Sunday, June 24, 2012

Notes on Mysticism (with Respect to Ven. Ñāṇavīra)

     It is just a little ironic that some of the stuff I have written is being published by Path Press on their website, as the original purpose of Path Press, I think, was to promulgate the writings of a Buddhist philosopher named Bhikkhu Ñāavīra. Ñāavīra was a highly intellectual English monk who practiced in Sri Lanka, and who committed suicide in 1965 due to a distracting chronic health problem. I read his work as a junior monk in Burma, but was not greatly impressed by his interpretation of Buddhism in general, or of Right View in particular. For one, he seemed to insist on an elaborate, rationalistic Right View that he had devised for himself, influenced much by Existentialist philosophy (he especially liked Kierkegaard), asserting, essentially, that anyone who disagreed with his interpretation had wrong view, and thus had little if any hope of becoming enlightened. At the time that I read him he seemed hyper-intellectual, intolerant, and rather arrogant. The last statement of his that I saw was at a used bookstore in Mandalay several years ago; there was a copy of some selected letters of his (an old Buddhist Publication Society booklet) on the shelf, so I picked it up and opened it at random just to see what my gaze would land upon. It was a statement to the effect that Aldous Huxley could never hope to be any better than a second-rate thinker. The statement seemed to imply that the writer, Ñāavīra himself, was a first-rate one qualified to pass such a judgement. It struck me as uncomfortably arrogant, partly because I like Huxley, and I put the book back on the shelf. 
     Although he has quite a few followers to this day, and has much to say that is interesting and thought-provoking, the only noticeable effect he had on my practice was to encourage me to read Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire again. At the time I was scrupulous about reading "worldly" literature, but Ñāavīra, an intelligent man and a serious monk besides, considered it to be an excellent reflection on Dhamma, and had read it himself more than once, so that was good enough for me. 
     We do have certain traits in common, like a failure to have much appreciation for Abhidhamma philosophy or the commentarial tradition, a preference for interpreting Dependent Co-arising as simultaneous and not sequential in time (as he astutely points out, the texts say, "This arising, that arises," not "This ceasing, that arises"), a tendency toward rejecting orthodox interpretations of Dhamma in favor of our own systems, and, unfortunately, a tendency toward intellectual arrogance. I did not acquire these traits from him, however.
     I do think that he made certain fundamental mistakes, not the least of which being that he considered the so-called "core texts" (first four books of Vinaya, first four Nikāyas, and first several books of the fifth Nikāya) to be absolutely reliable records of the Buddha's teaching. Thus he built up a mind-boggling superexistentialist interpretation of Dhamma on an authority that could easily be called into question. It has always struck me as odd that such a brilliant person (educated at Cambridge, no less) could have accepted texts which include fairy tales, talking animals, fire-breathing dragons, and devotionalistic miracle stories, as well as texts in which the Buddha is essentially boasting about how wonderful he is and encouraging others practically to worship him. It seems to be the same gamble made by Burmese sayadaws and the Abhidhamma scholars that Ñāavīra derided; they devote their academic lives, and sometimes their spiritual lives, to building up and mastering a system based upon a foundation of axioms that on close examination prove to be largely a dogmatic wild guess. All their brilliance and logic are in a way debased by expending them on something not necessarily valid. Of course the expounders of religious and philosophical systems other than Buddhism also do the same thing.
     But the main issue I would like to discuss here is Ñāavīra's open disdain for anything mystical. Sometimes it seems that it was sufficient for him to reject an idea simply by labeling it "mysticism." Ñāavīra was a supreme rationalist who believed that any valid system of thought must be "of a piece," and that mysticism violated Aristotle's "Laws of Thought," which may be briefly summarized as:
     1. A equals A. (The Law of Identity)
     2. A is not equal to not-A. (The Law of Noncontradiction)
     3. Anything must be either A or not-A. (The Law of Excluded Middle)
Ñāavīra insisted that mysticism necessarily maintains something like, "The world is and is not real," which is a logical absurdity and necessarily false. One of his followers, in a book on Buddhist existentialism, even went to the extreme of refusing to translate the name of the highest formless contemplative state, the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception, I assume because it sounded too monstrously illogical to admit it publicly as a teaching of Gotama Buddha. Consequently, of course, Ñāavīra and his followers have interpreted Dhamma along rationalistic, non-mystical lines.
     Several years ago I wrangled with a very hard-headed Englishman who had taken Ñāavīra's teachings, at least some of them, to heart and had zero use for my mystical approach to Dhamma because he saw it as self-contradictory. In response I unearthed the following ancient document:

The Bumpkin: A Pseudoplatonic Dialogue
     SOPHIST (pointing to an empty Coca-Cola bottle): What is that---is it glass, or is it a bottle?
     BUMPKIN: Well, it's glass and it's a bottle.
     SOP: Oh I see! So "glass" and "bottle" are synonyms. When I say "glass" I mean "bottle," and when I say "bottle" I mean "glass." Isn't that so?
     BUM: Of course not.
     SOP: What!? So when I say "glass" I don't really mean "bottle," and when I say "bottle" I don't really mean "glass"?
     BUM: Naturally.
     SOP: So "glass" means something other than "bottle," and "bottle" means something other than "glass"?
     BUM: Quite so.
     SOP: And so they are not the same?
     BUM: Right.
     SOP: Ah, I think I understand now. Part of this is glass, and the other part is a bottle. Right?
     BUM: No, the whole thing is glass.
     SOP: And the whole thing is a bottle too?
     BUM: Naturally.
     SOP: Wait a minute…let me get this straight---You say that the whole thing is glass, and the whole thing is a bottle. But we have already determined that "bottle" means something other than "glass." So if we say that the whole thing is glass and the whole thing is a bottle, it is the same as saying that the whole thing is glass and the whole thing is other than glass. Isn't that so?
     BUM: Eh…I guess so.
     SOP: Doublethink! You are saying that it is A and not-A, which is logically inconsistent and impossible! You have violated the laws of thought!
     BUM: Well…er…huh?

(The ancient manuscript is fragmentary and breaks off here.)

     Now clearly, glass and bottle are not the same; they do not even imply each other, as one may have a glass ashtray or a plastic bottle. The glass and the bottle are qualitatively different. Yet at the very same time they are the very same object, and are completely mutually inclusive. If one takes away the bottle, the glass also is taken away; and if the glass disappears, so does the bottle. The solution to this mystery is is that glass and bottle are at two different levels of truth. The glass is the substance, or essence of the bottle, and the bottle is the form, or appearance, of the glass. We have two levels of reality involved here---the level of essence and the level of form. They are the same in a sense and different in a sense, but this is not pernicious doublethink as the sense is not the same; there are two senses which are not mutually exclusive. (Similarly, to say that Agathon is taller than Diocles but shorter than Theophilus, and thus is both tall and short at the same time, is not muddle-headed self-contradiction as his tallness and shortness are in two different relations which are not mutually exclusive.) 
     The thing is this: If one allows that the above line of reasoning concerning the Coca-Cola bottle is valid, not self-contradictory doublethink, then one has in effect flung the door wide open to nondualistic mysticism, as its fundamental premise can be based upon exactly the same kind of reasoning (assuming that a nondualist bothers to rationalize it; usually they don't). Thus, at the experiential level consciousness is the essence of mental states (and experience as a whole), while mental states are the form of consciousness (and experience as a whole). Water and waves---the same yet different. Likewise, at the universal level Nibbāna-dhatu, the Dharmakāya, Brahman, Tao, the Spirit of God, or whatever one wishes to call it is the essence of the samsaric world, and Sasāra is the apparent form of Nibbāna. And hence the paradoxical Mahayanist claim that Nirvana and Samsara are obviously in a sense different, yet nevertheless exactly the same and completely mutually inclusive. The difference between the two levels is the difference between the two kinds of truth described in Buddhist philosophy---ultimate truth and conventional truth. They are simultaneous, and superimposed. We do not progress from conventional truth to ultimate truth, from Samsara to Nirvana; ultimate truth and Nirvana are already present at the beginning of the Path, but we just don't notice, somewhat like a fish doesn't notice being wet.
     One further consideration is that anything that is infinite and formless transcends the boundaries of "is" and "isn't," of existence and nonexistence. As the philosopher Hegel pointed out in his logical dialectic, absolute, infinite Anything is absolutely indistinguishable from absolute, infinite Nothing, as both are devoid of any determinate content. Only differentiation of some sort can create a duality between these two extremes. Thus consciousness without mental states, or the ultimate essence of the world, cannot be said to exist or not exist, or both, or neither. Yet we have to choose some dualistic terminology in order to speak. So, it's a matter of personal choice: If one prefers "is" one may call it "Brahman," say, and be a Hindu; and if one prefers "isn't" one may call it Nibbāna or Nirvana and be a Buddhist. Whichever works for you. Take your pick.
     Venerable Ñāavīra was right in insisting that in order for a philosophical system to be logically valid and self-consistent it must be "of a piece." But the "piece" may not be a flat, two-dimensional surface; the "piece" may be a cube instead of a square.
     On the other hand, metaphysical speculations such as these are probably unnecessary, and may be a waste of time.

(Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Fast, Big Lessons in America

     My experiences on coming back to the USA after many years alone in Burmese forests have often been amazing and invaluable, and sometimes rather painful…largely due to forgetting how to be an American. I was originally ordained in California (at Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, near Santa Cruz), but during my almost two years there the interactions were primarily with Burmese monks (I was the only American-born monk there) and Burmese supporters of the monastery, as relatively few Westerners came to the place. Over the years I visited my parents in Aberdeen, Washington on a few occasions, but I stayed in my father's house pretty much the whole time, and made few forays out into the Western World; in fact I felt very self-conscious and somewhat intimidated walking down an American sidewalk with my brown monk's robes and bare feet. So when I finally left Burma and went out on the limb of Being the Only Bhikkhu in Bellingham, I found myself plunged into a brave new world that I was not entirely prepared for as a monk.
     For starters, Theravada Buddhism originated in ancient India, and the canonical texts caution monks not to be too friendly with laypeople (although at the same time to be compassionate), always to have downcast eyes and behave in a very detached, restrained manner in public, and generally not to act like "householders who enjoy pleasures of the senses." The spiritual ideal of the world that the Buddha lived in involved radical introversion and detachment from worldly affairs---while of course the ideal of a Good Person in the modern West is very much more directed toward extraversion and being outwardly helpful to others. Thus a conscientious, strictly-practicing monk who follows the ancient texts could be seen by many in this part of the world as cold and unfriendly, and possibly useless besides. Although at the time I showed up in Bellingham I was not 100% strict in my following of the texts, still I was rather too serious to play well with others.
     More importantly, I had spent almost all of my monk life immersed in Burmese culture, which is possibly the most devoutly Buddhist culture on earth. In the Burmese language the word for "human being" is not used for monks; monastics are not considered to be human, but superhuman, and literally worshipping them is standard practice for a Burmese Buddhist. Furthermore, the Burmese are embarrassingly generous to monks and monasteries---partly because since childhood wise-guy monks have drilled it into their heads that for enthusiastically making offerings to the Bhikkhu Sangha they will skyrocket straight into Heaven, or at the very least they will be born into their next life rich and beautiful for it. Consequently, monks in Burma are exposed to the danger of being spoiled absolutely rotten. This is especially true of famous monks, and I was slightly famous in northwestern Burma for various reasons, not the least of which being that I was practically the only foreigner in the area.
     And to top it all off, I have a natural tendency toward arrogance anyway (not to mention faultfinding and occasional ingratitude), which was not kept well in bounds by reasonable feedback for many years. Simple-hearted people who are literally groveling on the ground before you tend not to be very critical in their comments to you. They are much more likely to agree with anything you say, plus maybe ask for some water you have blessed. In such a situation one tends not to be fully exposed to one's own blind spots and shortcomings, allowing one to drift in unskillful directions, and to become set in one's ways. Thus I came back to America with a self-image of the Tough Forest Ascetic, and very used to being treated like a king, or at least a knight, with what should have been easily predictable results.
     I already knew that Americans in general have little use for shaven-headed fellows in brown robes, but one of my first surprises was that many if not most American Buddhists have little use for shaven-headed fellows in brown robes. I seem to have elicited straightaway a wide spectrum of responses among local Buddhist groups in Bellingham, from enthusiastic respect to scowls, with the mean being somewhere in the neighborhood of polite standoffishness. Much of this last was simple shyness around a rather strange stranger, I think, but I certainly wasn't expecting it, and my pride and spoiledness didn't like it much. But in addition to bruised pride at the lack of respect toward me personally, there was also a fair (or unfair) amount of indignation at lack of regard for monks in general. After all, Theravada is traditionally a system directed first and foremost toward monks! For more than 2000 years Theravada has been, so to speak, a spectator sport, with renunciants being the professional athletes and the laypeople being fans supporting their favorite team. The image of lay meditators living relatively unrestrained lives and calling themselves Sangha, which in Asia is a word referring to monks, or a layperson sitting on a chair teaching Dharma while a monk sits in silence on the floor, would have many Asian Buddhists gasping in horror, and doing the Buddhist equivalent of Roman Catholics crossing themselves, whatever that may be. From the traditional Burmese point of view it would be the road to Hell---and I had just spent most of my adult life in Burma. To make a long story medium length, rather than being respected on sight I was being judged by egalitarian American standards of whether or not I was a Good Person, and at that I didn't do very well. By American standards I was not all that Good of a Person. To tell you Good People the truth, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
