Saturday, September 19, 2015

Three Animal Tales

Maung Nee and Mee Nee: A Love Story

     I have considered writing this “fable” for many years. The moral is so obvious and so Buddhist that it should be unnecessary for me even to explain it. You should be able easily to figure it out for yourself. (A gratuitous hint: Human beings and chickens are not so different in certain ways.)
     Before I was ordained as a monk at Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California, somebody dropped off a cardboard box containing seven young roosters. Apparently whoever it was had hatched some eggs or bought some straight run chicks in order to get some laying hens and didn’t want to slaughter the extraneous males, so they dumped them at the monastery. By the time I came there for a “self retreat” and to investigate whether or not I should be a member of the Sangha there, the number of roosters had decreased to five. I remember the crowing of the roosters greatly troubled my very fragile concentration in those days. Roosters always want to have the last word, so if one of them crowed it started a chain reaction of rooster noise. The Burmese, of course, hardly noticed, since they rather enjoy noise anyway; but as a fussy American it bothered me. 
     Fortunately for me but unfortunately for some roosters, by the time of my biggest trip to Boulder Creek, the one leading to my ordination, there were only two left: a large, fat, whitish rooster named Maung Pyu Gyi, or “Big Mister White,” and a wiry, one-eyed red rooster called Maung Nee, or “Mister Red.” (The Burmese tend not to be especially imaginative when it comes to naming animals.) Maung Nee very probably lost his eye in a battle with one of his brothers, and he and Maung Pyu Gyi were not only colleagues and companions, but archenemies who would occasionally attempt to murder each other. I remember one time Maung Pyu Gyi was rescued from a losing battle with Maung Nee and was brought inside the main monastery building in a state of shock and kept in the laundry room till he recovered. 
     Their secret to survival was that every evening they would walk across the road and fly up into a tall tree to spend the night; and every morning they would fly down, recross the road, and hang out around the monastery, with kitchen attendants scattering uncooked rice on the ground to supplement their found diet of bugs, seeds, and whatever else they could scratch up. This nightly tree maneuver was pretty much crucial to their existence, as there were two really savage dobermans in the neighborhood who would occasionally go on what were basically killing sprees, usually at night. Some kind of animal control lady came once and asked us if we were having any trouble with the dogs, as there had been reports of them “eating” neighborhood cats. So most if not all of the deceased five roosters were probably victims of these dogs, although a raccoon or some such may have picked off one or two of them.
     Anyway, a Burmese monk named U Pannajota adopted Maung Pyu Gyi, the big white one, as his pet. Sometimes I would come up to the back entrance of the monastery and find old U Pannojota sitting in his chair on the back porch, smoking a cigar and holding the chicken in his lap, meditatively stroking his back. He gave Maung Pyu Gyi lots of cookies and other junk food also, causing at least one of the monks to caution U Pannojota that making the rooster fat and lazy was probably going to shorten his lifespan, especially if the dobermans showed up again. It turned out to be a prophetic warning, as not long afterwards Maung Pyu Gyi became too lazy to walk across the road, and began roosting on a low branch near the parking lot. Shortly after this the dogs showed up early in the morning and waited for him to come down off his branch. He apparently tried, stupidly, to outrun them, and we found his remains not far from the tree. I found one of his metallic greenish-black tail feathers and gave it to ven. U Pannojota as a memento.
     Thus old one-eyed Maung Nee was the sole survivor. But even though Maung Pyu Gyi had been his chief rival and archenemy who had tried to kill him many times, Maung Nee seemed to grow depressed without him. He rarely crowed, and pretty much just moped around, showing little interest even in food. Not so different from some humans I have known, who love their enemies in a way, because they’re bored stiff if they’re not in the midst of a battle.
     But then it seemed that life rewarded Maung Nee for his vigilance and survival skills. A Chinese fortune teller informed a man that he needed good karma, and that he should rescue a chicken from a slaughterhouse and free it at the monastery, and so that’s what the guy did. One day he came with a plump little Rhode Island Red hen which, before I got a chance to name her something interesting, was promptly named by the Burmese monks Mee Nee, or Little Miss Red. 
     Mee Nee was almost totally innocent of survival skills. She may have lived in a cage or warehouse or some such most of her life, and wouldn’t even fly up to perch on something at night; she’d just crouch on the ground, a sitting chicken if a predator ever showed up. So I took a wooden packing crate that a large Buddha statue had come in and converted it into a little chicken coop for her, with a nest box, a perch, and a screen door. (U Pannajota was very impressed by this, and enthusiastically told me that as a result of my merit I would never be without shelter.) We had an attendant named Ravi in those days who every morning would let Mee Nee out of her little coop, and every evening would pick her up off the ground, put her back inside, and close the door. She never bothered to enter it herself for the night, although she did start using the nest box inside for laying eggs.
     At first Maung Nee mostly ignored her, and didn’t seem to like her all that much. She was pretty much just an intruder on his territory. But before long nature started taking its course and he became quite attached to her. They became quite an “item” in fact, and it was touching to see old one-eyed Maung Nee softly calling to his female companion when he found something good to eat. Before very long, because she wouldn’t follow him across the road at night, he started roosting on a low piling, like a fence post, not far from her coop, in order to be near her.
     At this time a Burmese family appeared at the monastery, intending for their young son to be ordained as a novice for one week. They would offer the food during this time, so Ravi got a week off. On Ravi’s first day away I wondered if he had told the Burmese family about putting the hen into her coop at night.
     That very same night, long after dark, I was sitting in my little cabin in the woods behind the monastery, and I heard a crashing sound in the bushes, then something big and fast running over the little platform in front of the cabin, dragging a chain. A moment or two later I heard another; obviously the two wild dobermans had gotten loose again. So again I wondered if anyone had put Mee Nee into her coop. But it was late at night, and it was dark, and I figured the dogs were much faster than me anyway, so I didn’t bother to grab a flashlight and set out to the front of the monastery to check on the chicken. 
     As it turned out, nobody put Mee Nee into her coop for the night, and so it was the very first night, the only night, that she and Maung Nee slept together. They perched side by side on the low pilings where Maung Nee had started spending the night in order to be near his girl. The next morning one of them was found dead in the yard, and the other one was never seen again. 

