Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Journey to the South

     Warning: This is a very long one, but relatively easy to read. Greetings from Kusalakari (a small Burmese temple in Fremont, California)!
     I arrived here today---I write this on Friday evening---from Bellingham, Washington after five days on the road with Wayne, a New Age California surfer dude who asserts that he is not New Age. The trip began auspiciously, I think, as on Sunday morning there was a "potluck" celebrated in my honor at the local Dharma Hall. About twelve of my best friends and supporters in town came to see me off, and it turned into the closest facsimile of an Asian Theravada Buddhist religious function that I have participated in in Bellingham thus far: People (in this case, American people) bring food, feed the monk, feed themselves and each other, drink tea, talk a lot, eat a little more, receive the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, hear a short talk and blessing from the monk, and then all go home smiling. Wayne picked me up shortly after the function was over with essentially all of his possessions easily packed into his little car, including a load of organic pumpkins and squash to give out as gifts. He was leaving the Pacific Northwest partly because it provides inadequate surfing, and partly because no beautiful woman begged him to stay. My few bags went in too, and we left Bellingham in a grey drizzle.
     Wayne was a little concerned about the timing of our departure, as people knowledgeable in astrology informed him that Mercury is retrograde, potentially causing troubles on our way. I assured him that the backwards motions of the planet were likely to be in our favor, which prognostication he appeared to appreciate. As far as I can tell my prophesy was a true one. My track record as a prophet is actually pretty good.
     We spent some time in Seattle dropping off some organic produce at the home of one of Wayne's many friends, and then searched in vain for some special charcoal powder that Wayne especially coveted. We spent our first night on the road at an international hostel in Portland, Oregon. It was my first experience in a hostel, and it provided me with opportunities to be patient with the loud snoring of some of my roommates, and also with the surreal, semiconscious mutterings of the fellow in the bunk below me. The next morning we ate some of Wayne's produce and some buttered bread and continued on our way in pouring rain. Intermittently throughout that day and the next rain poured down on the world in driving sheets, swelling the rivers to brown rapids, flooding fields and roads, and creating many waterfalls along the highway, some of them really spectacular. It seemed to me that the rain was a kind of symbolic purification as we both transitioned into another chapter of our lives. Wayne seemed to take some comfort from my interpretation of the situation, but still disliked the intense concentration required to keep us on the road, especially when passing trucks would practically blind us with spray. 
     Our second night was spent at a communal organic permaculture farm in southern Oregon, where Wayne had received an invitation. The power was out as a result of storm winds accompanying the torrential rain; and we met with a community of folk who struck me as advanced-level lost souls and misfits---so we fit in pretty well. It was a 21st century version of a hippy commune, with plenty of long hair, beards, dreadlocks, and organic food. Some of the inhabitants struck me as people who, if they owned little more than a guitar and needed a new coat and a new pair of boots, and suddenly found themselves in possession of 500 dollars, would without hesitation spend it on a weekend of ayahuasca ceremonies. The big excitement when we got there, aside from the power blackout, was that a young woman's gallon jug of fermenting kefir had burst due to insufficient ventilation of the contents, resulting in pressure adequate to create a grenade-like explosion sending fragments of glass and gobs of kefir throughout the sitting room of the lodge. I slept alone that night, as Wayne had been invited to share a bed with one of the prettiest farmers---although it turned out all she had in mind was some warm, friendly snuggling for the night. Perhaps my karma as a monk helped to keep things tame.
     Throughout our trip most of Wayne's friends would greet me as though I were a layperson, the women usually extending a hand for a handshake or even offering a hug, requiring me to decline the offer with silent embarrassment or apologetically to explain that it's against the rules for a monk to touch girls, which was usually accepted graciously by the girls. In a non-Buddhist subculture where everyone hugs everyone, a strangely dressed man who declines physical contact with women may be viewed by them with suspicion or disfavor. It is a complication sometimes. 
     Wayne would contribute to the casual attitude toward the presence of a monk by occasionally calling me "Home Slice," the exact derivation of which term I cannot ascertain. He has never particularly liked the idea of serving me food in the morning either (Theravada monks are not allowed to serve themselves with food, but may only eat what is physically given to them), but desired my company on the trip sufficiently to overcome his distaste for it; although I hasten to add that he provided me with the requisites of life, not to mention transportation and good company, very graciously and generously. There was one fellow at the farm, however, who was fascinated by the fact that I was a Buddhist monastic, and asked many serious questions. It turned out that he was studying Buddhism and aspired to move into a monastic community, perhaps as an unordained yogi. I must admit that occasionally meeting someone appreciative and respectful of the robes I wear feels good. A monk should consider praise and blame the same, but the feelings evoked by these two opposite lokadhamma, or ways of the world, still do not feel the same for me. I can, and do, accept both, however.
     The next morning, after a communal meal of baked granola and homemade hazelnut milk we left the farm in a downpour. We made a long detour back to Eugene so that Wayne could purchase some pants made of organic hemp. They were rather expensive and required the burning of a fair amount of petroleum to obtain them, but Wayne considered it to be for the sake of Mother Earth. It is interesting to see how we select our own ways of saving the world.
     By early afternoon we were in northern California. The rain subsided around the same time that we entered the Golden State, which Wayne and I accepted as auspicious. We spent the night in the town of Arcata, where, Wayne assured me, practically everybody smokes cannabis even if they don't grow it. In fact I saw several people in the area smoking joints in town in broad daylight.
     Our night's lodging was at the home of a very sweet and hospitable lady named Lezlie, another member of Wayne's multitude of friends. As often happened, the conversation revolved almost entirely around catching up on people I do not know, so I spent much of the social encounter sitting in silence. Fortunately on this occasion a little dog named Eloise, a schnoodle (schnauzer+poodle=schnoodle), also had little to add to the conversation and approached me for some prolonged petting; and seeing that this venture went well, she eventually brought me a tennis ball to throw for her. She caught the ball again and again with great enthusiasm, and we connected better than I was able to do with most of the humans I met on the trip. The next morning when I was meditating she entered my room and nuzzled me for another round of bonding. Eloise remains one of the highlights of the whole trip. Petting a female dog is a minor infraction for a Theravada Buddhist monk, but I have no significant regrets. My affection for her was and is purely platonic. I'll make confession for it tomorrow. Before taking leave of our hostess, Wayne gave her a detailed complimentary Tarot card reading (he reads cards professionally), and she took many notes. Lezlie unexpectedly hugged me goodbye, and I didn't hug back; I explained the situation about monks, girls, and rules of discipline, and she accepted the explanation with gracious good humor.

