Saturday, December 29, 2012

"The Time I Was Attacked by Ogres"

     Back in the mid 1990's I was living at a big school monastery called Mahagandhayone, near Mandalay. Living in a crowded monastery in town wasn't really my style, and I was intending to find a good forest to live in after I had finished my studies. A friend of mine, a Mon/Burmese monk named U Khemissara, was from Mon State in the southeast of the country and knew of many good forest areas there, so after his courses were over for the year (I didn't speak Burmese well enough to take regular classes) we went on a tour of forests in Mon State. I settled on a place called Thabeit Ain Tawya, or "Alms Bowl Pool Forest Monastery," where I spent the following hot season. 
     Before I left Mahagandhayone U Khemissara warned me in all seriousness of the dangers of the forest near Thabeit Ain. Before getting any farther with this story I should explain a little about my friend. He was an intelligent and serious monk, and perhaps he deserves an entire article to describe his rise and fall as a great Burmese monk. For now, suffice it to say that he had a university degree in Physics and worked as a high school Mathematics instructor before his ordination. He was not a frivolous person, and was certainly not dishonest. 
     Anyway, U Khemissara warned me that the forest around Thabeit Ain was infested by ogres (in Burmese, baloo, and in Pali, yakkha) who were armed with a kind of supernatural guns that could render people insane or worse. There was a well-known story of a Hindu swami who had lived in that forest many years before. The swami knew of the ogres, so he made the mistake of marking off an area for his own protection with spells and rituals. This was possibly the worst thing that he could have done, as evidently ogres are territorial, and they bitterly resented a human intruder marking off their territory as his own---so they attacked, using their magic guns. The swami was overcome and went into something like a fugue state, not knowing who or where he was, and wandered lost through the forest until he happened to come out on a highway, where some villagers took him in and nursed him back to some semblance of health. I didn't hear what happened to him after that, or whether he regained the full use of his faculties. Maybe he went back to India.
     U Khemissara also earnestly cautioned me that there was at least one dragon (in Burmese, nagah, and in Pali, nāga) in that same forest, plus a terrestrial deity called an ossa saunt, which was even more dangerous than the dragon. He was confident that Dhamma and the power of my own meditation would protect me however, so long as I didn't try to mark off any territories for myself and treated the powerful beings there with respect.
     I lived under a big tropical chestnut tree just outside the boundary of Thabeit Ain monastery; and my first month and a half there were relatively uneventful. (My biggest excitement was keeping woodcutters away from the trees near my resting place, and trying to keep rascally villagers from sneaking into the monastery and poaching fish from the pool.) 
     Then, around the middle of April, which is Burmese New Year, a one-week meditation retreat was held at the monastery just below where I was staying. The leader of the retreat was a serious monk from a nearby school monastery, and although he was strict and seemingly wise, he was apparently more of a scholar than a meditator, and gave much instruction over a public address system. He even talked during the meditation sessions. So one night he was giving a long Dhamma discourse over the loudspeaker which was interfering with my concentration. I decided to lie down and go to sleep early, then wake up early and meditate. So that's what I did.
     I woke up before dawn and meditated until my legs were sore, then changed positions and meditated some more, but still it was not dawn. The ground was all up and down, and there were poisonous snakes in the area, plus I had no flashlight, so walking meditation was not much of an option. So I lay down and slept a little more. It seemed like a very long night. 
     Finally I woke up again and looked toward the horizon to see if there were any signs of dawn.  (I didn't have a clock at that time, so I went by the sun; the only time I really had to know was dawn anyway, as that was the time I left for the village for alms.) As I lay there with my head propped up on my arm, craning my neck to look for signs of daylight, I heard two loud sounds coming from down the valley, not from the monastery below, but more from the direction of the nearest village. It sounded like an electric bass guitar amplified over a concert loudspeaker system: BWONGGGGGG…..BWONGGGGGG….. I wondered what it could be. Then I suddenly noticed that I was completely paralyzed; I couldn't move a muscle. I was stuck in the position of craning my neck to look toward the horizon, my head propped up on my hand. Then I began hearing the voices of a crowd all talking at once, rather like in "Welcome to the Machine," an old Pink Floyd song I used to listen to, but this time I knew the voices were inside my head. They did not sound like they were coming from anywhere outside me. 
     A momentary thought flashed into my mind: Should I be afraid? But another moment's thought was sufficient to remind me that fear wouldn't help anything at all; that even if I weren't paralyzed I still couldn't run anywhere, as I was on a steep hillside in the dark. With snakes. I figured that if this were caused by some kind of beings, in Burma, arguably the most Buddhist country in the world, maybe they were Buddhists; and so I began silently reciting homage to the Buddha: namo tassa bhagavato, arahato, sammāsambuddhassa…and the spell was broken. The voices stopped, and I was able to move again.
     I sat up and meditated some more, and still it was not dawn. So I lost patience and decided to walk down the hillside by starlight and hang out with the retreatants until it was time to leave for alms round. On the way down I almost stepped on a banded krait, a very venomous snake, which began writhing and flopping all over the ground in front of me as a warning not to mess with it. (For a picture of a banded krait, see the illustration to the previous blog post, "Poisonous Snakes and Yogic Systematologies.") Within fifteen minutes of reaching the monastery it was morning, and time to walk for alms.
     My own best guess as to what happened is that it was a waking dream. I know that my eyes were open and that I wasn't entirely asleep, but I had just woken up, so maybe the dreaming mechanism in the brain was slow to turn off. Also, that would explain the paralysis, as I have read that we are paralyzed when we dream to keep us from acting out our dreams. I assume sleepwalkers do not have their sleep paralysis functioning correctly. I can't entirely rule out influence from nonhuman beings, but I would guess that an attack by ogres or an ossa saunt would be more obvious, and more clearly identifiable as such. But who knows.
     I made the mistake of informing a monk at the monastery of my experience. He also had a university degree (in English), but he did not look like the typical scholar or intellectual: He had a big, very nasty-looking scar on his head, as from some really awful accident in the past, and his body was practically covered with tattoos. They were not tattoos of scorpions, spiders, and the like, like some Burmese men (including monks) have on them, but were magical tattoos of protection. If I remember correctly, at least one of them was an inn, a diagram resembling a tic-tac-toe board, with mysterious runes of power drawn into some of the squares. In Burma some sorcerers and alchemists specialize in these diagrams. I figure he had enough protection tattoos to protect him from just about any malevolent influences that might come along. When I told him of what had happened during the night his eyes got very big, and he said, "Don't be afraid! They were just testing you!"
     A few weeks after this incident the monsoon rains started, and a few weeks after that I found myself at a monastery in central Burma, about 400 miles away from Thabeit Ain Tawya. Almost as soon as I got there I went to see an Australian monk I knew, and one of the first things to come out of his mouth was, "What's this I hear about you being attacked by ogres?" Shortly after that I visited another friend, a Texan hermit who lived in a huge hollow banyan tree about a mile from the Australian's monastery. Almost as soon as I entered his tree (it was really a huge one) he asked, "What's this I hear about you being attacked by ogres?" News travels fast, especially news of allegedly supernatural events occurring to forest-dwelling foreign monks in Burma. 
     If there really are ogres in that forest, I wonder why they don't stop the villagers from cutting the forest down. If I were an ogre I think that might be what I would do.
Ogres (lower right) guarding a shrine in NW Burma


