Saturday, May 23, 2015

Three Enlightened Beings (???), part 2

"Truth is a uniquely challenging pursuit because the very thing that wants it is the only thing in the way of it."  —"Jed McKenna"
     And now for Jed McKenna's method for becoming fully enlightened. It allegedly did the job for him, and he prescribes it to all his students who are ready for it. The method is called "spiritual autolysis," autolysis meaning something like "self-disintegration." It consists simply of writing down on a piece of paper or on a computer screen what one can be certain to be true. It sounds easy. According to him, it takes around two years. One writes it down because that makes it easier to examine and criticize. 
     So let's say we start by writing down "Carson City is the capital of Nevada." Well, how can we be absolutely certain of that? We've seen this datum recorded in respectable books, and may have been taught it in school, but that is no absolute guarantee, as any conspiracy theorist could easily tell you. We could go to Carson City ourself and see the capital building there…but then, how do we know that we, the ones who go there, are real? How do we know that what we see and hear is real? Before long the stuff we write down becomes like Abhidhamma, more and more abstract, with lots of deleted files and/or torn up paper. Jed says it takes about two years of feverish labor to come to the point where one has the stark realization that absolutely nothing is certain. This causes us to let go of all delusional beliefs and finally to see the Truth, which has nothing to do with ideas that can be written down.
     Interestingly enough (interesting to me anyway), I went through a process similar to the one McKenna describes in his book, although in my case it did not last two years, or lead to enlightenment. Many years ago, when I was living at a large school monastery in Burma, I had a kind of "existential crisis," accompanied by some real depression lasting about four months, all triggered by my futile attempts to come up with something that I could not reasonably doubt. One of the first ideas I played with was "2+2=4." Well, two what plus two what equals four what? So long as it is a pure abstraction which is not actually applied to anything, the statement could be said to be, not false, but meaningless. But if the numbers are applied to something in the empirical world, then that something's existence must be demonstratively proven, which is impossible. So to make it easier I simplified the equation to "1=1." The problem of meaningless abstraction versus empirical applicability remained, but at least I had eliminated multiplicity—since in Reality there may be only one thing—or did I? If there is no multiplicity, then what the hell does that "=" mean? How can anything equal anything if there is only one thing? Finally, the best I could come up with was "The universe is the universe," with the word "universe" meaning "whatever exists." So, whatever exists, exists. In my attempts to arrive at something I absolutely could not doubt I wound up with the mother of all tautologies, which means practically nothing. This was years before I came to the conclusion, or realization, that what is absolutely real might transcend the duality of "exists" and "doesn't exist," which would render even "The universe is the universe" problematic.
     But, although I got some depression out of it, the process didn't wake me up. I suspect that not writing it down was not the main reason for this. It may be that I was already enough of a sophisticated skeptic to know in advance that I was unlikely to come up with anything that could not be doubted. This may have caused me not to be feverish and obsessive enough to really be slammed out of the rut of Samsara by the conclusion. Or maybe it just doesn't work with everybody. 
     As a digression to what may already be a digression, I will mention that, years afterwards, I mentioned my crisis to an intelligent and rather dogmatic Western monk. With good intentions I'm sure, he gave me the totally useless advice that, if I had had a good friend around at the time, he could easily have told me some things that could not be doubted—right out of the Pali suttas. Sheesh. The man totally underestimated my capacity for skeptical doubt.
     Anyway, as McKenna states in the book, the method of spiritual autolysis is not so different from a method prescribed by the great sage Ramana Maharshi, namely, meditating on the question Who Am I? He evidently considers Ramana Maharshi to have been enlightened like him, which is wise, considering that Ramana Maharshi was a spiritual heavy hitter by just about anyone's standards, a giant; yet Ramana Maharshi himself is said to have said that the entirety of his own spiritual practice lasted only a few minutes, during a kind of panic attack when he was a high school student, which contradicts McKenna's insistence on the excruciating two-year process. (The story of his enlightenment as a boy is a fascinating one, and well worth reading.) Also, Ramana Maharshi stands in stark contrast with Jed McKenna in the ego department, since the former never used the word "I" except, like just now, in quotation marks. He referred to himself as "Bhagavan," which means God; but he wasn't egotistically saying that he was God, he just no longer differentiated. If he was constrained to refer to himself personally, he would simply point at his own chest and say "this." 
     I confess that part of my exhilaration while reading McKenna's book came from the idea that if this guy could do it and be enlightened, I can do it—in fact it would seem that I'm not very far behind him. But enough of Jed McKenna for awhile.
     While I was still reading the book, just a few days after arriving in Ubud and Tony's little deva realm, a number of the Western Ubud-dhists were invited to come meet with me. I think meeting them was the main reason I was gently steered to Ubud in the first place. There are reportedly two main groups of these Ubud-dhists: one group is generally younger, with some New Age tendencies, and seems to favor more Tibetan-style Buddhism; the the other group is older on average, I presume a bit more hard-headed, and more inclined to follow IMS-style Western Vipassana. The people whom I met were of the second group. 
     Most of them were Americans, although there was a German artist named Peter (or Pieter? It sounds like Peter, so let's go with that) and his Japanese wife. Peter had been a sannyasin disciple of Osho in India and also at the infamous ashram in Oregon, but now appears to be an enthusiastic Buddhist. At one point in the conversation an American fellow suggested that I listen to some of Jack Kornfield's Dharma talks; instead of coughing coffee through my nose I carefully replied that almost the only Dharma talks I listen to nowadays are by Paul Lowe—whereupon Peter exclaimed, "I know him personally!" He then mildly astonished me by declaring that Paul had been Osho's "right-hand man" as a Dharma teacher, a very senior disciple with special privileges and ready access to Osho's presence. When I expressed some surprise at this, saying that in Paul's talks and books he never mentions Osho, although he does occasionally make a vague reference to a past teacher in India, Peter guessed that, since the collapse of the ashram in Oregon had been very painful for Paul (he may have been "purged" somehow by the maneuvering of Ma Sheela towards the end), he may avoid speaking of the issue. Another guess was that, since the Osho movement fell into some disrepute, Paul may have decided to distance himself from any possible stigma. His name as a sannyasin, incidentally, was Teertha, or, more elaborately, Swami Anand Teertha. When I said that if I were to make a list of the people alive today who might actually be fully enlightened, Paul Lowe would be at or very near the top of the list, Peter said he was very glad to hear it, as he considered Paul to have been an extraordinary human being even thirty years ago. Also he mentioned that Osho himself had declared Teertha enlightened. When I then asked Peter if he considered Osho/Rajneesh to have been enlightened too, he made an emphatic sound like "pfff!" and rolled his eyes for more emphasis, and said something like, "Of course he was enlightened. It was totally obvious. He was an extremely remarkable person. I've never seen anyone else like him."

