Saturday, May 25, 2013

It All Depends on How You Look at It

     Last year I was involved in a kind of interactive mailing list, with the participants being mainly students and/or admirers of the teacher Paul Lowe. On one occasion a participant made some rather negative comments about herself, calling herself a "neurotic bitch," or some such. The next day another participant remarked that she could call herself that, but would it feel differently if someone else called her that? This was followed by a third participant observing that the second participant's remarks seemed violent or hostile. Then the first person and I, and maybe one or two others, commented that we didn't think his remark seemed violent or hostile at all. I observed that I sometimes call myself a #@*&/!! idiot, but would feel very different if someone else called me that. (This is because I indulge in the luxury of considering myself intelligent—so I don't entirely believe the idiot stuff.)
     Then a wise fellow named Devesh, who is essentially the coordinator of the mailing list, made a comment which really struck home with me, resulting in a kind of cognitive "click," or insight. His brief remark is as follows. The observation which "clicked" me is the middle paragraph. 

          I love Byron Katie's take on this little dance.
          Hearing someone call me an idiot becomes:
          "Ah, so I am an idiot!" Taking it as a fact,
          and making it an inquiry.

          On one level, it *is* a fact - the other's reality,
          and their reality is, for them, just as 'real'
          as mine is for me. Is either really True?

          It is a bit of a game, but Katie is a master
          at using the mind to muddle itself
          into another level of seeing.

