Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reflections on Materialism, Karma, and Food (part 2)


     Instead of bashing Scientism systematically, as I've already attempted to do elsewhere, I will focus on a peculiar form of scientific materialism that is particularly prevalent in the West, even among good New Age persons who firmly believe in the healing powers of mantra and didgeridoo vibrations and who seek spiritual guidance from card readings and channeled utterances of the Archangel Metatron. In fact this type of materialism seems particularly prevalent in Western Dharma circles of all sorts. I am referring to what may be called "health materialism." 
     When I lived in Burma full-time and was hoping to return to the USA, I thought that in America I'd be eating Good Food (=Western Food) again. No more white rice with every meal, no more smelly bamboo shoots, no more plain boiled weeds, no more pale green eggplant glop (to say nothing of lizard tails, frog eggs, pig spleen, and fried insects). I'd eat bread! Cheese! Italian pasta! Ice cream! Guacamole! But upon returning to the West, I discovered that many Westerners who are inclined to feed monks are also strangely inclined to eat food just as weird, gross, and/or flavorless as the food Burmese villagers eat. While I was out of the country, American people started eating food I'd never heard of before, like quinua, chia seeds, and goji berries. Also they started eating food that I had heard of, but hadn't acknowledged as food, like flaxseed and kale—lots and lots of kale. Lots of it. Once I discussed this phenomenon with a Western monk I knew who had also spent time in the West recently; and he mentioned that while he was over there a lady invited him to a meal of spaghetti, which he accepted readily, since, like most Westerners, he likes spaghetti. But when it was served to him, he found that the "spaghetti" contained no actual pasta at all, but rather some kind of shredded squash. (Why, it's enough to make a tomcat talk French grammar.)
     The Western Dharma movement has progressed hand in hand not only with environmentalism, but with "healthfoodism" also. Most of these folks do not go so far as to be strict vegetarians, vegetarianism apparently being too inconvenient for most post-modern Americans to tolerate, although they prefer their hamburgers to be free-range and organic. Eggs, although uncontroversially considered to be deadly poison by healthfoodists 25 years ago, are now considered to be quite safe—it's the gluten in the toast that's the enemy now. Wheat, a primary staple for Western humankind for many centuries, now leads to gluten poisoning and "wheat belly." People may be very open-minded, in an abstract, philosophical way, about the power of mind in determining our reality, but they draw the line at food. Bread and cheese are junk food, non-organic vegetables can kill you, and steamed (or better yet, raw) kale is a kind of panacea. Sometimes I would amuse myself by pointing out to the new devotees of kale that it is laced with toxic oxalic acid. 
     This health materialism applies not only to food. Now people are afraid to drink from plastic water bottles for fear of "off-gassing." They carry bottles of hand sanitizer around wherever they go, for fear of invisible microbes. At one of the most famous meditation centers in America, incense and candles have reportedly been banned from the altars because people are so freaked out about breathing potentially carcinogenic fumes. A new enlightened strategy for health that I heard about in Bellingham was "pulling," in which one sits for several minutes every day with a mouth full of oil. Not only New Age followers, but also hard-headed, middle aged Vipassana meditators follow along with this materialistic stepsister of American spirituality.
     A typical example of the situation arose in 2012, when I advertised the upcoming second annual forest fast. One of the only official rules of the fast was that our only nutriment would be water from the White Chuck River (a relatively pristine river in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington state), filtering it, if at all, with nothing more than a piece of cloth—so in other words, technologically sophisticated water purification systems were forbidden. Almost immediately after posting the advertisement on the local Vipassana society's list serve, I began receiving complaints from people, most of whom had no intention of going on the fast anyway, requesting that the No Water Filters rule be revoked, and warning me of the dangers of giardiasis. The water of the White Chuck River is probably cleaner than that coming out of the pipes in town, but no matter: if it is not scientifically guaranteed to be safe, then it is unknown, unpredictable, potentially dangerous, and frightening. I tried to explain that if you look after Dharma, Dharma looks after you; and that if you have more faith in high-tech water filters than you have in Dharma, then something like the forest fast isn't for you anyway; but even teachers at the local Dharma Hall just couldn't see it that way. My attitude may have been viewed as fanatical, or just as unrealistically simple-minded. I refused to change the rule though; and after three annual forest fasts at the same river, nobody had any health complaints from drinking clean mountain water. I didn't even filter mine through a cloth.
     People in the West have been so thoroughly conditioned by Scientism, and their faith in materialism is so deep, that they do not recognize it as faith—they see it as simple truth, much in the same way that medieval Europeans considered their Catholic world view to be just plain, obvious Reality. Even most Westerners who consider themselves to be Buddhists have much, much more faith in materialism than in Dharma, and thus accept the concept of Karma in a lukewarm, confused way without looking at it too closely, or else they don't accept it at all beyond what is clearly compatible with scientistic dogma. Yet Buddhists who don't accept Kiriya-vāda, the doctrine of karma and karmic retribution, are rather like Christians who don't believe in God. Thus we have in the West a situation in which most "Buddhists" are really devout followers of Scientism with a smidgen of Buddhism added as flavoring, or as a relaxing hobby. 
     These good people (and I know they are good people) may insist that the existence of physical matter is a plain fact, and that scientific evidence is a juggernaut that it is foolish or stupid to resist. Even enlightened beings like Gotama Buddha were culture-bound products of societies that just didn't know the scientific truth. Obviously, some foods (for example) are more conducive to good health than others. Smoking tobacco clearly increases the likelihood of lung cancer and emphysema. There have been a few glitches in the system, like the completely uncontroversial knowledge 25 years ago, backed up by plenty of scientific experimentation and verification, that one's lifespan would be increased by an average of x number of years if one simply stopped eating eggs; but such snafus are trivial. Food materialism simply cannot be argued with, not even by New Age people, aside from a few breatharians. 
     Even so, I can still argue. I offer as a hypothesis for consideration another way of looking at what does and does not cause good health, which is much more spiritually-oriented than materialism, and takes karma into account much more comprehensively. It is based on the idea that we are literally creating our own versions of reality, that this world is a dream.
     First of all, it should be pointed out that we are imprisoned by our beliefs. Whatever we believe, especially if it is believed deep down, with profound faith, and is furthermore reinforced by the beliefs of practically everyone around us, becomes our reality, whether we like it or not. There are some, like the Christian Scientists to some degree, and also a multidimensional entity called Seth who allegedly was channeled through Jane Roberts during the early 1970's, who declare that in this world we all have a kind of subconscious, telepathic agreement with everyone else on certain rules, on a certain degree of law and order necessary for our stable, shared samsara to exist. (Even without the telepathy, this stability could be explained by something along the lines of, but more metaphysically potent than, Jung's collective unconscious.) The habitual, automatic, subconscious nature of these beliefs indicates that they are karmic. And karma, according to Theravada Buddhist philosophy at least, determines everything that we sense in our world, either pleasant or unpleasant. It is a manifestation of habitual beliefs coming from deep within our psyche. This idea serves as a kind of foundation, though, and isn't the main idea I'm getting at.
     The main idea is that, in any stable universe, positive and negative must remain in balance. A mind stuck in samsara is such a stable universe—not absolutely stable, obviously, but stable enough to persist over time. Thus pleasure and displeasure tend to balance out in the long run. So if we derive great pleasure from something, it eventually comes back to bite us, with that bite manifesting itself within the context of the underlying belief system. It is proverbial that what we love most is what hurts us most; and in Buddhism it is said that whatever a man delights in, that is what Mara, "The Killer," catches him with. So if we love good food it tends to result in obesity or other health problems like diabetes or bad teeth. We can stave off the pain of tooth decay by following the dull, not-pleasant ritual of brushing and flossing, by way of compensation. If we love our tobacco, our love for it creates the psychic imbalance that eventually levels out in the form of lung or throat diseases. If we love sex and indulge to excess, we can get big problems from that, like unwanted pregnancies, dysfunctional relationships, cancers of the sexual organs, or the more obviously retributive venereal diseases. Heroin, which induces profound euphoria, consequently messes its users up profoundly. And so on. And so, according to this hypothetical interpretation, health food is good for us not because it has this or that material nutrient, or because it is free from deadly cholesterol or gluten, but because it is bland, chewy, expensive, and somewhat inconvenient. We derive relatively little pleasure from eating it, so there is little negativity to be expected by way of maintaining a karmic, cosmic balance. Maybe if deep beliefs about nutrients shifted sufficiently, Vipassana meditators and New Age folks could thrive on lovely, flavorless sawdust. 
     Because of the communal, contagious nature of beliefs, it is to be expected that if we have a healthy attitude, we are more likely to stay healthy by avoiding the masses who are sure that we are poisoning ourselves, or that at our age we shouldn't be able to do such-and-such anymore, etc. If you're going to get old, you might consider moving to a society where old people are respected, and not viewed as decaying, burdensome wrecks with one foot already in the grave. Also, we should be careful that our own beliefs don't harm others. Recently an American friend of mine said that she considered dismissing her night watchman because he sits every night surrounded by lit mosquito coils to avoid the bugs, and she didn't want to be present while he poisoned himself to death. But it seems to me that her belief that he was poisoning himself was itself helping to poison him. If you believe that someone is going to get sick, it helps them to get sick; and if you believe that good things will happen, it helps them to happen. Our beliefs, especially our deepest ones, condition our reality, and influence the reality of everyone around us.
     The philosopher David Hume was an abnormally open-minded person; but unfortunately he was involved in an intellectual movement called "The Enlightenment" which had a hidden agenda for abolishing religion from the face of the earth—i.e., to replace "blind superstition" (especially religion) with "reason and knowledge" (especially science). In his book An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding he included an axe-grinding chapter entitled "On Miracles," which was essentially an underhanded attack on the idea that miracles are possible, since Christians have used this idea in support of the truth, validity, and superiority of their religion—"Look at all the miracles!" Anyway, one argument Hume raised was that rumors of miracles (i.e. events which cannot be explained by empirical science, and which furthermore are not common and consistent enough to be uncontroversially nonfictional) have been most likely to arise in barbarous, ignorant countries—the implication being that the people's barbarous ignorance is what caused them to mistakenly believe in miracles at all. Thus, for instance, the legend of a sage walking on water arose among rustic Hebrews in backwater Galilee rather than among urbane Greeks or Romans. But there is another possible explanation for this same data: It may be that rumors of miracles are most likely to arise in culturally unsophisticated, more "magical" societies because the members of such societies have more faith in their possibility, and thus miracles are more likely really to occur there. I would not be at all surprised if supernatural phenomena really did occur with greater frequency in premodern times, in ages when people had much greater faith in their possibility. Our beliefs condition our reality. I also would not be at all surprised if the next Copernican revolution in science, which might cause scientific knowledge to evolve into something beyond mere science, will be the realization that energy and consciousness are one and the same; that what a physicist calls energy is just a very simple, elemental form of what a psychologist calls consciousness, and what a psychologist calls consciousness is a very complicated and organized form of what a physicist calls energy. This one realization, if proved sufficiently for enough people to believe it, might radically change this world, and probably very much for the better, let alone evaporate the mind/brain problem.
     Of course there's no proof of all this, but by the same token there's really no proof of material matter like omega fatty acids and poisonous wheat gluten either. None of us has ever seen a molecule of oxalic acid, but we have implicit faith that what our priests tell us is true—that not only does oxalic acid exist, but it exists even if no conscious mind is perceiving it, and is poisonous regardless of our mental states. Yet it may all be just an elaborate dream; and modern Westerners are, in their own way, too intellectually unsophisticated to see the metaphysical shifting sands upon which Scientism is based, or else too emotionally insecure and in need of a stable Samsara to want to see. 
     Even if my hypothesis is valid (and I'm certainly not the first person to propose it), there are admittedly some troublesome facts to consider. For instance, it appears that even enlightened beings are to a great degree enslaved by what appears to be a physical system. Ramana Maharshi died of cancer; and Neem Karoli Baba, who reportedly sometimes ate twenty full meals a day as a way of helping people work through karmic energies, and who was quite obese, died of heart failure and/or diabetic shock, despite the fact that he was apparently extremely highly advanced, and had astonishing psychic powers (regardless of materialists' refusal to consider this possibility). Mary Baker Eddy, who considered taking medicine to be a sin (because it demonstrated a greater faith in materialism than in the goodness and mercy of God), still ate food, which after all is a kind of medical prophylaxis against starvation. And Therese Neumann, a Catholic Franciscan lay sister who reportedly was so free of physical necessity that she ate only one communion wafer per day as her sole nutritive intake, plus maybe a little communion wine, still died, like everyone else. The Buddha died too. So ultimately we all appear to be enslaved to the system, or at least our bodies do, regardless of whether the system is physical, or a mentally generated illusion. This may be due largely to the overwhelming reinforcing effect of the beliefs of all the beings participating in the system.
     One thing is fairly certain, however: Positive mental states are more conducive to positive results, and negative mental states are more conducive to negative results. So it's probably much better to eat bread and cheese, or Snickers bars, or even lizard tails and frog eggs, with gratitude or equanimity, than to consume organic kale, chia seeds, and filtered, sterilized water out of worry and fear about being healthy.
     I haven't written all this to persuade you that physical matter doesn't exist. That would be pretty naive, wouldn't it, and foolish besides. I'm simply appealing to whatever open-mindedness you have, and challenging a huge, spiritually bankrupt prison of belief that captivates most of the people of the West, and more and more in the East now too. Just try to consider what I've said as a hypothesis. Actually to believe it would just be subjecting oneself to another imprisoning system, right? Whatever we believe will very probably be fundamentally wrong anyway. In fact it's pretty easy to demonstrate that all beliefs are fundamentally invalid. But don't believe that either. Consider the value of open-mindedness, and of suspension of judgement with regard to beliefs which potentially can enslave us, or even kill us. And be happy and healthy. 

