some Russian refugees, including one extremely difficult one. He was very fussy and foul-tempered and hard to get along with, and Gurdjieff's disciples disliked him and plotted to drive him away. Eventually they succeeded by playing some cruel practical joke like stealing his false teeth, rolling them in cow dung, and then putting them back. The Russian man left in a passion; and then Gurdjieff actually went after him, hunted him down in another country, and begged and bribed him to come back to the ashram. It wasn't because he missed him, but because he perceived that the fellow was excellent practice for his students in learning to handle life's difficulties wisely.
     The practical applications of this practical Middle Path are rather more useful than avoiding beds of nails that we don't want and avoiding gold Rolls Royces that we can't afford even if we do want them. One bit of spiritual advice that arises from this approach is: Don't Cling to What Is Worn Out. Many of us cling to relationships that really ended years ago, or jobs we've grown bored with, or circles of friends we've outgrown, or habits that no longer bring us satisfaction, or even a physical environment that doesn't suit us anymore, mainly out of fear of change, fear that the unknown consequences of letting these things go may be more unpleasant than just staying in the rut. But even if there will really be a fair amount of unpleasantness, it may still be preferable. Being vulnerable to risks is spiritually conducive to waking up, or at least to learning about ourselves. So don't be afraid to take risks if you feel a change would be good for you. Dare the unknown. In a way, the Universe looks after those who live this way.
     (Incidentally, I consider this lack of risk to be an important weakness of traditional monasticism. The wanderers of "primitive Buddhism" had plenty of opportunities to be severely triggered, while monks and nuns living in sheltered, comfortable monasteries nowadays may be like the swami described above, living in a kind of artificial wisdom through hiding from chaos.)
     Another useful bit of advice is not to consider feeling uncomfortable to be necessarily a bad thing, regardless of what Consumerism tells us. Discomfort and emotional triggers help us, if we let them.
     And when a trigger does happen, observe it. (This takes practice, and it may be helpful to start with little pet peeves, like the yapping dog next door, before making oneself vulnerable to monsters. Mindfulness practice is invaluable for this.) Observing it may not make it disappear, but it helps us to detach from our attachments, including our identification with feelings and other mental states. 
     Mental states are not us. Ultimately, we're neither the calm, polite personality nor the triggered, upset one. But that's No Self, and getting into the Buddha's second sermon, so I'll stop here.
     


"There is no spoon"



Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Fellow at Panditarama...(part 2)


(continued from last week…)
    After the disillusionment I experienced at Panditarama, more than halfway through the two-month retreat, I was in a state of quiet despair. I felt like nothing was working, and that I was destined to have no wise guidance other than what I could manage for myself. I had, though, often felt intuitively that I do have teachers or guides not actually on the "physical plane," like spirit guides maybe, so with weak faith I tested them: I decided that if someone came up to me and said the word "sign" within three days, it would be a sign that my guides were real, probably, and that I still had someone I could count on. This was really a challenge, since few people were speaking to me at the meditation center, since people aren't supposed to talk much at such places.
     The very next day, though, a monk friend of mine and a lay supporter unexpectedly came to Panditarama to see me. The layman was helping me to get a Burmese ID card, and needed me to sign the card and put my thumbprint on it before he had it laminated with plastic. He spoke in Burmese, though, so the word "sign" wasn't actually spoken. However, he then told me that with the Burmese ID I wouldn't need to bother with visas anymore, at which my friend said "Ma hsain bhoo," which means, "It has nothing to do with that." But the word hsain is pronounced like "sign," which was my sign. That helped me to feel better. (Monks aren't supposed to pay heed to omens, but I do anyway sometimes.)
     One other memorable occasion while I was staying there was that a Vipassana retreat mainly for Westerners was to be held in central Burma, with at least one of the (Western) teachers of it having been a disciple of U Pandita; so he and some of the meditators of the retreat stopped at Panditarama for a night or two before continuing on to the upcountry. It struck me as odd, and still does to this day, that so-called "elite Buddhists" are willing to fly halfway around the world, bringing their own teachers with them, to sit in cabins and meditate, when they could much more easily do the same back in America. Anyway, once I overheard one of the meditators cheerfully informing a Burmese Buddhist that in the West people don't have much respect for monks because they associate the robes, shaven heads, etc., with cults; instead, Westerners have more respect for teachers who remain in the world and live worldly lives, managing to integrate Dharma with worldliness. After a few days of these alien beings gliding around the center with peaceful smiles on their face, or marching around quietly with self-absorbed looks, they disappeared, and the place became more Burmese again.
     I have always had a partiality to females; but during this retreat, while I was practicing as strictly and dedicatedly as I could manage, I began having strange associations when I would encounter young women. Strong associations of blood and raw meat would arise when I would see their form before me. When I reported this to Sayadaw during an interview, it seemed to make more of an impression on him than anything else I had told him. 
     One interesting thing I learned at Panditarama was that although noting verbal thoughts causes them to disappear, noting mental music doesn't have the same effect. Near the meditation center was a large clock that played a musical jingle every hour as a chime—I remember one of the tunes was the theme of "Popeye the Sailor Man." Sometimes the music would stick in my head and not go away, no matter how much I noted it. Sometimes I could just drown it out by repeatedly noting "music music music music…" but otherwise the tune would have to run its own course through my mind until I was simply sick of it. I scientifically hypothesize that noting and thinking utilize the same area of the brain, so that one can't do both at the same time, but that noting and playing music utilize different areas; hence noting doesn't make music go away like it does with thinking. 
     Something else I picked up at Panditarama was that I learned to appreciate walking meditation. Formerly I hadn't liked it much, and had lived in places where it wasn't convenient anyway; but with all-day-long, non-stop meditation it is easy to see the value of it. Walking meditation helps to keep the momentum of mindfulness going when we're not sitting cross-legged. Ever since then I've done walking meditation rather a lot, if I have some convenient place to do it.
     But by far the biggest benefit I derived from my stay at Panditarama was that I accidentally learned contemplation there, which has become by far my most valued meditation method. The way I learned it is as follows. 
     As many of you may know, the mind may rebel against meditation in an intensive retreat setting. My mind was doing this, and would not settle down no matter how hard I tried. Meditation was somewhat like riding a wildly bucking bronco, with me trying with all my might just to stay in the saddle. Finally, in mild desperation, I decided just to clear my mind, and whatever happened to arise, I'd note it. So, I cleared my mind and watched for whatever arose next…and nothing arose...and still nothing arose...and still nothing arose. The watchful expectation seemed to inhibit thought. So I sat there conceptually empty, not thinking anything, until I eventually started getting excited, after maybe twenty seconds of it, which of course wrecked it, and I started thinking again. I'd never experienced anything like it before. It was magnificent, just sitting there with the mind silent, expanded, wide awake, and clear like glass. I continued practicing it (and continue to this day), although of course it seemed inadvisable to report this to Sayadaw. After all, it wasn't the method that he had prescribed.
     I consider just five minutes of this kind of meditation to be of more value and benefit than an hour of noting and labeling. And when it started deepening, so that I could sit essentially empty for short periods, it seemed that just five minutes of it easily compensated for an entire lifetime of struggling and floundering. I consider my first several times of practicing more or less skillful contemplation to be probably the most profoundly blessed moments of my life. But that happened after I left U Pandita's center.
     Incidentally, one other result of my time at Panditarama was that I was inspired to compose this epic limerick:

     A fellow at Panditarama
     Tried to note all his rūpa and nāma;
          He moved in slow motion
          And noted each notion
     Till he died of hysterical trauma.

     Anyway, I was determined to last the full two months at the place, even though U Pandita occasionally hinted that maybe it would be best if I gave up on the method and went somewhere else. During the second month I often had little or nothing to report, as nothing new was happening (except maybe for the contemplation I didn't want to tell him about), which caused Sayadaw to be more inclined to kick me out.
     Finally, my two months were almost complete, and I came for my final meditation interview. Sayadaw was preparing for a trip to Nepal, so his favorite interpreter, the sharp-tongued one, was taking time off to arrange his affairs before going abroad with Sayadaw; and so he was replaced at Panditarama with a very mild-mannered and polite young Burmese man. When Sayadaw would chew someone out about this or that the new interpreter would grin in embarrassment, very unwilling to scold monks, or probably anyone else. When I told U Pandita I would be leaving soon he said, "Kaun byi. Myan thwah," which means "Good. Go quickly." The nice interpreter was too embarrassed to translate and sat there in confused silence, but I knew what it meant. As I left the room, I remember one of the more successful meditators, a Korean Mahayana monk (an excellent fellow by the way) who had ordained as a Theravadin bhikkhu without first disrobing from his Mahayana order (pretty common at Burmese meditation centers), reporting his surreal, rather psychedelic meditative experiences. "I am floating in the sky, lighter than air…."
     As I have said before, I tend to have bad luck (=bad karma) with spiritual teachers; and I'm sure people like Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Steven Armstrong had much more positive experiences with U Pandita than I did. Mine is just one of an infinite number of points of view.
     Even so, I do think that the Mahasi method has certain shortcomings which practitioners should be aware of. For example, the sequence of Vipassana insight knowledges which practically forms the backbone of the theory (in addition, of course, to traditional satipaṭṭhāna teachings), is listed nowhere in the Pali texts, and is an artifact of the commentarial tradition. If it were so essentially important, one would presume that the Buddha would have emphasized it, and that it would be found in a sutta or two. And hinting that practitioners ought to experience this sequence of experiences—sometimes even instructing them in advance so that they have an idea what to try for—sometimes, no doubt, gives them a model for their concentrated imagination to replicate artificially. True Dhamma, which is alive, is converted into a kind of dogmatic, cookbook system. 
     There are some logical inconsistencies also. For example, on the one hand the Mahasi interpretation of mindfulness emphasizes noting, which, they say, involves aim plus effort. When one mindfully notes a phenomenon it should be like repeatedly beating an object with a stick. On the other hand, the Mahasi method (like just about every other method, although all of them seem to fail in the attempt) endorses the instructions in the Bāhiya Sutta of the Udāna: In the seen there should be only the seen, in the heard only the heard, etc. In other words, there should be pure experience with no deliberate reaction to that experience. According to Mahasi we should have both of these hands, but this appears to be self-contradictory and impossible. Seeing plus noting is no longer just the seen. Mahasi's "effortless noting" seems to be simply habitual effort.
     And besides, one size does not fit all. To teach the same system to everybody and scold them if they don't improve is rather like being a doctor who prescribes the same medicine to every patient, and if they don't improve he scolds them for not being sick properly.
     Once, many years ago, I asked a wise senior bhikkhu named U Jotika what he thought about the Mahasi method. He said, "You can get benefit from practicing it, but it is a limited method." I'm inclined to agree with that evaluation. The Mahasi method is excellent for beginners, and may continue to be excellent up through an intermediate level of mindfulness; but once one becomes advanced enough to experience"Vipassana insight knowledges" it would be good to switch to a subtler method, maybe even a non-method, of meditation.
     All of this might seem to be of very limited interest outside of Burma, much like my critique of the Tant Kyi Taung method in a recent post. But the thing is, most Vipassana methods outside of Burma, with one notable exception being the Goenka system, are at least partly based on the Mahasi method. The Mahasi method is possibly the most influential technique of mindfulness practice in the world. And venerable U Pandita is one of the most senior and influential teachers of it. 
     It is true, though, that Western versions tend to mutate, for example by switching back to the more traditionally orthodox ānāpāna practice of noting the touch of air at the nostrils, and by placing much less emphasis on the Abhidhamma philosophy as an intellectual frame of reference. The Western variations tend to be more flexible than their Burmese progenitor, with negative as well as positive consequences. Not only do Western variants of the tradition become less explicitly Mahasi, they become less explicitly Theravadin, even less explicitly Buddhist, with much of the slack taken up by Western consumer culture, Scientism, emphasis on emotional comfort and political correctness, etc. etc. So instead of a rigid and perhaps limited system, one has a more floppy one that ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime. This is neither good or bad, but a salad-like mixture of both.
     The Mahasi tradition in Burma also seems to be somewhat in a state of decline. U Pandita himself is more than ninety years old now, with less and less energy to lead, and all the other senior disciples of the original Mahasi Sayadaw are also very old or else already dead. And it appears that the second generation of disciple-sayadaws of the Mahasi tradition are not as strong as their predecessors. (One or two of them may not even be real monks any more, despite the fact that they continue to wear robes. But I'd rather not dwell on that subject.)
     This is a common phenomenon in Buddhist meditative traditions and much else besides: A strong, inspired, charismatic leader founds a new system, perhaps attracting a few disciples worthy of continuing the tradition, and perhaps not. Usually by the third generation the system is led by well-intentioned but not particularly outstanding or inspired leaders, the tradition coasts on its reputation for awhile, and then it fades out, to be replaced by some new tradition with a new charismatic leader. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It's infinitely better for a teacher to teach from his own experience, and not simply parrot what his master's master said. That is, if said teacher has his own experiences to draw from. 
     Possibly the most popular Burmese variant of Mahasi in America nowadays is the Shwe Oo Min system, founded by venerable Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, a senior disciple of Mahasi Sayadaw who allegedly turned down the position of abbot at the main Mahasi monastery, thus replacing the late Mahasi Sayadaw himself, preferring to follow and teach his own interpretation. His method is popular in America largely because it is less rigid, less structured, and also less disciplined than other variations; also, the current leader of the method, venerable U Tejaniya, happened to get his foot in the door by being endorsed by some big names in American Vipassana circles. Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw was greatly venerated in Burma, considered by many to be the most advanced famous sayadaw in the country and more highly advanced than Mahasi Sayadaw himself; but his successor U Tejaniya has less of a reputation in Burma than in the US, not being considered much of a scholar or a meditation master. Still, U Tejaniya, as well as U Pandita, have deeply impressed many senior practitioners in the West and elsewhere, and I'm sure neither of them is without wisdom, inspiration, and the ability to teach certain types of people.
     Also, all in all, the Mahasi tradition compares well with other Burmese meditation traditions. Lately its main rival in Burma has been the Pah Auk method, which has the advantages of greater orthodoxy, greater discipline (at least greater monastic discipline), and in many cases, more obviously saintly disciples, some of whom allegedly have psychic powers. Still, all in all, I consider the Mahasi method to be the preferable tradition for meditators. I don't consider unorthodoxy to be necessarily a strike against it, and it seems to rely less on hypnotic states, and more on moment to moment mindfulness (sati-sampajañña), even when one is not sitting cross-legged. That's just my opinion though. 


