Saturday, September 29, 2012

Nondualistic Mysticism 101

     Several years ago in Burma I was involved in some correspondence with a rationalistically-oriented British monk who insisted that Dharma had to make perfect sense, and that nondualistic mysticism, transcending sense as it does, was consequently just so much soft-headed gibberish. The following is adapted from one of my attempts to explain mysticism in a way that a hard-headed intellectual may be able to appreciate. My experience is that intellectual persons who have never had a genuine mystical experience never seem to "get it," and tend to dismiss mysticism as fanciful emotionality or worse. Even great thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Stephen Hawking utterly failed to understand or appreciate it. (Hawking once stated that mysticism is a "cop-out" which clouds the issues, not seeing that the opposite was closer to the case: the issues cloud mysticism.) However, my latest blog posts have been leaning more towards heart than head, methinks, so I offer this as a way to restore, maybe, some balance.
*   *   *
     To begin with, it may be of some use to delineate the basic fundamentals of nondualistic mysticism, at least as well as I understand them. First, there is the (dualistic but practically unavoidable) Buddhist notion of two truths, conventional and ultimate. This should present no problem, as even science and the Abhidhamma philosophy recognize a distinction between appearance and reality, or, as Kant put it, between the phenomenon and the thing in itself. For example, from the scientific point of view the sweet, juicy red apple on the table is, "in reality," nothing more than tasteless and colorless particles, waves, fields, and/or warped space. The important thing to remember is that, in Samsara at least, conventional "truth" and ultimate Truth occur simultaneously. As far as I can tell, there can be no such thing as a totally baseless pure illusion; for example, scientifically speaking, a talking owl hallucinated from scratch by an alcoholic with the DT's1, at the level of its underlying reality, could be described as abnormal neuronal activity in an ethanol-damaged brain. Both levels of reality would necessarily be present simultaneously. Similarly, all samsaric illusion is based upon, even completely pervaded by, ultimate reality. Not the slightest iota of it is without any grounding at all in what is real. Thus far even scientists and Abhidhamma scholars are in agreement with this. It would be easy to say that whether one is unenlightened or enlightened depends upon which level of truth, conventional or ultimate, one sees as actual Truth, although this would be somewhat of an overcomplexification of the matter. But I am getting ahead of myself.
     Next---and this is where pluralistic realists and nondualistic mystics part company---is the idea that ultimate truth, or Reality, is indeterminate and beyond dualistic distinctions (such distinctions being mere artifacts of perception), and consequently it is also utterly ineffable and inconceivable. So we could say that there is only one ultimately real state of being, not 82 as the Abhidhammic Buddhaghosists would have us believe; but even to call it One is an invalid attempt to conceptualize it. As the Chinese Buddhist patriarch Seng-Tsan says, all we can say is "not two." Among the Hindus this undifferentiated Ultimate Reality is called Brahman, among the Taoists, Tao, among some Western mystics, God, and among some Buddhists, Nirvana. The Buddhists in particular have come up with a whole slew of synonyms for it, which need not be listed here (although I will say one of my favorites is nippapañca, or nondiversification---i.e., nonduality!). So, Reality equals Nirvana. And of course, conversely, unreality is Samsara; yet, as has been pointed out, all illusion is necessarily based upon and even pervaded by reality. And so, how far away can Reality be? It is right here, right now. It is everywhere, always, even in the midst of our greatest delusions. We are soaking in it. A person seeking Nirvana is like a fish in the middle of the ocean seeking water; not only is it totally surrounded by it, but its entire body is saturated with it. This also helps to explain the Mahayana Buddhist tenet that Nirvana and Samsara are apparently different yet ultimately exactly the same. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, "You have it already. You just can't feel it because your mind is making too much noise."
     Just as it is a mistake to assume that we progress from self to no self, since no self is, at least from the Buddhist point of view, the essential state of reality from the very beginning, even so, it is a mistake to assume that we progress from conventional truth to Ultimate Truth, or from Samsara to Nirvana, since Ultimate Truth and Nirvana are also the essential state of reality from the very beginning. There is simply a shift in awareness, a broadening of focus.
     It appears that one logical consequence of a truly nondualistic Reality, which, however, appears to receive very little emphasis in the mystical literature, is that the "coherence theory of truth" would govern Samsara. In epistemology books it is written that there are two main theories concerning the meaning of "truth": the correspondence theory and the coherence theory. The correspondence theory, which is assumed by most scientists and by all Abhidhamma scholars, dogs, and chickens---in short, by all realists---claims that a judgement is true if and only if it corresponds to some objective matter of fact. For example, the judgement "The apple is on the table" is true if and only if the apple really is on the table. On the other hand, the coherence theory3 states that a judgement is "true" if and only if it is consistent with all other judgements which also happen to be considered true. Thus, the truth or falsehood of the judgement "The apple is on the table" depends entirely upon its agreement or disagreement with other perceptions. In a world in which the only real matter of fact is an unthinkable indeterminate Void or Infinity, any perceptual belief system would necessarily be arbitrary and free-floating, with no basis at all in "pure objectivity." All perceptual belief systems, which is to say all Samsaras, derive their apparent objective reality and validity merely from internal self-consistency. I suspect that this mutual conditioning of perceptual "facts," this complete relativity of conventional "truth," was originally the main point of the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Co-Arising. In this being, that is; from the arising of this, that arises. The whole thing can be viewed as a conditional if/then statement: If this is considered to be true or real, then that also must be considered to be true or real. This is how duality works. It is written that seeing the truth of paicca-samuppāda is the essence of enlightenment; that he who sees Dependent Co-Arising (that "Co-" or "sam-" being too often ignored) sees the Dharma; but how many people have become enlightened by studying the stock formula beginning "Dependent on ignorance there are karma formations, dependent of karma formations, consciousness…"? Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of zero.
     Perceptual views have no intrinsic objectivity or absolute truth value; they are ultimately neither true nor false. One belief system may be more comprehensive and logically or empirically more self-consistent than another, but none can begin to comprehend ultimate truth. As Kant said in his Critique of Pure Reason, "Supposing that we should carry our empirical intuition even to the very highest degree of clearness we should not thereby advance one step nearer to the constitution of objects as things in themselves,"---i.e., to Ultimate Reality. Consequently, the important thing about a perceptual view is not its truth, but its usefulness. So, if Abhidhamma studies, or self-hypnosis, or visualizing copulating Tibetan buddhas, or worshipping a statue of a deified monkey somehow helps one to become enlightened, then one may as well go for it. The trick is to follow a method which enables one to benefit from that method, outgrow it, and then set it aside; hence the famous Simile of the Raft in Buddhist philosophy. Systems are at best tools which allow us to transcend all systems. For one wanting enlightenment a view is useful or skillful or "Right" to the extent that it somehow helps one to let go of all views. 