         
      I had discovered that I had diabetes and wasn't supposed to eat anything spicy, starchy, greasy, or sweet. Right after that, I went to Kainchi for the first time and was served a big plate of puris cooked in grease, same halva, and some spicy potatoes—all precisely the things I shouldn't eat. The doctor had told be that if I ate such things I could get very ill. I thought about what the doctor said and looked over at Maharajji, who was twinkling. I was trying to decide whether to have faith in the doctor or faith in Maharajji. (At that time I didn't even know if he was my guru.) It was my first day "on the job" as Maharajji's devotee.
     I finally decided to eat the food. In fact, I was so hungry I ate two big plates of it. Every day thereafter, I would come and stuff myself. After a few weeks, I went to Nainital and had my blood-sugar level tested. It was down to borderline low. The doctor said, "I don't understand how this could have gotten so low so quickly. This doesn't make sense."
     I said, "Well, I think I know what happened."
     (—from Miracle of Love: stories about Neem Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass (Hanuman Foundation, 1995))





Saturday, September 20, 2014

Reflections on Materialism, Karma, and Food (part 1)

"The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in."—Rupert Sheldrake (a famous scientist)
"What opposes the heart is not admitted by the head. All through life we cling to many errors, and take care never to examine their ground, merely from a fear, of which we ourselves are unconscious, of possibly making the discovery that we have so long and so often believed and maintained what is false." —Arthur Schopenhauer (a German philosopher)
     Imagine what would happen if, one day, a cup on somebody's table (maybe yours) were suddenly to levitate into the air and remain floating there, slowly bobbing and rotating with no visible means of support. Well, perhaps after first ascertaining that the phenomenon was not some practical joke, with no string or other gimmick holding the thing up, the average person's most likely reaction would be alarm, possibly even terror, possibly accompanied by shouts, screams, or exclamations of "Jesus Christ!" Why would a person be terrified by a coffee cup suddenly floating into the air? The cup wouldn't be threatening anybody with immanent harm; it would just be quietly floating there. The main reason why a person might be terrified by this cup would be the fact that they could not explain what was happening, and that the situation had suddenly become unpredictable, and therefore perceived as potentially very threatening.
     Here is a somewhat similar situation that I encountered many years ago in a short story by Ambrose Bierce: A man looks out his window and sees a clump of trees, yet one of the trees seems somehow different from all the rest—not with regard to what kind of tree it is, but with regard to how it feels to perceive it. This unexpected strangeness inspires alarm and dread in the heart of the man, until he realizes that the strange tree is actually a small tree much closer to him than the rest, which through an optical illusion he perceived as a member of the group of trees farther away. This momentary inability to explain a perceived phenomenon was sufficient to inspire fear in the person looking out the window. I would guess that this really happened to Mr. Bierce at one time. Similar things have happened to me; for example a fear-inspiring violent hailstorm that I encountered in a tropical semi-desert during very hot weather several years ago. The scariest thing about it was that I didn't know why it was happening.
     People are like this. This is human nature. We have a profound emotional need to explain everything around us. The explanation doesn't even have to be particularly sensible, or even true; all it has to be is emotionally satisfying. 
     This is one of the main, original reasons for religion and philosophy. Even in the stone age people couldn't stand not being able to explain what caused thunder or diseases, or what the stars are, or what brings bad harvests, or good hunting. And if they couldn't explain such things themselves, it was generally enough to have the simple faith that the witch doctors or priests or philosophers could explain them. This is one reason why witch doctors, priests, and philosophers have received so much respect and support over the ages. They help to give their people a feeling of emotional security. 
     This profound need for explanations results in human beings becoming addicted to and passionately defensive of whatever paradigm they depend upon as a world view. We don't want to examine too closely the basic foundations of our paradigm, for fear that we may find something unbelievable, with nothing conveniently available to replace it. Such an event could inspire fear and chaos in an entire population.
     700 years ago, people just as intelligent as we are, although with different cultural conditioning, were absolutely sure that God Almighty created the entire Universe in six days, taking the seventh day off as a holiday. This was really a very powerful explanation for everything: The LORD, in His infinite wisdom, made it that way. And if a simple medieval peasant couldn't explain it any better than that, he had faith that the priests certainly could, The LORD willing. The medieval European world view was actually in some ways stronger than the modern scientific world view; it all fell back on "God made it that way." That was good enough and comprehensive enough to keep people from worrying. It explained literally everything. Nowadays there are many things that the new religion of Scientism can't explain, although the average person is ignorant of this, or else has a simple faith that the scientists will figure it all out very soon. At first many people vehemently resisted science as a new way of explaining Reality, or else simply ignored the situation; but science could not be argued away like a rival dogma of Christianity could, as it had practical results that not only were obvious, but often useful besides. Science had reproducible, obvious evidence supporting it, it fueled technology, and, furthermore, it made sense. Gradually, more and more as it developed, science became a stupendous super-system which, for the most part, was comprehensive and self-consistent. This kind of explanatory system is very emotionally satisfying. (At a much smaller scale, a paranoid psychotic's ability to fit everything into his perceptual system in a way that supports his perceptions of persecution, etc., makes his world view extremely convincing, at least to him personally. It all makes perfect sense, in a way.) This helps to explain why the Western world has been sucked into an intellectual monoculture as limiting, in its own ways, as the intellectual monoculture of medieval Christianity, and much more spiritually bankrupt.
     But although scientific realism, or Scientism, is accepted without question by most Westerners, even by most humans nowadays, what are the odds that it will be accepted as the most correct interpretation of Reality by people 700 years from now? It may even appear as naively unrealistic to people 170 or even 70 years from now as medieval Scholasticism appears to scientists today. We naturally assume that scientific materialism is the correct interpretation of Reality, and do not want to question that because it would inspire some fearful insecurity, but in all probability Scientism itself will eventually be outmoded and replaced by something even more satisfyingly explanatory. Most people nowadays do not realize that Scientism is a huge, elaborate guess, or system of guesses. They may say that science has proof, but even philosophers of science know that there is no real proof, and furthermore those medieval Christians had their own proof that Christian theology was the correct interpretation—miracles produced by saints, or even by the relics of saints, were pretty solid evidence to people in those days. The danger of being burned at the stake for doubting the system was just icing on the cake.
     There have always been people who, for whatever reasons, have interpreted Reality in a way that rejects not only scientific materialism, but any materialism. Mahayana Buddhism and Hindu Vedanta are two of the most advanced and profound spiritual/philosophical systems devised by the human mind, and both deny the ultimate existence of physical matter. Further west, Christian Science and the Idealist philosophies (predominantly German, and mostly of the 19th century, before the monoculture took over) have advocated the idea that the world is an Idea. Immanuel Kant considered it a great scandal that no philosopher had ever been able to demonstrate the real existence (or nonexistence) of physical matter; and philosophers a hundred years ago and more, very intelligent people by the way, often dismissed materialism with condescending disdain. In fact if one looks at logical demonstrations, one finds that the Idealists have more in their favor than do their materialistic rivals. But the practical results of Scientism, and the faith-inspiring, satisfying integratedness and self-consistency of the system, have drowned out logical demonstrations.
     Before getting back to Buddhist philosophy I will point out the strange paradox of scientific "certainty": Science begins by assuming what is uncertain, namely a physical world which goes on with its business unaffected whether or not a conscious mind is perceiving it—which cannot possibly be proved—and traditionally rejects, or at least tries to ignore, what is certain, i.e. the subjective existence of consciousness itself. During the 20th century there were even psychologists who denied the validity, or even the existence, of consciousness in their attempts at scientific objectivity. And to this day Scientism has no real explanation for how a physical brain could possibly generate consciousness. Modern technological peasants, in their simple faith in the priests of Scientism, either ignore all this or else assume that the scientists must have it figured out, or will figure it out soon. And if they can't figure it out, then it must not be important. Non-scientific modern philosophers have frequently adopted the obviously sensible strategy of starting with relative certainty, i.e. the existence of consciousness itself, and working from this in their attempts to understand reality, yet, ironically, science has adopted practically the opposite approach.  
     Many years ago in a used bookstore in Mandalay I latched onto an old college textbook on Indian Philosophy, written by two Hindu professors with long, unrememberable names like Dr. Sri Ramanujandas Krishnakumaraswami. Their discussion of Buddhism followed the method of medieval Hindu texts on comparative Indian Philosophy by dividing Buddhism into four categories, based largely on their respective epistemological doctrines. The first category was Madhyamaka, which, according to the Hindus at least, asserts that neither mind nor matter is ultimately real, and thus that neither can really be known. The second category, also Mahayanist, is Yogacara, which asserts that mind or consciousness is ultimately real, and can and is known directly, although matter, being ultimately illusory, cannot be really known at all. Thus the two main Mahayana schools are both non-materialist. (H. H. the Dalai Lama, considered to be a great sage in Western Dharma circles, is a leading member of the Madhyamaka or "Voidness" school.) The next group discussed is the Sautrantika school, a reform movement of "Hinayana" which rejected the authority of all Abhidharma texts. According to them, mind is ultimately real and can be known directly, while matter, also ultimately real, can be inferred with logical certainty, and thus can be known, with certainty, indirectly. The last on the list is called Vaibhashika, which in all likelihood is the same as Sarvastivada, an old school closely related to Theravada. This ancient school claimed that not only are both mind and matter ultimately real, but that they both can be known directly, and thus with absolute certainty. Apparently this last school was not taken very seriously by medieval Hindu philosophers, who hardly bothered to take the trouble to argue against it. This sort of reasoning had come to be considered naively unsophisticated by that time. It does, however, come closest to the Theravadin view—the Theravadins themselves having been mostly driven into southern India and elsewhere by early medieval times, no longer being a significant enough philosophical force in northern India to be mentioned in the comparative philosophy texts of the day. 
     One major difficulty that all the materialist/pluralist schools had, as represented on the Hindu list by Sautrantika and Vaibhashika, was in their explanations of how mind, which was considered to be ultimately, qualitatively different from matter, could affect or even generate (ultimately real) physical matter. Karma is a central and fundamental teaching of Buddhist philosophy; and karma is declared to be predominantly a mental state; yet karma somehow profoundly influences the seemingly physical system of our samsaric world. The Sarvastivadins converted karma into a quasi-material substance, much like the Jains did, although this didn't really solve the problem. In the Theravadin Abhidhamma philosophy there is mention of kammaja rūpa and cittaja rūpa—karma-born matter and mind-born matter—although, as far as I know, no serious attempt was ever made to explain how mind or mental states could create or even influence ultimately distinct physical matter. The whole situation was an early forerunner to the "mind/brain problem" in modern science. I doubt that anyone has ever really figured it out within a context that acknowledges materialism.
     But from a Buddhist point of view at least, an obvious, simple, effective solution to the problem is to allow physical matter to drop out of the equation. The existence of matter is not logically necessary anyway, and just leads to apparently insoluble problems, at least in Buddhist and Vedantist philosophy. After all, the word "Buddha" can be interpreted to mean Awakened; the implication being that Samsara is a kind of illusory dream state from which we awaken. Thus the more sophisticated systems dismissed matter, much as the successors of Kant in Europe dismissed it. It was seen as more of a logical embarrassment than an intellectually satisfying, actual explanation of the phenomenal world.  
     But of course, the assertions or even certainty of Mahayana Buddhists and other Idealists are no guarantee of truth, any more than are the assertions and certainty of modern scientific materialists who lean in the opposite direction. Or of medieval European Christians, for that matter, who were pretty damn sure of themselves too. Certainty appears to be no guarantee of anything, not even if it is the certainty of entire civilizations, regardless of what they consider to be obvious "proof." It is the nature of civilizations, including our own civilization, to be deludedly unenlightened. The primary purpose of a civilization, and also the primary purpose of a religious system, a social movement, or an individual being, is to perpetuate itself, not to understand Ultimate Reality. The understanding of Ultimate Reality may even be detrimental to self-perpetuation.


