Saturday, February 21, 2015

Life in the Middle of Nowhere

     He's a real Nowhere Man
     Sitting in his nowhere land
     Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

     Doesn't have a point of view
     Knows not where he's going to
     Isn't he a lot like you and me?

     Nowhere Man, please listen
     You don't know what you're missin'
     Nowhere Man, the wor-or-orld is at your command

     He's as blind as he can be
     Sees just what he wants to see
     Nowhere Man can you see me at all?   (—the Beatles)

     Life in Burma/Myanmar is changing slowly but surely out in the rural villages, in accordance with the universal law of Impermanence. For instance, there has been an explosion of cell phones very recently, and solar panels also are becoming common; sometimes one can see some villager riding a bullock cart while talking into his cell phone, and I've seen a crude lean-to made of bamboo and palm leaves, inhabited by a very rustic family, with a solar panel and TV antenna over the roof. Over the past few years young women are more likely to be seen wearing pants, and hair that isn't a natural black. (For a long time after my arrival in Burma in 1993, I remember seeing only one Burmese girl wearing pants, the teenage daughter of an army officer; and Chanmyay Meditation Center in Yangon used to have a sign out front—in Burmese—warning that women wearing pants were not permitted on the premises. And for years I saw no girls with dyed hair except foreigners and movie starlets.) Contrariwise, short skirts and short pants are still taboo in the villages, unlike Yangon. Sampans on the river are on the wane; and I'm kind of sorry to see them becoming outmoded, since they're one of the most comfortable and pleasant ways of traveling in this country. One reason for this decline is the abundance of scooters nowadays, but another reason, as far as I can tell, is that people actually prefer riding in the back of trucks on crummy, very bumpy, dusty roads to comfortably riding on a sampan. Their hair is beige with dust by the time they reach their destination, and some of them wear cloths over their face like train robbers to minimize the amount they inhale, but they prefer this to a comfortable, scenic, non-bumpy, non-dusty ride on a sampan. I don't entirely get this. I suspect that new, motorized land vehicles are simply a higher-prestige mode of transportation than old boats. Human beings take prestige very seriously. Meanwhile, bullock carts are still more numerous than cars. But that is changing too.