A Schnoodle Like Eloise

     I may as well mention that our evening in Arcata was the first time since we began that I saw a relatively clear sky. The stars were very bright with the atmosphere washed clean of particulate matter, and Jupiter was blazing beautifully way up high, all of which I considered to be a good sign on our journey. I may as well also mention that Theravada Buddhist monks are not supposed to pay much attention to signs and omens, but seeing Jupiter and the Pleiades burning bright in the sky after days of torrential rain seemed very much like an auspicious indication to me. Seeing the Pleiades and remembering the orbits Wayne revolves in, I asked him if he had heard of the Pleiadian High Council, a group of extraterrestrials who allegedly are communicating with some New Age people nowadays. I admit I was a little glad when he answered that he gave little heed to Pleiadians. As an aside, it seems to me that the Pleiades are a somewhat unhappy choice for the abode of a stellar race, as the astronomers claim that this star cluster is relatively new, being only about ten million years old. Consequently it would seem unlikely that there would have been time for an intelligent race to have arisen there. At a mere ten million years of age, our Earth was still a ball of molten lava with a poisonous atmosphere, or so say the scientists. But I suppose the Pleiadians could have moved there from elsewhere, or perhaps they are nonphysical and do not require an environment suitable for organic life. Maybe I just think too much.

The Pleiades, Alleged Home of the High Council

     Our next evening was spent in Marin county as the guests of a dedicated practitioner of Hatha Yoga and massage therapist, trained at the Esalen Institute. He was drawn to the idea of simplifying his life to expedite spiritual freedom, and had been experimenting with living in a small car. Fortunately for us he was house-sitting in a rather palatial house in a rather palatial neighborhood at the time of our visit. Our host was much more interested and enthusiastic about meeting a monk than most, and graciously made many efforts to include me in the conversation, which, however, often tended back toward the standard discussions of people I do not know. He is a reverent devotee of a local Yoga instructor who he admittedly doesn't want to know very well for fear of finding out something not respectable about him. He was well versed in Yoga, Ayurveda, and a number of other esoteric sciences, and at one point Wayne asked him in all seriousness if it is true what he had heard, that impure energies leave the body primarily through the feet. That one question has strangely lingered in my memory.
     I must admit that by this stage in the trip I was growing somewhat fatigued with extremely liberal thinkers, so to speak. I may write a separate blog post on this matter, but for now I will say that it is sometimes frustrating to me to interact with people who require no real evidence, much less facts or actual proof, to support a vehement belief. All that is necessary for many is for an idea to feel true. Consequently, it seems to me that many followers of the New Age have several belief systems which are not well integrated, and in some cases may be downright mutually contradictory. I am more hardheaded, and prefer a well integrated system with parts added to it as mere hypotheses, or after sufficient evidence is manifested to support the idea---although like any unenlightened person I often take beliefs for granted as Truth, often leading to unhappiness when those beliefs are challenged. One disadvantage of being a hardhead is that we tend to be more rigid. 
     One other peculiarity of the New Age that is remarkable to me is that although its followers may be very cosmic and "woo-woo" with regard to many things, with regard to one topic in particular they may be hardheaded, soulless materialists; and that topic is Food. They may believe in channeled spirits and the healing energies of mantra, etc., but they have no doubts whatsoever that such and such foods have such and such chemicals which are good for you in such and such a way, or bad for you in such. All that is necessary is for a food theory to be popular, and it becomes gospel truth until some other theory eclipses it. Once when our host asked about my health I answered that it is good except for a slight tendency toward gout. When my listeners made it known that they didn't know what exactly gout was, I explained that it is, according to medical science, a hereditary disorder which causes one to be less able to metabolize foods containing high amounts of RNA, such as sprouts and organ meats, thereby resulting in crystals of uric acid accumulating in the joints of the feet, causing painful inflammation. My good friend Wayne then heatedly denied this, saying that it was caused, like so many other disorders are caused, mainly by eating processed sugar. He denounced medical science and my own testimony that I had had attacks of gout even when living in remote areas of Burma where processed sugar is scarce, insisting that eating sugar is the true cause of gout. Wayne really is a great guy though, and he eventually cooled down enough to acknowledge that he wasn't sure. He is my benefactor and friend, and I do not wish to speak ill of him. (Wayne, if you read this you are welcome to comment, supporting your own case. Have mercy!) I'm not entirely sure about uric acid crystals either. I can't remember ever seeing one.
     On second thought, New Age in general, like Yoga, Ayurveda, and even orthodox Theravada, is a materialistic system in that it posits the ultimate reality of physical matter. This is an issue that causes me some occasional frustration, as pretty much everyone is likewise a materialist. If I try to point out that the existence of physical matter can't really be proven, and thus should be acknowledged as a hypothesis at best, I am often accused of insisting that matter doesn't exist at all and am bombarded with logically inconclusive rebuttals similar to Samuel Johnson's famous rebuttal of the Immaterialism of George Berkeley: He kicked a rock and said, "I refute him thus." But one could act likewise in a dream, with no real rock and no real swinging foot. There's no way to know for sure.
     Another deep philosophical issue that arose more than once during our trip, sometimes with a few sparks, is the question of spiritual progress occurring via purification of oneself, or via detachment from "oneself." The New Agers, as well as Westerners in general, tend to accept as axiomatic the idea of self, in fact are very subjective and "Me" oriented, and so liberation, if it is in the picture at all, is assumed to occur through somehow straightening out the issues of this self. The idea that the issues are only perceptions which are not the self at all is neglected or else casually (or sometimes heatedly) denied. But I could write another blog post on this one subject. I am a little sorry that so many people are just plain mystified by the notion of No Self, or even by the Upanishadic notion that the only true Self is essentially God, and needs no purification. Spiritual practice is more a matter of conscious disidentification, not purification or liberation of the identity, which ultimately is an illusion. Or so it seems to me. But enough of this for today.
     To make a long story even longer, we arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area on Thanksgiving Day, and visited with several alumni of the Esalen Institute who are Wayne's friends. (Wayne also was once on the staff, although not the teaching staff, of Esalen.) Many of them were old hippies who were refreshingly more hardheaded than the younger ones I had met earlier---maybe they were just more set in their ways, but they seemed to have more intellectual stability, so to speak. We eventually arrived at the bright, spacious home of an old hippy who currently works for a large petrochemical company. There were several guests at the Thanksgiving feast, most of them staff members or former staff members of Esalen. At 49 years old I figure I was possibly the youngest person there. Seemingly by way of contrast, one guest was not only not an Esalenite, but harbored a self-proclaimed cynicism and "antipathy" for the place. I've never been there, but guess that my feelings would be mixed.
     Everyone was requested to say Grace before dinner, so when it was my turn I simply recited a saying of Neem Karoli Baba: "God comes to the hungry in the form of food," then moments later regretted that I hadn't mentioned a word of thanks at Thanksgiving. It is against the rules of monastic discipline for a monk to eat dinner, so I sat at the table talking and drinking grape juice from fancy stemware. Hunger is not a major problem for me, and I enjoy watching others enjoy a meal; it's rather like eating with somebody else's mouth. In Buddhism such a mental state is called mudita.
     After dinner there was a lot of singing, which is also against the rules for monks, so I kept my mouth shut and listened attentively. However, when they sang "Nowhere Man" by the Beatles I mouthed the words and even vocalized a little, relating afterward that one day long ago, when I was still an unordained monastery attendant, I was washing dishes in the kitchen building thinking up a Beatles song to be the theme for each person at the monastery, and I had chosen "Nowhere Man" as my own…with the humble ambition of someday being worthy of "Come Together." Whether I am yet worthy of it I still can't say.

