Friday, October 26, 2012

Conscious Explosions

     The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. (William Blake, a.k.a. the Devil)

     I remember once trying to tell a Burmese monk, an intelligent, veteran meditator, that I have personal experience with exploding in rage mindfully. He didn't believe me, and was rather amused by the very idea of it. The standard attitude on the subject of mindfulness is that if one is mindful, one is calm. But it doesn't always work that way.
     My first memorable flash of mindfulness during a grand mal conniption occurred many years ago when I was a junior monk living on a flat rock under a tree in Mon State, in southeast Burma. The forest I was inhabiting was in the process of being raped to death by village woodcutters---the big trees were cut for lumber, the smaller trees were cut for firewood, and the underbrush was browsed by cattle or else simply burned to get it out of the way---and I was still unused to Third World Asia's general lack of feeling for nature conservation. (Fortunately the attitude seems to be changing nowadays.) Anyway, one day when I returned to the flat rock after almsround I found a village woodcutter chopping down a tree within plain sight of my resting place. I called out to him not to cut wood there, and he replied, "I'm cutting dry wood!" and continued chopping. It may be that the tree he was engaged in cutting down was dead, but there were already three green sapling trees lying on my path, and I was in no mood to quibble. So I called again, a little louder, "Don't cut wood here!" Again he responded with "I'm cutting dry wood!" and kept chopping. I tried a third time, more angrily, with essentially the same result. So then I exploded. I bellowed at him "Don't cut wood here! Go away!" and while doing this I noticed with some surprise that my left arm automatically flung itself forward and was violently brandishing a pointed finger in his direction. At the same time that I was yelling in anger at this guy I was also intrigued that my arm was gesticulating like it was---there was a feeling of, "Hmmm, this is interesting, I wasn't intending to do that." It's all the more remarkable because I really was enraged; in fact immediately after yelling at him I began heatedly looking around for a rock or a stick to attack him with if he didn't clear out, completely careless of the obvious facts that I was a monk, that it was not my forest, and that he was packing a machete. It's ironic that I remember having shouted in anger at a fellow human being (excepting one case as a college student when I was stinking drunk) only after being ordained as a Buddhist monk and moving to Burma.
     The second memorable time was more profound. This was about twelve years ago, when I was living in a large cave at the edge of a national park in northwest Burma. I had been in the practice of spending my hot seasons there, as it was in the hills and thus a little cooler than the blazing wastelands of Burma's central plain, where I usually lived. I had expressed to my supporters there, simple-hearted hillbilly types, that I was considering spending a rainy season there, and they had been enthusiastic, but had warned me, "There's big rain here during the rainy season." So twelve years ago I spent a rainy season there expecting lots of rain and probably some coolness along with it…and it was a miserable drought. Hardly any rain, and very hot and very humid---in fact it was more uncomfortably hot than the hot season had been. After weeks of dripping with sweat, completely unable to be comfortable, and, worst of all perhaps, seething inwardly over the supposed "big rain" that should be falling but wasn't, I snapped. I was pacing back and forth in the cave one night (a multitude of large wasp nests rendered pacing during the day very dicey), silently raging. I wanted to cry, or howl, or punch a wall, or beat my head against something. I just couldn't stand it any more. Then, suddenly, there was a shift of consciousness. It was as though the intensity of my feelings had become so extreme as to go right off the scale. I found I was experiencing two levels of consciousness simultaneously: the weird, absurd, raging monk was still madly pacing back and forth like a caged leopard, at the verge of tears, while another level simply watched. It was dispassionately watching wild nature taking its course, like looking upon a stormy sea, without any emotional involvement. It calmly, and very wakefully, observed. It was clearly a higher level of consciousness than the raging one; and deep down I knew that this is present always, but that usually we're so preoccupied with thoughts and feelings that we do not notice. We're too much identified with our ordinary perceptual limitations.
