Saturday, June 28, 2014

The One Time I Pounded Another Monk

     Back around February of 2007 I was living in a cave which I named Tapoguhā, which means "Spiritual Striving Cave" or just plain "Hot Cave," take your pick. The cave was on the outskirts of Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery in northwestern Myanmar. Venerable old U Nandiya was still alive then, so there were two of us at the monastery—he lived in a little cabin down by the river, and I lived up on the hill.
     One day when I was in the hot cave I heard footsteps coming toward the entrance, and then someone began pounding on the door (it was a deluxe cave with a front door). A man's voice alternated with the pounding (in Burmese): "Venerable Sir! Venerable Sir!" (boom boom boom) "Venerable Sir!" (boom boom boom), and sometimes he would exclaim something about a "Mandalay Sayadaw" which I didn't quite follow. I called out "khana," which in Pali and Burmese means "moment," and in Burmese can mean "Wait a moment"; but the call was unheeded, and whoever it was continued calling and pounding, pounding and calling: "Ashin Phayah! Ashin Phayah!" (boom boom boom). I called out "khana" again, a little louder, but with the same lack of results. The calling and pounding continued. Thinking, "What, does he not understand Burmese?" I yelled, in English, "Wait a minute!" The voice then began saying, in English, "Yes yes, I understand, wait one moment, yes yes…"
     When I came outside I found three Burmese monks: Two were quiet, serious-looking individuals who looked like stereotypical Burmese forest monks, with their robes wrapped up covering both shoulders, and equipped with goat hide sitting mats and water bottles hanging by slings from their shoulder. I assumed the elder of these two was the "Mandalay Sayadaw." The third monk appeared like a typical village monk, I figured probably a local. His robes were casually slung over one shoulder, and he had an obvious lack of restraint in his behavior. It looked like he had guided the two visitors from a village monastery.
     This third one did almost all of the talking, animatedly explaining that the two quiet ones had read about me in a Dhamma magazine, wanted to meet me, and wanted to meditate in the new cave at the bottom of the hill for twenty days. The person who had donated the funds for digging the new cave agreed with me, that it should be a place for monks who followed the rules of monastic discipline strictly, particularly with regard to money. Technically, one monk who handles money can easily render a place "ritually unclean." A standard example in the commentarial literature is the following hypothetical extreme case: A monk buys a mango with his own money and eats it, tossing away the seed. The seed germinates and grows into a mango tree. A hundred years later, another monk sits in the shade of that mango tree—and commits a dukkata offense for making use of something bought with a monk's money. Lax monks have many options, and strict ones have few. So I had a healthy skepticism with regard to visiting monks, especially considering that about 98% of Burmese monks handle money. On the other hand, this Mandalay Sayadaw seemed pretty serious, and furthermore he was senior to me. 
     So I mumbled something about having to respect Vinaya if one stayed in the lower cave. The village spokesperson quickly assured me that the visitors respected Vinaya. I later realized that by using polite language I was rendering my statement almost totally useless: most monks will say that they respect the rules of discipline, even though most of them don't actually follow them. Anyway, I didn't want to make an issue of it, especially since he was senior to me, and it was only for twenty days, so I went into my cave and got the key. The village monk snatched it from my hand and off they all went toward the lower cave.
     It turned out that the village monk stayed with them, and it was fairly obvious that he was not a strict one. But again, I didn't want to make a scene, and it was only twenty days.
     The first two weeks or so passed uneventfully (which is to be expected for monks practicing meditation). But then one day when I was at the well the village monk approached me and said that he wanted to live in the lower cave always, even after the other two had gone back to Mandalay. I was caught off guard by this information, and was very noncommittal, being like, "Well, I don't know." But after the incident it was clear that having this village monk moving into the cave, which was specifically created as a refuge for strictly practicing monks, or even having him move into the monastery for that matter, was a bad idea. I prepared myself to make an unambiguous refusal if he asked again.
     The next day at the well he reiterated his desire to live in the lower cave long-term, and I didn't bother with politeness, giving him a flat-out No. He was taken aback by this, and offered to live there only during the hot season. He received another flat-out No; in fact I told him that after the Mandalay monks had left he would leave the cave also, not staying another day there. So he said, "Well then, I'll live in the congregation hall." He was moving in on U Nandiya and me.