(an old photo of Paul Lowe, when he was called Swami Anand Teertha)

     Peter obviously has some depth of spirit to him, yet with all due respect I must admit that his glowing endorsement of Osho raised the likelihood of his enlightenment on my probability scale by only one or two percentage points. One guess I have about why Paul Lowe rarely or never mentions his former teacher, maybe even his "sat-guru," is that he sees no point to it, as he has equalled or perhaps far surpassed Osho in the spiritual attainment department. Being in Osho's inner circle he may have been exposed to some unsavory stuff that he would prefer to leave behind him. And he doesn't seem to give much of a damn about scandals, as anyone who has watched the documentary about his workshops, The Workshop, can easily see. But I certainly don't know what his reasons are, if any. The whole situation is interesting though.
     I may as well add that Jed McKenna refers to Osho as enlightened in his book. So with Osho declaring Paul Lowe enlightened, all we need is Paul Lowe's declaration on Mr. McKenna.
     After meeting the Ubud-dhists I indulged in some touristy activities, like visiting famous temples and volcanoes; and after that I was taken to meet Mangu Putra, one of the most successful artists in Bali, and possibly in all of Indonesia. Most of his paintings appear to be social statements, like a picture of an emaciated old lady representing Mother Earth, and a number of pictures representing unsavory political events in Indonesian history. One of the most moving and beautiful ones that he showed me was entitled "Forgiveness," and portrayed a Chinese soldier kneeling, with head bowed, at the feet of a Buddhist monk. Mangu was very interested in Buddhism, but, being an artist, his approach was rather esthetic. (Many Balinese people show great interest in Buddhism, but judging from their questions, like "What do you worship?" and "Who do you pray to?" and "How are we forgiven for our sins?" it is apparent that quite a lot of explanation is necessary to clear things up.) I was a little unsure about how much Dharma I should teach him, since his art is based largely on social protest—teaching him how to be happy might ruin his art! I doubt that Dostoevsky would have written his masterpieces if he had been a happy man. But I digress.
     The day after visiting Mangu Putra's studio, Tony's family and I went on a trip to Singharaja, on the north coast of Bali. His wife's family was having an important religious ceremony that Tony's family was obligated to attend, and I was invited. So I attended another largely incomprehensible Balinese religious rite, with a large gamelan ensemble, with Balinese females dressed up in their traditional finery, with all the men wearing tradition head wraps that aren't quite turbans, with most of the people wearing a few grains of rice stuck to their forehead, with crucified roasted chickens as part of the elaborate offerings to the shrines, and with a large roasted pig impaled on a pole forming a central fixture. Tony told me that his wife's family's temple compound, where the ceremony was conducted, is one of the oldest on the island, the original structure being approximately 1500 years old. It has long been camouflaged by being covered by a large roof, unlike any other shrine compound I've seen (and I've seen lots, since almost all Balinese families have one), because an ancient animist king who disapproved of the newly imported Hinduism and Buddhism was persecuting the followers of same. Tony also told me that, in Bali, when you get married you marry the girl's whole family, and are required to pay respect to her elders and attend the family ceremonies, or at least the important ones. The Balinese apparently have a family- or clan-oriented mentality which seems to be almost extinct in the West. That mentality may eventually become the theme of a blog post some day. Really, Western individualism is a modern invention which would be considered insane not so very long ago. 
     On the morning of the day I left the deva realm I was visited by the senior member of the Western Vipassana group. He also had been a follower of Rajneesh, and a member of the teaching staff in India and/or Oregon, and he still bore his Sanskrit name. Subsequently he (ironically?) became a senior board member of IMS in Massachusetts. Now it seems he is living as a retired psychoanalyst in Bali. Naturally the topic of Osho came up again, and it quickly became clear that Nirgrantha (for that is his name) did not consider Osho to have been enlightened. Maybe not even partially enlightened. He claimed that Osho was a brilliant orator, who further mesmerized his thousands of attentive disciples with a very guru-like mystique, complete with mysterious mudras when he would speak, and who nursed a jealous rivalry with Swami Muktananda in India. So the new testimony by another old disciple more than counteracted the slight bump that Peter had given to Rajneesh's enlightenment rating. But of course, I still can't be sure. With regard to Swami Anand Teertha his remarks were respectfully neutral; he said he didn't know him very well.
     Finally the time came for me to leave Tony's paradise, and I gave the beautiful family my sincere blessings. It was easy to bless them, considering that I had been blessed by them since I arrived. After a five-minute little sermon of good wishes, while they were making their goodbye bows, I gave them the more standard version of a monkly blessing, wishing them good health, happiness, and so on; but it seemed inadequate to the occasion, and so I raised both fists and said, in a dramatic voice, "May you conquer the world," whereupon Uma, the teenage daughter, started giggling.
     So after returning to Sanur to be photographed by a pretty immigration official and to nurse a bout of the flu (life balances out this way), I began looking for photos and information about Paul Lowe's other identity as Swami Anand Teertha, which I found. Then came another surprise: When I looked for a picture of Jed McKenna (in order maybe to get a little more of a handle on what the man is like), I found none on the Internet. A Google Images search for "Jed McKenna" came up with several pictures of Adyashanti, but none of Jed, as far as I could tell. This struck me as odd, so I read a few articles about him. At least two authors I found are of the opinion that Jed McKenna doesn't even exist!
     The main argument runs that the old farmhouse which is base for McKenna and his ashram, as described in the book, has not been located to the satisfaction of the authors in question. Nor have they ever seen any testimony by anyone claiming to be a disciple of McKenna, or to have ever been at the house. There have been no face-to-face published interviews either. There are many possible explanations for this strange phenomenon which come to mind; and, letting slide explanations involving space aliens, CIA conspiracy theories, etc., I'll list some of the more obvious ones.

