Saturday, October 26, 2013

Notes on Nirvana

Just as a flame tossed by the force of wind
Quickly goes to its cessation and subjects not itself to any designation,
So the sage released from the mass of names
Quickly goes to his cessation and subjects not himself to any designation.
          (—from the Questions of the Brahmin Student Upasīva, Sn 1074) 

    It may be that most people in America, if they hear the word "Nirvana," are more likely to associate it with a grunge rock band from my old home town of Aberdeen, WA than with the Buddhist Absolute. Even most American Buddhists may be more likely to associate the word with a hypothetical, expanded yet nevertheless still worldly, psychological state than with a mystery that is totally Off The Scale. And it may be that most Asian Buddhists are more likely to identify Nirvana/Nibbāna with an eternal, blissful place not located on this planet, like a perfect heaven realm. I once lived at a large monastery in Myanmar where a poor woman used to come and sweep the grounds in exchange for merit, plus probably some of the monks' leftovers from lunch. One of the monks joked with her, saying that as a result of her meritorious acts she would attain Nibbāna; and she replied that she didn't want to go there, as there are no tea shops in Nibbāna. Fair enough, I guess.
     Since the subject of this article is Nirvana, I may as well begin with a discussion of the name itself. Both the English word "Nirvana" and the Pali word "Nibbāna" are derived from the Vedic Sanskrit word Nirvāa, which most philologists nowadays agree literally means "blowing out," as in the going out of a fire. This has been somewhat controversial, as the commentarial tradition, which makes its own rules for etymologies, claims that Nibbāna comes from ni-, which means "without," and vana, meaning "desire" or "attachment" (and incidentally having the same Indo-European origin as the Latin name Venus). A modern monastic author has attempted to vindicate this derivation of the word by putting forth a case that it really means "unbinding," based on ancient Indian notions about the nature of fire. Fire to the ancient Indians had a bound state and an unbound one, and through combustion the fire bound in the fuel was set free. 
     However, it would seem that in order for this derivation to be valid, the word would have had to have this meaning originally; and it would seem that in Indo-European languages in general there is an idiom of outwardness with regard to the dying of a fire. For example in English we say that it "goes out," even though we don't suppose that it actually goes anywhere. In Latin the word is extinguere, which means "to quench out"; in German, I've been told, to extinguish a fire is called auslöschen, with the aus- meaning "out"; and in Slovenian it's izginiti, with the iz- also meaning "out." It would be interesting to see what the word is in a language more closely related to Sanskrit, like ancient Persian; but overall it seems that the prehistoric Proto-Indo-Europeans already had an idiom of going or doing something outwards, away from the present place, for a dying fire, and it would seem risky to assume that they also had metaphysical ideas about fire lying latent and bound in unburnt wood. Furthermore, the verb form of the Pali word nibbāna is obviously nibbāyati, from ni-, "out," and vāyati, "to blow." So Nirvana literally means, in all probability, the blowing out or dying of a fire—in this case the fire of attraction, aversion, and delusion.
     There are a whole slew of synonyms for it in the texts, both in Theravada and Mahayana, which need not be listed here. I will mention, though, that one of my favorites is nippapañca, which literally means "non-diversification," and might loosely be interpreted as nonduality, which is certainly one way of interpreting the Absolute. But enough with mere names.
     It is said in Theravada Buddhist books that there are two kinds of Nirvana/Nibbāna, that of an enlightened being before he/she dies, and the kind afterwards. This is similar to another splitting of Nirvana into a metaphysical state (the Absolute) and an ethical one (the realization of that Absolute). But ultimately Nirvana cannot be divided into different kinds. There is a maximum of one kind. It's all the same.
     One uncontroversially attributed quality of Nirvana is that it is unconditioned, asakhata. This has some rather odd implications which often remain unconsidered, but which are fun to consider if one likes to have one's mind warped.
     For example, if Nirvana is unconditioned, then it is clearly not the result of a cause. This is very difficult for some traditional Buddhists to accept, as they consider Dharma a means of arriving at Nirvana; and if Nirvana is not the result of a cause, then all one's practice will never result in enlightenment. Practice is doing; and doing is karma; and karma leads to conditioned results and more karma, not to Nirvana. The Zen Buddhists seem more prepared to appreciate this; as is said in the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng, "Ultimately, there is neither attainment nor realization; how much less sitting in meditation!"