Those two sentences in the middle have followed me ever since I first read them.
     I was strongly reminded of this recently when I was reading Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I had the distinct impression while reading it that I might not have liked Gandhi very much if I had known him (and he might not have approved of me either); and in fact in some ways he seemed somewhat of a jerk, or at least a difficult person to be around. Entire books have been written on the subject of Gandhi's alleged insufferable jerkiness, and in his autobiography he testified against himself. He couldn't be called much of a husband or father, for example. He refers to a certain occasion, the memory of which he calls a "sacred memory," in which he required his wife to clean out the chamberpots of all the boarders in the house, including one Indian man who was a Christian converted from some low caste of Hinduism. His wife Kasturbai dutifully cleaned the pots, but did not enjoy doing it. Seeing that she wasn't happy about it while she cleaned the chamberpot, Gandhi exclaimed, "I will not tolerate such foolishness in this house!" His wife angrily retorted that he should throw her out of it then, whereupon Gandhi grabbed her and began dragging her to the door to throw her out. Her anguished entreaties finally softened his heart somewhat, and he relented. He seemed to be in the habit of requiring those around him to be as saintly as he was, often much to their misery.
     His doctors were often at wit's end trying to deal with his strange obstinacy, especially with regard to his food. Once he was living mainly on a diet of peanuts and lemons when his health broke down. The doctor pleaded with him to eat a healthier diet at least until he got better, pointing out that there is nothing at all against Hindu morality in drinking milk, for instance. Gandhi insisted that he'd rather die than break his dietary vows. Finally, he consented to drink goat's milk, but blamed his wife in the book for persuading him to break his vows. His hard-headed rigidity and refusal to listen to others took many forms.
     But still, Mahatma Gandhi was a great saint—not a sage, in my opinion, but a very saintly man. He was absolutely driven to do what he believed was right. I don't deny this at all. His tireless labors for the benefit of the people of India have made him one of the most important humanitarian figures of the twentieth century. He probably became saintlier and wiser in his later years, after he wrote the book. (He was in his early fifties when he wrote the autobiography.)
     So, Gandhi was a saint and a jerk. It all depends on how you look at him.
     I've noticed this phenomenon with regard to people I have personally met also. For example, I've met a few relatively famous meditation teachers who are revered by many people, including some who are wiser than me, and when I look at these teachers largely what I see is an angry old man, a rigid dogmatist, or a goofball who's madly in love with himself. I don't deny that they may very well be highly accomplished meditation masters, yet often their behavior and their "vibe" seem far from wise. My karma with regard to teachers is not so good in this life: one person sees a great sage, and all I see is a smug goofball. On the other hand, some of the people I consider to be real sages are considered to be crooks and charlatans by others, and they have their reasons for believing this. It goes both ways.
     And so, I've been learning to apply this principle to myself. It seems that people "out there" entertain a broad spectrum of opinions regarding me, from love and reverence to scathing contempt. A few have converted from reverence to contempt; I'm not sure if anyone has converted in the opposite direction. Maybe a few. Anyway, I receive a lot of feedback, much of it negative. Some of the negative feedback comes from people who know nothing about me other than my appearance (for example I was cussed out in a grocery store in Bellingham once because of my robes and bare feet), while some comes from people (mostly female) who know me pretty well. I know me pretty well too, and in my opinion I'm not that bad of a guy. But what Devesh said is true: In their reality I may be a jerk, and their reality is as real for them as mine is for me. So does it make sense for anyone to say, "I know and you don't know"?
     Of course from the Buddhist perspective any kind of perception of a person is delusion. In Buddhist philosophy there is no self, and thus no "person" to be positively wise or negatively foolish.
     Then again, it can be said that any belief about anything is delusional. There is more than one way of demonstrating this point, so for the sake of brevity I'll explain the easiest way I know of. 
     First of all, it should be pointed out that there is a difference between real knowledge and mere belief. Probably the most readily obvious difference between the two is that beliefs may be eventually proven false, but that knowledge cannot possibly be false. If it's knowledge, it's true; "false knowledge" is a meaningless contradiction in terms. The trouble is, however, that if we believe something, we consider it to be true. Obviously, if we didn't think it were true we wouldn't believe it. So if we believe something we implicitly or explicitly assert "This is true." Consequently, we confound belief with knowledge, and cannot tell them apart, except in an abstract and usually unapplied way. In other words, when we believe some idea, we assume that we know it. A belief is an idea masquerading as knowledge. And of course, to think we know what we really don't know, is delusion.
     There are more complicated ways of demonstrating the same point, one or two of which I've discussed in other writings than this. For example, in order to believe anything we must form a perception, yet any perception requires the superimposition of relations upon the universe. That is, we can't perceive the existence of anything without singling it out from what it is not, and this requires such functions as "different from," "same as," "more than," "less than," etc. etc. Yet these relations are purely psychological; they do not exist in any external universe. A chemist can analyze a sample of matter and break it down into its most elemental components and never find a single atom of "different from" or "same as." It's all in the mind. So if we take away these artificially applied relations, the entire universe becomes an undifferentiated Void; and presumably that's the way the universe really is. Yet we must generate delusional beliefs to navigate through our dream of "reality."
     This kind of thinking leads us to thoroughgoing mysticism, and the idea that all belief systems are true or untrue not because of any real correlation with outward matters of fact, but because of internal conceptual self-consistency. And so one person's belief that Mr. Johnson is a great guy is true if it is in accordance with his other beliefs or perceptions, and another person's belief that Mr. Johnson is a crook is equally true so long as it in accordance with that other person's belief system in general. Again, it all depends on how we look at it. From this point of view, Science is seen as factual, not merely opinion, largely because scientists and other humans all belong to the same species, and are thus similar enough to agree on a large system of delusional beliefs.
     Even Science itself is based on the idea that there's no such thing as a certain fact; the entire corpus of scientific "knowledge" consists of workable theories that have not yet been disproven. (The trouble is that this corpus includes many axioms that are simply taken for granted.) But even if the worshippers of Scientism are right, and there really is an empirical, measurable, multiplistic world out there even if no one is perceiving it, value judgements of good and bad, saint and jerk, are still merely matters of opinion. "Saintliness" and "rascality" are terms completely alien to empirical Science. So we're back to opinion, and, as mentioned above, opinion is belief is delusion.
     One ramification of this notion that our opinions do not correspond to Reality, but rather correspond to our own attitude, so that different people may have radically different opinions about what is apparently the very same person or thing, is that we each create our own version of "reality." In Buddhism and several other systems this phenomenon is explained in terms of karma
     Also, we apparently help condition each other's version of "reality" through culture, general consensus, and what could be called the contagion of mental states (an extreme example of this being mass hysteria). From a Buddhist and metaphysical perspective this mutual conditioning of each other's "reality" results in the miraculous paradox of your karma perfectly dovetailing with mine. For example, I can't tell you anything unless it is in accordance with your karma to hear it—so if you don't like what I write it's your own fault :-). 
     I noticed this contagion of mental states, or dovetailing of karma, even when I was a boy. I remember when I participated in sports in school the other kids generally had a low opinion of my athletic prowess (I was one of those kids that got picked almost last when choosing up sides for a game), and I acted accordingly. But in my own neighborhood, when playing with kids without this opinion, I performed much better and was picked early on in the "draft." I used to wonder about this.
     Later on, when I was in my twenties, I had a female friend who was very pretty and also legally insane. She had received a psychological discharge from the US Army, and was getting regular paychecks from the government because of it. She was very wild, and obviously lived in a significantly different world from most people. Anyway, for reasons of her own she had a very high opinion of me; and I found that when I was with her I could do no wrong: I could run a pool table, was practically a master of games, and always knew the right thing to tell authorities to keep the two of us out of trouble. I became practically like James Bond. I couldn't help but feel that her strange opinion of me and of reality in general somehow enhanced my personality. Later in life I've seen more and more evidence that around psychologically unusual people, whether they are eccentric, psychotic, and/or very spiritually advanced, just about anything can happen. We all have this power to generate a world; mundane minds create mundane worlds, and extraordinary minds create extraordinary worlds. So for many it pays not to follow the mainstream. Especially nowadays, when the mainstream appears no longer viable in the long run.
     So, in a sense, we have the ability to uplift others or to bring them down. This depends not so much on our external actions and words as on our state of mind. A happy person doesn't need to go around smiling, saying nice things, and handing out gifts to uplift others: she can just sit there in the room quietly, and she will have a significant effect on the others in the room. Likewise, a miserable person doesn't have to do anything outwardly to bring others down. We generate "vibes" whether we like it or not. So it's wise to observe our mind carefully; not only are we generating our own reality with it, but we're also helping to condition the reality of everyone around us, and ultimately of everyone in the world. 
     Considering someone to be a jerk not only makes them a jerk in your reality, but helps them to be a jerk even in their own. Contrariwise, considering them to be a beautiful manifestation of Divinity makes them one in yours, and helps them to be one in theirs. (The more you really love someone, the more wonderful they are. Haven't you noticed that?) So please be careful. We all have a tremendous responsibility, or a Divine privilege—it all depends on how we look at it.
     May all beings be openminded and openhearted. 

