"Never bet against Maya. Truth is infinitely simple, delusion is infinitely complex. There's no over-estimating our ability to avoid making eye contact with the obvious." —Jed McKenna
The time seems to be ripe for another current events post. The thing is, though, that mainly I want to write about one theme of current events in particular which has bugged the crap out of me, in a strangely exhilarating way. This theme will become apparent as I work my way through the story.
I left the cave in northwestern Burma in late March, and spent more than two weeks in Rangoon/Yangon in preparation for the next trip to Bali. A primary objective was to get an Indonesian visa before leaving Burma, so I wouldn't take the risk of being stranded in the Denpasar, Bali airport again with no way of buying a visa on arrival, since I have zero money. Almost the only time that having no money can get a bit panicky is when I'm traveling alone internationally. I suspect every major airport has a special room where derelicts are deposited who are unable to pay the new airport tax or whatever; I found myself in one of those rooms in Japan once, with a disgusted-looking black guy lying across the seats who looked like he'd been there for weeks. So it's good to be prepared.
In Yangon I spent almost three weeks in the special monk building in the yard of U Han Toe, an excellent old fellow who has supported the Taungpulu tradition for decades. As it turned out, lots of Taungpulu monks were in town at the time, and I wound up being roommates with ven. U Kovida, one of the senior sayadaws in the tradition. He kindly allowed me to be accommodated in his room, since his was the only one with an air conditioner. So after four months alone in a cave I suddenly switched to having almost no privacy, with groups of people coming in and out to visit with the semi-famous sayadaw. I even had a few visitors myself, which struck me as strange at the time, since the sayadaw is the one who's supposed to have visitors. The main times when I had the room to myself were when ven. U Kovida and the other monks were out doing protection chants (paritta) at people's houses, which was pretty much every day. The monks of Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya specialize in the chanting of protective suttas, and spend a lot of time doing it. When I lived at a Taungpulu monastery I knew lots of it, but have forgotten most of it now.
So I got the Indonesian visa and made it to and through the Denpasar airport without any more mishap than security guys insisting on taking everything out of my alms bowl to inspect it. (The bowl is thick iron, and x-rays don't penetrate it so clearly, and I keep suspicious-looking things in there, like a computer backup disk and jars of instant coffee, plus maybe I'm suspicious-looking, so this happens quite a lot.) I spent a few days luxuriating in the city of Sanur with the family who invited me, and realizing that I was face to face with the very real possibility of obesity (Balinese food is too excellent to be quite decent), and then was sent off to meditate in the hills, at the Chinese cemetery on the outskirts of the small town of Baturiti.
I miscalculated with regard to how much reading material I should bring. After about ten days, I had already devoured two novels (Kafka's The Castle and Huxley's Island), and was burning out on Jean Baudrillard's Simulations (I think it's the book that Neo hides bootleg computer programs in in the movie The Matrix), so I started looking around in the bamboo huts at the cemetery for something interesting. One book I found, left behind by a previous monk resident, was Fear: Understanding and Accepting the Insecurities of Life, by Osho, earlier known as the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I'm not a particularly fearful person, but the book looked more interesting than the Theravada stuff I found, so I started reading it, partly in the hopes that I would be able to make a less tentative guess about whether or not Osho/Rajneesh was really an enlightened being.
In a previous post ("The Cult of the Enigmatic Bhagwan," 22 Nov 14) I put forth the tentative guess that Rajneesh was a relatively wise, very clever, charismatic rascal who was glorified by his followers, and maybe by himself also. He had a mystical streak which allowed him to see what most others can't see, and an eloquent tongue for explaining it, but still, he was not an Arahant (according to my guess). Reading Fear added a little reinforcement to that guess, although I admit it is still only a guess—I don't know how one could really be sure about such matters, except by deferring to dogmatism, in which case, one could still decide either way, depending upon which dogma one deferred to. Osho was clearly a very knowledgeable and clever person, and was very eloquent; but much of what he says in the book struck me as more glib than wise; that is, he said it more because it sounds good than because it's true. At one point a therapist remarks to the Bhagwan that in his/her work he/she continually finds the same three fears in his clients: the fear of going insane, the fear of losing oneself in orgasm, and the fear of death. The Bhagwan explained the three separately, and not very deeply in my opinion. I wasn't satisfied with his answers. To me it seemed immediately obvious that the three fears mentioned were essentially the very same fear: the fear of losing one's identity, one's ego, "me." It is essentially the fear of No Self, which is practically the same as saying the fear of the unknown. I find it somewhat amazing that some people are afraid of losing "themselves" even for the few seconds required to have an orgasm; that seems rather extreme to me. It causes me to wonder if some people are afraid to sneeze, thereby losing their perceptual identity for a quarter of a second. Some people are afraid of deep meditation for essentially this same reason. But anyway, because of little things like this in the book, I felt a little vindicated in my position given in the previous post, and glad that I wasn't required to go back and make an apologetic retraction, or some such.
