Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Experience with the Tant Kyi Taung Method

     When I was a junior monk, before ever going to Burma, I happened to meet venerable Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw while he was in America. He seemed like a wise person; and when I arrived in Asia in the winter of '92-'93, I had included him on a very short list of monks that I knew of who might have high spiritual attainments. The only other two on the list, incidentally, were Sayadaw U Jotika (known in Burma as Mahamyaing U Zawtika), who was ordained in the same tradition as me, and Sayadaw U Pandita, of the Mahasi tradition.
     Some time later, in December of '93, after I had been in Burma for almost a year, I moved to a huge scholastic monastery called Mahagandhayone, in the city of Amarapura, near Mandalay. Soon after my arrival one of my teachers asked if I'd like to attend a ten-day meditation retreat under Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw, in the ancient city of Bagan, the capital of Burma a thousand years ago. I still had Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw on the aforementioned list, and I'd been wanting to go see the temples of Bagan, so I readily agreed.
     It turned out that the retreat facilities were completely full; but since I was a Western monk the administrators cleared out a room to make space for me. They were happy to take the trouble, as Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw's new retreat center, Ithi Pyinnya Dewa Guru Kyaung ("Rishi Wisdom God Guru Monastery"), just outside the old city wall of Bagan, had been established with one of its primary goals being the spreading of the Tant Kyi Taung method to Western disciples, and I was the first Westerner to sign up. The teacher who invited me also attended the retreat, as did several other monks from Mahagandhayone. My teacher and I were attended by Po Nandana, a "Pothudaw," a semi-monastic little boy dressed in white robes, who kept only eight precepts and handled money for the trip. 
     For some reason venerable Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw, or maybe the retreat organizers, especially targeted beginners for the retreat. Most or all of the monks were invited from school monasteries, and most of them had little experience with meditation. The laypeople also were either complete beginners or else veterans of the Tant Kyi Taung method. Having practiced lots of meditation over the few years that I had been ordained, I was possibly one of the most experienced meditators attending the retreat.
     The Sayadaw gave his lectures and instructions in Burmese, and I was just starting to learn the language, so I was provided with two interpreters. Another key player in this drama was a wealthy Burmese man, a hydraulic engineer who had done some important projects for the government, who was a dedicated follower of the Sayadaw's method, who had donated the retreat center on this choice plot of land between the old city wall and the Irrawaddy River, who spoke fluent English, and who, like many wealthy Burmese people, was a very proud man. I being the first Westerner at the new retreat center, they all had high hopes for me.
     One peculiarity of the Tant Kyi Taung method is its inclusion of meditation in a standing posture. Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw swore by it, claiming that practicing it produces a multitude of health benefits. Aside from this, his method was in most respects similar to the much more well-known Mahasi method. Two other notable differences were 1) walking meditation was done at normal walking speed, the Sayadaw considering slow-motion walking to be of questionable benefit, and 2) he instructed the meditators to breathe a little faster than usual. This latter was ostensibly because if one is making a special effort to breathe differently than usual it helps to keep one's attention on the breath. This seemed reasonable.    
     But this latter point had some strange consequences. Many of the meditators, including veterans of the method, ignored the qualifier "a little," and breathed, apparently, as hard and as fast as they could. Even to imitate the speed at which some of the meditators were breathing causes me to become dizzy within a few seconds. The meditation hall sounded like a textile mill with all the heavy breathing going on. I secretly named one person sitting in front of me Vlad the Inhaler.
     On the very second day of the retreat, around midday, a monk who sat about six feet from me began wailing at the top of his lungs in a piercing, high-pitched voice. I opened my eyes and looked around. One of my interpreters, who was sitting next to me, was sobbing quietly. A senior monk up front was giggling uncontrollably. A young woman somewhere behind me was panting and moaning in a very distracting manner. And several others appeared ready to "pop" at any moment. The situation struck me as rather insane, and I decided I didn't wish to participate—so I got up and walked out of the meditation hall. On my way out I noticed a woman in the back who had flopped over onto her back and was beating herself in the head with both fists.
     But all was not lost: I was in the ancient city of Bagan, which I think may have still been spelled with a "P" in those days. This was also before the military government ill-advisedly renovated almost all of the old temples, presumably expecting foreigners to be more willing to come and spend money to see fixed-up new temples than to see ancient ruins. (I've heard that UNESCO is still fuming over that one.) Also, people were still allowed to climb up on the biggest temples. So I walked around for the rest of the day checking out old temples, and meditated way up on the Sulamani Pagoda, one of the prettiest ones in the area. Some of my favorites, though, were the smaller ones that stood more or less abandoned in the middle of farmers' fields; inside the Buddha image would have its midsection torn away by looters long ago looking for enshrined treasure. The disemboweled Buddha, however, sat in undisturbed bliss, completely accepting the impermanence of form.

Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Burma

     When I returned to Ithi Pyinnya Dewa Guru Kyaung late in the afternoon I was informed that Sayadaw wished to speak with me. He asked if there was a problem; and, being a young, uncouth Western barbarian, I told him point blank that I didn't consider his method to be legitimate Dhamma. I pointed out that in the texts it says that one should meditate calming the breath, not panting like a steam engine. The Sayadaw replied that calming of the breath occurs only when one is approaching jhāna. Then I shared my opinion that the meditators were hyperventilating, and that the strange symptoms they were exhibiting was the result of being drunk on too much oxygen. Venerable Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw grinned with amusement at that one, apparently thinking something like, "Oh, the crazy ideas these foreigners get!" He informed me that the meditators were experiencing piti.
     (When I told Sayadaw of the woman lying on her back pounding her head with both fists, he replied that she had a headache. Even if she didn't have one when she started pounding, it was easy to understand how a headache was very likely in her case.)
     I was told afterwards that in his talks the Sayadaw actually praised those who laughed or cried or howled or whatever, saying that this was a manifestation of piti, which might be translated into English as "exhilaration," and which is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga)—if one doesn't experience such states, one won't become enlightened. Anyway, the Sayadaw assured me that after the first few days, such symptoms as howling would very likely cease, or at least become much reduced.
     I also tried to explain my hyperventilation theory to one of my interpreters, who was a retired professor of Physiology. He informed me that hyperventilation is practically impossible, as there are internal regulatory systems which prevent it. But it seemed to me that if it were impossible, then there would be no need for the word "hyperventilation" to have been invented in the first place. Besides, I've hyperventilated before. I felt that it was very possible, even likely in this particular case.
     Part of the trouble was that I was the high hope of the organizers of the retreat, being their first Westerner. In a retreat situation in the West, if someone drops out, well, it's not a big deal. First you see them, and then you don't. But people were getting upset when I tried to drop out, as though it were a personal affront. When I tried out the hyperventilation theory on the proud donor of the meditation center (who had also wanted to talk to me after my return from the temples), the more I spoke, the more his chest inflated, coming more and more between the two of us; and when I finished my harangue he replied, in a voice as cold as ice, "They are experiencing piti."
     People were so keen on my not dropping out that I considered, well, if I stay in this I'll likely experience some unpleasantness for another eight days, but if I drop out quite a few people will be unhappy about it, so I may as well take the hit. Besides, there was no convenient way back to Mahagandhayone until after the retreat. 
     So, the retreat continued, and episodes of laughing and crying became fewer. Strange behavior did continue to some degree, however, and I noticed that when it did the hydraulic engineer would rush over and video them, apparently collecting evidence of the dramatic effects of the method. This further impeded my practice, though: not only did I not have much faith in the method, but I was a little worried that I might wind up on the six o'clock national news howling like a dog if I wasn't careful. 
     At one point I asked the monk who had been howling near me what he had been feeling when it happened. He said, in English, "Very pleasure."
     Once during a group meditation a woman towards the back began making strange, snorting sounds in the back of her throat. The Sayadaw, hearing this unsettling noise, immediately went to her and brought her out of it. Later I was informed that she had regressed into a past life as a dragon.
     On the eighth day of the retreat the same monk as before began wailing again. It was just too much for me at the time, and I walked out again. The Sayadaw met me at the door, and bowed his head and waved me out, giving me permission to do what I would have done regardless. I spent the remaining two days minding my own business. I even stopped eating the food at the center, and took my bowl out for alms round in the morning. The hydraulic engineer wouldn't look at me after that. I wouldn't say he ignored me, as he was making such an obvious point of not looking at me.
     Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw also had his own brand of herbal medicines, which were sold at the meditation center and elsewhere. I read some of his guidelines for health, which were printed in a booklet someone gave to me. It included such information as, "For the teeth, white things are best, but the best white thing for teeth is salt," and "For general health, bitter things are best, but the best bitter things for health are neem leaves and fruits." It seemed to me like it was a combination of folk tradition and just plain guessing. This sort of thing is rather common in Burma: a Sayadaw is treated like a king and an infallible authority figure for so long that he starts believing in it himself, like the baseball umpire who says, "They ain't nothing till I call them."
     Less than a year after that incomplete retreat, my barbarous judgements were vindicated when I was told that the Sangha Mahanayaka Sayadaw, the highest-ranking monk in the Burmese ecclesiastical hierarchy, had formally reprimanded Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw, forbidding him to continue teaching his method, on the grounds that it was not correct Dhamma. The Burmese are pretty easygoing with regard to such matters, however, and Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw continues teaching his method to this day, although perhaps with some modification. And some people insist that it's an excellent method, even life-changing.
     The Sayadaw had further problems. Around the same time that he allegedly received the ecclesiastical reprimand, some young monk wrote and published a book with a title (in Burmese) like Dhamma Battlefield, the purpose of which being to denounce Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw publicly. I never read it, and never heard if hyperventilation is mentioned at all. Mainly the book accuses him of practicing black magic and necromancy. Whether he really is a sorcerer and necromancer I certainly don't know.
     I'm pretty sure that the Tant Kyi Taung method really is largely based on hyperventilation, but it may still be that the method works for some people. Hyperventilation is, after all, used in what is called "holotropic breathwork" in the West, which has been effective as a technique for exploring the mind. It does seem to me, though, that the Burmese in general are not very sophisticated with regard to discerning good methods from bad, unless they use the Pali texts as a guiding dogma. At least the Tant Kyi Daung method involves some real mindfulness practice—some Burmese meditation techniques, as far as I can tell, are little more than self-hypnosis. I heard there is a meditation center not far from my monastery in northwest Burma where  meditators are guaranteed that during a short retreat they will be able to sit without moving for several hours at a stretch, and during that time they will psychically travel to heaven realms and hell realms, and meet the denizens in each. That sounds like hypnosis to me.
     As far as I can tell, venerable Tant Kyi Taung Sayadaw is an honest man and not a deliberate fraud. If his method does deviate somewhat from orthodox Dhamma, I assume that it is not intentional. He seems to have been dazzled, or otherwise inspired, by the dramatic effects of his breathing method.
     This all goes to show that one should be very careful in choosing a teacher, and a technique. Good luck to all of you in doing that.
~     ~     ~
     This post is somewhat like a comedy sketch on the old American TV show "Saturday Night Live": A movie was being filmed in which an actor is about to beat and kick a puppy, when the director suddenly shouts, "Cut! Bring in the stunt puppy!" Then the first puppy is replaced by a specially trained stunt animal who rolls with the punches and skillfully takes the beating. (They were both stuffed dogs, so nobody actually got beaten.) On a later episode of "Saturday Night Live" there was a very similar sketch with a specially trained baby—"Bring in the stunt baby!" I hypothesized that the first version, with the puppy, was testing the waters, so to speak, before trying the baby (which of course had the potential to be just too outrageously off-color). This post, similarly, is testing the waters in a way, as I also had an equally disillusioning experience with a version of the much more well-known and respected Mahasi method. The latter method is much more orthodox, I think, and has famous disciples, but still….

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Little Universes

     One peculiarity of human nature that struck me even as a child is the fact that we can accept as reality the events in a movie that, upon a moment's reflection, we must know full well is just make believe. We get excited during the exciting parts and get scared during the scary parts, even though the movie might be a fantasy about King Arthur, or about hobbits and dragons. We may even feel tense watching a television show, when we must know the hero isn't going to die, as he has to star in the same show the following week. Our heart may beat faster when the bad guy is pointing a gun at the hero's head, despite the fact that his adventures in next week's episode are already described in the TV Guide.
     Some people are more susceptible to this than others. My father evidently had some resistance to it; my mother once told me that Dad could completely wreck a movie for her when, during a really exciting part when she was gripping her seat, he would casually make some remark like, "They didn't have guns like that in those days." On the other hand, he would get choked up and leave the room during a scene in the old movie Gone with the Wind where a man has his leg amputated without anesthesia—he had had to participate in the same thing as a combat medic in World War II. (I have been inclined to get caught up in movies if they are interesting, although I detach myself from scary or icky parts by reminding myself that it's only a movie.)
     This acceptance of sounds and images flashed on a screen as Reality is not due to realistic acting and expensive special effects. Four hundred years ago people were just as caught up in staged plays in which the actors declaimed in verse, with female roles played by boys in drag, and on stages almost devoid of scenery or props: one might know that it was supposed to be night only because one or two actors were carrying torches, or one might know they're supposed to be in a forest only because one actor said, "Well, here we are in the forest." For that matter, one may be just as caught up in a novel, which is obviously just black ink on paper.
     This phenomenon has sometimes been attributed to an intentional suspension of judgement on the part of the viewer; but it seems to me that a more precise explanation is that we effectively narrow our attention to the limits of the fictional world we are observing—we focus on it to the exclusion of outer details that are incompatible with it (going with the example of Gone with the Wind, we exclude the fact that we are not in 19th-century Georgia, and, of course, that the whole thing consists of actors and props portrayed on a screen, with recorded sound coming from a speaker). A similar phenomenon takes place when we dream at night.
     It seems to me that such exclusive focusing on an engaging, miniature world applies to much more than fictional drama and dreams. For example, playing a game, be it dominoes or a complicated computerized role-playing game, becomes our world so long as we are involved in it. It becomes a very simplified, yet interesting, version of reality, a miniature universe with its own coherence and set of rules. Music can be another sub-universe. Some kinds of intoxication could be likewise: for example, a psychedelic high. If we restrict our focus to a more or less self-cohering scenario with its own laws, that scenario may temporarily be our "world."
     The potential benefit of this is fairly obvious: if the big outer world is too overwhelming for us, or irritatingly complicated, or just boring, we may get some time off by focusing on a simpler version, one in which we personally are less threatened, or ineffectual, or mundane, or whatever. It gives us a chance to relax, or forget. Plus it is interesting.
     Some samatha meditation techniques seem to follow this same principle. By focusing on one engaging object, to the exclusion of all else, we experience tranquility. This may be invaluable for relieving stress, for clearing the mind, for developing mental discipline, etc., but it also has limitations. So long as we are excluding all that is not the object of meditation, nothing "external" to it comes up, like latent tendencies (anusaya in Pali). So these kinds of meditation, or playing games for that matter, are of very limited value beyond the scope of their own little universe. Kamma that does not integrate with the miniature reality has little potential to arise; and so long as it doesn't arise, we may not know that it even exists, and thus it is hardly likely that such unresolved issues will be resolved. Until, that is, we are out there somewhere in the "real world" and something happens to trigger it.
     Even the state of unenlightenment itself can be viewed as focusing on a kind of symbolic, fictional world to the exclusion of all else, including our own subconscious mind. Whatever the ego cannot or will not focus upon, for whatever reason, is left out of the picture, which presumably includes the majority of everything. And just as a person considering what he sees on a TV screen to be the only reality would be considered delusional, for us to consider our own perceptual world to be the only reality is equally delusional—and that doesn't mean simply that we should include other people's perceptual worlds too, including scientific perceptions of "reality," but even what we cannot perceive or imagine at all, if we would be enlightened.
     And so, continuing with this idea, an enlightened person would not exclude anything. Krishnamurti called this state "choiceless awareness." Not excluding means not focusing, because when we focus on something we necessarily exclude what we're not focusing on. The choiceless mind becomes like a mirror, or a cheap camera, with everything equally in focus: the person standing before us, her voice, the hum of the refrigerator, the chirping of the cricket behind it, our own breath, the touch of clothing on our skin, the pressure of the floor against the soles of our feet, the off-color thought that just arose…etc. etc. We don't necessarily respond to it, but we don't exclude it either.
     So with mindfulness meditation, in contrast to a samatha practice like mantra, we may start the practice focusing on whatever is conspicuous that arises, like the breath, and even label it at first; but as the practice develops we gradually use words less and less (perhaps letting go of labeling the primary object to start with while still labeling other phenomena that arise), and as it develops further we focus less and less, until meditation becomes mirror-like, or cheap-camera-like, and we attend to nothing, yet everything is clearly there. Then we learn to maintain that state even when we're walking around making noise. 
     If a samatha technique is a deep one it may lead to the same state, so I'm really not knocking samatha. It tends to be more difficult for Westerners though.

