Saturday, February 22, 2014

"God" As a Very Convenient Hypothesis/Axiom/Myth


     By reality and perfection I mean the same thing. —Benedict Spinoza

     Sub ishwar hai. ("It's all God.") —Neem Karoli Baba

     One spiritual skill I have been working on for years is the ability to love everybody. At the personality level (the level of "my own" personality, not other people's personalities), I have not been extremely successful. It has been difficult, not because loving everybody is hard work—as it is ultimately effortless—but because it requires enough awakeness to break through or transcend semiconscious, automatic habits; and loving everybody is not one of my semiconscious, automatic habits. Even if somebody does have loving everybody as an automatic habit, it's probably not very deep, very high-quality love, being semiconscious and all. Love requires awakeness. Still, such a person would be fortunate.
     The easiest way I have found for loving everybody, which sometimes I can maintain for several whole minutes at a stretch, is to see everyone as manifestations of Divinity and perfection, i.e., as "God." If an old lady is putting rice into my bowl, the shaking of her hands is perfect; the spots on the backs of her hands are perfect; the wrinkles on her cheeks, her failing eyesight, not to mention her care, generosity, and faith—all perfect. A shy little girl with big eyes drops food into my bowl and backs away, stumbling over something behind her, and she stumbles with infinite grace. A boy coughs perfectly. A dog snarls perfectly, snarling being just the thing for him to do at that moment. The sweat trickling down my sides trickles perfectly. The situation is rather like that of the little boy in J. D. Salinger's short story "Teddy," a kid from New York in the 1950's, who somehow becomes enlightened: one day he looks at his little sister sitting in her highchair drinking milk and realizes that he's seeing God pouring God into God. At a different level of seeing things from the usual one, a very high level of seeing the world, everything is already perfect, just the way it is. It's all "God."
     By "God," of course, I don't mean a large, angry, bearded old man who sits on a throne in outer space and is pretty much like Santa Claus except not nearly so jolly, being assisted by angels instead of elves, and wearing a white suit instead of a red one. "God" does not give an Irish damn about answering prayers, has no chosen people, makes no choices at all actually, has no beard, and is not even an individual being. By "God" I mean, essentially, the infinite, formless consciousness (or spirit, or energy, or ¿_?) that pervades the entire Universe, an Absolute . The tricky thing is that anything that is absolutely infinite and formless has no handles that one can get a grip on; it completely transcends the psychologically generated duality of "is" and "isn't," and cannot be distinguished from pure Nothingness. (If this seems to make no sense, it is because absolute Infinity, Ultimate Reality, transcends the "is" of sense. It cannot really be perceived or imagined, much less scientifically proven.) So "God" is just a convenient handle that, however convenient, really doesn't attach to anything. Or else it attaches to everything, depending upon how we wish to choose.
     Incidentally, this way of seeing everybody as manifestations of "God" was facilitated for me by the fact that for years I have adopted "The Simile of the Block of Marble" as my metaphysical Theory of Everything (TOE), in which all phenomena are just potential, virtual images of a sizeless, shapeless Infinity which the Tao Te Ching calls "the nameless uncarved block." (Ironically, although it evoked few comments, and although one person remarked that I had "jumped the shark" by posting it, I consider that article on the subject, posted 5 January '13, to be, pretty much, the central article of this blog, a kind of axis around which all the rest revolves.) For other people the perspective may be facilitated in other ways, such as by an inclination to monotheism, or even by just the open-hearted bliss that comes with exercising the idea.
     I suppose the reason why it is easier to love everybody if one sees them as manifestations of "God" is that "God" implies, practically by definition, divine perfection; and as good a definition as any for the word "perfect" is the term "totally acceptable"; furthermore, since love is essentially open-hearted acceptance, we arrive at a clear logical progression—"God" is perfection, and what is perfect is totally acceptable, and what is totally acceptable is totally lovable; therefore "God" is totally lovable. The same goes for every manifestation of "God." This doesn't feel logical though, in practice. It just flows, naturally and spontaneously. 
     Although other people may be the other way round, throughout my life I've found it easier to see miraculousness and Divinity in nature than in members of my own species. I can see "God" more easily in a lizard, or the moon, or a mangey dog, or a beautiful girl, more easily than I can see It in an ordinary human being. I'm not sure why this is. From a Buddhist point of view, maybe I've spent hundreds of past lives as a Stone Age cave-dweller finely attuned to, and deeply appreciative of, nature. Or from a biological point of view, maybe the parts of my brain that specialize in social instincts, face recognition, and so forth help keep my own species at a more mundane level of perception. Or maybe their similarity to me causes me to see them with jaded eyes. I don't know. It used to be that even blessing a child could be difficult for me; I'd look at the kid and think things like, "How can I realistically bless this kid with good fortune, or a happy life, or anything truly blessed? Look at him. Look at his parents. Look at the meagerness of his prospects in life. How can anything glorious be expected of him?" But lately I look at those same kids, and sometimes I see that they are already glorious, just the way they are. They're already perfect, they're already "God." And the same goes for their feeble, faithful grandmothers and their mangey dogs. Sub ishwar hai. Gawd.

A perfect manifestation of "God"

     I must admit, though, that it's much easier to love others if they also love you. To accept someone open-heartedly who openly despises you can be quite the challenge. And naturally it's much easier to see "God" in everyone if they see "God" in you. (Someone like Ammachi might have such a positive feedback loop going that makes this easier and easier for both parties.) I suppose this is a big reason why it's easier for me to love Burmese villagers than to love most Americans. I would guess that neither my supporters or my detractors in the West have much conception of the fact that in some parts of upper Myanmar I am literally revered like a deity ("a nonviolent Colonel Kurtz"). Even so, I would prefer to live in the West most of the time, if I could manage to do it spiritually. Maybe in part this is because I need to learn how to love Americans better. After all, they're more my own species.
     But all this kind of talk is not particularly Buddhist, not Theravada Buddhist anyway—not only the business about "God," but also the idea that everything is ultimately a manifestation of perfection. Buddhism teaches that everything in this world (and every possible world) is not perfect, that everything is dissatisfactory, in accordance with the First Noble Truth. But still, seeing (and loving) everyone as "God" can be justified, to some extent, even by strict Buddhist standards.
     Mainly the issue hinges on the difference between Ultimate Truth and relative truth. The First Noble Truth of Dukkha applies to relative truth, to Samsara; but if one transcends relative truth, and transcends the dualistic distinctions of self and other, of right and wrong, of enlightenment and unenlightenment, of relative and Ultimate, one accesses an undifferentiated Absolute that may as well be called "God" as Nirvana. Anything we say about the Absolute will necessarily be relative, and therefore invalid. So talking about It as "God" is invalid, yet talking about It as "Nirvana" is equally invalid. But if we are going to talk, we've got to say something—again, it depends on how we wish to choose. So long as we realize that what we say, and think, is ultimately invalid, but is simply a worldly convenience, then it doesn't matter. It's important to realize that, though.
     Mahayana Buddhism, some schools of which are metaphysically much more sophisticated than Theravada (methinks), has generally expressed a deeper appreciation of this idea of a timeless Absolute which is completely off the scale—giving It names like the Dharmakāya, the One Mind, the Indeterminate Ground, etc. etc. Also, I have read that the Advaita Vedanta of ven. Shankara was significantly influenced by the philosophy of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana, despite the ironic facts that Vedanta acknowledges the existence of "God" while Madhyamaka, the school of Emptiness, declares that even consciousness itself is not ultimately real, and that all is Void. The thing is that Shankara's "God" and Nagarjuna's "Void" melt together quite effortlessly. The two systems go about spirituality somewhat differently, but that is simply because their formulators chose somewhat different ways of approaching the unapproachable—with each way being "right" to the extent that it works.
     Getting back to the exalted (or humble) idea of loving everyone, one may consider what motivation a strictly orthodox Theravada Buddhist would have for this. Theravadins can't see everyone as "God," and thus as perfectly lovable, because Theravadins are metaphysically atheists. Nor does Theravada teach that we are all ultimately sharing the same essence or spirit, that we are all a big us. Loving everyone would not appear to be metaphysically necessary. It is true that the Pali texts encourage us to have love and compassion for everybody; but we Westerners especially might consider a purely dogmatic sense of duty to be not particularly inspiring or motivating. So, without an underlying "God" or essential interconnectedness, why should we love everybody? I suppose one good reason is that having love and compassion for everyone, putting ourselves in their place, feeling their own lives to be as important as our own, makes our practice of morality and ahimsa much easier, practically effortless. If we are so open-heartedly accepting of another being that we feel their pain as our own, then naturally we won't want to cause them pain; and if we are so finely tuned that we would feel even the slightest negativity or attachment as pain and enslavement, then we pretty much have no choice but to uplift and help everyone, if we can.
     Anyway, if you can manage to love everybody along orthodox Buddhist lines, with no hint of "God" at all, then that's lovely, and good for you. But for beings like me it's easier to veer off into unorthodoxy a little ways and occasionally think in terms of "God"—while bearing in mind that it's just a convenient axiom, a valuable myth. You pays your money and you takes your choice.