After more than two weeks in Baturiti I was invited to stay for awhile at the home of a man named Tony, who lives near the city of Ubud. There was some behind-the-scenes strategizing by the family in Sanur involved in this: Ubud is probably Bali's main center for Western expats with Buddhist, Yogic, New Age, and/or artistic orientations, and since the family wants me to be involved in the Buddhist ashram they are planning for Baturiti, they conspired to give me more reasons for staying in Bali. So I was invited to Ubud mainly to meet some Western Buddhists there, as well as Tony and his family. Judging from his name, I was expecting Tony himself to be a Westerner, maybe Italian—but he turned out to be completely Indonesian.
Tony is the proprietor of the Tonyraka Art Gallery on the outskirts of Ubud, and my week at his home was the most paradise-like experience I have had since notoriously falling in love back in 2011. His "house" is really a compound of elegant, artistically designed bungalows interspersed with ornamental gardens, Hindu statuary, fish ponds, shrines, and outbuildings to the gallery filled with fine art and exotica. (I looked through a price list for the contemporary paintings, and the average asking price is around $12,000 US.) In addition to the beautiful place filled with beautiful buildings filled with beautiful (and strange) art, Tony's family also is beautiful. Just for starters, his wife is easily one of the prettiest Indonesian ladies I have ever seen; she's so pretty it was difficult not to look at her more than was politely necessary. Sometimes I would briefly consider that Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, so that looking at another man's wife too much might get a guy stabbed…but I trust Tony, and besides, I'm harmless in that respect anyway. I don't even try to mess around with married women. The whole family is beautiful, in more ways than one: for example, they obviously love each other, with plenty of physical contact, and when they go to a restaurant together they are continually swapping their plates back and forth, and taking spoonloads from their dish and reaching over to give someone else a taste. The religious masonry standing about the home compound is mainly there for artistic reasons, and for sale; although Tony's devoutly Hindu mother makes the rounds every day and makes offerings to them. The two Nandin bulls guarding a side entrance to the main gallery, for example, receive a fresh piece of banana leaf loaded with a fresh spoonful of rice pilaf every day. I had never met any of these people before being invited there, and the little girls were a bit shy at first, but within about three days I was pretty well integrated into the family.
I suppose I should also add that Tony, who was raised as a Balinese "Hindu" (rather different from Indian Hindus), had relatively recently taken a great interest in Theravada Buddhism, so much so that it has literally changed his life. Learning meditation and introspection has taught him enough self-discipline and self-knowledge to lose weight, improve his health, improve his disposition (not nearly so angry or morally irresponsible as before), and fill him with enthusiasm and gratitude, although he still knows relatively little about the philosophy. An American friend of his told me that after learning some Dhamma Tony has become a remarkably changed man. One of his daughters explained to me that he used to be much angrier than he is now. I don't meet very many like him.
Anyway, less than 24 hours after arrival in Paradise, Tony casually handed me a book that he thought I might like to read. It was entitled Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing, by Jed McKenna. I wasn't finished with Fear yet, let alone Baudrillard, but I started reading it out of idle curiosity, and because it's a "spiritual" book by someone I'd never heard of before…or at least I don't remember having heard of him. I was astonished. I was exasperated. I've never read anything like it. I wanted very much to consider the author a damn fool, and sometimes succeeded, more or less, but I could never quite throw out the possibility that the man was, as he repeatedly claims, a Fully Enlightened Being. Another one. Just when I had gotten some sort of handle on Rajneesh.
