Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Buyer's Market for Dharma

     Blind Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
     Young Kwai Chang Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
     Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
     Caine: No.
     Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
     Caine (looking down at the grasshopper, which he hadn't noticed): Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
     Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

     When I was a boy one of my favorite television shows was "Kung Fu," about a half-Chinese, half-American Shao Lin Buddhist monk who lives in the Wild West of America during the mid-1800's, as a consequence of fleeing China after killing the Emperor's nephew (on the full moon of May, no less), as a consequence of said "Royal Nephew" killing said monk's beloved Master Po. (This in turn was a consequence of said Master Po delivering a beating to some of the Royal Nephew's violent attendants, which was a consequence of…but one must break the chain of cause and effect somewhere, so here seems appropriate.)
     Anyway, in the pilot episode of the "Kung Fu" series—which is well worth watching, despite some outstandingly bad acting by the supporting cast—there are flashbacks showing how Kwai Chang Caine became a Buddhist monk in the first place. After his parents and grandparents had all died, he went and presented himself outside the Shao Lin temple gate as a candidate for ordination. The monks didn't simply invite him in and have him sign papers, however: He was required to wait doggedly outside the gate, rain or sun, for more than a week. Any young candidates who would seek the shelter of a tree during a rainstorm would be sent away, as would any seen goofing around and playing out of boredom during the long wait outside the walls. After more than a week, Kwai Chang and a few other boys were finally called inside the temple compound.
     But still they were given no papers for signing up. Upon being admitted inside, they were invited to drink tea with the venerable abbot. Upon being given the tea, all the boys except young Kwai Chang drank it; he sat motionless behind his cup of tea. The other boys were sent home, and Master Kan, the abbot, asked Kwai Chang, "Why did you not drink?" Kwai Chang replied, "After you, Honorable Sir." Then the abbot drank, and only then Kwai Chang respectfully drank.
     Thus the old Shao Lin temple tested its prospective disciples to ensure that they had the dedication and the respect for the teacher to make them worthy of being true disciples. And, not surprisingly, only a small fraction of the prospective candidates were accepted—in this case, Kwai Chang was the only one.

"Snatch the pebble from my hand."

