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



  1. Bhante:

    I usually find your writings either entertaining or illumining. Sometimes both. Thank you for writing this essay. I know the Buddha says that one has to be indifferent to praise and blame, but I shall say this anyway: This post is one of the wisest essays I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time.

    I am a Buddhist, in the sense that I accept the Four Noble Truths and find much of the Buddha's teaching (as preserved in the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions)to hold sensible truths for me to navigate this world.

    But by some karmic quirk (or "predicament" to quote Ram Dass), for about two years now I found myself having developed a devotional "thing" for Ram Dass' guru Neem Karoli Baba AKA Maharaj-ji. Can't get Maharaj-ji out of my mind and when I look at his photos and "talk" to him, I feel a sense of peace and connection and "rightness", as if a circuit has been connected.

    What's a Buddhist doing with an old Hindu guy in a blanket whose been dead for forty years? One part of me wants to preserve a "Buddhist" identity, but another part of me is weary of sectarianism in religion and wants to embrace a spirituality that goes beyond partisanship.

    Recently I decided to keep all the Maharaj-ji photos displayed at home. But my heart felt vacant and after a few weeks, I've permitted one photo to return. I resumed "conversing" with Maharaj-ji again and the circuit was connected. But I can't help feeling a nagging sense of unease: "I'm supposed to be Buddhist. The Buddha was a non-theist. What's with all this bhakti and Maharaj-ji?"

    Hope you don't mind me pouring my heart out on your blog. I guess I shall end here with a "Got any advice?"

    Thank you.

    1. Well, all I can say is that if I have a guru, I suspect he is Maharaj-ji! I have an old picture of him (one where he's giving a stern look with one finger raised) that I've put up in Burmese caves, and that I carry around with me wherever I travel. I don't exactly worship him, but I revere him; and he is one of the very few people I know of, of whom I can say, "I'd like to be like that."

      I think the Buddha would not at all disapprove of Maharaj-ji. We still have to work out our own liberation, though. Neither the Buddha nor Maharaj-ji will do it for us.

  2. U.Ponnobhasa I like this blog very much!


  3. "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."

    This is just one of the ideas about the nature of language (and truth), while there are many ideas around on this (see for example the Wiki entry on Truth / Theories of truth).

    For example, almost juxtaposed to the above quoted idea is the Hindu idea of "Vedic sound" - where, basically, it is considered that the words themselves have a special power that can transform the consciousness of the listener/hearer. Of course, different words have different power - note the idea of mantras, where a person doesn't even have to understand the mantra for the speaking or hearing the mantra to have effect.

  4. what is yogic systems of the world ? Would you care to explain it .

    1. The yogic systems of the world? Well, with regard to yoga yoga, i.e. the Indian system based on the Sankhya philosophy which is simply called Yoga, as far as I know there are traditionally four main systems, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga, and raja yoga, emphasizing devotion to a deity or guru, the performance of good works and service to one's fellow humans, philosophical inquiry, and mystical contemplation, respectfully.

      With regard to yogic systems in general, just about every major religious system in the world has some yogic tradition or other. In addition to the contemplative and ascetic traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism there are yogic traditions in Jainism, Christianity (especially in the contemplative monastic orders), Judaism (like in the Hassidic mystical systems), and Islam (especially in Sufism), just to give a few examples.

      By "yogic" I mainly mean systems involving self-discipline and meditation/contemplation for the sake of the cultivation of wisdom.

  5. I once asked a friend who she prayed to if everything was One. Her reply helped me to learn to pray, although I very rarely do it. She said, (Paraphrased) "When I need help moving a couch, I call a friend and ask him to come help. When I need an idea or belief moved, I call a friend from another realm to come help me. I may not know for sure they exist, but the belief that I have help on the other side of the curtain is invaluable to my ability to move the belief."

    I have no way of knowing, but it seems to me that such an experience might be so in regards to Guru worship; in the words of HHDL, "Suffering is needed until one realizes that suffering is no longer needed." Guru's are needed until one realizes that Guru's are no longer needed, then they are thought of as one might think of the Buddha.

    Like you, my friend, I find it interesting that those who tend to help me do so more out of a desire to have me around than for learning something that I teach. For someone not skilled in the art of maintaining friendships, it always fascinates me. I have explained the experience in the past as acceptance; in my experience of you, there is the sense that, "This, too..." and yet you get to there by going through here. By being here, we will arrive there.