Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dissociated Dhamma

     There are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don't. (—Robert Benchley)

     During my many travels through Burma I happened to meet a well-educated man who was a very devout Buddhist, and also very superstitious—the altar in his house was lavishly furnished, and rather like a small museum of Burmese supernaturalism. He was one of the few people I have met who still offered coconuts to Min Mahagiri, or "Lord of the Great Mountain," one of the chief deities in the Burmese "nat cult," an indigenous polytheistic paganism that predates the Burmese people's conversion to Theravada Buddhism many centuries ago. Pictures of wizard alchemists were also on his altar.
     He was, as I said, very devout, knew his chants and scriptures, visited and supported monasteries and saintly old monks, and had himself been temporarily ordained many times—yet, even so, he was quite a rascal. He told lies like some children do, i.e. without any obvious reason, and with no apparent gain to be derived from it. And his conduct with women was notorious. I once heard him tell an obvious lie to an old sayadaw that he himself considered to be an arahant, an enlightened being; and he fibbed to me sometimes too, even though at the time considering me to be "at least a sakadagami," i.e. a being at least at the second stage of sainthood. (I'm really not complaining here; I liked the man well enough, and we got along well together. It's just that the strange combination of intense devotion and chronic rascality strikes me as very interesting. I like paradoxes. I write of him, bless his heart, as an anonymous anthropological case history. Let's call him Joe.)
     One hint at an explanation of this paradoxical man came from the fact that when he would speak of religion his voice would often take on a peculiar sing-song intonation, almost as though he had a separate personality for dealing with religious matters. He reminded me of a Christian televangelist I would occasionally see on TV back in the 80's who apparently could not say the name Jesus with an ordinary tone of voice: it always came out sounding like "Jeee-ZUSSsss!"
     My Burmese acquaintance is nowhere near to being an isolated case, as many religious people are similar, and many veteran meditators also are similar. There are some meditators out there, and I've met a few, who can sit like a rock in the full lotus position for three hours without moving, but when they get up and start moving around they're just as messed up as they were before. It seems that, for some people, practicing meditation has the sole effect of making them good meditators. They may even cultivate deep trance states, but it doesn't carry over very well into their everyday lives. At least they're staying out of trouble while they're sitting there like statues. 
     My theory to account for this  phenomenon is that we humans tend to compartmentalize different kinds of information in our heads, as though under different subject headings, in different categories; thus a Religion compartment in one part of the mind, a Work compartment in another part, a Family compartment in yet another, and so on, and each of these compartments may have its own set of attitudes and outlooks on life. And some people have compartments that are quite isolated from each other, not well integrated. For example, some people's Religion and Science compartments are not on speaking terms at all.
     Extreme cases of highly quarantined Spirituality compartments might be found in certain psychics and channelers. A very talented psychic may be just as psychologically messed up as the average person—maybe even much more so—yet still have somehow an isolated hole or window through their psyche opening out onto the infinite possibilities on the other side of consciousness. A channeler may divulge very profound, even enlightened, information while channeling some personality or other, yet be so dissociated from it that she or he remembers none of it after coming out of trance. According to my father, his second wife (not my mother) was an extremely talented psychic and channeler who easily could enter trances so deep that he pulse and breath would almost stop, and while in trance she could write in foreign languages she had never learned and even open and close doors without touching them—yet, also according to my father, she was a hardcore alcoholic with the sexual morals of an alley cat. My father, who was somewhat of an authority on such matters, used to say that the very best psychics are often women who are extraordinarily devoid of moral scruples, which may be one reason why witches have acquired such a bad reputation throughout history. But I digress.
     At the other extreme of the spectrum are people more like me, who have different categories of knowledge filed away, but who have these various categories relatively well-integrated with each other. Thus we tend to be more hard-headed, more rational and less emotional, more "scientific" and less "artistic," and rather less likely to hold mutually conflicting belief systems—and if we do hold them, we're more likely to be aware of it, and to be bothered by this fact. When we meditate we don't just slip into "meditation mode," but have to bring all the baggage of our psyche with us, and thus meditation may seem much harder for us, and we may seem to make slower, much less dramatic progress. 
     The two orientations may be loosely compared, if you will humor me, to breeding cocker spaniels. Long ago my father ran a dog kennel and bred pedigreed cocker spaniels. At that time a pure white cocker spaniel did not yet exist, so whoever came up with the first one was liable to make a lot of money. He figured there were two possible ways of going about it: to start with cream-colored cocker spaniels (which already existed) and selectively cross the palest ones till one finally arrived at white; or, to start with white ones with dark spots (which also already existed) and selectively cross the ones with the fewest and smallest spots until only the white remained. He adopted the cream strategy, but later figured he should have gone with the smaller spots strategy. He failed to generate a pure white cocker spaniel. 

