Saturday, November 30, 2013

Some (Alleged) Peculiarities of the Buddha's Physical Body

     Theravada Buddhism maintains that the historical Buddha was not a god, but a human being—and not a deity manifested as a human being, like Christ or Krishna, but really a human being.
     However…he is portrayed as being superior to any mere deity, and the gods from the heaven realms often descend to earth humbly to pay him homage. There is no omniscient, omnipotent Creator in the Buddhist cosmology, so the founder of Buddhism did not have to compete with Him, Her, or It.
     Nevertheless, as Buddha-worship developed in ancient India, the Buddha was glorified into more than just an ordinary-looking human being, into more even than a tall, strong, handsome human being. Many strange physical peculiarities came to be attributed to him, one of the most obvious of which being that he was considered to be 4½ times the height of an average man, or about 26 feet (almost 8 meters) tall. 
     Many Burmese Buddhists accept without question this alleged great height of the Buddha, but we Westerners are much less likely to follow along. First of all, we're less likely to believe in mysterious metaphysical forces that would cause an exceptionally great person to diverge from the normality imposed upon us by our own DNA. And there are other biological complications to consider—for example, as height is doubled, area is squared and volume and mass are cubed, so a 26-foot-tall human would have insufficient lung capacity and bone thickness to support his great mass. Also, of course, the testimony of the ancient texts is compatible with the Buddha being tall, but not with his being taller than a giraffe. People who would meet him often mistook him for an ordinary monk, and on one famous occasion he exchanged robes with the monk Mahā Kassapa. His half-brother Nanda was only a few finger-widths shorter than him. Plus he lived in ordinary buildings, had a wife, and somehow managed to father a baby with her.
     But his height is only the beginning. The Pali texts themselves, for example the Lakkhana Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, also maintain that the Buddha had 32 marks of a Great Man (mahāpurisa)—in fact any fully enlightened Buddha must have all 32 of them. The same is true for anyone who becomes a righteous king of the entire world. If any boy is born with all 32 of these marks, he is destined to become one or the other.
     Without any further ado, the marks of a great man are as follows.

1. He has "well planted feet" (suppatiṭṭhitapādo hoti)—This has been interpreted by some to mean that he has perfectly flat feet, which would be borne out by the earliest representations of the Buddha's footprints; but it seems more likely that it means he steps with the entire foot coming down evenly, not coming down heel first or toes first.
2. On the soles of his feet he has the marks of wheels with a thousand spokes, complete with rims and hubs (heṭṭhāpādatalesu cakkāni jātāni honti sahassārāni sanemikāni sanābhikāni sabbākāraparipūrāni)—This also would support the flat feet hypothesis, considering that representations of the Buddha's footprints show these wheels quite clearly.
3. He has elongate heels (āyatapaṇhi hoti)—Some have interpreted this such that his heels stick out behind as far as the rest of his feet stick out in front, causing his feet to look like an inverted T.
4. He has long fingers and toes (dīghaṅguli hoti).
5. He has soft, tender hands and feet (mudutalunahatthapādo hoti).
6. He has webbed hands and feet (jālahatthapādo hoti)—The most obvious explanation of this one is that his fingers and toes have webbing between them; but possibly because this is considered more a birth defect than a sign of excellence the mark has also been interpreted as a kind of reticulated pattern of fine lines like netting on the hands and feet.
7. He has arched (or raised) feet (ussaṅkhapādo hoti)—This mark also has been interpreted to mean that his ankles are located at the middle of the length of his feet, making them T-shaped, which would be redundant if number 3 meant the same. Some have interpreted this to mean, alternatively, that his ankles are midway up his shins. The literal translation of the Pali, however, seems to support the arched instep interpretation, which would thus be in conflict with the flat feet interpretation of number 1. 
8. He has legs like a goat-antelope (eṇijaṅgho hoti)—They are long, slender, and graceful.
9. Standing, without bending over at all, he touches and rubs his knees with the palms of both hands (thitakova anonamanto ubhohi pāṇitalehi jaṇṇukāni parimasati parimajjati).
10. He has his pudendum enclosed in a sheath (kosohitavatthaguyho hoti)—Some Mahayana Buddhists have this interpreted to mean that his entire genitalia are internal when not in use. 
11. He has a golden complexion, his skin shining like gold (suvaṇṇavaṇṇo hoti kañcanasannibhattaco).
12. He has very smooth skin, and from the smoothness of his skin dust and dirt do not adhere to his body (sukhumacchavi hoti, sukhumattā chaviyā rajojallaṁ kāye na upalimpati).
13. He has single body hairs, his hairs growing one to each follicle (ekekalomo hoti, ekekāni lomāni lomakūpesu jātāni).
14. He has body hairs with upward-pointing tips, his upwards-tipped hairs being blue-black in color like collyrium and curling in rings spiraling to the right (uddhaggalomo hoti, uddhaggāni lomāni jātāni nīlāni añjanavaṇṇāni kuṇḍalāvaṭṭāni dakkhiṇāvaṭṭakajātāni).
15. He has a straight, upright body like a Brahma deity (brahmujugatto hoti).
16. He has seven eminences (sattussado hoti)—These seven eminences are traditionally considered to be the inner sides of his knees and elbows, his shoulders, and his chest; they are well rounded, without hollows.
17. The front part of his body is like a lion's (sīhapubbaddhakāyo hoti).
18. He is well filled in between his shoulders (citandaraṁso hoti).
19. He has the balanced dimensions of a banyan tree; the span of his outstretched arms is as long as his body, and his body is as long as the span of his outstretched arms (nigrodhaparimaṇḍalo hoti, yāvatakvassa kāyo tāvatakvassa byāmo, yāvatakvassa byāmo tāvatakvassa kāyo).
20. He has an evenly rounded torso (samavaṭṭakkhandho hoti)—This would seem to mean that his body is cylindrical in cross section.
21. He has an extremely refined sense of taste (rasaggasaggī hoti)—He allegedly tastes food with the entire lining of his mouth and throat, not just with his tongue. As ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi points out in note 856 of his translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, it is difficult to understand how others could note this trait in the Buddha or in anyone else through mere observation.
22. He has jaws like a lion's (sīhahana hoti).
23. He has forty teeth (cattālīsadanto hoti).
24. He has even teeth (samadanto hoti).
25. He has teeth without gaps between them (aviraḷadanto hoti).
26. He has very white canine teeth (susukkadāṭho hoti).
27. He has an extensive tongue (pahūtajivho hoti)—The Buddha reportedly could lick his own eyebrows as well as his own ears, and could cover his face with his tongue.
28. He has a voice like a Brahma deity, sounding like an Indian cuckoo bird (brahmassaro hoti, karavīkabhāṇī)—Traditionally, the karavika bird has a call so strikingly beautiful that if a lion is chasing a deer through the forest and this bird begins to sing, it is said that both the lion and the deer will stop to listen, as if spellbound.
29. He has eyes that are deep blue, or blue-black (abhinīlanetto hoti).
30. He has eyelashes like an ox (gopakhumo hoti).
31. He has hair growing between his eyebrows that is white like a soft tuft of cotton (uṇṇā bhamukantare jātā hoti odātā mudutūlasannibhā)—This trait is presumably the origin of the "third eye" marking most Buddha images have between their eyebrows.
32. He has a head like a turban (uṇhīsasīso hoti)—This trait is often considered to be the reason why Buddha images tend to have a strange lump on top of their head, if not an even stranger knob or point, but it may simply mean that his head is well rounded. Apparently in ancient India to be circular in cross section was considered to be a sign of superior form. Many scholars consider the lump on top of the Buddha's head to be a vestigial topknot of hair, despite the probability that the Buddha, being a monk, had his head shaved.