     Also, if Nirvana is unconditioned, then it would have no boundaries in space or in time, as a boundary would be the result of a cause or causes. No conditions, no limits. Thus Nirvana has no beginning and no end. If it is to be found in the mind of a Buddha, it is also to be found in the mind of a serial killer, and in a penguin, and in a brick. And if it has no beginning or location in time, it could hardly be called a cessation of suffering, or of greed, hate, and delusion, or of anything else. Some Theravadin texts have tried to argue that a cessation is not an event, and so can be unconditioned; but still a cessation has a beginning, and presumably also an end, since whatever has a beginning naturally tends to have an end. And if it thus has limits in time, it is conditioned, and not really Nirvana. This also has been appreciated more by Mahayanist philosophers than by Theravadins; for instance the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra says, "The sambodhi par excellence is devoid of any obtainer, devoid of any place or time of obtaining."
     It seems to me that orthodox Theravada is in shackles when it comes to understanding Nirvana/Nibbāna. The Abhidhamma philosophy declares that Nibbāna is one of 82 ultimate realities, no more ultimately real than, say, earth element, odor, femininity, right livelihood, or wrong view. But if it truly is unconditioned, which idea is uncontroversial in itself, then it would have no boundaries in any respect, and thus could not exclude any of those other 81 supposed realities, or be fundamentally differentiated from them. If it is anywhere at all, it would be everywhere, and, in a sense, everything.
     But by the very same token, because it has no boundaries or determinate content, it would also be, in a sense, nothing at all. In fact Nirvana, being an unconditioned Absolute, totally transcends duality, and can have no opposite, because having an opposite would imply a boundary, a limitation. It is not the opposite of Samsara. Thus Nirvana, like God also in some theologies, is so completely unconditioned that it cannot be said to exist or not to exist. It is totally Off The Scale.
     This may be acceptable, more or less, to philosophically-minded Buddhists; but it leads to a stickier point: if Nirvana cannot be said to exist or not to exist, then enlightened beings also cannot be said to exist or not to exist. Enlightenment itself becomes unavoidably problematic. In fact a medieval Indian school of Buddhism, the Yogacara Logicians (also called the Dignāga school), commonly used as an example of a problematic premise, i.e. a statement that could not possibly be known as true or false, the statement that "Enlightened beings exist." From a samsaric point of view there is only Samsara, and all conceivable points of view are samsaric.
     Yet even so, still more paradoxically, when Dharma stops emphasizing enlightenment in this very life as its primary purpose, it stops being genuine Dharma and essentially dies, or becomes comatose at the very least.
     If all of this has confused you, that's good, because if we think we understand Nirvana, we really don't.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Technical Matters: Buddhist Feeding Behavior

     Sometimes I am asked about whether Buddhists, or Buddhist monks, have many dietary restrictions. For laypeople keeping five precepts there are almost none—no killing one's own meat, no stealing one's food, and no consumption of alcohol or other substances which cloud the mind—but Theravada Buddhist monks have plenty of restrictions. 
     Vegetarianism, however, is not one of them. In the Buddha's time the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence to living beings, was not yet well established in the mainstream of Indian society, and the eating of meat, as is the case in the West today, was common, and socially acceptable. Monks being essentially beggars, and beggars not being choosers, they accepted meat put into their bowl, and ate it if they wanted to. It wasn't until Buddhist ethics became more integrated into Indian culture that Buddhists put more emphasis on vegetarianism; and some schools retroactively converted the Buddha himself into a vegetarian, although according to the evidence in the Pali texts (the oldest Buddhist texts we have) this appears unlikely.
     When the Buddha's cousin Devadatta tried to take over the Buddhist Sangha he allegedly insisted on reform of monastic discipline, and one reform that he desired was to make vegetarianism mandatory for monks. The Buddha refused to change the rules in this case. There are numerous rules regarding the eating of meat found in the Buddhist monastic code, some of them remaining in ignored, vestigial form even in the canonical monastic codes of vegetarian Mahayana schools. And according to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, describing the death of the Buddha, the evidence suggests that the Buddha himself died after eating some bad pork.