not like this

EPILOGUE: On the morning I finished writing this essay on universal love and compassion, I was building a fire for heating coffee water in front of the cave. Soon after the fire started burning well I noticed a small spider crawling on the sticks that were catching fire. I had to make a quick decision: to scatter the burning sticks and put out the fire in the hopes of saving the spider, or to let the spider take its own chances at saving itself. I decided that putting the fire out would be too inconvenient, and let the spider try to save itself, and it probably burned to death. Practical Dharma is a magnifying glass for cosmic issues.
     







Saturday, February 15, 2014

Children of Mammon


     Several years ago I corresponded with a German bhikkhu who tried to persuade me to live at Pah Auk Forest Monastery, in southern Burma. I tried to explain to him that I had serious doubts about the validity of the Pah Auk approach to Dhamma: to give just one example, its theory is based heavily on Abhidhamma and the commentarial tradition, neither of which I considered to be particularly reliable. Thus in order for me to live amongst the community at Pah Auk I would have to be a pretty serious hypocrite. The German monk replied that not believing in the system was no problem (he had doubts about it also), since ven. Pah Auk Sayadaw considers all foreigners to have Wrong View anyway! As though the Sayadaw's conviction that I was a hopeless case of an ignorant barbarian could be an incentive for me to want to go and live with him.
     Actually, this view attributed to the Sayadaw—that all foreigners have Wrong View—is relatively common in Burma, especially among university-educated people and those with relatively high social status. (This applies not only to us Western barbarians, but even to the Thais and the Sinhalese.) Thus Western monks, even senior ones who have lived in Burma for years, may find themselves in situations where a polite, well-bred Burmese gentleman is speaking to them as though they don't know much of anything, trying to explain to them elementary principles of meditation, or trying to explain who Mahasi Sayadaw was (one of the most famous and influential Burmese monks of the 20th century), or suggesting that this or that Sayadaw ought to be their teacher. But after years of living in Burma, I started wondering if maybe things were the other way round—I wondered if any of the Burmese could ever really understand Truth, considering how thickly culturally conditioned they are. How can they get out of the box? How can they escape from such a rigid container?
     Then I came back to America in 2011, and gained some insight into ven. Pah Auk Sayadaw's (alleged) perspective. One of the first things that really struck me about American Buddhism is that most of its followers appear to be devout materialists. And by "materialists" I don't mean people just chasing after money and identifying themselves with their material possessions. I mean scientific materialists who are thoroughly convinced not only that physical matter is ultimately real, but that science is the ultimate authority for explaining reality, that we are totally enslaved by scientific Laws of Physics, that our minds are totally enslaved by brain chemistry and physiology, that anything taught in Buddhism that cannot be explained by science is to be ignored or rejected, that miracles or psychic powers (or even the findings of parapsychologists) are simply artifacts of superstition, gullibility, and/or fraud, that karma is just a metaphor, that heaven, hell, and rebirth probably don't exist, and that Nirvana, if it exists at all, is necessarily just a scientifically measurable psychological state. Even many teachers of Buddhism in America are materialists in this sense. I can't help but wonder sometimes, is this true Dharma? And if not, can its followers truly be called Buddhists?
     The whole issue of who is and is not a Buddhist may be a difficult and complicated one. Long ago I read of a Western Buddhist conference in which one of the topics for discussion was, What is it that qualifies a person as a Buddhist? Considering all the different schools of Buddhism, from Theravada to Nichiren and beyond, and considering how some of them teach mutually contradictory principles, the best they could come up with was this: A Buddhist is anyone who considers himself or herself to be "a Buddhist." But that's not a very satisfying definition, is it.
     A few examples may help clarify the whole question, if not the whole answer. Plenty of Christians in the West nowadays do not believe in miracles. They have stopped resisting scientific theory, and accept the idea that science explains reality. I once read a Bible commentary written by an Anglican clergyman, and officially approved by the Church of England, which declared that even Jesus of Nazareth did not perform miracles. He didn't walk on water. He didn't raise Lazarus from the dead. He didn't turn water into wine. And if he did actually heal the sick, he simply used the persuasiveness of his charisma to cure them of psychosomatic hysterical symptoms, all in accordance with scientifically explainable principles. But if the miracles of faith are out of the picture, and if the universe's workings can be explained entirely according to physics and chemistry, then it would seem that the miraculous power of God would be pretty much unnecessary—in fact God Himself might be pretty much unnecessary. Which leads to the interesting question, Could a Christian be an atheist? Can a person believe in Christianity and not believe in God at the very same time? I suppose a person could be an atheist, yet revere Jesus of Nazareth as a very great man and adopt his life as a kind of role model, and his ethical teachings as a standard to live by—without, of course, Jesus being his personal savior, since Jesus was just a man, and he died, and, let's face it, when you're dead you're dead. It may be perceived that this kind of strange, atheistic Christianity begins to resemble Western Theravada Buddhism, since even traditional, orthodox Theravada asserts that there is no Creator God, and that Gotama Buddha was only human, and is now dead. This may help to explain, a little, why Theravada is becoming so popular in the West. But I suppose I'd better switch to a different example now. 
     Imagine there is a person who vehemently declares herself to be Jewish; she proudly insists that she could walk into any synagogue in the country and be acknowledged by the rabbi there to be a legitimate Jew. However, she is not a monotheist, and considers Yahweh to be merely the patron deity of the Hebrews, somewhat like the ancient Brahmins' Indra or the ancient Romans' Mars or Quirinus, and not really the Creator of the Universe. Also, she doesn't follow Jewish law, not even all Ten Commandments, and even breaks rules that, according to the authority of the Old Testament itself, disqualify her from being a Jew. (Let's say she eats baconburgers during Passover week.) On the other hand, she is a devout practitioner of Theravada Buddhism: she sits in satipatthana meditation every day, takes Three Refuges and keeps Five Precepts, has large passages of Pali memorized by heart, and considers the Pali Tipitaka to be at least 90% authentic, true, and reliable. She obviously believes in Buddhism more than she believes in Judaism. But even so, she vehemently denies that she is a Buddhist. She is Jewish. Well, what can we say of this person? What is her real religion? Let us hypothesize, for the sake of convenience, setting aside this person's outward declarations and considering only her spiritual beliefs and practices, that she is 25% Jewish and 75% Buddhist. Well, should a person who is 25% Jewish be called really Jewish, or would it be more accurate to call her a crypto-Buddhist? How about 5% Jewish? How about 1%? For the sake of convenience again, and for the sake of eliminating confusion with regard to, say, whether someone bearing trace amounts of Jewishness could realistically be called a Jew, for the remainder of this article I will go with the following assumption, which, after all, seems pretty much self-evident:
One's main religion, or belief system, is the one that one has the most faith in, or believes in more than any other; and if one is to be called a follower of a religion or belief system, say a Buddhist, Christian, or ____ist, then one is most accurately and correctly called a follower  of one's main religion, or belief system.
One reason why I threw in the term "belief system" is because many people in the West, including some Buddhists, have a certain emotional antipathy for the word "religion," especially with regard to themselves. The same goes for "faith" and its equivalent. Another reason is that many people in the West are religious without even realizing it, so "belief system" may make the following line of discussion somewhat less impossible to swallow.
     A couple of years ago, mainly in response to the American Buddhism I was seeing, I wrote a longish article entitled "Buddhism and Scientism," in which I put forth as strong a case as I could manage to the effect that scientific materialism, or "Scientism," is a faith-based religion. I doubt that the article produced a significant effect on anyone who read it. For the Buddhists who already believed Dharma more than they believed Scientism, I was just singing to the choir; but I would make a wild guess that all the materialists who read it (and I know there were some) simply disregarded it—possibly without refuting a single point I made—and continued to believe, with profound faith, that scientists explain Reality, and that materialism is not just a belief system, but a plain, obvious fact. This is because popular religions are based upon unquestioning, irrational faith, regardless of how much intellectual systematology rests upon this foundation. It is the nature of belief to be unaware that it is only belief, and not knowledge. Thus, delusion is built into any belief.