At one level: Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara
At another level: Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh
At many other levels: nobody

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Hysteria and the Holy Life

Hysteria Psychiatry a psychological disorder (not now regarded as a single definite condition) whose symptoms include conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization), selective amnesia, shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior. The term has a controversial history as it was formerly regarded as a disease specific to women. (—New Oxford American Dictionary)

     It may be, for all I know, that the psychology of Sigmund Freud has become obsolete by now. I have read that just as Galileo invented modern science with regard to the external world, so Freud invented it with regard to the internal one – and I would guess that very few physicists nowadays consult the works of Galileo in their researches. I'm pretty sure there are still Freudian psychologists walking around out there, but 21st-century cognitive scientists who are attempting to turn psychology into a "hard science" might not give them the time of day.
     Even so, I do think many of Freud's observations on the workings of the human psyche still hold true, and that much of his theory may be more empirically consistent and valuable than, say, the Abhidhamma philosophy of orthodox Theravada Buddhism. For example, his interpretation of dream symbolism is good and interesting. He says that if we dream about a building it generally represents our own body or "self." This would explain why my father told me once that it was only after he grew old that he began having dreams about being inside dilapidated old buildings that were falling apart. Exploring a large building room by room, as in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, is a common theme in my dreams; and although in a few dreams the building clearly symbolized the world or (in one strange dream) even the entire Universe, I am somewhat of a subjective idealist, and do not clearly differentiate between the world and "my own person."
     Freud also says that water in a dream usually symbolizes religion or Spirit. One of the most spiritually-oriented people I know in America, a dedicated Dharma warrior, has water dreams all the time. Once, many years ago, an Australian monk friend of mine had a strange water dream that he did not consciously understand, but when he described it to me the meaning seemed clearly obvious: He dreamed that he was in a canoe, paddling around in a lake or large pond. He sat at one end of the canoe, and at the other end were three or four large gorillas. The gorillas were peaceful and behaving themselves very nicely; but my friend was afraid to go back to shore, because then the gorillas might jump out of the boat and run amuck, causing who knows what kind of trouble. So he kept paddling around and around in the middle of the lake, wanting to go back to dry land, but too worried about the behavior of the apes actually to do it. As I say, my friend claimed not to understand the meaning of his own dream, but it seemed pretty clear to me: The water represented Dhamma, and being in the canoe symbolized living the life of a monk. He was feeling frustration in the monkhood and was tempted to drop out, but he felt that his old bad habits or "defilements" (the gorillas) would once again become relatively unrestrained and out of control. As it turned out, not long after he had this dream he actually did drop out of the monkhood. Whether his gorillas ran amuck or not I don't know. (By the way, if the good fellow who had that dream reads this, I'd like him to know that I'd be very happy to hear from him after all these years. He may have had a canoe full of apes; I still have a rowboat full of dogs. Mostly hounds.) The idea that our own mind may create symbolic worlds that our "conscious" waking egos do not understand is very intriguing, and may have deep metaphysical implications, especially to subjective idealists or those who accept the Buddhist conception of Karma…but maybe I'll dive into that some other time.
     What I would mainly like to discuss in this little article is Freud's interpretation of hysteria. According to him, we all have deep animalistic urges, like desire and fear, which in a civilized society we are not allowed to express. It simply wouldn't do for a man walking down a city street to attack anyone who bothered him or to rape any woman he found attractive. We Must Restrain Ourselves. But restraining these urges, as a general rule, does not make them go away or disappear. Instead, they are pushed underground – into the subconscious mind – where they gradually accumulate and build up pressure until they eventually percolate up to the surface in the form of neurotic symptoms. Freud thought that any civilized person was bound to be neurotic, and he considered himself to be no exception. He apparently believed that only a naked savage living in a wilderness could be really mentally healthy; but he was apparently unaware that naked savages in jungles tend to be heavily burdened with fearful superstitions and taboos, possibly even more so than are modern Westerners. Thus it seems to be human nature to be mentally ill.
Sigmund Freud