Mahatma Gandhi

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Buddhism Meets Monty Python

     Years ago when I was living in a desert in central Burma someone gave me a set of several books entitled The Great Chronicle of Buddhas. It is an English translation of a work written by the renowned Ashin Vicittasārābhivasa, better known in Burma as Mingun Tipiakadhara Sayadaw, who was the reciter at the Buddhist Sixth Council held in 1956, who was a brilliant scholar with a long list of ecclesiastical titles, and who, I've been told, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for memorizing the entire forty-volume Pali Tipiaka by heart, not to mention several other books.
     The Great Chronicle of Buddhas (translated by U Ko Lay and U Tin Lwin, Ti=Ni Publishing Center, Yangon 1992) is based upon the canonical Pali text Buddhavasa and its official commentary. I found in these books information that was totally amazing to me, including, in volume I, part 2, the following details of the alleged life of Magala Buddha, who arose 22 Buddhas before "our" Buddha Gotama: 

     Date of Birth: Two incalculable eons plus 100,000 world cycles before present
     Place of Birth: The city of Uttara (in India, on a previous Earth)
     Father's name: King Uttara
     Mother's name: Queen Uttarā
     Place of his Enlightenment: Uttara Park 
     Name of the woman who offered rice milk on the eve of his Enlightenment: Uttarā
     Name of the village in which she lived: Uttara
     Name of the ascetic who offered him grass with which to make a seat beneath the Bodhi tree: Uttara
     His height: 88 ratanas or cubits (approximately 132 feet, or 40 meters)
     His lifespan: 90,000 years

     From the moment he took conception light radiated from his mother's body to a distance of eight cubits all around, which could not be overpowered even by the light of the sun. Not requiring other lights, the pregnant queen moved about by means of her own luminescence.
     When Magala renounced the household life, three kois of people (thirty million) renounced it also and practiced severe austerities with him.
     The light from Magala Buddha's body shone night and day throughout 10,000 world systems. During the 90,000 years of his life everything appeared golden in color, and the sun, moon, stars, and planets gave no light. Since there was no obvious sunlight the demarcation between night and day was not distinct; yet people were able to attend to their business by means of the Buddha's rays.
     This great luminescence of Magala Buddha was due to a wish he made in a previous life, the details of which are as follows: Once, when he was a bodhisatta, he was a man renowned for his great generosity. Hearing about his generosity, an ogre (yakkha) disguised himself as a Brahmin, approached the bodhisatta, and asked for the bodhisatta's two children. The bodhisatta gladly handed them over, whereupon the entire earth trembled all the way down to the water on which it floats. Then the ogre devoured the two children in the presence of the bodhisatta, and bright red blood flowed from his mouth as he ate. However, there arose not one iota of distress in the bodhisatta's mind—instead he was greatly delighted, thinking, "This is my excellent act of charity." He then expressed his wish: "As a result of this generous act of mine, may my body emanate rays in future bright like the blood (flowing from the ogre's mouth)." 
     On one occasion Magala Buddha delivered a series of discourses to the Universal Monarch (i.e. King of the Entire World) Sunanda and his retinue numbering ninety kois (900 million), at which time all of them became fully enlightened arahants. Then the Buddha stretched forth his right arm and said, "Etha Bhikkhavo" (Come, monks), causing the entire multitude instantaneously to become ordained bhikkhus, complete with bowls, robes, and cropped hair.
     During the time of Magala Buddha the bodhisatta destined to become Gotama Buddha was a Brahmin named Suruci. On a certain occasion the Brahmin Suruci offered alms food for a week plus a set of robes to the Buddha and to each of his retinue of bhikkhus, numbering altogether one hundred thousand kois (one trillion) of monks. The set of robes offered to the most junior bhikkhu was worth 100,000 pieces of money. The god Sakka himself produced a huge jeweled pavilion for the occasion.
     After Magala Buddha's death and parinibbāna his relics were enshrined in a pagoda thirty yojanas (approximately 300 miles) in height made of powdered "red orpiment" (arsenic sulfide), oil, and butter, and encrusted with seven kinds of precious gems.
*   *   *
     I hope you don't think I'm trying to mock Dhamma by mentioning this. It is right there in the texts, so we might as well admit it.
     Burmese Buddhists may blandly accept these kinds of stories without raising an eyebrow; if it's in Theravada Buddhist texts, especially if it's in the scriptures and commentaries, then it's true, and that's all there is to it. It is not far-fetched at all. It's historical, gospel truth.
     Devout Western Buddhists tend not to be so openminded when it comes to accepting such tales (and this certainly isn't the only apparent howler in the texts); they tend to prefer to pretend that they don't exist. Even to mention such stories as the biography of Magala Buddha is considered to be crass bad taste.
     But to ignore or reject facts is not so good. In fact that would seem to be a characteristic of delusion.
     We needn't take such stories very seriously, but there is something important to consider with regard to them. The men who included this information in the Tipiaka and its commentaries were not particularly foolish, nor were they stupid. In all likelihood they were at least as wise and intelligent as modern Western Buddhists are, possibly more so. They simply belonged to a very different culture, and worked with a very different set of assumptions. It may be that 500 years from now people will look back on some of the assumptions of modern scientific materialist culture and see them as just as ridiculous as we consider the assumptions of ancient Indian mythologizers to have been.
     One important point to bear in mind, one that many Western Buddhists ignore, is that, since the men who compiled and edited the Pali texts were well educated monastic scholars, and were certainly not stupid, most of the absurdities and misinformation to be found in the texts are not likely to be obvious. There is plenty of stuff that modern Westerners might consider to be absurd even in the so-called core texts (for example the mass of legends found in the Magala-esque Acchariyabbhutadhamma Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M123), or the strange Sela Sutta in which the Buddha reportedly shows his genitalia to a Brahmin and then licks his own ears and eyebrows, found in both the Majjhima and the Sutta Nipāta); but still, it stands to reason that most of what is unreliable is not obviously unreliable. Consequently it is a careless mistake to assume that whatever is not obviously ridiculous is therefore trustworthy.
     Which leads us to one of the great dilemmas for intelligent Western Buddhists: We must sail a middle course between the Scylla and Charybdis of unquestioning Asian-style dogmatism on the one hand, and on the other the typical Western method of following "common sense" and casually dismissing whatever parts we don't like—which in some cases may be really essential parts. 
     This has been a dilemma since ancient times; we Westerners didn't invent it. Consider the following passage from the Sandaka Sutta, reportedly the venerable Ānanda's discourse to the non-Buddhist philosopher Sandaka (M76):
Here, Sandaka, some teacher is a traditionalist, finding truth in traditions. He teaches a dharma by tradition, from somebody else's words handed down, according to a collection of texts (piaka). But for a traditionalist, Sandaka, for a teacher who finds truth in traditions, some of it is well learned, and some of it is not well learned; and so [in some ways] he is right, and [in some ways] he is otherwise….     
And furthermore, Sandaka, here some teacher is a reasoner, one who investigates. He teaches a dharma hammered out by reason, following his investigations, based on his own intelligence. But for a reasoner, Sandaka, for a teacher who investigates, some of it is well reasoned and some of it is not well reasoned; and so [in some ways] he is right, and [in some ways] he is otherwise.
From this it would seem that the alternative, the Middle Way between these two, would involve simply falling between two stools. However, what is required is not to accept or reject tradition or "common sense" too hastily, but to move forward carefully, with our eyes and ears open, as though walking on thin ice.