     I won't recapitulate here the points I made in the article. Those who are interested may find it on the website nippapanca.org. I'll just briefly hammer away at one point, since this one point is the bedrock, or rather shifting sand, upon which the structure of scientific materialism is built. The point is this: That the very existence of physical matter cannot be proven at all, and is thus only a guess, believed on faith. The easiest way of demonstrating this, that I know of, is to refer to the Immaterialist philosophy of George Berkeley. According to Berkeley—and he apparently really believed this, and wrote about it brilliantly and eloquently—all that exists in this entire Universe is minds (or spirits, or "souls") and perceptions. That is all. There is no physical matter. So how it works is, there is a central mind, called "God," who coordinates the perceptions in all the other minds to produce an effect as though there were physical matter. So if we look at, say, an oval coffee table resting on a Turkish carpet, then the only places where that oval coffee table resting on the Turkish carpet exists is in our mind, and in God's mind, plus in the mind of anyone else who is observing it. That is all. There are a number of different perceptions, but no oval coffee table made of physical matter. Esse es percipi; "To exist is to be perceived."
     Now, I freely admit that I do not believe that Berkeley was right. However, I have no choice but to admit that I cannot prove that he was wrong. You also cannot prove that he was wrong. I double-dog dare you to prove that Berkeley was wrong. Many people have tried to prove him wrong, but nobody on this planet, I dare say, has ever really succeeded. It doesn't occur to philosophically naive scientists even to try. How could one possibly prove such a thing? Seriously. But by that very same token, if you cannot prove that Berkeley was wrong, then you cannot prove that physical matter exists. And so, like it or not, acknowledge it or not, the existence of physical matter is not an obvious fact at all, but a guess—and a guess believed in ultimately out if faith, religiously. 
     Berkeley's Immaterialism is just the tip of the iceberg. There are potentially an infinite number of coherent, self-consistent ways of explaining empirical experience without involving physical matter. The Christian Scientists have their own way of doing it. The Vedantist Hindus have their own way. The Mahayana Buddhists have their own ways. 19th-century German philosophers had their ways. Even some rather non-Scientistic scientists have ways of going about it. In fact, many of the most spiritually advanced beings on this planet have taught that worldly phenomena are not ultimately real. But we are living in an age where intellectual advancement takes precedence over spiritual advancement, where cleverness takes precedence over wisdom. It appears that in America "wisdom" may be even degenerating into a kind of superstitious word, somewhat like what happened with "sin." 
     So, if you cannot or will not stand up to the "Berkeley challenge," then you ought to have the honesty to admit that scientific materialism is not an obvious fact, but a huge guess; and if you are a materialist, then you should have the courage to admit that you are only guessing, and believing that guess through a kind of religious faith. Materialism is not obviously true. For example, what we see in a dream at night seems pretty solid, but after we wake up we realize that it wasn't material at all. Scientific materialism appears as proven fact, even as Reality, to us modern people not because it is obviously factual, but because almost everyone around us believes in it with implicit faith; we believe it not due to any obvious factuality, but largely due to cultural conditioning and herd instinct. Furthermore, to add one last hammer stroke, it is not only not obvious; it is not even verifiable. But the priests of Scientism don't want you to know that, and they don't want to know it either. Really, in at least one respect, modern Westerners are more narrow-mindedly fanatical than their European ancestors of 700 years ago: at least a medieval peasant was willing to accept the possibility, not only of miracles, but of transcending this mundane system in which we seem to be imprisoned.
     And so, going with the "pretty much self-evident" assumption made above (which some readers may have accepted at the time, but may be having second thoughts about now), and also going with the idea that scientific materialism is the overwhelmingly predominant religion of modern Western culture, it is evident that most Westerners who call themselves Buddhists (and the case is similar for Christians) would be more accurately and correctly called scientific materialists—with a little Buddhism added as flavoring, or as an attempt at "doctoring up" an essentially spiritually bankrupt belief system. In America it would be illegal to take a beverage containing only 10% real fruit juice and sell it as "orange juice." That would be considered dishonest. In a similar vein, it might be more appropriate in the long run for many or even most Westerners calling themselves Theravada Buddhists to adopt a label like "Vipassana Sangha," or some such, considering what a small fraction of their belief system is occupied or influenced by Theravadin Dhamma. Also, if traditional, orthodox Theravada turns out to be true, it might reduce their odds of being reincarnated as centipedes or goblins. ( a joke)
     One could reply that any spiritual system must adapt to new cultures that it enters, and that any system that refuses to adapt to changing cultural conditions commits suicide. To some degree, at least, this is very true and valid. For instance, if Theravada Buddhism had to be practiced entirely within the context of ancient Indian culture, then one would find no more Dhamma in the modern West than one would find, say, togas or woolly mammoths. That the Burmese a thousand years ago modified their own culture to fit Dhamma was possible partly because an autocratic king decreed it, and partly because their lifestyle at that time wasn't all that different from an ancient Indian lifestyle anyway (and in rural Burma it still isn't all that different). So from this point of view, American popular Buddhism with scientific materialism taking precedence over Buddhist metaphysics, and liberal political correctness taking precedence over traditional Buddhist ethics, is a necessary adjustment. 
     On the other hand, the exact opposite point of view could also be maintained, also, to some degree, with truth and validity: Any spiritual system that does adapt to changing cultural conditions commits suicide. That is, any enlightened system that is modified to fit a worldly, unenlightened culture is very likely to become FUBAR, sooner or later (and for those of you who are unfamiliar with 1970's-era American acronyms, FUBAR stands for "fucked up beyond all recognition"). Compare what Christianity was like during the first few hundred years of its existence—when the Roman government was persecuting the Christians, and they were gladly dying for what they believed in rather than compromising their principles—with what Christianity has become in modern consumer culture. Consider the following statement from Lewis Mumford's book Transformation of Man:
During the Industrial Revolution all but one of the seven deadly sins, sloth, was transformed into a positive virtue. Greed, avarice, envy, gluttony, luxury, and pride were the driving forces of the new economy.
As Christianity goes, that's FUBAR. "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." But consumerized Christians don't want to see it that way, because they are members of a culture that doesn't want to see it that way. And American popular Theravada doesn't need to go through any such gradual transformation, as it is starting out, right off the bat, already conformed to a worldly, samsaric culture. It seems to have passed through a powerful filter during the process of importation.
     The trick appears to be, from a spiritual point of view, for a system to adapt in order to exist within a new culture (or perhaps better yet on the outskirts of one) without it ceasing to be a spiritual system. Which brings us back to the question of: What is true Dharma?
     I'll make another assumption, for the sake of argument and, like the first assumption, because it seems pretty much self-evident. I use the word "Dharma," with an "r," because I don't want to imply that Pali Theravada necessarily has a monopoly on enlightenment.
True Dharma is any system that is conducive to full enlightenment.
I'll further assume that this implies two things: 1) that the system is not purely samsaric, and offers the possibility of transcendence of this world into an unconditioned state, which would include transcendence of our own conditioned brain chemistry and physiology; and 2) that the system is self-transcending, or self-destroying, like a snake swallowing its own tail, designed in such a way that the more advanced one becomes in the system, the more able one is to let go of it all. In Buddhism this is exemplified in the Buddha's simile of the raft: Dharma is like a raft made of convenient rubbish that we are not advised to insist upon keeping, but which we are to leave behind once it has served its purpose.
     So now the inevitable question arises, Does mainstream American Theravada represent True Dharma? Consider this quote from Jay Michaelson's obituary for S. N. Goenka (may he rest in peace) in the Huffington Post:
     Studies suggest that one million more Americans take up meditation every year—mostly in healthcare contexts. These people are not interested in enlightenment or awakening, and they aren't about to spend ten days in silence watching videotapes of spiritual teachings. They're taking up mindfulness (basically, paying attention to present-moment experience in a particular, focused way, whether in formal meditation or in other activities) because they're suffering from chronic pain or post-traumatic stress. Or they're doing it because they work at Google, or Twitter, or Apple, or one of the dozens of technology companies using mindfulness to improve the performance and well-being of employees. This is how the teachings known as the "dharma" have evolved—beyond religion, beyond spirituality, into every walk of life. And S.N. Goenka is largely responsible for it.
     America is on the threshold of a mindfulness revolution. As the data regarding mindfulness's economic impact becomes better developed and better known, we are going to see mindfulness offered everywhere—not for reasons of spirituality, but for sheer economics. These technologies decrease healthcare costs, improve productivity, and speed processes of healing. The Buddha may have taught them to lead to enlightenment—but they also save a ton of money.
Now, there's nothing bad or wrong with practicing meditation for the sake of improving one's health or reducing stress; there's not even anything necessarily wrong with corporations requiring their employees to meditate for the sake of increasing their productivity and reducing the cost of their health-care benefits. But going with the definition offered above, it could hardly be called "True Dharma." As the author plainly states, its purpose is manifestly not enlightenment, in this or in any other life. It is thoroughly samsaric, even capitalistic. It's more a matter of techniques, or "technologies," extracted from the Buddhist system than that system itself. But still it's not necessarily a bad thing. Meditation is good.
     The thing is, though, that most of what is passing for Theravada Buddhism in America (based upon what I've seen, and I can't presume to speak for other Western countries) involves a world view, an attitude, an interpretation of Reality, that more closely resembles the above description than it resembles what is prescribed in the original Pali texts. Its practitioners appear much more interested in stress reduction or enhancement of the quality of Samsara, causing their generated ego entities to feel better about themselves, than in enlightened transcendence of the whole system—not even in a future life, since scientific materialism rejects such superstitions as future lives. Enlightenment is ignored, debased into a mundane psychological state, or rejected as too inconvenient, with little or no support for those who don't reject it. Again, meditating to relieve stress or to feel better about oneself is certainly not necessarily bad or wrong, but if that is all it is for, then it hardly qualifies as "True Dharma." Westernization of Buddhism has truncated it, cutting off its head—disregarding what is, by far, Dharma's most essential purpose: Liberation from Samsara in this very life.
     One saving grace of this whole situation is that if one skillfully practices meditation, one's wisdom will increase, one's understanding will develop, regardless of one's motives for practicing, and more mundane motives may be replaced by less mundane ones. Any positive effort will have positive results, and lead one in a positive direction. So even the most superficial or fragmented Dharma practice will bear dharmic results. However, insistence upon a purely samsaric, dead-end belief system may eventually prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to this saving grace. Pretty obviously, if one flatly rejects the possibility of full enlightenment, then one is considerably less likely to become fully enlightened, or to strive for it. If one positively disbelieves in the metaphysical function of karma, then one is less likely to be guided by Dharma than by the superficial, utilitarian ethics of a samsaric, spiritually destitute culture. And of course, scientific materialism—Scientism—is just such a dead-end belief system, which does not transcend itself, but causes one to be more enmeshed in it the more one develops in it (unless perhaps one can find a way out via a mystical approach to theoretical quantum physics).
     Add to all this that many, or maybe even most, Americans who consider themselves to be Theravada Buddhists are too lukewarm even to keep a minimal five precepts—in worldly society, not drinking alcohol is too inconvenient, and speaking sincerely is even more so—and that the system of Dhamma has degenerated from being primarily a radical system of renunciation to little more than a few elementary meditation techniques, plus some jargon. (I may as well admit here that I also do not keep five precepts absolutely perfectly. I kill parasites sometimes.) This situation applies even to the leaders of American sanghas. A president of a vipassana society, one of the senior teachers of the group, once made it clear to me that he didn't know who Ānanda was, which is rather like the leader of a Christian society not knowing who St. Peter was. As Theravada Buddhism goes, this is within the territory of FUBAR. Then again, from a Western point of view it may not be FUBAR at all. It all depends on how you look at it, the same as with everything else.
     Even so, getting back to the question of Are they really Buddhists?…and going with the italicized, "pretty much self-evident" assumptions above, then to the extent that, within a system, scientific materialism takes precedence over Buddhism as the interpretation of Reality, then its adherents would be more accurately called scientific materialists than Buddhists; and to the extent that Western liberal political correctness and worldly "right thinking" take precedence over Buddhist ethics, then its practitioners would be more accurately called secular humanists, or some such, than Buddhists. Again, there's nothing ultimately bad or wrong with neglecting more than 90% of the Pali texts (most Muslims do, for example); but for the sake of "integrity," whatever that means, such individuals or groups might consider calling themselves something like Vipassana Sangha, or else take Dhamma more seriously. But all this is just one person's opinion, and an opinion contrary to American culture. I may not be the best person to be writing this stuff anyway, considering that, although I'm committed to Dharma with an "r," I'm no orthodox Theravadin. All foreigners have Wrong View. Maybe everybody has Wrong View.
     During my recent adventures in the West it occurred to me that the New Age community was somewhat less lukewarm and hardheadedly materialistic than the Vipassana community. (This observation does not involve the Goenka community, with whom I have had little interaction, but which, I've been told, lays much emphasis on keeping five precepts and on meditating at least two hours a day.) Once when I was in a shop in downtown Bellingham, a very New Age young woman approached me and immediately kicked off her sandals, and stood there talking to me barefoot—which I considered to be a beautiful gesture, even though other people might have considered it strange. Aside from one Thai lady, none of the Bellingham Theravada community were into that kind of stuff, regardless of the fact that, according to the Pali texts, that's how one goes about things. But even New Age can be pretty darned samsaric. It seems to me that in America, most of the inhabitants nowadays are too conformist, too lukewarm, too busy, too preoccupied, and maybe also too scared, to form a countercultural movement radical enough to allow "True Dharma" to flourish, barring some major social upheaval to trigger it. But there will always be some beings scattered among the populace with enough wisdom, or sensitivity, or "integrity," to avoid being completely sucked into samsaric systems. They may always be a small minority, but they will always be there. Maybe you are one of them.
     I've said before that the West's greatest spiritual hope might be something like Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums; but it appears that contemporary American culture is too uninspired even to support Dharma Bums, or, what would almost be the same thing, to support a new hippie movement. It may be that American Dharma's greatest hope, if it isn't the Goenka system, the advent of a charismatic messiah, a major economic collapse, and/or something completely off my radar, is a kind of person I would call the Wisdom Geek—a person who, for whatever reason, isn't very socially engaged, doesn't conform much to worldly conventions, and has an avid interest in philosophy and mysticism, especially the Eastern kinds. If geeky people can be avidly, religiously enthusiastic about breeding rasboras, playing World of Warcraft, or collecting decorator plates, then they can certainly feel similarly about Dharma. And unlike breeding rasboras, Dharma becomes more and more profound the more one is immersed in it, until one finally finds oneself standing at the verge of a Divine Void. O Wisdom Geeks go forth, and take the plunge, with my blessings upon you. As far as the rest of you, the non-geeky majority, my blessings are certainly upon you too, even though I may be skeptical about how Buddhist you are. 
     I'm not even suggesting by all this that a spiritually inclined person should positively believe "True Dharma." Skepticism and open-mindedness are fine. I am suggesting that she or he should not believe something that renders it impossible, or even damned unlikely, to be realized.