     Another possible analogy involves the digging of basements. It may be observed that there are two main ways of digging a basement: digging it down evenly, level by level; or digging all the way down in one place and then widening the hole. Although one method for producing a white cocker spaniel may have been more effective than the other, in the case of digging a basement it is pretty clear that either approach will work just as well. The method we choose is a matter of personal temperament. 
     Similarly, in Dhamma practice, either of the two psychological orientations, relatively compartmentalized or relatively integrated, may work as an approach to enlightenment. The compartmentalized approach, corresponding to the "smaller holes strategy" or the method of digging all the way down and then widening the hole, seems to be more in tune with samatha practice, and may work better for people who are relatively artistic and faith-oriented. The integrated approach, corresponding to the "cream strategy" or the even, level-by-level basement, seems more conducive to vipassana, and easier for those who are more reason-oriented. Theravada teaches that one should practice samatha and vipassana, and have a balance of both faith and reason, but still, different temperaments will tend to lean more one way than the other, to have different emphases. Although the compartmentalized orientation or temperament appears more conducive to Buddhist samatha practice, in actuality, in America, people of this tendency appear more likely to gravitate toward New Age spirituality, with the hard-headed integrated reason-orienters generally preferring vipassana, and with not a whole lot of Theravadin samatha practice going on.
     Since either orientation may be conducive to Enlightenment, it is a good idea to Know Thyself and discern which, if either, personality type you naturally have, and adopt a practice that is most harmonious with it. One may find that one is naturally drawn to a suitable method—it simply feels Right. A hard-headed philosopher struggling to cultivate jhāna may spend his or her time more profitably by working on basic, unbroken mindfulness, while a person who easily slips into meditation mode may attain jhāna quickly, and then use that as an aid in cultivating insight. 
     Each orientation has its own peculiar difficulties. One big difficulty for samatha meditators is widening the hole. Simply meditating more is insufficient, as one cannot be sitting in meditation always. One relatively straightforward way of succeeding, if one is practicing ānāpāna or mantra meditation, would be to cultivate unbroken awareness of the breath, or unbroken mantra, no matter what one is doing throughout the course of the day. On the other hand, a major difficulty for the hard-heads doing vipassana is that, since they drag their whole personality into the meditation, a hectic, stressful lifestyle may effectively shoot progress in the foot. Only by living a meditative life is one's meditation likely to really soar. This is one reason why so few Westerners, even so few Western vipassana teachers, ever progress much beyond an elementary level of vipassana practice—they are chronically immersed in a lifestyle that prevents their whole mind from enjoying deep clarity. (Hence the value of renunciation for us hard-heads. By far the best meditation I've ever experienced was when I was living alone in a cave.) It appears that many who do appear to experience much advancement in vipassana are actually of the compartmentalized type, and make great progress in their "Vipassana compartment" with not much integration with the other compartments. Many meditators who consider themselves to be Ariyas would fit this description.
     Ultimately, everything applies to Dhamma. It's good to bear that in mind. 
     However…it is also good to consider that neither path goes all the way to Nibbāna; no approach leads all the way to a white cocker spaniel. All paths, approaches, orientations, methods, and strategies are samsaric, and within the context of Samsara the First Noble Truth rules: Nothing is perfect. As the saying goes, no matter how many times you sweep the floor, some dust will remain. A path cannot lead right up to the threshold of Nibbāna because Nibbāna and Samsara are at two radically different levels of reality, absolute and relative. It's like a character in a novel striving to escape from the context of the story and to enter the Real World. No matter how we go about it, there is no small, final step through a doorway and into Enlightenment; there will ultimately be an infinite jump, a leap from the ten thousand things of this world to the non-dualistic Absolute. There is no clearly defined end of the Path, no final cliff-edge that everyone who reaches it must jump from. So we can make the infinite leap out of the "novel" from any point along the Path. Some apparently make the leap relatively early on, maybe even before they are aware of being on a spiritual path at all, while others, like some highly advanced Hindu swamis, keep traveling further and further down the Path, becoming more and more pure, breeding a cocker spaniel that is paler and paler or with smaller and smaller spots, without ever quite making the leap—very highly advanced saints that they obviously are. 
     One major reason why we don't make the leap is that we don't want to. We want to stay comfortably asleep, without having to accept so much responsibility over our spirit and our conduct. Another major reason is that we believe that we can't do it; we don't even realize that it is an ever-present option. 
     So beware of your own negative and/or limiting beliefs, as they condition the world you live in. If you think, "This is difficult," it reinforces the difficulty of whatever it is. If you think, "That person is bad," it reinforces that person's badness, at least in your world. If you think, "I can't do it," it reinforces your inability to do it. Every thought and feeling we believe creates karma which conditions our reality. Even if you can't help but have negative thoughts and feelings about the situation you've been in, it's a good practice to keep the negativity behind you, and the present moment open for something new: "OK, I've been limited and underdeveloped in the past, but anything is possible now." Really, anything is possible now, if we let it be possible.

     Joshu asked Nansen: "What is the path?"
     Nansen said: "Everyday life is the path."
     Joshu asked: "Can it be studied?"
     Nansen said: "If you try to study, you will be far away from it."
     Joshu asked: "If I do not study, how can I know it is the path?"
     Nansen said: "The path does not belong to the perception world, neither does it belong to the nonperception world. Cognition is a delusion and noncognition is senseless. If you want to reach the true path beyond doubt, place yourself in the same freedom as sky. You name it neither good nor not good." 
     At these words Joshu was enlightened.
     (—translated by Nyogen Senzaki, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps (Anchor Books, 1989))

     (The reader may have noticed that I deliberately avoided identifying the opposite of hard-heads as "soft-heads," because it sounds too negative and rude. There, you see, I'm learning!)   