     According to the text, what the Buddha ate at his last meal was sūkaramaddava, sūkara meaning "pig," and maddava meaning "tender" or "soft." Most scholars who do not have a Mahayanist bias or a vegetarian axe to grind agree that in all likelihood the correct translation is "tender pork"; however, Mahayana Buddhists, possibly following the lead of an ancient school like the Sarvastivadins who favored vegetarianism, have interpreted the word to mean "something tender that pigs like," i.e. truffles, a kind of mushroom-like fungus. Hence the legend that the Buddha died after eating a mushroom.
     It is interesting that the Sarvastivadin version of the Majjhima Nikāya is very similar to the Theravadin version, but nevertheless lacks an equivalent of the Jīvaka Sutta (M55). In this text Jīvaka, the Buddha's personal physician, informs the Buddha that non-Buddhists are saying that the Buddhists favor killing, since they eat meat killed for their sake. The Buddha denies this, asserting that a Buddhist monk is not allowed to eat any meat that he sees, hears, or suspects has been killed for his sake. In the monastic code to eat such meat would be a dukkata offense. Meat not killed for a monk is allowable though. (Whether meat killed for a different monk would be allowable is not so clear, although I would assume that it is not.) 
     In the modern West this rule seldom comes up, except for fertile eggs, which count as living baby chickens. Infertile eggs, like those usually obtained at a grocery store, are not fertile, and thus are OK to crack and cook for monks.
     Other relatively well known dietary restrictions for Theravadin monks are: that they are allowed to eat substantial food only at the "right time," i.e. between dawn and midday; that they are allowed to eat only what was offered to them by someone who is not a monk; that they are not allowed to eat food that they have stored overnight, and thus must eat food they have received that same morning; that they are not allowed to cook their own meals (although reheating it is allowable); and that they are not allowed to ask for particularly good food containing ghee, butter, oil, honey, sugar, fish, meat, milk, and/or curd, unless they are sick or have received special permission from the person to ask for such things. Some of these rules are designed to prevent monks from being hermits, by requiring them to interact with laypeople. Others are to prevent them from being a burden on those laypeople.
     Some less well known rules involve the eating of meat. For example, there are ten kinds of flesh which are forbidden to monks: 1) human, 2) lion, 3) tiger, 4) leopard, 5) bear, 6) hyena, 7)elephant, 8) horse, 9) dog, and 10) snake. Largely because of this, a monk is required to ascertain what kind of meat is being given to him. There is also a strange rule saying that a monk is not allowed to eat raw meat or drink raw blood unless he is possessed by a demon. I actually read of a case like this, in a book attributed to the great Zen master Dogen. He said that a monk had a strange craving for raw meat, yet when Dogen watched him eating he saw that the monk was not eating the raw meat, but rather a small demon perched on the monk's head was eating it. Anyway, that's what the book said. (To this day necromancers in Burma get ghosts and demons to do their bidding by feeding them raw meat and blood until they become dependent on their supply.)
     Although the eating of meat is not forbidden to monks, ahimsa is taken to the extreme that monks in ancient times were not supposed to eat living, viable seeds. This has apparently been corrupted somewhat into a rule stating that only five kinds of fruit are allowable: 1) fruit that has been damaged by a knife; 2) fruit that has been damaged by a fingernail; 3) fruit that has been damaged by fire; 4) fruit that is naturally without seeds; and 5) fruit from which the seeds have been "expelled." I assume this originally meant that fruit with seeds should have the seeds cut out, dug out, or cooked so that the monk would not be killing living beings by eating it; but it has been corrupted into a formality by allowing monks to eat fruit with viable seeds so long as a non-monk has poked the peel with a knife or nicked it with a fingernail. Even a whole tray of fruit supposedly becomes allowable so long as one of the fruits is poked while it is touching the others on the tray.
     Consumable substances are divided into four categories: 1) ordinary food, which can be kept only until noon of the day it is received; 2) fruit and vegetable juices, which may be kept till the following dawn, and thus may be drunk in the afternoon and at night; 3) five designated medicinal "tonics"—ghee, butter, oil, honey, and sugar—which may be kept for a week and used for medicinal purposes; and 4) medicinal substances not included in the other categories, including herbal medicines like garlic, ginger, and ginseng, plus modern pharmaceuticals, which may be kept indefinitely. The rule for mixing these four kinds of substance is somewhat complicated, and even many conscientious monks break the rule without realizing it; also some people have been mystified by certain aspects of my behavior that are conditioned by this rule; so I will attempt some explanation.