     Most of these marks are self-explanatory, and those that are not…well, they don't seem very important anyway. One thing about this assemblage of qualities that I find interesting is that whoever came up with them apparently was not very good at geometry or engineering, as some of them seem like they are mutually exclusive and could not be found on the same individual. Consider marks 4, 9, and 19. Now, many people have the dimensions of a banyan tree, with their height being nearly equivalent to the width of their outstretched arms. This is not so uncommon. But very few people have their palms resting on their knees when standing upright. This, combined with the Buddha's alleged long fingers (reaching down well below his kneecaps), would indicate that the distance from his shins to his neck would constitute much less than half his height. The entire length of one arm, plus the width of his shoulders, would be equal to his lower shins and feet plus his neck and head. So if we grant that his neck and head extend upwards as far as his shoulders extend from side to side, his shins would be about as long as his arms. The only way this would be possible is if his knees were located very high up his legs, about where the average human being's palms would rest. Thus he would have extremely short thighs and extremely long shins, and when sitting cross-legged his feet would be sticking way, way out to the sides, unlike the more normal-looking representations on Buddha statues.
     Anyhow, if anyone did actually have all 32 of these marks, he would not be a handsome man, as the Buddha was said to be, but would be rather a grotesque monstrosity, even if he weren't 26 feet tall. As a further mild embarrassment, this list is found in the so-called core texts, the nucleus of the most ancient Buddhist scriptures common to most or even all of the most ancient schools of Indian Buddhism, which even many conservative Western Buddhists consider to represent the Canon as determined by the First Great Council, held shortly after the great blowing out of the Buddha's existence in this world.
     Another list of physical marks, although heard of from time to time, is seldom seen; and that is the list of 80 minor marks (anubyañjana) of a great man, which the Buddha also allegedly had, in their entirety. There are at least two versions of the list which are not completely in agreement; the following is from a sub-commentarial text called the Jinalankara Tika. 

1. "Closely knitted fingers and toes with no intervening gaps" (cit'aṅgulitā)
2. Fingers and toes tapering gradually (anupubb'aṅgulitā)
3. Rounded (in cross section) fingers and toes (vaṭṭ'aṅgulitā)
4. Copper-colored fingernails and toenails (tamba nakhatā)
5. Pointed and prominent fingernails and toenails (tuṅga nakhatā)
6. Smooth, glossy fingernails and toenails (siniddha nakhatā)
7. Ankles without bulges (niguḷa gopphakatā)
8. Evenness of the tips of all ten toes (sama padatā)
9. Manner of walking majestically like an elephant (gajasamān'akkamatā)
10. Manner of walking majestically like a lion (sīhasamān'akkamatā)
11. Manner of walking majestically like a wild gander or sheldrake (haṁsasamān'akkamatā)
12. Manner of walking majestically like a bull (usabhasamān'akkamatā)
13. Manner of turning to the right when walking (dakkhiṇāvaṭṭa gatitā)
14. Knees that are beautifully rounded on all sides (samantato cārujaṇṇu maṇḍalatā)
15. Well developed male organ (paripuṇṇa purisavyañjanatā)
16. Navel with unbroken lines (acchidda nābhitā)
17. Deep navel (gambhīra nābhitā)
18. Navel with rightward-spiraling whorl (dakkhiṇāvaṭṭa nābhitā)
19. Thighs and arms like the trunk of an elephant (dviradakara sadisa-uru-bhujatā)
20. Well proportioned body/limbs (suvibhatta gattatā)
21. Gradually tapering body/limbs (anupubba gattatā)
22. Fine body/limbs (maṭṭha gattatā)
23. Neither lean nor plump body/limbs (anussann'ānanussanna sabbagattatā)
24. Wrinkle-free body/limbs (alīna gattatā)
25. Body/limbs devoid of moles, freckles, etc. (tilakādivirahita gattatā)
26. "Regularly lustrous" body/limbs (anupubba rucira gattatā)
27. Particularly clean body (suvisuddha gattatā)
28. Physical strength of ten billion (10,000,000,000) powerful elephants (koṭisahassa hatthībala dhāraṇatā)
29. Prominent nose like a goad (tuṅga nāsatā)
30. Very red gums (suratta dvijamaṁsatā)
31. Clean teeth (suddha dantatā)
32. Neat, smooth, glossy teeth (siniddha dantatā)
33. Very pure sense faculties (visuddh'indriyatā)
34. Cylindrical (rounded in cross section) canine teeth (vaṭṭa dāṭhatā)
35. Red lips (ratt'oṭṭhatā)
36. Elongate oral cavity (āyata vadanatā)
37. Deep lines on the palms of the hands (gambhīra pāṇilekhatā)
38. Long lines (āyata lekhatā)
39. Straight lines (uju lekhatā)
40. Beautifully formed lines (surucira saṇṭhāna lekhatā)
41. Circular nimbus around the body (parimaṇḍala kāyappabhāvantatā)
42. Full cheeks (paripuṇṇa kapolatā)
43. Long and broad eyes (āyatavisāla nettatā)
44. Very clear eyes endowed with five hues (pañca pasādavanta nettatā)
45. Eyelashes with upward-curling tips (kuñjitagga bhamukatā)
46. Soft, slender, red tongue (mudu tanuka ratta jīvhatā)
47. Long, beautiful ears (āyata rucira kaṇṇatā)
48. Veins free of varicosity (niggaṇṭhi siratā)
49. Veins without bulges (niggūḷa siratā)
50. Rounded, elegant head like a parasol (vaṭṭa chatta nibha cāru sīsatā
51. Long, broad, graceful forehead (āyata-puthu nalāṭa sobhatā)
52. Naturally well-groomed eyebrows (susaṇṭhāna bhamukatā)
53. Soft eyebrows (saṇha bhamukatā)
54. "Regular" eyebrows (anuloma bhamukatā)
55. Large eyebrows (mahanta bhamukatā)
56. Long eyebrows (āyata bhamukatā)
57. Supple body (sukumāla gattatā)
58. Very relaxed body (ativiya somma gattatā)
59. Very shiny body (ativiya ujjalita gattatā)
60. Secretion-free body (vimala gattatā)
61. "Fresh-looking" body (komala gattatā)
62. Glossy, smooth body (siniddha gattatā)
63. Fragrant body (sugandha tanutā)
64. Body hairs of equal length (sama lomatā)
65. Soft body hairs (komala lomatā)
66. Body hairs spiraling to the right (dakkhīṇavaṭṭa lomatā)
67. Blue-black body hairs of the color of broken collyrium (bhinn'añjana sadisa nīla lomatā)
68. Cylindrical body hairs (vaṭṭa lomatā)
69. Glossy, smooth body hairs (siniddha lomatā)
70. Very subtle inhalation and exhalation (atisukhuma assāsapassāsa dharaṇatā)
71. Fragrant mouth (sugandha mukhatā)
72. Fragrant top of the head (sugandha muddhanatā)
73. Jet black hair (sunīla kesatā)
74. Head hair curling to the right (dakkhīṇavaṭṭa kesatā)
75. Naturally well-groomed hair (susaṇṭhāna kesatā)
76. Glossy hair and soft hair (siniddha kesatā saṇha kesatā)
77. Untangled hair (aluḷita kesatā)
78. Head hairs of equal length (sama kesatā)
79. Soft head hair (komala kesatā)
80. A luminous halo like a garland of beams of light emanating from the top of the head (ketumālāratana vicittatā)

     There is not much to comment upon with regard to this list; although it is interesting how roundness and turning to the right (dexter) instead of to the left (sinister) have been considered signs of "rightness" or perfection throughout the world. I am reminded of Aristotle's belief that celestial motions had to be circular in order to be divine.
     There is one of these "lesser marks" that I dearly love, though, and can't resist the urge to comment upon it. Nestled between mark 27, "particularly clean body," and mark 29, "prominent nose like a goad," is "physical strength of ten billion powerful elephants." And they're not just ordinary elephants, mind you, but particularly powerful ones; the subcommentary states that the elephants in question are of the Kalavaka breed, which are presumably the strongest kind. Can you imagine how strong someone as strong as 10,000,000,000 powerful elephants would be? Of course not. He could mop the floor with Superman. He could wave his hand through solid rock or steel like it was air. Standing on (very) solid ground, he could throw a Volkswagen to Pluto, assuming that his aim were good enough and that the Volkswagen could withstand the prodigious forces unleashed upon it. It boggles the mind. And intelligent men, serious scholar monks dedicated to the cultivation of wisdom, came up with this stuff—assuming, of course, that they did not simply record empirical facts. We are all conditioned by our culture.