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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Technical Matters: Ecclesiastical Precints (Sīmā)


     Recently I was recruited as Sangha technical advisor for a new Buddhist ashram to be constructed in the highlands of central Bali. Monasteries can be extremely simple; so with regard to the monastic area of the ashram, the only technical advice really required concerns the formal ecclesiastical precinct, or sīmā. So lately I've been brushing up on the subject of sīmās.
     According to the Pali text Vinaya Mahāvagga, in the chapter on Uposatha, monks were uncertain as to how to know whether they were in the same congregation as other monks living nearby—that is, whether or not they should perform formal acts of the Sangha together. They brought this matter to the Buddha, who said, "Bhikkhus, I allow an ecclesiastical precinct (sīmā) to be authorized. And thus, bhikkhus, should it be authorized: First, boundary markers (nimittā) should be announced—pabbatanimittaṁ (a mountain or hill), pāsāṇanimittaṁ (a rock), vananimittaṁ (a forest or grove of trees), rukkhanimittaṁ (a single tree), magganimittaṁ (a path or road), vammikanimittaṁ (a termite mound), nadīnimittaṁ (a river or stream), udakanimittaṁ (any body of water)…." And after this a formal act of the  Sangha is conducted to authorize the new precinct.
     There are a few other kinds of sīmā that are more or less "automatic," and do not require a formal act to authorize them. For example, monks living within the boundaries of a village or town may use those boundaries as a gāmasīmā, or "village sīmā." Monks living in a remote forest area may use an automatic sīmā with a radius of seven abbhantaras, an abbhantara allegedly being a unit of measurement about 14m in length. Also, monks completely surrounded by water may use a kind of water sīmā with a radius equivalent to the distance a man of average strength can fling water in all directions. (I once used this sort of sīmā in Yokohama Bay, in Japan; the sayadaw I was with had a boat rented so we could do uposatha inside a valid sīmā.)


an illustration from ven. U Silananda's book,
showing a kind of water sima
(the circle around the raft represents the sima boundary,
defined by the distance a man of average strength 
can fling water in all directions)

     All the monks who live within the same agreed-upon boundaries are considered to be of one congregation, and are thus required to participate in the same formal acts, or at least to agree to them. (Interestingly, the main definition of a schism, or saṅghabheda, is a situation in which two separate communities of monks perform separate formal acts within the same sīmā.) Thus it is clear that a sīmā was a kind of parish—the size of some of the allowable boundary markers (a mountain, a forest) indicates this, as does the fact that the maximum allowable size for a sīmā is three yojanas on a side; so assuming purely for the sake of argument that a yojana equals 15km, the maximum allowable ecclesiastical precinct or parish would be about 2000 square kilometers, or 780 square miles. This maximum limit is to prevent monks from being unable to arrive easily at the congregation place within a single day. There is another rule which specifies that a sīmā may not be divided by a river unless there is a permanent means of crossing it, such as a bridge or ferry. This also is to ensure that monks living within the sīmā can reach the scene of a formal act without undergoing an ordeal.
     At the other end of the scale, the minimum allowable size is just big enough to allow 21 monks to sit together. This is because the largest formal act of the Sangha (called abbhāna) requires a minimum of 21 monks to participate in it. But despite this relatively tiny minimum size, still it is clear that the original purpose of a sīmā was to be a territory or "home turf" determining which monks were members of the same community.
     Ironically though, if one goes to a monastery in Myanmar one will find that a sīmā, or thein, usually refers not to any bounded territory within which a community of monks resides, but rather to a single building, the monastery's congregation hall—which, as often as not, has zero monks residing there. So the average ecclesiastical precinct has come to have a total population of zero. This situation is the inevitable result of corruption in Vinaya, which in this particular case is largely due to a peculiar glitch in the monastic rules themselves, unforeseen by the ancient formulators of the Theravadin monastic code.
     This appears to be an opportune point at which to point out that this article is not intended to be a comprehensive exposition on sīmās. As far as I know, no such comprehensive exposition exists in the English language, unless maybe it is in volume III of the English translation of the Vinayamukha, authored by the Thai Sangharāja ven. Vajirañāavaroraso. The definitive work in Burmese is considered to be a book entitled သိမ် သင်တန်း (Thein Thintann), by ven. Sayadaw U Sīlānanda. Otherwise, curious monks should consult the Vinaya itself and its commentaries, the latter especially with regard to how to do the boundary marker announcements. The main purpose of this article is to discuss how the concept of sīmās has been corrupted, and how the Sangha can cope with the corruption in order to keep things legal and "ritually pure." Consequently this article may be of little or no interest to laypeople. 
     All or almost all ecclesiastical acts in Burmese monasticism have become corrupt, and the situation appears to be only slightly better in Thailand; I'm not sure what it's like in Sri Lanka, but I would guess that it's not so good there either. But the fact that a Sangha's "home territory" has shrunk down to a single building which may be home to nobody is not entirely the fault of the Burmese, or the Thais. It's due in part to the likelihood that ancient Indian monks did not realize that Buddhism would exist for more than 2500 years, and that the boundary markers of sīmās could be forgotten or could even disappear altogether, with no way of knowing whether there is or is not a pre-existent sīmā in a given place, and no convenient way of eliminating one if there is one. A sīmā has no expiration date, even though its boundary markers may have been trees, roads, ponds, or termite mounds that ceased to exist centuries before. 
     The establishment of a new sīmā, as mentioned above, involves first naming all the boundary markers in all (eight) directions; but although there is a formal act for abolishing an old sīmā, it does not mention any boundary markers. The key words in the act of abolishment are simply, in Pali, "That sīmā agreed upon by the Sangha as the area of common communion, of one uposatha observance—that sīmā is abolished as the area of common communion, of one uposatha observance." The assumption is that the boundaries of the sīmā to be abolished are known, and that by performing this formal act within those known boundaries, the act is accomplished. There is no provision for invisible, forgotten, ancient sīmās
     The Vinaya explicitly specifies that no new sīmā may be authorized which overlaps with an old one. Such a sīmā is invalid. Consequently, especially in Asia, before a new sīmā is established, a very complicated ritual is performed to ensure that there are no invisible, pre-existing sīmās overlapping with the intended new one, which might invalidate it. This ritual is very labor intensive, and is by far the most difficult part of creating a new sīmā.
     The way it is done in Burma is that the entire ground which will contain the new "precinct" is divided up into rectangles a few feet on a side, and a formal act of abolishment is performed inside each rectangle, just in case an ancient, invisible sīmā is there. Thus new sīmās tend to be scarcely bigger than the area of a single building; dividing up 2000 square kilometers into little rectangles and doing formal chanting in each one simply is not feasible.
     Of course, an obvious solution to this problem would be to change the words of the formal act, stating that any sīmā existing within such and such boundaries is officially abolished. There may be some Sanghas that have actually tried this. But the trouble is that conservative Asian theras may consider such a deviation from the actual words of the Vinaya to be invalid; and if a sīmā is suspected to be invalid, all formal acts conducted within that sīmā, including the ordinations of new monks, could also be suspected of invalidity. A sīmā must be like Caesar's wife—above suspicion. Thus a new ecclesiastical precinct must have two qualities: it must be valid according to Vinaya, and it must also be uncontroversial and acceptable to as many monks as possible, preferably all of them. If Burmese sayadaws consider Thai sīmās to be invalid, or if Thai ajahns consider Burmese ones to be invalid, or Western monks consider both types to be invalid, it simply breeds problems. So it's best to be as conservative as possible when making sīmās. 