He's a Real Nowhere Man,
Sitting in His Nowhere Land,
Making All His Nowhere Plans for Nobody...

     Eventually all of the guests except Wayne and me went away into the night, and we sat in the living room with the couple who were our hosts. Somehow the topic of Tarot cards came up, and I mentioned that I had written an article mentioning them, comparing the principle of how they work with the Buddhist theory of karma. (Anyone interested may find the article, entitled "On Tarot Cards, Ouija Boards, Astrology, Spirit Mediums, and Spiritual Teachers," on the website The lady of the house, who had spoken little to me over the course of the evening, began raising objections to my interpretation of the case, asking why I was so much against Tarot cards, etc., which I really was not, and told her as much. Then, still in a mood of intent disapproval (but not really angry), she began asking what right I have to be a monk living on the generosity of others. One tack she employed was that the Burmese are very poor and cannot afford to support the likes of me, although I assured her that the Burmese have plenty of food, and when a monk goes for alms in a village each person who wants to offer food usually offers a relatively small amount. Then I added that the Burmese are generally very happy to offer food to monks. She replied that this is only because they had been "brainwashed" into believing that monks are superior to them, but that everybody is equally living a spiritual life. She backed up the brainwashing theory by saying that if I went to the highlands of New Guinea, nobody there would be inspired to put food in my bowl, but might simply eat me instead---and thus giving alms to monks is purely arbitrary and geographical. 
     By this time I was sitting straight up on my seat, wide awake, engaging in a kind of verbal Aikido, endeavoring to add no new energy, especially negative energy, to the interaction, and using the imbalances of her own position as a way of peacefully deflecting her thrusts. I was in an especially awkward position as I suddenly found myself evidently a not very welcome guest in her home. Anger or disdain were simply not viable options. My heartbeat was noticeably beating faster in my chest.
     I finally wore out the argument that I was essentially a "performance artist" parasitically exploiting the superstition of ignorant Burmese Buddhists by pointing out that I hadn't been supported by Burmese people in many months, that many of my current supporters aren't even Buddhists, and that they support me largely because they feel that they are benefitted by having me around. Fortunately, Wayne also defended me somewhat by humorously remarking on her lovely manners. (Wayne and I are fellow surfer dudes, although I am more a surfer of consciousness than of water.) The intensity lasted about ten minutes before the subject was changed, and the lady's aggressiveness, or whatever it was, had abated.
     Such an attitude as my hostess had is really not very rare here in America; even some people who consider themselves Buddhists have a similar negative attitude toward monastic renunciation---the so-called "Holy Life"---conveniently forgetting that the Buddha himself was a renunciant who lived on alms, and that he, presumably a very wise person, had set up the Sangha of monks probably for very good reasons, not just because he was culture-bound and didn't know any better. People in the West are just as brainwashed in their own way as are the Burmese; and they often live less spiritually oriented lives, and often are more unhappy. I of course bear no ill will toward the lady whose house I stayed in Thanksgiving night, and am grateful for the lovely evening and the breakfast of deluxe leftovers gladly served by her man the next morning, as well as the luxurious shelter and her patience with a house guest that she did not personally invite and did not feel very comfortable with. May she---and all of us!---be well, happy, and surrounded by blessings and love. If that is at all possible.
     On Friday morning (the last day of our journey, which was yesterday; it is now Saturday afternoon as I type) after a belly-filling breakfast and plenty of cheerful conversation with the gentleman of the house, Wayne and I continued on our way. By this time our radically different perspectives on life had resulted in a moderate amount of "triggering" between us, and I suspect Wayne was not entirely sorry to drop me off at this Burmese temple. (His friend the Yogi of Esalen had said we were like the Odd Couple…) A couple of times at least I had given good Wayne some probing, unsolicited, and unwelcome feedback, but I have found since my return to the West that triggers are blessings, as they show us where we are still stuck. Despite the occasional heat (emotional, not climatic), I am grateful for our trip south together, and am sorry that I may never see my friend again. (Wayne, if you are reading this, I apologize for getting on your case, and for any time I've been an inconvenience, or damn nuisance, to you. Bless you again and again, and may the gods continue to smile upon you.)
     On our last leg to the monastery I mentioned to Wayne that a mutual dear friend of ours told me recently that she needs to "get right" with herself. Wayne observed, and I think wisely, that if she isn't right with herself now, then it implies that she is somehow wrong; and considering oneself to be wrong in the present moment is not so good. The present moment is really all we have. If we don't have rightness now…It returns to the question of whether or not everything and everybody is already perfect. We may have been dealt a cool hand, so to speak, but we are dealt exactly what we need to wake us up, and that is perfect---or so it seems to me. Wanting things to be different than they are, is suffering. (It may be perfect suffering, but it's still suffering.) I hope my dear friend is not bothered by these observations. I know she has her own views on the subject which are just as valid as mine.
     I arrived here at the temple around 3:00pm on Friday, and it was really nice to see that the assistant abbot here, venerable Garudhamma, appeared really glad to see me. On the other hand, I felt a little uneasiness in an environment that I have slowly drifted away from over a period of many years. I am presently typing this in my quarters, the congregation hall in the back yard, sitting on the floor.
     I'm not finished yet, so kindly sit still… :-) This morning I was informed that two or three men would be ordained as temporary monks today, in accordance with Burmese custom (almost every Burmese Buddhist male is ordained temporarily at least once; the same is true in Thailand). Two men were ordained, one of them a Euro-American; the third fellow, a man named Abdul, didn't show. When I saw the young American man at the monastery I guessed that he was doing this in order to please a pretty Burmese girlfriend, and it turned out that my guess was correct. However, he is also very interested in spiritual matters and seems genuinely enthusiastic about being a fully ordained monk for a total of three days.
     When the two were receiving the preliminary "lesser orders" as novices I felt a pang of nostalgia and sadness when, in accordance with ancient custom, the men asked venerable Garudhamma to have compassion for them and allow them to wear the monk robes so that they could find a way out of all suffering. I remembered my own early days in the Sangha, how idealistic and starry-eyed I was; and I also knew that there was real truth in what the men were reciting. The Sangha truly is a refuge.
     Shortly after the upasampadā (full ordination) ceremony began, venerable Garudhamma informed me that I would be the preceptor of the two new monks---in other words, I would be ordaining them! In my 22 years as a monk this is the first time I have ordained anybody. It is a little ironic that finally I ordain new monks, but they are to wear the robes for a total of three days, and I didn't even have the fun of naming them. The American man was named Vimala, or "Stainless," and his Burmese friend received the name Jotika, or "Illuminator." When I was told that I would officiate as preceptor my first reaction was to say "aung malay!" which roughly translates into English as "Oh little mother!"
     The situation is a little more ironic because I acted as preceptor to these monks just hours before requesting and taking upon myself formal ecclesiastical penance for breaking certain rules during my residence in Bellingham. One of the observances of a monk taking this penance is that he's not allowed to ordain anybody. It seems that the Universe required a young American man to be ordained by a middle-aged American man (me), so life fell into place just so. Such things happen all the time. 
     In the past I would have refused to ordain temporary monks, as they don't have the time to learn how a monk should conduct himself, and they usually have money saved somewhere, which is strictly forbidden for monks. A person should give away all his money before becoming a monk, but the temporaries are understandably reluctant to do this. Also, a monk should not be ordained if he is in debt, and it seems that everyone in America is in some kind of debt, even if it is only the outstanding balance of their credit card account. Also, Burmese ordination is a bit sloppy in my opinion. For example, for the sake of ease and convenience both men were called Nāga in the ordination ceremony today, and I was called Tissa. One senior monk talked on the phone during the proceedings, which is not exactly against the rules, but displays the casual attitude toward what should be, but often is not, a sacred moment. I'm pretty easygoing nowadays, and am a thankful guest here, so I went along with whatever the Burmese monks preferred instead of making difficulties as I might have done ten years ago. 
     About an hour ago I met one of the Burmese men who was an important friend and supporter when I was here last winter. He said he has been diagnosed with diabetes and is ill and depressed. After my time in America with a liberal non-Buddhist crowd I repeatedly felt a very unmonklike urge arising in me---I kept wanting to hug him. What better could one do in such a situation? May the Universe have mercy on all of us.
Wayne, in Surfer Dude Glory