"There are some who call me…Tim?" 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bali and Shiva Buddha

     Bali is one of the most colorfully exotic places I've ever been to. There are religious shrines everywhere. Many people, every day, place in front of their houses offerings of flowers, fruit, incense, etc. to the gods, their ancestors, and to the lower beings, arranged on little trays made of folded leaves. People dress in bright colors. The word for water is air. The beaches are like nothing I've ever seen. Most of the sink basins I saw were carved out of rock, and at one place I stayed a frog lived in the drain, and would poke his head out when I turned on the faucet. It's the only place where I've ever seen tree ferns. Sometimes when it seemed like yet another ant was crawling on me, I'd raise my arm to blow it off and see that it was a tiny black praying mantis. Big, pretty pink bugs (true bugs of the insect order Hemiptera) fall out of the roof and crawl around the floor; and something about two inches long that glows in the dark crawls around on the pavements at night. Even the toilet water is exotic: I'd never been south of the equator before, so of course it was a big thrill for me to see it swirl the opposite direction as it went down the pipe. I have to admit, though, that maybe because Bali is not far from the equator, sometimes the water still swirls counterclockwise, and sometimes it just splooshes around turbulently before going straight down the hole.  
     I also have to admit that Bali's reputation for being a kind of ecotopian Paradise is to some degree an image projected for the sake of encouraging tourism, and so forth. It seems that garbage, mostly plastic, is strewn just about anywhere that tourists are not likely to look, with no recycling in many parts of the island; and ven. Vijaya, the Balinese monk who invited me there, said that in the rice paddies near our cemetery-monastery, despite the area's reputation for organic farming, very few fish or other animals are to be seen anymore because of toxic pesticides. Also, I would guess that a genuine Paradise would have wider roads and less traffic. Furthermore, even though I was there in April, when the rainy season was supposedly petering out, it still rained anywhere from once to twenty times a day in the mountains where we stayed.
     Still, Bali is exotic. Even the beverages are exotic. The lumpy chlorophyll drink is very good, and the sweetened guacamole liquid is truly excellent. On the second or third day at the cemetery, our attendant Nyomon served me a cup of coffee that had a peculiar taste to it. I asked ven. Vijaya what kind of coffee it was, and he explained that there is a kind of creature (a palm civet actually, an animal somewhat resembling the American raccoon) which has very discerning tastes with regard to the fruits of the coffee tree, and eats only the best ones. So, these animals are kept in cages and given their choice of coffee berries to eat. When the beans come out the other end, they are made into this choice type of coffee…
     At this point in the explanation I interrupted him by asking, "Are you telling me that I'm drinking civet crap?"
     Ven. Vijaya hastened to assure me that the coffee beans themselves remain undigested as they pass through the civet's digestive tract, that only the surrounding pulp is actually digested. Although he didn't mention it, I would very much like to believe that after the coffee beans are picked out of the surrounding fecal matter they are then rinsed off somehow. 
     I wonder how many thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of fussy Americans would be permanently traumatized by being informed halfway through a cup of coffee that they were actually drinking liquified animal dung. It's not even funny. It may be that the most important words for a visitor to Bali to know how to say are tai lubak?—"(Is this) civet crap?" (Tai, it should be noted, is two syllables.) Otherwise, visitors should be wary of any coffee they drink. It is amazing what some people are willing to pay extra for. I frankly admit that I was afraid even to try a bottled beverage that ven. Vijaya said was made with the juice of earthworms. The drinking water flavored with extracts of chrysanthemum and yam was weird enough.
     On the other hand, Balinese food is excellent. Even if you know what the ingredients are, it's still excellent. But enough animalistic digressing about food and drink. 
     Our attendant at the cemetery, Nyomon, was a cheerful, burly-looking Balinese guy who shaves his head, has a bad tooth up front, and sways from side to side when he walks, like a wrestler. The name Nyomon literally means "Third Son," and I've been told that all third sons in Bali have this same name. He also has another name which sounds like Batman, but I think I'm digressing again. Nyomon is a seer of spirits. He can see higher spirits (devas) as well as lower ones (petas). Ven. Vijaya has told me that in the past devas had instructed Nyomon to move from one place to another, and when he arrived at the new place he found people expecting him, as the same devas had informed them of his impending arrival. One reason why he converted to Buddhism from his native Balinese Hinduism is that the Buddhist system was better able to explain these beings that he was seeing and hearing. He decided to become ven. Vijaya's attendant because, according to him, lower spirits don't throng around that venerable one, trying to influence him, like they do with almost everyone else. They keep their distance from him and leave him in peace. I was told that there are many monks that lower spirits stay away from, but I was not told whether or not I am one of them. (I was sorry to hear, shortly before leaving Bali, that dear Nyomon runs a chicken farm that raises a special kind of chicken used in Balinese religious sacrifices.)
     When we first arrived at the cemetery-monastery, ven. Vijaya informed me that one or more attendants would accompany us when we walked for alms round in the morning. I realize that this is a common tradition in Burma and Thailand also, but it has always seemed bass-ackwards to me. The Pali word for a Buddhist monk, bhikkhu, literally means "beggar," and for a beggar to walk through a village silently begging alms with one or more servants attending him strikes me as somewhat perverse. So I requested that no attendants accompany us. He agreed, but expressed doubt that we'd be able to carry all the food ourselves without help. His doubts were not entirely groundless: we brought in an average of ten or twelve kilograms of "take" every morning, each. On the first morning I turned back when I had more than enough, and ven. Vijaya expressed surprise, saying, "But more people are waiting!" One day when we were walking for alms a woman offered us food in an apparently distraught state, almost wailing in Indonesian, which I don't understand. On our way back, as we were passing through the cemetery, I asked him what the woman was crying about. He said she was expressing distress on our account because we didn't have an attendant with us. Then he said that the first time he attended a Chinese Buddhist ceremony as a monk and ate from his alms bowl, some of the people there actually wept to see a "priest" undergoing the degradation of eating all his food mixed together in a single container. It was their belief that a priest, an exalted being, should eat everything from a separate dish; and a few wiseguy Thai ajahns who had visited the area had encouraged them in this belief, along with the idea that monks should receive at least ten times as much food as they can possibly eat. Plus earthworm drink. Afterwards the monks' leftovers are distributed as prasad for the benefit of the people. 