     As it turns out, I am one of those aforementioned Western monks who considers most sīmās in Burma and Thailand to be pretty much invalid. The situation has to do not with abolishing old sīmās, or with the tininess of new ones, but with the boundary markers used, the nimittā
     For some bizarre reason that I can only begin to guess at, the standard method for establishing a new sīmā in Myanmar is as follows: After any old sīmā is abolished (which abolishment also may be invalid, although I'll get back to that), holes dug where the boundary markers are to be are filled with water, again and again, until the ground is saturated and the water doesn't immediately seep into the ground and disappear. Then the formal act is conducted after declaring these holes full of water as udakanimittā, or bodies of water used as boundary markers. A few hours later the water is gone, and the Burmese set up marble or concrete posts to show where the real boundary markers are supposed to be. But of course the boundary markers have evaporated, and are nonexistent. There used to be an ancient commentary which specified that any water boundary marker should have water in it all year round, like a pond or a well, in order for it to be a valid marker. The official Theravadin commentary, however, rejects this, claiming that a water boundary may be nothing more than a temporary mud puddle that animals have wallowed in. (It is interesting, and justifiable, that the venerable author of the Vinayamukha declared the orthodox commentator to be "shameless" for having said this.) Clearly, in order for something to be a boundary marker or nimitta it should not only not be easily movable, it should not be invisible! This is simply common sense. Consequently, at my own ordination at a Burmese monastery in California, I disregarded the nonexistent water nimittā and relied on one of those automatic sīmās, like maybe the seven-abbhantara one. 
     Based on what I have been told, the situation in Thailand is hardly better. I have been informed that boundary markers in Thailand are often pāsāanimittā, or rock markers. The thing is, though, that the rocks are the size of cannonballs, and are buried in the ground where no one can see them—with quasi-markers similar to the ones the Burmese used to show where the small, invisible rocks are supposed to be. Again, it is hardly to be expected that a boundary marker which nobody can see would be a valid marker. Also there is the issue of how small a rock can be and still be a valid nimitta. Obviously, it should be large enough not to be easily moved, unlike a pebble or a cannonball. The commentary suggests the size of an ox as reasonable, although the size of an elephant would make the rock a hill, not just a rock. Hills are allowable markers too, though. Better too big than too small.
     I remember once a Western monk I knew mentioning that at one Western monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition the Sangha used big concrete blocks as boundary markers for their sīmā. He considered this to be invalid, not considering concrete to be rock, or any of the other allowable kinds of markers. But it seems to me that concrete is pretty clearly a kind of artificial rock—man-made, but still rock. So if it's too big to be moved, I would consider it to be valid. But the fact that some monks would consider it invalid may be sufficient reason for seeking a different kind of marker. Again, a sīmā must be above suspicion.
     All in all, the best, most uncontroversial nimitta to use would be a tree. It's clearly allowable in accordance with the ancient Indian texts, and nobody is going to argue with it. One just doesn't argue with trees. The only limitation is that it must be a kind of tree with its hardest wood, its heartwood, on the inside; in other words, bamboo and palm trees are not allowable rukkhanimittā. And banana trees, having no hard wood at all, are completly out of the question. (Incidentally, the new sīmā planned in Bali will be completely surrounded by a moat, and thus will have water nimittā all the way around. I've never seen a sīmā like that before; and considering that the congregation hall will be designed like a temple besides, if it ever materializes it will be very cool. My idea is to enter the hall by crossing a narrow bridge and passing between two fires—a symbolic purification thing. But I digress.)
     It may be assumed that Theravada Buddhist monasteries being constructed in non-Buddhist Western countries need not bother with abolishing any ancient, invisible sīmā before establishing a new one, considering that it is extremely unlikely that there have ever been sīmās officially established there before modern times. If this is the case, then I don't see any good reason why new Western monasteries should not establish sīmās which encompass the entire monastery, in accordance with the original purpose of sīmās. On the other hand, there is still the issue of conservative Asian monks suspecting the validity of a new sīmā established without making sure there are no old ones already established there. For example, some monks consider sīmās established even in the dispensations of prehistoric Buddhas to be still potentially valid. If so, then no place on earth, including the continent of Antarctica, would be guaranteed of having no invisible ancient sīmā which could muck up (invalidate) the establishment of a new one. Also, it is known that monastic Buddhist missionaries came to western North America with a Chinese expedition well over a thousand years ago, long before Columbus ever discovered the place; so in North America at least there may actually be a few invisible ancient sīmās. But in my opinion most Sanghas in countries that have never been Buddhist needn't worry too much about ancient sīmās, and may as well establish new ones without going through the laborious abolishment rituals beforehand. But doing the abolishment may be the only way to create 100% confidence in the most conservative of Asian theras. As for myself though, I'm way too skeptical ever to arrive at 100% confidence in anything.
     As mentioned above, Burmese Sanghas divide up the area intended for a new sīmā into little rectangles, and chant the formal acts of abolishment inside each rectangle. In ven. U Sīlānanda's definitive Burmese book, he points out that since the smallest possible sīmā is just large enough to accommodate 21 sitting monks, the rectangles for abolishment need be no smaller than this. This used to make good sense to me, and seemed to make the abolishment process easier…until I realized that there is one complication with it. What if the area of an intended new sīmā really does have an invisible, very small, ancient sīmā contained within it, and what if the rectangles drawn on the ground bisect this small sīmā? Then when the Sangha is doing the formal act of abolishment inside each rectangle, some of the monks may be inside the ancient sīmā, and others outside of it; and thus the formal act may be invalidated by having some of the monks outside the sīmā and an insufficient number within it. A minimum of four bhikkhus must be within the boundaries, and within arm's reach of each other, in order for the formal act of abolishment to be valid. So it seems that in order to avoid this possibility and to ensure that the abolishment of any tiny invisible sīmās is valid, the rectangles should be just big enough for four or five bhikkhus to squat within them and do the ritual ceremonies. Maybe in future if there is ever another Great Council, this glitch in the monastic rules could be straightened out somehow; and maybe that troublesome bhikkhuni issue could be officially settled also. Then again, the monks who participate in Great Councils tend to be too conservative to deal with controversial issues, and content themselves with little more than rearranging Pali punctuation marks.
     There is one other way that I know of for creating a large sīmā without having first to divide up the entire area into little rectangles, and that is to establish a gāmasīmā, or village parish. This is done sometimes in Myanmar. The way it is done is to have the government officially declare the precints of the monastery to be its own village. This may work in a Buddhist country like Myanmar, but whether politicians in Western countries would give enough of a damn officially to declare a Buddhist monastery its own village is another matter. It may be worth a shot, though. One disadvantage of a gāmasīmā, however, like all "automatic" sīmās, is that the priviledge of avippavāsa does not apply, that is, the right of any bhikkhu inside the sīmā to be separated from any of his three robes at dawn without committing a nissaggiya pācittiya offense. But nowadays even strict and "exemplary" bhikkhus tend not to follow such rules about being with all three robes at dawn, etc. The Byzantine complications of Theravadin monastic discipline render corruption and laxness a virtual inevitability in the Sangha. But still, the validity of ordinations is a relatively important issue, so all this stuff about precincts and little rectangles may not be totally irrelevant.    