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Favorite Memories

     As the books say, it is good to live in the present moment, to Be Here Now, and I don't usually spend lots of time dwelling upon the past; but I do have some favorite memories which give me joy occasionally to contemplate and to share with others. Memories of joyful or blessed times are like treasures, and also it is possible to learn from them. The following is probably my favorite memory of all:
     On a warm, sunny, beautiful spring day in Bellingham, Washington around the year 1988, a few years before my ordination as a monk, I consumed two or three hits of some relatively powerful LSD. As the effects became noticeable, I decided to take a walk, wearing khaki shorts and a T shirt. I had previously ordered a book at a bookstore in town and went to pick it up. On the way a car with Canadian license plates stopped near me and a man asked where he could find an adult bookstore in town. He was a little embarrassed and insecure and added a comment like, "Well, I suppose you don't go to places like that." I happily assured him that there was no problem at all and directed him to a place I knew of, and then continued on my way. By the time I got to the bookstore (not the adult one), I was very high. I brought the book---entitled The Greeks in Bactria and India, by a fellow named Tarn---to the counter, and the cashier cheerfully commented on the strange title, and indicated that she didn't know where Bactria was. Then she casually flipped through the pages and observed that there were no illustrations. With intense concentration I managed to enunciate the word "Bummer," and was proud of myself that I had been able actually to utter a coherent word appropriate to the situation. I then continued on my walk in the sunshine.
     I went to a place in town called Boulevard Park, which overlooks Bellingham Bay. At one end of the park there is a little hill, which nowadays is overgrown with bushes, but in those days was more easily navigable. I climbed the little hill and sat down among some wild rose bushes in bloom. Ants busily scurried about on the ground near me, and I watched them with fascination. 
     There was just enough of a breeze that day that the bay was covered with ripples, which in the sunshine, in my altered state of consciousness, appeared as a great shimmering expanse of purplish sparkles. Also, because of the fine weather and the breeze, there were many sailboats on the water…so I sat cross-legged among the wild roses and the ants and watched bright, multicolored triangles silently, gracefully gliding back and forth through the shimmering sparkles. It was so beautiful, and my consciousness was so expanded, that I was radiating love and blessings to all beings everywhere. I was spontaneously gushing with love and happiness. I don't remember what happened after that.
     Another one of my very favorites is a memory of a very brief experience I had when I was 16 or 17 years old. I had spent part of my high school lunch break with my friends Tim and Don smoking marijuana in Don's car. It was time to go to class, and I remember walking through the parking lot feeling very, very alive. The sky was covered with bright white overcast, giving a stark, white light to the world, with wetness in the air and on the ground, and just enough coolness to be invigorating---in short, a common sort of day in the Pacific Northwest. It is very hard to explain why this is one of my favorite memories. Part of it was that I was a teenager, and at that time in my life, experimenting with freedom and new adult hormones, every day of my life as a long-haired feral teenager was an exciting adventure. The sheer aliveness of youth combined with the new freedoms, such as they were, made a strong impression in my mind that remains vivid after more than thirty years. It is a memory of the exuberance of sheer aliveness.
     Perhaps I should apologize for the fact that many or even most of my favorite memories are drug oriented and of times before I became a monk. I suppose one reason for this is that mind-altering drugs can cause an expansion of consciousness combined with a happy euphoria which is, well, strikingly pleasant. On the other hand, my memories of girls and romance, for example, are combined with associations of emotional turmoil, occasionally also heartbreak, so the pleasantness of the associations is diluted somewhat. I suppose this bittersweet taste of romantic love helped me to become a celibate monk in the first place. Perhaps also the "high" state induced by more or less "spiritual" drugs is itself a relatively unusual feeling which makes the memory more memorable. With regard to my life as a monk, I can say that I have had really beautiful meditative experiences, so beautiful in fact that just a few minutes of meditative rapture (I don't know what else to call it) seemed well worth the 12 or 15 years of spiritual struggling and floundering which preceded them. But they are so subtle, and so difficult to integrate into a system of memories or associations, a "story," that they form rather vague and nebulous, although priceless, recollections. For some reason memories of when I was young, high, and irresponsible are most delectable.
     Even so, one of my most favorite memories is of a slightly strange event which occurred when I was still a very junior monk, and a very serious one, at a Burmese monastery in central California. I lived in a small shack in the redwood forest behind the monastery, and ate my meals there. I preferred to be vegetarian, so I would take the meat out of my bowl and place it in my bowl lid before eating the rice and vegetables. Often a yellowjacket, a kind of hornet, would come and bite pieces from the meat in the bowl lid, using its mandibles as scissors and cutting a long strip of chicken breast or whatever, rolling up the strip like tape to make it easier to take it back to the larvae in the nest. One time after eating I reached for the plastic milk jug that I used as a water container, and as I grasped the handle the yellowjacket, which was evidently resting on the other side of the handle, stung my finger. As I jerked my hand back in pain my very first thought was, "I hope I didn't kill it." Then I saw the yellowjacket fly away apparently unharmed, and I smiled with relief, and then began attending to my painfully throbbing finger. 
     I was happy that I hadn't killed the hornet, a beautiful little alien creature, but I was happier at the reflection that in a situation like that my first thought was for the other, not for myself. I didn't really have time to deceive myself on the matter, and although I was very strict in those days about breaking rules of monastic discipline, I wasn't concerned that I had broken one this time by killing a living being, as accidentally killing one isn't against the rules at all. It was deeply heartening to find that I was genuinely capable of such an attitude of concern. I really cared about the little being that had just stung me. The episode caused me to feel like I was making progress toward a truly spiritual state, that my heart was opening, and that made me feel really good. The hornet sting was well worth the experience. May I be that way with people too. 

The remains of my first residence as a monk, 
where a hornet would come to share my meals

P.S. This is my last blog post from Bellingham...Tomorrow I begin the winter migration to a little Burmese temple in California.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Middle Way of Mediocrity

     "One is wealthy in direct proportion to one's contentment with what one already has. One is in poverty in direct proportion to what one feels one lacks." 

