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.)




  1. "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."

    I think you are brave for admitting this so openly! I wonder, what are the consequences of the above quote as a Monk? I am curious, why do you remain one?

    ".... 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."

    My teacher says that to really remember by feeling the consequences of an action (based on past experience with that action) will help one to break the habit. Your father did this by remembering his amputated leg. This has worked for me, but I find there needs to be a certain readiness and surrender before one really does it.

    I once heard that a miracle is nothing more than a perspective shift. Problems don't go away, one just doesn't see them as problems anymore. Maybe this takes the clinging away. Perhaps liberation is only a complete overhaul of our perspectives.

    Negative, lifelong habits like judgment and fear do take a certain amount of effort in order to shift usually. Sometimes they become as natural as sleeping (which some sages think is indulgent). Certainly your father had to put in some effort when gripped with a sever craving to smoke, at least until he got strong. Perhaps this is what practice is for, just to get us to become strong.

    "So I have come to have a distrust, or at least a certain skepticism, of techniques."

    Certainly you cannot deny the amazing fruits you've gained from the structured life you have lived all those years. You are one of the strongest, most disciplined people I know and it affords you great luxuries now. Surely that has not been a waste.

    I wonder if you yourself want enlightenment as much as that man wanted to breathe? I wonder if you still find it a sacred duty to lead a spiritual life even if you do not reach full liberation in this lifetime? I certainly hope so!


    1. Why do I remain a monk? That is the great koan:

      "Yun-men said, 'The world is such a wide world. Why do you put on ceremonial robes at the sound of a bell?" (--Wu-men Kuan, case 68)

      If I wanted enlightenment as much as the man wanted air I'd probably be enlightened within moments!

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  3. Thank you for the considered words.

    Be Now

  4. Very inspiring and insightful post. Keep going.
    Don't write a book. :P
    May the force be with you.

  5. This is some good shit, I hope you continue to write.

  6. Bhante,

    If you are not fully convinced that, sexuality is such a bad thing, then you are right. Because it is not a bad thing. But, it's nature is unsatisfactory, even when desire is fulfilled and I think deep down, you already know that. Otherwise, why and how did you remain a celibate monk for more than 20 years?


  7. No. U r wrong. In the Sutta it is stated that abstinence from sex is good for vitality.