Friday, December 20, 2013

End of the Rains

     Well, here I am in tropical Asia again. Or to be more exact, I'm back at the Chinese cemetery in the highlands of central Bali—where there is no electricity other than batteries, and of course no Internet. (I'm writing this with a pen, on paper, like an ancient scribe.) So by the time you read this I won't be here any more. Even so, this post is mainly to catch up on the events that led me here.
     At the end of the current events post immediately preceding this one ("Life at a Burmese Cultural Center," 9 November 2013), I was concluding the "rains retreat" at a little Burmese temple in the suburbs of  Fremont, California. The last day of the rains retreat is kind of a big deal in Theravada Buddhist cultures. In Burma it is a national holiday called "Abhidhamma Day," signifying the anniversary of the day Gotama Buddha descended from heaven after spending the rains retreat up there teaching Abhidhamma philosophy to the devas. According to the rules of monastic discipline, though, it is called pavāraā day, or the day of invitation.
     On pavāraā day, usually the full moon day of October, local sanghas of monks are supposed to convene and, instead of participating in an uposatha ceremony as is usually done on full moon days, each monk who has observed a complete rains residence invites the other monks in attendance to admonish him with regard to lapses in his virtue. The English translation of the standard formula is as follows:
Venerable Sirs, I make invitation to the Sangha. With regard to what has been seen, heard, or inferred (about me), may the venerable ones speak to me, out of compassion, and seeing (my offenses) I will rectify them. [recited three times]
     It is ironic that Burmese monks gather from near and far to participate in this ceremony, considering that it is against Burmese tradition for anyone actually to answer other monks' invitations. I tried answering another monk's invitation many years ago, and was frantically waved to silence by the officiating senior monk. Perhaps the point of it has become to signify a mutual vote of confidence, or some such. It is also somewhat ironic that pavāraā day is so much observed, considering that many Burmese monks, including the ones at my temple, usually do not attend uposatha ceremonies on the other full moon and new moon days of the year. I suppose it is just as well. Most monks handle money, and a monk with unconfessed infractions of the rules breaks a more serious rule by participating in an uposatha ceremony than he would by not participating at all—since any monk who knowingly has unconfessed offenses and who participates in such a ceremony is technically guilty of lying, as participation, even just quietly sitting there, is an implicit assertion that one has expiated one's offenses beforehand. And the handling of money cannot be expiated until the money, and everything bought with it, is relinquished, which of course few monks are willing to tolerate. The fact that I was living in the congregation hall was convenient, as I could easily perform a ten-second-long, one-man "determination uposatha" by baring my right shoulder, squatting before the altar, joining my hands, and repeating "ajja me uposatho" (today is my uposatha) three times. That is, when I remembered uposatha day—living in an electrically illuminated city makes it easy to be ignorant of the phases of the moon, which is the main reason why I try to maintain an operational moon phase gadget on this blog.
     Anyway, the pavāraā ceremony in Fremont appeared to have most of the Burmese monks in the San Francisco Bay Area in attendance: about forty of them, plus two monks from Sri Lanka, plus me. I was the only non-Asian monk there. The monks sit in order of seniority; and although officially I'm a mahāthera (a "great elder") with more than twenty rains retreats under my belt, I was sitting closer to the back than to the front. Old U Jatila, a monk who was staying at our place and who has been a fully ordained monk for some 63 years, was sitting fourth in line.
     After the ceremony we sat through a very brief sermon delivered by one of the leading sayadaws to the almost entirely Burmese crowd (I saw a total of one non-Asian amongst the laypeople there), and then we were ushered into an area with long tables covered with Burmese festival food, which food we ate from plates, as it seems very few Asian monks eat from alms bowls in America. After this we ran the gauntlet of a long line of devout Buddhists offering little envelopes containing money. I prefer not to handle the stuff, so I was assigned an attendant to receive the envelopes on my behalf. He walked beside me down the line announcing (in Burmese), "The foreigner sayadaw! The foreigner sayadaw!" I pointed out to him that, strictly speaking, considering that we were in America, I was the only sayadaw there who wasn't a foreigner. He saw the point, and was amused by the idea, but continued calling me the foreigner sayadaw. My attendant collected no fewer than 27 envelopes on my behalf, containing maybe $400—not a bad "take," considering that all I did to earn it was to look like a monk, participate in a half-hour-long ritual ceremony, eat some pretty good food, and generally just behave myself. The Buddhist laypeople participate in these ceremonies to socialize and earn merit, but I suspect that for most monks the main point is the little envelopes.
     The next event on the Theravada Buddhist ritual/festival calendar was kathina, which can occur at any time within one lunar month of pavāraā, so the local Burmese temples scheduled their kathina festivals on different days so as not to compete with each other for faithful donors. This is yet another event originally associated with monastic discipline which in Burmese Buddhism has mutated into a virtually meaningless formality. I used to forbid them at my monastery in northwest Burma (for more details, see "The Noble Flight of U Nandiya," posted 2 March 2013), although I found myself participating in three of them this year. The Burmese monks at my temple probably attended five or six. Kathina generally involves a ritual called anumodana, in which the Sangha assembles in the congregation hall and recites some Pali asserting, among other things, that the procedure of "spreading the kathina frame" was done properly and correctly—something I could not recite without telling an untruth, and I am very much inclined to avoid lying. So I braced myself for the eventuality of anumodana, inwardly debating whether I should just stubbornly remain silent or else take an officiating sayadaw aside and say, "OK, look, I'll say it, but I won't mean it, so bear that in mind." But for whatever reason, I was not called upon to recite a fake anumodana. It appears that in Burmese temples in California one monk recites it on behalf of the entire Sangha. I'm rusty on ritual observances, so whether this California method is kosher or not I can't say.