     Following is a classic case history of this kind of phenomenon, which I read in a classic psychology book, the title of which I no longer remember: It seems there was a young woman who worked as a typist or secretary in an office in a Germanic city a hundred years ago or more. Every day she walked to work by the same route, which passed a certain plant nursery. Now it may be that the young woman was very pretty, because every morning a certain young man who worked at the nursery would stand at the entrance to watch her walk by. I suspect that women have an innate talent for knowing when a man is checking them out, something akin to radar (or maybe men just don't realize how obvious their ogling can be); and perhaps this man too was attractive, as the young woman, deep in her heart, seems to have liked his attention. However, he was beneath her socially, as she worked in an office while he was a manual laborer; and besides, this was at a time when society required young ladies to behave in a modest, demure fashion. So there was little chance that she would deliberately choose to encourage this man, much less make the first move. Then, one fine day, as she was on her way to the office, she collapsed. She couldn't move her legs. She was suddenly paralyzed. And where? Right across the street from the entrance to the plant nursery. Her subconscious desire for this young buck of a man had built up enough pressure to break through to the surface and attempt to take matters into its own hands, so to speak. Of course she was examined by a doctor, and of course she had nothing at all physically wrong with her to cause the collapse. It was a classic, textbook case of hysterical paralysis. 
     If Freud's principle of neurotic hysteria applies to all people in civilized society, then it stands to reason that it would be more obviously applicable in relatively morally inhibited cultures. Consider, for example, the Spaniards of the 16th century and the English Puritans of the 17th, with their hysterical fears of witches, heresy, and the Devil. Many people were burned to death by howling mobs in those days, often for no greater crime than eccentricity or bad luck. And if this phenomenon is more likely in morally inhibited lay societies, then presumably it would be most likely in the most morally restrained societies of all – societies of monks, nuns, and other saintly religious renunciants. Carl Jung in his essay "Answer to Job" (well worth reading by anyone interested in the moral evolution of the biblical God), touches upon this idea in his discussion of Saint John the Evangelist, author of the extremely violent Book of Revelation:
The "revelation" was experienced by an early Christian who, as a leading light of the community, presumably had to live an exemplary life and demonstrate to his flock the Christian virtues of true faith, humility, patience, devotion, selfless love, and denial of all worldly desires. In the long run this can become too much, even for the most righteous. Irritability, bad moods, and outbursts of affect [e.g. apocalyptic visions] are the classic symptoms of chronic virtuousness.
     I could give many case histories suggestive of restraint-induced hysteria in monks that I have known, or know of. Here are just a few examples. I once new a junior Western monk who began rather lax in his practice, not knowing any better than to follow along with what the Burmese monks around him were doing, but who eventually became as strict as was possible for him, and who evidently had a personality which tended to greatly value self-control anyway. Over the course of several months he grew more and more irritable and hard to satisfy, with his long-term plans also changing at an accelerating rate. One monastery was too lax, another was unacceptable because it was close enough to a highway that he could hear trucks, two more were intolerable because they had electric generators that ran (and made noise) for a few hours each day, and so on. Finally, triggered by an illness, he dramatically catapulted himself out of the monkhood in an emotional outburst that had his supporters, and his main Dhamma teacher, aghast. A more "psychosomatic" case is a relatively senior monk I met who couldn't meditate because whenever his mind would start to settle into samādhi he would have violent neck spasms, his head jerking to the side again and again, which of course wrecked the meditation. He seemed not to have these spasms at other times. Not long after I met him he dropped out of the Sangha; and I was informed that shortly thereafter he fell madly in bed with a young woman – and I would guess that his neck spasms went away, or were at least greatly alleviated. There is also the well-known case of the late venerable Ñāavīra, who developed a condition which many rascally laymen might envy, and which was so distracting to him that it was an important factor in his decision to commit suicide. He considered the condition to be a strange side effect of some dysentery medication that he took, although I suspect that in modern medical jargon it would be called a "hysterical conversion reaction."
     I am not asserting that any of the above mentioned monks was necessarily hysterical, let alone unhinged. But even if their symptoms were indicative of hysteria it would to some degree be to their credit, as at least it would suggest that they were conscientiously self-restrained. Lax monks, who simply allow their apes to run amuck anyhow, tend not to have such problems. And anyway, Freud says we're all neurotic.
     There is one case history that I can be fairly certain about, and that is my own. At a time when I was doing the most intensive meditation practice of my life, alone in a forest in NW Burma, I began experiencing a peculiar irregularity in my breathing. (Just remembering it can trigger a mild case of it, as is happening now.) It was as though I were forgetting to breathe enough, requiring me to inhale very deeply, followed by a big sigh. The urge was somewhat similar to a yawn; and sometimes I would have to raise my shoulders and twist my upper body to one side in order to inhale deeply enough to cause the urge to "reset" and temporarily disappear. If a certain stretching sensation did not occur in the area of my sternum, the urge would remain, and I would have to try again. When it was most intense I could be wakened from sleep by this strange urge; although it almost always occurred when I was awake. It eventually became rather troublesome and distracting. Some time after this I found myself at a monastery equipped with a physician's diagnostic guide, so I looked up my symptoms. Sure enough, it was there – it was simply called dyspnea, or "difficult breathing" – and it even mentioned that some people have to contort their body while inhaling to make it feel "right." Then, to my chagrin and humiliation, it said that this condition is almost always a hysterical conversion reaction, or, in other words, a psychosomatic hysterical condition. 
    I'm pretty sure I've exhibited other forms of hysterical behavior also. For example, for years I had a habit, which I hope is pretty much broken by now, of writing aggressively confrontational letters to people, systematically, ruthlessly pointing out to them their own foibles and self-contradictions. I offended a number of people this way; fortunately I wrote an average of only about one of them per year. Finally I concluded that it was a kind of neurotic symptom, venting my own suppressed frustration with the world onto someone else.
     A lesson to be learned from all this business about suppressed urges making trouble is that our animal instincts and unskillful habits – our "defilements" – do not want to die, and will fight for their own survival, much like any animal will. Also, the delusive "self" will resist being replaced by wisdom, and will endeavor to sabotage our attempts to cultivate it. This is one of the main reasons why people have difficulties in their meditation practice – subconscious fear of Nirvana.
     Not only relatively strict Dharma practitioners, but even highly advanced saints may exhibit hysterical behavior. And this observation is made after totally setting aside the questionably saintly Martin Luther who flung his ink pot at the Devil; the fanatical Heinrich Suso, who was instructed by "angels" not to touch his own body, not to bathe, not to wash his clothes or bedding (which consequently swarmed with lice), to wear underpants lined with needles, etc., etc.; and the rather eccentric Saint Gertrude, who was visited repeatedly by Jesus Christ Himself, largely for the purpose of indulging in amatory flirtation with her. (Interested readers may find relevant details on Heinrich and Saint Gertrude in William James's brilliant classic The Varieties of Religious Experience.) I mean that even extremely advanced masters may exhibit hysterical symptoms.