The victorious ones have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.   (---Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XIII.84)

But, letting go of all views is not necessarily the same as eradicating all views (just as mindfully detaching from one's defilements is not necessarily the same as eradicating one's defilements). I think this is a very recondite but very important point to consider. 

A monk whose mind is liberated thus, Aggivessana, agrees with no one and disagrees with no one; whatever language is spoken in the world, he makes use of that without adhering to it. (---Dīghanakha Sutta (M74))

     Bearing all this in mind, and with all due respects to venerable teachers to be found throughout the world, anyone who insists, "Only this is true! Anything else is wrong!" is clinging to delusion and Samsara.
     I suspect I may be waxing unintelligible by now. It may be that paradox, enigma, ambiguity, and general disorientation are simply not the reader's bag of tea. In which case the good old-fashioned Proto-Theravadin approach may be more appropriate; namely, to emphasize practical matters and to keep philosophical theory to a bare minimum. So, the following is instruction for "contemplation," as the Christian mystics call it, adapted from the teachings of the great saint, mystical doctor, and meditation master St. John of the Cross. Since pure consciousness (or in St. John's language, God) cannot be discerned by the senses, if one wishes direct knowledge of this consciousness one must disregard the information given by the senses. As it cannot be imagined, imagination too should be dismissed. Thoughts, feelings, and any other perceptions also are incapable of containing the infinity of pure consciousness, so whatever of these that arise during contemplation should be let go of and dismissed. By steadfastly continuing with this method of emptying the mind of all phenomena that are not pure consciousness, before long the mind will be empty of all but the first, incomplete motions of their arising, upon which arising they are immediately seen and dismissed. Even the idea of dismissing, of emptiness, or of "pure consciousness" should not be entertained in the mind. When this state has been achieved one will find that the mind is not empty, as one might expect, but is expanded and clear, and even more conscious than when one is in a normal, "waking" state. St. John calls this "Dark Faith," and also "true poverty of spirit." Other systems call it by other names. He also says that if there were two people, one who spent his or her life feeding the hungry, tending the sick, housing the homeless, and giving all outward support to the afflicted and helpless, and the other spending his or her life practicing this kind of direct experience of God through contemplation, the second would be doing more to benefit the earth, and more to serve God. I get a feeling that he may be right, although of course there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with outward service to others. Perhaps a combination of both, if possible, would be most beneficial.
     This kind of contemplation generally requires a life of renunciation, quietude, and much practice, or else the endowment of great talent, and may be beyond the average reader of Buddhist (or Catholic) blogs. Here is a shorter method which leads to essentially the same result, although for a shorter length of time: Make yourself comfortable and clear your mind of all thoughts, and then watch your mind carefully to see what thought will come up next. You may find that the more carefully you try to "catch" the first thought as it arises, the longer it will take for that thought to finally arise. To experience this alert, watchful silence is essentially a mild mystical state---at least a mild one.
     Or, here is an even shorter method: be as mindful and present as you can while sneezing. I have read that the closest the average person comes to enlightenment is the experience of orgasm; but if I recall correctly there is much too much emotional turmoil going on for the comparison to be a good one. I have often considered that the closest the average person comes to enlightenment or a genuine mystical state is when she or he is in the middle of a sneeze---one is wide awake, and not thinking anything. It is a split second of eternity. But the greatest trick of all is to remain in that state of awareness even after the thinking starts again. Then one has truly become a master.

The view from inside "Tapogūha," a meditation cave in NW Burma (Myanmar)