     Another memorable time was a few years later, in a different cave in the northwest of Burma. This place was in the lowlands, and the only reason I was able to live in such a furnace of a place was the presence of the cave in which I spent most of the days of the long hot seasons. Again the monsoon was a miserable drought, and again I was at wit's end, unable to stop sweating or experience the relief of some comfort. I was in the cave one blazing sunny day and something (I don't remember what) caused me to explode in a solitary rage, cursing and slamming things. Then, again, this higher level of consciousness became manifest. I continued raging, but it seemed as though I were an actor merely playing the role of someone throwing a conniption. At one level I was still genuinely, sincerely throwing a fit, while at the other it was like I was an actor playing King Lear on a stage: he is really living his part, and feeling the betrayal of his daughters as he wails at the stormy sky and goes mad with grief; yet at the same time he's exulting that he's actually playing Lear on stage(!), and is aware of his orientation to the audience, his center of balance, the amount of slobber in his mouth, and the fact that the fellow playing Albany flubbed his lines a few minutes previously. My rage, although not abating in intensity, was suddenly a kind of superficial appearance. 
     Such events have continued to occur from time to time, although I'm really not a very angry person by nature. There were times when I began to wonder if I were becoming schizophrenic, as I had read that this illness has as a symptom the division of the mind into two parts like this; but as far as I can tell I am relatively sane. Relatively. This "two level" consciousness has arisen not only with rage, but with other feelings too.
     Yet anger is a relatively easy state to be mindful of if we are not habitually angry and usually are relatively lucid. Then arising anger is like police lights suddenly flashing and sirens blaring in the mind. It is very noticeable, and easy to attend to. It may be, for some, easier to note than the breathing process. I'm not recommending tantrums as a spiritual practice, however; but if one does arise one may have a golden opportunity for the arising of insight also. As the Christian saying goes, Man's extremity is God's opportunity. 
     The seeming paradox of a higher level of consciousness arising simultaneously with a fit of anger has helped me to reconsider the common Theravadin belief that enlightenment necessarily springs from a purified mind. I would guess that we don't become enlightened by purifying our mental states so much as by detaching and disidentifying from them. No matter how many times we sweep the floor, there will still be some dust remaining; even so, no matter how much we purify our vision, there may still be some dust remaining in our eyes. As some Western spiritual teachers say nowadays, it may simply be the inevitable nature of the thinking, feeling mind to be messed up.
     I offer an analogy: Let us say that consciousness is like water, and that mental states (like perceptions and feelings) are like waves on the surface of that water. Water represents the essence of the mind, and waves signify the form that the mind assumes. As it turns out, almost everybody is stuck at the level of waves, and thus is oblivious to the formless essence of water. It's this wave versus that wave; I like this wave, but hate that one; this wave is good, but that wave is bad; this wave should be here, but that one shouldn't; and so on. We live in a world of form without essence. So the purpose of so-called tranquility meditation (samatha) in Buddhist practice is to calm the waves enough that we are not distracted by them and can thereby notice the formless essence of water that has been there all the time. It is much easier not to identify with waves if there are no obvious waves to be had. This realization of water, using the terms of the analogy, is called insight (vipassana). Some people may need a virtual flat calm before the spell of the waves is broken, while others may be able to have their insight in rather choppy seas. For these others tranquility meditation is less of a necessity. In this way spiritual practice consists of calming the waves of the mind (through morality, simplicity, meditation, etc.) enough that its true essence may be realized.
     The real trick is to continue seeing the water essentially as water even after the waves return, even if there happens to be a raging stormy sea. This mindfulness of the essential nature of perceptual waves is what the Zen Buddhists call "Zen in the marketplace," and say that it is much more valuable than Zen in the meditation hall. Thus the temple may resound with the shouts of the Zen master and blows from his stick may fall like rain, yet (so they say) the master's mind abides in stillness. 
     And so, if you are angry, be with the anger, and if you are peaceful, be with the peace.