A pseudo sima marker, 
showing where the real sima marker is supposed to be



Saturday, September 6, 2014

13 Days in the Life


     I heard the news today oh boy
     About a lucky man who made the grade… (—the Beatles)

     For most of the year 2000 I lived alone under a huge rock ledge called Wun Cha Ote-hmin, or "Belly Fall Cavern," at the northern boundary of Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park, in northwestern Burma. During that time I kept a journal, one of the main purposes of which was to give me something to refer to in later years, to help me determine to what extent, or whether or not, I was making progress in Dharma. The first of two volumes has already been published on the website nippapanca.org; the following is a "preview" of volume two, being the entries of the first 13 days of the rains retreat of that year.
     For some details on my rock ledge, or cavern, and its surrounding environment, one may refer to the Introduction to "Cave Journal," published on the website. Here I will just add a few details concerning some important characters in this part of the chronicle, a family of "jink birds" who had a nest almost directly above where I sat and slept under the ledge. The villagers called them "water crows"; and although they are about the same size and shape as crows, they aren't crows. Their plumage is a dark indigo blue, with silvery streaks on the head and neck, and the beak is rather smaller than a crow's beak, and if I remember correctly, it is bright orange. Their usual call was a shrill, metallic sound like "jink," hence my name for them; although the male especially (named Jinky) had a more varied repertoire, and would occasionally sit on a tree branch and quietly warble out strange music sounding like some kind of avant-garde jazz. 
     The birds live near water and hunt for small animals, such as frogs, near the water's edge—yet they do not seem well adapted to being predators, since their pheasant-like beak is apparently not designed to tear flesh. Watching them kill and try to eat a frog was a painful spectacle, as they would grab the frog by an arm or leg and beat it against the ground again and again until it was not only dead, but starting to fall apart. They would eat only the pieces that would come off in this way, and leave the rest. They are a very hard-beaked, ruthless kind of bird, and they made it easier to relate to the scientific theory that birds are actually a kind of dinosaur. More than once I felt gratitude that I was bigger than they were; otherwise they would no doubt have beaten me against the ground till I started falling apart. I've looked in a few bird books, but I still don't know what kind of bird they are. If any of you are knowledgeable regarding birds of tropical Asia and have an idea of what their official name is, please let me know.
     Reading this journal while typing it up for publication is sometimes humbling, as it reminds me of the relatively intense motivation for "intensive practice" that I used to have, but now have only vestiges of. On the other hand, I have clearly made some progress since those days. I am in much less of a state of friction with the surrounding Universe, and am calmer and (usually) happier. I suppose that is partly due, ironically, to the chronic dissatisfaction which used to drive me through life, driving me out into Asian forests to "wrestle with the devil in the wilderness." Practice has its results, like everything else does. Anyway, the rest is what I wrote under the wasp-infested ledge under the bird nest.  



PLACE: midway between everywhere
and nowhere
DATE: midway between always
and never