     The main reason I've taken the time to write about all this is just for the sake of playing with ideas. I am a little reluctant to publish this, though, as it might reinforce a tendency in Western Buddhism, and in Western attempts at spirituality in general, of people casually dismissing any parts they don't like, or have much use for, when they adopt a spiritual system as a hobby—parts like the metaphysical workings of karma, the fundamental importance of renunciation in Dhamma, or the real possibility of full enlightenment in this very life for those willing to make the commitment, for example. This really is a dilemma in spirituality: how to balance faith with reason. Skepticism is a good thing, especially skepticism in the classical sense of suspending judgement, either for or against. This applies not only to ancient mythology, but to modern materialistic common sense also. Not only should we be skeptical with regard to legendary accounts of the Buddha, we should be skeptical with regard to whether this world is even real or not, maybe even with regard to whether one plus one equals two. For myself, I seriously doubt that one plus one really does equal two.
     As Ajahn Chah used to say, even right view becomes wrong view if we cling to it. That applies to "Matter exists" and "1+1=2" just as much as it does to "The Buddha was 26 feet tall with long heels and the strength of ten billion elephants," or even "Desire is the cause of all suffering." I feel that it is best to regard ALL information as hypothetical.

Many Burmese consider this to be an actual photograph
of Gotama Buddha, and it is found on altars throughout the country


Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Case of Horace Fletcher

A Forerunner to Eckhart Tolle, Andrew Cohen, Byron Katie, Adyashanti, et al.

     In the late 20th century and early 21st century the Western world has seen a number of people, mostly laypeople wearing normal street clothing, who claim to be, or are claimed by their followers to be, Fully Enlightened. 
     Whether any of these people really are enlightened or not, I don't know. Whether "Fully Enlightened" even really means anything or not, as touched upon in a previous blog post ("Notes on Nirvana," 26 Oct 13), I don't know. But—setting aside the numerous and inevitable frauds and crackpots—some of them apparently are functioning at a significantly higher, more conscious, more blissful level than are most human beings.
     People like Eckhart Tolle are not an innovation of the past few decades. Even Jiddu Krishnamurti back in the mid 20th century was nowhere near to being the first layperson living a relatively worldly life to be considered Fully Enlightened. It may be that there have always been a few people, here and there, who have found "Bliss" even without having renounced the world to find it. They may have existed way back in the Stone Age even, maybe even before the Stone Age. And I consider their existence, at least in theory—the very possibility of their existence—to be extremely important for the rest of us. We are like them. We have the same potential as them. If they can attain it, maybe we can attain it too.
     Long ago I read about Horace Fletcher (1849-1919) in William James's classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience (which, by the way, I would recommend to anyone wishing to better understand religion and spirituality), and Horace's personal testimony with regard to his "Emancipation" very much reminded me of the much better known story of how Eckhart Tolle became enlightened essentially by accident, without having done any formal meditative practice to speak of. It also reminds me of Eckhart by his assertions that practically anybody, living practically any kind of lifestyle, can experience this kind of Emancipation.
     Ironically, if one does a search on Horace Fletcher on the Internet, one will find that his primary claim to fame is not his wisdom, nor his teaching of "menticulture" for the sake of Emancipation, but is in fact a dietary system he invented called "Fletcherism," which emphasizes the importance of chewing all food at least 32 times before swallowing it. He even went so far as to say that liquids should be chewed. He eventually disagreed with his friend John Kellogg, the inventor of high-fiber breakfast cereal, over the benefits of dietary fiber: Fletcher maintained that since fiber couldn't be chewed enough to thoroughly liquify it before swallowing, it should be avoided.
     Another claim to fame is that at the age of 58, Mr. Fletcher challenged a number of Yale University athletes to a test of physical strength and stamina, and allegedly outperformed all of them under laboratory conditions at Yale. This story reminds me of a wall mural I once saw at the SeaTac International Airport: Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual advisor to the United Nations and a rather old man, lifting 700 pounds (317.5 kg) straight-arm in front of him. On the other hand, Horace Fletcher died of bronchitis, or heart failure, at the age of 69, so he wasn't immune to human illness.
     Because I consider the firsthand testimonies of such people to be extremely valuable, potentially at least, I include here chapter two of a little booklet Mr. Fletcher published in 1896: Menticulture: or the A-B-C of True Living.
     The chapter ends with the optimistic and rather naive prophecy that Japan would become the spiritual civilizer of the Western world in the 20th century. It must have happened to some significant extent, but Mr. Fletcher did not realize that, even as he was writing his prophecy, the Japanese government was scrambling to abandon much of what was most spiritual and valuable in its society for the sake of imitating the West and becoming an industrialized, capitalistic, materialistic, military colonial superpower. Within a few decades of Fletcher's booklet the Japanese "establishment" allowed Buddhist monks to marry (largely to secularize and weaken the religion), drafted monks into the Imperial Army, melted down temple bells to make weapons, and invaded Korea, then China, then Southeast Asia, and even part of Alaska.
     I considered deleting the prophecy, but decided to keep it. After all, it seems that all prophets and psychics, no matter how spiritually advanced, make inaccurate predictions. Jesus of Nazareth himself apparently claimed that the world would end within a few decades of his own lifetime. In fact, one accurate (and cynical) method of dating prophetic religious texts is to locate the point where the prophecies stop being 100% correct and start being wildly inaccurate. That point is when the text was most probably composed.
     Enlightened beings, assuming that they exist, are not necessarily omniscient, or infallible.
     But enough digressing. Here is Horace Fletcher's own testimony. (I've corrected a few typos and added a few clarifications in brackets, but otherwise it is as I found it.)     