     All of a sudden I started being beaten over the head with the plain fact that I had to treat everyone as my equal and be not just polite, but positively friendly. I had to express gratitude, even though traditionally monks aren't supposed to say such things as Please and Thank You. I lost my social status and was required to be just another person---one dressed in weird clothing, but just another person nevertheless. 
     I had to start taking a crash course in Interpersonal Relationship; and although I learn rather quickly I had a long way to go just to catch up with the average teenager. I began seeing the vital importance of friendliness, humility, and gratitude in a world where I was not taken for granted as a superhuman being. I'm still working on that.        
     The way I see it, in very ancient times monks were homeless wanderers living in a spiritual but not overwhelmingly Buddhist culture, not knowing where their next meal was coming from, and exposed to all sorts of experiences, some of them at the hands of cruel antagonists. In other words they had a great variety of experiences and had plenty of opportunity to be "triggered" in various ways. But the life of most monks nowadays tends to be rather isolated, usually in a cloistered, protected environment, so that monks often have few stimuli to try them, to test their mettle. Presumably many monks do not require such a challenge-rich environment, but I apparently did, especially since I didn't have an enlightened teacher looking into my mind and prodding me when needed. In Burma I lived a simple life and was assured of support; I had challenges like heat, rats, and malaria, but some trying experiences that I needed were much more available here in Bellingham, and I am grateful for them.
     Closely related to this is another great lesson I have learned, which was rather a heartening surprise. Because in Burma I was assured of support I was not required to have sufficient faith in Dharma (or as a Theist would say, in God) to really throw myself upon the mercy of the world---which, however, is fundamental to many spiritual systems, including Buddhism and Biblical Christianity. "Give no thought for tomorrow, what you will eat or where you will sleep," "Consider the lilies of the field," and all that. Strangely, it wasn't until I returned to rich, comfortable America that I really had the opportunity to put it to the test; and so far it has worked in a strange and beautiful way. In fact there is a feeling of freedom and exhilaration in just letting go and not worrying about how I will survive, even though I'm not sure how I will. "God will provide." For example, on the day that I write this I was informed that I will be required to find other shelter within five days, and I honestly don't know where I will go, but I trust that everything will work out. I feel strangely grateful for this. As the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe has said, gratitude will get you farther than indifference. 
     Sometimes I get the feeling that all my years of sweating and meditating in tropical Asia were training to prepare me for the return to the West. It is now that I'm putting that training to the test. I feel that my years of practice have finally made me strong enough to exist in what essentially is a spiritually bankrupt materialist culture without being destroyed by it, so that perhaps I may even be able to contribute in some small way to helping America Wake Up. Life is interesting, and I'm happy to be back.
     After more than a year I'm still not sure how being a Theravadin monk in the West will work out---for the Sangha in general, not just for me. A Theravada Buddhist monk is supposed to follow a lifestyle designed for ancient India, and now, here, there seems to be some dissonance, as though bhikkhus are an awkward and anomalous addition to the culture, something on the verge of Politically Incorrect that makes for a strange fit. A Theravadin monk can be compared to a kind of tropical orchid: in Asia it can grow naturally, outdoors; but in a temperate-zone non-Buddhist country it must be grown in a protected environment with people having to take special care of it. (Thus it is appropriate that one of my first monastic residences in Bellingham was a greenhouse.) The other alternative for a monk is to stop following strictly the ancient rules of monastic discipline, for example by handling money and preparing his own meals. I must admit I'm not nearly as strict as I used to be. I still eat only once a day and don't handle money, but the rules concerning highly restricted interaction with women, for example, have gone out the window. Which reminds me of another benefit of living here---one has more exposure to female wisdom, to the Divine Feminine. Or at least that is my experience.
     There is much to be said for living in a quiet, protected environment if one wishes to progress spiritually. It certainly helps to deepen one's meditation and strengthen one's understanding of how the mind works, and a healthy amount of it may continue to be necessary, at least sometimes. Yet there is also much to be said for embracing life and using the resultant turmoil as an invaluable way of bringing up "stuff" lying latent in the psyche, which otherwise might not come up at all. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, the Christian prayer "…and lead us not into temptation" really means "let us not know who we are." 
     May all of you out there find out who you really are, whether you choose solitude and introspection, whole-heartedly embracing the experiences of an outwardly active life, or some middle path between these two extremes. When you do find out who you really are, I bet you'll see that you are beautiful and perfect, and that you always were, but you just didn't notice.