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Poisonous Snakes and Yogic Systematologies

One of the mind's favorite games is trying to find formulas. The idea is that if you have enough of the right formulas, you won't have any more problems....The alternative is to let go of all formulas. If you don't have any idea of how things are supposed to be, then there is no suffering, no tension---no sense of things not being right. What you are left with is this messy, beautiful thing called life, unfolding as it always has.   (---Nirmala, from
Nothing Personal)

     J. Krishnamurti, in one of his many books, says that after one is bitten by a snake one automatically becomes careful of snakes. After one experiences for oneself the unpleasantness and danger of a snakebite it requires no effort thereafter to beware of them. One doesn't have to attend workshops or courses on carefulness about snakes; one's carelessness simply ceases.
     My father used to smoke two packs of cigarettes every day. He stopped smoking several times, but always started again, first perhaps by chewing tobacco a little, then having the occasional cigar…until he was back to two packs a day again. Then his leg started turning black. He went to a doctor who told him that because the leg had been badly injured in the past (my father worked as a longshoreman and a rolling log in a ship's hold had crushed the leg several years previously) the still damaged blood vessels were being clogged with tobacco tar. He told my father that if he didn't stop smoking, then the leg would eventually have to be amputated. Consequently, my father stopped smoking for good. Even when strong cravings arose he could easily resist them with a single thought of his leg being amputated. What before had seemed so difficult suddenly became pretty easy, because his point of view had shifted.
     As a general rule, we react in the same way to the same circumstances so long as our perceptions of those circumstances remain the same. If we wish to respond differently, we have to alter our way of looking at things. If we can't manage this feat, then the best we can do is avoid the circumstances in question, to avoid the temptation. But if we want actually to resist the temptation, or even to neutralize it, it is a practical necessity clearly to see, to really see, the disadvantages of giving in to it. Unless perhaps we have absolute, stainless steel faith in a system that simply tells us not to give in.
     Many medieval European Catholic saints and a fair amount of modern Asian Buddhist ones have had this kind of faith. They haven't needed to clearly see the danger of, say, drunkenness or lying because they deeply believed, without a shadow of doubt, a book saying that such behavior is wrong. Perhaps they believed that if they gave in to such temptations they would burn in Hell. But we modern Westerners tend not to have this kind of faith. We have too much skepticism and/or open-mindedness for it, and are too lukewarm. As John Stuart Mill once wrote, "To find people who believe their religion as a person believes that fire will burn his hand when thrust into it, we must seek them in those Oriental countries where Europeans do not yet predominate, or in the European world when it was still universally Catholic." So we lukewarm modern Westerners generally require firsthand experience on which to base experiential insight. And it may not come easily.
     An alcoholic or an amphetamine addict, for example, may not see the light and become truly motivated to stop until he has lost his wife, his children, his job, his home, his friends, his money, his health, and his reputation, and has hit absolute rock bottom. Before then he may be 90% sure he wants to stop…until the itch starts itching, and before long he's not so certain that stopping is the best possible idea. He is not yet entirely convinced.
     I can certainly relate to this. Although Theravada monks are supposed to entertain no desires, and although I have been technically celibate for more than twenty years, I still feel attraction to beautiful women, and still entertain desire. I am not yet fully convinced, deep down, that sexuality is such a bad thing. Not only have I not stopped desiring a woman, I have not yet managed whole-heartedly to want to stop desiring one, or perhaps even more than one. Perhaps stopping and really, really wanting to stop amount to the same thing.
     Anyway, the whole situation reminds me of spiritual practice in general. Paul Lowe, who has been one of my favorite teachers for years, says that, as a rule, spiritual practice is not really for the purpose of waking us up, but rather for the purpose of helping us stay asleep! And as Nisargadatta Maharaj used to say, paths do not lead to enlightenment. If we really, really wanted to be enlightened we probably would be such, effortlessly. It is a myth that we are not enlightened because we don't try hard enough to become enlightened; we are not enlightened because we are constantly trying to remain unenlightened! We are not yet entirely convinced that unenlightenment, with all its dissatisfactions (to say the very least), is not the best possible way to be.