     It was my privilege one evening to be with Prof. Fenollosa in his Japan-esque apartment in Boston. Almost every article in view was the product of some Japanese artist who had been the friend of Prof. Fenollosa in Japan. The odor of incense added perceptibly to the calming influence of the environment. 
     Many years ago we had met in far-off Japan amid similar surroundings, and had discussed theories of true living that had been a source of great pleasure to me, and whose influence had been with me to many countries and climes, helping me to enjoy more fully than I otherwise could, the beauties of nature, and of art, and of life. 
     We were exchanging the experiences of the intervening years, and I became acutely interested in his account of the wonderful degree of culture and self-control attained by some of his Japanese friends through the practice of the Buddhist discipline. 
     It was all so interesting and beautiful, that under the spell of the recital and the surroundings, I longed to taste some of the sweets of the calm he pictured, and begged him to tell me the process of the discipline, so that perchance I might follow it and reap some of the benefits. 
     The philosopher saw that I was serious in my desire, and his face lit up with approval as he said, "It is not easy to communicate at a sitting what took me years of study to learn, but I can at least put you in the way of a start. I can tell you where to begin to grow. You must first get rid of anger and worry." "But," said I, "is that possible?" "Yes," replied he, "it is possible to the Japanese, and ought to be possible to us." 
     I was startled at the suggestion of the possibility of the entire repression of anger and worry. I knew that their repression was counselled by Christianity and Buddhism, and presumably by all codes of religion and ethics; but I had never considered getting, rid of them as a human possibility, except under conditions of health and wealth and ease, to which few, if any, ever attain. 
     On my walk back to the Parker House, a distance of fully two miles, I could not think of anything else but the words, "get rid," ''get rid;'' and the idea must have continued to possess me during my sleeping hours, for the first consciousness in the morning brought back the same thought, with the revelation of a discovery, which framed itself into the reasoning, "If it is possible to get rid of anger and worry, why is it necessary to have them at all?" I felt the strength of the argument and at once accepted the reasoning. The baby had discovered that it could walk. It would scorn to creep any longer.
     From the instant I realized that these cancer spots of worry and anger were removable, they left me. With the discovery of their weakness they were exorcised. From that time life has had an entirely changed aspect. 
     Although from that moment the possibility and desirability of freedom from the depressing passions has been a reality to me, it took me some months to feel absolute security in my new position; but, as the usual occasions for worry and anger have presented themselves over and over again, and I have been unable to feel them in the slightest degree, I no longer dread or guard against them, and I am amazed at my increased energy and vigor of mind;—at my strength to meet situations of all kinds, and at my disposition to love and appreciate everything. 
     I have had occasion to travel more than ten thousand miles by rail since that morning; North, South, East and West, with the varying comforts and discomforts, as they used to be. The same Pullman porter, conductor, hotel waiter, peddler, book-agent, cabman, and others, who were formerly a source of annoyance and irritation have been met, but I am not conscious of a single incivility. All at once the whole world has turned good to me. I am sure the change is not so much in the world as in me. I have become, as it were, sensitive only to the rays of good, as some photographic films of recent invention are sensitive only to certain single colored rays of light. 
     If we are wise we never leave school. When the academy and the college have put us through their curriculum, we have still before us the example of Nature, and the walks of Science, and Art, and Brotherhood, in which to search for suggestions to be applied in menticulture. May we not learn a lesson from the newly discovered film? 
     Should not the chemical condition of selection be more difficult than a similar voluntary mental accomplishment? In comparison with a similar process in physics the more pliable material of the mind ought to be fashioned with greater ease. 
     I could recount many experiences which prove a brand new condition of mind, but one more will be sufficient. Without the slightest feeling of annoyance or impatience I have seen a train that I had planned to take with a good deal of interested and pleasurable anticipation, move out of a station without me, because my baggage did not arrive. The porter from the hotel came running and panting into the station just as the train pulled out of sight. When he saw me he looked as if he feared a scolding, and began to tell of being blocked in a crowded street and unable to get out. When he had finished, I said to him, "It doesn't matter at all, you couldn't help it, so we will try it again tomorrow. Here is your fee, I am sorry you had all this trouble in earning it." The look of surprise that came over his face was so filled with pleasure that I was repaid on the spot for the delay in my departure. Next day he would not accept a cent for the service, and he and I are friends for life. The sequence of this incident has no bearing on its value, but it has a significance. Had I taken the train I missed, I would have been caught in a wreck in which two persons were killed and several wounded, while my stay over in Cleveland proved to be both pleasant and profitable. 
     During the first weeks of my experience I was on guard only against worry and anger; but, in the meantime, having noticed the absence of the other depressing and dwarfing passions, I began to trace a relationship, until I was convinced that they  are all growths from the two roots [anger and worry] I have specified. 
     I have felt the freedom now for so long a time that I am sure of my relations toward it; and I could no more harbor any of the depressing and thieving influences that once I nursed as a heritage of humanity than a fop would voluntarily wallow in a filthy gutter: and the strength of the position is reinforced by the experience of others. 
     There is no doubt in my mind that pure Christianity, and pure Buddhism, and the Mental Sciences, and all Religions, fundamentally teach what has been a discovery to me; but none of them have presented it in the light of a simple and easy process of absolute elimination. All of the religions seemed to me to hinge principally on some other life, with the usual features of punishment and reward, and with incidental satisfaction or fear in this life. But as life reveals itself to me in my present condition of mind, this world, these fellow men, the blush of Spring, the blossom of Summer, the flame of Autumn, the sparkle of Winter, and the violet-softened refulgence of every waking moment yield a never failing succession of delights. 
     At one time I wondered if elimination of the passions would not lead to indifference and sloth. In my experience the contrary is the result. I feel such an increased desire to do something useful that it seems as if I were a boy again and the energy for play had returned. I could fight as readily as, (and better than) ever, if there were occasion for it. It does not make one a coward. It can't, since fear is one of the things eliminated. 
     That fear is gotten rid of with worry is proven in many ways. I notice the absence of timidity in the presence of any audience I am called on to face, whereas I had never before conquered a tendency to partial paralysis on such occasions. Timidity resulting from a shock has been cured also. When I was a boy I was standing under a tree which was struck by lightning and received a shock, from the effects of which I never knew exemption until I had dissolved partnership with worry. Since then lightning, and thunder, and storm clouds, with wind-swept torrents of rain have been encountered under conditions which formerly would have caused great depression and discomfort, without experiencing a trace of either. Surprise is also greatly modified, and one is less liable to become startled by unexpected sights or noises. Temperaments may differ, but Emancipation strengthens all. 