1. The Raging of the Stormy Sea
2. Water
3. The Raging of the Stormy Sea and Water
4. Neither the Raging of the Stormy Sea nor Water
5. ?



Saturday, October 20, 2012

Disentangling Ancient India from Buddhism

     India ceased being a Buddhist country after centuries of rivalry with unfriendly Brahmins, with the final collapse evidently being caused by Turkic invasions during the middle ages, in which the conquering invaders sacked and destroyed monasteries, shrines, and Buddhist universities. The Hindus, being somewhat less pacifistic than the Buddhists in those days, were more inclined to fight back against the Muslims and often won, but Buddhism was almost completely wiped out. The majority of Buddhists who were not killed either converted to another religious system or fled to nearby Buddhist countries like Tibet and Burma. However, all schools of Buddhism that have not abandoned the historical Gotama Buddha are still deeply conditioned by ancient Indian culture.
     It is sometimes said that the Buddha was a Hindu, and that Buddhism was essentially a reform movement of Hinduism, much as Jesus, a devout Jew, began a reform movement of Judaism. From a historical point of view this is not a very accurate statement however, partly because it is anachronistic; Hinduism as it exists today simply did not exist in the Buddha's time. The Brahmanism that was the prevalent religion in Vedic Indian culture in many ways more closely resembled the paganism of ancient Greece than it does modern Indian religion: it was a relatively world-oriented system in which men sacrificed animals to the gods for the purpose of receiving worldly benefits such as increased livestock, more sons, and victory over enemies. Even a few of the gods were shared with the Greeks; for example the Rig Veda mentions a sky god named Dyaus Pitar, equivalent to the Greek Zeus Pater, the Roman Ju-piter, and Ziu or Tiu of the ancient Germans (in whose honor Tuesday is named). To say that the Buddha was a Hindu is somewhat like declaring that Jesus was a Muslim. The Muslims might accept that statement as true, since they consider Jesus to have been a genuine prophet of Allah; in a similar way, Hindus may consider the Buddha to have been a Hindu. The Hindu tradition that Buddha was an avatar of the god Vishnu further complicates the issue.
     But it would be inaccurate even to assert that the Buddha was a faithful member of the Brahmanistic Vedic religion, despite the fact that he participated in a clearly Vedic culture. Buddhism uses many Vedic terms and ideas, but it is more the product of an indigenous subculture than of Vedic tradition. I suppose this requires some explanation.
     Before the Indo-Aryan speakers of Vedic Sanskrit invaded in the second millennium BCE, northern India was dominated by what is called the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the five great prehistoric civilizations known to archeologists. It was apparently an intensely spiritual culture, although very different from what many modern people would associate with religion; the spirituality of the prehistoric Indus Valley evidently was characterized by atheism, materialism, and what may be called, for the sake of convenience, austere pessimism.
     It was atheistic for the simple reason that a God was not seen as the creator or lord of the cosmos. Much like modern science, the prehistoric Indus Valley "religion" emphasized impersonal Law as the governor of the Universe. Gods and goddesses apparently were acknowledged to exist, but, like the gods of the Greek and Roman Epicureans, they themselves were subject to this Law, and had relatively little influence over the destinies of human beings. They had their own lives to live, their own business to mind.
     It was materialistic in that physical matter was deemed ultimately real, not an illusion or the manifestation of some kind of Divine Thought, as later mystical traditions have seen it. It may be that even their philosophical equivalent of karma was seen as a material substance. 
     And it was "pessimistic" in that it saw this world as a bad place to be; existence here was considered to be, in plain language, icky, and something to be escaped from. A spiritual life was thus seen as a process of disentangling oneself from all defilements that keep our spirits burdened and weighed down on this plane of existence, and this generally involved yogic practice, including some rather extreme asceticism for those who were really dedicated.
     After the Indo-Aryans conquered the land many of the conquered people presumably continued following their ancient traditions. These traditions certainly affected the Vedic culture of the Buddha's time; for example the superhuman beings called yakkha in Pali may have originally been deities or nature spirits revered by the earlier inhabitants, which were granted a status lower than the Vedic gods but still respected (to be on the safe side) by the Sanskrit-speaking conquerors. More importantly, the aforementioned atheistic, materialistic, and pessimistic spiritual tradition was kept alive. It may have held a fascination for many, as it was of a deeper and more philosophical nature than the paganism practiced by the Vedic mainstream. It is likely that the yogic practices and many of the beliefs of the older system influenced the trend toward more unworldly spirituality among the Brahmins, culminating for example in the Upanishadic literature. Some of the older Upanishads probably existed in the time of the Buddha, although it is difficult to say how familiar the Buddha was with these still esoteric, even secret, texts. 
     In the Pali literature there is much mention of samaas and brāhmaṇas, "philosophers and priests," with the priests of course being the Brahmins, members of the priestly caste and intermediaries between men and the Vedic gods. The philosophers, on the other hand, were more a product of the older tradition. Possibly the purest representatives of this tradition nowadays would be Jainism, of which there are still a few million followers, and Sankhya, the primary philosophical basis of Yoga. The Buddha was not a Brahmin, and was apparently born and raised on the very outskirts of Brahmanistic culture. So it should be no surprise that Buddhism is more of an Indus Valley phenomenon than a Vedic one, even though the Buddha did translate his terms into the language of the mainstream.