     Whenever any of the four kinds of consumables are mixed together, they automatically come under the rule of the substance with the shortest time limit. For example, let's say a monk has some salt for medicinal purposes, and has had it in his possession for several months. Then one day he puts some on his food to flavor it. The salt automatically becomes ordinary food which can be kept only until noon of the day it is received; and since he has already had it for several months, his meal becomes food that has been stored overnight, the eating of which is a pācittiya offense. This also applies to sugar and milk in one's coffee: the coffee itself, arguably, could be considered an herbal tonic which can be kept indefinitely (it doesn't obviously fall under any of the other categories, especially if it's stored in the form of dry powder), the sugar can be kept for only a week, and the milk for only half a day, being considered regular food. (What category non-dairy creamer falls under is debatable, and somewhat controversial.) So I keep a jar of instant coffee, and always drink it plain; but if someone offers me a cup in the morning, I take milk with it.
     With regard to the medicinal oil that can be kept for one week, there is a section in the ancient texts listing the kinds of animal fat that may be rendered and used in this regard; and one of the animals whose grease is allowable is the susu or susukā, which is often declared to be a shark or alligator, but which is probably the gangetic dolphin, which, I'm pretty sure, is still called susu in India. (And as far as I know, there are no sharks or alligators in the Ganges valley.) So although possibly illegal and extremely politically incorrect, consuming dolphin fat is ecclesiastically pure. 
     There are certain controversies regarding monks and food, especially with regard to the eating of cheese and chocolate in the afternoon. This is common for monks ordained in Thai traditions, but is practically nonexistent among monks in Burmese traditions—a Burmese monk who would eat cheese or chocolate in the afternoon would also eat rice in the afternoon (and, admittedly, there are some of those). One Western monastic scholar who wrote a book on monastic discipline actually implied that eating cheese in the afternoon is allowable because cheese is technically a kind of butter. He pointed out that butter in ancient India was made from curd, not cream like it is nowadays. Cheese can't be called curd, though, because curd is specifically designated as ordinary, substantial food. But how is cheese made? It is curd with most of the remaining whey pressed out of it, often with a small amount of culture or other flavoring added. So cheese is actually a kind of purified curd; with more non-curd ingredients removed than put in, it contains more curd than curds do. (In fact the Burmese word for cheese literally translates as "hardened curd," which is exactly what it is.) Furthermore it is obviously a substantial food, being a meat substitute for vegetarians. Probably the main reason why cheese is considered allowable in the afternoon by monks in Thai traditions is that famous monks like Ajahn Mun ate cheese in the afternoon, and implying that these saints did something wrong is just too much like troublemaking. Plus, of course, they want to eat cheese in the afternoon. Hard chocolate is considered allowable at the "wrong time" so long as it is dark, without milk added (because it is considered to be a kind of very thick juice); so many monks feast on the highest quality, most expensive dark chocolate in the afternoon.
     In Burma, the strictest monks won't even drink tea in the afternoon, largely because of an obscure rule stating that the juice of all leaves is allowable to be drunk at the "wrong time" except for the water left over from cooking greens. Tea leaves are commonly eaten as a salad in Burma, so tea would qualify as the juice from cooked greens. This is getting pretty extreme on the strictness meter, however.
     There is also an obscure rule stating that the juice of all fruits is allowable except for the juice of grain (dhañña), presumably because beverages made from grain are usually fermented. The word for grain, though, is strangely interpreted in the sub-commentarial tradition to mean any fruit larger than two fists put together. So strict Burmese monks won't drink coconut milk in the afternoon, even though it seems quite kosher to me. Some Burmese monks won't drink Sprite either, because they think it's made out of some kind of large melon.
     There are many more rules concerning food. Some are matters of etiquette; for example it is an offense to carelessly make slurping noises, scatter rice around, lick one's fingers, or talk with one's mouth full. But going into fine detail on all this stuff is too much, so I'll stop here.

Burmese tea leaf salad (it's good)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Tribal Native

     (This post was written last May, but I'm only now getting around to posting it.)