7-16 (13:21) Imasmi vihāre ima temāsa vassa upemi (×3). The 1st day of vassa today; it hasn't started out very well. Last night after 22:00 I tried to sit in meditation, but it was still too hot, & the sweat began flowing immediately. So I gave up & lay down in anger to go to sleep, but lying on my right side was too hot, & the sweat continued flowing. Had to go to sleep last night lying on my back, as it radiates heat more efficiently & is slightly cooler. Had several long, complicated dreams last night; in one I was the assistant to a garbage man (influenced no doubt by my thinking last night about a garbage man I met once); in one I was a college student who went to an on-campus snack bar & ordered a large chocolate milkshake, then spoke semi-flirtatiously w/ the girl behind the counter, & briefly discussed art; & in the last one the bamboo screen covering problem wasp nest #1 had to be taken down for some unremembered reason, so I was warning people to beware of the wasps, as the nest was very large; a blonde woman didn't heed my warnings & apparently thought they wouldn't sting her, so she kept getting closer & closer, trying to get a good look, until finally her face was very near the nest, whereupon the wasps came out & stung her several times on the face & neck. Cameo appearances were made in that dream by my father, &, if I remember correctly, the actress Bernadette Peters. Anyhow, I got up in the morning & tried to meditate, but was unsuccessful, partly because I had to get up & go relieve an attack of diarrhea. Then the weather-induced anger returned, as the rising sun had resumed blazing. Went for almsround in Kuzeit & received lots of unappetizing food—the people don't like to offer peanuts & beans (i.e., good food) on festival days, & instead offer things like bamboo shoots & icky glop that I would rather not even look at, much less eat; received so much food in fact that my bowl was full & I had to turn back before even reaching the main group of people, which I'm sure they didn't like. Returned to the cave & fanned myself for about 15 minutes to partially dry the sweat, then hunkered down behind my umbrella to stay out of the sun's fiery blaze, half-heartedly picking at the unappetizing food, stopping once or twice to fan my sweat some more. My mood steadily deteriorated as the day steadily got hotter, indulging in much disgusted bitching & moaning to myself about how the monsoon season here is even hotter than the hot season, & wondering why I do this shit to myself. After washing the bowl & my perpetually stinky upper robe I lay down for about 2 hours, fanning myself & feeling slightly sick. It's probably just borderline heat prostration, altho I think it could possibly be the onset of another bout of malaria. Now it's gotten relatively windy, & has clouded up a little, so it's not quite so hot, & I am not quite so disgusted w/ the universe. But, I really am fed up w/ blazing sun, sweltering heat, dripping sweat, & bloodsucking flies. I could be at a comfy place in town reading lots of books, & even getting a cheese sandwich w/ my food now & then; but for some reason I want to do this shit to myself.
     (20:24) Critter Update: There are 3 baby jink birds in the nest this time around, & the parents are hard at work trying to keep them fed. Today there was a large stick insect, the tail of a lizard, & what appeared to be the head of a baby rat littering the ground beneath the nest—evidently baby jink birds are fussy w/ their food. I actually saw the baby rat being killed. A parent jink bird found a rat nest in a crevice over by the (now dry) waterfall, grabbed a baby, & flew over the pond w/ it while the mother rat squeaked in alarm. The baby made a few attempts to get away, but was eventually beaten to death against the ground & torn into pieces. Shortly thereafter the mother rat was running around inside the cave w/ a different baby in her mouth, looking for a new hiding place. Compassion for little rats. As for the wasp situation, some gentlemen came today to pay their respects on the 1st day of "Lent," & at least 2 of them were stung, one of them by a nest that, as far as I know, had never stung anyone before. It's directly above the path & not easily avoidable, which is not good. On the somewhat morbid bright side, on the other hand, most of the nests don't look much bigger than they were a month ago. This is because there is a different kind of wasp that is preying upon the larvae of the paper wasps. They infiltrate a nest somehow & pull larvae out of their cells; if a larva is big, the wasp flies away w/ it, but if it's small, the wasp just drops it & pulls out another one. Most of the paper wasp larvae appear to be dying in this way; some nests have very few pupae. Most of the larvae that fall to the ground are collected by jink birds & taken up to the nest, w/ most of the remainder being eaten by rats & ants. Lately when I do walking meditation at night 2 little bats that fly in tandem flutter & swoop around my legs, which is rather distracting. I presume they are attracted to the mosquitoes which are attracted to my blood. Meanwhile, down at the pond, the mysterious turtle is still there (I don't know how it could go elsewhere, unless it is a kind of turtle that is skillful at climbing steep terrain). There are relatively few tadpoles left—most of them have either metamorphosed or been washed down into the creek to become fish food. A wilderness is a battlefield. Life requires death. So why do I love forests & nature? Maybe it's irrational animal instinct.

7-17 (13:56) Ah, semi-luxury…the weather cooled down somewhat & there was a brief shower yesterday evening, & so far today it's been overcast, relatively breezy, & occasionally sprinkly. At midday it was almost cool enough to be comfortable. I realize, tho, that my dualistic preferences are just prolonging my stay in Sasāra. Comfort is better than discomfort, contentment is better than misery—Bah! Rubbish!* Clearly, nondualism & no preferences are much better than dualistic preference. (humor)
     (17:11) Surprise, surprise, meditation isn't going very well today. Possibly as much as half of the last sit was occupied w/ truly perverted & unarousing sexual fantasizing. The main problem now seems to be lack of enthusiasm & motivation for practice. Also lack of momentum. Kamma is momentum. 
     (18:29) Further tragedy in the rat family—When I was over at the pee pot I suddenly noticed a baby rat running up the slope into the cave. Then I heard a commotion down below & saw a brown snake about 4 feet long tumbling down the slope w/ the mother rat chasing after it. The snake threw itself into the pond, & the mother rat jumped in also, in hot pursuit—possibly because the snake had one of her babies; I couldn't see well enough to tell. The snake looked large enough to eat the mother rat under ordinary circumstances, but she was being desperately ferocious in an attempt to protect her children. One of the babies ran north toward the dry waterfall, & a jink bird swooped down & grabbed it. The baby squeaked in distress, & the mother started to hurry toward it, but she was too late & too far away; the jink bird flew away w/ it, beat it to death, & started tearing it apart, just as w/ the one last night. The other jink bird was on the alert, but another baby was able to make it to the shelter of some rocks in time. More compassion for little rats. They're really not bad—they almost never mess w/ my stuff, plus they're kind of cute—sandy brown little forest rats w/ long hind legs. They remind me that I am fortunate that my main causes for complaint are nothing more than hot weather & feeling slightly unwell, plus being foolish in general. Existing.

* Good is better than bad—what nonsense! 

7-18 (12:02) Last night while looking at the TBGL [i.e., the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, the text of which I had written down in a little notebook] my thinking mind came to a screetching halt upon reading the following words:
     "…there are no two such things as existence and non-existence."
How can such a statement be understood? Nevertheless, it seems to be pretty much in agreement w/ one of my working hypotheses: There are no two such things as Everything & Nothing. Everything is Nothing. Incidentally, the Kalahavivāda Sutta says that existence & non-existence (bhava & vibhava) are founded in phassa—"contact," or maybe "stimulation"—apparently a mental state in this context. 2 other passages that I lingered over last night were,
     "The non-created, self-radiant Wisdom here set forth, being actionless, immaculate, transcendent over acceptance or rejection, is itself the perfect practice." and,
     "By not taking the mind to be naturally a duality, and allowing it, as the primordial consciousness, to abide in its own place, beings attain deliverance."
But all the names like "Wisdom," "mind," "primordial consciousness," etc., seem too positive, too suggestive of positive existence. As it says near the beginning,
     "Although the One Mind is, it has no existence."
The Great One Mind/Zero Mind. To be completely undifferentiated is to be Voidness. And bare consciousness is completely undifferentiated. The TBGL is exceedingly profound, & thus I don't understand it well enough.
     After writing that the rats almost never mess w/ my stuff, last night one of them chewed up my bowl bag. Will require a few hours of sewing to fix it.
     This morning I saw a veritable crowd of poachers on their way into the so-called "national park," taking advantage of the non-rainy weather. They are like big brown flightless jink birds. The human race seems to be a hopeless case—we wallow & roll in Sasāra because we want to wallow & roll in Sasāra. Intensely want. As the Good Book says, "To the large brown flightless jink bird wisdom appears as foolishness (and vice versa)." (—Californians 5:18) Life requires death. Wisdom requires folly. Happiness requires suffering.
     Walking thru the fields to Kuzeit nowadays involves wading thru a sea of waist-deep weeds w/ occasional sesamum plants interspersed. The farmers in these parts are apparently not particularly keen on cultivation (or hard work in general). The biomass of the fields looks to be about 80% weeds. Compare & contrast w/ farms in Japan, where the fields look as tho they've been manicured & sterilized, w/ all the crops perfectly spaced in neat rows, & w/ plastic sheeting on the ground & shiny ribbons stretched above the plants to vibrate & hum in the wind, & thus scare the birds away.

7-19 (18:49) Another frequently thought thought to supplement those recorded in the previous volume of this journal:
     "'Big rain here during the rainy season' they said. 'Big rain, Big rain.'"
     I sit under the mosquito net fanning myself, w/ little Anopheles mosquitoes all around me trying to get in.