This mind, monks, is shining forth, but it is defiled by visiting defilements. 
The unlearned common person does not understand this as it really is.
Therefore I say there is no development of mind for the unlearned common person.
(---Anguttara Nikāya, 1:6:1)

     By the way, today, the day after I wrote that part about having to move and not knowing where I would go, I received a message from a person generously inviting me to stay in his extra room for a few weeks. The First Noble Truth says that to exist is to suffer; but to exist is also an inscrutable mystery, and a miracle.


Friday, June 8, 2012

My Trip to Get Hugged by Amma

     Until returning to America last year I had never heard of Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better (and more easily) known as Ammachi, Amma, or "The Hugging Saint." But last summer I lived in the greenhouse of a young woman named Danielle who was a devotee of Amma, and who had pictures of her on her altar, on her nightstand, on her refrigerator, etc., and who considered Amma to be an Enlightened Being and, as the Hindus would say, a Sat-Guru---a true teacher, God manifested in human form.
     So I read her biography, which seemed to be rather biased in her favor, and kept an open mind, suspending judgement as well as I could. Partly because I like Danielle and respect her wisdom, partly because finding an Enlightened Being in this world is an incomparable blessing, and partly just out of curiosity and a desire to See What Happens, when Amma was scheduled to appear in Bellevue, WA (less than a hundred miles from my present abode of Bellingham) I figured I ought to go.
     I got a ride down to Bellevue with a New Age surfer dude who works for an organic produce company and a rather hard-headed data analyst preparing to finish his Masters degree in Bio-Informatics---both of them great guys---with me somewhat in the middle of them with regard to the ratio of Faith to Reason. On the way down for our first darshan with Amma we talked of Astrology, Atlantis, and Apartment rentals, among other things. (I may reserve the Atlantis part for a different blog post someday.)
     Amma's darshan was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bellevue, about as different from the settings of an Indian ashram as one could easily call to mind. We went through the lobby of coffee shops, business people, and participants in a World Conference on In Vitro Biology until we arrived at the line of people waiting to see a Hindu Saint. We arrived hours early and found ourselves toward the front of a line of friendly, happy, mildly excited people, most of them women. As we sat on the carpeted floor awaiting entry into the Hyatt Regency Grand Ballroom where the darshan was to take place, a young Indian man with perfect English and just enough of an Indian accent to sound charming walked by vending expensive organic, gluten-free quinua wraps with raw veggies---East meets West. 
     Danielle, who was an assistant organizer for the event and had been there for the entire 4-day spiritual program, found us shortly after a vender of organic chocolates glided past. She was in a state of blissful excitement, the pupils of her eyes so dilated that only thin rings of green remained of her irises. She animatedly told us of some of the wonders of her experience thus far, smiling even more than the newcomers sitting in line. I leaned over to the surfer dude and jokingly said, "She's hooked."
     After a few hours of conversing, meditating, and watching the variety of people wanting to see Amma, we were herded (more or less politely and respectfully) into the Grand Ballroom. Shortly after 7:00pm, if I remember correctly, Ammachi appeared and ascended the stage: a cheerful, chubby, middle-aged, dark-skinned Indian woman dressed in white, accompanied by some bearded male swamis dressed in orange and some white-clad attendants, mostly women.
     Amma settled onto her seat, blessed some large containers of water by sipping from them, holding them to her chest, and performing who knows what at a nonphysical level, and then she gave a discourse on Dharma, which was interpreted into English by a swami with a rich baritone voice who, I was told, used to be a Bollywood movie actor, but who renounced the world and became one of Amma's first serious disciples. Unfortunately I don't remember very much of the talk; they say that if one is lucky one will walk away from a talk with two sentences of it, so I guess I did pretty well. She spoke at length about sankalpa (which in Pali Buddhism is sankappa, although with a slightly different meaning). Sankalpa means the first arising of a thought or urge, which is beyond our conscious control. It may be positive or negative, but does not create karma because it is not deliberate. What does create karma is going along with the sankalpa and reinforcing it, creating habits which enslave us. And being enslaved to habits prevents us from acting in accordance with Dharma---we follow the mindless habit instead of what is conscious and godly. Therefore it is a sacred duty to make a devout, humble effort not to succumb to our habits and to always do what is loving and compassionate and good.