     So what do we do? We practice. We follow rules, read books, watch spiritual YouTube videos, attend workshops, do Yoga, and/or meditate. Do these things work? How many enlightened Western Yoga instructors, or enlightened Western monks or nuns, do we know of? I know of a few Western monks who are believed to have psychic powers, but none believed by many to be fully enlightened arahants---except myself, ironically, in a few remote places in northwest Burma. But to be considered an enlightened sage by simple-hearted Burmese villagers is not all that difficult. It appears that all that is necessary is for a monk to be modestly behaved, to live alone and mind his own business, to meditate, and not to handle money, and before long devout Burmese Buddhists will consider him to be a saint. There have been times I've been saddened that villagers in northwest Burma couldn't find a better saint than me. On second thought, I do remember not long ago an Asian woman saying that she had been told that Ajahn Brahm in Australia is enlightened; but she is the only person I know of, besides whoever told her, who has that opinion. 
     We lukewarm Westerners do these spiritual practices, or even cling to them, in order to compensate for the fact that we don't yet whole-heartedly want liberation, Nirvana. Deep down, Nirvana may seem kind of scary, sort of like death. In fact it is a kind of death---the death of who we think we are.
     Naturally, doing anything isn't going to wake us up, because doing is karma (the literal meaning of the word "karma" is deed, action, doing), and karma leads to more karma. Nirvana is without a cause or an effect; it is unconditioned; and thus it is not the result of any doing. If it can be said to happen at all, it is effortless. 
     So I have come to have a distrust, or at least a certain skepticism, of techniques. Let's say someone wants to stop having a certain troublesome habit, like indulging in anger, or maybe judging others. Well, that person often winds up like a fat lady on a diet: she struggles and obsesses and struggles some more, until she either fails or else develops a new addiction to replace the old one, like perhaps religious fanaticism. Using sheer brute force of willpower doesn't work, because it can't be sustained. Struggling against an urge tends to reinforce it. Thus vows and resolutions, unless they arise already fulfilled, are generally in vain. I am reminded of the biblical advice to pray with the conviction that you have already received what you are praying for.
     It seems the best we can do is to be as conscious as possible (and consciousness ultimately is effortless: like dancing or playing the violin, the better we get at it the easier it gets) and simply see that the habit is deleterious, that it doesn't really serve us, that it lowers our vibration, limits us, and keeps us in a stupor. When we can see this, when we have this clear insight, then the bad habit simply shrivels up and drops off like a leaf in autumn---or rather instantaneously poofs out of existence. No struggling required.
     Paul Lowe in one of his books tells the story of a man who went to a wise hermit who lived in a forest. He said to the hermit, "I want to become enlightened. Please accept me as a disciple and teach me." The hermit said, "All right then, follow me," and led him through the forest to a river. When they reached the riverbank the hermit suddenly grabbed the fellow, threw him down, and thrust his head under the water. The would-be disciple struggled with all his strength, but the hermit was too strong for him, and he began to lose consciousness…and then the hermit pulled him up out of the water. As the man gasped, wild-eyed, the hermit said, "When you want enlightenment as intensely as you wanted air just now, then you will be ready." If he wanted it that intensely, he probably wouldn't need to be anybody's disciple, or to become a monk either. He'd be practically there already.
     In very ancient Buddhist texts like the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta, no formalized techniques are given; rather, a monk's practice seems to consist primarily of wandering homeless and penniless and being at the mercy of the Universe, simply letting life happen. Meditation is mentioned, but no method other than mindfulness or unattached awareness. Practicing it was probably more of a joy than a task to be done.
     I have come to see systematic techniques and plans for spiritual gains in the future to represent essentially a defeatist attitude. The idea seems to be, "I can't do it now, so maybe some other time." Being dissatisfied with oneself now in the hopes of some bright goal in the future is failing now. And all we have is now. The future is uncertain. Now is the time to Wake Up.
     Still though, I do think that some formal structure is not necessarily a bad thing, not necessarily just gratuitous limitation and self-repression. It obviously worked for all those medieval and Counter-Reformation Christian saints, and still works for many Asian Buddhists, and others. It works best, however, if one can totally accept the formal structure so that it is in harmony with one's spirit. If this is not the case it tends to result in rigidity, hysteria, and frustration, plus maybe some fanaticism besides. If it is the case though, if one can deeply harmonize with the formal constraints of a system, then spontaneous beauty may arise, as happened with Coleridge and his great poem "Kubla Khan," especially the final lines:

                         ...And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
                         His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
                              Weave a circle round him thrice,
                         And close your eyes with holy dread
                         For he on honey-dew hath fed,
                              And drunk the milk of Paradise. 