        





Saturday, February 8, 2014

Abhidhamma Studies II: Arising and Passing Away


     A tenet of fundamental importance in Buddhist philosophy is anicca, usually translated into English as "impermanence." A spontaneous, direct realization of anicca is considered to be a main ingredient of liberating insight; and the ancient Pali texts have standardized the "spotless, immaculate vision of Dhamma" which is the first glimpse of enlightenment as "All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation." Clearly, this is an important truth to realize.
     The Abhidhamma philosophy of Theravada Buddhism has interpreted this impermanence to mean that every conditioned entity in the universe exists for only about a trillionth of an eye-blink, i.e. less than a thousandth of a nanosecond. Thus whatever seems to last longer than this is really a series of individual entities flashing into and out of existence at unimaginably rapid speed. This idea has diffused out of Abhidhamma, and has come to be considered a mainstream tenet of Theravadin philosophy as a whole; and it has been cited as authoritative Buddhism by very reputable Western Dharma teachers, including Ram Dass.
     However, this doctrine, if examined carefully, proves to be problematic. 
     One relatively obvious difficulty is that if everything blinks out of existence and then back into it again, we have something essentially arising from nothing. Let's say a particle A arises, then passes away, followed at the next moment by a corresponding particle B. Well, what is the cause for the arising of this particle B? Really, it can't be A, because A simply no longer exists. So B is arising from a nonexistent cause, which is the same as no cause at all. It arises literally from nothing. Theravada Buddhist philosophy does not endorse an einsteinian interpretation of time, accepting that the past still exists somehow; the past is dead and gone. Because of this interpretation of impermanence, all cause and effect becomes inexplicable. If the arising and passing away were interpreted as a pulsation, with particle A not entirely disappearing, or perhaps undergoing a kind of phase through this version of space and into another, or whatever, then the theory might be saved, but Abhidhamma doesn't interpret reality this way, and I have no idea how the Abhidhamma scholars explain this seemingly glaring glitch in the system. They may have some way of explaining it, but I've never heard what it is.
     Another apparent difficulty in this idea of extremely rapid arising, passing away, arising, and passing away involves the fact that meditators are actually required to see this happening in order to fully realize impermanence, and thus to get that first taste of enlightenment. Once after spending several months practicing in a forest I met with a Burmese monk friend of mine, who asked me about my meditation. He listened with great interest to what I had been experiencing, and then asked, eagerly, "Did you see phyit-pyet?" (i.e. did I see the momentary arising and passing away of phenomena). When I told him I didn't even particularly want to see it, his reaction was something like "pffft," and he immediately lost interest. According to many Burmese, if you don't see phyit-pyet you can't amount to much of anything as a meditator. Sayadaw U Pandita of the Mahasi tradition has declared many times that one should not accept a Dhamma teacher who has not at least experienced udayabbaya ñāa, the insight into arising and passing away, interpreted as seeing this trillion-times-per-second process.
     The trouble lies in how seeing this could even be possible. It is not only matter, but also one's own mind which arises and passes away in this manner, and consciousness cannot be aware of its own nonexistence. So when phenomena, both mind and matter, are in their nonexistent phase, the meditator, no matter how advanced, could not be aware of it. The nonexistent sub-moments would not be experienced at all, and the existent ones would blend together like the frames in a movie film projected on a screen.
     I once spent a rains retreat at the same place as a Western monk who was a disciple of venerable Pah Auk Sayadaw, and who thus naturally took the Pah Auk method and Abhidhamma much more seriously than most; and we occasionally debated this issue of whether or not the mind's own nonexistence could be experienced. He stressed that the meditator does not experience it as it is happening, but "reviews" it afterwards. However, this would seem to require one of two things—either the meditator is remembering the past, or else he/she is seeing into the past clairvoyantly. But neither alternative seems to work, since one can't remember what one never experienced, and looking into the past, according to Abhidhamma, is impossible since the past is absolutely no longer existing, and one cannot see what is nonexistent. Again, I have no idea how the Abhidhamma scholars, let alone successful Pah Auk meditators, could explain their way through this apparent impasse, despite the odd fact that many meditators sincerely believe they have seen everything, including their own mind, arising and passing away. (Incidentally, we also occasionally debated whether or not it is possible to really experience physical matter; but that is material for a different blog post than this one.)
     According to Abhidhamma, the mind arises and passes away at a rate seventeen times faster than does physical matter. For each moment of matter, a seventeen-stage mental process called citta-vīthi is claimed to occur. This process is also supposed to be observed by very advanced meditators; although this implies some more convoluted complications.
     Orthodox dogma asserts that when nothing worth our while is occurring internally or externally, our mind is occupied by a kind of subconscious "test pattern" called bhavaga. This mental state remains exactly the same throughout a person's lifetime, and represents a single image, usually the last conscious perception that passed through one's mind in the previous life before the present "incarnation." Bhavaga, despite its seeming importance, is not discussed in the Suttas, but is mentioned only in the commentarial literature.
     Anyway, a typical citta-vīthi would be something like the following: (1) Something, like a sensory object, arises to disturb the stream of bhavaga; (2) the bhavaga is then displaced, or "vibrates," although, of course, it would not have time really to vibrate within a single moment; (3) the stream of bhavaga is then cut off, leaving only the sensory object behind; (4) sensory consciousness is then directed toward the object; (5) sensory consciousness experiences the object, thereby initiating a "sense impression"; (6) consciousness "receives" the sensory object along with the sense impression in preparation for the next stage; (7) consciousness then investigates the object and the sense impression; (8) it then determines whether the object is good or bad; (9-15) this is followed by seven mind-moments of "conscious impulsion" (javana) which savor the sense impression; (16-17) which is then followed by two moments of "registering consciousness" in which the impression is fully registered in the mind. With the end of the second moment of registering consciousness the mind lapses back into the stream of bhavaga until another stimulus interrupts it. This would be a typical example of the process, although there are variations. Again, all of this should be observed by the meditator wishing to see ultimate reality.
     However, it would seem that this would be impossible, even for a fully enlightened Buddha. For starters, one could not observe the seventeen-step process because it requires a complete seventeen-step process to perceive anything, including one of the seventeen steps. So by the time the very first step had been perceived, the other sixteen would no longer be existing to be observed. 
     Also, if one were observing one's own mental processes, the only step that could be an object of perception would presumably be the very last one, the second "registering consciousness." If one were telepathically observing the mind of someone else one might have the chance of seeing some of the internal steps in the process; but one still couldn't see them happening in sequence—and thus making a seventeen-step process out of it, not including all the bhavagas, would require a great deal of inference and deduction, not direct observation.
     The very fact that so many meditators sincerely believe that they have experienced this momentary arising and passing away of phenomena, including their own mental processes, is some fairly good evidence that much of what passes for deep meditative states (jhāna) in Theravada Buddhism is actually hypnotic trance, and the resultant "insight" merely the result of hypnotic suggestion. Not all insight is bogus of course, and not all jhāna either, but much of it is; and I would guess that most people who consider themselves to be ariyas, or Buddhist "saints" who have had at least a glimpse of Nibbāna, are mistaken. Especially if their tradition insists that they are required to see what is impossible, yet they manage to see it anyway.
     If anyone can explain to me how Abhidhamma makes sense of all this I would be grateful, and will publish the clarification of the apparent paradoxes. I'm especially curious to find out how causation can happen at all if everything necessarily arises from nothing. The problem of how rebirth can occur instantaneously over long distances is rendered rather trivial when one realizes that contiguous causation from one moment to the next is equally inexplicable.
     Personally, I suppose it might be better just to bear impermanence in mind according to the stock formula in the Suttas: All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation. Well said, and good enough.       
     