     Amma teaches with many stories and similes, and one story that stands out is the story of a teacher who gave two of his students each a live chicken and told them to go and kill the chicken in a place where no one could see it happen. The first student went into a cave and killed the chicken there, and returned to the master with it; but the second student eventually came back with his chicken still alive, saying he couldn't find a place where no one was watching. The teacher said, "But the other student found a cave and killed his chicken there." Then the second student said, "I also found a cave and was going to kill it there, but then I realized that I was still watching." The moral of the story: You can't get away with anything.
     After the sermon there was a guided meditation, including the mantra OM and some purifying visualizations, and then the water Amma blessed was distributed in little cups to all the crowd. I drank mine immediately just moments before the swami warned everyone not to drink theirs immediately…but for those who had already drunk it, it was OK. 
     After this the Devi Bhava began, in which Amma dressed up as the Great Goddess, blessed everyone, and began systematically hugging probably more than 2500 people. I estimated that each hug lasted an average of just under 10 seconds, with maybe 5 seconds between each hug, and she hugged people nonstop, without getting up to pee, etc., from around 9:00 that night to around 8:30 the next morning. 
     When my turn came to get in line to go on stage for the hug, Danielle gave me an apple to offer to Ammachi; but I noticed that the apple had two mushy spots on it, and it didn't seem right to make an offering of a mushy apple. So she gave me a different one, but this one was small and hard---still not a suitable offering, in my opinion, to a human manifestation of God. So then Danielle gave me a small green fruit that after a few moments of confusion I identified as a lime. A lime. I was thinking at this point that a flower would be much more suitable under the circumstances, but beggars can't be choosers, and I didn't want to be completely fussy, so I decided just to keep the lime and keep my mouth shut. Then I got an idea: as I sat in the queue I held the lime under my robe, against my heart, and began repeating like a mantra, "May the sourness in my heart go into this lime and make it a more succulent, more perfect lime…" 
     As I approached the stage I tried to keep my mind clear, and to be receptive to whatever might happen. As a rule a Theravada Buddhist monk avoids physical contact with women, but one breaks a rule only if one makes that contact with desire for the woman in one's heart, and I was confident that I could receive a hug without carnal desire for Amma. (The rule in question, incidentally, is called sanghādisesa, and requires 6 days and 6 nights of penance to expiate it, plus going through a final reinstatement ceremony at which no fewer than 20 monks in good standing are present, so breaking the rule entails a fair amount of trouble.) On the other hand, most of the attendants, plus most of the people on the stage, were youngish women, and the attendants would essentially grab hold of the hug recipients, position them in front of Amma's seat, and then pull them away after the hug to position the next one. This caused me some concern, and that combined with being on stage with a saint, in front of 2000+ people, trying to be as conscious and "pure" as possible, in an atmosphere of spiritual excitement, resulted in my being rather tense, and feeling almost as though drugged on something psychedelic. 
     When I finally received the hug, Amma repeated something into my ear that I didn't understand; I thought it must be in her own language, or maybe Sanskrit. But afterwards the person next after me said, "When she was hugging you was she saying 'My daughter, my daughter'?" Then it dawned on me that that's what it sounded like. I still am not sure why she called me her daughter. I was wearing essentially a skirt (a monk's robes), but a 6'2" man with broad shoulders and a 10 days' growth of beard and head stubble could hardly fool her. I've received and entertained various theories, but I'm still not sure.
     After the hug I decided to stay for the rest of the program, and spent much of the time attempting to meditate below the stage, near where the musicians were playing. I will say that the Hindu devotional music that was played all night long was reason enough in itself to make the trip for the darshan worthwhile. One advantage of Hinduism over Buddhism is that they have better music.