     A few years ago I told a wise monk, a Burmese sayadaw named U Jotika (or in Burmese, Mahamyaing U Zawtika), about some experiences I had had, and he advised me to share the story with others. Also, I have a strange tendency to make embarrassing confessions to people I hardly know, or in this case even to total strangers. So, bearing this in mind, I would like to describe a counterintuitive development in my spiritual progress that occurred several years ago. I suspect that the introductory story leading up to this development will be somewhat long in telling. 
     Since the time of my ordination I have had a reputation for being very strict in my practice. I studied the rules of monastic discipline intensively and extensively, inside and out; and there was a time when I could go for weeks without being aware of breaking any rules or having anything to confess, except perhaps for looking into a mirror when I shaved. (A monk is not allowed to look into a mirror unless he is inspecting a sore on his face; although a famous Thai book on monastic discipline says looking into one for shaving should be allowable.) I held a dim view of lax monks and of commentarial loopholes in the rules. (For example, a monk is not allowed to eat sugar in the afternoon unless he is unwell---but the commentary says that being hungry is a kind of unwellness. Another example: a monk is not allowed to keep more than one set of robes, but later tradition says that if a monk calls them "accessory cloth" (parikkhāra-cola) he may keep as many robes as he likes. Because of these loopholes, which even some strict monks exploit, there is a Burmese saying, "If one is skillful in the rules one may kill a chicken.") I also practiced some of the optional ascetic practices called dhutaga. I used to be accused of being overly strict, a fundamentalist, and even "Hassidic." I would read ancient Buddhist texts like the Sutta Nipāta and, comparing myself with the iron monks described therein, despise myself for being so wimpy and lax---sleeping too much, reading too much, living in an almost comfortable monastery, knowing exactly where I would sleep that night and exactly where I would receive my next meal.
     So, trying to live up to a lofty ideal, I eventually started living alone in Burmese forests, and once during the year 2000 went approximately ten months without entering a building. I slept on the ground under a rock ledge, bathed in a creek, and crapped under the open sky like an animal. It was possibly, all in all, the most miserable year of my life. I would go out and wrestle with the devil in the wilderness, so to speak, and the devil usually cleaned my clocks. He mopped the floor with me. I felt as though my conscious mind had become a battlefield, with the opponents being, in Christian terms, flesh and spirit, or in Freudian terms, id and superego; although the terminology of J. Krishnamurti may be more apposite: the real and the ideal. It seemed that all the easy spiritual gains had been made, and that the situation had degenerated into World War One style trench warfare, with tremendous efforts expended for barely noticeable results. I was frustrated, hysterical, and unhappy much of the time. It seemed that the best I could realistically hope for was the third individual described in a text called the Cūadhammasamādāna Sutta (M45):
And what, monks, is a Way taken upon oneself that is uneasy in the present but has the fruition of ease in the future? Here, monks, someone by nature is very prone to desire, and continually experiences unease and unhappiness borne of desire; he is by nature very prone to aversion, and continually experiences unease and unhappiness borne of aversion; he is by nature very prone to delusion, and continually experiences unease and unhappiness borne of delusion. Yet with unease and with unhappiness, crying and with tearful face, he lives the Holy Life complete and pure. He, at the breaking up of the body, after death, arises in a Higher Realm, in a heavenly world.
Visions of gorgeous, voluptuous celestial nymphs in a paradisical Buddhist afterlife fueled my strivings for a while. I became a follower of the Rocky Balboa school of Buddhism: not so much trying to win the contest as just refusing to throw in the towel and endeavoring to stay on my feet the full twelve rounds.
     Then, late in 2002, I became ill with what the local villagers called "seasonal fever," a malady apparently caused by violent swings of temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure at the tail end of the monsoon season knocking one's metabolism out of kilter. It deprived me of the few pleasures still allowed to a Theravada Buddhist monk---eating, sleeping, bathing, and of course meditation. Food revolted me (it wasn't all that great even when I was well); I lay awake nights with insomnia and cold sweats; due to the fever I was exhorted by a doctor to bathe as little as possible; and my meditation was absolutely on the rocks. To make matters worse, the situation arose at the beginning of a blazing tropical heat wave and a streak of karmic bad luck. Almost the only joy I experienced was inspired by visits from a relatively attractive young Burmese village woman who brought me medicine, fruit juice, and kind words; but that is a rather troubling sort of joy for a celibate monk. I began falling in love with her. 
     It occurred to me that if after so many years of diligent Dhamma practice I could still hit rock bottom like this, that I could still be deprived of virtually all contentment and consolation in life, then my efforts to liberate myself from suffering and delusion were probably in vain. I brooded upon this continually and became depressed. The fever lasted a month or so, and the depression lasted a few months longer, but for more than a year there was a lingering sense of futility and hopelessness in what I was doing with my life. It seemed that I could not properly live the Holy Life complete and pure and could not be a good monk. I developed a deep sympathy for certain passages that I would find in books, like this one by Martin Luther: 
I remember that Staupitz was wont to say, "I have vowed unto God above a thousand times that I would become a better man: but I never performed that which I vowed. Hereafter I will make no such vow: for I have now learned by experience that I am not able to perform it. Unless, therefore, God be favorable and merciful unto me for Christ's sake, I shall not be able, with all my vows and all my good deeds, to stand before him." This (of Staupitz's) was not only a true, but also a godly and a holy desperation… (---quoted in The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James)