One of the Most Famous Pictures of 
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma


  


Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Fellow at Panditarama...(part 1)


     At my ordination as a bhikkhu many years ago, I was honored to have venerable Sayadaw U Pandita of the Mahasi tradition attending the ceremony. He was conducting a two-week meditation retreat at our monastery, and I attended the retreat at others' urging; but my ordination took place right in the middle of it, and I had plenty to attend to before finally renouncing worldly affairs and the handling of money, so I respectfully dropped out after four or five days. (Incidentally, one of the monastery attendants, a friend of mine who aspired to be a professional writer, said the retreat had inspired him to write a story about a mental hospital where the inmates believe that if they move slowly enough they'll disappear.)
     I noticed during the retreat that the venerable Sayadaw was stern and rather gruff, and insisted on a particular way of reporting one's meditative experiences during interviews which, however, nobody clearly explained to me. After I dropped out and was ordained he became friendlier, almost grandfatherly. Anyway, at the time I left for Burma in late 1992, I had included him on a very short list of bhikkhus I knew of who might have high spiritual attainments. 
     Several years passed, during which time I mainly lived in relative isolation in Burmese forests. I found, as a great many Westerners find, that I was having issues with uddhacca, or mental agitation and restlessness—I was thinking too much, with my mind spinning out into long chains of association, greatly reducing the quality of my meditation. I remembered U Pandita, and considered that he was wise, and that he had had plenty of experience teaching compulsively-thinking Westerners; so I figured I should try a few months' retreat at his meditation center Panditarama (or Shwe Taung Gon Yeiktha, as it is more often called in Burmese), in Rangoon/Yangon.
     So around November of 1996 I went to Panditarama to ask Sayadaw for permission to practice at his center. He was conducting meditation interviews with an interpreter, and after a few minutes asked me what I wanted. I told him that I'd like to meditate at Panditarama for at least two months, explaining that my mind was very restless, so that my meditation usually wasn't very deep. He looked at me sternly, rather like a plumber looking at leaky pipes in a flooded basement, and asked, "Have you ever taken drugs?"
     Now, most Western monks, at least those of my generation (possibly most Western meditators for that matter), have at least smoked some cannabis, so naturally I said "Yes." 
     Then he said, "That's it. Drug addiction has damaged your brain."
     I replied that I doubted that that had much to do with it, as I had never been addicted to any drug, not even tobacco. A nervous, high-strung mental constitution runs in my family, though. My mother is the same way.
     So then, not skipping a beat, the Sayadaw replied, "Then it is a combination of drug addiction and mental illness." I was marked as a brain-damaged drug addict for the rest of my stay there, but I was given permission to stay and practice for two months.
     I suppose that at this point, before I proceed any farther with this narrative, I should explain that I have bad karma with regard to spiritual teachers. This is partly due to a deep, irrational attitude I have had that having a teacher, and thus not working things out for oneself, is somehow cheating. As I've mentioned in a previous post ("It All Depends on How You Look at It," posted 25 May 2013), wise people may consider a teacher very highly advanced, but I may see his foibles and fail to see his strengths. I have no doubt that U Pandita is a master of what he teaches; and to see him meditate is a remarkable experience, as there is a very noticeable shift in his energy as he sits there like a rock—really like a rock. Furthermore, I am no authority on the Mahasi method, although I do know quite a lot about it, as it is one of the most well-known methods in Burmese Buddhism. So bearing all this in mind, let us continue with the story.
     The Mahasi method is a common form of mindfulness meditation or satipaṭṭhāna, with perhaps its most obvious difference from other methods being that instead of noting the breath at the nostrils, one notes the rising and falling of the abdomen as one breathes. It also differs from more characteristically Western versions of Vipassana by placing much more emphasis on Abhidhamma for explaining mental phenomena, and probably more emphasis on what the Burmese call nyan-zin, the standardized sequence of "Vipassana insight knowledges" that one allegedly must experience, in the proper order, if one is to attain enlightenment. The version of the Mahasi method taught by U Pandita also has a reputation for being more strictly regimented than other versions. There is also slightly more emphasis on monastic discipline, which is one reason why I chose it at the time.
     One of my next-door neighbors in the dormitory I was assigned to was a monk from Bangladesh who didn't strike me as being a very serious monk. He seldom attended the group meditations; listened to the radio in his room; hung out, giggled, and even sang with a Nepali novice (who also didn't attend group meditations); and secretly handled money (officially forbidden at Panditarama, and in the monastic code in general). In those days I was prone to find fault with "sloppy" monks, but I reminded myself that I didn't come to this place to find fault with anybody, and that I should mind my own business. Also, I had heard that Panditarama was not only a meditation center, but also a training center for teachers of the Mahasi method; and I figured he must have come for that kind of training, not for meditation. Still, watching him bounce around, or hearing him goofing around through the thin walls of the dormitory, I'd occasionally get a twinge of captious-mindedness.
