(I hereby give fair warning that this current events post will degenerate into a commercial advertisement. You have been warned. Commercialism is infiltrating this blog. At least I haven’t allowed advertisements on my YouTube videos yet.)
Well, here I am spending another rains retreat at Kusalakari, a small Burmese house-temple located in the suburbs of Fremont, California.
Since before re-arriving in America, Plan A has been to spend the rains retreat here, unless I found someplace more convenient. After challenging America with my Third Anniversary Issue, I did receive a few casual semi-invitations (plus one very strenuous one which I’ll discuss later), including an open door to a monastery in Germany, but thus far Kusalakari seems to be most convenient. Considering that I interact mostly with Asians here, and meet few Westerners, it’s as though I’m still not entirely in America; it’s not so different from living in Southeast Asia, except with cooler weather, better Internet, lots more meat offered to me (most of which I don’t eat), and much less requirement for physical exercise. I do a little walking meditation, and go for a walk sometimes, and volunteer to put new 5-gallon water bottles on top of the water cooler, but mostly I just sit in my room all day.
One other difference from what I am used to in Asia is that this “monastery” is much louder. As I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post, this place is really more of an ethnic social center than a stereotypical Buddhist monastery. The Burmese regularly use it as a venue for birthday parties, wedding receptions, and of course for more understandably monk-oriented festivals like temporary ordinations and food-offering ceremonies commemorating the death of a close relative. On the day of writing this, for example, about thirty people came, including a slightly famous Burmese Sayadaw, for the purpose of a family making offerings of food, money, and other things on the 33rd anniversary of the death of a family patriarch. Such occasions/commotions occur on average about twice per week, with weekends and holidays being particular commotion-oriented. At my own place in northwestern Burma, and at the place in the Burmese hills where I often evade the hottest weather, most festival-like social functions are prohibited, including temporary ordination of laymen during their vacations from work. But this isn’t my monastery, of course, so I accept it all as patiently, benevolently, and gracefully as I can manage. Today my greatest challenge was remaining patient with a Burmese toddler (who comes here with his mother maybe once a week) who was, apparently for lack of anything better to do, screaming at the top of his lungs. He also has a tendency to gravitate toward anything fragile, so that one quickly becomes mindful of his presence, mainly to minimize the chances that he will pull something off a table or altar or otherwise destroy something. I suppose people with small children get used to this kind of vigilance.
One ironic quality of life here is that, although I’m one of the few American-born people around, I am seen by many as a “foreigner,” and an outsider to the predominantly Burmese scene here in this corner of Fremont, CA. The Burmese are very friendly and polite, of course, and some are happy to see a Westerner dressed in monk robes and acting more or less like a Burmese holy man; but still, I don’t really fit in. For example, if the monks are invited to a house for food and chanting, etc., as often as not I am not included. This is fine, and in the old days as a junior monk I tended to avoid house invitations anyway, but still it is noticeable. Part of it is that I don’t particularly try to fit in. I’m Western, and emphatically non-Burmese in my approach to Dhamma and to life in general, and there are certain aspects of Burmese Buddhism that I’ve never had much use for (like an emphasis on chanting or Abhidhamma, for example), which may cause some traditional Burmese Buddhists to see me as having Wrong View—or, more politely, as being a foreign ignoramus. Some Burmese people (certainly not all, or even most, but some), especially those among the educated upper classes, proudly assume that only a Burmese person could really understand Dhamma; and they may see a Western monk much in the same way they’d see a dog walking on its hind legs: They don’t presume that it could ever do a very good job of it, but they’re very impressed that it’s managing it at all. So anyway, for various reasons, I am essentially the resident barbarian here.
Although there is a fair amount of Burmese social excitement going on at this place, I am not excited by it, and most of it is not particularly worthy of note on this blog. But there was one occasion which even had me invited to houses a few times as part of a large an entourage, and that was the presence of venerable Ashin Kumarabhivamsa, the Burmese Sangha Maha Nayaka Sayadaw himself—the highest ranking monk in the Burmese ecclesiastical hierarchy, approximately analogous to the Sangharaja of Thailand. He’s only approximately analogous to the Sangharaja because he is not nearly so high-profile as his Thai counterpart, and probably has less actual authority. Most Burmese Buddhists probably don’t even know who he is. But he’s Number One, practically the Buddhist archbishop of Myanmar, and a very great scholar with a long list of ecclesiastical honorific titles besides (including the rare and extremely difficult-to-get Vaṭaṁsakā title, which the phenomenal scholar Sayadaw U Silananda notoriously tried to get, but failed). He came to the US for some kind of medical treatment. So I was part of his retinue, and actually sat next to him at lunch once. I resisted the urge to have my picture taken sitting next to him or bowing down to him, though; I remember long ago in Burma an Australian friend of mine actually had a photo of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi kneeling and bowing down before him, and although this wouldn’t have been that good, still it would have been something. But I refrained. He was very friendly and “nice,” as is to be expected from an archbishop or other high-ranking ecclesiastical politician. I had an audience with him in which he advised me that I could attain superhuman attainments more easily if I lived at Po Win Daung, a medieval cave temple complex not far from my place in Burma where I sometimes go to feed monkeys. I was a little disappointed to see that not only does he handle money, but he encourages people to donate it to monks, telling them that they are thereby greatly helping the Sangha. I rather hope that the Thai Sangharaja follows the rules of discipline more strictly than that. (Not that I’m being a whistleblower here—the venerable Sayadaw makes no secret of his money handling activities.)