My Doppelgänger

     When I was a young man, before my ordination as a monk, I had a beautiful, intelligent, and passionate girlfriend. To this day she may be the closest I’ve come in this life to having a biological mate. The reason I mention her here is that sometimes, back in the old days, I half-seriously considered myself to be her brother’s doppelgänger. So I suppose I should explain what a doppelgänger is, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term. 
     The doppelgänger is a literary device in which a character serves as a kind of reflection of another, generally more important, character. For example in Dostoyevski’s classic novel Crime and Punishment Sonia the prostitute and Svidrigaylov the dissipated gambler are both doppelgängers of the protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Sonia, who ironically is the most Christlike character in the story, represents what Raskolnikov could become if he follows his heart, and his Christian religion; and Svidrigaylov represents what he could become if he follows his head, and his more or less Nietzschean philosophy. Or, to give a more obvious example from a modern movie, Tyler Durden is clearly a doppelgänger of the nameless protagonist in the movie Fight Club.
     So, getting back to my passionate girlfriend’s elder brother, I (half-seriously) considered myself to represent what he could become if he were less of a realist. He was always the main character, mind you, and I was just the doppelgänger, the ghost double. It wasn’t until several years later, after I had become a monk and moved to Burma, that I met my own doppelgänger.
     (Before continuing with the tale, a brief metaphysical discussion/digression may be in order. Assuming that a few basic teachings of Dharma are true, such as karma being a mental state and mind being the forerunner of all things, then it could be said that everybody is a doppelgänger of the protagonist, that is, of the person who is perceiving them. Everybody that we meet may be said to be a reflection of ourselves, because even if we are not totally creating them from scratch, still our perceptions of them are our own creation, and all we know of them is our perceptions. So in that sense everyone I’ve ever met has been my doppelgänger, and I am one of yours. But lets set such radical metaphysics aside for the time being and use the term “doppelgänger” in the more literary and orthodox sense. And in that sense, I met my doppelgänger at a monastery in central Myanmar.)
     I was searching in the area of the city of Pyinmana for a convenient place to spend the rains retreat, in approximately the same area where the new national capital of Nay Pyi Daw is today; this was before the area was cleared with huge bulldozers for the sake of the new capital. A Burmese gentleman was showing me a few places that might be suitable, including a little cave called Obo Goo, and after checking out the cave we stopped at a nearby monastery for a rest. 
     At the front yard of the monastery, chained to a tree, was a monkey. He had one end of the chain around his waist, with about 15 feet of slack, and with the other end secured to the tree. The monkey didn’t have a lot of space for moving around, and the dogs, chickens, and other beings at the monastery had learned to avoid that particular tree in order to avoid being harassed by a bored monkey, so the monkey had relatively little to do to amuse himself. So long as there was nobody nearby to pester, he sought entertainment mainly in two ways. First, he had somehow acquired a piece of transparent red plastic, which was his treasure; and he would sit on a low branch of the tree holding the plastic up to his eyes and looking through it, apparently fascinated by how the world became red and distorted when he did this. He looked through the piece of plastic again and again. And secondly, being a monkey, he naturally entertained himself by repeatedly attending to his own pee-pee. Otherwise he kept on the alert for anyone coming within range of his chain, so that he could pester them. 
     After drinking some water and conversing with one of the monks it was time to continue on our way, and on the way out we passed the tree. When I came within range the monkey immediately scampered down out of the tree and climbed up my body, so that we were eye to eye, our faces just inches apart. Then, to the utter astonishment of my Burmese guide, the monkey kissed me on the cheek—he really kissed me. The Burmese man just stood there staring, and exclaimed, “It kissed your cheek!” After this, the monkey climbed back down, and then ventured under my lower robe; but having a live, unpredictable monkey under my kilt was rather too much, and I gave him a swat with my fan. He came scrambling out, and within two or three more steps I was out of range of his chain. I never saw him again, although I think of him often.  
     So of course the obvious question is, Why was he my doppelgänger? First of all there was some kind of instant connection between us, sort of a mutual recognition of a kindred spirit, but just resonating harmoniously is not sufficient to make him a reflection of myself. It’s the kindred spirit part that produces doppelgängers. 
     That monkey was not exactly the same as me, obviously, but he was similar to me in certain ways which could be seen as symbolic. He was a symbolic me. I can say that because my two main fascinations in life, my two main sources of personal entertainment, are just more advanced versions of what that monkey sitting on his branch pursued. My fascinating, distorting lens through which I look at the world is philosophy. It makes the world seem very different and paradoxical and interesting, and it is one of the great loves of my life. As for the other deep source of entertainment, well, we needn’t go into details. It is true, though, that I have a rather dumbbell-shaped spirit: Well developed at the extremes (the metaphysical end and the libidinous end), with not a whole lot of development in between. A lustful philosopher seeking to understand Reality while adoring the female form. Plus pestering people sometimes if they come near me.
     Anyway, this one doesn’t really have a moral, unless it’s: Human beings and monkeys are not so different in certain ways. In fact we’re damn similar, belonging to the same order of life.