     An issue has been on my mind lately, and I would like to share it. It has mainly come up as a result of feedback to the effect that I am insensitive to pain, especially the pain of others. 
     It is true that by nature I am not very emotional. My heart is a cool one, and rather simple in its functioning as far as I can tell. I know I am capable of deep love, although my love tends to be more for nature than for people. I can gush with love and blessings when I see a snake, or baby chickens following their mother, or a dolphin swimming at sea; and I'm filled with a sense of wonder at, say, the courage of a night heron standing motionless, silent, and mysterious in a creek in a deep forest at dusk, or the utter fearlessness of some tiny insect blindly moving forwards, not knowing or caring that in all likelihood it will die a violent death, and soon. My longstanding lack of regard for my own species (except for a few friends and the occasional beautiful female) is something I've been working with in this life. When people come to me nowadays I make a real effort to be present with them – not to think about what I'd rather be doing, not to look at the clock, not to be thinking of what I'm going to say next while the other person is talking, and thus not really listening (this is a hard one sometimes), but to listen, and not just to the words but to the inflections, the tone of voice, the energy behind it and in it. When interacting with them, that interaction should be the most important aspect of my samsaric existence. It's not always easy, and my track record, if it were written down, probably wouldn't look so good.
     I must admit that when I'm with people I can't relate to very well and with whom I feel a little uncomfortable, I feel myself close off with a kind of palpable tension, which I must consciously relax in order to be more open with these people. It's not so much those who are unhappy, though, as people with whom I have little affinity, so that sharing their world with empathy feels foreign and unpleasant.
     But to say that I am insensitive to pain, I think, may be largely based on a misinterpretation of my behavior. Consider two people: one is a strong person who has been trained to endure pain, say a tribal native from a deep wilderness somewhere, and the other is not so tough, and inclined to express emotions of pain through weeping, lamentation, and so forth. The native may have been taught never to flinch, never to express the slightest pain or fear, even when essentially tortured; yet this does not mean that this person does not feel the pain. In fact, this person may experience the painful feelings even more intensely than the other. 
     One reason for this is that one of the main reasons why we cry out or scream or writhe when in great pain is to distract us from the feeling. Making noise helps to drown out the pain somewhat, so to speak, and by writhing we are giving ourselves something obvious to focus our attention on and distract us from this feeling we don't want to feel. This is not the only reason (I've occasionally wondered if an enlightened being would cry out or writhe if in great pain, and guess that he or she might), but I think it is a major one. I don't think this applies to just the shedding of tears, however; that happens spontaneously from an overflow of emotion, sometimes even from joy.
     So the native does nothing to distract his/her attention away from the pain, unless maybe he puts himself into a trance state (as even the Buddha is said to have done as he was dying, to help him endure the intense abdominal pains he was experiencing). He experiences it in raw form and somehow has learned to accept it, without struggling against it. But this doesn't mean that he doesn't feel it. It may mean, however, that he does have less patience for those who won't accept it, and do struggle against it. In some native cultures, a man who flinches when the ceremonial cuts are being made in his flesh is disgraced, and perhaps deprived of his status as a member of the tribe. 
     I suspect that is part of my trouble. I've trained as an ascetic for many years, living in environments that were very unpleasant, sometimes almost lethal. Then I meet people who are traumatized quite easily, or so it seems to me. A while back I met a person who told me that it took her years to recover from the stress of having extremely kind, wealthy, indulgent parents! She seems to be doing well now though.
     Also, I suppose that austerity is more a masculine path than otherwise, and also a path of the head more than of the heart. And it seems that in the West nowadays the Path of the Head (in Sanskrit, Jñāna Yoga) is undervalued and grossly misinterpreted. The Path of the Head does not culminate in nuclear bombs or hyperintellectual analysis, any more than the Path of the Heart culminates in murder (as maniacal hate comes from the heart, just as ruthless, cold intellect comes from the head). Just as the ultimate culmination of Heart is universal love and compassion, the ultimate culmination of Head is penetrating the illusion of Samsara and realizing the oneness and perfection which is always here. There is good heart and bad heart, even though heart is seen as predominantly good nowadays; and there is good head and bad head, even though the head is generally viewed as the bad guy. Again, hate, along with anger, greed, jealousy, contempt, etc., is bad heart, not head.
