Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility.
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.
Go alone like the horn of the rhinoceros. (—the refrain of the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta)
By quoting the first verse above I'm not necessarily implying that I'm a just man, or even a lion.
In scientific circles they say that there is no such thing as a failed experiment—at the very least one learns what doesn't work. Also they say that a successful experiment is a result of the experimenter making an even number of mistakes which cancel each other out. My experiment with living in the West as a "free range" bhikkhu is thus not exactly a failed experiment, but it seems that an odd number of mistakes were made. Anyway, it seems to be pretty much over for the present. Around the beginning of December I'll probably return to Southeast Asia, and there's no telling when I'll come back for another go.
Since my return to the West from rural Burma in May of 2011, I've been struck again and again by the seemingly bizarre fact that it is difficult for a veteran bhikkhu to survive among Western Theravada Buddhists. There have been times, especially during my first year in Bellingham after returning from Burma, when it seemed much like the following scenario: A veteran surgeon moves into a small town with no doctor, but with an organization which teaches first aid. Some of the teachers of this organization have a kind of first aid certificate, while others no not, and some know relatively little about the practice of medicine. The doctor makes himself known to this organization, offering to help teach some more refined aspects of doctoring—and is given the cold shoulder, receiving disdain from some of the first aid group, with tinges of resentment from some, and being largely ignored by the majority of them. This was a surprise, partly because I had come from probably the most devout Theravada Buddhist country in the world, where even doctors and school teachers, let alone monks, may have people literally bowing on the ground before them, out of respect and gratitude. America is a brave new world.
Of course, some who have read my recent post "Let This Be a Lesson" may say, with or without vitriol, that I am unworthy of support anyhow; but upon arrival in Bellingham in 2011 my rascality was pretty much a non-issue. If it is used as an excuse for non-support by some folks in Bellingham it is used mostly retroactively. In fact I was still relatively very strict in my practice upon arrival. I could have been a saint for all the local insight meditation society cared. So the main reason for my relative non-welcome, aside from the subjective fruition of my own karma, was something else entirely.
A major reason, methinks, was my relative lack of social graces. After all, I've been essentially a recluse for most of my adult life. I do not wish to be dishonest or hypocritical, and one manifestation of that is that I generally don't say "I'm sorry" if I'm not sorry, "I'd like to, but I can't" when I can but just don't want to, "It's nice to meet you" when it's really not very nice, and all the other polite little lies that are required by the "civilized society" that I renounced. Also I lack tact, and call things as I see them, even if it is politically incorrect to do so. (For example, at my very first Dharma talk in Bellingham I was indignantly heckled by a young American woman for stating that America has a superficial, greed-based culture, and that the Burmese, despite their material poverty, are generally happier than we are.) I read a textbook on military strategy long ago which says that a direct, frontal assault is the very worst way of conquering an opponent; and my confrontational tactlessness often has the effect of such an assault. People tend to feel threatened and uncomfortable when their point of view is challenged, and challenging points of view is my specialty. Consequently, making people uncomfortable is also my specialty, which is nowhere near to being the path to popularity.
I've spent years developing my mental faculties in an atypical direction that most people develop in a haphazard, desultory manner, if at all; and I have largely ignored other directions which are seen as basic to worldly existence. People in the Western world especially have little or no appreciation for the results of my strange efforts, partly because it's clean off their radar. Spending many years living in caves and gazing at blank walls appears to count for little in the West. The results of that kind of behavior are not always obvious, or are seen negatively.
It seems to me that, as a general rule, human beings buy into a system, and identify with it to some degree, considering it to be the "right" way. So if somebody else comes along who doesn't buy into that same system, it seems to be human nature to disdain or even resent that person. To make matters worse, I was a Theravada Buddhist who obviously didn't buy into a system that people in Bellingham were calling "Theravada Buddhism"; this, I suppose, bred disdain or even resentment among some of the Bellingham lay "sangha." The trick for me is not to fall into the same tendency, and to resent those not buying into my preferred system. If others perceive that I actually disdain what they cherish, whether it be Western-style Buddhism or Western materialistic humanism in general, it amplifies the intensity of the predicament.
Anyway, the "great experiment" in Bellingham was pretty much finalized by three events, all of which occurred within one week: the aforementioned recent blog post, the third annual forest fast, and my last public talk at the local Dharma hall. The blog post manifested first, but its major effects came last, so it will be discussed after the other two.
The Pacific Northwest of the United States seems like a perfect place for meditation-oriented hikes and camping trips, with a multitude of excellent forest areas practically devoid of anything dangerous (like venomous snakes or anopheles mosquitoes); and from my arrival in Bellingham I wanted to set up something like this. But my efforts met with indifference, and the only such events to actually happen were the annual forest fasts. We would go out into the remote foothills of the North Cascades Mountains and meditate and fast for three to four days, living on nothing but air and unfiltered mountain river water. The rule stating that high-tech water purification systems were not allowed resulted in considerable disapproval and some complaint; but the rule itself was a filter of sorts, filtering out materialistic Westerners who have more faith in high-tech water filters than in Dharma. (If you look after Dharma, Dharma looks after you.) This filter worked very effectively. Anyway, for this and many other reasons, including busy-ness, lukewarmness, and the acceptance issues mentioned above, the total number of people who went on the fast in 2011 was three, and in the next two years, two.