Or this somewhat less optimistic one by Schopenhauer:
Hence we get the strange fact that everyone considers himself to be a priori quite free, even in his individual actions, and imagines he can at any moment enter upon a different way of life, which is equivalent to saying that he can become a different person. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but liable to necessity; that notwithstanding all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning to the end of his life he must bear the same character that he himself condemns, and, as it were, must play to the end the part he has taken upon himself.
     And so, with all this weighing heavily in my mind, I finally threw up my hands in despair and gave up. I wrote a letter to my teacher and great benefactor ven. Taungpulu Kyauk Sin Tawya Sayadaw telling him I had given up, that I was apparently unable to eradicate my imperfections in this life and had reconciled myself to being a mediocre monk. I had no intention of dropping out of the monkhood, as I deeply resonated with the simple, quiet, and rough lifestyle, but I just wanted to stop struggling and to have some relative peace of mind. I wrote a letter to my father saying essentially the same thing. Then, about two days after finishing the letters, mainly to give myself an excuse not to sleep all day long, I began writing an essay on the Three Marks of Existence---inconstancy, unease, and no self---an intuitive, experiential understanding of which is considered to be the essence of true insight in Theravada Buddhist philosophy. And within a few days of beginning the essay, something remarkable happened: I began spontaneously entering mild trance states, so that I would be walking around with my eyes wide open and my feet barely touching the ground. Furthermore, I began experiencing some really lovely, lucid mindfulness intermittently throughout the day, which was also spontaneous and seemingly effortless. For example, while drawing water at the well I would experience very clearly the feelings of the well rope in my hands, the movements and sensations of my muscles as I pulled the rope, the heaviness of the bucket, the feel of the breeze on my skin, and on and on. Also, my meditative practice became drastically improved, so that I was able to sit with my mind wide awake, silent, and clear like glass every day for several months, which for me is unprecedented. I do not often meditate very well.
     Also during this time valuable insights arose. A strange one occurred one afternoon when I was descending a stone stairway on my way to the well to take my daily bath. As I walked down the steps I suddenly began experiencing rather severe abdominal cramps. This was not very unusual, as the weather is hot and the villagers who fed me have no refrigerators; so it was pretty likely that I had eaten some curry that was a bit "off" that morning. Anyway, I was doubled over in pain, and anyone who saw my face might have thought I was dying. I considered that in all likelihood I'd be making around three emergency trips to the outhouse that night. Right about that same time it also started raining unexpectedly; and because I own only one set of robes and had not brought an umbrella I was also considering that I'd be wearing a wet robe the following day. Then, as I slowly walked down the steps doubled over in pain and getting soaked in the downpour, a spontaneous shift in perspective occurred: It seemed as though all the commotion---the pain, the expectations of midnight trots to the outhouse, and the gratuitous drench in the rain---was like waves at the surface of a body of water, but that "I," the center of awareness, was deeper down where it was quiet and still, looking up and noticing the waves at the surface, but not being moved by them. I was still doubled over in pain, and anyone who saw me might still think I was dying, but the experience was so beautiful and so profound that I nearly wept for joy; just the knowledge that such a blissful, detached state is possible, even in the midst of trouble, was and is an indescribable blessing.
     Another insight arose more gradually, as I meditated day after day: I had long considered that suffering is essentially a matter of refusing to accept the way things are, of struggling against What Is---but it finally dawned on me that this applies not only to external circumstances like weather, bad food, and bad company, but to one's own internal mental states as well. In other words, if I wish to be enlightened I should patiently, consciously, compassionately, and whole-heartedly accept my own "defilements." This doesn't mean that I should wallow in them or reinforce them, but it does mean that I shouldn't struggle against them either. Wallowing in ("taking up") is one extreme, and struggling against ("putting down") is the other; the Middle Way goes between these two. And if out of weakness or foolishness I do wallow in unskillful mental states or struggle against them, well, then I should whole-heartedly accept that too, without struggling against it. As the teacher Paul Lowe says, don't be against your own againstness. Conscious, aware acceptance is key, with control being largely if not wholly irrelevant.
     There is absolutely nothing wrong with yogic effort, of course, but if we strive spiritually it should be out of love for spiritual striving, not out of aversion for our own supposed imperfections. And if you who is reading this are able to be a perfectly virtuous saint, then by all means be one, with my sincere blessings upon you; but if you are not able, then don't. It may not really matter. A saint and an enlightened sage are not necessarily the same person. It may be that one logical conclusion of Schopenhauer's quote above is this statement by Krishnamurti:
You have a concept of what you should be and how you should act, and all the time you are in fact acting quite differently; so you see that principles, beliefs and ideals must inevitably lead to hypocrisy and a dishonest life. It is the ideal that creates the opposite to what is, so if you know how to be with "what is," then the opposite is not necessary. (---from Freedom from the Known)
Or consider the following verses from the Mahāviyūha Sutta, a very ancient discourse from the Sutta Nipāta:

If he is fallen away from his morality and observances
He is agitated, having failed in his action;
He prays for and aspires to pure freedom from wrong
Like one who has lost his caravan and is far from home. 
But having abandoned all morality and observances
And that action that is criticized or uncriticized,
Not aspiring to "purity" or "non-purity,"
He would live refraining, not taking hold even of peace.

Or in the words of the Devil (alias William Blake), "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion." As some of you may recall, it was the knowledge of Good and Evil that got Adam and Eve kicked out of Paradise. Compassion is heavenly, but judgements of right or wrong are hell. Yet hell isn't necessarily right or wrong; it's just hell.
     Incidentally, after the expansive experiences described above I considered the possibility that I had seen a glimpse of enlightenment and was consequently, in Buddhist terms, an Ariya; but, like anything else that has a beginning, the expanded states also had an end, and eventually passed. It is interesting that these experiences began while I was working on an article on the Three Marks (now included on the website, as a knowledge of these marks is considered by orthodox tradition to lead to liberating insight. More interestingly, it began very shortly after I threw up my hands and gave up. Much of the spiritual literature of the world endorses the idea that simply letting go of the struggle is often a key factor in significant spiritual growth, or even in full awakening---especially if the letting go occurs when the tension of the struggle has approached the breaking point. Mere laxness, or giving up almost as soon as one has begun striving, tends not to work so well.
     The insightful experience of the winter and spring of 2004 resulted in a great experiment. The experiment was essentially to continue living a monk's life, but within a context of unrepentant mediocrity. My years of strictness established some pretty good habits, so I haven't gone entirely to seed, plus my temperament remains pretty much the same as before, although I certainly am not quite as strict as I used to be, and am less frustrated and "uptight." After the experience, even while still living in caves in Burma I would look deeply into the eyes of pretty girls, work off frustrations by occasionally drawing erotic pictures (I can draw well), and slap the occasional mosquito, to mention just a few of my lapses of virtue. Since my return to the USA I've gone even wilder---I've listened to music, watched movies, consumed a few mind-altering chemicals, and have even enjoyed the physical touch of a female, although I have willingly undergone the required penance for such breaches of the rules. I suspect that next year I'll be somewhat more restrained in my behavior, although I really can't say I regret my relative relaxation of restraint, and make no apologies. I have called it my Great Experiment in Mediocrity. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On the Origins of Meditation