     Thus Buddhism began with some basic, very ancient assumptions that most people can't relate to very well in the modern West. The absence of a supreme God looking over us, as well as a somewhat materialistic orientation, have been readily accepted; but the idea of the world being a place to escape from, and even more importantly the idea that it is escaped from through renunciation of society and rigorous, even ruthless austerity, are hardly likely to be appreciated by a large percentage of Westerners any time in the foreseeable future---unless some huge crisis turns our view of the world upside down, which, I suppose, is possible.
     The prehistoric assumptions on which the Buddha-dhamma was largely based, and which were added to it even more as the philosophy developed, effective as they are for those who can relate to them and accept them, may ensure that Theravada Buddhism especially, which is the most conservative and Indian of the surviving sects, will never become more than a fringe movement in the West.
     This may be seen in the radical transformation Theravada has undergone upon its arrival here. Aside from a scattering of monasteries (following Asian traditions and being mainly supported by Asian communities), almost all that remains of Theravada after the migration is a few elementary meditation techniques, plus some philosophy for those who have the time for it. Even the traditional minimum requirements of the Three Refuges and Five Precepts are often ignored. This sort of degeneration of tradition, of practice, and of the results of practice may be inevitable if Dhamma remains so deeply conditioned by the ancient foreign culture in which it arose.
     Western scholars point out that the Pali texts are not reliable authorities on what the Buddha actually taught---the texts evolved over a period of centuries, and even the so-called "core texts" shared by all the ancient Indian schools evolved over the course of a century or so (and as the history of early Christianity shows, a great deal of change may occur in one century). Yet even if we could analyze the Pali Canon and determine with certainty what the Buddha really taught, which is a virtual impossibility, still we have this matter of ancient Indian assumptions taken as axiomatic, which modern Westerners do not consider to be self-evident at all, but which are thoroughly mixed up with essential Dhamma.
     That the Buddha apparently took for granted some of the assumptions of his culture, or subculture, does not mean that he was not enlightened; an investigation of the spiritual literature of the world shows that the greatest sages have gone along with their cultural conditioning, if only for the sake of convenience.
     But by this same token, if the people of the West are to be guided effectively in their spiritual seeking, they should be guided in a way that they can relate to and accept. Telling them that they should renounce the world, become wandering ascetics, and cultivate very deep and subtle contemplative states isn't likely to be very effective. True Dhamma is alive, and cannot be contained in words, especially in dogmatic words, and especially especially in the dogmatic words of an extinct foreign culture.
     So, the natural question is, how is Dhamma to be most effective in the West? How does one take what is essential to true Dhamma, disentangle it from ancient Indian culture (not to mention the culture of South Asia, whence Theravada has come to us), and inoculate it into a cultural system dominated by scientific materialism, consumerism, lukewarmness, self-importance, artificiality, and pervasive stress? 
     To give a very simple, basic, and obvious example of the issue: If the Buddha were alive today in the West it is hardly likely that he would have his most dedicated disciples dressed in yellow, brown, or orange robes. The original monk robes were just a shabbier version of what laypeople wore at the time. Nowadays they might be wearing secondhand grey sweatpants and a sweatshirt. 
     It also seems unlikely that he would set up multimillion-dollar luxury Dharma resorts.
     I suspect that wandering asceticism is pretty much out, but that the Western habit of avoiding discomfort and pandering to our own fussiness and weakness simply is not going to work either. Avoiding what we like may not catch on very well, but consistently trying to avoid what we dislike is bound to keep us asleep. It is mainly through emotional discomfort, not physical discomfort, that we see what our attachments are ("Attachment is the cause of all suffering"), and we can thus gain insight into how to transcend those attachments. I won't presume to prescribe what an effective Western Buddhism would be like here, but I feel that "emotional asceticism" would be part of it---looking at what makes us uncomfortable and not blaming whatever it is, but seeing the attachments, the preferences, the ego issues behind it that require protection and feeding to keep them alive. For this sort of practice, living a life full of unsettling, challenging interactions, possibly in a community of more or less like-minded people, may work better than meditating and chanting alone in a forest.
     Another very likely element of modern Dhamma would be a minimum of theory or dogma, with what little theory there is not insisted upon, but received as a working hypothesis. There would be no "Only this is true! Anything otherwise is wrong!" with regard to Buddhism, the secular world, or anything else. Another one, naturally, is being present in the present moment, being mindfully aware, which includes a non-judging awareness of arising mental states, including icky, negative ones. There would also probably be more emphasis on love. Whatever form (or formlessness) an effective Western Dhamma would have, it would have to include whatever it takes to jostle or jolt us out of the ruts of our habit-driven stupor. It may not conform to any of the recognized schools, however, and traditional Buddhists may not even recognize it as Dhamma.
     Despite the more psychological and less physical nature of a probably successful Western Dhamma, some physical austerity also is called for, if not for the sake of spiritual development, then for the sake of not ruining the world with our waste. A cooler house in winter, fewer luxuries, less travel, etc. may be a real necessity on a planet inhabited by more than 7,000,000,000 people, not to mention countless other beings sharing the space. In the Buddha's time there was no danger of the human race wrecking the earth's ecological balance and turning it into a desert, which may be one reason why solitary renunciation was the ideal; but now the idea of worldwide cooperation, harmony, and peace is pretty much mandatory. A feeling of us---not me, not us versus them---may be essential to the success of this. As the saying goes, we are all in the same boat. 