The Blessed Heinrich Suso, with one of his instruments of self torture

     Consider the case of Saint John of the Cross. He is my favorite Christian saint; and by Buddhist standards he would be called a true meditation master, a master of fourth jhāna. If it is at all possible for a Christian to be fully enlightened, then I would consider San Juan de la Cruz to be a likely candidate for it. He spoke with authority, as from his own experience, about the Stage of Perfection in which all self-will has been eradicated. Yet he also considered himself to have received celestial visions and divine communications from God Himself. He wisely instructed his disciples to disregard all visions and divine communications, saying that a true contemplative should dismiss anything that arises, profane or sacred. (As the Bible says, even the Devil can appear as an angel of light.) Yet he appears to have taken some of his own communications from God at face value. According to her own autobiography, Saint John's mentor, Saint Teresa of Avila, was so prone to see supernatural visions that at one point her father confessor advised her to make the sign of the cross, in case it were the work of the Devil, whenever she saw one, and she became so weary of making the sign again and again that before long she began simply carrying a crucifix around with her. Yet she was clearly a very advanced Saint, a kind of inspired moral genius.
     It is probably no mere coincidence that the greatest saints seem unusually prone to have celestial visions, each in accordance with the belief systems of their own traditions. Hallucinations may inspire sainthood, as was perhaps the case with someone like Joan of Arc, but I think it is more often the other way around. (Also, "revealed scriptures," some of which are of great profundity, could be called "channeled documents" in New Age language, and in the language of modern psychology could plausibly be called manifestations of hysterical dissociation.)
     Getting closer to home for Theravada Buddhists, there is the case of venerable Ajahn Mun, possibly the most renowned meditation master of modern Thailand (although in his day it was still called Siam). He is apparently believed by millions of Thais to have been fully enlightened, and many Westerners trained in Thai traditions share this belief. He has set a sort of precedent with regard to certain somewhat controversial monastic behaviors, such as eating cheese in the afternoon and smoking tobacco: many Thai monks appear to trust that if such behaviors were good enough for an Arahant like Ajahn Mun, then they are good enough for any monk. On the other hand, if a Westerner with some capacity for skepticism reads venerable Ajahn Mun's classic, bizarre, surreal biography (written by one of his chief disciples who is also considered my many to be fully enlightened), he or she encounters information that is rather difficult to assimilate. To give some examples, it is stated that the venerable Ajahn announced the dates and times that he had attained each of the four stages of sainthood; that he had interactions with a fault-finding cobra dragon and a gigantic, forest-dwelling demon; that wild tigers would literally line up along his walking meditation path to watch him pace back and forth; that so many gods and goddesses came to him for darshan at night that he often went without sleep, and had to attend to them in batches because there were too many to attend to all at once; and, last but not least, that he was visited on numerous occasions by long-deceased fully enlightened Buddhas, each with a retinue of hundreds of long-deceased fully enlightened Arahants. If even only a fraction of such alleged details originated with the honest words of Ajahn Mun himself, then I would have little choice but to consider the possibility that he was just as prone to hallucination as his venerable peers in the Roman Catholic Church. 
     Really though, I am not at all implying that even if Ajahn Mun considered himself really to have been visited by crowds of gods, goddesses, and dead enlightened beings, and even if such considerations were (at least superficially) delusional, that he was not nevertheless fully enlightened. And that in addition to having a ferocious temperament and probably being addicted to a drug, nicotine, besides. (He was allegedly a chain smoker.) I am in no position at all to decide whether he was or was not enlightened. The situation definitely has fascinating implications.
     One might object that hysteria is a kind of mental illness, and that an enlightened being might be physically ill, but never mentally, as enlightenment implies mental perfection. But one should bear in mind that the human mind is not designed by nature to be enlightened, but to be delusional; so it stands to reason that an Arahant could seem rather abnormal or dysfuncional, especially when unenlightened people are judging him.
     Or, one could say that an enlightened being could not possibly be hysterical, as he or she would have no desires, frustrations, or fears at all to be repressed. But consider a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person with OCD may, for instance, wash his hands fifty times a day or more, until the skin of his hands is cracked and bleeding. He can't resist the urge, and just can't stop doing it. If he undergoes treatment (which nowadays may involve a kind of Buddhist mindfulness practice) he may be cured of his trouble, but the obsessive/compulsive urges may not entirely disappear. The actual cure consists of his learning not to take the compulsive urges seriously, and not to react to them by acting them out. They will become much reduced through lack of reinforcement, but they do not necessarily go away completely. It may be that enlightenment is like this also, at least for some people. After all, we are conditioned by human nature, with all its desires and fears, and so on; and it may be that this doesn't just disappear at the moment of enlightenment. 
     Or let's say that an Arahant has psychic power and can know what other people are experiencing in his or her own mind. If that being "feels into" the mind of someone experiencing desire and fear, then he or she will be in some way experiencing desire and fear too, right? Even ordinary compassion may be said to be like this: One feels another's suffering.
     Finally, it might also be objected that an enlightened being absolutely could not be delusional, since delusion is the exact opposite of enlightenment! However, if one considers that the so-called "Real World" is also illusory, yet is taken at face value, at least superficially, by virtually all saints and sages, then for an enlightened being to take at face value an illusion peculiar to himself seems not quite so strange.
     But it's pointless to argue about what enlightened beings are like, so enough of this.

Venerable Ajahn Mun 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Four Western Theravadas

     Several years ago a German monk sent me an article, "American Buddhists: Who Are They?" by Jan Nattier (which can be accessed by clicking here), describing, from a sociological point of view, the main types of Buddhism in America. According to this article, Buddhism in the US can be conveniently divided into three categories: Ethnic Buddhism, Evangelical Buddhism, and Elite Buddhism. 
     Ethnic Buddhism is practiced almost exclusively by Asian immigrants, and to some degree by their descendants; it tends to be based on Asian cultural traditions, and there is negligible interaction with Westerners not born into those traditions.
     Evangelical Buddhism, according to the author of the article, is essentially the sect, tradition, or organization of Soka Gakkai, an originally Japanese lay Buddhist society which I think is an offshoot of Nichiren, a Pure Land sect of Mahayana Buddhism. It actively recruits followers and seems to have a very secular orientation, but I personally know little about it, so I'll leave it at that.
     Elite Buddhism refers mainly to Buddhist meditation traditions found in the West, such as IMS-style Vipassana, Zen, and some Tibetan Vajrayana traditions. It is called "Elite" by the author because its followers tend to have university educations and to be relatively affluent financially. In fact many meditation centers in the "Elite" tradition are prohibitively expensive for those who are not wealthy. This form of Western Buddhism, according to the author, tends to have few people from ethnic minorities participating, and mainly involve people of European descent. Also, the participants tend to be middle-aged "baby boomers," and recruit relatively few younger people to their ranks.
     My observations of American Buddhism, however, cause me to think that there are at least four distinct categories of Theravada alone. I don't know nearly as much about other systems and their various forms in the West, so I'll restrict my analysis to American Theravada, which is probably similar to what is found in most other Western countries. The four varieties I will call Ethnic Theravada, Western Monastic Theravada, Elite Theravada, and the Goenka System. There is overlap between these four categories, so their edges are a bit blurry.