     After this interaction I sought out old U Nandiya and said to him, "That village monk wants to live here always, but I don't want to give permission." He looked up at me with a solemn look and quietly replied, "He is my brother." I was rendered speechless by this information, so I simply turned on my heel and walked away. 
     That night I did some serious thinking. U Nandiya himself did not give the proverbial tinker's cuss for monastic discipline, but he was an old man, was almost equal to me in seniority, and had lived at Wun Bo practically since his ordination, and I didn't want to make trouble with him. But new monks who ignored Vinaya were another matter. I was senior monk there, and did not want the place overrun by the standard variety of lax village monks. But U Nandiya's brother! Thinking about it, it seemed unlikely that they were really brothers. U Nandiya was about 30 years older, or so it looked. The Burmese will often say someone is their brother, or cousin, or niece, when really they're only good friends or more distantly related. But if U Nandiya considered this monk to be his brother, maybe I shouldn't be too excessively harsh.
     The next morning I walked down to the lower monastery and found that U Nandiya and the Mandalay monks were in the village walking for alms, but that the controversial village monk was there. He was making a mango salad, pretty obviously from mangos he collected himself (as we had no resident monastery attendant who could have made the fruit allowable). When he saw me coming he looked around quickly, apparently looking for someplace to hide the illegal mango salad, but it was too late, so he brazened it out. I asked him if he and U Nandiya were relatives, and he said, in English, "cousin brother." So they were probably cousins, maybe not even first ones. I told him, "I don't want you to live here, but if you are a relative of U Nandiya I will have to be patient." He scowled and harrumphed once or twice during the telling, and then I walked back toward my cave on the hill.
     But the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea of living at the same monastery with this fellow. I really didn't want the monastery to resemble practically every other lax monastery in the area. Sometimes I would refer to him as "the clown monk." During bouts of serious thinking about the issue in my cave, I decided that, U Nandiya like it or no, it would be best to nip this situation in the bud and eject him soon, as the longer he stayed the more roots he would have down, and the harder it would be to dislodge him. Besides, old U Nandiya and I had an unofficial agreement that a visiting monk could stay, even temporarily, only if both of us gave permission. So I decided to hash it out with U Nandiya.
     The next day, two days before the determined twenty were up, I went down the hill and sought out my venerable colleague. I walked past the village monk, who was reading a book near U Nandiya's cabin, and found U Nandiya about twenty feet from where the newcomer was sitting. I shouted to him, because he was very hard of hearing, "That village monk wants to stay here always, but I won't give permission! I want to kick him out!" To my surprise, my old friend's face broke into a wide, almost toothless grin of amusement, and apparently of approval. 
     "Is he here?" he asked, still grinning.
     "He's right over there!" I roared in reply.
     So the two of us walked over to where the unwelcome visitor was reading his book. U Nandiya asked him, "Did you hear?" The visitor said he didn't, which I would guess was not quite accurate, considering that I had been shouting about twenty feet away from him. So, just to make sure, I informed him that he would have to vacate the monastery when the other two left, at the end of their twenty days.
     The village monk coolly replied, "I'll stay."
     I assured him that no, he'd really have to move out when the others did.
     He repeated, "I'll stay."
     Then I warned him that if he didn't leave we were going to fight; and, rather amazingly, he responded with a ready "No we won't."
     He seemed to be working under the traditional Burmese assumption that monks are inviolable no matter what their behavior is like. But he failed to take into account the variable x—that I was a foreign barbarian who didn't have much use for that particular tradition. Also, he made the mistake, I think, of pretending to continue reading his book during our disagreement, making a show of how inconsequential my attempts to dislodge him were. He pretty clearly was trying to take over the monastery, and was already acting like the abbot. Of the two incumbents here, one was old and feeble, and the other was just a foreigner, so he didn't see much problem with accomplishing his aim.
     Anyway, by this point I was starting to lose my temper, and informed him that he was just a clown wearing monk's robes. He waved his hand airily and said, "That has nothing to do with anything." Then he explained to me, in a combination of Burmese and broken English, that the monastery was his (although he waved his hand in a way to include U Nandiya, indicating that his family had special privileges there), and that I was only a visitor. This, despite the fact that I had lived there almost as long as he had been a monk. After he finished his explanation his waved his hand at me and said, still looking down at his book, "Now go away. Go," thereby concluding the interview.