     1. My father actually had a roommate like this long ago. He would lie on his couch staring up at an empty space on a bookshelf, and would engage in long conversations with an owl supposedly perched there. One day my father found a stuffed owl at a second-hand shop, so he bought it and stealthily placed it on the shelf where the fellow was wont to see the imaginary one. A practical joker, was my father. He also mentioned having known a certain heavy drinker who would see a kind of creature called a "jumbly," of which there were two varieties, pink and green. The fellow used to say that the pink jumblies weren't so bad---but the green ones! He would shudder with horror at the mere thought of them. But I digress.
     2. Incidentally, it seems to me that the Abhidhamma scholars are hard put to fit Nibbāna into their pluralistic system in any plausible way. For example, Nibbāna is said to be eternal and not to arise or pass away, yet it (or at least the awareness of it, which would seem to be the same thing) allegedly arises at the moment of enlightenment and then passes away again, at which point the newly awakened being lapses into a kind of temporary meditative coma. Also, Nibbāna is said to be unconditioned and not to be a cause or an effect, yet it is believed to arise as the result of meditative insight. Furthermore, the unconditioned Buddhaghosist Nibbāna is a very limited entity, as there is so much that it is not---for instance, it is not any of the other 81 ultimate realities, such as earth element, femininity, or wrong view. But wouldn't any kind of limitation itself be a condition? How can Nibbāna be unconditioned if it is here in the mind of this sage but not there in that chicken? Anyhow, if anyone can demonstrate that Nibbāna is no more ultimately real than, say, earth element, nose sensitivity, or right livelihood, then I will eat whatever hat is set before me (although I reserve the right to choose the accompanying beverage).
     3. The most well-known advocate of which, or so I have read, being the Hegelian philosopher F.H. Bradley.
     4. Translation by Jay L. Garfield in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Oxford 1995).

Friday, September 21, 2012

Is Infinity Too Much?

     Recently I had a strange and rather harrowing experience which evoked some deep insight, as well as a fair amount of humility. I actually found myself saying NO to Nirvana, to enlightenment, to infinity, to God. 
     Those of you who have read my previous blog post may know that I have been considering the idea, or ideal, of having a wide open heart, feeling that there may be real wisdom in some feminine advice I have been lately receiving. (However, within the past two days I've also received two emails from relatively spiritually-oriented men telling me that my supposed need to be more heart-opened is probably nonsense. It just goes to show, "men are from Mars, women are from Venus.") So, a few nights ago I was deeply investigating my heart, and whatever lurks in that mysterious dark place. I began feeling very intense energy flowing through my chest. It felt as though people, especially people here in the West, have so much inward pain that they cannot bear to look at it, and so it is repressed and hidden in some collective subconscious reservoir---and that it had found an outlet through my heart. It seemed I was in intimate contact with what Eckhart Tolle calls the "pain body." And as a leak in a dike gradually washes away more and more soil, causing the leak to become bigger and bigger and the flow of water to become more and faster, even so the intense rush of energy became more and more painfully intense until it was very near to unbearable.
     I deeply intuited that I should experience this as fully as possible without repressing it or turning away from it, so I stayed with it as well as I could, feeling it and realizing that many people in this world feel this kind of pain very much of the time. As the sensation became more unbearable I began using "Yes" as a kind of mantra, trying to accept the experience as totally as possible---Yes…Yes…Yes…until sometimes I would find myself clinging to the word for dear life, like clinging to a piece of wreckage while floundering in deep seawater. Then I would have to back off from the word Yes, as that itself was a way of distracting myself from the painful intensity in my chest. I was becoming desperate.
     I realized that someone like Jesus, or Neem Karoli Baba, or maybe Ammachi who is alive today in India, or maybe also Gotama Buddha (although the Pali texts describe his orientation somewhat differently) could probably accept this intensity of experience even if it were to increase to infinitude, that their hearts were strong enough and boundless enough to hold it all. But after many minutes of desperate surfing atop the tsunami, I faltered. The pain became too much, and after repeated doubts, renewed repetition of the mantra Yes, and more doubts, I reached a breaking point. I tried to stop it, or at least to distract myself enough to more easily endure it. It wouldn't stop though, and eventually I started essentially praying. As I panted and reeled I thought, "This is too much…I can't do this…it's just too much…please have mercy…" and began silently calling out to God or anyone else who could relieve me of this burden of pain in my heart. Allowing it to flow through my chest was painful, but trying to stop it caused a new agony in a way much worse than what was already there. It was the pain of friction, of shutting down, of saying No to what was happening, to the reality of the moment. I felt that it was a kind of defeat also, an admission that at that moment I was not ready for enlightenment---which is, after all, the experience of infinity. 
     While having these feelings of not being ready another thought occasionally arose: "If not now, when?"
     Also I dearly sympathized with my fellow humans, most of whom probably suffer more than I do, and most of whom have systematically prepared their minds to experience this kind of intensity much less than I have. If I couldn't do it, how could I expect ordinary people living ordinary worldly lives to do it? It seemed like we are all stuck in a kind of purgatory, which, of course, we are. I would have really appreciated a hug or a kind, gentle word.
     What struck me the most at this time was the idea that by saying No to this experience I was essentially saying No to enlightenment; or in theological terms, I was saying No to union with God, as God contains all experiences, including all the suffering in the world, within It. By desperately putting up any barrier I could to protect myself from this intensity of feeling I was also barricading myself against Nirvana, as Nirvana is the transcendence of all barriers and boundaries. I was shutting down, and not only voluntarily admitting defeat, but voluntarily insisting upon defeat. Then again, it is not necessarily defeat to be limited and finite, but it is being only an infinitely small particle of infinity instead of consciously being at one with infinity. Of course, by closing off (or at least trying to close off) to this suffering tending toward an absolute, I was at the same time closing off to the possibility of infinite rapture, infinite beauty, infinite love, and every other limitless blessing there is. It goes both ways.
     Sometimes I would get a glimpse of the idea that being partly closed to begin with was causing much of the pain; if I had been truly wide open all might have been still, like the depths in the middle of the sea. It is said that an enlightened mind enjoys this kind of stillness. But the presence of some incomplete opening and constriction at the beginning was causing the feelings to emerge in a pressurized gush like water from an opened fire hydrant. Even so, I still think an enlightened being could endure much greater intensity than I did, possibly infinite intensity. 
     We put up walls to protect our weakness, but the walls reinforce the weakness; the weakness itself is protected and reinforced. Perhaps if I could have held out and continued saying Yes to the intensity gushing through my chest I would have become enlightened that night...but I was afraid.
     Later on, after the experience had waned and I was able to reflect a little more calmly, I considered the possibility that classical Theravada Buddhism is a system that systematically reduces suffering to zero, but that this other method I had glimpsed was a way of attaining enlightenment in which one increases painfully intense experience until it reaches infinity---which is purified and transmuted through totally accepting it, through saying Yes to it and really, really meaning it. The first method is ultimately easier, and saves "oneself"; however, it is not a realistic method for most people in the West, as most of us are unwilling to follow the method---renouncing the world, being homeless, having no money, greatly restraining our conduct, gradually cultivating refined contemplative states, etc. The other method is more difficult and painful, and requires a very strong heart, but not only saves "oneself" but can also save the world. It involves an acceptance and transmutation of all the suffering in the world through compassion. It does not require renunciation of the world, but whole-hearted acceptance of it. The experience was a difficult trial for me, partly because I've been following the very ancient Indian "reduction to zero" method for many years, for most of my life actually. Ultimately they both wind up at the same state, however, since absolute zero and absolute infinity cannot really be differentiated; they are opposite ends of a spectrum bent into a circle so that the extremes meet. But the two ways follow virtually opposite means.
     If the world is to avert the destruction threatening it by spiritual bankruptcy, selfishness, overpopulation, pollution, disruption of nature, war, new diseases, and so on I feel it will be by this stereotypically feminine approach of compassionately feeling everyone's suffering as well as our own. If we can't accomplish this, then those of us who are able may save ourselves by escaping from the conflagration, with every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Heart of Compassion