This year a friend named Steve and I went out and fasted in the woods for 3½ days, finishing the last half-day in town largely because Steve had to work the last day. One of the highlights for me was that on the third day three large birds, apparently juvenile turkey vultures, circled overhead, I assume to see if Steve and I were dying. Another highlight was on the very first day when I was collecting firewood: I experienced a rush of consciousness in which I became peculiarly aware of the movements of my body as I walked, and more aware of the process of consciousness itself, in an almost psychedelic experience. (This sort of thing is much more likely to occur in Burma than America, although being in a remote forest was a suitable opportunity for it.) The fast has always had a good effect on my disposition, and although it was somewhat uncomfortable, and although we were rained on one day, I came back expanded and "chilled out."
The day after the fast ended I gave my last talk at the Dharma hall, on the topic of the two main orientations to spirituality: heart and head, feminine and masculine, religion and philosophy, or "faith and reason." (I won't summarize the talk here, but probably will in a future post.) The attendance was perhaps larger than usual—about 15 to 18 people—and it went relatively well, partly because I kept losing my place in the notes and was required to speak more or less spontaneously. I actually approached my idea of a "good" Dharma talk by going into a mild meditative state while speaking, almost doing what New Age people would call channeling. The talk was well received, and several people came up and thanked me for it afterwards.
This was about five days after the publication of the controversial "Let This Be a Lesson" post on this blog; and although there was some anticipation of trouble at the Dharma hall because of it, I guessed, and rightly, that almost nobody in the meditation society except for a few friends reads this blog anyway. Consequently, there were no complications at the talk because of it. But complications were in the works.
I was informed afterwards that the same person who had sent me a kind of "hate email" on a previous occasion (quoted in the Special Anniversary Issue, 1 June 2013) had for some unknown reason read the soon-to-be-controversial post, and began agitating some senior members to have my talk cancelled. (I would prefer to assume that someone else had told him of it, rather than that he was simply prowling the blog looking for something to use as a weapon.) The senior teachers knew of his antagonism toward my association with the meditation society, and didn't pay him much heed. It was only after the talk was given that his persistent agitation urged other members to read the post. One senior member considered it to be uncomfortably, excessively personal, and then ironically sent it out to all of the teaching staff of the meditation society. Some of them apparently used the post as retroactive justification for never having had much to do with me in the first place. The one who circulated the post, who incidentally is a very conscientious and likable person in my opinion, went to the extent of contacting me to request that I remove the post from the blog. I refused, saying that too much truth makes people uncomfortable (as T. S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality"), and asking him to consider the following question: What is the purpose of the local insight meditation society—Is it a truly spiritual organization where the members take a hard look at the truth, even if it is uncomfortable, for the sake of waking up? Or is it mainly just a social club where people go to relax and feel good about themselves? I personally feel that the second description is more accurate than the first; but such an opinion, if perceived by the members of the "sangha," is not conducive to popularity at all. I would guess that the second description is more accurate with regard to most Western meditation groups, as well as to most Presbyterian church organizations...probably to most Western societies that are intended to be spiritual.
Anyway, the teachers of the society discussed the possibility of discussing whether or not simply to ban me from giving talks at the Dharma hall in future. On the other hand, having a relatively senior member (the aforementioned agitator) whose behavior is sometimes obviously motivated by hatred seems to be swept under the carpet by a presumably spiritual organization. I see this as ironic.
So, to make a long story even longer, I am now residing at a little Burmese temple in the San Francisco Bay Area of California again, anticipating a return to Asia after my rains retreat is finished. The Internet connection is good here, which is a plus; and people are happy to feed me every day, which is another plus; but I am rather sedentary and get little exercise, and I don't really fit in here so well. Consequently, I'm not sure when I'll return to the West, and if I do return I don't yet know to where I will return. Maybe to stay in Asia would be best for me, as America can take a lot out of a guy.
If I do return, it may be up to you, dear readers. What I would like most of all is to find people who can appreciate my peculiar brand of radical cage rattling—people who can appreciate having their point of view, and their "comfort zone," challenged. As I've already said, that seems to be what I specialize in. I know you are out there (this month, according to my stats page, this blog averaged more than 90 "hits" a day). I derive little satisfaction from trying to teach people who just want to feel comfortable, or who are trying to sew new patches onto old cloth, to use a Christian metaphor. If they are beginners mainly trying to de-stress and find some balance I can certainly help them with that, and am happy to; but if they've been at it for years and their concept of Dharma practice still doesn't go much beyond that, then it just doesn't seem worth it. There are plenty of other teachers out there who specialize in that sort of thing.
I have found that to be appreciated in what one has to offer is invaluable. It is a great encouragement, and without it one may easily lose one's inspiration and enthusiasm, as I have sometimes done here in the West. The inspiration and encouragement between a teacher and a student goes both ways. And to have someone believe in you is one of the greatest supports and blessings there is in this world. It is almost as important as believing in yourself (not egocentrism or narcissism, but knowing that your potential is literally infinite, and that Divinity is already to be found in you). But I can get along without that kind of support, if necessary.
If I am to be supported, I would naturally prefer to be supported for being "myself," and for doing what I do best. I refuse even to try to live up to what other people think I should be like, especially if they are worldly-minded people who don't even know me. To use a New Age catchword, let us be "authentic." I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I'd rather die than knuckle under to politically correct public opinion, and the mandatory emasculation of spiritually-oriented Western men. I'd rather go down fighting; better to die in battle than to live in defeat. As the Pali idiom has it, "I wear muñja grass." Maybe what America needs is a kind of spiritual Fight Club.
Anyway, one experiment that is not yet over is this blog. I intend to continue with it for as long as I can—hopefully I'll have Internet access in Burma.