     Again, not looking up was probably a mistake on his part. He might have noticed that during his dismissal I was starting to vibrate and emit sparks, and at one point even impulsively lunged at him, catching myself before actually doing him any physical violence. But right after he said "Go" I snapped, lunged, grabbed him by the front of his robe, and slammed him to the ground as though I were an enraged gorilla. As his head hit the ground the contemptuous scowl on his face was immediately replaced by a look of pain and/or terror. I was too unhinged to be witty, so the best I could manage was to lean over him and tell him, "YOU are the visitor!" Then I stomped away to the well to fill a bucket of water. When I reached the well, which was about 100 feet away, I turned to see that the visiting monk was still lying motionless on the ground. The physical part of the altercation lasted all of about one second.
     Not surprisingly, that evening I was extremely agitated, pacing back and forth in the cave like a caged leopard. I was very unused to this kind of aggressive confrontation. Crazy, adrenalin-fueled thoughts raced through my head as I paced. I was thinking things like, "Am I really going to have to beat him up to get rid of him!? I shouldn't leave any marks on him though. Maybe I could punch him hard in the belly a few times...or maybe I could get him into a double hammerlock and dislocate both his arms, and then fling him into the river…no, he might drown…" 
     Fortunately, as the adrenalin subsided my thoughts became more sane, and the obvious solution presented itself: Demagoguery! All I had to do was make an appeal to the villagers, starting something like, "My friends! My people! I need your help!" I had no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the local villages would be on my side on this issue. 
     So that's what I did. The next morning when I went for almsround I told some of my main supporters about what had happened (and a junior monk aggressively defying a senior one is practically unheard of in rural Burma), eliciting a few gasps, and I was informed that they would report the situation to the village headman. The results were at least as amazing as the altercation the day before.
     I went down the hill to pay my respects to the Mandalay Sayadaw and say goodbye, as they were to leave early the next morning. I didn't find them, but did find the village monk, who gave me a defiant look, and as I searched for the other two he walked behind me clapping his hands loudly, as if trying to startle me, or something. It was obvious that receiving a lump on his head had not persuaded him to leave. He was still quite willing to fight for his position at the monastery.
     Shortly thereafter the headman of the monk's village came to see me, and asked what was the matter. I repeated many of the details I related above. He is a very mild-mannered, slow-speaking man with a perpetual smile stained ketchuppy red by chewing betel, and he assured me in his slow, friendly voice, "Don't worry about anything. I will go back to my village, and I'll collect some men, and we'll all come back here, and we'll throw him out for you. Don't worry about a thing." After politely hanging out a little longer he paid his respects and went back to collect his men.
     Before this I had been rather nonplussed, still wondering how I could possibly evict the fellow; but after the headman left I was walking around cackling like a fiend, thinking, "How can it be this easy!"
     The villagers really outdid themselves too. Before long the headmen of both nearby villages had come, along with at least four village sayadaws, a village medical officer, a group of village elders (who largely came, I suspect, to watch the show), and at least ten young bucks just in case any manhandling was required. In all at least 30 people showed up, with not a woman or child among them—apparently kicking out monks is man's work. 
     On stating my case, one of the village sayadaws who has always been friendly with me asked the embarrassing question, "What Vinaya doesn't he follow?" I didn't really want to be specific, since it consisted of essentially the same rules that almost everyone else in the area doesn't follow, including these sayadaws. I answered that he didn't seem to pay much attention to any Vinaya. I asked the group if they wanted me to accompany them to the lower monastery to eject the unwelcome visitor, but they advised me to stay where I was. He was evicted that very morning, and left in shame, disgrace, and ignominy. The overwhelming support I received from the local villagers was very touching to me. It is a good thing to feel supported and loved like that.
     Afterwards I was warned that I should beware of that village monk, who had a reputation in the village also for getting into fights. One village lady in particular cautioned me that he might jump out from behind a tree someday and stab me, or maybe brain me with a board. (This is a standard way of finishing a fight in Burma; the concept of "fair play" seems rarely to enter the picture in such cases.) But, it turned out that the evicted monk behaved honorably afterwards. After a little while to recover from the shock of it all, he became almost friendly. I respected that in him, and it's good to know that he has good in him. Heck, we all have good in us.