7-20 (11:25) This morning while returning from my daily pre-almsround dump I was entering the cave & slowly easing my way past problem nest #2, when a wasp—probably not a paper wasp, I think, but one of the larva-stealing kind—zipped away from one of the nests there & bounced off my shoulder, causing my heart to skip a beat. I froze, & a moment later wasps began angrily boiling out of the nest. I don't think it was because of me, but I was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time, so I turned & fled as fast as I could go, bloodying one of my feet as I bounded at full speed down the steep, boulder-strewn slope. But, I still had to get into the cave, so I collected myself & made a 2nd attempt, which was successful. Got ready for almsround & set out for the village still slightly shaky w/ adrenalin. Upon my return, while carefully & slowly moving past PN2 I suddenly heard a loud buzz near my head, causing my face to contort w/ fear/dread; but, altho a few wasps have bounced off of me I haven't been stung even once today—in fact, I haven't been stung since the Bad Day of 6-15. Several visitors have been stung since then, tho.
     On my way to the village this morning saw plenty more poachers heading into the forest. One fellow, when he saw me coming along the creek, began singing loudly, apparently to demonstrate his lack of regard for monks, & Buddhism in general. I experienced feelings of hate, & contempt, & disgust w/ human animals. They truly are animals, too—but then again so am I. Well, maybe not truly are; as the TBGL would say, "human animals" is merely an illusory conception of mind.
     "The Qualityless and Formless" is also a mental concept.
     While walking back from the village it occurred to me that lately my meditative practice has become virtually Rinzai Zen, w/ the TBGL being my koan. I have been in a quandary for days trying to clearly understand it; trying to clearly understand the Primordial Consciousness which is, yet does not exist; trying to understand what transcends understanding. Going around w/ a confused & serious look on my face, trying to see through Sasāra, trying to penetrate. Ultimately struggling in vain? I don't know. Ha, maybe this strange mental state I'm in is just a symptom of pre-malaria. 
     This morning after lunch I noticed something largish and dark making ripples in the water near the edge of the pond. Couldn't tell what it was from up here; thought maybe it was a big black butterfly. When I went down there I saw that it was a baby jink bird, which presumably had fallen out of the nest & tumbled all the way down the hill into the pond. It was still alive, & after some 2nd thoughts I fished it out of the water & brought it back into the cave. I put it on the sand directly below the nest in the hope that one of its parents would see it & carry it back up to the nest, but, of course, neither of them did. So after racking my brains for a while I tied my plastic drinking cup to the end of a long bamboo pole, put the baby into the cup, made a brief prayer to any angels that might be willing to help, & lifted the baby way, way up to the nest. Getting the baby out of the cup was rather difficult, but after repeated & very careful shaking of the pole it finally fell out onto the rim of the nest, where it lay precariously balanced. So, I took the pole down, quickly removed the cup, & then lifted the pole back up & nudged the baby farther into the nest. It was a difficult & risky operation, as the nest is about 18 feet up, & for the 2nd time this morning I was a bit shaky w/ adrenalin. The little bird seems to be alright now, altho it may just fall back out again. Ironic that I consider it proper to save lives, & at the same time consider life to be an affliction. Oh, well, maybe the merit from this deed will to some degree counteract the demerit from all the vampire flies I've been unconscientiously smashing this year (one more last night). It occurs to me that maybe I shouldn't even write about helping birds. As Jesus says, it is better to keep one's good deeds secret than to advertise them. So, I suppose I shouldn't tell anyone about it, & if anyone else reads this, well, reader, I share my merit with you. Ahmya, ahmya, ahmya. I didn't do it for merit, tho; I did it because I felt sorry for the bird. (13:09—more than an hour & a half of writing.)

7-21 (14:30) A baby bird fell out of the nest again a few minutes ago. Don't know if it was the same one as yesterday. The replacement operation has already been effected, & ran much more smoothly than yesterday's. I sincerely hope this won't become a daily occurrence. It may just be the harsh way of jink birds to hatch more chicks than will survive, w/ the smallest & weakest eventually being jostled out of the nest; but how can I let it lie there on the sand 8 feet in front of me w/o doing anything to help it w/ its problem? They're almost fully fledged now, & their eyes are open. Not much bigger than a newly hatched chicken. The nest looks much too small for 3 half-grown jink birds—I think I may become a foster parent in the near future.
     (20:02) The 2 main preoccupations of animals are personal survival & reproduction; and, naturally, these are the 2 main preoccupations of the human animal. A bhikkhu is supposed to be more or less indifferent to the 1st, & is to absolutely avoid the 2nd. All desire for a mate, for sex, or for children is essentially blind, irrational animal instinct w/ some cultural conditioning & habit added as reinforcement. A bhikkhu is a man trying to stop being an animal. 
     A fundamental problem, tho, is that perception itself, which is the very foundation of all human thinking & so-called "reason," derives from irrational animal reflex & instinct. To perceive (believe, attribute significance to) anything is to be in the grip of semiconscious animal mind. Perception is semiconscious animal mind. But, on the other hand, "semiconscious animal mind" is itself a false perception. "False perception" is also a false perception. 

7-22 (12:17) Well, I woke up this morning to find the baby jink bird lying on the ground in front of me again. Probably the same one as yesterday; obviously its nest mates don't like it very much. It seems futile to keep putting it back into the nest again & again, so today I switched to plan B & started trying to be a surrogate mother jink bird. Made a nest out of my smallest clay pot & collected wasp larvae from the floor of the cave (the ones that aren't dead are utterly doomed anyway once they fall from the nest, regardless of what I do or don't do to them; nevertheless, feeding them to a baby bird is still technically depriving them of life, & is against Vinaya). The problem is that the baby bird doesn't trust me, & when I try to feed it it just cowers at the bottom of the nest in fear. So, given the choice of letting it starve or force-feeding it, I strangely & perhaps foolishly chose to force-feed it. I open its mouth w/ my fingers & stuff a few larvae into it, whereupon the little guy falls into a kind of swoon, lying motionless w/ the food still in its mouth; after a while, sometimes several minutes, it revives & swallows the food. Often it is the sound of a parent at the nest up above & the hungry peeping of its siblings that causes it to revive. I hope it gets used to me soon, as I don't want to force-feed a bird 12 times a day for the next 2 weeks. (14:17) Was hoping to receive some fish or meat during almsround, but got no suitable jink bird feed. On my way back from the village I happened to meet U Thein Maung & told him about the bird situation, asking him to bring me some unsalted dry shrimp or fish. He said he'd come, but he showed up a little while ago empty handed, saying there was no shrimp at the market, & suggesting that I just dump the bird somewhere. What would an arahant have done—would he simply have let the baby bird die of exposure at the edge of the pond 2 days ago? Depends on the arahant, I suppose. 
     I have done almost no meditation so far today, due mainly to self-inflicted difficulties. I am a fool.
     (21:15) After devoting the daylight hours of this day to a very stressed-out little bird, continually searching the ground for fallen wasp larvae w/ which to feed it, continually trying to get the little being to eat what little I could find, shortly before dusk I rested from my labors & sat down to meditate, & at around 20:30 I got up to take a pee, lit a candle to see my way to the pot, & what do I see? Another baby jink bird lying on the ground before me—causing me to say to myself, "Another one. Jesus." (Is this some kind of practical joke? Am I on Candid Camera?) It seems to be the hard, harsh jink bird way for the biggest, strongest, most psychopathic chick to push the others out of the nest. If so, I don't want to put tonight's victim into the little clay pot nest w/ last night's victim, as one of the victims will simply revictimize the other one. So, what to do? Ignore the new one & let it starve? Construct another nest & try to scrounge up enough food to raise 2 jink birds to maturity? Put it back up into its nest & hope for the best?—Maybe. I shouldn't spend another rainy season in this cave, if only to avoid the problem of falling baby jink birds. Everything is Dukkha. Tonight's little victim sleeps upon the sand; & a certain selfish, heartless part of myself secretly wishes that mother rat will find it there & have her revenge upon jink birds, thus neatly solving the problem. Or, messily solving it—but solving it anyhow. I think there is a good likelihood that I will dream about birds tonight.

7-23 (19:07) Today's bird dukkha was worse than yesterday's. Yesterday afternoon the little jink bird in the clay pot started trusting me, sort of, & eagerly accepted my food, opening its mouth wide for it. It ate everything I had to give it, which unfortunately wasn't much. This morning also it was inclined to accept food from me. But after lunch, for reasons of its own, it started fearing me again & went into a long fear-induced trance. I couldn't even force-feed it today, as it would simply spit out whatever I put into its mouth, even if I poked the food way back. It probably ate more yesterday than today; & I doubt it will survive, especially so long as it fears the only friend it's got in this world. In retrospect, maybe I should have left it in the water 3 days ago. My efforts are merely causing it to die a slow death instead of a fast one. As for the one that fell out of the nest last night, it is larger & more developed than "my" bird, & is able to hop around a bit; so, after a few futile endeavors on my part, which need not be described here, it eventually hopped off the ledge & tumbled down to a flat, rocky place near the pond, where I assume it still is. Surprisingly, the parents continued feeding it; in fact it received much more food today than the one still up in the nest. Presumably the parents instinctively "know" that the one on the ground is extremely vulnerable, & needs to eat as much as possible in order to grow & mature & get off the ground as fast as possible. I doubt that it will survive, tho—there are carnivorous animals, including a large civet, that regularly prowl around the pond at night. I considered bringing it up into the cave at night, but it seems as tho all my efforts to help just make things worse. Let nature take its course. Experiencing frustration, exasperation, & even a little despair over the little bird who is terrified of the only being willing to feed it; & sadness when seeing the healthy, well-fed one sitting completely helpless & vulnerable on the ground near the pond. Nature is truly a horrible thing. It seems to require so much misery & death. Life for one means death to another, & vice versa. Sometimes one must simply look on w/ compassion & make no effort to help.
     Needless to say, my meditative practice has been completely derailed for 2 days in a row. The prospects for tomorrow don't look so good either.
     I have often wondered if I am in a situation similar to that of the baby jink bird in the pot—are there beings vastly superior to me who try to help, w/ me being too blind & idiotic to let them, or even to begin to comprehend the situation? I beg you to please be patient w/ me, O Venerable Ones. Please have mercy upon me a sinner.