     It has been suggested to me, in argument, that in Nature there is sunshine and shadow, and that every height must have a corresponding depression, and that immunity from the black or shadowy passions is an unnatural condition. This is not true. In the process of growth and evolution, conditions that once were natural, are changed to other conditions equally natural. Weeds are pulled up by the roots to clear the fields for the growing grain. Why should not mental weeds be pulled up by the roots also, and the mind cleared for growth? 
     My experience teaches me that the natural evolution of the emancipated mind is dominant calm, varied by seasons of exaltation, but never of depression. It is a healthful succession of energy and rest, all blessed with loving appreciation, which finds expression in ever-present gratitude. 
     One morning recently I heard myself audibly thank the clock for striking the time for me, and each awakening is as if on a much desired holiday, no matter what the conditions of the weather or the comforts of life at hand.
     Contentment and happiness and gratitude and Heaven are generally accepted as synonymous terms; but Emancipation embraces them all, and in it only can they all be found.
     As far as I am individually concerned I am not bothering myself at present as to what the result of this emancipated condition may be. I have no doubt that the perfect health aimed at by Christian Science may be one of the possibilities, for I note a marked improvement in the way my stomach does its duty in assimilating the food I give it to handle, and I am sure it works better to the sound of a song than under the friction of a frown. Neither am I wasting any of this precious time formulating an idea of a future existence or a future Heaven. The Heaven that I have found within myself is as attractive as any that has been promised or that I can imagine; and I am willing to let the growth lead where it will, as long as anger and worry and their brood have no part in misguiding it; but I feel the value of Mental Emancipation to be so great that I long to spread the news of the discovery of an easy and immediate means of attaining it. 
     The practical benefit of the emancipated mind to the individual, and of the emancipated individual to the community, can not be over-estimated. In every walk in life Emancipation is invaluable to the worker, and the most potent aid to success. The emancipated peanut vender will have more customers than his worm-eaten neighbor. The emancipated merchant will find that trade will pass the door of his calamity-howling rival and come to him. The emancipated writer will find writing an easy and pleasant task as compared with that of his moody confrere, and that if he has occasion to dip his pen in vinegar he can wield it better under the influence of judicial calm than he can between the gulps of rebellious indigestion. To woman Emancipation means everything. Any other condition to her is like an ill fitting garment, and every lapse from it is like adding a blotch to her complexion which succeeding smiles can never entirely efface. Each expression of a shadowy passion leaves a scar. The Emancipation of woman would mean the Emancipation of the race. The adoption of the germ cure [i.e., eradication of the germs of anger and worry] will be woman's means to that end, and Emancipation will be her Heaven and man's Heaven at the same time. 
     The influence of emancipated individuals in a community could be made so great that if there were only one in ten, and they should organize in clubs for the purpose, they would attract or rule the rest for good, and something better than the social Utopia pictured by Edward Bellamy in "Looking Backward" would follow as a natural sequence, and save us from the threatened battle between capital and labor, which otherwise seems inevitable. The horrors of such a conflict cannot be imagined; and, unless the germ cure is sought to avert it, it is sure to come. 
     The germ cure of the evil passions in the individual, followed by the germ cure of social clumsiness in the body politic, form the only hope of Emancipation from the evils which beset the social structure. For these there is no real necessity. There is already such a surplus of mechanical energy, such a surplus of creature comforts, and such a surplus of luxuries on our planet, that a moderately sensible distribution of them, would render every inhabitant comfortable and happy. Among the Emancipated the desire to make a generous distribution of these surplus stores would be as natural as is the habit of recognizing "the rule of the road" among us all today. So also, the vast amount of surplus energy born of Emancipation would find a natural outlet in the arts. 
     In suggesting the possibility of a Social Paradise or Community Heaven, it is presupposed that education along the lines of both intellectual and manual training will have become universal, and that every one shall render service to his fellows according to his strength; also that idleness, when one should work, and deception in trade, will have come to be classed as crimes, and not as evidences of "shrewdness." 
     It has been my good fortune to travel to and fro over the earth's surface for thirty years, years of experience passed among the people of many different nations. I have made quick comparisons of the habits and customs of them all; and I have observed how easily some do things that others perform clumsily. The standard measure of my comparison has always been Japan. I could not help observing there less crime, better appreciation of art and nature, more physical dexterity and skill, fewer notes out of harmony, and more general happiness, gentleness, and consideration for fellows and animals; less (almost no) religious or sectional prejudice; a universal patriotism and respect for authority (as good children are respectful of the authority of beloved parents); a love of life, but no fear of death; and many other qualities that have commanded the respect of the world under the bright light of recent events. 
     Brave, gentle, artistic, lovable little Japan, which, thirty odd years ago, was nursing in quiet seclusion a beautiful flower of artistic civilization, has been rudely but providentially forced into the community of nations to teach the rest of the world a great lesson in the art of true living. By the exercise of judicious but resistless courage she has laid the Oriental Colossus who attacked her [China] at her feet; and if the bulldog and buzzard nations of the West, do not unite their forces to obstruct her inclination, she will lift her fallen foe from a condition of slavery to barbarous aliens to a condition of tranquillity and happiness. She will do this through the introduction of reforms in government and administration which she has gathered from the best experience of all the world. What a missionary Japan is! A missionary of the art of true living. A missionary of harmony. The contact of Japan with the other nations made the World's Congress of Religions possible; and what this means to the advancement of man on the road to harmony and happiness, was recently stated by Prof. Max Muller, when he prophesied that this event would come to be appreciated as the greatest civilizing influence of the Nineteenth century. 
     May the example of Japan set the boors of the world to thinking, cause them to take their fore feet out of the trough, look up to the sun and the light of dawning civilization, accept the simple teachings of Christ and Buddha and common sense, and start a Heaven here on earth. Steam and electricity have brought the extremes of our earth together; the telescope has let us into the secrets of the neighboring worlds, and logic and common sense may find in the possibility of Emancipation a means of bringing Heaven to us in this life. 