     One reason why we score so big in a not particularly Buddhist culture is that there are a few dozen Chinese Buddhists in the area who are tickled by the fact that there are real Buddhist monks in town. But many Balinese Hindus also offer alms. After all, Hindus consider Buddhism to be just another sect of Hinduism, with the Buddha himself considered to be the most recent avatar of the great god Vishnu. Perhaps more importantly than this, Balinese Hinduism greatly emphasizes generosity; and I've been told that many Balinese will not eat in the morning until they have offered some of their food to another being, human or non-human. A basic tenet of their religion is the Five Yajñas, the making of the following offerings or sacrifices: 1) bhūta (to the lower beings, especially ghosts), 2) manuya (to humans), 3) pit (to ancestors), 4) ṛṣi (to "rishis," holy men, sages), and 5) deva (to the gods). Renunciation of the world for spiritual purposes is still remembered in Balinese Hindu tradition, but it is rarely practiced anymore; and I was led to understand that there are no Hindu sadhus in Bali. So, some people are happy to capitalize on a Buddhist monk wandering for alms as a convenient way of fulfilling their obligation of ṛṣi-yajña. Some Balinese are frankly blown away by the knowledge that there still are people in this world who voluntarily adopt a lifestyle of simplicity and poverty for the sake of spiritual development. The Brahmin priests there, like most spiritual and religious teachers in the West, remain at the stage of the second ashrama-dharma – that of householders – and the local Christian minister notoriously drives a Ferrari.
     I had heard many times that Bali was predominantly Hindu, and I'd read before that long ago, before most of the people converted to Islam, the "civilized" parts of Indonesia formed a great Buddhist empire (following a kind of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism); but it was only shortly before coming to Bali that I put two and two together and realized that modern Balinese Hinduism is a relic of the culture of that empire. In fact the religious system of the island is sometimes called Siwa Buda, which in more English spelling is Shiva Buddha. Evidently what happened was that from ancient times sometimes Buddhism predominated, and sometimes Hinduism did, with the two systems in close proximity contributing to each other and borrowing from each other. During medieval times there arose a debate over whether the two systems, which had drifted closer and closer together, should simply be combined into one system or kept separate, and the combiners eventually won the debate. As Buddhism died out in India, and as the Indonesians tended to look to India for their classical inspiration (much as Americans have tended to look to Europe for theirs), Hinduism came to have more and more influence in the combined system. Finally, as Islam made its mainly peaceful conquest of the islands, many priests, aristocrats, poets, philosophers, and other intellectuals and cultural diehards who refused to convert to Islam fled Java, the cultural and political center of the empire, and established a stronghold on the small island of Bali, even building a great temple on each of the four corners of the island to ward off any adharmic influences. This may explain why the present culture of Bali is so rich and vibrant – it is largely the result of the efforts of the most brilliant, inspired, and devout "Siwa Budists."
     The Buddha aspect of Shiva Buddha is not particularly conspicuous in Bali. I would guess that most of the Buddha images one sees in public places were set up by Chinese Buddhists or else set up for the sake of tourists. There are significant Buddhist undercurrents, however. There is much emphasis on the four Brahma-vihāras and on trikāya-parisuddhi (purification of body, speech, and mind); it is true, though, that Indian Hinduism also puts some emphasis on these (for instance an interesting interpretation of the four Divine Abodes may be found in Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras).