The Mouse War

     This story also may not have a moral, or rather it may have a negative one, an antimoral. I’m not sure what to make of this one.
     My cave at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery was a deluxe one, with four rooms and a long corridor in which I could do walking meditation. That corridor was particularly useful, as walking meditation in the blazing sunshine was not much of an option, and at night there was greater danger of stepping on snakes or other things one shouldn’t step on, especially if there was no moon to see them by. Another cave luxury that I had engineered myself was a screen door for the entrance, in addition to the wooden double door that was there when I arrived: the screen door was fitted with chicken wire with meshes just big enough that I could insert the tip of my forefinger; and although it didn’t keep out mosquitoes, it did help to keep out bats, rats, humans, and snakes. Before the screen door was installed I had to close the wooden door before dawn every morning to prevent bats from spending the day with me inside. Getting a bat (ugly, creepy-looking, and smelly) to leave the cave after dawn was very difficult, and having a bat swoop at my head while I was doing walking meditation in the corridor could take about a week off my life each time it happened—difficult to get used to it. I couldn’t really use fly screen to keep out the mosquitoes as the cave was already stuffy as it was, with no cross ventilation; but there are relatively few mosquitoes up on the hillside of the cave anyway, so chicken wire was good enough. 
     It turned out, to my surprise, that despite the relatively small size of the meshes on the door, mice could still get inside the cave, and I had an average of one mouse move in with me every year or so, five altogether, if I remember aright. They were mice just away from their mothers to seek their fortune in life; a full-grown mouse could not squeeze through the meshes. 
     I had an excellent live rat trap imported from America, but the bars were far enough apart that they would hardly slow down a small mouse, so it was useless for catching them. So I got a Burmese-made live mouse trap with bars only about a quarter of an inch apart. The first time I saw a mouse escape from it I literally could not believe my own eyes: I stood there exclaiming, “That’s not possible!” How a mouse could squeeze itself through such a tiny space still amazes me. Anyway, I found that the mouse trap also was not an efficient means of removing mice from the cave. 
     My first uninvited mouse was almost fearless, and almost friendly, as it would crawl on my head and body at night when I was sleeping, or trying to sleep. Its own fearlessness defeated it, however: I saved some peanuts and a cookie from my morning meal and put them into a little clay pot near my bed, and then proceeded to read a book. The fearless little mouse climbed right in, whereupon I tossed a book over it as a lid, and there it was. It worked like a charm, although the mouse chewed through several pages of a Pali text before I finally released him down near the congregation hall at the bottom of the hill. 
     Another mouse wound up catching itself: one night, long after I had given up trying to catch it, I heard crackling plastic in a storage room. I went in to investigate and found a little mouse looking up at me from the bottom of a stiff plastic bag it had dropped into. (When trying to be rid of them I tended to “dehumanize” them a bit, considering them to be little more than pests, although when one was looking up at me and at my mercy I couldn’t help but consider it to be a beautiful, miraculous little being.) I grabbed the bag and hurried down the hill before it could chew its way through the plastic. 
     Another one was caught due to some quick strategizing on my part: I heard the trap door to the ineffectual mouse trap close, and immediately rushed to it, picked it up, and began shaking it vigorously, expecting that a mouse tumbling end over end would be too disoriented to find its way out between the bars. In my haste I hurried out of the cave in the hot, humid darkness and scrambled down the hill shaking the cage as I went, not bothering even to put on my clothes. I made it all the way down to the lower monastery as naked as the proverbial jay bird…although my colleague old U Nandiya was asleep, and nobody noticed. Halfway down the hill the tumbling mouse lost consciousness, causing me suddenly to feel sorry for it, and to hope I hadn’t killed it; but it quickly regained consciousness, and I quickly resumed shaking the cage until it fainted again.
     One mouse proved so difficult to evict that I just put up with it. It was a noisy and destructive one, too, and was continually gnawing on my stuff—but then again I didn’t own anything very valuable in those days. I figured it would eventually get too big to fit through the meshes of the screen door, which is what eventually happened, although the mouse was inside the cave when it reached the critical size, and apparently starved to death. I found its little body on the floor one day.