Sometimes being a monk living within the restraints of monastic discipline does seem to me like being a poet in the old days, when poets still created beauty within the constraints of meter and rhyme. Nowadays Western poetry, and Western spirituality also, tend to follow a less structured path.
     Considering all of the above, I have often thought that a desire to strive on the Path so that someday one might become enlightened---not today, but someday---is not the best reason for someone becoming a monk. Usually things don't happen the way they were expected to (they seldom do), and the idealist monk becomes disgruntled and drops out. I think at least two reasons for becoming a monk are more likely to bear great fruit than a desire for eventual Awakening: having the idea that living an intensely spiritual life is a sacred duty, even a privilege, no matter what the ultimate results of it are; and having a temperament that just happens to resonate with the simple, quiet life of a monk, and an intuitive calling to live that life. I think either of these will probably get one farther than a firm, idealistic determination to eradicate one's defilements and attain Nirvana in this very life. But of course that reason is better than, say, laziness and a desire for free room and board. There are all sorts of reasons for becoming a monk, so third place isn't bad at all.

(Living the Holy Life is like handling a snake:
It is good to do it carefully.)



Saturday, December 15, 2012

Unusual Youths

     One reason why I was able to become a Western Buddhist monk is that I was raised by a weird father. Along with many other things he was an explorer of consciousness who experimented with hypnotism, ESP, psychokinesis, witchcraft, spirit communications, shamanism, etc. As a child, when most other children were watching TV, I would be sitting on my father's lap listening to stories about past life regressions and astral traveling (in addition to many tales of a less supernatural nature like gold prospecting in Alaska and combat against the Germans in WWII). He himself claimed to be a Buddhist, although his version of Buddhism was rather unorthodox---partly, I suppose, because he learned it from a dead Vietnamese monk channeled through his psychic second wife (not my mother). So I grew up a little more open-minded toward alternative ways of looking at reality than most kids in the logging town of Aberdeen, Washington.
     Before he died a few years ago he told me of a book he was writing, a "supernatural autobiography" explaining how he himself came to be so weird. Relatively recently, after a fair amount of trouble, I finally acquired a box of his writings, the only material inheritance I received from him after his death. (Among his papers was a copy of the last will and testament of one of his Southern grandfathers or great-grandfathers, bequeathing, along with his other property, a long list of black slaves, each with a single name, and each with a monetary value of between one hundred and one thousand dollars.) Just a few days ago I started reading my father's book Would You Reap the Wind?, which I am happy to say I helped him name. The title is from a poem recited by the aforementioned dead Vietnamese monk:

          Would you reap the wind?
          First you must sow the seed
          And nurture them to grow
          Where uncharted mental rivers flow
          And when they've grown, then let them blow
          Like thistles back to whence they came
          And only then will you attain
          The things you seek.

     In the book he mentions a boyhood friend who, it was said, appeared intellectually normal up to about age eleven and then simply stopped developing---or at least he stopped developing in the way most people develop. Here is an excerpt from an early part of the book, describing my father's friend James, who served as one of his first exposures to what he later generally called the Occult. (Dad was dyslexic, so I've taken the liberty of fixing his spelling and punctuation.)

     As a new kid [in Cave Springs, Georgia, around 1936] I was an outsider, so I made a buddy out of James, who let's say was different. We were fifteen and I a senior in high school---James was still in the sixth grade, his fourth year there. James was fat and wore glasses with thick lenses. He didn't talk much and before I arrived had no friends. Different I think was not the right word…James was downright strange. Bees would not sting him. Snakes would not bite him. I saw him catch bees and wasps and cup them in his hands, careful not to hurt them, and hold them up to his ear and listen to them buzz and then turn them loose again. The first time I saw him pick up a cottonmouth moccasin [a very poisonous snake] and gently stroke it---it shook me. 
     He would not go fishing if the fish were not biting that day; and if I went without him I would catch no fish.
     "How do you know the fish aren't biting, James?"
     "I don't know, I guess it just ain't a fish bite'n day."
     "How do you know the fish aren't biting?"
     "You didn't catch any, did you? I just know."
     Once I saw him eating poison ivy buds in the early spring. 
     "You're gonna get that stuff in your mouth and stomach!"
     "No: if you eat them this time of year, you don't get poison ivy in the summer."
     "How do you know it?"
     "I just know."
     James was a water witch or dowser. It was limestone country. No water table. Water ran through tunnels or caves, through underground streams; you hit or you missed. He didn't use a forked stick like most others used. He would lay a willow leaf on his wrist and walk around. When he stopped, it was above water.
     "How do you know?"
     "The leaf curls down on my arm."
     "But it didn't: I watched it."
     He shrugged and said, "You don't see it, you feel it."
     Whatever, he never missed.
     His most amazing trick was the way he could find lost objects. He would take a green switch and follow it until he found your pocketknife or whatever else you lost. 
     "I don't know. I just follow the switch."
     And if you hid something, he knew it and wouldn't even look---he just knew it.