Bullock cart at the Lay Myay boat landing

     Still, nothing in rural Myanmar has changed as much as has the West over the past several years. Not only is everything digital there now, and not only do even virgins get tattooed nowadays, but even an entire planet has ceased to exist. When I returned to America in 2011 I was amazed to hear that Pluto is no longer a planet. Some astronomers got together and decreed that it isn't a planet anymore. (They gave some trumped up excuses for this, but I suspect the real reason is simply that they feel it demeans the dignity of astronomers to have a planet named after Mickey Mouse's dog. I've heard that there's at least one planetoid out there bigger than Pluto which also isn't really a planet, but my theory is that it is probably named something like Goofy, so the uppity astronomers don't want anything to do with it.)
     Anyway, coming closer to home, the track going through the wildlife refuge between Wun Bo and Lay Myay villages has few pedestrians now, with almost everyone riding motor scooters. Scooters have taken over within the past five years, with a cheap Chinese one costing only a few hundred bucks, with those who can't afford that riding on the back of someone else's. Most of the pedestrian traffic I see is monks, plus the occasional small group of itinerant peddlers. Also, woodcutting and the poaching of jungle fowl (i.e., wild chickens) around the forest monastery is less common now, for reasons I do not fathom; although based upon the scantiness of the bamboo clumps nowadays, I hypothesize that poaching bamboo shoots from the monastery has not yet become outmoded. Very few pothinyo lizards, monitor lizards, and hawks this year (maybe signifying the end of a predation cycle, with the hawks staying away until the lizards multiply again), and also very few migrating hornbills, although there are lots of little green parrots way up high in the tops of the trees. Plus the standard crows, "camera birds," shelducks and egrets by the river, owls, doves, and cuckoos (who don't say "cuckoo" here, but prefer "dooblagink," "gooble-geebik?" and "bunk-BONG!"). 
     Three monks live here now, in addition to me: old U Khemacāra, the retired doctor, who appears very content and healthy nowadays; U Nandobhāsa, who is second in seniority after me, and who is a scholar retreated into the forest, serious and intelligent; and U Puññadhamma, who is rather shy, with a slight stutter and a chronic worried and/or scared look in his eyes. It may be, though, that ven. U P. is just intimidated by my presence, since I'm the semi-famous abbot and exotic recluse; I have been told that I intimidate people sometimes, even when I have no intention of doing so. U Kh., maybe because he is/was a doctor, is an idea man who keeps coming up with innovative improvements for this place while I'm gone, including masonry steps everywhere, and bamboo poles between the trees of the lower monastery, so squirrels are not required to descend to the ground when moving from tree to tree. 
     Because there are four of us, we do sangha uposatha every full moon and new moon. It has been so long since it was my duty to recite the pātimokkha that I read it from a book. Nobody else knows how to recite it. I'm happy to say that Wun Bo has acquired a reputation for being a serious monastery with "good" monks, even if it is becoming more traditionally Burmese, which is inevitable, especially considering that this is Burma.
     As is to be expected at a quiet forest monastery, not much excitement has been going on here lately. One of the most noteworthy occurrences was when a village man came to me and kneeled on the ground silently for some time. Finally I asked him what he wanted, and he said he wanted to offer his body. I wasn't sure what this meant: Did he want to do chores around the monastery? Then he explained that he wanted to be ordained as a monk here. I explained to him that I don't always live here, and I wouldn't be his preceptor, and he would have to have one. He answered that he already had a preceptor. When I asked him who this preceptor was, he named a local village lady. Then I explained that a preceptor is a senior monk who would ordain him and be his teacher for at least five years. If one of the monks at the lower monastery were willing to accept him, then he could be ordained here. He seemed rather simple, so I wasn't sure if that would be a good idea, but I figured the monks downstairs would be able to decide for themselves. Also I don't much like the idea of this place accumulating a large sangha. Four is already a little much. Anyway, when I eventually told U Khemacāra about it, he was not enthusiastic, and said, with regard to the applicant, "သူက psychiatric problem ရှိတယ်.
     For my first month or so here this time around, I was feeling sleepy and just a little bit dissatisfied. Then it dawned on me that I was making almost no effort to be really mindful, to maintain mindfulness throughout the day. So, I started making more of an effort, or rather just being more attentive, and I experienced a very noticeable expansion of consciousness. My sitting meditation remains substandard; and I suspect that my most effective practice at present is more a matter of consciously maintaining dharma throughout the day, especially when interacting with other beings.
     The improved mindfulness and corresponding expansion of consciousness allowed me to live for a few weeks in some relative silence, stillness, and clarity which was really beautiful. I started AUMing spontaneously more often, and found myself blessing other people spontaneously and sincerely, including people I don't ordinarily like all that much. I was starting to love the world, which does happen sometimes. 
     And then, in the midst of this, I received some American visitors, and one Burmese one, two of the Americans being old friends, and the rest being new ones. I was happy to see them, so I'm not complaining at all here; but it was as though the clarity I was enjoying was too fragile to be maintained, and I could feel it crumbling and slipping away rapidly as I entertained and hung out with my welcome guests. It was sort of as though I were shaken from a deep sleep (or in this case a deep awakeness) before getting the rest I needed.
     One of the old friends was Conor, who lives in Yangon; and I had carefully prepared a little speech for him, many days in advance, even working out the exact inflections I should use. I informed him that a guy named Aaron had left me with a little stack of classic pulp science fiction novels which would be bequeathed to him and Damon (the other old friend), and then I added, "…and I got that play by Shakespeare too!" whereupon, as I had planned, Conor said, "Which one?" whereupon I stared at him as though he were an idiot and said, as to a child, "William." Then I rolled my eyes and shook my head as though to imply, "Which Shakespeare. What a maroon." Gawd I love that. I was glowingly gratified for two days afterwards because good old Conor had so obligingly blundered right into my joke trap.