     Ethnic Theravada is essentially the Theravadin fraction of the Ethnic Buddhism described in the aforementioned article. Most Asian temples in the West seem to serve more as cultural centers for a local immigrant population than as a place for serious monastic practice or even for missionary work. What missionary work is attempted usually is not particularly successful, as traditional Asian assumptions about Buddhism as a religion, heavily based on culturally conditioned unquestioning faith, are offered to Westerners, most of whom cannot assimilate much of it. So, these Asian Buddhist temples often have relatively little English spoken on the premises, and the supporters of such places often go there to speak their own native language, eat their own native food, and perform their own native ceremonies. Westerners who come often feel out of place, even though they are often warmly welcomed. So this form of Dhamma is unlikely to have much of an impact on Western culture, except for the effects of a few charismatic Asian monks and nuns who become popular with Westerners. If Theravada is to take root and thrive in the West, it is unlikely to occur from this direction—unless some extremely charismatic Asian monk or nun comes along and inspires it.
     Western Monastic Theravada is an offshoot of Asian Monastic Theravada more than of Western Ethnic Theravada. Most senior Western monks, as far as I know, have spent years in a Theravada Buddhist country before living as monks in the West. Possibly the most obvious difference with Ethnic Theravada is that the monks at the temples are more Caucasian than Asian, and thus speak lots more English. The monks also tend to be much more strict in their monastic practices, for example following Vinaya more strictly and meditating more. And of course, the starting assumptions are somewhat different. However, there is overlap with Ethnic Theravada, as Western monastics tend to be strongly supported by immigrant Asian communities, possibly more so than by fellow Westerners of European descent. This is largely because earning merit by supporting the "Sangha" (in the traditional Eastern sense of the word) is fundamental to traditional Asian Buddhist culture, but not so in the West. Sometimes the monks of these two varieties of Theravada will meet together and interact, for example by performing formal ecclesiastical acts together; they may even mix together in the same monastery or temple. This form of Western Theravada does not consist entirely of monastics; it also includes lay participants in the system, including some rather conservative Westerners who can appreciate the fact that Dhamma has always been primarily based on a Sangha of renunciants, with the Buddha himself having been one of them. 
     One might naturally assume that this form of Theravada is the most viable form in the West, as Western monks and nuns are ordaining new Western monks and nuns. But its heavy reliance on Asian communities for support, and its general lack of regard from perhaps most Western people professing Theravada, cause this form also to seem rather limited in its potential to inspire Western culture with Dhamma. Also, of course, there is the question of how well a system designed for ancient India can be assimilated by the modern West. Charismatic Western monks and nuns may be less successful in facilitating this than charismatic Asian ones, largely because they're less exotic, and seen more as eccentrics: at least the Asian monastics are wrapped comfortably and respectably in their own cultural traditions. 
     Elite Theravada corresponds to the more or less Theravadin portion of the Elite Buddhism described above. It seems to be rather more popular with Westerners than the two previously mentioned forms of Dhamma practice. As far as I can tell, the two great capitals of this Buddhist genre in America, its Mecca and Medina, so to speak, are the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock in Marin County, California. These two organizations are looked to as role models by countless Vipassana meditation societies in the US. Many places of this genre are rather luxurious, expensive, and markedly politically correct. The followers tend to be older, and leaning more toward Western materialistic hardheadedness than toward "woo woo." I know of one society that has candles and incense forbidden at the altars, because so many are worried about breathing toxic fumes, and at their main altar they have placed next to the Buddha image a statue of a female Mahayana Buddhist deity, for the politically correct sake of gender equality. This form of Theravada has sometimes been called "Dharma Lite." This is in large part because in order to be popular it must appeal to many; and in order to appeal to many it must be easy, convenient, comfortable, and non-threatening. 
     Although it is apparently more popular in the West than the other two mentioned thus far, I feel that it is not an ideal conduit of Dhamma to the West. The majority of the teachings in the Theravadin tradition are either ignored or studied intellectually, leaving a pale shadow of a dismembered fragment of a great tradition; and furthermore Theravadin Dhamma is mixed up in a very eclectic manner with various other traditions, including rather non-spiritual secular traditions. I don't consider eclecticism to be a bad thing in itself (which should be obvious to those of you who regularly read this blog), but mixing to the extent that genuine Theravada cannot be actually identified anymore is rather much. It should be borne in mind that Theravada Buddhism began as a systematic method for becoming enlightened in this very life, and renunciation (nekkhamma) is a fundamental aspect of it; so any version of Theravada that disdains radical renunciation and making Liberation one's very top priority in life is bound to represent only a partial and elementary aspect of it.
     The fourth variety of Western Theravada is the Vipassana system founded by S. N. Goenka. It may be that the article mentioned above tacitly included this system with Elite Buddhism, but it is so divergent in many respects that I figure it deserves a class all to itself. It is the vehicle for a kind of satipaṭṭhāna, or mindfulness meditation, similar to the Mahasi tradition on which other Vipassana schools in the West have been based, plus its origins also are Burmese, but the similarities practically stop there. Goenka meditation retreats are free of charge, place great emphasis on determination and moral restraint, and involve some rather spartan self-discipline. I have never practiced the Goenka method, although I've read some of their publications and know several people who are or were followers of the system; and to a trained Theravadin it may seem overly simplistic in its approach to Dhamma. Yet it obviously appeals to many—so much so that retreat centers which charge no money have been established all over the world, and many followers of the method follow it with a kind of starry-eyed zeal which is relatively rare in Western lay Theravada. Long ago, when I was more sarcastic (and possibly more cynical) than nowadays, I used to call the Goenka people "the Jehovah's Witnesses of Buddhism."
     I think a big reason for this is that the Goenka method is more difficult to practice than easygoing "Dharma Lite": for example there are no chairs, and two or three one-hour sits per day, in addition to other sits, in which the meditator is advised not to move, even if in a fair amount of discomfort. (The Mahasi method on which most Vipassana methods in the West are at least partly based used to emphasize this kind of "heroic effort" also, using slogans like "Pain is the friend of the meditator," and "Pain is the key that unlocks the door to Nibbana," and exhorting practitioners to remain motionless for the full hour even though the pain might be so intense that they fear they may die; but as comfort-requiring Westerners adopted the method more and more, this kind of teaching was heard less and less, even in Burma.) Anyway, because it is more difficult, completing a ten-day retreat or "course" is a real accomplishment, giving the practitioner not only the benefits of more strenuous practice, but a feeling of deep satisfaction from successfully doing something difficult. And doing what is difficult makes us stronger.
     And so, although I'm a follower of the "second Theravada" (pretty much!), and personally don't follow the Goenka method, it strikes me as probably the most viable and successful form of Theravadin Dhamma that I've seen in the West so far—it seems to be getting more of the spirit of Dhamma to more people. It involves considerable practice, self-restraint, and even a moderate amount of renunciation. It's rather simplistic perhaps, but easily understood and relatively undiluted by other systems (although some feel that Goenka's own views on Dhamma are somewhat unorthodox and misleading). Plus it apparently changes people's lives profoundly, and for the better.
     What I've been doing since my return to America is looking for some way for Dhamma to thrive, or at least survive without fatal mutations, in the West in such a way that it can have the most positive effect on an increasingly dysfunctional secular culture. Or maybe it would be fairer to say that I'm looking for a way for me to thrive while practicing it here. I'm still looking.