     I suppose nowadays in America a boy like James would likely be considered "learning disabled," or whatever the politically correct term is now, and sent to special classes to cure him of his disability, so that he might fit more effectively into society. People like James were probably more common before the educational system and the mass media began homogenizing us. Society is more interconnected now---at a superficial level, that is---and our beliefs have been streamlined to better fit the machine. Mainstream Western consumer culture is likewise overwhelming the various other cultures of the earth, and has recently begun a full-scale invasion of Burma, one of the last remaining "wisdom cultures" remaining on the planet. This is generally considered to be a good thing. 
     Nowadays Science must explain everything, and people like James don't really exist. My father must have got the facts confused. There must be a scientific explanation for it.

     My father was convinced that I am a reincarnation of his own father, which, if true, would make me my own grandfather and cause me to be named David Reynolds two lives in a row. I have no recollection of being my own grandfather, however. Dr. Reynolds, although an ordained Baptist minister and a true intellectual who was working on his fourth doctorate when he died, was also a believer in telepathy; he had had adequate proof to persuade him. Here is Dad's account, from the same book: 

     My father had a firm belief in mental telepathy from an experience he had as a young man (he was 46 when I was born). As a young man he had practiced law in Little Rock, Arkansas; his first wife and young son died of malaria there. My sister Charlotte was in delicate health and the doctors advised him to take her away from the low fever country and back to the mountains, or he was going to lose her too. So he decided to move back to the North Georgia mountains where he had been raised as a boy.
     He had a brother-in-law, John Wallace---also a widower, with two sons---who accompanied him on the train as far as Memphis, Tennessee. John Wallace was his closest friend; he was also a periodic alcoholic, and Memphis was his favorite watering hole. My father advised him, "John, finish up your business and go home or you will get mixed up with your old crowd again and all kicked out of shape for weeks. Give yourself a break and go home."  John promised faithfully that he would.
     On his second night home my dad woke up from a sound sleep with the words "JOHN WALLACE NEEDS YOU" over and over like a telegraph in his brain. He was so upset by this that he could not get back to sleep. A few days after this he got a letter from his and John's mother-in-law. She asked what had happened to John; he hadn't come home. A day later he got her second letter: John Wallace had been killed in a barroom brawl, on the same night and about the same time that Dad had got the message…My father was not given to tall tales or even exaggeration. I was raised on this story and firmly believe it to be true.

     I'll spare you my father's ghost stories, and the account of Cora the cook and her interactions with the three deceased Yankee soldiers (she conversed with only two, as one was without a head), but I will relate our family's brief correspondence with the famous psychic Edgar Cayce:

     Times were hard [this was during the Great Depression, mind you], and my father did not get his usual summer job teaching at the teacher's college. He was despondent and left home swearing that he was going to find some sort of job. He was gone a couple of weeks. My mother did not know where he was. She did not hear from him. Just over the state line in Selma, Alabama, lived a man named Edgar Cayce who was getting some publicity as "the sleeping prophet." My mother felt he must be an [American] Indian, as only they had this sort of talent. Anyway, she wrote him a letter asking about my dad. The letter he wrote back was, "There is really no reason for me to answer this letter. By the time you get this you will have heard from your husband. He will be teaching summer school in Jasper, Alabama." The letter from Dad came the day before the one from Cayce.

     I think strange events like these happen to most people at some time, somehow or another, even though our Scientistic culture in the West cannot explain them; so we often consign memories of such events into a kind of "junk drawer" that is not well integrated with the rest of our store of memories and information. They are seen as anomalies, maybe even a little uncomfortable or embarrassing.
     It is largely because of absorbing such stories as a boy, though, that I have grown up with the idea that Anything Is Possible---including telepathy, clairvoyance, non-physical beings, alternative realities, world peace, and enlightenment in this very life. I don't insist, but I certainly feel that it's possible. And a belief that something is possible makes it much more likely to be possible. 

Edgar Cayce


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Our Prospects for the Future

     About ten years ago I read a book authored by a wise man who said that in or around 2012, around the time of the end of the Mayan calendar, a great shift in consciousness will occur on this planet, ushering in an inconceivably different world, and that higher beings are already here to help bring it forth. One of the many reasons I came back to America when I did was, just in case, to be ready to participate in this shift if possible. I wanted to be where the action is, so to speak, and to contribute to it if I could. I joined a group which follows the guidance of the wise man who authored the book, and entered an email correspondence with them. A few months ago I reminded them of the predictions of the teacher and asked what we ought to do now that the time has come…and there was a resounding silence. One person noted what I had said, but all I heard on the issue from the others was nothing, and very little even of that. (Perhaps there was some discomfort or embarrassment over the teacher's possibly inaccurate prediction? I don't know.) The teacher himself seems to imply that the time is not yet quite ripe.
     Now the winter solstice, and the end of the Mayan calendar, is drawing near,  and I continue to consider what our prospects are as a species on this planet. I read a book recently (The Vanishing Face of Gaia) by James Lovelock, the scientist who came up with the Gaia Hypothesis, claiming that pretty much no matter what we do at this stage in the game, the earth's overall temperature will still increase by several degrees, resulting in the ecosphere entering a "desert phase," and also resulting in a massive population crash within the next several decades, largely through our inability to grow food on cropland turned to desert. Jerry-rigging the situation, for example by blasting aerosols into the upper atmosphere to reduce solar radiation warming the Earth, may buy us some time, but…Lovelock is not optimistic. His book has been called a "jeremiad." Meanwhile, the population continues to increase, the U.S. economy, and other economies throughout the world, are floundering and based more and more on imaginary money, governments gain greater control over us through electronic surveillance and control of information, big business gains greater control over governments, big banks gain greater control over big business, and a few astronomically rich people retain control over the banks, and allegedly are attempting to increase their power even further. Forests are disappearing, species are becoming extinct, and mainstream world culture becomes more consumeristic as developing nations try to catch up with the West. And so on.
     All of this rather grim information is well known to most of us. On the other hand, the instability of the present situation presents itself as a golden opportunity for positive change. So, what can we expect? It appears that we have a number of options.