Mr. McKenna claims that he is the enlightened teacher of a kind of ashram based in a large old farm house in Iowa. He doesn't just hint at being enlightened, mind you, nor does he imply it in a clear yet roundabout manner; he flat out asserts it, repeatedly. He says, and I quote, "I am fully enlightened." The first paragraph on page one of the book ends with the sentence, "I'm the enlightened guy." In fact, it seems that at least one third of the book consists of this person essentially bragging about how enlightened he is, that is, fully. Some people may consider me arrogant, but I assure one and all that I am the humblest of foot-wiping cloths in comparison with this fellow. Consider this little morsel, for example:
I basically believe that I know everything and nobody else knows anything. I think I'm sane and everyone else is insane. I've never met another like me and I have to search through centuries and civilizations to find anyone similar. The greatest men and women who have ever lived are just children on a playground to me. I think that I know the mind of God, that the universe does my bidding, and that all of creation exists for my amusement. (p.141)
Some of his poetry is included in the book, including one which begins,
I am He.
I am The Sage.
I am The Supreme Man.
I am the Crown of Creation. (p.151)
The remaining 15 lines of the poem contain 15 more "I"s, plus a sprinkling of "me," "my," and "mine." He interrupts people when they speak to him, or ignores most of what they say, sometimes watching TV or playing a video game at the same time. He bullies people with the force of his personality, especially if they are not attractive young females. Assuming for the sake of argument that the man really is what he says he is, then he is the most egomaniacal Arahant I've ever heard of—a swaggering, egocentric fellow who, by his own admission, became fully enlightened by annihilating his ego. He says, "Ego-death as a means to no-self is what this journey is all about." (p.255)
He doesn't like people all that much, unless, as I've already touched upon, they are attractive young females. Some say that when you become enlightened you look around and see that everyone else is enlightened too, that everyone is a manifestation of "God" and/or love, but when Jed McKenna looks around he sees zombies and loonies, sleepwalkers who are pitiable, maybe, but still full of shit. "There is no commonality….No two humans could have less in common than any human and me….I am effectively set apart from humanity." (p.50) He has little use for the notions that an enlightened being experiences universal love or compassion. He puts it like this:
Let me state it plainly…I don't do heart. To the extent that I advocate any path, it is a path without heart, devoid of compassion, totally free of any thought for others whatsoever. (p.63)
So then, why not just dismiss him as a crank? Well you see…that's the exasperating part. I can't be absolutely sure that an enlightened being couldn't apparently be an arrogant egomaniac who attributes little or no importance to love and compassion. I'm sure he could easily answer all objections, to his own satisfaction anyway, and he does answer them to some degree in the book. And the trouble is, he often answers them profoundly.
For starters, before even considering Mr. McKenna's explanations, it is obvious that, according to the Pali Suttas, Gotama Buddha himself indulged in some pretty grandiose boasting—beginning on the day he was born. This sort of thing is one of several reasons why I could never accept the suttas as infallible, and I have never considered the Buddha's recorded braggadocio to be authentic history; but who knows? I certainly don't. Most Asian Buddhists accept it without raising an eyebrow.
With regard to lack of compassion, one explanation of his is one that I have considered many times, namely, that in reality there are no beings, and no self at all, so all compassion for "beings" is delusional. The way he puts it, if you are watching fictional characters acting on a movie screen, and fully realize that they are fictional, then is it wise to feel compassion for their plight in the movie? Ultimate Reality contains nobody to feel compassion for.
He explains the egocentrism issue a number of times in the book, and I find his explanations philosophically very problematic. Here is one of his statements of the case:
There is no such thing as an enlightened person. The person writing these words, the person that speaks to the students, isn't the enlightened one. My personality, my ego, what appears to be me, is just an afterimage, a physical apparition based on residual energy patterns. (p.67)
That residual afterimage stuff is supported to some degree in Buddhist philosophy, where it is called past karma. Even the Buddha allegedly had it. Thus, if he is enlightened in accordance with Buddhist philosophy, then he would be running on old karma without creating any new karma; but whether he is actually doing that I certainly cannot say. So anyway, according to him, after ruthlessly annihilating his ego and becoming enlightened, "he" (who?) realized that he still needed some psychological entity, that is, a personality, in order to function in the world. And so, seeing his defunct, castaway ego lying there, he put it back on like an old suit. So apparently it wasn't really "annihilated," and now it is reanimated or undead, like a mighty vampire. He refers to himself as an invisible man wearing his old personality so he can interact with other people. But as for who he really is, whoever that is, he, or it, or whatever, is constantly abiding in non-dual awareness.