     As an afterword, just to show how karma can work sometimes, I'll mention the first time I saw him after he was ejected from the forest monastery. It was maybe two weeks afterward, and he was still in the recovery phase, and probably still had some significant hard feelings toward me at that point. I was walking to Wun Bo village for alms, and he was coming down the same track, heading the other way toward another village. It's the only time I ever saw him anything like this: He apparently had slipped and fallen in some mud, and had fresh mud all up and down his right side. As we passed on the trail he scowled, and pretended like he didn't see me. Symbolic workings of karma. Strange how things work out sometimes.
     (Written in an airport in Korea last winter)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Trouble with Universal Love

     In the Pali Buddhist texts one will occasionally find an exhortation to radiate love to all beings, i.e. actually to love all beings in the universe, without exception. The most well-known such admonishment is the Mettā Sutta. Other religions also teach love for all beings. But, needless to say, almost nobody achieves total success at this.
     Christianity, although rather more heart-oriented and love-oriented than traditional Theravada Buddhism, has experienced some strange deviations from this teaching of universal love. Even some of the early saints taught that, yes, we should love our enemies and bless those that curse us, as Jesus taught, but the enemies of the Church should be hated. We should love our personal enemies, but not the enemies of Christ. Thus the exhortation to love one's neighbor as oneself would apply only if one's neighbor is also a Christian, preferably a Christian belonging to the same sect as oneself. Recently Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar has seen a similar deviation, with monks teaching love for all beings—except for Muslims, plus maybe Indians. So the teachings of the Buddha are shelved for the sake of religious bigotry, racism, resentment, and general xenophobia. But the scriptures of Christianity and Buddhism obviously teach that, yes indeed, we should love absolutely everybody.
     One less obvious deviation from universal love has been endorsed by such wise persons as, for example, Mahatma Gandhi. This version is succinctly stated as "Love the sinner, but hate the sin." For instance we should certainly feel love for Adolf Hitler, but not for the fact that he started World War II and precipitated the violent deaths of several million people. This seems like an enlightened approach to loving everybody (loving the sinner without the sin, that is, not causing millions of violent deaths). But it seems to me that this approach is based upon a rather confused abstraction, based upon sloppy thinking or unthinking dogmatism, or both.
     How should we love Adolf Hitler? As an abstraction completely divorced from his personality and his actions? And if so, what is left of him to love? Do we say that Adolf had a soul that was his true essence, and which had nothing to do with his volitions, not to mention his crimes against humanity? It's true that some schools of Hinduism endorse the idea of a soul or Atman which makes no decisions and is ultimately perfectly pure; but this is Brahman, or God, and we all share that same one. So loving Adolf like that would simply be loving God, with Adolf himself falling completely out of the picture. There are probably other religions and/or philosophies out there that claim that our essence is not a unified Godhead on the one side, but not associated at all with our misdeeds on the other; but I don't see how such a disembodied abstraction could be loved as the person named Adolf Hitler. 
     Or do we distill out the good parts of his nature, and then hate or ignore the rest? Adolf was certainly an interesting guy. He very probably loved his mother. He probably also loved his dog (even though he killed it, or had it killed, before he committed suicide in the bunker). He had enough gallantry and tender feeling for Eva Braun that he married her the day before they died. He won two medals for bravery in WWI, and obviously was not afraid to risk everything in his determined endeavors to attain his goal. He was arguably a political genius also, albeit a very flawed one. Plus he was a vegetarian who didn't smoke or drink, not even drinking beverages with caffeine. Do we love him for these virtues and ignore all the messy details about his desire to exterminate Jews and other "subhumans" like Slavs and pacifists? Do we love the parts of his personality that were not filled with his Lucifer-like pride and his craving for self-glorification at all costs? If so, then we would be dismembering him and not loving him, but only a part of him. 