Horace Fletcher

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Compassion Means "Suffering With"

     When we feel compassion for another person, we feel what the other person is feeling. We don't simply intellectualize with thoughts like, "Oh, this person is unhappy. I should be more patient and considerate." We really feel what they are feeling, at least to some extent. A barrier has evaporated between us, and instead of "That person is experiencing unhappiness," it's more a matter of We are experiencing unhappiness. It is an experience of us-ness, in this case with another person who is suffering. This is not a particularly controversial idea.
     In Buddhism, one of the most common definitions of enlightenment is the cessation of suffering. An Arahant may feel physical pain, but he or she no longer has craving, and since craving is the cause of all suffering (in accordance with the Second Noble Truth), an Arahant no longer experiences suffering. This also is not a particularly controversial idea, at least in Buddhism.
     The controversial idea may rear its knuckled head, however, when these two uncontroversial ones are joined together: An Arahant feels compassion—and therefore an Arahant experiences suffering. But Arahants aren't supposed to experience suffering.
     It may even be hypothesized that a hypothetical fully enlightened being feels universal compassion; all (ultimately illusory) barriers whatsoever have evaporated, and the Arahant experiences the suffering of the entire world, and of all worlds. If this is true, then, ironically, an enlightened being would feel much, much more suffering than, say, a teenage girl who was molested by her father, ran away, became a prostitute, is addicted to heroin, is regularly beaten by the men who use her, and furthermore has killed her own newborn baby. The hypothetical enlightened being would experience infinitely more suffering than her. With universal compassion, it would seem that a fully enlightened being, like the Buddha for example, would experience infinite suffering. What is wrong with this picture?
     A possible solution to this apparent problem may be found in a book that I read long ago in a cave in Burma. It was given to me by a friend, and was one of those things that happened right when it needed to happen, to help me see what I needed to see at the time. The book is In Each Moment by Paul Lowe; and if I were required to make a guess and name an enlightened being alive in this world today, I would probably guess him. Anyway, whether he is enlightened or not, at one point in the book he is discussing "the system" of body, emotions, and thinking mind: 
"If the system wants to cry—let it cry. There is no need to get involved. That is not you. If it wants to laugh, let it laugh. That is not you." 
     In other words, the system of body, feelings, and thinking mind is irrelevant to Enlightenment.
     There have been times in my life when I have had a rush of heightened awareness, in which I saw the world very clearly, yet from a point of view that was somehow more real than what I was seeing. These experiences have occurred in unpredictable flashes—as a layperson they tended to occur when I was in a near-death situation, like when the car I was driving was sliding out of control (and as a young man I often drove like a maniac, so it happened more than once), or else when I was under the influence of certain "consciousness expanding" drugs, and later, after being a meditating monk for several years, as a result of formal contemplation. These experiences could be called mystical; and as William James points out in his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience, one very common feature of mystical experiences is that those who have them are quite sure that they are at least as real and valid as ordinary waking consciousness. I would guess that a highly spiritually advanced being, like an Arahant for example, would be in such a state pretty much all the time. Such a being would see the world from a vantage point of higher reality, in which what most of us consider real is a kind of mirage, dream, or miracle play.
     Consider a masterpiece of dramatic tragedy—my favorite example is King Lear. Here we have a story in which three-fourths of the main characters die gruesome deaths, including Cordelia, an innocent young woman who has done nothing to deserve such a fate. One character gets his eyes gouged out ("Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?"), and King Lear himself is driven raving mad with grief and outrage, accompanied by a severely depressed court jester and a homeless man who seems to be even more insane than the king and claims to live on a diet which includes rats, tadpoles, newts, and pond scum. Yet despite all this bleakness, darkness, and misery, it is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of dramatic art, considered by many to be "too immense" to be effectively played upon a stage. It is a horrible tragedy, and a beautiful masterpiece. It is the tale of a betrayed King and the deaths of his friends and his betrayers, and it is actors strutting around on a stage speaking in bombastic poetry. What it is depends on how you look at it.
     So the hypothetical enlightened being experiences the suffering of others very clearly, not even attributing it to an "other," since interpersonal distinctions and distances have been outgrown—yet also experiences it from a higher perspective, a higher reality, in which the tragedy may even be viewed as a divine masterpiece, or perhaps just as ultimately perfect Emptiness. Presumably an Arahant would operate on both these levels simultaneously. Compassion may be appropriate for the character getting his eyes gouged out, but not for the actor playing the role, much less for the underlying Emptiness.
     One reason why American Buddhists rarely make very deep progress in Dhamma is that, due to their scientific, materialistic Western conditioning, they consider Samsara to be reality. They are convinced of it. Thus they essentially try to straighten out their lives within the context of an illusion. In other words, they try to wake up within the context of the dream they are dreaming, the tragic or comic play in which they are players. To see through the illusion, the make believe, to transcend it and experience a deeper reality, is called insight.
     I will conclude this week's installment of words with one more quote from In Each Moment:
You do not need to identify with your emotions and behaviour. You may say, "I am depressed," yet, you are not depressed. You cannot be depressed. What you are saying is that there is an imbalance in your mind that affects your body and emotions. But that is not you.     