     So someone who emphasizes the masculine Path sees that suffering is not necessary, and that pain, when it arises, should be borne with some acceptance. Complete acceptance transmutes it into something beyond pain. Ultimately, all negative "stuff" is an illusion concealing Perfection. Ram Dass used to tell a story about how, when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan and was in a state of chaos with riots and all sorts of misery running rampant, he told his guru Maharajji that he wanted to go and help; and Maharajji looked at him with a wistful, almost sad look and said, "Don't you see that it's all perfect?" This is one approach, and a valid one.
     However, most people, especially when they are deeply suffering, aren't ready for this. They want a practitioner of Heart to sympathize with them, maybe even hold them and listen to them cry, rather than to be informed that their suffering is unnecessary and is an illusion anyway. Such information often does more harm than good. Thus the Path of the Head is often a path of solitude.
     The Path of the Heart emphasizes practice within the illusion, and does its best to help within the context of the illusion. It is the realm of virtue and sainthood, more than of wisdom and sagehood. In a way, each Path by itself is a way of perfection, but is not in balance. 
     So a balanced spiritual Path develops both, even though different practitioners will naturally have different orientations. Women, I suppose, are more likely to develop from heart to head, and men are more likely to develop in the opposite direction. But ultimately a really developed being will see that it's all an illusion, see that it's all perfect, yet nevertheless empathize with people who are stuck in their conditions, and are in pain. "It's all God, but still, I'm here to help you." 
     For many, many years I disdained the "lower" Path in favor of the sparkling, clear, icy summit of Jñāna. In Buddhism there are two primary emphases or approaches to enlightenment: as the cessation of suffering (heart), and as the cessation of ignorance and delusion (head); and I followed my macho father's dictum "A little pain never hurt anyone" and strove for the end of delusion. Striving for the end of pain seemed not nearly so important.
     But I have to realize that many people, especially in the West, are struggling just to maintain some kind of equilibrium in a messed-up, stressed-out, unhappy world. They just want some relief from their own unhappiness (much of which they are ashamed even to admit to anyone), and realizing Ultimate Truth would seem simply a pipe dream. When I see unhappy persons, sometimes I see them from a higher perspective than they are seeing themselves, and it feels almost like they are actors and actresses just pretending to be unhappy, and in a sense this is true. But they don't know that, because they're identified with the roles they're playing, and telling them doesn't work. (Contrariwise, for a heart-oriented person continually to admonish a head-oriented one to be more loving and compassionate tends to be equally futile.) 
     The thing is, I can feel other people's pain, and my own too of course, but, like the tribesman in New Guinea, I've been trained to accept it. (Having a small, cool heart helps in this though, I have to admit.) I usually don't writhe or cry out, so some people assume I'm just insensitive, but I think their opinion may be exaggerated. One of the greatest compliments I ever received from my sayadaw in Burma was when he told one of my supporters, "U Pañño can endure dukkha." 
     The trick is to meet others at their own level as well as we can, not forgetting other possible levels. Suffering is one of the best chances we get for breaking through old conditioning and coming closer to Truth, thus it may be invaluable for spiritual persons, but emphasizing this to those in pain is usually futile. The whole situation is a very poignant one, and I'm sorry it's so difficult. But we do the best we can.
     This whole issue of deep compassion as part of the Path to Enlightenment presents rather a dilemma, or even paradox, for a Theravada Buddhist: We are encouraged to find the way to the end of suffering, yet compassion results in our feeling the suffering of others, and universal compassion results in our feeling all the suffering in the universe. And we can't go around "fixing" everybody else's suffering. The trick seems to be to accept it wholeheartedly, without flinching, and using the wisdom of the head to transmute it into perfection—while still doing what we can to alleviate it.
     I don't know where to go from here with this theme, so I'll stop.
     The blessings of a fellow human are upon you. The blessings of numberless saints and higher beings are upon you. Just as we are always walking through an invisible sea of radio programs, TV shows, and cell phone conversations, with electromagnetic waves passing through us everywhere, even so we are always walking through a sea of blessings, grace, and love. And ultimately we're all perfect just the way we are. So even when we suffer, it's good to keep that in mind, if possible.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Buddhism Meets Some Strange Anthropology

Video meliora, proboque, deteriora sequor. 