     But there was one mouse, I think it was the last one, that was bothering me more than most, and I resolved to be rid of it, somehow or other. So I tried the mouse trap which had actually worked with a total of one mouse in the past, and had failed with all the others. I kept a piece of French toast (Burmese mice and rats really like it) as bait, and the mouse went right in; but after hearing the trap door close, rushing to it, picking it up, and heading for the door, the mouse did its escape trick and squeezed through the bars before I could take more than two or three steps with it. I gave up in disgust, put the trap outside, and threw the French toast into the gully. 
     A little later I went outside to pee and found, to my surprise, the mouse inside the now unbaited trap. I grabbed it and headed for the bottom of the hill, but, again, after about two steps the mouse popped through the bars and disappeared into the bushes. But at least now I knew that the mouse was outside the cave. I went back inside and closed the double wooden door to prevent the mouse from getting back in. 
     This caused the cave to become uncomfortably stuffy, or rather even more uncomfortably stuffy than usual at that time of year, but I figured it was worth it to be rid of the mouse. I supposed that if it couldn’t get back in and spent the night elsewhere it might give up on my place. But while reading my book I could hear the mouse crawling on and through the chicken wire mesh in the window over the door. I rushed to the door, chased the mouse back out, and closed the shutters to the window also. Now the only air getting into the cave was through some little holes in the wooden doors plus a small ventilation hole over the window which I dearly hoped the mouse wouldn’t find. The cave was so stuffy at this point that I couldn’t sleep on my bed, but had to sleep on the floor directly below the closed window and the air holes. 
     I lay there in the darkness on the concrete floor, sweating and cursing my own perverse stupidity. I knew that there was no way I would sleep like this until that mouse had grown too large to fit through the screen. I was going through this absurd ordeal just to keep that mouse outside for a single night—just to score one lousy point against a mouse. I knew it was stupid, perverse stubbornness…but that’s the way I can get sometimes. 
     It is part of my nature, or my natural perversity, that every once in awhile I get the idea to do something, maybe something arbitrary and completely trivial, and the world does not cooperate. Usually it is a conscious being that doesn’t cooperate with my plans. So I become firmer and try harder…and the other being still does not cooperate. I become more and more determined, until eventually I find myself a wild-eyed, ridiculously determined fanatic declaring all-out war in my mission to get my way. I knew it was stupid, as I lay there sweltering on the concrete, but by gawd I was at least going to show that mouse that I was the boss and that I would have my way, at least for one damn night. Sometimes I would feel some grim satisfaction as all through the night the mouse crawled on the closed window and door, trying to get back inside. Fortunately it didn’t find the last remaining ventilation hole. I didn’t get much sleep that night, and knew full well that I wasn’t about to take up that sleeping plan for another week, but I survived, and the mouse stayed outside. I scored the point.
     The next day, through karmic coincidence, I decided to make a fire and burn garbage. (When I would go for alms in the village I would sometimes get packaged food, so I would occasionally burn all the plastic and paper.) There was a basket in which I kept wood shavings for tinder; and when I lifted the lid to get some fire starter, who dived for cover under the shavings but the enemy mouse himself—he had settled on the shavings basket for his temporary shelter, pending his return to the cave. I grabbed the basket and hurried down the hill as fast as I could manage, and the mouse, feeling itself to be safe in a large basket full of shavings, didn’t attempt to bail out. I went all the way to the river before stopping and dumping the contents of the basket onto the ground. As I was methodically returning the shavings to the basket, handful by handful, the mouse erupted from the pile and took off, disappearing into the underbrush. 
     So here’s the thing, here’s the antimoral: Sometimes behaving with absolute fanatical stubbornness actually works! If as a rule it just didn’t work, then it would be much easier to cure oneself of such stupidity. But what does one do when the stupidity actually works? Because of that night of vehemently insisting upon teaching a mouse a lesson I really managed to be rid of it, and wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been such an ass. 
     If there is a positive moral to this tale, I suppose it would be that unflinching determination to achieve one’s goal may, sometimes, be useful, especially in Dharma. As the Pali text goes, it’s better to die in battle than to live in defeat. 