     Everything will blow over, and there's nothing to concern ourselves with. It may be that panicky environmentalists are ignorant of something vital that will render the global warming crisis a mere flash in the pan; for example it may be that the world's climate will warm up nicely, rendering the whole world much like Southern California. (Scientists say that some 50 million years ago the world was much warmer than now, with tropical temperatures in the Arctic, and everything was verdant and jungly, not a desert at all.) Or maybe the increased temperature will cause increased evaporation from the oceans, causing increase in global cloud cover, causing more radiation from the sun to be reflected back out to space, causing the earth's temperature to regulate itself no matter how much we burn fossil fuels. But even if this is true the fact remains that the world is grotesquely overpopulated, the global economy is on the rocks and in danger of worse, there are nuclear weapons on the ready all over the place, and the predominant social system, which is taking over the Earth, is based largely on hedonism and selfishness. We really shouldn't count on an effortless happy ending, even though it is conceivable.
     We will destroy ourselves. This is of course an option, and has the advantage of requiring no careful planning or deliberate effort. It is, however, probably not our best bet.
     We will receive unexpected intervention on our behalf. This could take the form of technological innovations which fix the environment, say by removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere, and reduce our odds of wrecking it again, say by generating energy without burning fossil fuels (if the petrochemical companies will actually allow that). Or, the intervention could be from extraterrestrial beings. This may seem far-fetched to many, but the chances that we are the only intelligent race in the galaxy are presumably small, and after all, we are pretty interesting as a species; so compassionate beings who have been watching us for centuries may take pity on our foolishness and step in, preventing us from destroying life on our planet. Or, possibly the religious people are right, and beings essentially like gods or angels may step in on our behalf. The Christian Book of Revelation predicts that this will be the case, although they won't step in until the world is already almost completely destroyed (so that the wicked may be sufficiently punished, and that the rest of us may learn our lesson that turning away from the Lord is a big mistake.) But even if this will happen, we probably shouldn't assume it will and expect them to solve the problem for us. There are other options.
     We will almost destroy ourselves, and then use that as an extremely loud wake up call. Unfortunately, this may be our most realistic option, although it is presumably much better than going ahead and destroying ourselves completely. It is an instinct in the human animal that our attitudes do not change easily. Our attitudes may not make us happy, but so long as they keep us alive they are good enough. Leave well enough alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Nature doesn't care if we are happy or not; from the biological point of view all that matters is that we stay alive long enough to have babies, preferably in such a way that our babies also stay alive long enough to have babies. So what happens is that until the digestive waste hits the fan (so to speak) and our old attitudes can no longer cope with the situation, we resist change. Consequently it may require a major crisis---like a worldwide economic collapse, political collapse, and/or ecological collapse---to hit us over the head hard enough for us to realize as a society that greed-oriented materialistic consumerism does not work in the long run, even though it outcompetes every other economic social system in the short run. We may wind up with a Utopia inhabited by wise, compassionate people sharing what they have out of love for each other, but it may consist of a small fraction of the present world population and be a rough, stoic existence on the edge of a poisonous desert. That may be the best we can do.
     We will voluntarily transform ourselves and the world before everything goes Kasplooey. They say History repeats itself; if so, Western culture, and especially American culture, is a repeat of ancient Rome. Assuming that rebirth or reincarnation is a reality, then most Americans who have spirits old enough were likely inhabitants of the Republic or Empire at one time or another. Although Rome was in some ways very different from modern America, there are obvious parallels. Instead of watching gladiatorial combats and criminals being torn apart by wild beasts, we watch violent action movies where the actors only pretend to kill each other (but do so very realistically, and show the splattering gore much more clearly than the spectators at the Colosseum got to see it). Instead of public orgies we have pornography on the Internet. And instead of having barbarian mercenaries fighting our wars for us in our degenerate state, we have computerized robotic weapons doing it (which may eventually prove to be just as unreliable).
     One striking similarity between modern America and ancient Rome is that both countries began with tough, austere rustics who fought for their freedom and refused to accept defeat; but after they conquered their rivals in their strength and became opulent world leaders they became weaker, flabbier, more timid, less idealistic, and more materialistic and greedy. When they had relatively little to lose they valued their freedom; but when they became rich they forfeited their freedom for the sake of the security of keeping their comforts. 
     Eventually the situation in Rome became such that the mainstream of the culture was ideologically and spiritually bankrupt. People followed it, but those with sensitivity and integrity (and many people really are like this, even nowadays) couldn't take it very seriously. They became dissatisfied, disillusioned, and on the lookout for something better. Many philosophies and religious cults (Neoplatonism and some of the Mystery Cults being exalted examples) came and went, but nothing proved deeply satisfactory to very many. 
     Then a new system appeared called "Christianity," which, although not perfect, at least emphasized love, compassion, and generosity to the poor. It also had a respectable morality to it, and many of its followers seemed much more saintly and much more wise than the Pagan priests, many of whom were cynical, materialistic politicians and aristocrats. Even though Christianity was despised by the majority and persecuted from time to time, it spread like wildfire, as it offered something that people yearned for deep down inside. This apparently marked the beginning of a new stage in the evolution of Western Civilization: in Yoga it might be called the first opening of the heart chakra, the beginnings of deep universal compassion.
     As it turned out, the Christian revolution was only partly successful. Not long after it became Rome's state religion it began persecuting "heretics" much more severely than the Pagans ever persecuted them, and the ranks of the bishops soon contained the same sort of cynical politicians that once conducted Pagan ceremonials. Furthermore, a multitude of factors combined to cause the virtual collapse of urban civilization in Europe, resulting in the barbarism of the so-called Dark Ages. In a way the collapse may have been indicative of an advanced, closed-hearted culture being replaced by a crude beginning level of a more open-hearted one. (The new culture was very clumsy because it was new and relatively undeveloped, but still in its way much more advanced than what preceded it.)
     Something similar may be happening now, in this reincarnation of the Classical World; and hopefully this time it will be more successful. Again the mainstream of the culture is materialistic and spiritually bankrupt; and again people with sensitivity and moral integrity are dissatisfied and search for something better. Again civilization faces grave dangers, this time more serious than invasions of Goths, Vandals, and Huns. Again there is some hopelessness, fear, and despair, but there is also a sense of urgency, a feeling that something must be done, and done immediately. Maybe the time is ripe for the beginning of a new stage, and perhaps it's already beginning. That would be good, I think. Hopefully it will work out better than medieval Christianity.
     I don't expect the new stage will be particularly Christian. I don't expect it will be particularly Buddhist either. I feel that when and if it happens it will not be in the form of any formal system, old or new, but will be simply present, a more conscious, selfless, and sublime way of experiencing life. The teacher mentioned at the beginning of this article has said that it will be inconceivable and indescribable.