     Shortly after these events occurred possibly the most spiritually significant event of the year for me—the yagé ceremonies that I mentioned in a recent post ("Trial by Ordeal," posted 7 December 2013). Among other great benefits of those ceremonies, I had been more or less depressed for more than three months, and the medicine I took there effectively snapped me right out of it. It did this by allowing me to see quite clearly, even forcing me to see, that the depression was purely optional. For more information, see the other blog post.
     I may as well mention that the main reason why I was depressed was the plain fact that my attempts to live a less isolated, freer existence in America hadn't worked out so well, and I was soon to return to the place it had taken so long to leave, with no telling how long I would remain there. 
     Of course there are folks who will not hesitate to point the finger squarely at me, and many already have pointed it, declaring that it was because of my own arrogance, and/or rascality, and/or heresy, and/or whatever else, that I received so little physical support from non-Asian Buddhist communities in America. There is, no doubt, some truth in that…although really, the finger points both ways. First of all, I required minimal support from the very get-go, even when I was full of optimism, gratitude, relatively expanded consciousness, and relatively strict practice, and was eager to see the best in everyone. Also, it is just plain common knowledge among Western monks that practically the only way to exist long-term in America is to be supported mainly by Asian Buddhists. As a general rule, Americans do not support monks, and American Theravada Buddhists do not support Theravada Buddhist monks—not lax ones, not strict ones, not arrogant ones, not humble ones. I assume that there are exceptions to the rule, that there are monks receiving most of their food and shelter from non-Asian Buddhists—I hope so and would like to think so—but I don't know who they are. Bhikkhu Bodhi maybe? But the last I heard he was living at a Chinese Mahayana monastery. I suppose venerable Ajahn Thanissaro in southern California is supported by Thai communities, which include the wealthy mother of Tiger Woods. I'm pretty sure that Abhayagiri, the Ajahn Chah monastery in northern California, also is supported mainly by Asian immigrants, and the extensive property of Abhayagiri was originally donated by a Chinese Mahayana organization. Ajahn Amaro at his new place in the Pacific Northwest, maybe? Wat Atam near Seattle, the home base of the only Western monk I've met who resides in the Pacific Northwest, is supported almost entirely by Thai immigrants, as is probably also the case with Birken, the Ajahn Chah monastery in British Columbia. So I hope they're out there, but I just don't know who or where they are. And wherever they are, they form a small minority. As a general rule (or a sweeping generalization), Americans do not see the point of supporting full-time Dharma practitioners. I've been told by more than one American, on more than one occasion, that the reason Asian Buddhists support monks is because they've been "brainwashed" into doing it. Well, we American Buddhists are just as brainwashed, just in a different direction. And seeing our own cultural conditioning can be hard.
     Anyway, I succeeded in living in America, and not mainly in dependence on Asian communities, part-time, for about 2½ years. Maybe half of my supporters were not Buddhists, and they all tended to be more like friends helping out a friend than laypeople supporting a monk—which of course are not entirely bad things. They did it more out of open-heartedness, generosity, friendship, and even appreciation for my presence, than out of any traditional Buddhist duty to a renunciant. But there were so few people that were into that, that I felt like a burden on these my friends. And anyway, those last few months in Bellingham I was eating emergency cheese and corn chips about three days a week, paid for with funds donated by Burmese people in California. But this is all somewhat of a digression, considering that this is a current events post. 
     Yet so long as I'm digressing I might as well digress even more by saying that my second-most important spiritual event of 2013 was probably the posting of "Let This Be a Lesson," and all of the ramifications that ramified out of it. It felt very important to publish that, and it still feels that way, despite some apparently negative consequences. I am happy to say that the Priestess and I recently had a profound reconciliation—all appears to be mutually forgiven, and we are enthusiastically loving and blessing each other again, long-distance, without physical contact. We may never have jugglers and acrobats performing at out wedding reception, but it feels very much better to have gratitude, blessings, and an open heart than resentment, bitterness, and a closed one. Besides, I've long held the romantic idea that true love should have no beginning and no end.
     Getting back on track here, just a few days before I left California a Burmese man and his two young sons undertook temporary ordination, he as a monk and they as novices. The boys, although of Burmese parentage, were born in the USA, spoke little Burmese, and were pretty thoroughly westernized. Sometimes older Burmese people have lamented to me about how their children have absorbed American consumer culture so thoroughly that they have little interest in or knowledge of Dhamma; and these two boys were potential candidates for that, as they didn't seem to see much point in staying at a monastery. They did it mainly to satisfy their parents. The day after they were ordained, some female family members came to offer food, and the new novices went around announcing that they didn't have on any underwear. Then a lady asked one of them how his meditation was. He asked, "What meditation? You mean the meditation I had last night?" When she said yes he replied, "It was ginger and onion. It was very spicy." I endeavored to explain to them the Four Noble Truths in simple language, but I don't know how much of an impression I made. The elder of the two boys seemed to be attentive.
     And then I came way over here to Bali, where my years of training allow me to live alone in a cemetery without worries (except maybe when I hear a strange sound in the middle of the night). By the time you read this I'll probably be already in Burma (also known as British Further India)…and I think we're caught up for now. Be happy and peaceful.