     One image from that visit which made a peculiar impression on me is of Spencer, the Californian vegan organic ayurvedic herbal specialist and permaculture guru, bathing naked in the Chindwin River at the monastery, and then, before climbing out of the water, standing there, naked as I've already mentioned, and solemnly (or joyously, I dunno) saluting the setting sun like a devout Hindu yogi. That is an image not frequently manifested here. 
     After a few days I accompanied Damon and his cadre back to his property near the ancient city of Pagan, on a bank of the Irrawaddy. I broke a personal record by going to Pagan without visiting a single ancient temple. I spent almost all my time on Damon's property, which he was converting into an agricultural labor camp. The general conversation was so compost-oriented that I started experiencing symptoms of compost traumatic stress disorder (CTSD, known a hundred years ago, around the time of World War One, as "shit shock"). Spencer, bless his heart, is able to orate passionately for half an hour at a stretch on the topic of compost, which, after all, is decomposing vegetables and dung. Also, I was exposed to modern English to which I was unaccustomed, like "snap" used as an interjection, and "epic" this and "stoked" that. There were several Burmese people there too, in addition to the Americans and some French guy named "Fran Swah"; and it was interesting to see the two cultures, Western and Eastern, coming together and blending somewhat like oil and water—really coming into contact, but not absorbing much from the other side. 
     The first morning after arrival, Adam, a bearded young organic guy from California, asked me, "Did you sleep good last night?" I replied that I actually hadn't slept all that well; it was cold, and I had been only slightly above the threshold for shivering, and furthermore I had slept on a wooden floor, so that I was waking up every hour and a half with a sore hip, and would have to turn over carefully to find a more or less comfortable position. After giving my reply I noticed, from his open mouth and blank expression, that I had given an incorrect response. If I had been playing the game aright, I would have cheerfully effused, whether it was true or not, "Slept like a baby! Never better!" whereupon he would smile approvingly and enthusiastically and say something like, "Right on!" A day or two later, after a fellow named Travis had gone for a swim in the river, Adam (who is really a good guy by the way) asked him, "Did it make you feel good?" and upon receiving the expected affirmative reply he gushed appropriately. Based upon my rather limited exposure to American culture over the past few years, it seems to me that this sort of game has become standard practice in some subcultures in American society, including some that are smack dab in the mainstream.
     Now, I am not at all opposed to seeing the positive side of life. Sincere gratitude is a powerful vehicle toward Enlightenment; and one is much better off, probably, seeing the good in life than moaning and complaining all the time about how totally things suck. But even so, when the positive attitude morphs into a game requiring one to ignore, reject, or deny plain facts, then it degenerates into bogus image projection and hypocrisy, a subtle form of dishonesty. 
     The meditation society I was briefly associated with in the West played this game implicitly. Apparently one of the group's main aims was to feel happily "dharmic," and at the Dharma Hall people glided about smiling benevolently and serenely at each other, being, as one member called it, "pathologically polite." But if someone gauchely announced something not altogether positive and outwardly tranquil, a brick would be dropped in the midst of the assembly, causing the atmosphere to change suddenly and radically, bringing on a mood of uneasiness, possibly even tinged with mild panic—whereupon one of the senior teachers would quickly jump in and change the subject, allowing the group to go back to projecting cheerful serenity again.  
     Travis told me that this game is played in American academia also: University professors stand around effusively rhapsodizing over how great their classes are, how great their students are, and how great their academic world is in general; whereas Travis, having been a professor himself, knew full well that, for the most part, they were spouting hogwash, for the sake of projecting an idealized and socially acceptable image of "I am happily successful," in accordance with the rules of the game they didn't realize that they were playing. But I could write an entire article about this kind of aversion for reality, yet don't want to, so I'll just drop the subject and continue moving forwards.
     As though my manifesting karma was acknowledging my aforementioned need for more "solitude mode" and out-chilling, the trip to Pagan and much of my stay there were somewhat inconvenient and frictiony. For example, we had three flat tires on the day of the trip there. Almost as soon as we got there the weather turned abnormally cold, grey, and wet, which rendered bathing problematic for me—the only place to bathe was in the river, which meant I would have to wear one robe while doing it, yet the only way to dry it out afterwards would be to wear it wet and let my body heat dry it. Furthermore, I am somewhat allergic to my own skin oil, so if I don't bathe for more than two days I gradually inflame into a dermatological mess. Finally, after three days of no bath, Conor drove me into town for access to a bathroom. The second time I did this trip the electricity was out, so no warm water, and a centipede was stubbornly positioned right underfoot, with the water pressure from the shower being so weak that it couldn't wash the centipede away. I spent much of the cold, wet days sitting in my hut, since I had little interest in compost anyhow; although I enjoyed hanging out around the campfire in the evenings. I have to admit that I hang out more like a layperson than like a stereotypical monk. Rather than quietly sitting there thinking holy thoughts I listen to the music and crack jokes. I did seriously (well, semiseriously) warn Conor that he was blaspheming, though, after he sang a song about eating chocolate Jesuses. 
     One reason why I came in the first place was to see Damon's wife Stacy and his two little girls. I like all of Damon's family, plus female company often has a tonic-like effect upon me. I was very impressed by four-year-old Amara (now turned five), who, since I saw her last spring, has reached the miraculous age when a vibrant, complex personality is unfolding, yet she is still extraordinarily spontaneous and unselfconscious, not yet having built up the screen of a projected image.