     A woman progresses from love to prayer; a man progresses from prayer to love. (—old saying)

     Theravada Buddhism, great as it is, is not a predominantly heart-oriented system. This is largely because it arose in a male-dominated culture, and was developed almost entirely by philosophically (more than religiously) oriented men. At first, by very tough and strong ascetic men with no women in their lives. There is some considerable mention of love and compassion in the texts, for example in the famous Metta Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta; however, loving kindness (mettā) and compassion (karuna) are considered to be less advanced and of less value than neutral equanimity (upekkhā), and other forms of love such as fondness (pema) and affection (sneha) are considered to be positively unwholesome forms of clinging. Also, the sharing of love and compassion is usually described in a generalized and abstract manner: instead of singling out and attending to one person in need of love, the meditator-monk universally beams loving kindness disinterestedly to all beings, to all categories of beings, in all directions systematically. Furthermore, the instructions for sending this love are reduced to standardized formulas designed for easy memorization, essentially drying the life and inspiration out of them. To top it all off, opportunities for intense, real compassion for another being are limited, as the Pali texts encourage monks to be recluses—"Go alone like the horn of the rhinoceros"—and intimacy with anyone aside from other philosophical recluses is discouraged, especially intimacy with the stereotypically more heart-oriented half of the human race, i.e. females. "Beware of the monster with two soft horns on its chest," and so on. This is certainly not to say that Theravada is emotionally dead; and modern developments of it are certainly warmer and friendlier (largely due to feminine influence); but the ancient tradition has a rather dim view of emotion and glorifies the intellect, the supreme example of this orientation being the Abhidhamma philosophy which, like Science also nowadays, attempts to comprehend all reality by systematically thinking about it. 
     In addition to all this, although I have a natural adoration for trees, animals, starry skies, and beautiful women, I personally have rather shallow emotions and have told people for years that I have a "heart of wood." Of the ten perfections (pārami), I would tell my friends that mettā, loving kindness, was my least perfected one. I was apparently born like this, and so I accepted it as a pretty much unavoidable character trait, like a lack of musical talent or a dislike for black licorice. And then I went out and lived as a cave-dwelling Buddhist hermit for many years.
     So it should have been no surprise that after returning to the USA and interacting with American laypeople who are not inclined simply to worship me, many of these people being heart-oriented "monsters" with two soft horns on their chest, I began occasionally receiving feedback to the effect that I lack care and compassion for others. I do have consideration and some sensitivity, but I was informed that this is not enough—I should be more "heart-opened." This issue has caused my heart a fair amount of turmoil.
     Sometimes what would happen is like this: A person would be very unhappy about something in life, and with my Buddhist training in observing and not identifying with mental states I would try gently to advise them that it is unnecessary to be unhappy, that in each moment we have a choice…the result often being that the person would become more vehemently unhappy, seemingly insisting on their misery. It is still something I cannot relate to very well. If someone tells me a philosophical truth that I can't deny, then it has an effect; but people living in and of the world, bless their hearts, can reject philosophical truths pretty easily.
     People say that if someone is very unhappy, they need a compassionate hug much more than they need philosophizing or to be told to "snap out of it." With most people I realize that this is right, and I'm developing more discernment with regard to whether the person is waking up or still relatively lost in the dream of the world. Most people don't want to be told that their misery is a matter of choice in each moment, especially when they are in the thick of it.
     On the other hand, I keep remembering a television documentary that I saw many years ago about a dog psychologist. He was explaining to a client's owner why the client was so afraid of heights, and seemed to be increasingly afraid of them with time. He pointed out that when the dog would act afraid its owner would comfort it with petting and cuddles and sweet words. The dog learned that if it was afraid it would be rewarded, and thus the fear was reinforced and entrenched. I think this principle may apply to humans also, at least in some cases.
     In the Buddhist texts there is little if any mention of hugging. A monk who is having troubles may be treated gently by the others, and will probably receive an exhortation of some sort, but then again he may be left alone or even treated harshly. The harshness is particularly graphic in Zen Buddhism. A Zen monk might have the misery beaten out of him, or even beaten into him. There is a famous story, for example, of the great monk Rinzai when he was still a student of the master Ōbaku. Whenever he would ask the master for instruction in Dharma, Ōbaku would drive him away with a beating. Finally Rinzai left and went to a different master, Taigu. When Rinzai told Taigu of Ōbaku's beatings and asked what he had done to deserve them, Taigu responded saying, "Ōbaku has been striving for your sake with such grandmotherly kindness. How can you ask where you are at fault?" At this Rinzai suddenly became enlightened, and he duly returned to Ōbaku. In later years Rinzai became a great master himself and the founder of one of the two main branches of Zen in Japan. And incidentally, almost every story I have read about Rinzai involves him hitting somebody. 
     Although a system like Hinduism may teach a gradual evolution into total, full-blown sainthood, with perfection of heart and head in harmonious balance, Buddhism tends to see this more as optional, putting somewhat more emphasis on simply letting go of Samsara regardless of what stage of development one is at. Instead of necessarily reaching the lofty summit of spiritual evolution, one may bail out of the system sideways, so to speak. At least this is seen as a possible option, and one involving less time and effort, yet still arriving at Nirvana just the same. And so I am still not entirely convinced of the absolute necessity of being heart-opened for the sake of becoming enlightened.
     Even so, people here whose advice I respect, most of them women, assure me that a compassionate hug is still of inestimable value, despite the possibility that in some way it might reward and reinforce someone's unhappiness. I suppose it is not the hug itself but the love that is really essential. To have someone accept you totally, even in your misery, to have them see divinity and perfection in you even when you are at your worst, may have incredible transformative power for both of you. To have someone open-heartedly believe in you, no matter what, is so uplifting and empowering that its value is beyond words. Cultivating a relationship like this with another person would be a true spiritual union; and cultivating relationships like this with all life would result in a profound transformation of this earth.
     Also, compassion may allow us to reach another person, to make contact. If we can feel what they are feeling we can arrive at the place where they are at, so to speak, and perhaps even gently lead them away from there, if appropriate. But without feeling what they feel trying to serve them may seem more like calling to them from the other side of a chasm, increasing their sense of helplessness and isolation. (This is one reason why laypeople often can be helped by other laypeople better than by monks—cloistered monks can't relate so well to the miseries of life in "the world.")
     Of course, the ultimate ideal is the transcendence of all boundaries.
     Yet is compassion, true compassion, something that can be deliberately cultivated? It doesn't really come from the self. It is a connection between two beings or a union of them into something higher, not something the two beings deliberately create. Perhaps the best we can do is to consider the possibility of this state, and the sublime beauty of it, and to be as open and available to it as we can manage. If we can just consciously relax and let our walls down we may find that it's already here.
     Finally, I ask you women reading this to please have mercy on us men and do not close your hearts to us, even if we happen to be exasperating heart retards.