Venerable Tipitakadhara Sayadaw U Gandhamala, 
a Burmese monk who memorized by heart the entire 40-volume Pali Tipitaka
while still in his thirties, and who visited the west coast  of the USA recently, 
delivering Dhamma talks  to Burmese audiences, 
as almost no other Buddhists know of his existence.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Special Anniversary Issue: The Experiment in Bellingham

     This post marks the one year anniversary of the existence of this blog, this being the 53rd weekly installment of it. It's about a special issue I've been having.
     I'm happy and gratified to say that gradually more and more people are reading this stuff. It used to be when I was living in a cave that I'd write an article and then have about ten photocopies made and sent to people who I thought might be interested. Since putting my heresies and blasphemies on the Internet, people all over the world having been reading them and, I would like to think, have had their ideas challenged and stimulated. Last month, May 2013, set a new record, with 1586 pageviews, averaging more than 50 "hits" per day (although many of these were no doubt spam and "bounces.") I suppose some pornography websites get 1600 hits per day or even per hour, but the material of this blog can't really compete with pornography.     
     In a way the following is a followup on the early post "Fast, Big Lessons in America," with a brief sequel to "My Trip to Get Hugged by Amma" also.
~   ~   ~
     I always wanted to be a philosopher. Philosophizing is something I deeply love, and in my own opinion at least, I'm pretty good at it. However, my advisor in college advised me not to major in Philosophy, as one couldn't make a living at it. I was stubborn though, and continued with the plan. But after three or four Philosophy classes I realized that a major in Western Philosophy wasn't for me, or even a minor, and I wound up with a degree in Marine Biology. And then, several years later, I became a monk and Buddhist philosopher, and made a decent living at it, mostly in Burma. The living was a spartan one, but that's all a philosopher needs anyway.
     Then I returned to America and found that what my college advisor had said still held true: "making a living" as a monk/philosopher is very difficult here. At least it has been so far.
     In part I was naïve about American Theravada Buddhism, and about the overall Dharma scene in this country. I had been cautioned in advance by at least one American friend, and had somewhat of an idea as to what to expect, but still I was naïve, or overly idealistic. (Also in part the difficulty comes from ego issues: To the extent I consider the situation to be about me, "me" gets in the way of the flow of Dharma.)
     The plan for my return, which I haven't entirely given up on yet, was to try to establish some kind of existence in Bellingham, in the state of Washington, where I lived before my ordination more than twenty years ago. I knew there was a meditation society professing Theravada Buddhism in town, and I naturally assumed that they would welcome a trained senior monk, and probably offer me enough support to live; after all, the necessary requirements amounted essentially to little more than a roof, a bowl of food more or less every day, and access to a bathroom. How difficult could that be? Besides, America seems to be in need of Dharma, and there must be many spiritual seekers here who are not satisfied with the cultural status quo. 
     At the very beginning, however, there were complications. A senior member of the meditation society, who for many years had been a kind of spokesperson for the group, didn't answer my emails introducing myself. Shortly after my arrival I was courteously invited to a teachers' meeting, and immediately afterward this same person came straight over to me from across the room with a very intense look in his eyes and suggested that I ought to live at a monastery. This of course would necessitate my leaving town, as there are no Theravada Buddhist monasteries in Bellingham. A few days later I received an email from the same person with no hello, no goodbye at the end, nothing in fact but a list of monastic organizations I perhaps should consider going away to. (This is not to imply that he or anyone else in the group is a bad person, or any such thing: he has been friendly with me, or at least very polite, on numerous occasions also.) I was met with politeness from many, enthusiastic friendliness from a few, and was pretty much ignored by the rest. I eventually realized that although Theravada is scripturally very monk-oriented, overwhelmingly so in fact, most members of the insight meditation society in Bellingham seemed to have little use for a monk in town, and to see little or no reason why they should support one. This was difficult for me to understand at first.
     At the end of my first summer and autumn here, shortly after leaving town in preparation for a return trip to Burma, I wrote the meditation society a letter (well, an email), which was friendly in tone, but which contained a few statements which apparently threw some people into a mild uproar. I won't reproduce the entire letter here; mainly I explained the purpose of monks and the difficulties in the West, due to cultural differences, that Buddhist monasticism in general has encountered, and that I encountered specifically, and I concluded by pointing out that it could be to the advantage of a Theravada Buddhist group to have a "trained professional" nearby who could be consulted. Possibly the most objectionable and outrageous thing I said in the whole letter was this: 
…Upon my return to Bellingham there were immediately a few people who were eager to support my being there, but many more who remained politely standoffish. Also, I think I met with at least as much cool disdain inside the Red Cedar Dharma Hall as outside of it in the streets of Bellingham; and I was told more than once that some senior members of BIMS saw me more as a threat to the status quo than as a potential spiritual resource.
Some objection was also taken to the fact that I referred to the mediation society as the only ostensibly Theravada Buddhist organization in town. The word ostensibly was seen as a slur. Anyway, the letter resulted in quite a stir, and a meeting of the society was convened to discuss my planned return, or rather what to do about it. Some insisted that they didn't want to support monks, or me, and some decided to offer more support. The meditation society was polarized a bit, with somewhat less neutrality on the issue of interacting with a bhikkhu, and I received more support, and had more friends, the following year.
     In January of 2013, after leaving Bellingham again for another trip to Burma, I sent another letter to the meditation society, which was so nice and polite that it didn't stir up anybody. When a meeting was convened by some of my main supporters to discuss support after my return, a total of five people attended, and the results were inconclusive. They were still optimistic though. This was the way things stood when I left for Asia later in January.
     Then, a week or so before returning to the US in April, I received an email from one of the five advising me not even to bother coming back to Bellingham, as all of the group of five had backed out, and there was no place for me to stay. This information, so close to the time of my return, even though it was not entirely accurate, resulted in great discouragement on my part, and I became rather depressed. Finding a suitable place in America, with a roof, a daily bowl of food, and access to a bathroom, seemed bewilderingly difficult. After receiving that email, returning to Bellingham started turning into probably the most dread-inspiring experience of my entire life.
     Shortly before leaving the little Burmese temple in Fremont, California for Bellingham, mainly in an attempt to be as little of a burden on my friends as possible, I sent one final plea to the members of the meditation society in Bellingham, asking that if people didn't want to shelter me as a monk or a teacher, still there is merit in sheltering a fellow human being, and once again offering my services. In response to this I received a few emails mainly offering moral support, and also this one, from a member of the society: 
As one of the Bellinghamites whom you see the need to scold frequently, I feel the need to speak my mind. Right from the beginning you presented yourself to us as a teacher, an advanced one at that. You set yourself apart from us, by your appearance and your aloofness, and then protested when we did not accept you. Really, most of us tried to ignore you. Now once again we are the target of your cynicism and bitterness that we do not accept you as a teacher. You point to us and proclaim our lack of insight and appreciation of you. I believe that finger is pointed in the wrong direction.
[his name]
In response to this rather intense letter, I submitted the following response to the meditation society's listserve:
Hello Again Everyone, 
     Today I received the following reply to the email I sent out yesterday. This person put his response mainly in the form of "us" and "we," implying that he's speaking on behalf of BIMS, so I would like to respond to BIMS, and not just to him. Anyway, here it is.
[the above letter, in full]
     First of all, I wouldn't consider once or twice a year to be all that frequent, and even if my letter to BIMS in December of 2012 and the one yesterday are scoldings, I would consider them very mild ones. 
     It is true that I offered my services as a teacher, expecting that a trained monk would be welcomed by a Theravada Buddhist lay community. It is also true that I was wrong, and that, especially in the fall of 2011, I was occasionally indignant and bitter because of it. America has been a case of great culture shock since my return. 
     My appearance is not for the purpose of setting myself apart from you, but is simply a matter of my being a Theravada Buddhist monk, and dressing like one and shaving my head like one, in accordance with the ancient rules I've followed since my ordination. Even lax monks wear robes and shave their head. My appearance has gotten me cursed, kicked out of public buildings, and generally gotten me into a fair amount of trouble since my return to the US. As for the aloofness, that also was largely a case of cultural dissonance. The Pali texts say that a monk should be aloof, that he shouldn't make friends with people in the "village," shouldn't laugh in public, etc., and Burmese culture reinforced that. Then I came back to America and was seen as cold and distant. Being a hermit for many years further atrophied my social skills. 
     In the email I sent yesterday I was not trying to point any fingers. If that's the way it seemed, or if I pointed them carelessly, I apologize. 
     This epistle resulted in a few more condolences from friends, with some retroactive advice that it would be better if I hadn't written it, plus a brief message posted on the listserve from one of the senior teachers making two brief requests: that the subject be dropped immediately "before it leads to anything unskillful," and that I not post private emails on the public listserve.
     The situation at this point had gone beyond what I would have considered realistically possible, and I was rather more discouraged than before. I wrote to the president of the meditation society and also to a senior member of the Board who had supported me in the past, telling them that the situation was such that if they thought I should simply stay away from the Dharma Hall I would respect their judgement. I didn't say it of course, but at this point I felt that it wouldn't be surprising if I were spat on by somebody if I dared to show my face there. I was totally amenable to just giving up on Bellingham, shaking its dust off my sandals, so to speak. If even the people who profess Theravada Buddhism are so disinclined to support the only Theravada monk in town, then the situation seemed hopeless.