Before the rains retreat started I received a number of enthusiastic invitations to spend it at a nearby Sri Lankan temple. I know the abbot fairly well, and he likes to stop by and discuss Dhamma with me; so partly because of that he tried hard to get me to move in with him. I told him that I was planning to stay at the Burmese place, but that after the official rains retreat I’d be willing; but he didn’t seem interested at all in this proposal, and continued making plans for my rains residence. A few days before the rains officially began he invited me to his temple for the ceremony in which the Sinhalese laypeople formally invite monks to spend the rains there. Again I told him the plan was to spend it at Kusalakari, causing him to become dumbfounded, finally managing to say that the plans had already been made. (He never explained why he was so keen on this, although I was told by two Burmese monks that he intends to travel during the rains retreat and wanted me there as resident senior monk.) It was a bit uncomfortable being pressured like this, but I generally have little difficulty in saying No if I don’t want to do something (for example, recently I’ve successfully dodged two attempts to get me to teach English—once to the slightly famous Sayadaw and once to the dangerous toddler’s elder brother). So anyhow, we have agreed to a compromise: Every Sunday during the rains I am to go to the Sinhalese temple to eat, and then lead a weekly meditation group, which includes an occasional Dhamma talk. It may also include teaching elementary Buddhism to children, which is something about which I have ambivalent feelings. I prefer teaching relatively advanced Dhamma, or at least strange Dhamma, yet teaching kids may be a good thing, especially since the venerable Sinhalese monk’s attempts struck me as unlikely to teach the kids very much, and had me so bored that I almost fell asleep sitting next to him. It was pretty awful actually. But Asian monks born and raised in Asia tend to have difficulty communicating well with Asian kids born and raised in America, who think and act like American kids. It seems to be a dilemma especially for Burmese immigrants, since they don’t much trust the Dhamma teaching of non-Burmese monks, as I’ve already mentioned.
My first Sunday at the Sri Lankan temple gave me an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast Sri Lankan lay Buddhism with the Burmese version. The Sinhalese appear, thus far, to be more serious and restrained when at a monastery, having more of a sense that they are on sacred ground. They wear white, and don’t indulge in nearly so much loud socializing. The children appear more subdued also, which is a relief for me. In fact, at the Sinhalese place the children sit at the front of the audience during ceremonies, and the beginning offertories to the Buddha on the altar are often carried through the group by children so everyone can touch them (the offertories, not the children), then are brought by them to the monk nearest the altar so he can make the offering. One odd thing is that it appears to be a Sri Lankan custom for a monk to bless people, including girls, by patting them on the head—a custom which the stricter sort of Burmese monks would see as a serious violation of monastic discipline. But if the monk can pat a girl’s head without a mind perverted with desire, then I suppose there’s no problem. Two other differences are that the Sinhalese eat very much less meat, and their tea is infinitely better than the stuff the Burmese drink.
The two Sri Lankan monks very hospitably tried to put me at my ease by letting me call the shots about how lunch would be served. They deferred to me on the issues of whether we would eat from our begging bowls or from plates, whether we would sit on the floor or at a kitchen table, and whether we would let the laypeople put food in our bowl or just serve ourselves. If left to my own devices I do prefer to eat from my alms bowl while sitting on the floor, so that’s what we did. Also we started with a miniature alms round, with children putting spoonfuls of rice into our bowls. The abbot, venerable Santa, told me that he had no experience with begging, admitting that he had never walked for alms before (in Sri Lanka, as in many Burmese villages, it is the custom for the laypeople simply to deliver food to the monastery). He and the other Sinhalese monk had new-looking Burmese bowls; and I consider it possible that they had never used them before that day. Ven. Santa seemed surprised when he observed that it’s easier to eat from the bowl than from a plate. Anyway, the Sri Lankan temple deal is a pretty good one; the laypeople tend to be intellectual professional types who speak English mostly. They come rather closer to a Western point of view than do the Burmese. But the Burmese definitely have their good points, and I do not mean to complain, except maybe about the chronic noise. The Burmese love noise, and see no point in being peaceful to the point of keeping noble silence at a monastery.