The statue represents a Chinese earth deity;
graves and huts are in the background

      Yet the Hinduism of Bali has taken a divergent path from that of India in general, and despite the mention of Shiva in its name, it appears little more Shaivite than Buddhist. Most temples are not dedicated to a particular deity, but to the Trimurti, the Divine Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. There is a large temple to Jaganath ("Juggernaut") in downtown Denpasar though, I saw a shrine to Ganesh at the entrance to a public elementary school, and at one shrine near the beach I found an image of Durga, with the standard huge, staring eyes, fangs, and one bared, scary-looking black breast. These are just a few anomalies that I noticed. People who can afford it may build veritable temple complexes in their yards, in large part to honor their ancestors. Also, little spirit houses are set up in farmers' fields, one to a family, as is sometimes seen in Burma also. But by far the most common type of shrine in Bali is the Padmāsana, or Lotus Seat – an empty throne dedicated to Acintya, the deification of supreme wisdom, worshipped by the gods themselves, mounted atop a pedestal or column. The most elaborate of these have a turtle at the bottom on which, according to Hindu cosmology, the earth rests. In urban areas the average distance between one Padmāsana and the next may be fifty meters or less. Ven. Vijaya says that these empty thrones for Highest Wisdom are Buddhist in origin.
     Two of the most important scriptures of Balinese Hinduism are the great Indian epic poems Mahabharata and Ramayana. The Mahabharata is the story of a war which may actually have happened in ancient times, but over the centuries it has been transformed into a poetic spiritual parable. Now, it is explained, the war takes place within ourselves; it is a war between light and darkness, between, in Buddhist terms, skillful states and unskillful states. On one side of the war are the five sons of the pale Pandu (Sanskrit, Pāṇḍu), who ven. Vijaya says may be understood as representing the five faculties or powers of Buddhist philosophy: The righteous eldest son Dharmavasa (Yudhiṣṭhira, whose chariot wheels do not touch the ground) represents faith; the herculean second son Bhīma symbolizes vigor; the handsome archer Arjuna, whose conversation with Krishna on the battlefield forms the Bhagavad Gita, represents mindfulness; and the twins Nakula and Sahadéva, the youngest, stand for concentration and wisdom, also known as tranquility and insight. On the other side of the battle is Pandu's brother, the blind Destarastra (Dhtarāra), representing the darkness of ignorance, and his one hundred sons – ignorance gives birth to a hundred defilements. Again according to ven. Vijaya, this is why, at the beginning of the Gita, Arjuna refuses to fight: these unskillful states are his family, they are part of himself; but Krishna urges him to fight for God's sake if not for his own, and also reminds him that, ultimately, the defilements cannot really be killed.
     Balinese religion thus has a rich philosophical and literary background on which to draw; but even so, most Balinese do not understand the meaning of their beautiful, colorful traditions and ceremonies. It is, for most, a superficial pageant of a beautiful culture. We all have to follow a culture, so it does make sense to follow a beautiful one. Yet many are intrigued and curious about the meaning of religion, and of life, and some are drawn to Buddhist monks because Buddhism is apparently better at offering a meaningful explanation for religion and life. Also, in the tradition of Hinduism it is very common for a family to adopt a priest as a family guide and counsellor; and the Indonesian monks I met in Bali continually had people coming to them to discuss their personal and family issues. Ven. Vijaya in particular was very popular in this respect, with occasionally even politicians and Balinese royalty coming to him for advice. So it seems that Theravada Buddhism may find a happy niche in Balinese culture, and monks receive respect and support there. Monastic Theravada may have a much easier go there than in the West.
     One event occurred shortly before I left the cemetery which conveniently ties in a number of themes mentioned in this post, including the theme of fussy Americans. One night, around 8:45, while I was trying to meditate, a loudspeaker in the village nearby began emitting some of the most horrific sounds I've ever heard. It was a man with a rather scratchy voice, not singing – I wouldn't dignify the sounds he made by giving that description – even calling it "chanting" seems overly generous. He was essentially wailing like a sick or wounded cat. Sometimes he would segue intro ordinary speech for several seconds, not poetry, but prose, and then go back to caterwauling. Only once in my life have I heard a turtle vocalize; it had been mauled by a dog and was dying; the sounds this man made strongly reminded me of that dying turtle. It was worse than the chanting or popular music blasted over loudspeakers in Burma; and those of you who have endured a "Patthan" festival in Burma will know that this is really saying something. There was no musical accompaniment, no background wailers, just him. Sometimes he would stop for several seconds, so that I would start to hope that maybe…but then he would start again, and again, and again. After about twenty minutes or so I gave up on trying to meditate, and lay down, but the sound was too loud and too distracting for sleep. For a while I put my fingers in my ears, but I've never liked having my fingers in my ears, so I took them out again. Noise has always been a pet peeve for me, especially loud human voices, and before very long I began to grow irritated. Within half an hour or so I was occasionally thinking things like, "Oh shut up you #*@//#!! idiot!" I realized that thinking such thoughts was not skillful, so I distracted myself with a running commentary, like thinking that if the guy just softly played bongos and had two young maidens with sweet voices chant the necessary noise it would certainly be more pleasing to the gods, or whoever; and making jokes like comparing his efforts to a crow's efforts at yodeling. He lasted longer than I did, and I eventually got tired enough to fall asleep. 
     My life-long aversion for noise is possibly the one attachment that has caused me much suffering, and no real joy – at best just some relief when the noise stops, plus some relative equilibrium. (I am not bothered by some loud noises, though, like wind, rain, crickets at night, even traffic or the monotonous kachunk-kachunk of a textile mill next door. It's mostly human voices, loud snoring, angrily barking or yapping dogs, and crows.) One thing I have noticed is that paying attention to it makes it much worse. Attending to something else as best I can has been my best defense, although it may be that I should just listen and watch my own attachment seethe.
     Anyway, the next morning I asked ven. Sikkhananda, a Javanese monk who had moved in a few days previously, what the horrible noise was the night before, and he said he hadn't even noticed it! He observed that Indonesians are acclimated to it, so to speak, but for them American heavy metal music would have a similar jarring effect. They wouldn't be used to that. That seemed reasonable in a way. A little later a man came who told us that a Brahmin priest had died in the village, and that the funeral ceremony would last four days. Luckily I guess, I evidently was not the only person bothered by the noise, as on the following night the volume was turned way down.
     Now I am back in the United States, contemplating my resources. Although America can be a difficult place for a monk to live, it definitely also has its good points. For example, it is much quieter than Southeast Asia. If anyone dares to blast over a loudspeaker chants to the gods, or to the dead, or to anyone else, the neighbors promptly call the police.
     May all beings be happy.      