     I received responses from both men I wrote to, the president assuring me that he also was sorry about the strange reaction I had elicited, that I was welcome, and that the Board was quite neutral with regard to my being a member of their sangha. (He meant "quite neutral" in a positive way.) The other senior member also assured me of my welcome, and advised me that members had been put off by my recent emails, largely because of my blanket generalizations: the society is composed of individuals, and generalizations are seen as derogatory.
     It is true that any group of people is a group of individuals. A group of Theravada Buddhists in Burma is also a group of individuals. On the other hand, a group of Burmese Buddhists is extremely likely to act in significantly different ways from a group of American Buddhists. In human beings in general, especially people living within the same social system, the similarities tend to outweigh the differences. We are all culturally conditioned, and most of us are oblivious to this most or even all of the time. I can see how downplaying each person's individuality could be seen as objectionable by Americans especially, although I still consider some generalizations to be valid ones. The difference between American Theravada and Asian Theravada, for example, is like the difference between night and day.
     The purpose of this post is not to try to make blanket psychological generalizations, and speculative ones at that, with regard to Buddhists in America. However, I will mention that one apparent reason why my existence in Bellingham was not very welcome by very many members of a Buddhist society is that I was seen as trying to set myself up as a teacher, or even as the leader, of the group. Frankly though, if I could have shelter and food without giving regular talks to a "following," then it would be more convenient for me, and I certainly wouldn't be opposed to the idea. The thing is that in America one has to work for a living; people are much less inclined to support a monk just for the principle of the thing, or for earning merit, or to promote enlightenment in the world, or whatever, and are more inclined to support what seems useful to them at a more obvious practical level. So, I offered my services as a teacher, quite willing to share what I have learned over the years, to a resounding silence.
     Anyway, what I have to teach is evidently not what most American Buddhists are looking for. Many meditators in this country are trying to feel good; and some are simply trying to keep their heads above water in a very stressful world. This is a big reason why most "vipassana" teachers in the West are so soft and smiling and politically correct, and tend to avoid saying anything that might make their listeners feel uncomfortable. Yet the ultimate purpose of Dhamma is not to feel good, but to learn to accept however one feels, comfortable or uncomfortable. Anything ugly and hairy should be brought to the surface and dealt with as soon as possible, not covered over with smiling politeness. A Buddhist, a spiritual seeker, should be tough. But trying to teach this to large groups is somewhat like a Christian minister hammering away at notions like "Gather not up your treasures upon the earth." It is not conducive to popularity, despite its essentiality to the most ancient teachings. Yet my dharma in this life—"dharma" here being used in a Hindu sense—is to inspire Holy Discomfort, in myself and in others.
     So this is the situation I dived into on the 21st of May, a few days before Buddha Day, when I got on the train headed north. The train trip itself was a kind of purifying ordeal. I have yet to ride an Amtrak train as a monk where the person sitting next to me doesn't get up and move to a different seat. I fasted the following day on the train, drinking only water; and the following evening in Seattle, since I had to catch a different train the following morning to get to Bellingham, I spent the night on a bench in front of the train station. The station closed at night, so first I tried sitting on a stairwell in the same building complex and reading all night; but a security guard asked me to leave. (Incidentally, when he said, "I'm asking you to leave," he grinned, which I could easily relate to. We often grin or snicker when saying something embarrassingly unpleasant, as an instinctive way of showing the other that we mean no harm. It's human nature. I've done this in the past also, and sometimes it has been misinterpreted as malice, or bragging, or something equally reprehensible. The security guard obviously had some sensitivity, and was just doing his job.) After being evicted from the stairwell I tried some concrete steps across the street, but after 45 minutes or so it started raining. So I finally moved to the bench, which was under the eaves of a building. By morning it was very cold. In fact Seattle itself seemed cold in a different way: very unwelcoming and inhospitable to a homeless monk who doesn't handle money. I felt very vulnerable on that bench, at the mercy of a not necessarily merciful world. It is true though that around dawn a man walked by who asked to touch my hand, and enthusiastically blessed me and asked me to pray for him. (Jamie Easton, my blessings are upon you.)
     There was one additional factor to my "purifying ordeal" that made it more strange: In semi-desperation not to be a complete burden and hardship on my relatively few supporters in Bellingham I "took one for the team" by carrying with me an envelope of money that generous Asian Buddhists had donated on my behalf while I was in California, amounting to $937. I determined that it wasn't mine, and that I wouldn't use it, but would give it to someone in Bellingham as a kind of relief fund, or some such. So while I was fasting on the train I kept having this idea that I could just walk to the dining car and buy myself a meal, or at least a can of Coca-Cola. Also while I was spending the night on a cold bench outdoors I considered again and again how easy it would be to hail a cab and spend the night in a hotel. The urges were easy to resist, but they were persistent. That was the first time I ever carried money in my 22 years as a monk.
     Which leads to a situation I have encountered with supporters in Bellingham, concerning my behavior as a monk. General lack of support has resulted in me living in some situations which are not particularly monastic, which in turn results in supporters being even less inclined to support me, as I'm not behaving in a way that they associate with monks. This generates a kind of vicious circle, which, if not checked, would be a downward monastic death spiral.
     As it is, I consider that I receive more support out of friendship than out of faith or traditional Buddhistic propriety. And so, thus far, at least four of my closest friends and supporters in this area have suggested in all seriousness that I drop out of the monkhood and get a job. As suggested above, it seems like most American Buddhists or "spiritual seekers" do not see the point of being a monk, and view it more as an unnecessary handicap than as a blessed or noble state of being. Penniless religious mendicants receive much less respect in modern America than they did in ancient India, or even in medieval Europe. Or so it seems.
     I arrived in Bellingham on the day before the full moon, dazed, hungry, slightly depressed, and not knowing what to expect. I crashed in the spare bedroom of Clinton J., who has steadfastly refused to back away from the task of lending as much support as necessary. And the next day, Buddha Day, I went with a small group to get hugged by Ammachi, who was in Bellevue, about a hundred miles from Bellingham.
     I was still tired from "train lag" and at a rather low level of energy when I got hugged this time. While sitting in the line of people waiting for their hug a little Indian boy about two years old toddled up to me and put his mouth right onto the apple I was holding as an offering for Amma, getting slobber on the apple and on my finger. He tried about three times to eat the apple, not reaching for it with his hands, but bobbing for it with his mouth. (His mother apologized, explaining that he dearly loves apples.) For a few moments I was in an ethical dilemma: Would Amma prefer that I give the apple to the little boy who obviously wanted it, or should I give it to her, according to plan? I kept the apple, wiped off the slobber on my robe, and gave it to her, whereupon she immediately handed it to an attendant to put with all the other apples that had been given to her. I was too tired, dazed, and of low spirits to be nervous this time, even when kneeling on stage between a Hindu saint and a crowd of spectators. I hardly noticed when she started hugging me, but then realized that I should be as awake as possible for it. She kissed my forehead, said something I didn't recognize, and then kept repeating what sounded like "muh-muh-muh-muh…" At one point the single thought arose, "Open my heart," not so much as a prayer or request to Amma, as a simple heartfelt statement. Right afterward I was given a piece of chocolate and a flower petal as prasad. I gave the chocolate to a person I know, asking that she eat it for me, but she didn't want chocolate just then and put it away somewhere. I held the flower petal until the next day, when I finally lost it.
     And so, that is pretty much my situation nowadays. It is not entirely unique to me. When I was still in California a man in Canada who likes what I write, and has made generous donations of things like books and train tickets in the past, wrote to me saying that he found it very difficult to believe that I had difficulty in finding a place, and he offered to make inquiries on my behalf; and several days later he wrote again implying that it wasn't so difficult to believe anymore, as he had had no luck. He mentioned another bhikkhu he knows who had a similar predicament last winter. He came to Canada from Asia looking for a place to settle down, with little success. At one point he was living in a lady's basement, and was on the verge of becoming a street person (in Toronto, in winter time), when a group of Sinhalese Buddhists found a house for him to use as a Dhamma center. It is common knowledge among Western monks that usually the only way to receive enough support to live is to stay near an Asian Buddhist community. In his case this common knowledge held true. 
     And so, if any of you good people know of a place where a nonconformist, politically incorrect, "free range" Buddhist philosopher could conveniently, without causing hardship for others, have a roof over his head, one bowl of food every day, access to a bathroom, and enough Internet access to keep this blog going, please share this information with me. It would be a meritorious deed on your part. I'm happy to share what I know with others in person, so long as they are interested; otherwise, I'm happy also just to mind my own business and communicate through writing. 
     It's not like I'm in danger of starvation though. If all else fails I know of two Burmese temples in California that would have me, although the environment is not ideal for the likes of me, and would presumably be temporary. Or, I could give up in earnest and return to Asia, where I'm the abbot of a forest monastery and somewhat of a celebrity. I'm tired of sweating and of not speaking English though. For better and for worse, I am an American, a True Son of Liberty, and don't really fit in anywhere yet.
a view of Bellingham Bay, from a bedroom window


Postscript: (June 5) Yesterday, despite some apprehension, I attended a group meditation at the local Dharma Hall for the first time since my return. A few people looked the other way, but most were very friendly, or, at the very least, very polite. That is a relief, and I am grateful.