Possibly the most interesting Dhamma-oriented event of this rains retreat thus far is that I was offered a personal EEG neurofeedback device, which is one of the coolest toys I’ve played with in a long time. For years I have thought that it could be very useful to have some biofeedback equipment that would show what my brain was doing; the idea was that I would get into a relatively good meditative state and see what the reading on the machine was, and then I could turn meditation into a kind of video game, watching the biofeedback reading as an obvious visual indicator of how the meditation was going. So I mentioned this to my friend and supporter Aaron without even hinting that I wanted him to get me such a thing (although I had suggested a donation of one to someone else), and partly I suppose because he’s an engineer who is intrigued by gadgets and brains, he bought one and played with it for awhile before passing it on to me.
The one I’ve got is called a Neurosky Mindwave Mobile, and it costs only about a hundred dollars US. It consists of a small headset which sends a message via bluetooth to a computer or smartphone, and it works much better than the archaic contraption I originally had in mind. The one I’ve got has a single electrode which contacts over the left eyebrow, and thus monitors the left frontal lobe of the brain. The brainwaves are then translated into various graphic images, which indicate the relative levels of different brainwave frequencies, as well as having separate meters for showing focused attention (“samadhi”) and relaxed awareness (“sati”). There are also two video game-like gadgets on the brainwave visualizer, as it’s called, which are gimmicky ways of exercising and developing the aforementioned attention and relaxed awareness (the latter of which the monitor simply calls “meditation”).
a graphic representation of the brainwaves of a person listening to Indian classical music
while wearing a Neurosky Mindwave headset
(This isn’t my mind. My mind is shaped differently, and has less green than this.)
So now I have a new kind of modern “light kasina” meditation, in which, when I’m not playing with levitating a ball with calmness, I watch a pulsating blob representing my own brain energy. It is totally cool. It does bother me just a little, though, when my brainwave graph continually adopts a shape similar to the map of Jordan. I suppose that represents some latent Islam in my personality.
The thing is, this could be an excellent way of teaching meditation to children and other beginners, and it provides a clear, objective measure of meditation quality (for example, how high or how long one can levitate the ball). I think it could be very useful for lots of people. And at a hundred bucks it’s pretty cheap. I’ve seen that a different company called Muse has a more advanced EEG device with seven electrodes instead of only one, arranged on a headband-like thing, which costs around three hundred; but my cheap one seems good enough for getting the job done. If any of you like meditation, and would like an objective, empirical way of measuring how you’re doing, and have a hundred bucks you don’t need for anything more important, then you may consider it as cool as I do. I plan on suggesting to ven. Santa that he get one for the Sinhalese kids who come to his temple for guidance. If they’re going to play video games it may as well be levitating a ball or igniting a barrel with their mind as blowing up zombies or tentacled alien invaders.
As an aside, Aaron has informed me that the US military is very interested in using monitored brain activity as a way of controlling machinery, for example to be used by pilots flying complicated fighter planes. In fact there are already on the market similar devices for, say, controlling one’s TV set through eye blinks or even thoughts. So I figure soon there will be commercially available robots that one can command with one’s mind, so that they can bring a person his beer while he sits on the couch changing TV channels with his mind. Then the next stage, to make things even easier, would be for a computer to generate an algorithm representing the person’s personality (rather like Pandora and many other algorithms already out there figuring out the desires of consumers), so that not only is the person spared the inconvenience of having to stop watching TV to get his own beer: he wouldn’t even have to think at the robot to do it, since the algorithm would have it figured out exactly when he would want one, and exactly which TV show he would want to watch. All he has to do is just passively lie there and let the algorithm make the decisions. (Then of course the next stage after that is that the computer becomes intelligent, sees the human as a threat, or just an insult to its intelligence, and then goes about exterminating or enslaving the human species, like in all those science fiction movies, with the humans of course being too weak and lazy at this point to do much about it. But so far I still think the brainwave visualizer is very cool.)
I attempted giving a demonstration of my new toy to ven. Garudhamma, the de facto abbot here, and to a Burmese man who comes with his wife in the morning to offer food when nobody else is scheduled to offer it. Apparently it was insufficiently Burmese to be considered important or even very interesting, as the Burmese guy watched for several seconds before going into an animated account of new Western medical technology which attracted ven. Garudhamma’s attention; and since neither of them was paying attending to the demonstration any more I ended it and returned to my room in the congregation hall.
Meanwhile, recent torrential floods in upper Burma have had the Chindwin River at four feet above flood level, so that my place at Wun Bo is probably a disaster area. I have no idea what things are like there, except wet and muddy, or how the monks or the local villagers are getting by. I’ve been told that entire villages have been destroyed. Of course it is tragic, but such things happen again and again in this world, and maybe always will. And out there in space entire galaxies are exploding. So it goes.
So I sit here in the congregation hall in Fremont, and twice per month I deliver a Dharma talk via Skype to a Vipassana group in Bali (although the leader, or tribal elder, of the group is unwell nowadays—may he get well soon); and now there’s the weekly lunch and meditation group at the Sinhalese temple in Milpitas. I meet with an American person on average of about once per week, and engage in some correspondence. And this blog is still moving along in weekly convulsive spasms. At this rate I’ll probably go back to Asia. At least I get more exercise there.