     There are some systems, like Christian Science and the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, which assert that anything is real to the extent that it is good; and thus badness is an illusion. So we could say that Adolf's good points were more real than his bad points, and then use that as a way of disregarding the bad. But if we follow this attitude with logical rigor, we will wind up at the conclusion that Adolf himself was an illusion. As Buddhism teaches, any "self," any being at all, is ultimately illusory. So if we are functioning at the level of loving all beings (including Herr Hitler), then we are still functioning at the level of beings who operate in this world, and who might plunge the world into the most catastrophic mass mortality in human history. Like it or not, if we are going to love all beings, we are going to love people like Adolf Hitler too, and that includes his personality and his actions.
     It is very common for people to say things like, "I love him—I just don't love what he does." But personally, I don't see how this is possible, unless we manage it through the aforementioned abstract sloppy thinking. Many years ago I had an epiphany while reading a book on Buddhist logic, which inspired the writing of the first Dharma essay I ever wrote. I realized that our mind works in such a way that we artificially distinguish between the spatial aspect of an entity and its temporal aspect—thus we think in terms of subject and predicate, noun and verb. And so we consider a person and that person's behavior to be two entirely different things. But the distinction of an entity and his/her/its behavior is illusory; it is an artifact of the idiosyncrasies of human perception. 
     Consider it this way: If two things necessarily arise at the very same place and time, and cannot possibly be separated or arise independently of each other, then those two things are really just the same thing, except perceived in two different ways. Thus a person and his or her behavior are necessarily inseparable, and are thus just two ways, spatially and temporally, of looking at the very same phenomena. One might reply that our behavior in general may be necessary, but our specific behavior is not necessary, because it is volitional, and thus optional, in accordance with Free Will. So then Adolf could have chosen not to invade Poland, for example. But this "Free Will" appears to be a logical impossibility, based upon ignorance, bad logic, and religious prejudice. I've discussed this sticky issue in greater detail elsewhere (for example, "The Notion of Free Will," posted 8 July 2012), but I'll sketch out the main line of reasoning.
     Either an event (like our friend Adolf deciding to invade Poland) has a cause, or it doesn't have a cause. That is resting pretty much on the bedrock of logical certainty, so if we reject this statement, then we reject logic—which is always an option, although any kind of persuasive reasoning would thereby be flung out the window. So an event has a sufficient cause, or causes, or it doesn't. Now, if it has a cause, then it is determined by that cause, and is not free. On the other hand, if it doesn't have a cause, then it occurs essentially at random; and although randomness may be called a kind of freedom, it apparently is not what people are talking about when they speak of Free Will. Totally random behavior would be more like an epileptic seizure than the actions of a reasoning, conscious being. Besides, Free Will implies an autonomous entity, or in other words a self, which a good Buddhist cannot reasonably endorse. This last argument may only apply to Buddhists though—Buddhists do not have Free Will. I won't belabor this issue, so I'll just arrive at the conclusion that Hitler's personality traits, decisions, and behavior were just as essential to who he was as his body, or whatever else people would be inclined to identify as "Adolf Hitler."
     Consequently we arrive at the troublesome idea that if we are to love all beings, we must love their thoughts, feelings, and behavior also. If we love the sinner, we must also love the sin. Not only should we love all beings, we should love absolutely everything in the entire universe, including Jews, Slavs, pacifists, and genocide. Not to mention warriors and wars, thieves and thievery, prostitutes and prostitution, factories and pollution, mosquitoes and insecticide.
     One important notion to bear in mind is that loving somebody doesn't mean that we necessarily want to imitate them. A mother can dearly love a child who writes on the wall with crayon or eats mashed potatoes with his fingers, without herself wanting to write on the wall or eat mashed potatoes with her fingers. Just because we love something doesn't necessarily mean that we want to follow along with it. And even though, as I repeat again and again, the essence of love is acceptance, we can lovingly accept something without necessarily endorsing it. So it is possible to love Adolf Hitler, and thus also love the effect he has had upon the world, without endorsing genocide, or German opera music.
     My standard example of this is a flat tire. Let's say a person who loves everything is driving her car (which she loves), and suddenly gets a flat tire. Well, she doesn't sit there thinking, "I accept that the tire is flat, so I'll just leave the car here by the side of the road with a flat tire forever and ever." What she does is accept that the tire is flat, and also accept that the thing to do now is to get out of the car and change the tire. She accepts that her hands and blouse will probably get dirty, that she might even break a fingernail, and that she will be late for whatever appointment she was going to. So we can love the world the way it is while still actively fixing what is broken. A mother can dearly love her only child and still discipline him. 