One of the problematic parts, which might be problematic for any enlightened being, is that the non-dual awareness, the Nirvana, is not the one who is doing the teaching. Somehow the non-dual awareness must be filtered through the "Jed" before we hear it or see it, at which point it would seem to be no longer pure or real enlightenment. Well, then, isn't that how we all are? Ultimate Reality filtering through an ego? This would seem to imply that there really are no enlightened beings in this world. In a previous post ("Notes on Nirvana," 26 Oct 13) I mentioned the presumed fact that, since Nirvana (or any non-dual Absolute) transcends the duality of existing and not existing, one cannot say that it does or does not exist—and so, by that very same token, we cannot say whether or not any enlightened being exists. But if Jed McKenna is right, then he must be wrong, since enlightenment must be filtered through an unenlightened ego in order to be manifest in this version of reality. In which case, a relatively selfless saint would come much closer to conveying an un-messed-up version of perfect wisdom than would a guy who watches TV and plays video games while teaching his disciples.
This leads to one objection toward his book, and his explanations of enlightenment, that I would like to see answered, preferably by him, namely, his claims on the one hand of abiding non-dual awareness, and on the other his repeated dualistic insistence upon certain things, like "I am fully enlightened." He insists that there is truth distinct from falsehood, which is supposedly non-dual, yet still somehow sharply distinct from falsehood. He insists on the duality that one either is enlightened, a "butterfly," or one isn't, a "caterpillar" (although he does admit that his housekeeper is neither). Plus of course he insists upon the duality of Jed McKenna versus everyone else.
Another little point which is of some interest to me is that Mr. McKenna admits that he doesn't meditate all that much, and that he has little use for mindfulness and "abiding in the present moment." I presume that the enlightened aspect of him is abiding in some constant Now, but the guy who wrote the book is not. So this would seem to discredit the enlightenment of Eckhart Tolle, with his primary emphasis on the Power of Now, or else the enlightenment of Jed McKenna himself. I'm not sure how both of them could be enlightened. Maybe neither of them is.
I may as well criticize Jed's use of words while I'm at this point. One reason he downplays the importance of love, compassion, or "heart," and has no use for statements like the Bible's "God is love," is that he apparently considers love in particular to be a mental state, an emotion. But I would say that the essence of love is not an emotion, although it is powerful stuff and easily inspires them; love, especially in a spiritual sense, is acceptance, or, to make my point clearer, non-separation. So non-dual awareness would have to be full of love, since there would be no duality separating us from each other, or anything from anything. That would be the perfection of love.
He is also emphatic that enlightenment is very different from mysticism; yet my definition of mysticism is pretty much the same as his definition of enlightenment: direct, non-symbolic experience of Reality. Mysticism is not necessarily euphoric, as McKenna seems to imply; and although it may be induced by suppression of thought (one is much less likely to identify with symbols while one is no longer generating them), it is not necessarily a state in which one cannot function normally in the empirical world. Most so-called mystical states, however, are impure and temporary; for example, the ones relying on suspension of thought last only while thought is suspended. So my impression is that full enlightenment would be a perfected mystical state, not something completely different.
Another strange or arbitrary use of words is his claim that enlightenment has nothing to do with consciousness. I assume he means "mental states" when he says "consciousness"; I fail to see how one can be awake without being more conscious than someone who isn't awake.