     (I make no claims to be an authority on compassion, obviously, so feedback would be very welcome. Let's all just do our best.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

On the 500-Year Lifespan of Buddhism

     There is a very politically incorrect story in the Pali Buddhist texts, in the tenth chapter of the Vinaya Cullavagga, describing how the Buddha's aunt/stepmother Mahāpajāpati Gotamī approaches the Buddha and asks him for permission to become the first ordained Buddhist nun (bhikkhunī). She asks three times. The Buddha, apparently considering this to be a bad idea, sternly refuses all three times. Mahāpajāpati Gotamī goes away weeping. Later she begins following the Buddha and standing outside his door with dust on her body and tears on her face, grieving because women are not allowed by the Buddha to be ordained as nuns. The Buddha's cousin and faithful attendant, the venerable Ānanda Gotama, who in the texts is often portrayed as having a tender spot in his heart for women, then remonstrates with the Buddha on Mahāpajāpati Gotamī's behalf. After being sternly refused like Mahāpajāpati was, he employs persuasive arguments that the Buddha cannot deny, for example that women are just as capable of attaining enlightenment as men are. Finally the Buddha relents, but gives Ānanda a sort of "OK, but now you've done it" speech:
     If, Ānanda, women had not gone forth from the home into homelessness in the Way and Discipline made known by the Tathāgata, then the Holy Life would last a long time; the true Way would last for a thousand years. But since, Ānanda, women have gone forth from the home into homelessness in the Way and Discipline made known by the Tathāgata, now, Ānanda, the Holy Life will not last for a long time; now, Ānanda, the true Way will last for only five hundred years.
     The purpose of this article is not to discuss the controversial issue of the recent attempted revival of the Order of Theravada Buddhist nuns. I've already written some of my ideas on that subject in a previous blog post ("The New Bhikkhunis," July 1, 2012). The main purpose of this article is to address the strange prophecy made by the Buddha in the above text, that Buddhism would survive for only 500 years---not 500 years from now, mind you, but 500 years from the time of the Buddha; and if that is the case, then Buddhism should have died out some 2000 years ago. There are a number of possible explanations for this prophecy, and I will consider some of the most obvious ones.