An image of Gotama Buddha before his enlightenment, 
practicing severe austerities

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Elephant

     In the Pali Udāna, the Book of Inspired Utterances, there is a discourse with the obscure name Pahamanānātitthiya Sutta, the First Discourse on Various Sectarians (Udāna 6:4). Although the name of this ancient sutta is relatively unknown even in Buddhist countries, it contains one of the most famous parables of all time, the Simile of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

     Thus have I heard: At one time the Blessed One was residing in Sāvatthī, in the Jeta Grove, at Anāthapiṇḍika's Park. Also at that time many philosophers, priests, and wanderers of various sects were staying in Sāvatthī, favoring various views, entertaining various beliefs, endorsing various opinions, dependent, living in dependence, upon various views.
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The world is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The world is not eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The world is finite. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The world is infinite. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The vital essence is the same as the body. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The vital essence is one thing, the body is another. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "A fully enlightened being exists after death. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "A fully enlightened being does not exist after death. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "A fully enlightened being does and does not exist after death. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "A fully enlightened being neither does nor does not exist after death. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     They, fallen to disputing and quarreling, deeply engaged in argument, kept stabbing each other with verbal daggers---"The Way is like this, the Way is not like that!" "The Way is not like that, the Way is like this!"
     Then a number of monks, having dressed in the morning time and having taken their alms bowls and outer robes, entered Sāvatthī for alms. Having gone for alms in Sāvatthī, after their meal, returning from almsround they approached the Blessed One. Having approached the Blessed One, and having paid respect, they sat down at one side. Sitting at one side those monks said this to the Blessed One: "At present, venerable sir, many philosophers, priests, and wanderers of various sects are staying in Sāvatthī, favoring various views, entertaining various beliefs, endorsing various opinions, dependent, living in dependence, upon various views. 
     "There are some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: 'The world is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong'…[repeat the entire list of various views]…They, fallen to disputing and quarreling, deeply engaged in argument, keep stabbing each other with verbal daggers---'The Way is like this, the Way is not like that!' 'The Way is not like that, the Way is like this!'"
     [The Buddha:] "It once happened, monks, that in this very city of Sāvatthī there was a certain king. Now, monks, that king called a certain manservant---'Come now good fellow manservant, however many there are in Sāvatthī who have been blind from birth, collect them all in one place.' 'As you say, Lord,' replied, monks, that manservant to the king, and however many there were in Sāvatthī who were born blind, he got all of them and then approached the king. Having approached him, he said this to the king: 'Lord, all those in Sāvatthī who were born blind have been collected together.' 'Well then my good man, show to those blind from birth an elephant.' 'As you say, Lord.' replied, monks, that manservant to the king, and he showed to those blind from birth an elephant.
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's head---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's ear---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's tusk---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's trunk---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's body---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's foot---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's thigh---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's tail---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the brushy tip of the elephant's tail---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "Then, monks, the king approached those who had been blind from birth. Having approached them, he said this to those blind from birth: 'You born blind, an elephant has been viewed by you?' 'As you say, Lord. An elephant has been viewed by us.' 'Then tell me, you born blind, what is an elephant like?'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's head had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a water pot.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's ear had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a winnowing tray.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's tusk had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a big peg.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's trunk had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a plowbeam.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's body had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a large storage bin.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's foot had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a column.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's thigh had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a big mortar.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's tail had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a pestle.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the brushy tip of the elephant's tail had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a broom.'
     "Saying, 'An elephant is like this, an elephant is not like that!' 'An elephant is not like that, an elephant is like this!' they punched each other with their fists. And with that, monks, the king was made glad.
     "Even so, monks, these wanderers of other sects are blind, eyeless; they do not know the Goal (attha), and do not know what is not the Goal. They do not know the Way (dhamma), and do not know what is not the Way. They, not knowing the Goal, not knowing what is not the Goal, not knowing the Way, not knowing what is not the Way, are fallen to disputing and quarreling, deeply engaged in argument, and keep stabbing each other with verbal daggers---'The Way is like this, the Way is not like that!' 'The Way is not like that, the Way is like this!'"
     Then the Blessed One, having comprehended this matter, on that occasion uttered this inspired utterance:

               It is known some philosophers and priests are attached with regard to these things,
               Fellows who see just a single side, take up a position, and contend.