A view of the rain from a hut in central Bali 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Spike (or: To Be Recited in the Event of My Death)

     In Asia I think about death more than I do in the West. This is partly because the possibility of death is much more readily obvious in someplace like SE Asia: heat stroke, icky tropical diseases, snakebite, political/social upheaval, or whatever might suddenly leap from the sheer unknown. Also, especially during times of miserably hot weather, the feeling occasionally arises that death would be preferable to many more years of drenching sweat and heat prostration. In the West it seems more the established thing not to think much about death, but just to worry about getting old. But in traditional Theravada, thinking about death is very much encouraged.
     So during my years-long exile in Burma I came up with the idea that, in the event of my death, I would like the Salla Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta recited at my cremation—in Pali of course, plus in the native languages of whoever happened to be attending. So I translated it into English, just in case any speakers of that language attend. The English translation is as follows.

Discourse on the Spike (Salla Sutta)
     —Sutta Nipāta III.8

          The life of mortals here is signless and uncertain;
     It is troublesome and brief, and it is bound to unease.

          Indeed, there is no means by which those born do not die.
     Even for one who has reached a great old age there is death, for such is the way of living beings.

          Just as for ripe fruit there is always danger of falling,
     Even so for mortals who are born there is constantly danger of death.

          And just as clay bowls made by a potter
     All end in breaking, even so is this life of mortals.

          Young and old, those who are foolish and those who are wise,
     All go under the power of death; all are destined for death.

          When they are overcome by death, going on to the other world,
     The father does not give support to the son, nor do any relatives to any other relatives.

          See, even as the relatives are looking on and each of them crying out,
     Every mortal is led away, one by one, like a cow to be slaughtered.

          Thus is the world stricken by death and old age.
     Therefore the wise do not grieve, having realized the way of the world.

          Whose path you do not know, either whence he has come or where he has gone,
     Not seeing either end, you lament him pointlessly.

          If, lamenting, a stupid person who is harming himself 
     Would derive some benefit, then a discerning person would do it also.

          But not by weeping and grief does one attain to peace of mind.
     One's unease simply increases, and one's body is harmed.

          One becomes thin and unhealthy-looking, harming oneself by oneself.
     Those who have passed away are not benefitted by this. Lamenting is pointless.

          A fellow not abandoning grief increasingly suffers unease;
     Bewailing the deceased he falls under the power of grief.

          See others also going along, men going in accordance with their actions,
     Living beings floundering about here in the world, having come under the power of death.

          For in whatever way they imagine, it happens other than that.
     The state of separation is such as this. See the way of the world.

          Even if a man would live a hundred years or more
     He comes to be separated from the community of his relatives; he leaves behind life in this world.

          Therefore having heard the Worthy One, one should dismiss lamentation.
     Seeing the one who has passed away, one should think, "I can't have him any more."

          Just as a burning shelter would be put out with water,
     Even so a wise man endowed with understanding, an intelligent, skillful man,
     Would quickly blow away any grief that has arisen, as the wind would do to a wisp of cotton.

          Lamentation and longing, and one's own unhappiness— 
     One seeking ease for oneself should pull out the spike in oneself.

          With the spike pulled out, unattached, having attained peace of mind, 
     Gone beyond all sorrow, the sorrowless one is completely gone out.

     The Discourse is pretty much self-explanatory, so a detailed commentary would be superfluous. The title and the final verses, though, contain an ancient Buddhist metaphor that is noteworthy—the salla, i.e. the spike.
     Salla has no direct equivalent in the English language. It apparently can mean any sharp, piercing object. A spike is a salla. A thorn can be a salla. Apparently a dart-like weapon used in ancient India was called a salla. A surgeon's probe is called a salla. So also is the quill of a porcupine. K. R. Norman, in his translation of the Sutta Nipāta, rendered it as "the barb." The main thing is that it stabs into the flesh. It pierces us, resulting in our suffering.
     The spike is a common metaphor in very early Buddhist literature, but seems to have fallen out of fashion in later times. It is mentioned several times in the Sutta Nipāta, a collection which contains some very ancient texts. The Aṭṭhakavagga, very possibly the largest existing fragment of "primitive" Buddhist literature, begins and ends with discourses mentioning "the spike." One text within the Aṭṭhakavagga, the aptly-named "Discourse on the Uptaken Stick" (Attadaṇḍa Sutta), gives in its first few stanzas a poetic description of this affliction of the human heart:

          Fear is born by a stick one has acquired;
          Look at people in conflict.
          I shall relate to you a feeling of urgency,
          How it was felt by me.

          Having seen mankind thrashing about
          Like fishes in little water,
          Obstructed by one another— 
          Having seen, fear took hold of me.

          The world was entirely without substance;
          All the quarters were shaken.
          Wanting a settled abiding for myself
          I saw nothing that had not succumbed.

          But even in succumbing people are obstructed— 
          Having seen this, disaffection arose in me.
          Then I saw a spike [salla] here, 
          Hard to see, stuck in the heart.

          Subjected to this spike
          Through all the quarters one runs about:
          Having pulled out just this spike
          One does not run, one does not sink.

     Thus it appears that the spike is not simply death, as might be inferred from the discourse which takes its name. The spike is grief—chronic anxiety, or angst, arising from our friction and resistance against a world that we ourselves create. It is like someone having a dream at night and struggling to be free of the dream that they themself are creating. It is the spike of dissatisfaction with the way things are, as a result of our own doing; wanting them to change, or, just as unskillful, wanting them not to change.
     (As an aside, the metaphor of not running and not sinking, found in the last quoted verse, is also a very ancient one, being found in other texts as well as this one—possibly the most well-known example of it would be the very first Sutta of the Sayutta Nikāya. I interpret it to mean that a wise person doesn't continue chasing his or her tail through Samsara, yet also doesn't simply fade out into stillness, unconsciousness, or oblivion. It is, like many metaphors for enlightenment, the razor's edge between the two horns of a paradox.)
     I conclude this exposé of the spike in our hearts with one more early Sutta from the Sutta Nipāta.

Discourse on Arousal (Uṭṭhāna Sutta)
     —Sutta Nipāta II.10

          Get up! Sit up! 
          What use to you is sleep?
          What rest is there for the afflicted,
          Pierced with a spike and in distress?