     Another foreign bhikkhu, one of the only other Western monks there, was a young, starry-eyed Australian monk who apparently was trying to save himself from himself: Once he informed me that before his ordination not a day passed when he didn't break all five precepts. He gave me some excellent advice which helped me to survive, saying that Sayadaw doesn't like young Western monks, and that no matter what he says to me I should never react. One impatient retort, one sarcastic rolling of the eyes during a scolding, and I would be done for. U Pandita was something like a Marine Corps drill instructor, getting on our case again and again, breaking us down, and then rebuilding us into lean, mean, Dhamma warriors. Or something along those lines. The Australian monk told me that several months previously he had been at the verge of a mental breakdown as a result of going through a great deal of pain, with Sayadaw almost totally ignoring him. Now, however, Sayadaw had softened toward him and hardened toward me. He seemed to take an immediate dislike to me. Also, he didn't seem to remember participating at my ordination; maybe if he had, he would have regretted it.
     Like most other meditators I was given the primary object of observing the rising and falling of the abdomen as I breathed; but I had been doing more traditional ānāpāna-sati, mindfulness of the breath at the nostrils, for so long that I became confused, feeling as though I had nostrils on my belly. At an interview I told Sayadaw of this, and he said that for "ānāpāna people" it is better to try something else, so he gave me a different primary object—mindfulness of the sitting posture. I didn't like this method much, as it seemed based on imagination, sitting being only an artificial concept. (The sensation of touch on the other hand, as with the touch of air at the nostrils, is from the classical Theravadin point of view a kind of ultimate reality, and thus closer to an enlightened point of view.) The Australian monk suggested, perhaps as a compromise, that I could choose a place on my behind for noting the sensation of touch; but I disliked the idea of striving for enlightenment by contemplating my own buttocks. A convenient solution to the dilemma arose, however: The schedule involved so much sitting, many hours of it per day, that after maybe a week I was experiencing some pretty intense pain in my hips, knees, and ankles. I also started getting bedsores from sitting so much. So once the agony started I'd switch my primary object to the pain in my lower body, a good, obvious, direct sensation. Pain is unpleasant, but it is very easy to notice and note.
     U Pandita's fastidiousness regarding how one should report at meditation interviews, which I had noticed years previously, became an important issue. Sayadaw seemed to change the rules whenever he felt like it. The Western Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein, who had been a disciple of U Pandita for some years I think, once said that going to an interview with Sayadaw was like going to the dentist. Even some successful meditators who Sayadaw actually praised would be trembling like leaves before and during interviews. 
     At an interview one was supposed to report what one had experienced since the last time. Usually  Sayadaw would sit in silence in his chair; at other times he would interrupt to say things like, "please summarize," "don't say 'sometimes,' (i.e., don't summarize)" or, if there was no fault to be found with the words of the reporting, perhaps something like, "don't wave your hands around when you talk." He seemed to be waiting for meditators to mention experiencing something on the standard list of what one is supposed to experience, and if something on the list were mentioned, he'd write it down, sometimes with a kind of grunt. Sometimes this would give subtle cues to the meditators with regard to what they ought to report, even what they ought to experience, if they wanted to do well and maybe avoid a scolding. 
     Part of the trouble was, though, that I didn't follow the rules for interviews very closely. If I had a problem with my meditation I would mention it, and U Pandita emphatically did not want to hear about problems. He seemed to intimidate meditators into not having them. Also, I had little regard for Abhidhamma or for nyan-zin: if I experienced something from the books, fine, and if not, fine again. My purpose was not to experience what tradition said I ought to experience, but clearly to experience whatever came up. This turned out to be a problem too.
     If I would mention difficulties with my meditation, or if nothing much was happening in the way of progress to report, Sayadaw would sometimes try to embarrass me by bringing up the issue of drug addiction. On at least three occasions, always in front of a group, he asked me, "Have you ever taken drugs?" Sometimes he'd give remarks like, "Don't just sit there like you're high on drugs!" But I'm not ashamed at all that I have gotten high in the past. In fact, I may never have become a bhikkhu if I hadn't experienced such expanded states of consciousness, and wanted to experience a similarly expanded alternative without the aid of chemicals. But the Burmese have a much more conservative attitude toward such things.
     Anyway, I was dismissed from at least half of my interviews during my first month at Panditarama: Sayadaw would raise a hand and say "taw byi" (i.e., that's enough), and send me away. Once I actually experienced one of the standardized Vipassana insight knowledges, the so-called nāmarūpa-pariccheda-ñāa, "the knowledge of the discrimination of mind and matter," but I was dismissed before getting that far into the interview. By the time I finally told him about it, his attitude toward me had soured to the point that he didn't even bother to write it down, but seemed a bit irked that I had even experienced it.
     (Purely as a digression from the story, I offer the opinion that nāmarūpa-pariccheda-ñāa is not very accurately named. It appears more a discernment of feeling and perception than of mind and matter. For example, one experiences very clearly, as quite distinct, pain, and the noting of pain. The commentarial texts, upon which the standard list of insight knowledges is based, say that the pain represents matter, and the noting of it is mind. But obviously, the feeling of pain is just as mental as the noting of the feeling. One doesn't feel pain in one's ankle, which ultimately can't even be proven to exist, but in one's mind. No mind, no pain.)