     


Rare video footage of a submicroscopic masculinity-tron undergoing phase pulsation





Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Elder Sister of All Alms Rounds


     You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. (—William Blake, alias The Devil)

     I suppose I should start off by explaining how it was even possible in the first place, so:

How It Was Even Possible in the First Place

     The Burmese take their Buddhism very seriously. Their approach to religion seems to be more medieval than modern, coming closer to the attitude of a European Christian 600 years ago than to the attitude of a modern Western Christian or Buddhist. This has its good points and its bad points like everything else, and is not entirely a bad thing, especially from a spiritual point of view. Unlike a modern Western religious person who lives first and foremost in a material world governed by scientific laws, with religion being added as a kind of "app" which is of secondary importance (at best) with regard to one's interpretation of reality, the devout Burmese Buddhist lives in a Buddhist world governed by laws of Dhamma even when she or he is not feeling religious, with scientific materialism itself being of secondary importance. 
     The Burmese have their own kind of materialism though, a kind which a Tibetan monk once famously referred to as "spiritual materialism." They think about meritorious karma almost as though it were money. They believe that established Buddhist rituals have validity and power in and of themselves, regardless of all else. For example, many Burmese believe that observing five precepts is practically futile if one doesn't first perform the ritual of taking them upon oneself, before a monk or at least before an altar. Also, they believe that a simple ordination ceremony turns a man into a superhuman spiritual being, somewhat like a devout Catholic believes that a simple ritual turns bread into the real and true flesh of Christ, through the Miracle of Transsubstantiation, despite the fact that afterwards it still looks like, and tastes like, plain bread.
     Thus the Burmese have a different vocabulary for describing the comings, goings, and doings of monks than the one they use for unordained people. The word for "human being" is not applied to monks. Even a man ordained temporarily, maybe even for just a few days during a vacation from work, will be considered no longer a mere human during that time, and will be called ashin hpayah (Venerable Lord) even by his closest family members.
     That's just for starters. Add to that the fact that I came from America, a country which Burmese villagers naively believe to be some kind of Paradise where everybody is rich and happy. Just a few months after my first arrival in Burma many years ago, a village doctor informed me that the local villagers already loved me more than they loved the saintly abbot of the monastery where I was staying, because I had voluntarily renounced my comfortable, privileged life in "Paradise" to come halfway around the world and live in poverty amongst them, living in accordance with principles which they considered to be sacred. The felt honored, proud, and grateful, as though their way of life had somehow been vindicated.
     And then there is the remarkable fact that monks who appear to live unusually saintly lives may receive reverence from Burmese laypeople reaching a level of fever-pitch. I was told that when venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw, the founder of the tradition in which I was ordained, would travel, sometimes young women would line his path on either side, bow down to the ground, and strew their long hair across the path for him to walk on. In those days he was followed by a young Texan monk who simply could not bring himself to walk on the hair of young women, so he stopped following Sayadaw long enough to walk around them.  

(Taungpulu Sayadaw)

Fortunately I guess, I've never had women spread their hair out for me to walk on, although on several occasions they've spread out their scarves for the same purpose—not to protect my feet from the hard, dirty ground, but to bless the scarves by their coming in contact with the Sayadaw's foot. Never would I have dreamed at the age of 16 that there would come a day when hundreds of exotic, dark-eyed women would be literally worshipping at my feet. But, like Kipling's Man Who Would Be King, it has always been strictly against the rules for me actually to touch any of them, not even their hands. A Japanese monk once accused me of making very strange karma, and I have to agree with him.
     For most of my life as a monk I have lived alone in forests, have meditated regularly, have not handled money, and have not followed the lifestyle that most Burmese monks follow; and because of this I have been considered to live an unusually saintly life—in fact, as I've probably already mentioned before, in some parts of northwestern Burma I have a reputation for being a fully enlightened being. (I certainly don't go around telling people that I am one though.) Once when I was living under a rock ledge at the edge of a large forest, a friendly village man came to visit me, and he said to me, wonderingly, "I could never live like you. You don't drink tea! You don't smoke cigars!" The fact that I didn't drink tea or smoke cigars seemed to strike him with more profound awe than the fact that I slept and meditated alone in a forest, under a rock ledge. I have often considered that if Burmese people knew of the stuff that goes through my mind sometimes, they would be much less inclined to worship me. But who knows.
     Anyway, I lived at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery (where I sit here writing this, in front of my old cave) for about a year and a half before things started approaching anywhere near fever-pitch. Up until then alms round in the nearby villages was easily manageable—house by house alms round was not much of an option, since a line of people would be waiting for me at the entrance to the village, but still everything went into the bowl, with no grocery bags, not even with cakes and fruit balanced on top of the bowl lid (I usually don't use a bowl lid anyway). But then one morning, around January of 2003, I entered Wun Bo village for alms and found a kind of three-ring circus: a crowd of people, many of whom I had never seen before, were waiting to offer alms food, candles, incense, pieces of cloth, etc. etc. I finally staggered out of the village with a bowl stuffed to overflowing and two big grocery bags full of stuff. After a week or two the crowds and festival atmosphere had diminished somewhat, with flareups on full-moon days and special occasions; but that was the beginning of it all.
     I later learned that what had happened was this: About twenty miles from Wun Bo there was an old monk called Ywa Mun Sayadaw, who lived alone in a small cemetery and who was considered by many to be an Arahant. I had visited him once several years previously. Anyway, sometimes local villagers would rent a mechanized contraption called a "toila-gyi," a kind of motorized iron cart with no suspension, and go in groups to pay their respects to the old sayadaw. Just a day or two before the aforementioned three-ring circus, a group of people from Shwe Zayay, a village just north of Wun Bo, rented a toila-gyi and went on such a pilgrimage to pay their respects to Ywa Mun Sayadaw; and when they told him where they were from, he said, "Oh, that American monk lives near there. You should always make sure that he receives enough food when he goes for alms; even if it is raining you should be sure to give him alms. He is very venerable." Why he said that I don't exactly know, but to the Burmese it could mean only one thing: if an Arahant praises another monk, saying that he is very venerable, then that other monk must be an Arahant too, or at least very advanced. That was the beginning of my reputation for being a great saint in the area of Wun Bo.
     Human nature is peculiar. If people are biased against you, then you can do no right in their eyes; but if they're biased in your favor, then they can work everything out as proof that you are wonderful. There was a man I had never met in Shwe Zayay who presumably didn't like foreigners much, and used to say that if I ever came to Shwe Zayay he would escort me back out personally; shortly afterwards he developed some kind of jaw cancer, became horribly disfigured, and then died—which just demonstrated the fact that if you have bad thoughts toward a great saint, bad things will happen to you. Once I was informed that a photograph was being circulated around the city of Monywa, showing me levitating above the city using psychic power. I never saw it, but my standard response whenever it was mentioned was, "I think it must have been someone else, because I don't remember doing that." One time a doctor told me that he had seen a picture of me with light shining out of it; I did see that one, and it was merely overexposed.