          Get up! Sit up! 
          Train steadfastly for peace.
          Let not the king of death, knowing you to be clouded in mind,
          Confuse you so you are come under his power.

          Cross over this attachment
          By which gods and men stay clinging and longing.
          Let not the moment pass you by,
          For those whose moment is passed sorrow indeed
          When consigned to hell.

          Cloudedness of mind, pollution, cloudedness of mind— 
          Following upon cloudedness of mind is pollution.
          With uncloudedness of mind and with wisdom
          One should pull out one's own spike.     


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Trial by Ordeal: Buddhism Meets Ayahuasca

     When I returned to the USA in 2011, I had never heard of ayahuasca. I think I had seen the word "yagé" (pronounced something like "yah-hey") before, but without the accent, so I thought it rhymed with "sage." Some kind of psychoactive plant, I figured. I had no idea that drinking ayahuasca, or yagé, had become a kind of New Age spiritual practice in the West.
     It is usually consumed at religious ceremonies, either based on South American shamanism or on a Brazilian religious system somewhat similar to Voodoo, based on a combination of the African tribal religions of black slaves, Roman Catholicism, and the aforementioned South American shamanism. Since 2011 I have attended four of these ceremonies, all of them of the more shamanistic variety.
     Before attending the last three ceremonies I signed an agreement that I wouldn't publicly divulge details of the ceremony, or of the words or actions of others attending it; I didn't sign such an agreement before the first one, however, so I will describe it in some detail.
     In November of 2011 a person I dearly love asked if I wanted to attend such a ceremony, and largely since psychedelic drugs played an early, major role in my own spiritual development, I agreed without much hesitation. I figured it would be another ecstatic, consciousness-expanding experience like a trip on LSD. I was mistaken—although I'm getting ahead of the story.
     The ceremony was in a nearby foreign country, in what appeared to be an old, empty office building in a somewhat run-down area of a large city. We arrived in the evening and met several quiet, serious people also waiting to begin. The shaman who conducted the ceremony was a majestic, lovely blonde woman who had trained in Peru and considered herself to be a Buddhist. A total of eleven people participated, eight women and three men. The rule was that we were not allowed to go outside, and were required to sit with our backs to the walls of the room, facing the center, in the dark. We were not allowed to lie down; our leader assured us that it wouldn't cause us to feel any better anyway. We were allowed to get up only to go to the toilet or to request another cup of medicine. (It is emphatically referred to as medicine by its advocates rather than as a drug.) We were not to speak or interact with each other, and were encouraged to keep our eyes closed most of the time. We were each provided with a small bucket, in case we needed to vomit, or purge (or, as some call it, to "get well"). 
     Before the medicine was taken we were given two useful pieces of advice: First, that the medicine technically is not an emetic. Although many people purge during ceremony, the cause is psychological, not physical; thus there is a choice. And second, that we should not forget that the journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This second advice may seem inconsequential, but it is invaluable to one lost in a state of turning emotionally inside out. Then we were each given a cup of brown liquid which tasted somewhat like putrified steak sauce. I found out on later occasions that the stuff can taste much worse, indescribably foul even, depending on its ingredients. The putrified steak sauce wasn't so bad.
     Within about half an hour I was experiencing psychedelic effects, mainly green geometric patterns that were brighter when my eyes were closed, plus a sense of exaltation. The person sitting to my left was quietly sobbing. It seemed not so different from an LSD experience, and after less than two hours it seemed to be leveling off, so I went up to the shaman for another cup.