The Happy Venerable Vijaya 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Technical Matters: How to Bake an Alms Bowl

     The ancient rules of monastic discipline specify that a Buddhist monk is required to own an alms bowl made of earth or iron, and that this bowl is to be baked in a fire from time to time. The commentaries state that an earthen or clay bowl should be baked at least twice, and an iron one at least five times. One of the skills that any junior monk should learn before becoming free of dependence on a teacher, along with sewing and dyeing robes, memorizing (and following) the Pātimokkha, and of course meditating, is the art of bowl baking.
     However, most alms bowls aren't baked any more, and the art seems to be dying out. When I first came to Burma more than twenty years ago, clay bowls were already rare, and the "regulation" monk's bowl sold at Sangha supply stores was pounded, so I was told, out of the bottoms of 55 gallon oil drums and then coated with black lacquer. Over the years fancier bowls became more and more common, a typical model being made of iron or steel and somehow processed with a matte black finish very like that found on military hardware. Expensive stainless steel bowls imported from Thailand are becoming almost the standard; and some Burmese monks, and apparently most Thai ones, leave the shiny stainless steel unbaked and unblack.
     Some years ago a book on Buddhist monastic discipline in the English language was published, which seemed to imply that to bake a bowl one simply sticks it into a fire. However, this would certainly not prevent an iron bowl from rusting, nor would it turn it any blacker than it already was. Bowl-baking involves coating the bowl with an enamel-like black finish that prevents iron bowls from rusting, and presumably would prevent clay bowls from being porous enough to absorb liquids from the monk's food, and thus would prevent them from becoming stinky and gross.
     Even though most Western monks nowadays seem to use stainless steel bowls that are immune to rust, still it may be useful to monks who wish to follow the ancient ways, to see a method much used in Burmese forests for baking an enamel coating onto a bowl. It also may be useful to a few artsy-craftsy type laypeople who would simply like to know how to cover implements with a glossy black finish that was favored in ancient India before the invention of spray paint. Anyway, here is the method. The entire process, not including the cooking of the oil, takes about two hours or a little less.

You will need: 
     ~at least one alms bowl
     ~about half a cup of sesame oil
     ~an old can to cook it in
     ~some steel wool, emery cloth, or similar abrasive
     ~three big rocks or about nine bricks
     ~three small flat rocks or three smallish potsherds
     ~a piece of sheet metal about two or three times as wide as the bowl to be baked, and wider than the next item
     ~a metal bucket, pot, or other receptacle large enough to invert over the inverted bowl without touching the sides
     ~at least two potholders or thick, folded or wadded cotton cloths (not synthetic, silk, or wool) for handling very hot bowls
     ~enough firewood to keep a medium-sized fire going for a few hours
     ~a clock or watch

Step 0: Preparing the oil.
     The sesame oil should be cooked over a fire until it is blackish sludge. When still hot it should have the consistency of chocolate syrup, and after it has cooled it should be about as thick as sweetened condensed milk. If it's too runny it will run down the sides of the bowl before it sets, and if it's too thick it is hard to spread it thinly. 
     The trick for cooking the oil quickly is to let it catch fire – consequently, it is best to do this outdoors over a fire, like the rest of the process. If the oil catches fire it may be ready in half an hour or so (depending on how much of it one is cooking); but if it doesn't catch fire the cooking process may take about two days. It was many years before I learned this important trick. One should start with about twice as much oil as one intends to wind up with, as some of it burns away. After preparing the oily sludge it can be kept for years, so it's good to prepare extra for future use.