     The thing is that we can't accept what we are ignorant of, and so we can't love what we are ignorant of, even though love is ultimately effortless. We can't let go of what we're ignorant of either, despite the fact that letting go is also effortless. So understanding is key. 
     The other thing is that to the extent that we understand somebody, we love that person. It goes both ways. We can't really, fully know another person until we knock down all barriers and let them into our chest. Then we see and feel the reasons why they are the way they are. We see that that person, like everybody else, is doing the best he can, and is trying (and failing) to be happy in the best way he knows. We see the connections that made them that way and keep them that way. We may not want to be like them, but we can see how they also, like all else, are a manifestation of divinity, or infinity, or perfection, or "God." The only thing that allows us to hate is barriers, alienation, and ignorance. All of those are one thing.
     So long as we are surrounded by Pink Floyd's Wall, we are closed off and profoundly ignorant, and cannot fully love anybody. If we are fortunate, at least we'll have a door or window knocked through the wall so we can love at least one other person as fully as we can. But when the whole wall comes tumbling down, and we are open and sensitive to everyone and everything around us, completely vulnerable but, paradoxically, completely invulnerable at the same time, then not only do we love absolutely everybody and everything—we ARE Love. 

we really ought to love this guy

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Indo-Greeks

     "'What do you think about this, Assalāyana, have you heard that among the Yonas and Kambojas and among others of the outlying districts there are only two castes—masters and slaves; and one having been a master may become a slave, and one having been a slave may become a master?' 'Even so, sir. I have heard it.'"

     The quote above is from the Majjhima Nikāya (the Assalāyana Sutta, M93). It is a very interesting quote from a historical point of view, because in it the Buddha actually mentions the ancient Greeks. Yona in the Pali language means essentially "Greek"—or, more literally, "Ionian." The Ionian Greeks were the subsection of the Greek people who settled mainly on the west coast of Asia Minor, and who occasionally settled much further east than that. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his notes to his and ven. Nyanamoli's great translation of the Majjhima, asserts that the Buddha's reference is to the Greeks of Bactria. This may be correct, although there is one complication: in the Buddha's time there very probably were no Greeks of Bactria.
     The history of Greeks on the frontiers of India ("India" throughout this article including what is now Pakistan and even most of Afghanistan, in accordance with ancient geography) officially began when Alexander the Great invaded and conquered northwestern India in 326BCE, roughly a century after the time of the Buddha, and he settled colonies of Ionian Greeks there. So if the Sutta is referring to those Greeks, it would be a glaring anachronism. But there are a few other possibilities.
     For example, Persia had among its eastern provinces lands inhabited mainly by people of Indian ethnicity; and in 480 BCE the Great King Xerxes of Persia launched a huge invasion force into mainland Greece, which included soldiers from his Indian provinces. So possibly, Indians of the middle Ganges Valley could have heard of Greeks from these soldiers returning from the Great King's miraculous fiasco of an invasion. (The fact that a few tens of thousands of Greeks successfully defeated an army more than ten times its size, maybe twenty, is an amazing and historically extremely important tale in itself, but it lies beyond the scope of this story. It just goes to show the phenomenal strength of freedom, and what people are prepared to do to maintain that freedom. But enough for here.) 
     Or, there may have been significant Greek colonies near India as a result of some unruly, uppity Greek subjects in Asia Minor (then part of Persia) being relocated to the East as punishment, which the people of the Ganges Valley may have heard about. For instance, according to the ancient historian Herodotus, the Persian king Darius I (roughly 500BCE) relocated the population of a Greek town in Cyrenaica, in North Africa, to Bactria as punishment for refusing to hand over some political criminals. But it would seem unlikely that enough Greek troublemakers would be deported to the Indian frontier to make them common knowledge in the 5th century BCE Ganges Valley. Or maybe merchants or soldiers of fortune had traveled to the opposite end of Persia and met with Greeks, and then told tales of them after returning home to India. But chances are that the reference to Ionian Greeks in M93 really is referring to a kingdom of Bactrian Greeks, or possibly even to a kingdom of Greeks closer than Bactria (Bactria, approximately, being nowadays called Afghanistan). So it's probably a great big anachronism, that is, a relatively late addition to the Pali Canon.