     Sayadaw's scoldings became more overtly hostile as time went on. Furthermore, his usual interpreter at interviews, an older Burmese fellow, seemed to take pleasure in scolding monks too, and didn't sugar the pill at all. After Sayadaw would tell you what a no-good troublemaker you were in Burmese, the interpreter would look you straight in the eye and tell you the same in English. I once told a Chinese Malaysian monk that I thought the interpreter enjoyed scolding monks, and he replied, in English, "He delight in it." 
     The interviews were by far the worst part of the retreat. Sometimes it would take one or two days of calming down after a tongue-lashing before my meditation would get back on track, more or less. I followed the Australian monk's advice and didn't react, but there were a few times when I was tempted just to get up and backhand Sayadaw right out of his chair. I got into the habit of going first at interviews, in order to get the unpleasantness over with as soon as possible. When U Pandita would see that I was next in line, or first in line, his face would cloud over with a scowl. Once, after a particularly hostile interview, an Asian monk came up to me and said, "You're tough!" 
     One ironic thing about it was that I really was wholeheartedly trying to practice while I was there. I kept talking and other distractions to a bare minimum. I was first or second into the meditation hall in the morning, and the last to leave at night. 
     At first I was sleeping about four hours every night, but I found that I was starting to hallucinate in the afternoon from lack of sleep. (I've always been a sleepyhead.) I was essentially starting to dream before going to sleep at night. Once I found myself sitting in a living room in front of a big fireplace, and a woman was standing in front of me asking a question. Just as I was about to answer the question, I realized that I was sitting cross-legged in the meditation hall, in Burma. After that I increased my nightly sleep to about four hours and forty minutes, and the waking dreams didn't start until the last meditation of the evening, which was more manageable. Interestingly, when I told Sayadaw of these waking dreams, and that sometimes I was unable to differentiate imagination from reality, he told me that it isn't necessary to know the difference. Whether that was a wise statement or not, I can't say.
     I was still bothered by sleepiness, however, despite the increase in sleep, so I asked a supporter for some sugar, and I mixed it with water and drank a glass of it every afternoon, which helped keep me stimulated and awake. When I told this to Sayadaw he disgustedly informed me that nothing one puts into one's mouth can have any effect on the mind. I considered asking him, "What about alcohol, then?" but decided it would be better just to keep my mouth shut. 
     One peculiarity of Burmese Buddhism in general is that the Burmese put very little emphasis on the value of a quiet environment for meditation. Most Burmese people, like many people in traditional cultures, seem actually to like noise. (Why they like it is an interesting subject, but I won't tackle it here.) So, strangely perhaps, Sayadaw had a carpenter building sheet metal rain gutters under the eaves of the meditation hall; so right outside the windows a guy was literally pounding on sheet metal with a hammer—Bang Bang Bang Bang! It bothered me sometimes of course (after all, I am a Westerner), but then on one memorable occasion I had a kind of meditative breakthrough, and the sound simply passed through me, like light through a pane of glass. It didn't bother me at all. When I reported this to U Pandita he immediately sucked air through his clenched teeth, as though preparing to pounce, but then restrained himself, as I wasn't complaining at all.
     In fact, I readily admit that Sayadaw did try sometimes to be fair with me. He allowed me occasionally to recite the bhikkhu pāṭimokkha during walking meditation time, saying, "It is good not to forget." At the time I was relatively very strict in monastic discipline, and was making the transition over to small robes instead of the oversized ones that are standard nowadays: Instead of owning a lower robe, an upper robe, and a double-thickness outer robe, I owned a lower one, a small upper one, and a large, single-thickness upper one as my designated outer robe. When I washed the big one I wore the little one in the meditation hall, which Sayadaw didn't like, saying it was too small, so he offered me a jumbo-sized Thai forest robe to wear. I didn't use it though, and returned it to him. He also gave me a pair of sandals, as he disliked the old paint-splotched black ones I had which were made out of recycled car tires. But his efforts to like me, or at least to be equanimous toward me, became less and less successful.
     I assume this was partly because U Pandita was, and maybe still is despite his advanced age, an alpha male type, who instinctively dislikes cocky young men who potentially could become competitors for the position of Number One some day. My father also was like this. Also, I have found that the Dharma Teacher tends to be a territorial animal, and on his own turf Sayadaw was much more aggressive than when he was traveling through distant lands (although he could still be pretty gruff even in America). It's also possible that, since he was old enough to remember British colonial times, he might have had some small axe to grind with regard to big white people who speak English. He was notably more polite toward anyone who spoke fluent Burmese, which was not the case with me.
     Interestingly, Sayadaw was also noticeably more likely to be warm and friendly when speaking to attractive young women (especially if they spoke fluent Burmese besides). I'm not blaming him at all for this. In some way it's encouraging to know that an eighty-year-old meditation master with a reputation for being an Ariya can still like girls. Even the sharp-tongued interpreter (who might also have been a Mahasi Ariya, judging by his bold willingness to chastise monks) became all smiles when young lovelies were interviewed. I don't blame him, either.