 The fast way of cooking oil

 Enough cooked oil for two or three bowls

Step 1: Simply stick the bowl into the fire.
     This step may be skipped if the bowl to be baked is plain, unfinished pottery or metal. But if there is old enamel, spray paint, or some other coating on it, it should be burned off in the fire. Dead leaves or other combustible debris may be put inside the bowl to help the inside burn also. Then it should be allowed to cool.

Burning off the old coating

Step 2: Clean the bowl well.
     If the bowl was burned in the fire and has rust or burnt crust on it, it should be rubbed smooth with some abrasive. Steel wool works well. If a little of a previous baking's coating still remains, or if an iron bowl has a reddish tint from rust, so long as it's smooth there's no problem. At this point even a new bowl should be washed and rinsed carefully, so that it is clean, bare pottery or iron.
     Incidentally, I once asked a monk friend of mine how the rust was removed in ancient India, before the invention of steel wool and sandpaper, and he said they used a kind of strong vinegar to dissolve the rust. This supposedly had been used in Burma in the old days also. But I'm not sure if vinegar really dissolves rust, and guess as an alternative that they simply rubbed the bowl with sand, or pumice, or something.
Step 3: Smearing the oil onto the bowl.
     The trick with smearing the burnt sesame oil onto the bowl is to smear it as thinly as possible. If the black coating on the bowl has little cracks after the bowl is baked, and/or if the rim of the bowl has a crust of semisolid oil that flowed down the inverted bowl while baking, then this is a sign that one has spread the oil on too thick. (Such a bowl is still usable, however.) A good method is to dip one's finger(s) into the oil, and then make little dabs of the oil all over the bowl, and then spread it out in a uniform layer. Again, spread it as thinly as possible, using the oil sparingly, yet of course leaving no spot unsmeared. Smear the inside first; it's easier that way.

Smearing the Bowl

Step 4: The actual process of baking.
     The piece of sheet metal is set on the rocks or bricks with maybe a foot of clearance with the ground, and the fire is maintained underneath. The flat stones or potsherds are set in a triangle of adequate size to place the inverted bowl onto them so that it doesn't come in contact with very hot metal. The bowl is placed upside-down onto the stones or potsherds, and then the cover is placed over the bowl. At this point one should note the time.

     If the fire is small, one round of baking may take ten minutes or more. If the fire is medium-sized, it may take as little as five or six minutes. If the fire is a roaring big one, the coating will bake on and then promptly burn off again, requiring one to start over. This can be very frustrating when one has already done three or four rounds, with three or four layers baked on, so it is best not to have a big fire. 
     One should watch the smoke coming out from under the receptacle covering the bowl. After a few minutes smoke will be emitted, and then after a while it will stop. When the smoke stops, the bowl is done, and should be removed from the fire to cool. If the smoke stops and then starts again, that means that the baked oil is now burning off – that is not a good sign. Because it is difficult sometimes to gauge the smoke emissions, a clock is handy. The bowl should be checked after five minutes or so; if it is smoking a lot, or if it is still sticky, it's not done yet. To leave it just a little smoky or sticky is allowable, and much preferable to overbaking.
     Some monasteries in Burma have a bowl-baking cover with a hole in it, to facilitate observing the smoke coming off the bowl. If the emitted smoke can be clearly watched, then a clock is unnecessary.

     Different bowls will have different optimal baking times, depending largely upon their thickness and mass and what material they are made of. A thick iron bowl will take longer to bake, and much longer to cool, than a thin stainless steel one.
     After removing the bowl from the fire it must be allowed to cool enough to be handled before applying the next coat. Consequently, it is just about as easy to bake two or three bowls as it is to bake one: while one is baking, another is cooling, while a third may be receiving its next coat of oil. Although a bowl may be baked by one person, two monks have an easier task than one, with one tending the fire and removing the cover and the hot bowl from the fire, and the other smearing the oil (with oil all over his hands). Whoever tends the fire should try to maintain it at a uniform size, and not too big.
Step 5: Baking it again and again.
     As mentioned previously, the commentarial tradition advises at least two bakings for a clay bowl, and at least five for an iron one. Repeating Steps 3 and 4 above results in a layering of enamel, which causes the finish to be sturdier and to last longer. After the fifth baking, an iron bowl should be a beautiful glossy black. It should be washed before food is eaten from it. 

     Some monks with steel bowls bake only the outside for looks. (Recently I was informed that some wiseguy monks in Thailand smear their $200 stainless steel bowls with eucalyptus oil instead of sesame, to give them a luminous, iridescent finish.) The enamel tends not to adhere as well to stainless as to pure iron. Metal bowl lids may be baked this way too.      
     The sesame oil enamel is rather sturdy, but still one should be careful about scraping the bowl with sharp implements like forks while eating from it, and should not use strong abrasives when washing it. The coating on a well-baked alms bowl should last for two years at least. A mediocre job will last a year. A bad job, as with a bad life, is to be done again.

     The method described above, or so I've been told, is a standard method imported into Burma from Sri Lanka long ago, but there are other methods. I visited one monastery in Mon State in Burma where they didn't cover the inverted bowl while baking it; they used a cauldron, so the heat surrounded the baking bowl on three sides at least. But even uncovered like that would probably be more sophisticated than the way it was done in ancient India by wandering ascetics. I've been told that it is possible to bake a bowl by carefully placing it very near a fire and occasionally rotating it so it bakes one part at a time. I assume this was the original way. It probably would be pretty rough, and not so pretty to look at, but at least it wouldn't rust.