7-24 (11:05) My baby bird was still afraid of me this morning & continued to refuse my offerings of food. So, it became obvious that it was going to die so long as its parents didn't feed it; & so I made one last attempt to save it, by putting it back up into the nest again in the hope that it would at least get something to eat before being pushed out again. Everything seemed to go smoothly—I lifted it up on the pole, & it slid out of the cup right into the nest…but w/in just a few seconds I saw it flop over the rim of the nest & plummet to the ground. The best explanation I can give is that its big, cruel brother or sister immediately shoved it back out again. I picked it up off the ground, whereupon it went into some feeble convulsions & lapsed into unconsciousness. I put it down on the rock near its earthbound sibling, & it died shortly thereafter, if not while still in my hand. Apparently when it fell out of the nest it landed on a small rock which put a dent into its belly, but I think it probably died more from starvation-induced weakness & sheer fright than from any injury sustained from the fall. During the whole time I was "helping" it it probably considered me to be a big terrible monster continually menacing & threatening it w/ death, which I practically turned out to be, despite my good intentions. Later on I helped the jink bird family one last time by removing the dead chick from the vicinity of its former sibling & tossing it into the pond (from whence I originally retrieved it), & now it floats in the water on its dead side. Ah, well, at least its problems are over now. May it have a good rebirth—if, that is, the affliction of rebirth is really necessary. I do hereby abandon all efforts to save baby jink birds. Let nature & the law of kamma take their respective courses. 
     Sometimes kamma simply will not allow one to be relieved of one's suffering, regardless of external help. Kamma (habit energy, formative perception) is the Logos, the Creator & Lord of this world. The will of a seemingly diabolical God.
     (18:21) Still feeling occasional urges to (try to) help the baby bird down below, which is now crouching in a rain channel among the boulders. All I'd have to do is take some dental floss &…too much. Already gave my word (& attained some peace of mind by doing so). 
     The metaphysical question I would most like to know the answer to: "What is Reality?" (the metaphysical question)
     The ethical question I would most like to know the answer to: "What should I do?" (the ethical question)

7-25 (12:28) Today is the 37th birthday of Mr. John David Reynolds, altho few people call me that nowadays. When I was much younger than I am now I used to often wonder what my life would be like in the year 2000, at the age of 37. It seemed so far away then; 37 was well into middle age. I could hardly have guessed 20 years ago that I would become a celibate & slightly neurotic Buddhist mendicant hermit, disenchanted w/ the world & w/ myself, living in a wasp-infested cave in a forest in tropical Asia, w/ possibly hundreds of people, mostly female, literally worshipping me. A laboratory technician w/ a relatively lovely wife, a house in the country, a nice car, a big book collection, & maybe a beagle would have seemed a more likely guess. Somewhere in this Universe such a John David Reynolds probably exists.
     Speaking of wasp-infested caves, this morning I discovered a small new paper wasp nest inhabited by 3 medium wasps of a new yellow variety I have never noticed before, attached to the plastic tarp about 6 feet from my mat. 6 feet from the mat is too close for comfort, & besides, when it finally comes time to take the tarp down 3 months or so from now I would rather not have any large wasp nests connected to it; so, I seemed to have little choice but to knock it down w/ the trusty bamboo pole. The material of the nest wasn't as papery as the usual variety; it was translucent & more plasticky. I counted 13 eggs in it. I have been deliberately depriving far too many insects (& insect eggs) of life this year, & also last year. Non-killing is one of the more important rules of discipline. While I'm on the subject of wasps I might as well gratuitously mention that a tree shrew hunting for dropped wasp larvae at the south end of the cave was swarmed & apparently stung this morning. 
     (21:43) The weather was actually comfortable today—almost no sweat. But, received no birthday cards, & aside from the usual daily food, no gifts. Don't plan to go out partying tonight either. 
     I noticed today that despite a very restless mind, making meditation difficult, I've been unusually unlustful lately. No humming vital energy in the area of the loins, & almost no sexual thoughts. The graceful little beauty of Pwingah village still fascinates me when I see her, tho. Dreamed about beautiful women last night, but they kept all their clothes on. (Strangely, I also had another revolutionary political dream, the details of which should not be written down in this country.)

7-26 (15:21) The baby bird up in the nest has been peeping hungrily & very loudly all day long. The sound is high-pitched & piercing, like a metal spoon being rapped against a glass bottle again & again & again & again. The murderous little bastard would be getting fed a lot more if it hadn't pushed both of its brothers out of the nest. The noise is starting to give me a headache. I hate noise, especially the sound of crying babies. 
     Cloudy & hot today. Usually cloudy nowadays.
     (18:04) This morning while I was walking to the village I saw 3 guys wading across the creek packing a bunch of equipment. Guys packing gear into the forest are usually poachers, so I indulged in contemptuousness (atimāna) & said to myself, "Shitheads." Then I noticed that one of them was packing an iron cauldron, which caused me to start thinking that maybe they were from Sine Teh & were coming to help me dye my robes; on the last full-moon day I told a dayaka from Sine Teh that I needed to dye my robes, & that it would require a cauldron. Sure enough, that's who it turned out to be (was overly hasty w/ the "Shitheads" remark), & they didn't come a day too soon, either. My upper robe has faded to a hue somewhere intermediate between lavender & pastel pink, & just last night I noticed that both robes that I wear every day in public* were rather stinky. Wearing a stinky pink robe in public is an embarrassment, & would have been even more so if I had come out of the forest & back into "civilization" w/ it. Actually, the upper robe had been more or less stinky for about 2 months; washing it did not make the stink completely go away. Mildew or something living in the cloth. But, now the color of the robes is much improved, & more importantly, the boiling hot dye made the stink go completely away. I didn't get the shade of brown that I asked for (the upper robe is now sort of a cranberry color—Burmese people seem to think that cranberries are brown), & I got chemical dye instead of vegetable dye as I requested, but I shouldn't make a fuss. May my dayakas get lots of "kutho." 

* It's still way too hot to wear the thick wool outer robe. I don't think I've even unfolded it, much less worn it, in over a month. Haven't worn it since May.

7-27 (05:48) Well, so much for unlustfulness—yesterday afternoon one of my "meditations" consisted almost entirely of romantical fantasizing, followed by some slightly autoerotic behavior, & last night I had my 2nd NE in 2 nights. The dream involved a cute little blonde that I had never met before, & one of the longest French kisses in dream history. In the dream I was a bhikkhu & was travelling around w/ ven. Pakhokku Sayadaw & 2 other monks, plus sayadaw's usual retinue of laypeople. I think the other monks were the same ones that are to accompany Sayadaw, & possibly me, to America next year. 
     (08:23) Could last night's dream have been a warning of danger? America is a dangerous place, especially for me. A land of encouraged sensuality & temptation. For me, avoiding falling back into a state of animality & sexuality is like trying to avoid being sucked into a whirlpool while already slowly spiraling around it. But, I would like to see Dad again, & mooch some more books, & eat pizza, & maybe get high, & maybe look at a few pornographic pictures…ack! I'd be better off staying here & seeing nobody, & having few books, & eating rice & icky bamboo shoots, & taking no stronger drug than "Wild Buffalo," & having nothing more erotic to look at than my own skinny body & the occasional grungy village woman nursing snotty-nosed baby.
     (12:25) It appears that baby jink bird #2 finally cashed in what few chips it had last night. No sign of it at all today. It made the fatal mistake of moving farther & farther away from the cave & nearer & nearer to the lower waterfall, where there is a lot of nocturnal animal traffic. Oh, well. Life requires death. If I help them they die, & if I don't help them they die. So, from now on I should neither help them nor not help them. "Helping" & "not helping" are illusory conceptions of mind. Supposedly.

7-28 (08:11) Today's meal (collected in Kuzeit) consisted of rice, boiled bamboo shoots, peanuts, stir-fried bamboo shoots, corn, bamboo shoot fritters, green mystery glop, bamboo shoots cooked into a cakey mass, & a few boiled chick peas. Selectively targeted on the peanuts & corn. Shouldn't complain about the food. 
     My robes are embarrassingly red now, red enough to be a borderline Vinaya offence. I always ask for brown & usually get red. Struggling against the juggernaut of mindless Burmese tradition. Shouldn't complain about robes & mindless Burmese tradition.
     (16:23) I remember long ago figuring that I ought to be entered upon the Holy Life by the age of 30, to be well under way by the age of 33, & to have everything I want to attain in this life attained by the age of 37 (as the world might end then, or I might at least die). I jumped the gun w/ regard to entering the Holy Life & became a monk at 27. As to whether or not I was well under way at 33, that is difficult to say, as "well under way" is a rather ambiguous term. And now I am 37, & have I attained all that I think I ought to attain? Not hardly! I can't even say w/ any degree of certainty that I am "well under way" now. I have made progress over the past 10 years, tho, or so it seems.
     Despite my practice, despite my philosophical beliefs, despite reading the TBGL again & again, I am still swimming thru a dualistic, pluralistic, perceptual sea of Sasāra. Caught myself today telling a digger wasp, "Some of you guys are good, & some of you guys are bad!" (Have been having problems today w/ one digger wasp in particular.) (Plus ants.) All of you guys are illusory conceptions of mind. Neither good nor bad, nor both nor neither. (I'm starting to get dizzy from blowing ants off this mat.)


an old picture of an emaciated, ascetic me, 
after several months at Alaung Daw Kathapa