     Someone, noticing that I was being rather withdrawn much of the time, offered me some cannabis as "medicine." So, on the day before we left Pagan, I sat on a rock by the Irrawaddy and "smoked out," occasionally looking around to see if anyone was watching me, rather like I was a high school student smoking dope in a parking lot or back alley during lunch break. The fact that I'm a lightweight now helped me to experience something profound. After taking about four small pipeloads I was doing walking meditation by the river in a state of chemically-aided exaltation. I could feel, very clearly, that there was a full spectrum of "realities" available simultaneously, from everything sucking and being horrible to everything being divinity, perfection, and "God," with everything in between, with all of them right there, equally available; and it is up to us which one to choose. It wasn't just a matter of various possible thoughts or attitudes, but different levels of experiential reality, different "vibrations" that can be accessed, all existing simultaneously. Also I sensed vividly that Enlightenment also is always right there, or rather here, looking us right in the face. It is always an option. I could see this very clearly, and the thought arose in my mind, "There is always a way out"—signifying that there is always, right here, right now, Nirvana. It seemed so obvious. I feel that there must always be beings in this world who realize this with total clarity.
     I also felt that, with all of those potentialities being there available and equally possible, there was a higher level of consciousness flowing through me even when I was unaware of it. It wasn't a feeling of being some kind of messianic "chosen one" with a higher power working through me; it was more a feeling of a reality higher than the functioning of my perceived ego which was very real and working at its own level through this system, just as "I," the perceptual ego, was working on its own stuff. I suspect that this is a good reason to be openminded: so as not to be totally closed off to whatever is higher than "me." To use some theological lingo, God is looking us right in the face all the time, calling to us, and our own habitual, tiny ideas of what reality is prevent us from seeing This, from being This. God is looking out through our eyes too. And some blessed beings know this and experience this totally and effortlessly, without even being high on dope.
Part of the process of awakening is recognizing that the realities we thought were absolute are only relative. All you have to do is shift from one reality to another once, and your attachment to what you thought was real starts to collapse. Once the seed of awakening sprouts in you, there's no choice—there's no turning back. (—Baba Ram Dass)
     Drugs are not necessarily an "escape from reality." For many people drugs are a means of acquiring an alternative point of view, a realization that what most people consider to be "reality" is not necessarily real at all. Before monkhood the use of drugs like marijuana and LSD were a major part of my spiritual practice (which is one reason why Ram Dass was one of my first spiritual heroes). Even so, it is true that most people take drugs as an escape, as a way of feeling different from the way they feel, as a way of not facing what's coming up spontaneously—like so many other activities, including watching TV, having sex, eating unnecessarily complexly-prepared and delicious food, and even practicing meditation itself. As Sayadaw U Jotika ("Mahamyaing U Zawtika") has said, there are people out there who use meditation as a substitute for narcotics. They do it in order to feel different. Anyway, the generous Someone offered to me most of what she had, which was maybe a gram; and so I finally fulfilled a dream I have had for many years: smoking out and getting magnificently high in my cave. It's especially good for walking meditation. 
     After several days of the aforementioned karmic inconvenience near Pagan, my trip back to Wun Bo was as smooth as proverbial silk. It was as though the Powers that Be were helping me to come back, to continue with what I started and wasn't finished with. As soon as I got off the bus in Monywa, intending to walk across town to the Mahasi Center where I was to spend the night, a man walked up to me and offered me a free ride on his beat-up three wheeler. At the Mahasi Center the venerable Sayadaw who continually exhorts me to stay at an American Burmese monastery near "Poat Wayne" was temporarily away to Yangon. And during the night I had almost-fast Internet access, which allowed me to catch up on about three hours of computer stuff, including maintenance of this blog. I was offered a deluxe ride back to Wun Bo in a fancy SUV with Angry Birds decor owned by the generous and devout proprietor of a beer garden in town (the sampans, being outmoded, were not running on that day); and upon arrival at the cave I found, curled right behind the door, a rat snake about four feet long and about as big around as a banana. How a snake that big got into the cave with the door closed I'll never know; anyway, it was my auspicious welcome back. I love snakes. 
     Very recently I was reading a book by Ram Dass (Polishing the Mirror, the same book quoted above) which pointed out that by adding one little hyphen "nowhere" becomes "now-here." So, nowadays I'm living in the middle of now-here, being more mindful than usual, being more expanded and blissful than usual, spontaneously AUMing quite a lot, and blessing the beings I encounter, including birds, squirrels, humans, dogs, and a little, lime-green praying mantis I found on the water pot this morning, and probably the same auspicious rat snake this afternoon. Solitude mode is flourishing nowadays. Blessings are upon all beings...except maybe certain kinds of insect.
     Yet, despite the blissfulness of this cold season at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, I'm not sure if I'll ever come back. Then again, it's also possible that next time I may come back to stay, until I'm too old to stand the savage ruthlessness of the environment here during the hot and monsoon seasons. (I have cussed the deva in charge of the weather here so many times that I can't expect much mercy.) 
     And even life here in the cave is changing, in accordance with the universal law of Impermanence. I now wallow in the decadence of owning three spoons, all of which I use. Also I wallow in the decadence of a solar panel and alternating current, using my computer whenever I want to, and no longer reading by candlelight. After several weeks I'm finally overcoming the habit-ridden urge to lean over in the morning and blow out the lightbulb before setting out for almsround.


  1. I love reading your posts about life as a cave dwelling monk more than most other posts here. I find I am happier when I don't use a computer, watch TV, own a phone or even read non-dharma books. Perhaps I should have been born in 500BC, not today.

    1. Maybe you really were born in 500 BC. You just don't remember it because you have a different brain now.