     There were times, though, that I felt glad to be a Buddhist. For one thing, I like the idea of taking responsibility for oneself, and not devotionally offering one's life into the hands of a guru or deity. (Not all Hindus do this, and some Buddhists do this too in their devotion to the Buddha or a living teacher, but it seems to be emphasized much more in Hinduism. It certainly may be appropriate for many, even though it does not resonate with me.) I've never been very keen on worshipping, and it seemed pretty worshippy there at the Hyatt Regency. Also I've never had much appreciation for rituals and ceremonies, which is one reason why I became a Theravada Buddhist---minimum rituals---so the chanting and so on were interesting and entertaining, but not something I would want to do on a regular basis. It occurred to me that night that Hinduism is like Divine Emptiness covered over with lots of decorative cake frosting, chocolate sprinkles, flowers, lit candles, and sparklers. That's the way lots of folks like it, and I have no quarrel with that. But I personally like my Divine Emptiness a little more plain.
     Also throughout the course of the night I watched people. One person who fascinated me was a tall, slender, very handsome young man who looked to be in his early 20's or maybe even late teens, with bleached blond hair, black stretch pants, a very shaggy black jacket, and apparently the remnants of black polish on his fingernails. Sometimes he wore a pair of large sunglasses with pink lenses. He reminded me of a young David Bowie, and it was difficult not to stare at his striking appearance. Another person I especially noticed was a young woman also dressed in black, with a chronically troubled look to her face; she looked like the stereotypical party girl who tries to counteract a perpetually unhappy mind through overindulgence in sensual rebellion. What really struck me was that both of these immodest rebel types (or so I interpreted them) were staying up all night in order to be in the presence of a saint. There were all types of people there, and I saw blue jeans, sweatshirts, saris, white robes, long dangly earrings on both men and women, rosaries, and bindis---but I did not see a single business suit there, nor a single tie there at the Hyatt Grand Ballroom in such a white-collar, businesslike city as Bellevue. The atmosphere throughout the night was one of Goodness: not a serious feeling of "We ought to be good," but a joyous feeling of "Yay! Let's be Good!" That was one of the best things I took away with me, not just that feeling in myself, but the feeling of a whole crowd of joyous people feeling pretty much the same way. "Yay! Let's be Good!"
     In the morning, after everyone had been hugged, the crowd prepared for a final blessing. Accompanied by loud music and devotional singing, the thousand or so people who had remained there all night walked in a thick line in front of the stage while Ammachi flung bucketfuls of flower petals onto everybody, after which she went behind the stage curtain. Then, to my confusion and impatience, everybody waited in silence for about 15 minutes. Finally it occurred to me that they were waiting for an encore, like at a rock concert, but much more quiet. And at last she came out again, again dressed in white, and blessed the crowd again and again, expressing her profound gratitude for everybody's goodness. 
     Four days later I am still feeling a mild afterglow. Many say that we have received Amma's grace, which no doubt is true; but it is just as true that we use Amma as a kind of gimmick, using her as an excuse for an upwelling of inspiration and Dharma in ourselves. We believe in Amma more than we believe in ourselves, even though Amma herself says that we are all equally filled with God. As I told Danielle that night/morning, "If you believed in yourself as much as you believe in Amma, you would fly."
     Whether Ammachi is an Enlightened Being or not I cannot say. Although she seems to be in a state of constant bliss (I started to write "bless"), she often looks and sounds rather ordinary. That may be, however, due to the nature of saints and sages---they simply reflect back at you your own mental states in a more pure form. Like Ramana Maharshi used to say, a true guru is like the ocean: if you come with a cup you get a cupful, and if you come with a bucket you get a bucketful; there's no point in blaming the ocean if you don't get very much. In my case, I'm pretty sure I came with a bucket, but I seem to have been holding it sideways. The strange thing is that after I straightened up the bucket it started getting fuller, even though I was already well away from the shore. Or so it seems to me.
     As I say, I don't know if she is Enlightened, but I rather hope she is. I would like to think that there are Enlightened Beings in this world, and that this world has a real chance at becoming immeasurably better than it is---not through technology or economic reform, but through Spirit. One very big thing that struck me at Amma's darshan is that there really is a lot of goodness in people, and in the world we have created. It is unfortunate and very misleading that the badness gets the overwhelming majority of the press. 
     I conclude this blog post with:
Amma's Dream
Everyone in the world should be able to sleep without fear, at least for one night.
Everyone should be able to eat his fill, at least for one day.
There should be at least one day when hospitals see no one admitted due to violence.
By doing selfless service for at least one day, everyone should help the poor and needy.
It is Amma's prayer that at least this small dream be realized.