     According to orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition, civilization will continue to decline until the average lifespan is only a fraction of what it is now, and the situation will gradually bottom out in something pretty horrible…and then things will gradually get better again. Ultimately, multiple suns will appear in the sky (identical to our present sun except without a sun god inhabiting them), and the world will be incinerated, preparing the scene for the next go. Although everything that has a beginning also has an end, including this world, I hope that orthodox tradition is not accurate in its details of this case.
     Anyway, I suppose a good question would be, What should we do? And I suppose a good answer would be, We should do the best we can. Perhaps a Critical Mass Action could be held on the winter solstice, i.e. at the end of the Mayan calendar, at the end of this "age": Let's all meditate, convey loving kindness to others, and help each other as much as we can on that day. Perhaps it will generate a great enough concentration of Dharma on the planet, a seed crystal, really to bring about a worldwide shift in consciousness. It's certainly worth a try anyhow! Let's do it.

Gladiators fighting wild beasts:
A Roman precursor to the modern action movie


Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Matter of Idolatry

     Those of you who have read the Bible may recall that in ancient times idolatry was a hot topic. One gets the impression that to lie or steal is certainly not good, but for one of God's people to eat food previously offered to a graven image is even worse. One of the great, classic cases of idolatry-bashing may be found in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 44, verses 9-20:

     All those who make idols are worthless, and the gods they prize so highly are useless. Those who worship these gods are blind and ignorant---and they will be disgraced. It does no good to make a metal image to worship as a god! Everyone who worships it will be humiliated. The people who make idols are human beings and nothing more. Let them come and stand trial---they will be terrified and will suffer disgrace.
     The metalworker takes a piece of metal and works with it over a fire. His strong arm swings a hammer to pound the metal into shape. As he works, he gets hungry, thirsty, and tired.
     The carpenter measures the wood. He outlines a figure with chalk, carves it out with his tools, and makes it in the form of a man, a handsome human figure to be placed in his house. He might cut down cedars to use, or choose oak or cypress wood from the forest. Or he might plant a laurel tree and wait for the rain to make it grow. A man uses part of a tree for fuel and part of it for making an idol. With one part he builds a fire to warm himself and bake bread; with the other part he makes a god and worships it. With some of the wood he makes a fire; he roasts meat, eats it, and is satisfied. He warms himself and says, "How nice and warm! What a beautiful fire!" The rest of the wood he makes into an idol, and then he bows down and worships it. He prays to it and says, "You are my god---save me!"
     Some people are too stupid to know what they are doing. They close their eyes and their minds to the truth. The maker of idols hasn't the wit or the sense to say, "Some of the wood I burned up. I baked some bread on the coals, and I roasted meat and ate it. And the rest of the wood I made into an idol. Here I am bowing down to a block of wood!"
     It makes as much sense as eating ashes. His foolish ideas have so misled him that he is beyond help. He won't admit to himself that the idol he holds in his hand is not a god at all. 
     (---from Today's English Version, evidently published by a Roman Catholic organization)