     Bearing all the foregoing events in mind, especially U Pandita's anger and hostility, plus another issue involving the aforementioned Bangladeshi monk, by the end of my first month at Panditarama my attitude had undergone a significant change. At least once after having Sayadaw telling me what a no-good, drug-addicted troublemaker I was, a fellow meditator came up to me and told me not to be disheartened, as that was just Sayadaw's way of teaching. And it's true; it was Sayadaw's way of teaching—yet the anger, contempt, and hostility he displayed were obviously genuine. And it seemed to me at the time that anyone who gets angry just about every day and can positively dislike someone as he did couldn't possibly be all that wise. (Whether this judgement is true or not, I can't say with certainty, but that's the way I felt at the time.) So, I stopped taking Sayadaw so seriously, and pretty much stopped being intimidated by him. I didn't start making sarcastic retorts, much less start slapping him out of his chair, but I did start accepting his scoldings with a kind of bovine placidity, even considering it to be somewhat amusing, in a black humor sort of way. It may be that my unintimidated-ness caused him to become even more set against me.
     Around this same time, the starry-eyed Australian bhikkhu and I were briefly discussing Vinaya matters. He occasionally consulted me on matters of monastic discipline, and had asked if the towel, mosquito net, etc., that were standard issue in the dormitory rooms should be determined (as "accessory cloth") in order to avoid committing a nissaggiya pācittiya offense (if you don't know what that means, don't worry about it). I wasn't sure, so I thought about it for awhile. A little later he told me that he found out the answer from the Bangladeshi monk that I had been trying not to have a low opinion of. The Australian monk said something about him like, "He's a very good one; in fact he's an Ariya." 
     One of my eyebrows went up, and I said, "You think so, eh?"
     Then my friend replied, "I know so. Why do you think Sayadaw lets him act the way he does?" Then, to my amazement, he explained that all the people at Panditarama who weren't doing intensive meditation practice, which amounted to about half the population, probably more than a hundred people, were Ariyas. It turns out that in order to start the training to be a teacher of the Mahasi method one must first become a Sotāpanna, a "stage one" saint who has glimpsed Nibbana and is incapable of, among other things, deliberately breaking any of the five precepts. The Australian monk told me, "Sayadaw won't even talk to you unless you're at least a Sotāpanna."
     So about half the population of Panditarama, in the view of U Pandita, apparently, were Ariyas. And they were not very difficult to identify: They were the ones who weren't practicing. They were the ones who walked at normal speed and looked around instead of moving in slow motion and looking downward like the other yogis. They were the ones, very generally speaking, who didn't go to the meditation hall, who spent their time listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, talking, and just goofing around. I was amazed.
     This leads to a rather controversial issue in Burmese Theravada. It is my understanding that, according to the Mahasi tradition, if one "completes the course" of training in the method, experiencing everything the book says one ought to experience, then one is an Ariya, a Buddhist saint. I've been told that the Mahasi Center of Yangon, the central Center of the Mahasi tradition, used actually to give out a kind of certificate, or diploma of sainthood, to those who had finished the course. Apparently anomalies slip through though. For example, a retired surgeon who had become a bhikkhu told me that once a senior teacher at the Mahasi Center (and if he was a senior teacher he was almost certainly a Mahasi Ariya also), one fine day, went into the office, stole a large amount of money, and then ran off with one of the female meditators. Also, if telling lies includes breaking promises, like falsely promising to restrain oneself while making confession, then quite a few, maybe most, Mahasi Ariyas are able to break at least one precept. Pah Auk Sayadaw, founder and leader of one of the main rivals of the Mahasi method in Burma, used rarely to pass by the opportunity to insist that nobody could possibly become an Ariya by following the Mahasi method. Whether followers of the Mahasi method make similar remarks about the Pah Auk method I don't know.
     It is true that the Mahasi method deviates somewhat from strict Theravadin orthodoxy, although of course dedicated followers and teachers of the system may deny this. The main controversy in this regard, which has been going on since the 1950's, is whether or not khaika samādhi, "momentary concentration" which isn't even approaching jhāna, is sufficient for Ariyahood to be attained. Conservative dogmatic types like Pah Auk Sayadaw say no, with the texts backing them up. The scholars of the Mahasi method, however, have apparently appealed to some obscure statements in the medieval sub-commentaries to back up their position that deep contemplative states are unnecessary. Of course, from a Western point of view dogmatic orthodoxy is no proof of truth; and for all I know it is possible to become enlightened without being a meditation master. But that's just my perspective. I'm not inclined to take sides in the aforementioned controversy.
     But to believe that half the inhabitants of Panditarama, approximately, were partially enlightened Ariyas, especially considering their behavior, and their teacher's behavior too, was too much for my open-mindedness to handle. It caused a crash of faith in the system even more that Sayadaw's daily anger (if not at me, then at someone else) did.
     Once when I was washing my robe during a walking meditation period the notorious Bengali walked by. I asked if I could ask him a question, and he vehemently assured me that I could ask him anything. So I asked, "Do you believe you are an Ariya?"
     His eyes got big, and he said, "Oh, I can't tell you that!"
     I assured him that there was no offense in one monk telling another, but he insisted that he couldn't say. He did say, though, that he could say that "it is very difficult, but also very easy."
     Then I remarked that we're all insane, so it's difficult for us to do what is easy, and he agreed. Then he looked off into space for a few moments…and emitted a loud guffaw. He roared with laughter for a few seconds, then walked away.