     Although this parable is one of the most well known stories in all of Buddhist literature, familiar to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, the deep moral of the story is almost universally missed, again by both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The moral of the story, clearly, is that one-sided points of view do not comprehend the whole truth, and thus are not entirely correct and should not be clung to or depended upon. This sort of misguided adherence to a limited point of view is not only the basis of fanaticism but is also the very essence of all error and delusion.
     The trouble is that every point of view is necessarily limited, for the simple reason that it is a point of view.
     So as early schools of Buddhism, including Theravada, developed their own interpretations of Dharma and systematized them, they necessarily developed their own points of view by attempting to walk the razor's edge between the particular extreme views pointed out as invalid by the Buddha, such as eternalism ("we have an eternal soul") and annihilationism ("when you're dead you're dead"). But, as the invalid view about the neither existence nor nonexistence of an enlightened being after death implies, or other ancient texts indicate by declaring even existence and nonexistence, or unity and plurality, to be unacceptable extremes, such attempts still result in limited points of view, and consequently in a blindly, partially groped elephant.
     And so it is evident that Theravada became yet another sect pretty quickly in its history, with its own versions of "Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong." Thus we see in Burma, for example, the followers of the Mahasi system holding the elephant's trunk and declaring that an elephant is like a plowbeam, and the followers of the Pah Auk system holding the elephant's ear and declaring that an elephant is like a winnowing fan (and intelligently explaining why the Mahasi people couldn't possibly understand what an elephant is really like), with some of the Mahayana Buddhists holding the elephant's head and looking down on the Buddhists of the "Lesser Vehicle" for failing to realize that an elephant is just like a water pot. Meanwhile, the Christians are at the other end holding on to the elephant's tail and insisting that the only way to be saved is to believe in the gospel truth that an elephant is like a pestle, or a broom (the Catholics and the Protestants are not in agreement on this issue), with every other philosopher and priest, including the priests of Scientism, holding some part or other of the elephant and making authoritative assertions about it. Those who show some flexibility and are willing to vary with regard to which of the elephant's members to grope are often ostracized for being erratic and unreliable, and soft-headed besides.
     Yet examining various systems, each with its own necessarily limited perspective, may lead to valuable insight. For example, if one reads the spiritual literature of the world, one may see that the great saint and sage Ramana Maharshi worshiped a hill; the extremely advanced Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba worshiped a deified monkey; Saint John of the Cross and his mentor Saint Teresa of Avila, both of whom apparently were adept meditation masters who had attained mystical union with "God," worshiped the Virgin Mary and believed that a cracker they ate at certain ceremonies was literally the flesh of a Hebrew carpenter who created the universe; and even the greatest sages of South Asian Theravada Buddhism have accepted the idea of a flat earth floating on water, with a 10,000,000 mile high mountain in the center, with the sun and moon, each only a few hundred miles in diameter, orbiting the central mountain…and so on. It seems that extremely wise people can endorse some very strange points of view.
     But endorsing a point of view is not necessarily the same as clinging to it. I love repeating the following words of Arthur Schopenhauer:
     And what I have described here with feeble tongue, and only in general terms, is not some philosophical fable, invented by myself and only of today. No, it was the enviable life of so many saints and great souls among the Christians, and even more among the Hindus and Buddhists, and also among the believers of other religions….[I]t has been known directly and expressed in deed by all those saints and ascetics who, in spite of the same inner knowledge, used very different language according to the dogmas which their faculty of reason had accepted, and in consequence of which an Indian, a Christian, or a Lamaist saint must each give a very different account of his own conduct; but this is of no importance at all as regards the fact. A saint may be full of the most absurd superstition, or, on the other hand, may be a philosopher; it is all the same. His conduct alone is evidence that he is a saint; for, in a moral regard, it springs not from abstract knowledge, but from intuitively apprehended, immediate knowledge of the world and of its inner nature, and is expressed by him through some dogma only for the satisfaction of his faculty of reason.*
     I used to have great difficulty in accepting the possibility of this; if an enlightened being can still go along with absurd mythologies and narrow-minded dogmas, then what good is enlightenment? Isn't enlightenment the cessation of delusion? I've gradually come to consider that a truly objective, objectively true view of the world is just another absurd myth. Maybe it doesn't exist any more than does the 10,000,000 mile high Mt. Meru.
     It seems to me that what the Buddha tried to do was to present a way of being which led to this immediate, comprehensive, intuitive knowledge of reality with an absolute minimum of theoretical points of view which could be clung to and argued over; thereby making Buddhism, to use another elephant simile, like the footprint of the elephant, which can contain all other footprints within its great span. All limited views would thus fit within it. However, for the mind of later Buddhist philosophers this created an unacceptable vacuum, a lack of anything to chew on, creating feelings of disorientation and distress like those of a fish deprived of water. The dogmas the Buddha tried to set aside were reestablished shortly after his disappearance from this world, in a form subtle enough that Buddhist philosophers could declare them to be not limited points of view, but Truth. The ancient admonitions to harbor no view (diṭṭhi, literally, "what is seen") came to be interpreted as admonitions to harbor no wrong view---thereby leaving the door wide open to the harboring of Right View or orthodox Buddhist View, which were determined to be synonymous. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna tried to rectify this situation by returning to the philosophical Emptiness of the Master, but was rejected by the older schools, and unnecessarily elaborated upon by the newer ones.
     Bearing all this in mind, it is presumably a good idea carefully to investigate and consider many points of view, but not to take any of them very seriously. This includes our own religion, Scientism, political correctness, common sense, and everything else.