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Life at a Burmese Cultural Center

     Since August I have been gratefully staying at Kusalakari Monastery, a Burmese house/temple in the suburbs of Fremont, California. The first two months of my stay here were rather uneventful (which is to be expected at a monastery), and so I didn't have much to write about by way of "current events" posts. But lately noteworthy things have started happening—so many that I may have to divide it all up into two posts or more. Anyway, I'll start at the beginning.
     I suppose the most noticeable quality about this place is that almost everyone who comes here is Burmese, or Burmese/Chinese. (Back in the 1960's and 70's the Burmese military government used the Chinese and Indians in Burma as scapegoats to account for the nation's troubles, and many of them were driven out of the country. Most Indians apparently preferred to return to India, but the Burmese of Chinese ancestry tended to prefer emigrating to places like Singapore and the USA. Consequently many or even most Burmese émigrés in this country are of Chinese, or part-Chinese, ancestry.) Much more Burmese than English is spoken here. This year I have yet to see a Western Buddhist monk.
     Another noticeable quality of this place is that people do not knock on doors. I won't go so far as to say that nobody knocks on doors before opening them, but it usually doesn't happen. It is contrary to Burmese custom to knock on doors; and even the Vinaya rule specifying that a monk should knock, cough, or say something before entering another monk's quarters is neglected in favor of all-powerful Burmese tradition. The Burmese are a very people-oriented people and have little sense of privacy, except maybe when they're using the toilet, and maybe even then only when they're going number two. Long ago a monk in Burma asked me the standard question, "How is America different from Burma?" and I immediately answered that there is very little notion of privacy in Burma. Although he was well educated and spoke almost fluent English, he didn't understand the word "privacy," so I looked it up in an English to Burmese dictionary and showed him the definition. After reading the Burmese definition he still didn't understand what it meant. This lack of a concept of privacy used to bother me, but after all these years I've gotten rather used to it.
     Another outstanding feature of this place is that after opening a door and entering, the door is often left wide open. This applies not only to inside doors but also to exterior ones, even during cold weather, even in the middle of winter. Last Sunday there was a ceremony and some weekend commotion here, and people were continually entering my little building (without knocking), and almost every time I would have to get up and close the door after they left. The main monastery building often has the front and/or back door standing wide open. The flies come in, the heat goes out—they don't care. I simply do not understand this. Once or twice I have asked a Burmese person why the outside doors are left wide open, and I was answered with an uncomprehending stare, as though I had asked the question in Swahili. I have a few theories. One is that they developed their door habits in a tropical country where the temperature and number of flies are not so different indoors and outdoors anyway. Another theory, which seems to fit the evidence a little better, is that the Burmese have an instinctive fear of suffocation. I don't understand it, and may never understand, since I don't want to understand badly enough to conduct a careful investigation of the matter.
     Then there is the notorious issue of the Burmese virtual need of noise, but I don't even want to get into that here.
     There is a festival or other social gathering for the Burmese community (Buddhist holiday, birthday, anniversary, earning of merit for a dead relative, temporary ordination, etc.) on average about once per week; but they all follow essentially the same pattern of talking, chanting, and eating (not necessarily in that order), and tend not to be very exciting. Consequently, the only excitement here during the first two months of my recent stay was one time a few weeks after I got here. One day two Burmese gentlemen came into the sīmā hall where I live (probably without knocking first) and asked me to come look at a Burmese monk's computer. I went with them and found that the computer screen was frozen, with a big, official-looking warning on it, bearing a variety of official seals including those of the US Department of Defense, the FBI, and Interpol, and also bearing a photograph of a very stern President Obama pointing an accusatory finger at the viewer. The frozen screen informed the viewer in big letters that the owner of the computer was accused of viewing illegal websites showing child pornography, rape, and/or zoophilia, and was furthermore suspected of various other crimes including the distribution of pornographic spam and even accessing restricted government information. We were given 48 hours to send a kind of processing fee of $300 to an unspecified destination via a PayPal style payment system. At first I wondered if anything I had looked at on the Internet could have caused this, but a few moments' thought resulted in the conclusion that this was extremely unlikely. The strange accumulation of official seals, the over-the-top accusations, and the lack of any phone number, name, or address to contact on the matter rendered me suspicious that the whole thing was a fraud, and I advised the Burmese men that they should contact the Internet server. One of the Burmese men was panicking to the point of borderline hysteria however, and was strongly inclined just to pay the $300 as quickly as possible. He kept pointing at the official seals saying that with those seals it had to be official. Calmer heads prevailed though, and they called the Internet place and found that it was indeed not really official. Sometimes it saddens me to think that there are people out there who actually make a living by invading other people's computers with malware and spam. There seems to be a law of economics, and of human nature, that if a person can make a living by doing something—it doesn't matter what it is, it could be computer spamming or kicking nuns and orphans—then there will be somebody out there doing it.
     I get very little exercise here, other than an occasional walk to the park. I have no hiking and camping partners here like I had in the Pacific Northwest. Besides, the places to hike around Fremont, California seem pretty lame. Once a friend took me to a local "wildlife refuge," which turned out to be some partially reclaimed salt-making ponds, with cityscapes and freeways in plain sight all around it. It looked like about half of the trees had recently been cut down, I would guess because they were not indigenous species, or some such. The only wild mammal we saw there was a rat. The only really impressive thing about the place was just how majorly unimpressive it was. I thought wildlife refuges like that were only in third world Asia. Again, I've been spoiled by the abundant wildernesses of the Pacific Northwest.
     This year in America has been a difficult one—not difficult in the positive sense of challenging and stimulating, as was the case two years ago, but rather difficult in the sense of discouraging and depressing. My ideal of living in America in association with spiritually oriented Westerners (an ideal which maybe I shouldn't have had) has apparently fallen through for the time being, and I am soon to return to Asia, where, admittedly, living is easier and my meditation is usually deeper. Anyway, for more than a month my spirit has been contracted, withdrawn, and uninspired. I've noticed that lately I rarely make eye contact with people, just taking a quick glance and then looking away (then sometimes compensating by looking at them again, in order to be more considerate). And lack of physical exercise has me feeling restless besides. Last night I managed twenty sit-ups and ten pushups, which is pathetic compared to what I was capable of as a "buff" young layperson.
     Because of the aforementioned contracted spirit my meditation has been markedly substandard, and I've been meditating only two or three times a day. Also I have had little interest in studying Dhamma books, another symptom of "contracted spirit." Thus I can sympathize with people who spend their entire lives having no interest at all in spirituality. I've gone through a phase of watching movies and even playing video games.
     Lately I've seen movies ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. One which contains elements of both is Zardoz, an old, LSD-inspired "art movie" featuring immortal, semi-nudist hippies who have replaced sleep with "stage two meditation," and none other than Sean Connery running around wearing a red diaper and a long ponytail. I think I can honestly say that Zardoz is my favorite bad movie of all time.
     Another mind warper, a bizarre masterpiece, is David Lynch's film Mulholland Drive. I don't like not understanding what interests me, so I studied this movie; and especially after reading an elaborate commentary by a man named Alan Shaw (accessible on the website "Lost on Mulholland Drive"), I can assure you that the movie does actually make sense. (Hint: The first three-fourths of the movie represent the drug-induced dream fantasy of a very disturbed young woman who is trying to straighten out terrible issues in her mind. Another hint: She was sexually abused as a child.)
     One last movie that I'll mention before moving on, which made a strong impression on me, is Terry Gilliam's film The Fisher King. Like other Gilliam movies it is essentially about people seeking sanity, or trying to sustain it, in a very insane world. There is one scene in particular which had me crying my heart out—not just choked up or teary-eyed, not just heaving a single convulsive sob, but really boo-hooing all over the place. It is the only scene in any movie, thus far, that has had this effect on me. It's the scene where Parry (Robin Williams) is declaring his love for Lydia (Amanda Plummer). It's not so moving just because it's a love scene, and it's certainly not a matter of beautiful, glamorous people falling beautifully, glamorously in love like in Titanic or Pride and Prejudice; one thing that makes it so moving is that Parry is a mentally ill street person and Lydia is an eccentric, awkward, lonely misfit of a woman. Parry, who used to be a college professor before he saw his beloved wife get murdered by a lonely misfit of a man, knows full well that she is awkward and all the rest, but he loves her anyway. The very fact that such love can exist in this world, creating beauty and divinity out of ugliness and dysfunction, can easily move me to tears. (The probable fact that their mutual mental dysfunctions would severely muck up their relationship is conveniently overlooked in the movie.) As I've said before and will continue to say, the only way to make a heaven on earth and bring divinity and perfection to this world is through love, and love is acceptance. And I must say that this kind of love is more easily found in Burma than in America. Love, in whatever form, is the only thing that makes life worth living. You are better off loving your golf clubs, or heroin, or the devil, than not loving anyone or anything at all. Life without love is walking death.
     Anyway, the scene in question may be found here, so long as the YouTube link survives the inevitability of impermanence. Please bear in mind that taken out of context it may not seem all that wonderful.
     A month or so ago venerable Garudhamma, the managing sayadaw of this monastery, asked me if I would accompany him to a nearby hospital and chant at the bedside of a sick man there. I did. Part of the plan was that the sick man would offer a set of monk's robes, which is common in Burmese Buddhism as a way of earning much-needed good karma. So U Garudhamma brought a set of robes from the monastery with the intention of giving them to the man, with the man earning merit by giving them back to him. But when we arrived we found an ancient man lying unconscious in bed. He had an oxygen mask on his face and an IV stuck into his arm, and his shoulders moved in shallow, rapid jerks as his unconscious body labored to maintain the process of breathing. For the first time in a long time I felt a strong urge to meditate, as though there was a palpable need for meditation here. However, after our chanting and a brief ceremony in which U Garudhamma received a set of robes from an unconscious man, he and the driver were ready to leave. Later I was informed that about eight hours after we left, the old man died. His family came to the monastery a week later and offered alms on his behalf.
     Just recently another old fellow in the Burmese/Chinese community passed away, and we monks were invited to come and chant at his funeral. It was the first time I have ever seen an actual dead person in America. He didn't look dead though—he looked quite healthy in fact, and very well groomed, wearing a dark purple blazer with a white shirt and blue and white tie, with his hands perfectly manicured. I was well into my contracted spirit phase at that time, and after the chanting, while U Garudhamma was delivering a sermon in Burmese, I sat there, withdrawn, slightly bored, and spaced out, occasionally coming out of my reverie to the sound of somebody bursting into tears and the realization that a corpse was lying in plain sight right behind me.
     People in America seem to be fascinated by death on television, but they tend to be rather freaked out by it in "real life," with many of them supposing that death is by far the worst possible thing that can happen to a person. Personally, I think lots of things are worse than death. Telling a lie, for example.
     Meanwhile, twice a week I've been trying to help a Burmese boy learn to read English better. He was born in the USA, but his mother, and possibly his father also, speak broken English, which may help account for his difficulty. He reads the words well enough, but doesn't comprehend what he just read. Last week we spent 15 or 20 minutes on the one sentence "Many canals built to support human development are being removed." He reads it aloud without difficulty, but if I ask him why the canals were built he can't answer. If I ask him what is happening to the canals now, he can't answer. It is interesting, but I don't know how to help him other than stopping him frequently to ask questions and repeatedly encouraging him to pay attention to what he is reading, as though it were being told to him.
     One other thing that is noteworthy, at least to me, is that practically from the beginning of our classes together the boy has shown no shyness about leaning up against me while he reads. He seems to enjoy the physical contact. This may seem like nothing to a layperson, but I have been a recluse for most of my adult life, and this boy is the only person who deliberately comes into physical contact with me. I can go for months at a time without touching another human being, or being touched by one—especially since leaving the New Age people in the Pacific Northwest who want to hug everybody. 
     The Burmese boy also is taking a class in elementary Buddhism with U Garudhamma, and once while he was away taking a pee I wrote down the boy's version of the five precepts, as found in his notebook: 