But, as I say, he does say some very profound stuff, and stuff that almost all spiritual seekers would do well to consider. One of his main themes in the book, and evidently his main task when teaching individuals, is to help people see that practically everything they do as "spiritual practice" is just a matter of adjusting Samsara, of trying to sleep more comfortably, of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Enlightenment is a matter of letting go of the dualistic illusion, not working within it. What one does within the context of the unenlightened, unreal dream is pretty much irrelevant. (This is probably a big reason why he admires Krishna so much—the manifestation of perfection, and of course enlightenment, who indulges in all sorts of naughtiness, like having sex and killing people. He, Vishnu, is the god of everything, not just the god of goodness.)
This point leads directly to another valid point that he brings up: The apparent total failure of standardized techniques in the modern West for producing enlightened beings. Most spiritual seekers don't even really want enlightenment, largely because of that fear of non-identity that was mentioned earlier; but even the ones who sincerely are seeking the Absolute are failing miserably, mainly because they're not even headed in the right direction. They want to be better and happier and blissful, yet, according to McKenna, non-dual awareness (alias enlightenment) has nothing at all to do with this.
What is the success rate of American Theravada Buddhism—regardless of whether it's monasticism, the Goenka system, or IMS-style "elite" Buddhism? How many Arahants has it produced thus far? That is really the test of "true Dharma," and a very fair and embarrassing question to ask. As far as I can tell, thus far, it has a 0% success rate. That's not good at all, and is rather an indictment of what is being called "Dhamma" in the West. It may be that witchcraft and knowledge of the future by means of Tarot cards may be more effective and practical than American Vipassana as a means to enlightenment. The author really pounds away at this remarkable failure rate in Western spirituality. At one point he says this:
…I keep thinking that spiritual aspirants, East and West, are going to someday awaken at least to the degree of realizing that, by any reasonable standard of success, the pursuit of spiritual awakening has proven to be the most abysmal failure in the history of man.
McKenna claims that one or two of his students become fully enlightened every year, which would put his success rate somewhere in the neighborhood of 1%, infinitely higher than that of other methods. (I let his split infinitives slide, since there's no rule saying an enlightened being must be grammatically correct.)
Before discussing his method for becoming enlightened, though, I may as well try to reconcile his wisdom/profundity with his egocentric swaggering. One image that occurred to me while reading the book was of a window in a brick wall. Unlike McKenna, I consider it possible to be partially enlightened. In fact, it may even be that everybody who has a "buddha nature" is partially enlightened. There can be such a thing as limited infinity—cut a Euclidean plane in half, for instance, and you've got only half a plane, but it's still infinite; bisect it again, and you've got a quarter plane, which is still infinite; cut an extremely narrow pie wedge out of a plane, and regardless of how narrow it is, it's still infinite. So anyway, one guess is that the author of the book attained something, maybe even an infinite pie wedge, and, partly because he asserts that there's no such thing as partial enlightenment, and can't see anything better, he has equated it with the full version. Light can shine through some people very clearly in one place, yet they may remain remarkably opaque in other places. Hard-heads are less likely to be this way, though, and Jed McKenna seems pretty hard-headed.
Another idea that arose while reading the book is that arguing with McKenna would be like arguing with Paul of Tarsus, who apparently was extremely hard-headed. St. Paul also was absolutely, vehemently convinced that he was right…even though I personally don't think he was. St. Paul also had his spiritual First Step, on the road to Damascus, leading to two years or so of intensive processing in Arabia before "seeing the light" and inventing Christianity. (McKenna insists that about two years of ruthless, relentless, excruciating processing to annihilate the ego is a virtual necessity.) For that matter, arguing with McKenna might also be a little like arguing with Adolf Hitler, whose vehement certainty that he was right (at least while he was arguing), combined with sheer force of ego, could bully people into abandoning their own beliefs in favor of his. I really don't think McKenna is a minor league Hitler, though.
Another person he reminds me of is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley also had a method which relied heavily on backing people against the wall with powerful arguments, battering them with ruthless force of personality until they would literally have a mental breakdown—after which, with a little guidance, they would be Born Again. McKenna's method, for good or otherwise, seems to make use of ruthless dialectic to demolish people's cherished beliefs, causing them to break down or break free, depending on how you look at it. That aspect of his method may actually be very useful and beneficial. Most people are just too stubborn to let go of their unenlightened belief systems, so a little bullying may make the process if not easier, then at least more likely to get to Step One of an actual process.
the god with three faces