      But before the second cup had time to really start taking effect my mind surged into the beginning of one of the most intense experiences of my life. Before long I was sitting there in the dark propped up on one hand and using the other continually, nervously to rub my face and head; I sometimes would whisper, like a mantra, "This is too much…This is unnecessary…" It seemed as though my mind were not so much expanded as intensified to at least three times beyond the normal level. I felt as though I were surfing a tsunami of mental intensity, struggling to maintain balance and avoid crashing and going under into I had no idea what.
     A few times I had the urge to "get well," but reminded myself of the shaman's first advice and chose not to. But after a while the fellow sitting to my right began having an obviously very harrowing experience. He was writhing, crying, whimpering, and moaning as though he were in some kind of purgatory, and at one point he had the shaman and two helpers around him trying to calm him down. Having someone sitting right next to me essentially freaking out was too much, partly because one effect of the medicine is heightened compassion and a feeling of interconnectedness with everyone else. My own feeling of the fellow's agony overwhelmed me rather quickly, and I grabbed the bucket and purged and purged, very loudly. (Amazingly, after the guy finally came through whatever hell he was in and calmed down, he shakily got to his feet and requested another cup of medicine! I'm pretty sure the wise shaman didn't give it to him though.)
     Occasionally throughout the night our guide would play a guitar and sing, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish, and sometimes she would recite poetry or guide us with other uplifting words. She had taken the medicine also, however, and on one occasion, in the middle of the night, she tried to recite something and suddenly had to stop, apparently too much under the influence of "The Grandmother" herself. I have found that, for me, a female guide is preferable to a male one, since the medicine, considered to be a goddess or female spirit, has such a feminine energy to it, and the soothing, gentle voice of a woman has a more steadying and helpful effect on my surging, distressed mind and feelings. 
     It is certainly not like LSD or psilocybin in that it is not primarily a head trip. It is much more visceral, much more chest-oriented. With LSD everything can be beautiful and perfect and God for several hours, and then one comes down and everything is fine—maybe one is a bit tired or run-down, but fine. But ayahuasca is not like this: It turns my thoughts and feelings into a rushing torrent, and usually not a blissful torrent. But more about that later.
     The most memorable insight experience I had that night involved becoming hypersensitive to Samsara, so to speak. I was aware of the attachment even in firmly directing my attention to a mental state, so that everything I experienced seemed "sticky" in a way, almost requiring me to practice some rather advanced-level meditation, carefully steering clear of fixing my attention on any object. 
     Anyway, as the effects began to subside, in the early morning, everything became more like an LSD experience again, with the whole of experience being beautiful and perfect. I really like those parts, although the more painful intensity is invaluable in a very different way.
     The next morning it seemed like everyone's heart was wide open. Mine certainly was. The shaman went around the room and conversed with each person in turn, discussing with us our experiences, and then we were free to leave. Afterwards I remember being very impressed by and respectful of those brave people who were willing to face their demons for the sake of greater understanding. I am always struck by the courage of people who go to these ceremonies. It really does take courage. That following day was one of the happiest and most sensitively wide-open days of my life, in some ways much preferable to being in the midst of the psychic maelstrom the night before. However, it was obviously the effect of the night before; the medicine had somehow purged me of negativity, temporarily.
     Recently I attended my third and fourth ceremonies, two nights, back to back. Although I've promised not to describe the ceremonies, the experiences I had internally are still fresh in my mind, so I can describe the insights that resulted with better recall.
     Both nights, under the effects of the medicine, I experienced the same phenomenon: Whenever I would think a negative or negatively limiting thought, even just remembering how awful the medicine tasted, I would start to "go under" into feelings of anguish and nausea. In order to avoid puking my guts out, and worse, I found myself practically required continuously to have positive thoughts and feelings—gratitude, blessings for all around me, love, "yes," "aum," and meditation on the breath kept me on top of things and in balance, and everything was very intense, but lovely. (I also found that the desperate prayer/mantra "Dear God please have mercy" was neutral, and neither helped nor hindered me.) I could see very plainly the dangerous effects of negative and limiting thoughts; and I realized that the same is true in ordinary life, except not so obviously so. The medicine really is not so different from ordinary consciousness, except much more intense, and it just doesn't let you be lazy and ignore it. Sloth and torpor are simply not an option. Your issues are shoved right into your face. It thrusts tapas, viriya, and samvega upon you, whether you want them or not. It's sink or swim; and maybe sometimes it's just sink. If it gets too overwhelming one gets sucked under; and there are some who say that sometimes it's best to be sucked under into desperation and uncontrollable puking.
     I knew that my own mind was in control, whether it seemed so or not. Also, I realized that the same energy that produces negativity, pain, and nausea can just as easily produce gratitude, love and blessings. It's really our own energy, and our own choice; but gratitude and love tend not to be our favorite habits. We want to be lazy and not entirely awake, not entirely responsible for our thoughts, words, and actions, and so our negative habits run our lives for us. With ordinary life we can do this almost indefinitely, but the medicine makes us choose consciously, and if we choose unwisely, we pay. We pay in ordinary life too, but not so obviously and dramatically.
     Another insight was with regard to how profoundly our beliefs condition and limit our reality. If you go outside or reach for the bucket just in case you may vomit, almost certainly you will (or I will anyway), because you have just opened the door for it; you have allowed it. Thinking "This is difficult" reinforces the difficulty of whatever it is; and thinking "I'm messed up" reinforces how messed up one is. If I would think "I'm fine," I would immediately feel better; and if I thought "Gawd this is awful" I'd immediately start spiraling downward. It occurred to me what a treasure hope can be, a feeling that I had never really appreciated before. Hope is an open door, the belief that something is still possible. Only when one gives up hope is a situation truly hopeless. Then the door is closed. At one point I associated this to the situation in America nowadays, with the economy teetering on the verge of national bankruptcy and all the other troubles that are prevalent: I felt like it was because most Americans are so conditioned by materialism that they have lost hope in miracles (except for the miracles of technology, which are not enough to save us). It is as though the door has been closed, and all that remains is mundane hopelessness.
     Another insight: Once we love someone, it is our sacred duty always to love them no matter what; because that is true love. Besides, one of the greatest blessings there is, is for someone to know all about you, to know all your faults, and love you and consider you to be wonderful anyway. To deprive someone of that seems a tragic loss. It just doesn't feel right.
     Still another: Largely because of the mandatory compassion, I felt that the only really enlightened thing worth living for is the reduction of overall suffering. For example, if this blog doesn't uplift people and help them somehow to wake up and be happier, then it is just that much more wallowing in samsara, and a waste of time and effort. It is much easier to be compassionate when one also has fresh experiences of deep pain to relate to. And there is so much hurting in this world.