The Elder Sister of All Alms Rounds

     After returning to the Wildlife Refuge Monastery this winter, within a few days my alms round in Wun Bo village became difficult. About half of the alms donors were from Shwe Zayay, and with so many people wanting to offer food, my bowl would eventually be stuffed literally to overflowing, and I'd be carrying a big bag of extra stuff which could be very heavy, especially if there were a lot of banana donors that day; and then, as I would be leaving the village, fairly staggering with the load already, maybe ten or twelve people with clear, innocent looks on their faces would be holding out one-liter bottles of purified water. I would guess that even Superman could not carry all of it, considering that even Superman has only two hands. Usually a part-time monastery attendant who lives in the village would volunteer to help me carry everything, especially the water, back to the cave.
     So when a young man from Shwe Zayay invited me to walk for alms in his village, I accepted, partly in the hope that the people of Shwe Zayay would be satisfied and would thus throng less at Wun Bo alms rounds, allowing my collection of a daily bowl of food to be less of an ordeal and workout. Besides, I like Shwe Zayay people, and it's a pretty village. So I went there on the eighth-day uposatha during the waxing moon of Pyatho.
     Apparently to make sure that I made it, or maybe to provide an "honor guard," three young men from Shwe Zayay were waiting outside my cave at dawn, along with Ko Myint Oo the Wun Bo part-time attendant, and three dogs. We took the cart track to Wun Bo, then walked through that village, and then down along the river bank, there being no actual road. After various efforts Ko Myint Oo managed to turn back two of the dogs, anticipating fights with strange dogs once we arrived at Shwe Zayay; but one little white dog could not be dissuaded, and followed us all the way.
     Never before had I walked on an alms round like that one. Up until that morning the most people who had put rice and goo into my bowl in a single morning was maybe 120-140; in Shwe Zayay there had to have been at least 500 people lined up, possibly as many as a thousand. Practically the whole village turned out for the occasion, with a few more from a village across the river. The alms route extended from one side of a large village to the other, and it took about an hour to complete it.
     One of the main reasons why I had been invited in the first place was that there were many elderly people in Shwe Zayay who couldn't navigate the rough path to Wun Bo. Also lots of toddlers offered alms, many of them evidently having little more idea of what they were doing than "Mama wants me to do this." Despite the rule of one spoon of rice and one spoon of curry each, my bowl (which holds about five or six liters) was full long before I reached the end of the line; but I was encouraged to dump the contents into another container and to keep going, so that everybody could offer something. They didn't care at all that they were offering many times more food than I could possibly eat. (Sometimes I would remark, jokingly, "I don't think I'll be able to eat all this.") Their desire to inundate me with alms was largely motivated by that spiritual materialism that I mentioned earlier: they considered making an offering to me to be a blessing for them, a meritorious deed ("good karma") that would protect their health and well-being.
     Now, from a Buddhist point of view, we always get exactly what we deserve; it is the fruition of our own karma, our own doing. So in that sense I deserved to have several hundred people very reverentially making offerings to me, with all of them who were not too old to manage it then getting down on the ground and bowing at my feet. But, by the very same token, Adolf Hitler deserved to be lord and master of most of Europe for a few years, and someone like Richard Nixon deserved to be president of the United States, and the most powerful man in the world. But although I deserved it in that sense, I certainly did not want to take it lightly or disrespectfully (especially after my recent hungry experiences in the West). I very much felt that I should be worthy of the honor I was receiving, at least while I was receiving it. So, from start to finish, I was blessing everyone for all I was worth—seeing them as Divinity and perfection, seeing each one of them as being as important as me, or as anyone, seeing them all as us, with no real boundary between them and me. Rather than hope Divinity would blossom in them I saw it as already there. And as soon as I noticed that the blessings were becoming mechanical I would immediately snap out of it, make corrections, and bless them with my whole heart again, as well as I was able. 
     Several years ago I composed a long, explicitly erotic "epic" poem which, while I was in America, I rarely thought of; but shortly after arriving at my old cave it came up frequently, and I tinkered with it, making adjustments here and there. On the morning of that alms round, before setting out, it occurred to me that the word "resplendent" could be a very nice word to include in an erotic poem. "Resplendent flesh," or some such. So while going down the long line of faithful Buddhist alms donors, the word "resplendent" would occasionally arise in my mind, and sometimes an entire line of voluptuous poetry containing the word would offer itself up for my consideration. But in that atmosphere, surrounded by people gushing with faith and reverence, it felt so utterly incongruous that it simply fell away and disappeared, almost as quickly as it arose.
     Almost at the very end of the long, long line was a slightly nutty yet very good-natured old novice (koyin-gyi), who lives more or less like a hermit near Shwe Zayay. He offered candles, I think, and was wearing a stocking cap with a New York Yankees logo on it. Once about eight years ago he came to my cave with an offering of candles, incense, and bottled water, and handed me a note which said,
     "Venerable Lord, you know and see all that is in my mind—So, out of compassion, so that I may be victorious in the Sangha, please tell me the winning lottery numbers."
I advised him that gambling is not good Dhamma, and that he shouldn't do it. With many grins he politely took his leave, explaining that it was time for him to set out for alms round. Despite his odd ideas, before the advent of ven. Iddhidaja I had considered recruiting him to be overseer of the Wildlife Refuge after I left. I tend to get along well with old novices, and they have less power to ruin a good monastery than monks have.  
     Anyhow, after finally reaching the end of the line at the far end of the village, I was requested to stop at the house of two devotees who couldn't walk very well any more. I made my appearance, still generating blessings as well as I was able, and as a final offering, on top of everything else, I received a bouquet of flowers and a watermelon.
     I was to be taken back to the monastery in a motor boat, so I was then escorted to the Shwe Zayay boat launch. Several teenage girls were at the river filling vases, and then carrying them back to the river, full of yellow flowers. The little white dog, who had followed me all the way and had somehow survived the gauntlet of strange, growling village dogs, could not be called onto the boat, so we left her behind at the boat launch. As we pulled away from the village I felt that I had blown yet another opportunity to exercise compassion—I felt like I should have gotten out of the boat, picked up the dog, and carried it back onto the boat. Such behavior on the part of "the Sayadaw" probably would have embarrassed a few people, but it would have spared the dog the dangerous ordeal of finding her way back home through hostile territory. As it turned out, though, she survived the ordeal and showed up at the monastery in time to help celebrate the extreme excess of food. 
     Altogether, the "haul" of that one alms round, for one monk, amounted to, approximately:
  • about 3½ bowlfuls of rice and curry, including plenty of eggs, peanuts, and cauliflower (maybe 25 lbs., or 11 kg)
  • two large grocery bags of fruit (maybe 30 lbs., or 14 kg, each)
  • two large grocery bags of fried things, cheap bread, cake, cookies, etc. (the bakery stuff being of such a quality that most Americans would choose not to eat it)
  • 77 liters of bottled water (no parenthetical comment required)
  • 24 bottles of lychee drink, of various brands (equalling about 6 liters)
  • various other drinks (including coffee and tea with so much sweetened, condensed milk added as to make it difficult to determine which it was supposed to be, and "Shark," a cheap Burmese imitation of Red Bull energy drink that tastes like a combination of cough syrup and corn syrup)
  • one large grocery bag containing mainly candles and incense (with a few little extras, like home-woven handkerchiefs and a bottle of licorice honey)
  • three bottles of spirulina tablets
  • two bunches of flowers
  • one watermelon
All of it amounted to about 300 lbs. (135 kg) of stuff (not including five golden rings that I didn't accept, their being made of an inappropriate metal, and several calling birds and lords a-leaping which were turned loose at the boat launch). And then of course it turned out that I wasn't very hungry. I did, however, probably break a personal record that day with regard to the number of tangerines eaten at a single meal. As for the food and beverages (not including water), I consumed my fill, ven. Iddhidaja took a few bananas, four lay supporters who were keeping eight precepts consumed their fill, three dogs consumed theirs, and the rest, which was plenty, was left for the squirrels and jungle fowl or else carried home by the laypeople.