     I would guess that most readers of the Bible nowadays skim over this kind of stuff without it making much of an impression on them. After all, idolatry is obviously not nearly as big of a deal, or as much of an inflamer of controversy, as it was 2000 years ago. In fact, for just about everyone except Hindus, plus quite a few Buddhists (plus maybe some Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians), idolatry appears to be extinct, pretty much of a dead issue. In Western civilization the Jews, Christians, and Muslims won the Good Fight, and the idolaters were defeated…supposedly.
     But I think idolatry is alive and well, not only in Asia but here in the West. And I'm not referring to some people here and there worshipping statues. (I suppose most people in the West who bow down to statues or pictures, or even offer gifts, food, and water to them, do not consider themselves to be practicing idolatry; many claim that the statue is only a symbol with no real sanctity. This attitude has kept icons going in some schools of Christianity, and allows Western Buddhists to bow before images of the Buddha. But if one says, "All right, if it's not really sacred let's put it to the test," and then walks over and raps the statue on the head with one's knuckles, the emotional instinct of paganistic adoration may quickly rise to the surface of the ostensible respecter only of what the symbol represents. I rarely bow before images, but confess I am a little squeamish about seeing them treated disrespectfully.)
     Before going any further with this I suppose it would be convenient to determine what idolatry actually is. It involves much more than simply worshipping statues. In the New Testament Paul of Tarsus declares that even greed is a form of idolatry. But the alive-and-well modern idolatry I've referred to isn't just worship of money either. For the sake of this discussion I will define "idolatry" as attributing superhuman or divine qualities to what is merely man-made, or artificial. I suppose most people would accept this as a fair and reasonable definition of the term.
     Consequently, I consider the Old Testament's statements, or at least insinuations, that worship of the sun, moon, and stars is idolatrous, to be debatable. On the other hand, if we assume that books are man-made, then all sacred scriptures would serve as grounds for idolatry. If a religious text is considered to be only a record of beliefs or speculations of wise people, then idolatry is not in question; but if it is considered to represent the words of a Deity, or even to represent Divine Truth, then, so long as we do not follow this belief, it would qualify as a clear case of idolatry, in accordance with our definition. One may claim that those who revere sacred scriptures are not idolatrous because they sincerely believe those scriptures to be divinely inspired; but by the very same token the classical worshippers of pagan statues considered those statues to be equally divinely inspired. Devout Hindus consider an image really to contain the god it represents; and the Mahamuni image of the Buddha in Mandalay is believed by many Burmese to have been fashioned by Sakka, King of Gods himself, and thus to be not merely a man-made symbol. Sincere belief does not necessarily absolve one of idolatry. If it did, there would never have been very many idolaters, if any at all, and the term would be virtually meaningless.
     The implications run even deeper: We could hardly deny that our concepts are merely man-made, or woman-made---human-made. Thus any religion, and any religious idea, if it is considered to be divine or superhuman, would qualify as idolatrous. So it logically follows that all religions, and all spiritual beliefs, unless we acknowledge them to be symbolic systems merely attempting indirectly to suggest the Divine, are idolatrous! The ancients believed our thoughts to be divinely implanted into our minds by the gods, but nowadays we consider them to be the artifacts of a quite human brain. Thus all thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of Divinity would be idolatrous.
     So now the question arises, how are we to avoid the delusion of idolatry, which delusion, as the prophet says, makes as much sense as eating ashes? In other words, how can we avoid attributing superhuman qualities to our own quite human fabrications? There would seem to be two possible answers.
     First, we may dismiss spirituality altogether. This is seen as an ideal for many who see religion as superstitious nonsense anyway. At best we could adopt a humanistic, utilitarian ethic and amuse ourselves with philosophical speculations, or try to turn physics into a way of understanding the Ultimate. At worst we could wallow in hedonistic consumerism. Either way, to a wise, sensitive person with a modicum of integrity, this is no more of a viable option than becoming an animal or a social robot. For such people, and I hope there are many, it would be a world without light, without any genuine reason to get out of bed in the morning.
     The second alternative is to experience the Divine or Ultimate without the intermediary of perceptual symbols, and to acknowledge that the Highest cannot be known with the head or the heart, but is indeterminate---in Buddhism, avyākata. This is pure mysticism, and it may be achieved through mindfulness, contemplation, and deep insight. If this is our approach, then spiritual practice would not be religious per se, but would be a practical means of eventually knowing true spirituality. I think Buddhism originally began like this, but was eventually transformed into a religion by unenlightened followers, with Buddha worship, teacher worship, statue worship, the Abhidhamma philosophers claiming to explain Ultimate Reality in words, and so on.
     If we assume that true Divinity is whatever is ultimately Real, then we may say that everything as we perceive it is profane, and idolatrous at best, as it only attempts to signify Divinity; but that the Universe as it really is, is Divine. Perhaps a little idolatry in the beginning isn't so bad, so long as we acknowledge that we are mere idolaters feeding upon ashes, and do not stop with that.    

Hera, alias Juno,
the Mother of the Gods
(with her divine peacock)