  1. The commentarial explanation. According to the medieval commentaries, which happen to represent the official "party line" of orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition, when the Buddha said that Saddhamma would survive for five hundred years what he really meant was that Saddhamma would survive for five thousand years. As far as I know, the commentator made no serious attempt to explain why the Buddha would say 500 if he really meant 5000. (This would be a rather misleading way of speaking to the venerable Ānanda, who of course would have no commentary to refer to for cases when the Buddha says X when he really means Y---the commentaries are indispensable for pointing out such cases.) This explanation may seem rather unlikely to Western Buddhists, but it is accepted without question by most Burmese Buddhists, for example, including most Burmese scholar-sayadaws. No doubt the commentator was faced with the dilemma of an old text which could not be doubted saying something which could not be believed, as the commentary was compiled and edited more than 500 years after the time of the Buddha. Theravadin tradition goes further with the legend of the 5000-year reign of the true Dhamma: at the end of this period all the relics of the Buddha enshrined in pagodas, etc., throughout heaven and earth will leave their places and assemble in midair over the site at Bodh Gaya where the Buddha first realized enlightenment, will assume the form of the Buddha, will perform the "twin miracle" of spraying water and fire simultaneously, and will deliver a final sermon---at the end of which the dispensation of Gotama Buddha will be at an end. The dispensation of Gotama Buddha will end with this sermon because no human will be present to hear it and be inspired by it---only gods and goddesses will attend. Thousands of years later another Buddha, Metteyya, will rediscover Dhamma and set the wheel rolling again.
  2. The Buddha didn't really say it. This explanation would probably be the preferred choice for most skeptical Western Buddhists, and I must admit I prefer it also, although the notion that the scriptures are not 100% authentic and reliable is unthinkable for millions of faithful Asians, plus a fair amount of Western fundamentalists. One plausible theory is that the Order of nuns was not very popular with many of the monks in very ancient times, nor very well established, so the "prophecy" was added at an early Great Council as a moral lesson of some kind. If this theory is correct, then it is interesting that ancient Buddhist monks were so modest about the future popularity of the Buddhist system.
  3. The Buddha did really say it, but was mistaken. This one also is a non-starter for millions of faithful Asians, plus a fairer amount of Westerners than with the previous one. The idea that the Buddha was omniscient at least to the point of knowing anything he wanted to know is accepted by most Buddhists; that he could say what is not true, deliberately or accidentally, is considered an impossibility. However, as I've pointed out before, there is evidence in the Pali texts themselves that enlightened beings, and even the Buddha himself, can occasionally be mistaken. And of course there is plenty of evidence from other traditions that great sages can make great errors in their predictions. Probably the most famous is the apparent belief of Jesus of Nazareth that the world would come to an end, or at least Judgement Day would come, very soon, probably within a few decades of his own time. The belief that the End is Near has been assumed as gospel truth by Christians ever since. It does not necessarily imply a logical contradiction for a fully enlightened being to say something that isn't empirically true; it may be that full enlightenment involves an awareness of Ultimate Truth that is not entirely relevant to the conventionally true mass delusion of Samsara. (See my post "Buddhism Meets Skepticism, July 28, 2012, for a slightly more detailed discussion of these points.) Even so, it does strike me as rather unlikely that the Buddha would predict that the existence of nuns would shorten the lifespan of Buddhism to only 500 years. It just doesn't sound convincing for some reason.
  4. The Buddha did really say it, and was right. This strikes me as the most intriguing of the possible explanations---that the true Way, the Saddhamma, really did last only 500 years, and that what we've been calling Buddhism ever since has been some kind of cheap imitation. The Theravadins might derive some grim satisfaction from the idea that Mahayana arose about 500 years after the time of the Buddha, but still it would seem that virtually all Buddhists would prefer to believe that they themselves are following the "real deal" and not some pale shadow of the truth. (Incidentally, at least one Mahayana tradition has its own interpretation of the case---that there would be five 500-year periods of Buddhism: the first period being a time of genuine, pure Dharma; the second being a time of lesser purity but still strong practice; the third mainly being strong in Buddhist scholarship; the fourth degenerating into more superficial levels of practice and learning, and the fifth being characterized mainly by debate and dissension. If this is the case then we are at or very near the end of the last period.) Even if this fourth explanation were true, that real Buddhism no longer exists, it would not necessarily mean that people calling themselves Buddhists could not become liberated at all, as Buddhism does not necessarily have a monopoly on liberation. It would just mean that they were not attaining this in the way that Gotama Buddha advised. Interestingly, a plausible variation on this theme has been stated by the not particularly Buddhist spiritual teacher Paul Lowe: according to him (and I do not know how he arrived at this idea), for 500 years after the time of the Buddha there was an unbroken lineage of enlightened teachers and disciples; that is, there was always at least one teacher with at least one enlightened disciple, with this lineage continuing all the way back to the Buddha himself. After 500 years the lineage was broken, although since then there have been other enlightened lineages arising and passing away. Possibly the amazing profusion of great Zen masters in medieval China would represent such a later resurgence of liberating wisdom. I could only begin to guess at what lineages, if any, are going strong nowadays. Among the Tibetans maybe? Perhaps some obscure Theravadin forest tradition?
     This issue of the strange prophecy leads to the interesting either/or dichotomy of Eastern and Western Theravada Buddhism: the Eastern Buddhists being psychologically compelled to accept it all, and the Western Buddhists casually dismissing any parts they don't want to believe. Another rather bizarre example of the former extreme is a case I came upon in Burma. There was a great and brilliant scholar-monk named Mingun Tipiakadhara Sayadaw, who I was told was in the Guinness Book of World Records for his prodigious memory: he had memorized by heart the entire 40-volume edition of the Pali Tipiaka, plus several other works like commentaries and Pali grammars. He knew the Pali texts inside and out, and had received a long list of ecclesiastical titles for his scholarship. So he well knew that, according to these texts, the Buddha was tall, but not phenomenally so; people would often meet the Buddha and mistake him for an ordinary monk, for example. But, the commentarial tradition asserts that Gotama Buddha was 4 1/2 times the height of an ordinary person, i.e. approximately 25 feet (8 meters) tall. Being exceedingly devout, the venerable sayadaw was not able to doubt even the commentarial tradition; consequently, also being brilliant, he came up with the following way of reconciling the data: According to him, people were more honest and virtuous in the Buddha's time than they are nowadays. Because of this, the gods loved humanity more. Thus the gods in charge of influencing the weather caused the rain and sun to occur more seasonably, yielding greater benefit to the crops in farmers' fields. The more greatly benefited crops were more nutritious...the result being that in the Buddha's time everybody was much larger than they are today, averaging somewhere around 20 feet in height. 
     At the other extreme, many Buddhists of the West reject not only talking animal stories, the theory of a flat earth floating on water, etc., but even such fundamental principles of Dhamma as the value of seeking out and examining unpleasantness, No Self, or karma conditioning our reality. Dhamma can thereby become something completely integrated into worldly, materialistic Western culture. The result can be not only a pale shadow of Dhamma, but a pale shadow of a dismembered fragment of it.
     Consequently, some Middle Way between unquestioning dogmatism and casual rejection of the parts we don't like may be in order---the consideration of Dhamma not in terms of acceptance or rejection, belief or disbelief, but in terms of "I don't know. I'll consider it." So long as we adjust the box to fit Buddhism, as Easterners tend to do, or adjust Buddhism to fit the box, as Westerners tend to do, we are still stuck in the box of our own limitations, our own limited beliefs. The point is to get out of the box; and outside of the box is "I don't know." By accepting this universal "I don't know" we attain what the ancient philosophers called ataraxia, the peace of mind which comes from suspension of judgement. I think in Christianity it's called "the peace that passeth all understanding." But we can still use the box to keep our junk in.        