     Everything in the world has an origin, a beginning to an inevitable end, somehow or another. Objects and techniques which are commonplace today, like shoes, coffee mugs, and pressing a finger to one's upper lip to prevent a sneeze, had to be invented by somebody at some time. (This is assuming for the sake of argument that time and space are not a complete illusion.) So it seems to me that yogic practice in general, and meditation in particular, had to be invented by someone, probably way back in prehistoric times. This essay will consider what I consider to be some of the more likely origins of what has come to be an array of techniques, some of them very refined, for purifying the mind, increasing its power, and/or cultivating deep insight.
     Gazing into a campfire. Anyone who does much camping knows the hypnotic fascination of staring into a campfire. Watching the flames flickering and dancing can seem just as interesting as (and much less of an insult to one's intelligence than) watching television. It has a soothing and genuinely hypnotic effect---which I hypothesize is a kind of animal instinct in the human animal for keeping us safely near the campfire instead of wandering out into the darkness where the wolves and leopards are. The hypnotic state of glassy-eyed vegetation in front of TV sets around the world may be in part due to a misplaced campfire-gazing instinct. Much as an instinct for preferring sweet food arose from the fact that in prehistoric times sweet food was nutritious, like ripe fruit, but then was perverted into a liking for relatively junky, non-nutritious doughnuts and candy bars, even so our instinct for gazing at flickering lights at night, which was valuable for someone a hundred thousand years ago, has been perverted into a habit of sitting vacantly in front of morally bankrupt sitcoms, crime dramas, and prolonged commercials. Consequently, although watching a campfire obviously could be called a kind of relaxing meditation, similar to watching a goldfish silently gliding around and around in its bowl (which is actually prescribed by some psychologists as a stress reliever for overworked business people), the meditation would be of a relatively elementary "trance" type, and would perhaps not be the most likely candidate for the prototype of such advanced meditation techniques as mindfulness of breathing or the mantra "AUM." I have read, however, that yoga teaches a meditation technique involving gazing at a flame; and "fire kasina" is one of the forty traditional tranquility meditation practices taught in Theravada Buddhism.
     Shamanistic practices. There were plenty of shamanistic rainmakers, priestesses, and "witch doctors" practicing their arts in human societies during the Stone Age, and some of their practices may have eventually culminated in the contemplative traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sufism, etc. Some of these practices which appear to be plausible ancestors of yoga are group ceremonies, drugs, and vision quests, which I will briefly consider in turn.
     It is well known that people in tribal cultures indulge in various group ceremonies---celebrations, prayers to the spirits, manhood rituals, etc.---in which many members of the tribe will dance, sing, or chant in unison until a kind of "group mind" has been established. Sometimes people will participate until they collapse in states of intense feeling or ecstasy, and some in these states will speak in tongues or prophesy for the benefit of the tribe. The pounding drums, the synchronized union of bodily movements and voice, and the intensity of the group atmosphere, bring them into a trancelike, even mystical state which is considered to be bonding and therapeutic. Also, especially at rites of passage, profound altered states of consciousness help to integrate young members of the tribe into more of a group awareness, a uniformity of thought and feeling with the others that has obvious survival value in a dangerous world. I think the chanting performed at some of these ancient ceremonies may have been a precursor of mantra meditation at least.
     Shamanistic use of mind-altering drugs like peyote or the mushroom Amanita muscaria is another possible origin of sitting cross-legged on a round black cushion. Many of the more powerful drugs with psychedelic effects may induce profound expanded states of consciousness, which may have been sufficient in and of themselves for centuries, then heightened by more or less yogic techniques like bodily postures and breath control, until the drugs themselves were finally considered unnecessary. Many modern spiritual seekers in the West have recapitulated this evolutionary scheme by starting with psychedelics, and then seeking non-chemical means to produce similar expanded states of consciousness. Possibly more than half of Western Buddhist monks have begun this way. At least that seems to be the case in my generation.
     The vision quest, a kind of solitary rite of passage, is another tradition sometimes entering well within the range of meditative mysticism. An example of a simple vision quest is one my father told me of when I was a boy. He had a friend in Alaska named Frank Walunga, an Eskimo shaman and part-time longshoreman. During the mid 20th century his initiatory vision quest as an apprentice shaman, so to speak, consisted of the following procedure: He walked out into a wilderness alone, and sought out a smooth round rock about the size of an orange that fit well in the palm of his hand. Then he sought out a large, smooth, flat rock. He sat down at the flat rock and rubbed the small round one around and around (and around and around…) on the surface of it. He continued rubbing the rock in a circle without eating, drinking, or sleeping, until he had his "experience." The process took a few days. Now from the Buddhist point of view this would definitely be considered a samatha meditation practice, a technique for emptying the mind of limiting, distracting perceptual content. It is still more of a "trance" technique than one a Theravada Buddhist would consider conducive to the arising of liberating insight, however. 
     Incidentally, I will add that according to my father, some Eskimo shamans did have the ability to enter very deep trance states, and some apparently had astonishing psychic powers. For example he told one story of an old shaman who would go into trance states so deep that his heart rate and breath rate would approach zero, as with a hibernating animal or a Burmese meditator in deep jhāna, and so the local law enforcement agencies had been cautioned that if anyone brought in a dead old Eskimo man they shouldn't immediately assume that he was necessarily really dead. The old man had a way of going into his evidently cataleptic states just about anywhere, including alone in the wilderness, or sitting by the side of the road. Furthermore, the old man had a reputation for being able to teleport physically while in such states. Anyway, one day in southwest Alaska a supposedly dead old Eskimo man was brought into a sheriff's office. The sheriff knew the stories, so to be on the safe side he put the apparently lifeless body in a jail cell and locked the door. Then he made a radio call to another sheriff's station on a nearby island to get more information, if possible, on the appearance of the old shaman. When he described to the other sheriff the old man brought in for dead, he was told that that certainly sounded like the one---but it couldn't possibly be him, because the old shaman had just walked in the door and requested that the first sheriff be informed that he was all right. The first sheriff went back to the jail cell and found it empty. The old shaman, presumably, disappeared from a jail cell at one sheriff's station and reappeared at a different one on an island many miles away. Anyway, that's the story. Similar anecdotes are told about modern yogic meditation masters like the Hindu Neem Karoli Baba.
     Stone Age "hunting magic." Long ago I read an interesting theory in the book Earth House Hold by Gary Snyder, one of the great captains of the Beatnik movement of the late 1950's. Snyder's theory is that meditation evolved out of prehistoric hunting practices. It is a common belief among "primitive" peoples that animals can sense our thoughts. (My father, who hunted much in Alaska, agreed with this. He said that stalking a moose is almost impossible; the wary moose will detect one's presence and take off almost every time. But if one sneaks up on a tree next to the moose it becomes as easy as hunting cows. According to him, the moose somehow knows when someone is paying attention to it.) As a result of this, Stone Age hunters would wait in ambush by the side of a game trail for hours keeping their mind almost completely silent. (This was very likely much easier for them to do than for compulsively thinking modern Westerners like most of us; even modern Burmese villagers seem to have about one-third as many thoughts going through their head as we have. It may have its drawbacks, but it makes meditation much easier.) Skillful hunters couldn't possibly go into a trance, however, as it would be pointless to become cataleptic when one needs to be as alert and ready for the chase as possible. This state is essentially a form of what the Roman Catholic mystics call contemplation: a state of silent watchfulness. This also is an excellent meditative technique for increasing the likelihood that deep insight will arise. It is not just a hypnotic trance state like one may easily experience while staring at a fire, but is an expanded, hyperconscious state. How it evolved into jhāna in the full lotus position, however, I cannot guess.
     Incidentally, the idea of Eskimos and other hunting peoples developing deep contemplative techniques and even psychic powers seems to challenge the traditional Buddhist view that such exalted states necessarily arise from a morally purified and saintly mind which wouldn't think of killing another conscious being. It may be that people, some people at least, from preliterate and pre-technological societies already have the firm foundation of a quiet, uncluttered mind which we who are "civilized" must deliberately cultivate through morality and increased simplicity. Or perhaps once we lock ourselves into a moral system we find ourselves required psychologically to play by its rules. (Consider the tribulations of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment, or those of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, when they tried to leave established morality behind.)
     There are countless other possibilities for the origins of meditation. Perhaps from time to time a spiritual genius arises who is simply "ripe" for the cultivation of advanced states of consciousness and stumbles upon some meditation method, which he or she then teaches to others. Traditionally, Gotama Buddha is considered to have accomplished this not with meditation itself, as it obviously already existed, but with meditation capable of leading to full enlightenment. Or perhaps some of the followers of the New Age are correct, and extraterrestrial beings brought meditation to this world. However it got here, it is very likely that some form of it existed in various cultures throughout the world even in prehistoric times, and that it was developed into an advanced spiritual system in the Indus Valley Civilization of very ancient India, from which most yogic traditions of India are derived, and from which the modern world has been profoundly affected. For this we should be grateful, for it gives us a conscious alternative to the Brave New World that threatens to overwhelm us if we are not watchful.