* From Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, translated by E.F.J.Payne (Dover 1969).



Friday, October 5, 2012

Challenged Points of View

     This article is inspired by some communications I have recently received, by recent shifts in my own awareness, and by a poignant irony to it all. It is about the discomfort, even pain, of having our beliefs called into question, and also the beauty of it.
     Some of you who are inclined to read comments published at the end of articles may have noticed a rather negative one at the end of "Is Infinity Too Much?" (Sept 21, 2012). Just yesterday I received an email from a fellow monk informing me that, partly as a result of that same article, he had given up hope on me as an excessively liberal lost cause, was withdrawing his support and cooperation, and was removing my articles (which he had previously liked and endorsed, considering them to be important) from the Buddhist website he is involved with. On the other hand, some people especially liked that particular blog post and were inspired by it; in fact within two weeks it became one of the most popular posts on the blog. It is a peculiar situation.
     What makes it even more peculiar is that for many years my theoretical religion has been oriented toward having no attachment to views. My most recent post  on nondualistic mysticism gives a rather philosophical example of that orientation. My "Bible," the one text that has been most instrumental in my ability to live as a Theravada Buddhist monk, is the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta---which teaches again and again that a monk should neither accept nor reject any point of view.
     In the past I have indulged in philosophical wrangling with other people---sometimes monks, sometimes laypeople, almost always men---over this issue of having no view, and the great resistance of most people to living with this and letting go of their most cherished beliefs. Once, shortly after reading Spinoza's Ethics, I was inspired to write the following little "proof" in the style of Spinoza, who was in fact a very great philosopher:
  1. Some people are strongly identified with their thinking mind.
  2. The thinking mind is a mutually conditioning system of thoughts, with no distinct self creating, controlling, or coordinating those thoughts. (This may be an unacceptable idea to many, but, after all, it is basic Buddhism.)
  3. Thoughts are perceptions. (Or, if one prefers, conscious volitional perceptions.)
  4. Perceptions are beliefs. (I attempted to demonstrate this in the "Essay on the Aggregates of Mind" which can be found at the website; and at the risk of weakening the present argument I will not reproduce it here, as it is somewhat lengthy.)
  5. Therefore, people who are strongly identified with their their thinking mind are strongly identified with their beliefs. 
  6. If a belief is conclusively refuted, then that belief is, in a manner of speaking, killed.
  7. Therefore, if a person who is strongly identified with his thinking mind has one of his beliefs conclusively refuted, then he undergoes a kind of death ("the agonies of death without dying"), as a part of his perceived identity is destroyed.
  8. People have an instinctive, natural, irrational fear of, or aversion for, death.
  9. Because of this fear, people will resort to irrational and even desperate means to avoid death.
  10. This fear of death applies not only to the physical body, but also to the thinking mind, especially among those who are strongly identified with it.
  11. Therefore, people who are strongly identified with their thinking mind fear having their beliefs conclusively refuted, and will resort to irrational and even desperate means to avoid such refutation.
  12. Such people tend to rationalize their behavior and to be largely unaware of their own natural irrationality.
  13. Therefore, people who strongly identify with their thinking mind tend to fear having their beliefs conclusively refuted, and to resort to irrational and even desperate means to avoid such refutation, without even consciously realizing that this is indeed the case. Q.E.D.
I also had a liking for quotations like the following one from Arthur Schopenhauer:
All through life we cling to many errors, and take care never to examine their ground, merely from a fear, of which we ourselves are unconscious, of possibly making the discovery that we have so long and so often believed and maintained what is false.
So then I came back to America, and began interacting with people who speak fluent American. At first I attempted to interact with others much as I did in Burma…and began receiving feedback to the effect that I was opinionated and intolerant. Some of this was mainly the issue of the people I talked with; for example one fellow considered me to be very opinionated when I told him the simple fact that in a Buddhist country like Burma, the word "Sangha" applies exclusively to monastics, and that its application to lay communities is predominantly a modern innovation. It wasn't always the other person's issue though.
     I have found that receiving feedback from men over many years hasn't had much of an effect on me; there is a kind of "alpha male" instinct that I have and perhaps a heterosexual man-to-man cultivated insensitivity that didn't care much if other men, including other monks, considered me to be an arrogant wiseguy, or in plainer language, an ass. But at the same time I have a natural tendency (also related to animal instinct) to be more considerate and gentle toward women. So when women began bringing up the issue, once or twice even with tears of emotion, I listened. Well, at first I didn't listen so well and became edgy, sometimes dealing back retorts to the effect that, as the great philosopher Popeye used to say, I yam what I yam, and if they didn't like it they didn't have to interact with me---accept me or don't. I still haven't mastered this kind of listening. But gradually the feedback sank in. 
     I began realizing that I was not very skillful at putting my theoretical religion into practice. This realization is of profound importance, and it is largely (but not entirely) because of this that I seriously consider my spiritual progress to have been greater during the year and a half I've been back in the West than during the previous five years spent meditating in tropical forest caves---although my years of solitude and meditation strengthened and prepared me in important ways. My whole point of view, how I look at the world, has been radically challenged. I simply do not have the luxury of staying the same. Considering my own limitations and rigidity has been painful and disorienting, but it has been of very great value. I have little choice but to let go of this behavior or else shut down and admit defeat.
     For years I considered myself to be an open-minded skeptic, among other things, but I was an intolerant skeptic who insisted on the truth of my form of skepticism---which could hardly be called being very skeptical. I would consider others who criticized me to be sloppy thinkers, or whatever, as a way of defending my point of view. Usually there would be impatience and irritation arising at such times.
     Fortunately I was also exposed to the wisdom of a man named Paul Lowe, who has much to say on the subject of irritating feedback. For example,