(Sunset, with Giant Buddha)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Sample of Modern Burmese Buddhist Poetry

     Several years ago in Rangoon I came across a little yellow booklet which poetically describes a Burmese man's experiences as a newly ordained monk (probably a temporary one) at a monastery/meditation center in Burma, alias Myanmar. The booklet appeared to be privately printed and published, and had no copyright information that I can remember. What it contained moved and inspired me, because it conveys the feel of being a newly ordained monk---the idealism, the gratitude, the reverence for the profundity of Dhamma---better than anything else I have ever read. Even the nervousness of the postulant waiting outside the congregation hall before his ordination ceremony is suggested by the verse beginning "jasmine and gardenia drench the walk," and the very next verse contains a poetic rendering of part of the upasampadā kammavācā, the formal act of ordination, chanted in Pali at the creation of every bhikkhu since ancient times. I'm not nearly so starry-eyed as I was at my ordination, although I feel that I am wiser and more content nowadays. Still, I liked the little booklet and transcribed its contents into a notebook, and I think it's good enough to share with you who are reading this.
     I don't know who U Win Pe is, although, like very many Burmese laypeople, he obviously knows his Buddhism: the following lines are embellished with plenty of philosophical allusions and symbols that a beginner in Dhamma may not notice. I don't know who he is, but I am grateful to him. Here is what he wrote:

The Yellow Robe: A Travel Diary
by U Win Pe

     Self did not make me, nor self nor any other. Yet the notion of Self or self or some other made me. And with a body and mind caused this body and mind which will cause another body and mind so long as there remains the notion.
                                        from the ambulatory I can see
                                             beyond the tops of mango
                                                  doorian and mangosteen
                                                       the shoulder of a hill
                                   in the morning it is dim with ground mist
                                        in the afternoon it is blurred with haze

                                        walking beside the jasmine bush
                                                  the mynahs do not heed me
                                   they cluck and whistle and flutter and hop
                                             and one flying in low from somewhere
                                                  alights with a whirr of wings

                                             tea-dust swirl in the cup
                                        dark brown specks in amber liquid
                                             slowly drop to the bottom
                                                  there they stay
     Travelling the round of births of Samsara. Treading the Eightfold Path. Winning the Stream. Metaphors of Wayfaring. Incessant movement, there is no standing still. For one is not doing nothing at any time, one is always doing. And to do is to impel. So one goes -- going on or getting out.

                                   jasmine and gardenia drench the walk
                                        with their delicate flavours
                                   I take 31 steps up this way
                                        and 31 steps down that way
                                   and 31 steps this way again

                                   let the assembly, revered brothers, hear me
                                        to whatever venerable it seems good
                                             let him remain silent
                                        to whomsoever it does not seem good
                                                  let him speak
                                             to the assembly it seems good
                                                  silent it remains
                                                       take it so

                                                            head shaven
                                   carrying only the eight requisites
                                        the heavy robe somehow seems light
                                             as I take the first steps slowly
                                                  from the Ordination Hall
                                                       onto the path

                                   salted boiled peas and plain hot tea
                                        to help this body get out of
                                   the low round table seating five
                                        body, sensation, and so on
                                   a small cloud passes quickly across
                                        the sky in the refectory window

                                        a round face in an aged head
                                   a low voice beneath soft words
                                        standing beside the coconut palm
                                             talking of pain and the end of pain

     The life lived without awareness is the tainted life: tainted with wanting, tainted with not wanting, tainted with not knowing about the notion of Self and self. Awareness should be of each doing every moment. Mindfulness is the watching and warding of awareness.