     It is also easier to be humble when one is a total mess, with snot and vomit dribbling down one's lips, like any number of other people around. That, plus having one's own shortcomings thrust into one's face. One realizes that, for example, if a majority is made more unhappy than happy by one's behavior (which seemed to be the case with me in America), then something should be radically changed. And it can be changed if we take responsibility for our own mental energy, and if we realize how easy it is, and how important.
     Continuing with the story, the first of the two nights was probably the only really pleasant ceremony I've experienced; I went easy on myself, didn't drink too much, and didn't even puke—I mean, eh, "get well." But the second night I tried to push myself a bit: when I felt strong enough I went up for another cup of medicine…but the taste of it was so utterly, indescribably foul that it triggered the gag reflex, and I promptly "get welled" it right back up. It was such a shock to my system that I was pretty much derailed for the rest of the night. I felt too awful to maintain positive mental states, and went into an hours-long bout of crazy, seemingly uncontrollable negative thoughts that had me desperate and at the verge of nausea well into the next morning. Sometimes I reflected that many people in this world are in over their heads like this their whole lives, with no knowledge of a way out. At least I knew that the journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
     Several times people have told me that seeing me sit in meditation during a ceremony helped to strengthen and stabilize them in their own medicine-induced struggles, and often my own meditation has inspired others to meditate. When I was derailed and sick, I kept thinking that the best way I could serve the others was by sitting up and meditating; but often I would lie there thinking, "I'm too messed up. I can't do it." But then I considered that those who are really committed to helping others do it even when they are messed up. Besides, I'm only messed up because I believe I am. It's not too much unless I think it is. Being messed up seemed no valid excuse. I struggled with that idea a lot that night, sometimes forcing myself to meditate cross-legged even when I was so "out of it" that I could hardly manage to sit up or take a drink of water.
     So ayahuasca ceremonies are usually painful, harrowing experiences for me, and while I'm in the midst of one I have absolutely zero intention of ever participating in another one, ever. Ever. But afterwards I have no choice but to recognize the obvious benefits, and that it is very good for a top-heavy person like me to have his heart blasted wide open, and effortlessly to feel deep compassion and blessings for everyone around me, just as they are feeling them for me. I'll probably do it again, if I ever get the chance. The last two nights especially seem to have done me a world of good. 
     These experiences reinforce my opinion, which I've expressed before, that head-oriented "masculine" wisdom certainly saves solitary individuals, but if the entire world is to be saved it will be through more heart-oriented "feminine" wisdom. That doesn't necessarily mean that women will save the world, though, since men can feel love and compassion also, even though it may come less "naturally" to us. So it is worth some hurting, even some desperate anguish, to cultivate it.
     Also I should remind the good reader that the above are my own experiences. Different people respond differently to the medicine. In fact it's fascinating how radically different different people's experiences can be. The ones I don't get are the people who, when asked how their journey was, say "Oh, it was fine. It was lovely." Did they drink the same stuff that turned me inside out? I really don't get that. And one friend of mine has taken it three times without any significant effect.
     Here I would like to make an observation. It seems to me that the radical positive effects of these ceremonies, painful as they may be, are about an order of magnitude beyond what I have observed going on at western Dharma centers and vipassana meditation retreats, except perhaps for beginners trying meditation for the first time. Ayahuasca simply slams the truth at you, and doesn't allow you to ignore it, no matter how uncomfortable or even agonizing it may be. It requires some courage and strength. But it gives us what, deep down, we need to receive.
     Some may argue that ayahuasca is just a drug which distorts "reality," so the effects are thus demeaned, possibly even invalidated. But the brain itself distorts reality. I am reminded of a passage in Dostoevsky's great novel The Idiot, in which the epileptic, Christlike Prince Myshkin reflects upon a mystical state that he often experiences just before the onset of a seizure: 
     "He pondered, among other things, the fact that there was a stage in his epileptic condition just before the fit itself (if it occurred during waking hours) when all of a sudden, amid the sadness, spiritual darkness, and oppression, there were moments when his brain seemed to flare up momentarily and all his vital forces tense themselves at once in an extraordinary surge. The sensation of being alive and self-aware increased almost tenfold in those lightning-quick moments. His mind and heart were bathed in an extraordinary illumination. All his agitation, all his doubts and anxieties, seemed to be instantly reconciled and resolved into a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things. But these moments, these flashes, were merely the prelude to that final second (never more than a second) which marked the onset of the actual fit. That second was, of course, unendurable. Reflecting on that moment afterwards when he had recovered, he often used to tell himself that all these gleams and lightning-flashes of heightened self-awareness, and hence also of 'higher existence', were nothing more than the illness itself, violating the normal state of things as it did, and thus it was not a higher mode of existence at all—on the contrary, it should be regarded as the lowest. And yet he arrived at length at a paradoxical conclusion: 'What if it is the illness then?' he decided finally. 'What does it matter if it is some abnormal tension, if the end-result, the instant of apprehension, recalled and analysed during recovery, turns out to be the highest pitch of harmony and beauty, conferring a sense of some hitherto-unknown and unguessed completeness, proportion, reconciliation, an ecstatic, prayerful fusion with the supreme synthesis of life?' These nebulous expressions seemed perfectly comprehensible to him, though still inadequate. But that it really was 'beauty and prayer', that it really was 'the supreme synthesis of life', this he could not doubt, or even admit the possibility of doubt. These were no weird figments brought on by hashish, opium, or wine, degrading the intellect and distorting the soul. He could judge that soberly once the fit was over. These moments were purely and simply an intense heightening of self-awareness, if he had to express his state in a word, self-awareness and, at the same time, the most direct sense of one's own existence taken to the highest degree. If in that second, in the final conscious moment before the attack, he could have managed to tell himself clearly and deliberately: 'Yes, for this moment one could give one's whole life!' then of course, that moment on its own would be worth one's whole life. He did not insist on the dialectical part of his argument, however: stupor, spiritual darkness, and idiocy stood before him as the plain consequence of those 'supreme moments'. He would not have argued the point seriously. There was doubtless some flaw in his conclusion, that is, in his assessment of the moment, but the reality of the sensation troubled him, all the same. What could one do with this reality then? After all, the thing had happened before, he had managed to tell himself in that second that for the profound experience of infinite happiness, it might be worth his whole life." (translated by Alan Myers, published by Oxford University Press, 1992)
     So what if it is drug induced, so long as it helps us to feel profound compassion, and deepens our self-knowledge besides? That is a priceless gift, and no mere dollar amount could do it justice.