     In Western culture, on the other hand, the situation is somewhat the reverse: It is the disciples who test the teachers to see if the teachers are worthy of teaching them. To some degree it's a matter of supply and demand, with a great supply of teachers competing for a limited number of disciples. This is one reason why Vipassana teachers often cultivate a smooth, soft, gentle tone of voice and smile so much of the time, and why Zen masters rarely beat anyone with a stick anymore. 
     This critical, skeptical approach toward teachers and teachings is certainly not bad or wrong, and I, being a Westerner at heart, follow it also to some extent. But this approach, like anything else, does have consequences; and one big consequence is a loss of reverence, and of a sense of sacredness.
     The almost stereotypical American attitude that nothing is sacred has many causes. One of them is our Protestant Christian cultural conditioning. The English-speaking nations are so pervasively culturally conditioned by Protestant Christianity that even those of us who are not Protestant Christians still think like them, and have adopted Protestant values. And the Protestants, many of them at least, have secularized religion, and made it something not particularly of the spirit. But that topic is worthy of an article all to itself.
     Another reason for the loss of the sacred and a loss of reverence is the modern notion that there's a scientific explanation for everything, and what can be explained scientifically is ipso facto non-sacred. It is natural, even mundane.
     Still another reason is that people of the modern West are generally not very good at appreciating profundity. The society in general has become too fast and too superficial for that; and besides, we humans tend not to grasp abstractions well, with or without a mass-produced semiliterate education. With a fistfight it is pretty easy to distinguish between the winner and the loser: The winner is the one who isn't lying on the ground bleeding. In a chess game also, although it's rather more subtle, the winner is usually uncontroverted. But the more abstract and non-physical the game becomes, the less grasp we have of the situation; for example, how many verbal disputes have there been when both sides walk away believing that they won the argument? And when we get to something even more ethereal, like wisdom, then all bets are off. Sacredness is profound, and without an appreciation of profundity, sacredness drops by the wayside. 
     Still another reason, and an important one I think, for spiritual lukewarmness in the West is that here, nowadays, we live in the Too Much Information (TMI) Age. Just about anything we want to know, we can find out. Ancient texts that in ancient times may have required years of preparatory purification before one was worthy to be exposed to such teachings, one can now buy on for $49.95. We read these texts, then put them on a shelf and pick up Eckhart Tolle's new book, then one on an integration of quantum physics with the neurophysiology of the brain, then a pulpy novel, then…who knows. "Well, I've read that; what's next?" The Diamond Cutter Sutra asserts that any place that possesses a copy of it should be venerated as a shrine; but most copies out there in the West nowadays are probably in unshrinelike places and not venerated much more than the interesting new book by that academic scholar who applies modern literary criticism to the Upanishads. 
     Ancient wisdom no longer requires years of training and purification in order to find it; and it is no longer priceless, as it can easily be purchased online with a credit card. It is now a mercantile commodity, and big business besides.
     Obviously, having the great world spiritual traditions, as well as the teachings of a myriad of living spiritual teachers, at our fingertips is not a bad thing. It has its good points too, of course. We are no longer like medieval Roman Catholics who had to choose between The One True Faith and damnable heresy, or like traditional South Asians who have had to choose between dogmatic Right View and…what? No religion at all? (True, both Roman Catholicism and South Asian Buddhism have profound enlightenment traditions, but one size does not fit all, and not all people thrive in the same system.) But still, the spiritual TMI Age has pretty serious disadvantages too. Practically no sacredness, for example. The attitude that nothing is sacred actually causes nothing to be sacred. That's the world we create for ourselves.
     We are exposed to so many points of view, spiritual and otherwise, that none of them has much of an effect on us. We're overstimulated and jaded. Plus the culture looks askance at deep reverence; there is some respect, but everyone gets the standard minimum requirement: Please, Thank You, You're Welcome, I'm Sorry, Excuse Me, etc. etc., whether it's sincere or not. However, reserving special reverence for one person, or class of persons, or thing, or whatever, is not really encouraged nowadays. If the followers of a spiritual tradition feel deeply and strongly about their teacher, or what they're doing, they're called "cultish." It seems that under the circumstances of society the best we can do is to cultivate philosophical detachment.
     Philosophical detachment is an excellent thing, and most people would do well to cultivate some amount of it, if possible. But this whole ideal of keeping a skeptical balance leads to a great spiritual dilemma: Detached lukewarmness is insufficient to make a true saint out of anybody. Saints tend to have at least a tincture of wild-eyed fanaticism about them. They dedicate their lives wholeheartedly to what they consider to be sacred, and it is this deep conviction that gives them the motivation to try so hard to become pure, or worthy, or whatever it is that they're trying for. Saints are more religious than philosophical. 
     And so it appears that the West must find a new way. Religion as a vehicle for liberation is fading into obsolescence, yet armchair philosophical inquiry, with maybe a meditation retreat every now and then, is too lukewarm to amount to much, that is, to inspire much development. At present, many spiritual seekers have read everything there is to read and still haven't woken up, so they turn to sincere spiritual seeking out of despair, or maybe sheer boredom.
     Fortunately for us Westerners, a saint and a sage are not necessarily the same person. A saint has stainless steel conviction that he or she must do what is right, with a deep sense of sacredness and reverence on which to base that conviction; but a sage may be more like what Chuang Tzu says:   
There is right because of wrong, and wrong because of right. Thus, the sage does not bother with these distinctions but seeks enlightenment from heaven.
But even the detached philosophical sage has to be moved to do whatever it takes to Wake Up. There still must be a deep yearning for wisdom, or freedom, or bliss, or whatever the metaphor of choice happens to be. Intention is karma, and whatever we incline our mind toward, that do we become.
     (Written back around July, when I was still in Bellingham)


  1. Reverently and self-aware I wonder if you would tell me what it means when the first two thoughts that immediately spring to mind are "You ever feel like you've been cheated" J. Rotten and Actor K. Carradine died in Bangkok by auto-asphyxiation? Any thoughts?

    1. Well, I must admit that I don't entirely understand your question. Have I been cheated? By who? I think I might feel cheated if after many years of struggle in sweaty caves some wiseguy scientist invents an enlightenment pill. I doubt that it will happen though---our karma isn't good enough.

      So, they found out that David Carradine committed suicide, and wasn't murdered? I've wondered about that. It's sad that he progressed from an advanced Buddhist monk to the bad guy in "Kill Bill."

    2. "...he died accidentally when a sexual practice known as autoerotic asphyxiation went fatally awry."

      He inclined his mind toward and comed.

    3. You're a naughty guy. I still don't understand your original question though.

  2. Behind my question was the implication that you may have harbored thoughts that all your striving and all your suffering was meaningless. That perhaps the greatest "good" that you could achieve in this life, or any other future life, is maximum fun in the here and now; you know an Epicurean sensibility, and pleasure is the greatest good.

    1. Well, I don't consider other people's lack of appreciation for living the "Holy Life" to be sufficient to render my striving meaningless. I kind of always figured that most people, especially in the West, wouldn't have much use for that. That's fair, since I don't have much use for the worldly Western lifestyle either.

      I suppose happiness is the greatest good, but mere sensual pleasure is a rather crude and superficial form of it. If one could have sensual pleasure AND higher contentment, then of course that would be ideal...but it usually doesn't work that way.