("The better path I gaze at and approve; the worse, I follow.") —Ovid

     Now that I am residing at a Burmese "temple" again, I am reminded of a phenomenon that for years has struck me as remarkable, and which used to puzzle me quite a lot. On the one hand, most Burmese Buddhists, including monks, seem psychologically incapable of doubting or questioning their own religion, and the scriptures of their own religion. If even the commentarial tradition states that the Buddha was 25 feet tall, or that his feet didn't touch the ground when he walked, or that, even though he discouraged his disciples from showing off psychic powers in front of laypeople, he himself once levitated into the air and sprayed fire and water out of his body simultaneously ("the twin miracle") in order to impress some non-Buddhists, then it simply is true, period. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of Burmese monks do not make a serious attempt actually to follow the Buddha's instructions in the scriptures of their own religion. This seems quite a paradox.
     As a case in point, certain activities are repeatedly denounced in the Pali texts as obstacles to the Holy Life, including the drinking of alcohol, indulgence in sensuality, and the acceptance and use of money. The following are some verses from the Vinaya Cullavagga, section 12, attributed to the Buddha:

     Defiled by lust and aversion are some philosophers and priests,
     Men swathed in ignorance, delighting in lovely forms.
     These ignoramuses drink ale and wine, they indulge in sexuality,
     They accept silver and gold.

     [Thus] some philosophers and priests live by wrong livelihood;
     These are called defilements by the Buddha, kinsman of the sun.

     Defiled by these defilements, some philosophers and priests
     Do not blaze, do not shine; they are impure, dirty animals.

     Surrounded by darkness, slaves to craving, led on by the force of existence,
     They fill the dreadful cemetery, taking yet another rebirth.

     A Western monk might indulge in the luxury of some skepticism here, or maybe even eclecticism—he might be of the opinion that maybe the Buddha didn't really say this stuff; after all, the above passage in particular is found in a late passage describing the origin of the Second Council, long after the death of the Buddha, and is not found anywhere in the Sutta Pitaka; the Buddha's actual attitude might have been less puritanical. Or, it may represent ancient Indian cultural conditioning more than Ultimate Truth, as there have apparently been very highly advanced persons who drank alcohol (like Jesus of Nazareth), or had sex (like Krishnamurti), or handled money (like Jesus and Krishnamurti). But for most Burmese monks skepticism and eclecticism are simply out of the question. These are not realistic, viable options. They have to believe what the books say. But at the very same time, although only small minorities get drunk and consort with women, about 98% of them handle money (and most of the remaining 2% consent to money being handled on their behalf, which is against the very same rules)…even though they cannot doubt or question that the Buddha himself strongly condemned this.
     So this is the paradox: How can somebody be absolutely 100% convinced that an infallible, enlightened being said that doing X is wrong, yet go ahead and do X anyway? I used to really wonder about this.
     One explanation is that Burmese monks are Byronic heroes of a sort, doing what they know is wrong because they just can't help it. They are like chickens told to enjoy swimming in ponds like a duck; it is too much in violation of their inner nature. The trouble with this explanation is that they don't seem to be bothered much by the idea that they really may burn in hell for a zillion gajillion years as a result of their misdemeanors as, they are warned in the texts, is liable to happen—and of course they cannot disagree with the texts. Perhaps they're all in a state of hysterical denial? It doesn't seem very likely.
     After years of wondering, I finally came to the tentative conclusion that, deep down, they really don't believe the Buddhist texts after all. At a superficial level they do, without question, but deeper down they don't. Or maybe, to put it somewhat strangely, they believe it, but they just don't see the point of it.
     If they really saw the truth of, say, "Handling money causes you more harm than good," then there would be no difficulty at all in not handling it. Not to handle it would be effortless, like not handling fire or centipedes. But when it is merely the intellect (or emotion for that matter) that "knows" something, we still don't know it. In other words, ideas are not the same as real knowledge. This can be problematic sometimes.
     As for myself, not handling money has always been pretty easy—damned inconvenient sometimes, but still pretty easy. On the other hand, not desiring a woman has been more difficult. This is because, deep down, I am still not 100% convinced that I'm better off without one. 