most of one day's "alms" on the eighth-day uposatha
of the waxing moon of Pyatho   
      
Aftermath

     Some people in the West, upon reading such an account of the behavior of Burmese Buddhists, while taking considerate care not to say anything so obviously politically incorrect as, "Well, they're just ignorant foreigners who don't know any better," would be inclined to express essentially that same idea in different words. It is human nature for us to consider our own cultural conditioning to be Right, or at least more Right than other cultural conditionings. But the fact is that we are all ignorant, and none of us knows any better, with the possible exception of a few enlightened beings. It may even be that from a spiritual point of view, from the perspective of Dharma, such Burmese villagers are better off, or more advanced, than are most of us Westerners, since spirituality is fundamentally built into their system, which hasn't been the case for most Westerners since the advent of modern civilization. One may be better off with an excess of faith and credulity than with an excess of the opposite—i.e., an excess of cynicism and suspicion. Burmese villagers at least have their door open, so to speak, so that if a real saint or sage actually does come along, he or she is much more likely to be welcomed in and accepted. In the words of Sathya Sai Baba, using Hindu vocabulary,
     If you take Krishna to be a mere cowherd, a man of the world like others, then for you he will be just a cowherd! You too climb only up to that stage….You will have noticed that Uddhava who looked upon Krishna as his Guru benefited more than Arjuna who looked upon Him as Sakha, a friend. If you have faith that He is God, He will be God to you; if you dismiss Him as mere man, He takes on that role and becomes useless for you. Search for Him with the heart, not with the eye for externals. The superpower has to be sought in the super-state itself, not in the lower states. Then, if you have the eyes that are fit to see and the wisdom to understand, you will find Him.
And as the ancient Greeks used to say, sometimes the beggar at your door may be a deity in disguise. But I believe there is enough goodness in human nature that no society could ever be completely anti-spiritual, or non-spiritual. Goodness, or badness, can be found anywhere, if we are receptive to it.
     Also, some people in the West, upon reading such an account of my own experiences with Burmese Buddhists, would be inclined to consider it just so much blatant, grandiose, pathetic boasting. But bragging and swaggering was not my intention. This account is written in pretty much the same spirit as any number of other accounts describing life in Burma or current events. There are two main reasons why I've taken the trouble to write this rather long post.
     First, I have lived a relatively unusual life. The number of modern Western men who have renounced a worldly life for the sake of seeking wisdom and practicing Dharma, and have then followed their calling into remote tropical forests, "wrestling with the Devil in the wilderness," until gaining the stature of living, breathing pagan idols (so to speak), is relatively small. And the number of them who write about it is even smaller. So I write about this stuff to present a kind of case history, an example of what is possible if one chooses to live a radical alternative lifestyle, and a proof that one is not required to conform to a spiritually destitute society, and that one may have a richer and happier life because of not conforming. I have no doubt that my life has been much more fulfilling than it would have been had I accepted a U.S. Navy scholarship and become a nuclear technician, for example.
     Second, I've written several times about my experiences with westernized Buddhism in America, and about my rather cool (sometimes positively frigid) reception in that country; and I have received quite a few comments from Western people to the effect that: 1) the cool reception I experienced was all my fault; or 2) regardless of its causes, I keep harping away about it, and it's getting plain tiresome. These people are looking at the situation, naturally, from a Western point of view, which is practically the same as saying that they are looking at it from a point of view biased in favor of the cool reception. But from my perspective, this way of looking at things is seeing only one side of the picture. My exposure to American Buddhists, and my fate at their hands, was so astonishing and bemusing, and such a shock to my system, largely because it was in stark, glaring contrast to anything I had ever experienced before. As soon as I became a Buddhist I began moving toward what I considered to be what the Buddha originally taught, bypassing American culture, even bypassing Burmese Buddhist culture, and aiming at ancient India. So after trying to live like an ancient Indian for many years, supported by a rural Burmese society that comes much closer to ancient India than to the modern West, I returned to America and found a Buddhism there that had mutated so extensively that the difference between it and what I was acclimated to was like the difference between night and day. Stark, jolting contrast—like jumping out of a hot bath and into ice water, or vice versa. So writing a little about being worshipped in Burma is an attempt to broaden the view somewhat, and to give the reader a better idea of this guy's, or Sayadaw's, perspective.
     Sometimes I worry a little that my strange karma has me locked into a strange polarity of "feast or famine." Ideally, I would like to find a good middle way between "Please bless us, Venerable Lord" and "Who the heck does this guy think he is." In Bali, maybe. Or maybe I could just keep moving to places in Burma where I'm not famous yet, and where people haven't seen me levitating over cities. I doubt that translating "Let This Be a Lesson"—or, worse yet, "Buddhism Meets Skepticism"—into Burmese would change things very much. Also, I think it would be nice to find a middle path where fluent English is spoken, although maybe I'm just being fussy.
     In conclusion, I would just like to respectfully suggest that if reading about someone like me being a minor king of Kafiristan (sort of like Colonel Kurtz, except without heads on poles) bothers you, and if you really don't want to get a better idea of my perspective, then you are very probably reading the wrong blog. Be happy, and have a beautiful day. Seriously.