     I am not killing any being.
     I am not stealing other's things.
     I am not kissing except own wife.
     I am not liying.
     I am not drinking any beer.

     Add to all this that I am preparing to give a talk at the Dharmapala Institute in Milpitas, and that I may have to address the Stockton city council to try to persuade them to allow a Burmese Buddhist group to build an 80-foot-tall pagoda in the suburbs (the neighbors are reportedly vehemently against the idea), and I think we're pretty much caught up for now.
     In less than two months I may be living in a cave again. Strange.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Gelimer, King of the Vandals

     Back in the bad old days of the fifth century, when the western half of the Roman Empire was undergoing its awesome, awful, cataclysmic collapse due to decadence, corrupt government, the oppression and demoralization of the people, continual barbarian invasions, and the apocalyptic fervor of early Christianity, the Vandals—a Germanic tribe (and/or Slavic, depending on what book one reads)—invaded Roman territory. After hacking and pillaging their way through Gaul, they settled in Spain and set up a kingdom there, pledging nominal allegiance to the figurehead Emperor of Rome. 
     Shortly thereafter, symptomatic of the aforementioned corrupt government, one of Rome's two most competent generals, Flavius Aëtius, plotted against his rival, Count Boniface, who at the time was stationed in North Africa. He wrote to Boniface, falsely informing him that he, Boniface, had fallen into disfavor with the child emperor Valentinian III and his mother Placidia, who wanted him disgraced and dead. The gullible Boniface believed Aëtius's "friendly" message and took action by inviting a large force of Spanish Vandals to Africa to help him fight against the presumed injustice of Valentinian and his mother. The Vandals were brought across the Strait of Gibraltar by a Roman fleet. Shortly after this, Boniface learned of his deception and requested the Vandals to return to Spain, with his apologies. But the Vandals, seeing the rich, as yet unplundered provinces of Africa lying before them like a ripe peach waiting to be plucked from the tree, decided to conquer North Africa instead. The degenerate Roman legions attempted to drive them out more than once, but each attempt was a fiasco. The Vandals established a kingdom with their capital at Carthage, near modern Tunis. They quickly assembled their own navy and began ravaging the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, eventually even sacking the eternal city of Rome. (Incidentally, the general Aëtius compensated to some degree for his criminal rascality by eventually commanding the forces that defeated Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451.)
     Almost a hundred years passed, during which time the Vandals, originally from the forests of northern Europe, melted slightly in the heat of the African sun, and were further softened by wealth, luxury, and relative peace. Gelimer, a member of the royal family of the Vandals, launched a coup, imprisoned the unpopular King Hilderic, and assumed the throne of the Kingdom of the Vandals. Hilderic was an ally, however, of the ambitious Byzantine emperor Justinian "the Great," who used the incident as a convenient excuse to attack Africa.
     Enter the Byzantine general Belisarius, possibly one of the greatest military geniuses in history. With a relatively small army consisting largely of barbarian mercenaries, including some not particularly reliable Huns, he invaded Africa, defeated the Vandals, and occupied the capital city of Carthage. King Gelimer, with his young nephew and a number of retainers that he still retained, fled to Mount Papua in the Atlas Mountains, where he took refuge with a tribe of friendly Moors. The Byzantine historian Procopius, in his History of the Vandalic War (translated by H. B. Dewing), describes the plight of Gelimer as follows:
Then, indeed, it came about that Gelimer and those about him, who were nephews and cousins of his and other persons of high birth, experienced a misery which no one could describe, however eloquent he might be, in a way which would equal the facts. For of all the nations which we know that of the Vandals is the most luxurious, and that of the Moors the most hardy. For the Vandals, since the time when they gained possession of Libya [i.e., North Africa], used to indulge in baths, all of them, every day, and enjoyed a table abounding in all things, the sweetest and best that the earth and sea produce. And they wore gold very generally, and clothed themselves in the Medic garments, which now they call "seric" [i.e., silk robes], and passed their time, thus dressed, in theatres and hippodromes and in other pleasureable pursuits, and above all else in hunting. And they had dancers and mimes and all other things to hear and see which are of a musical nature or otherwise merit attention among men. And the most of them dwelt in parks, which were well supplied with water and trees; and they had great numbers of banquets, and all manner of sexual pleasures were in great vogue among them. But the Moors live in stuffy huts both in winter and in summer and at every other time, never removing from them either because of snow or the heat of the sun or any other discomfort whatever due to nature. And they sleep on the ground, the prosperous among them, if it should so happen, spreading a fleece under themselves. Moreover, it is not customary among them to change their clothing with the seasons, but they wear a thick cloak and a rough shirt at all times. And they have neither bread nor wine nor any other good thing, but they take grain, either wheat or barley, and, without boiling it or grinding it to flour or barley-meal, they eat it in a manner not a whit different from that of animals. 
     Belisarius dispatched a Herulian mercenary commander named Pharas to go and fetch King Gelimer. After a few attempts at storming the mountain passes, and losing many soldiers in the process, Pharas attempted to starve the Vandals out. Eventually, getting tired of the wait, he sent a letter to Gelimer promising him that Belisarius was a merciful and generous man, that surrender was no great disgrace, and that the Emperor in Constantinople would certainly grant him some excellent property in the East and allow him to live out his years in peace and prosperity. Then, according to Procopius,
When Gelimer had read this letter and wept bitterly over it, he wrote in reply as follows: "I am both deeply grateful to you for the advice which you have given me and I also think it unbearable to be a slave to an enemy who wrongs me, from whom I should pray God to exact justice, if He should be propitious to me,—an enemy who, though he had never experienced any harm from me either in deeds which he suffered or in words which he heard, provided a pretext for a war which was unprovoked, and reduced me to this state of misfortune, bringing Belisarius against me from I know not where. And yet it is not at all unlikely that he also, since he is but a man, though he be emperor too, may have something befall him which he would not choose. But as for me, I am not able to write further. For my present misfortune has robbed me of my thoughts. Farewell, then, dear Pharas, and send me a lyre and one loaf of bread and a sponge, I pray you." When this reply was read by Pharas, he was at a loss for some time, being unable to understand the final words of the letter, until he who had brought the letter explained that Gelimer desired one loaf because he was eager to enjoy the sight of it and to eat it, since from the time when he went up upon Papua he had not seen a single baked loaf. A sponge also was necessary for him; for one of his eyes, becoming irritated by lack of washing, was greatly swollen. And being a skilful harpist he had composed an ode relating to his present misfortune, which he was eager to chant to the accompaniment of a lyre while he wept out his soul. When Pharas heard this, he was deeply moved, and lamenting the fortune of men, he did as was written and sent all the things which Gelimer desired of him. However he relaxed the siege not a whit, but kept watch more closely than before.
     Finally though, after a siege of around three months, Gelimer beheld a sight which was just too much to bear: Two little boys, one his royal nephew and the other a son of his hosts, were hungrily watching the lady of the hut preparing a small loaf made of crushed barley, baking it in the ashes near the fire. The boys were infested with intestinal worms, which exacerbated their hunger. Suddenly, the Vandal boy snatched up the partially cooked barley cake and stuffed it into his mouth, ashes and all; whereupon the other boy began beating him around the head, causing him to cough it back up and spit it out. Then the Moorish boy grabbed the cake and ate it himself. Gelimer had seen enough, and contacted Pharas, saying that if Belisarius gave his word that the Vandals would be treated humanely and honorably, he would surrender. He and his men were led back to Carthage; and it is said that when Gelimer was brought to see Belisarius, his new master, Gelimer burst into loud, perhaps hysterical, laughter. In Robert Graves' historical novel Count Belisarius, he has the general, who was a merciful man, take pity on Gelimer, step down from the throne on which he had been sitting, and lead the former King by the hand, as though he were a little child.
     Aside from the obvious reflection on impermanence, and how wealth, prosperity, and the status quo can not be relied upon to remain the same (and also aside from my occasional desire to write about things barely associated with Buddhism—for example I'd really like to write about Moby Dick, The Matrix, and prehistoric Indo-Europeans someday), the big question is: Why was Gelimer so totally miserable? It's true that he was living under harsh and difficult circumstances among the Moors on the mountain, but of course the Moors were living that way too, and presumably weren't nearly as miserable as old Gelimer was. Maybe they were even happier than usual at the time, as they had the interesting spectacle of a famous king living among them. Gelimer was probably even receiving the best of everything his Moorish hosts had to offer—the best food, the best hut, the best animal skin to sleep on, etc.
     Although the Moors might have had more of a genetically conditioned tolerance to the heat, rough food, dirt, etc., than did the Vandalic royalty, obviously the Vandals were so miserable mainly because of their psychological state, not their physical one. The roughness of their new surroundings was insufficient in and of itself to necessitate misery, demonstrated by the probable fact that the Moors were living in the same environment and were in all likelihood just fine about it.
     Gelimer and his retinue were in hell because he was not living in the present moment. He was taking in just enough of the present moment to compare it with an "alternative reality" that he considered better, and which he consequently desired strongly. And, of course, desire is the cause of all suffering. Furthermore, what he was desiring was rather unrealistic, so a few moments' philosophical reflection might have allowed him to see that his suffering was utterly futile. It didn't help him regain his palace in Carthage at all. But this sort of thing, usually on a smaller scale, is the cause of all misery.
     It's actually easier to be happy if one is poor—not starving or freezing, but poor. The founders of Buddhism and Christianity were in agreement on this point. If a person has little money but enough food and shelter and nevertheless appears miserable, in all likelihood it is because that person has been taught by his or her culture to be dissatisfied and ashamed of poverty. We live in a culture that drills into our heads, practically from our infancy, that the opposite of truth is true, and that desire and luxury are good, and lead to happiness. And most Western Buddhists, and many Eastern ones too nowadays, can't shake that conditioning.
     The more you have to lose, the more its loss hurts you; and, worse yet, the more you fear losing it even before you've lost anything, other than your peace of mind. Hence the value of renunciation. To have nothing of value to lose is essentially freedom, and a potential source of profound strength.
     The poor are able to be happier than the rich, despite the fact that the rich may have more fun. And those who live in the present moment, not comparing reality with how things used to be, or ought to be, or might be, live in bliss. 

Gelimer, on a Vandalic coin