Often when someone makes an observation about us
and we don't like what we hear, we get distressed - spelt: ANGRY!
("Don't kill the messenger because of the message.") 
This is not very intelligent. In fact it is very stupid.
Who says it, and what they say, is irrelevant.
The only thing that is relevant is what goes on in you
when you hear what is said to you. A gift. 
Listen - let it in, and feel.
If you are moved - one way or the other,
there is something there for you - repeat - FOR you.
Everything is for you - what you need in order to evolve.*

He says we generally don't get annoyed at feedback unless there is some truth to it that we don't want to hear. The very fact that two people can hear exactly the same words and one of them becomes upset while the other doesn't, is adequate proof that the words themselves aren't really causing the reaction. It's a matter of attitude. But whatever the reason, if we simply react in the same way every time, we don't wake up. We remain semiconscious automatons habitually reacting with knee-jerk predictability.
     Another interesting thing he says is that if we hear spiritual guidance and we agree or disagree with it, either way we're still stuck in a box, as all we have done is taken the information and fit it into the box of our own unenlightened belief systems. Even to think that we understand it fits it into the box, whereas the ideal purpose of course is for it to help us out of this mental prison we inhabit. Consequently the wisest approach is neither to agree nor disagree to guidance or feedback, as the Aṭṭhakavagga also advises, or even to think that we really understand, but just to consider.

*From Paul's mailing list, accessible via his website, He also has many fascinating videos on You Tube, plus a documentary called The Workshop which, I must admit, is almost pornographic, and thus perhaps unsuitable for small children, religious fanatics, and celibate monastics.

Sati (Attention): I have recently added a new article to the associated website,, "What Did the Buddha Really Teach?," investigating what the original Dhamma taught by the historical Gotama Buddha in the ancient Ganges Valley was likely to be like. Also, an improved edition of the Aṭṭhakavagga has been added, with a new Appendix on the textually similar Pārāyanavagga. (I think the new version has only one typo: On page 71, in the second paragraph, "to speak sore Dhamma" should read "to speak some Dhamma.")