     (to be continued…)


Sayadaw U Pandita, of the Mahasi Tradition



Saturday, July 6, 2013

It's Not the Words, It's the Vibration


     There are some people, including some Western Theravada Buddhist monks, who believe that the only suitable reading material is the scriptures of their own religion. However, I read much less Theravadin literature than otherwise. One reason for this is that if I want to learn about Theravada I can experience it from the inside out, so to speak. Other traditions I must learn about from the outside, and mainly by reading about them. I would rather eat chocolate than read about it; but if I want to know something about chocolate and have none to experience directly, then maybe I'll read a book about it.
     Another reason why I read so much non-Theravadin literature is that I do not believe, as orthodox tradition would have us believe, that Theravada has a monopoly on enlightenment. In fact I would not be surprised if there have been more enlightened Hindus, for example, than enlightened Theravada Buddhists. So reading the enlightenment literature of various traditions helps one to triangulate, in a way, and look toward Liberating Wisdom from various angles. This not only helps us to see this Wisdom more clearly, but it also helps us to see where enlightened beings, or at least very wise ones, agree—which may reinforce doctrines of our own chosen system, and also weaken other doctrines of that system which are unsupported by other teachers. If Theravada, or any other system, is the only one to teach, say, that there are a total of 4 ultimate realities (or maybe 82 of them), then we may assume that this system is more correct than any other in this respect, or, which is probably more likely, that it is unique to this system because it is an extraneous artifact and not essential to Liberating Wisdom or Truth. 
     One strange thing that I have learned from my studies of the various religions and yogic systems of the world is that some very advanced teachers have taught some very strange things, and that this very advanced teacher may say the exact opposite of what that very advanced teacher says. Some say we have free will, others deny it; some say we are born again (and may even give details of their own past lives or those of others), others deny it; some stress that morality is of fundamental importance; others deny it, or are silent on the issue. The confusion which arises from this fact is enough to cause many people to seek refuge in a single system and to ignore the rest, thereby facilitating a wholehearted, non-critical faith in the system of their choice—which includes the extraneous artifacts as well as the genuine wisdom.
     I do not and cannot operate in this wise, however, and so I have tried to understand why it is that two beings who may even be fully enlightened can teach mutually contradictory doctrines, and why it is that they, and possibly also some of their disciples, may be enlightened through following these seemingly incompatible belief systems. This issue used to trouble me sometimes; because I am rather head-oriented I want a philosophical approach that corresponds to Reality. As the years have gone by, I have started understanding.
     I read in a book many years ago two case histories concerning past life regression. In one case, a young woman suffered from severe bronchitis every winter. Ordinary precautions and modern medicine seemed incapable of preventing these attacks, so she somehow came upon hypnosis as a possible avenue to solving the problem. What happened was that in a hypnotic trance she apparently relived the end of her previous life: a Jewish woman dying of pneumonia in a German concentration camp around the time of WWII. After the cathartic experience of reliving this extremely emotionally charged situation, coughing and coughing with no one to help her, and understanding that this was the ultimate cause of the recurring bronchitis, her symptoms vanished, never to return.
     The other case was of a woman who experienced continual bouts of vertigo. She also was hypnotized, and she recalled a life as a village girl in pre-industrial Europe. The girl was in the habit of visiting a friend who was very ill, but when the friend eventually died she was accused of being a witch and the cause of the person's death. A mob of angry, superstitious villagers chased her out of the village, and she eventually came to a cliff's edge. She had the choice of being beaten to death by the mob (or possibly being burned at the stake) on one hand, and of taking her chances by jumping off the cliff on the other—so she jumped, to her death. The vertigo, supposedly, was the feeling of falling to her death, which created strong karma with long-lasting effects due to the emotional intensity of what she was experiencing. Anyway, in this case also her symptoms disappeared after she relived the original experience which presumably had initiated those symptoms.
     It seems to me that whether these two women were really reliving actual events in past lives is totally irrelevant. It is remarkable that simply "remembering" something that happened before they were ever conceived could be the catalyst which ended their troubles. I don't see how just remembering something like that could cure them of a tendency to bronchitis, or of dizzy spells; what seems more likely is that a feeling of "Aha, that's it," gave them a sense of closure, and a feeling that they were ready to leave their particular troubles behind.
     My father was an amateur hypnotist, and once he hypnotized a woman to help her understand and overcome a morbid aversion she had of green, slimy things like algae. She was regressed, and remembered as a child being locked in a spring house full of moldy milk cans by her elder brother. As a result of this regression her phobia disappeared...despite the fact that she'd never lived near a spring house in her life, and didn't have a brother. Another past life maybe? Anyway, it worked.