  1. I like this article.

  2. Great the stories my favorite was the cockrels, poor things picked off by marauding dobermans. You could have used your psychic powers to talk to the mice and tell them to leave you alone? That's what forest monks do right?

    1. You can try it, but it doesn't always work. Some rodents in particular seem to have being a nuisance as one of their primary karmic purposes in life. One time a Burmese man in all seriousness warned me not to curse rats, because it only makes them worse. On the other hand, one time I was being seriously bothered by a nest of rats in the thatched roof in front of my cave, and one day half-seriously called out to the lazy snakes to come do something about it. ("Hey, Snakes! Come here and eat some rats, why dontcha!") Within 24 hours a big snake crawled up into the roof and destroyed the rat family there. That seemed to have worked better than nicely asking them to go away. And of course if one gushes metta at them it might just encourage them to stay. So all in all just being patient and accepting seems to be the best bet.

    2. Apropos gushing metta at obstacles, I am reminded of the time when there was a very single-minded woman in my life, very intent on dragging me into worldly life as her husband. She was determined to the extent of threatening self harm if I didn't comply. It didn't help that I was tempted and unsure for a while initially, and so I felt pretty guilty for having given her hope that led to the present situation. Anyway, I succeeded in convincing her of the worthlessness of that pursuit and after putting some distance in time and space between us, I was on a retreat, and was relieved I hadn't heard from her in a month or more.

      In the thick of the retreat, overcome by love for all I started casting metta in all directions, and especially towards her since I was still feeling guilty about the whole drama.

      After the retreat, I switched on my phone only to find she had been desperately been trying to get in touch with me since the day I started my metta.

      It took another two months after that to get her to leave me alone.

      Needless to say, I no longer use metta so carelessly.

  3. Can a snake really read a human's mind? It seems incredible to a westerner... how do we say hello, what's up to a snake?

    1. I would guess that there is a deep, subliminal level of consciousness at which two beings, even a human and a snake, can understand each other. To say Hello to a snake is easy, as is sending it metta, regardless of whether it understands what "Hello" means.