     1. The details given in Mr. McKenna's book are factual, and that, because of our own bad karma or whatever, we are simply ignorant of his whereabouts, and of his many disciples' whereabouts.
     2. The details are factual in most details, but he switched the exact location of his base in order not to be swamped by seekers (or enemies) after the book was published. 
     3. The philosophical details, including "McKenna's" alleged enlightenment, are pretty much factual, but the narrative background, and possibly his identity, was simply made up, or at least liberally modified, rather like with the books of Carlos Castaneda. (If this explanation is the most correct one, then the author of the book could be an excellent novelist, as he gives minute and very convincing details about life in the nonexistent farmhouse in Iowa. It seemed very possible at the time of reading the book, though, that his memory was probably insufficient, enlightened or not, to reproduce exactly his long conversations with others; and that furthermore the conversations could have been doctored, like in the dialogs of Plato, to make the hero's interlocutors putty in the hero's hands.) 
     4. The book is pure fiction, with the author not really considering himself to be enlightened at all.

     I consider the fourth option to be the most intriguing of the four. I can't rule out the possibility that the book is a cynical attack on spirituality in general, pointing out that spirituality in general doesn't enlighten anyone, and then trying to fool the readers of the book into believing that the author, who was simply cooking up some intriguingly wise-sounding guru-babble, had really found The Secret. But I can't rule out the possibility of any of the four options listed. Nothing is certain. That much of McKenna's teachings is true. And regardless of why he wrote the book, and how, and whether or not he is The Sage, The Supreme Man, the Crown of Creation, the book (i.e., Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing) is well worth reading, if only because it challenges the hell out of the reader's complacency. It's good to be challenged. It's also good to be reminded that we really don't know a damned thing. After finishing the thing, the very next day I started back at the beginning. On the other hand, I still haven't finished Osho's book, or the one by Baudrillard.
     And so, in conclusion, of the three alleged enlightened beings discussed in this two-part narrative, setting aside, with all due reverence, Ramana Maharshi and Eckhart Tolle, I would list them on my enlightenment possibility scale in this order: Paul Lowe, Osho Rajneesh, and Jed McKenna, with Paul being, in my opinion, "most likely" to be the Real Deal. But all three may be enlightened, or not, or both, or neither, or none of the above, especially if Nirvana is as problematic (that is, transcending the duality of "is" and "isn't") as I suppose it is. Whether any of them are enlightened may depend upon us. It all depends on how you look at it.

(painting by Mangu Putra)

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