     I've had plenty of experiences which indicate pretty clearly that having a mate would not be the end of my troubles. It's more a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, or, to use a less negative word, of two dissatisfactions.
     A similar principle may be seen in the following scenario: Which is better, to slap a mosquito quickly and be done with it, or to sit there and let it bite, experiencing perhaps five minutes of aversion and irritation, with maybe some hatred or worry mixed in besides? Especially if it's an anopheles mosquito which might be infected with malaria parasites, and if it's a fussy one…biting in this place but not finding a blood vessel that suits it, then buzzing around a little and biting over there, but not finding a good vein there either…. Some mosquitoes are like that. Sometimes it really might be that just slapping the little beggar and being done with it would produce less unskillful karma overall than would enduring the frustration of letting it bite.
     Getting back to the idea of easy belief without deep conviction, though, it may of course be remarked that Burmese Buddhists do not have a monopoly on this. Western Christians, even fundamentalist ones who consider the Bible to be the infallible word of God, are not so different. My mother once had a friend who was a very devout Christian—one who had one of those pictures of a European-looking, brown-haired Jesus gazing upwards with light shining from his face mounted over the fireplace in her living room. She also talked about Jesus a lot, and prayed a lot. Yet at the same time she had been divorced and remarried at least once; and as the Bible says, in fact as Jesus himself says in the Bible, anyone who divorces and remarries committeth adultery. It seems there are quite a few Christians out there who disregard this teaching of the Gospel much in the same way Burmese monks disregard the money rules. (In fact the Church of England originated largely because King Henry VIII, an antichrist if there ever was one, wanted to divorce and remarry—plus become more powerful and wealthy.)
     Or how about all those statements in the New Testament like, "Gather not up your treasures upon the earth," or "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to attain the Kingdom of Heaven," or "Weep and wail, O you rich man, for the sorrows that shall befall you," or "Woe unto the rich, for they already have their consolation," or "So every one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple," or "Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and follow Me"? There have been many very devout Christians, even canonized saints, who were extremely wealthy, and many more poor ones who were poor simply because they were unable to be otherwise. Back in the old days devout European nobles had gold-bound prayer books and jeweled rosaries. Maybe some still do have them, if they are still Christian. Such hysterical selective blindness with regard to religious faith seems to be universal human nature. 
     John Stuart Mill once wrote,
      "To find people who believe their religion as a person believes that fire will burn his hand when thrust into it, we must seek them in those Oriental countries where Europeans do not yet predominate, or in the European world when it was still universally Catholic."      
In a sense this is undoubtedly true; although in another sense the exact opposite is the case—the people of the West actually believe their religion much more completely and wholeheartedly than do the people of other modern cultures. This is because the predominant religion of the West is scientific realism, scientific materialism, or "Scientism"*—and it is so much in harmony with human nature, and thus so believable. And people believe it so deeply and unquestioningly that they are enslaved by it without realizing it. They believe it so implicitly not because it is true, but largely because it is consistent with worldly experience and is furthermore a spiritually bankrupt system which requires virtually no moral talent or effort whatsoever, no living up to a difficult ideal. (It is mainly when political correctness enters the equation that hypocrisy and selective hysterical blindness come in.) Materialism has become the mental and spiritual prison of most of the human race, so much so that most of us do not believe that it is a prison, or that there is a way out. Most of us simply believe—but do not really see—that it represents reality itself. This includes most Western people who consider themselves to be members of more traditional religions, like Christianity or Buddhism. But at the same time it is largely people's deep faith in materialism that makes it so powerful.
     I would guess that our best hope of moving beyond this situation, aside from the ever-present option of the destruction of the human race, is that it will occur from the inside, inspired by unusually wise scientists, or else from outside, inspired by some charismatic spiritual genius—possibly facilitated by the near destruction of the human race. But, the momentum of Western materialism being such as it is, and human nature also being such as it is, the wise scientists or spiritual geniuses will likely be ignored at first, and no doubt already have been; and if ignoring them doesn't work, then they may be persecuted or even martyred. History repeats itself, because we humans rarely learn from our mistakes. But so long as we survive the planetary disruptions brought about by our new, spiritually destitute religion, we're bound to outgrow it sooner or later.

* For a detailed discussion of the religious nature of Scientific Realism, see the essay "Buddhism and Scientism" on the home website,