Saturday, June 2, 2012

Intro to This Here Blog

Great Comforting Thoughts:
     "The fool who is aware of his foolishness is at least wise to that extent..." (---from the Dhammapada, verse 63)

     or, what appears to be very similar,

     "Blessed are they who know their spiritual poverty, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." (---the very first words of the Sermon on the Mount)

     Well, Hello, and welcome to my first blog, typed on the first computer I've ever owned. (It's ironic that I haven't owned such a luxurious, magical gadget until long after becoming a Buddhist monk and "renouncing the world.") The main purpose of this blog is to record a public journal, discussing the feelings that occur to someone who essentially lived in a cave for years and years and is now living in the strange world of America, as well as reflections, more or less philosophical, that are too short or too personal to be articles on the adjoining website, plus occasionally too politically incorrect to say to someone's face at a public talk. Much of what will be discussed will be insights that arose, and had to arise, only after leaving a spiritual hermitage and entering an American city (Bellingham, WA). For those of you who don't know me, some personal information is available on the website (, and of course anyone reading this journal will probably get to know me pretty well if they are so inclined.
     The two quotes which begin this blog represent thoughts that have been great comforts to me over the years as I tried to be a good monk and cultivate wisdom. I have to rely on them less and less, but they still are a consolation sometimes. Nowadays the Great Comforting Thoughts tend to be more like, "Everything happens the way it's supposed to happen," "Om," and "Love is acceptance." That last one especially is taking me far in life.
     This first entry is like a first day at school: No serious work involved, just settling in. Future entries will often, but not always, be meatier, and I hope sometimes controversial. I like a little controversy every now and then. The trick is to be controversial without callously insulting anybody. My sincere blessings are upon all of you, whether you read this or not.