     In psychology jargon this kind of phenomenon is called "abreaction." It is the releasing of pent-up emotions by re-experiencing the traumatic experience which originally caused them. Psychologists have found that when treating someone with, say, post traumatic stress disorder, if the patient's traumatic experience is so painful that he or she can't bear to relive the experience, then even "reliving" a similar experience that didn't really happen can have the same healing effect. The patient is not straightened out by facts, but by a feeling.
     I know of a spiritual teacher who has developed a system based on a kind of Socratic method, in which she questions her clients/disciples repeatedly, going more and more deeply to the root of an issue until some insight arises which helps to resolve the issue. The system does not allow complex answers, like, "Well, it's partly this and partly that," and encourages one to answer with the first words that feel right which occur to one's mind. Consequently, one may be questioned on the same issue more than once and come up with very different answers each time. I can't be sure, but I suspect that, again, it is not so much a true, insightful realization of some resolution to the issue at hand, but a satisfying feeling of "Aha, that's it," which mainly helps those who follow the method to derive genuine benefit from it. And some people do derive genuine, life-changing benefit from it. Whether or not the answers arrived at are actually true may be largely or even totally irrelevant.
     I have gradually realized, not only with regard to hypnotic regressions and reflective questioning, but also with regard to the highest teachings of the most advanced spiritual masters, that the point of view of anybody, enlightened or not, is conditioned by culture, human nature, etc.; and I have also gradually realized that, ultimately, words cannot describe Reality. And thus, the articulated belief system is not really the point. Words are limited, conditioned symbols which attempt to represent some perception in our mind, and even that perception is a far cry from Ultimate Reality. A symbol is just a symbol, and trying to find Ultimate Truth in symbols is like trying to pick fruit off the letters "t-r-e-e." Although a worldly teacher may teach mainly through words, when an enlightened teacher teaches, his or her actual words are of secondary importance at best. As Eckhart Tolle has said, in a spiritual teaching, the silences between the words may be more important than the words themselves.
     When a spiritual teacher teaches, he or she is speaking from a realization, attempting to put silence (i.e. what is beyond words), relative or Absolute, into words, and thus the effect of the words is to lead one to silence. It has been said that the words of a Zen master are like arrows shot by a master archer which shoot down the arrows shot by another; his words knock another's words (ideas, beliefs) out of the air, causing both to fall to the ground—and leaving silence in their place. And it is from this silence, this absence of dogma, reasoning, and habitual inner chatter, that realization can most easily arise.
     Consequently, since a truly wise being is speaking from this realization at all times, since she or he does not differentiate between worldly life and Dharma, one will very probably derive more benefit from learning how to make strawberry jam from a sage than one would from learning the nature of Ultimate Reality from a common worldling. If the worldly teacher at least parrots dogma derived from an enlightened being, then some vestigial wisdom may filter through; but the effect of just sitting in the presence of a true sage will be much greater, probably, than any number of academic seminars or teachings from people more interested in being popular teachers than in sharing a vision of Reality.
     Bearing all this in mind, sometimes I reject my own advice to others not to set up an ideal for emulation, in this case with regard to how I would like to teach Dharma: I think the best Dharma teachers just sit down in front of an audience, open their mouths, and let the wisdom that's always there flow out—and their refined vibration, and the words resonating with this vibration, uplifts the audience seemingly effortlessly. They don't prepare speeches to deliver, and they often ramble from one subject to another rather haphazardly. It is the vibration that really counts. At my best I can do this, kind of, but I usually prepare an outline of things to cover, and I may not get really spontaneous and near to my maximum potential until toward the end of a talk, maybe during the necessarily more spontaneous Q&A session at the end. 
     But when a talk is going very well, and enough people in the audience are engaged, then it is as though "the spirit comes upon me" and I am often just as surprised by what I say as anyone else. The talk is no longer coming from "me." I think this happens with many teachers of Dharma. Ram Dass used to say that when people would come up and thank him after he gave a talk, he would ask them if after a violin concerto they would go up and thank the violin. A true teacher of Dharma is just an instrument, and the music played on one may sound very different from that played on another, even though the inspiration, the "player," may be just as divine. Which do you prefer: violin, sitar, organ, or wooden flute? Take your pick.
     Sometimes I am comforted by the idea that most of my supporters in Bellingham do not support me because they have been conditioned to support monks, as is the case with Asian Buddhist people, nor do they do it out of gratitude for what I have taught them, as few people in town seem very eager to learn what I am able to teach, nor do they do it out of a belief that I am a Holy Man; most of my supporters seem just to like having me around because my presence has, I suppose, some kind of soothing effect upon their lives. In a way I seem to be a relatively calm eye in a storm of worldly American "issues." So, the quieter I am inside, the more I help people, regardless of what I say or do.


Ramana Maharshi, a very advanced saint and sage,
who worshipped a hill called Arunachala and wrote devotional verses to it,
whose best friend was a cow,
and who blessed and uplifted people while sitting in silence