                                        4a.m. the stream of breath
                                             216 cycles per minute
                                   in-breathing, out-breathing, in-breathing
                                             watching the touch
                                        aware of sensation as it is
                                             airflow at the nostril tip

                                        the morning is noisy with birdtalk
                                   koels, jays, mynahs, sparrows, bulbuls
                                        I follow each song and twitter
                                   not koel shout, jay song, sparrow twitter
                                        but each note as it falls upon my ear

                                        the wind rises in the afternoon
                                   it ruffles the topmost branches of
                                                  the doorian
                                        then it shakes it thoroughly
                                   raises a flurry in the almond tree
                                        flutters the window curtain
                                                  and comes to me

                                             9p.m. mindful of sensation
                                   when sensation is full with mind
                                        and mind is full with sensation
                                   the bright green world beneath the waves
                                                  at Set-se beach
                                   the sea is permeated with one taste

     Colours seen with the eyes closed are brighter than colours seen with open eyes. Brighter than these are the colours seen when the mind is brought to a point. But colours, lights, and images are distractions.

                                        mango tree, sky, monastery wall
                                             sun brings out the green
                                                  the blue, the white
                                        and sunlight all bright yellow
                                   on monk's robe hanging out to dry

                                   lights are a curtain hiding Light
                                        lights are a turn-off to delight
                                             lights are bright colours
                                                  not hot but cool
                                        lights are a pleasant quiet pool
                                   lights do not light the way to ardour
                                        lights are a curtain hiding Light

     The end of the world is not reached by travelling. Within this fathom-length body with its sense-impressions, thoughts and pains, is the world, the making of the world, the ceasing and the way to the ceasing.

                                             inside this cell
                                        sleeping, sitting, walking
                                        reading, thinking, praying
                                             better to look
                                             inside this body

                                   several fields west of the monastery wall
                                        one under paddy, one under melon
                                                       one under peas
                                   a speckled bull grazes there during the day
                                        this body my grazing-ground

                                        it goes from field to field
                                             feeding indiscriminately
                                             on straw, duckwort, poisonweed
                                             browsing here or lying there
                                   chased by men with sticks in the field beside the road
                                   pelted by boys with stones in the water-meadow
                                        rope it with in- and out-breathing
                                             tie it to the hitch-post pain

     No pain, no gain. This banal expression describes what is so but we would take it metaphorically. There is no path that has no pain. Pain is the stumbling-block or the stepping-stone.

                                             the aching inner muscle of the thigh is pain
                                   the thin thread of sharpness along the bone is pain
                                             the burning hands is pain
                                   pain is the general tone of discomfort
                                                       only pain is
                                   or that which we have named pain

                                   it is not the hardness of the floor plank
                                        which hurts
                                   it is the softness of my foot
                                        pain is not in the wind
                                   it is in the bones the bands
                                        pain is in the mind

                                   discomfort from sitting too long on the floor
                                        the bother of setting out in the sun
                                             to retrieve the robe
                                        vexation from holding the book too long
                                   displeasure from thinking about the task to be done
                                        pain from the meditation exercise
                                        unease is the common element

     We err by naming that which is itself. We err by clothing the world in concepts. Knowing happens in time present and not by reaching before and after. Knowing happens in its own way.

                                   I say this robe this mat this razor
                                        this alms bowl
                                   this water-strainer this needle and thread
                                        this over-robe
                                   but pain is

                                   a jay sits daily on the almond tree
                                        it whistles several phrases
                                   whom is it telling all that to
                                   how to watch the pain in my ankle
                                        as it is without saying

                                   in present pain is birdsong and jasmine
                                   in present pain is the cup of hot tea
                                   in present pain is the wind in the afternoon
                                   in present pain is the shoulder of the hill
                                   in present pain is the path through the orchard
                                   in present pain the cup of tea is smashed

                                        drawing water
                                   the well is wide and shallow
                                   I draw a bucketful and put it in the tub
                                   another bucketful and put it in the tub
                                        14 buckets and the tub is filled
                                        getting to know is not filling a tub

     Joy does not come through pleasure, joy comes through pain. Agitation accompanies pleasure. The way to stillness accompanies pain. The end of pleasure is dissatisfaction. The end of pain is joy. Then comes whatever has to come in its own way.

                                        a set of sharp knives
                                   turning and turning in the ball
                                             of my ankle five days now
                                        it went away this morning

                                        this flesh hung on these bones
                                             and knit with nerves
                                        I have seen shredded
                                             and dropping
                                        like great cliffs falling

                                        flesh is not solid
                                        sunbursts burn at every pore
                                             no arms no thighs no legs
                                        only the play of electricity
                                             vanishing in small flashes

                                             the monk on my left
                                        the coming does not make him glad
                                                  is the monk on my right
                                        the going does not make him sad
                                        gruel is food, boiled peas is food
                                                  hot tea is food
                                             pain comes and goes, joy comes and goes
                                        sun in the morning, stars and moon at night

                                        novices planting a jackfruit tree
                                             9 years before the first fruit
                                        they laugh and quarrel and banter
                                   to them the world is trees and food and walking
                                        the world is trees and food and walking

     One sets out to arrive. One fares as one should. Arrival is in accordance with its own nature and in its own way. One sets out and goes on faring.

                                             not a garden of roses and junipers
                                                  nor a valley of lilies
                                             not a palace with cool drinks in the windows
                                                  nor a moon and a finger pointing
                                                  not the path through an orchard
                                                       to the shoulder of a hill
                                                  but a journey across hot sands
                                                            to a river

                                             a small cloud moves in the southern sky
                                   the morning breeze carries a wetness of river water
                                                       namo Buddhassa