     The Yonas are also mentioned elsewhere in the Pali Tipitaka; for example in the Mahāniddesa, an ancient commentary on part of the Sutta Nipāta, not considered to be a product of "primitive" Buddhism. But the reference in M93 is in a core text, and core texts are considered by many to be reliably the oldest Pali texts we've got. 
     In fact there are many, including a great many Western bhikkhus, who follow the idea that about half the Tipitaka is not really authentic, but that the so-called core texts (first four books of the Vinaya Pitaka, first four Nikāyas of the Sutta Pitaka, and the first several books of the fifth Nikāya—notice Abhidhamma is conspicuously absent from this list) were the texts recited at the first Great Convocation immediately after the death of the Buddha. So the mention of Bactrian Greeks in the Majjhima Nikāya, supposedly by the Buddha himself, is somewhat of an embarrassment. (Incidentally, the Yavanas, as the Ionians are called in Sanskrit, along with the Kambojas too, are also mentioned in the great Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, as members of a standard group of valiant, warlike, troublemaking barbarians who occasionally invade from the northwest—which makes them embarrassingly anachronistic in Hindu literature also.)
     The whole idea that ancient Greeks ruled parts of India is fascinating to me, because ancient India is very interesting, and ancient Greece is also very interesting, so a combination of the two is even more so. Plus the very idea of Gotama Buddha discussing ancient Greeks is downright delectable. And so I'll indulge in a very brief outline of the history of the Indo-Greeks. 
     Very shortly after Alexander conquered Bactria and the area of the Punjab, the great Indian emperor Chandragupta conquered it back from Alexander's successor in the east, Seleucus I—or else he simply traded for the territory with a princess and 5oo war elephants. Either way, Bactria remained in Greek hands, but the Indian territory south of it, along with the Greek colonists there, came under the governance of Indian monarchs. Some time after this the Parthians defeated the Seleucids and re-established an independent kingdom of Persia, which isolated the Bactrian Greeks from the rest of the Greek world in the West. This encouraged a Greek satrap named Diodotus, with the help of Parthian allies, to rebel against the Seleucid king and set himself up as king of an independent Greek Bactria in around 250BCE. 
     Bactria under the Greeks became very prosperous and powerful, and they extended their territory to the west and north, gaining territories in Persia and in Central Asia (what is now called Uzbekistan), reaching as far as the ancient western frontier of China. These Greeks were generally on friendly terms with the Mauryan Empire of India. The Greeks and Indians seem to have gotten along rather well. The Mauryas even had a special state department for attending to the welfare of the Greeks living within their boundaries, and entertained Greek ambassadors. Some of the edicts of Ashoka (the grandson of Chandragupta) are inscribed in the Greek language.
     Around the end of the third century BCE the Mauryan Empire began to collapse, and for various reasons, maybe in part to protect Greek colonists still settled in India, a Bactrian king named Demetrius I invaded Indian territory, sometime around 185BCE. Demetrius, known to the Indians as Dharmamitra, began the Indo-Greek period proper, as opposed to the Greco-Bactrian. He may have invaded as far as the Ganges Valley, but civil war in Bactria caused him to return quickly, before he could consolidate his gains, and he left behind relatively small numbers of troops to secure the territories. He was promptly defeated by a usurper to the throne of Bactria, and was killed. This separated the Greek territory in India, whose leaders pledged no allegiance to the Bactrian usurper Eucratides.
     Eucratides attempted to conquer the new Greek territories deeper in India, and succeeded as far as the Indus, where he was finally defeated and stopped by the most famous Indo-Greek king of all, Menandros I (called "The Savior King"), who may have been originally a general of Demetrius. The Greek territories in India were united and expanded by Menandros, who may have invaded as far as the old Magadhan capital of Pataliputra, on the Ganges, and his established frontier almost certainly extended as far east as Mathura. There will be more to say about Menandros (alias Milinda) momentarily. 

"King Milinda"

     After the reign of Menandros the Greek territories in India became fragmented and weakened, and were finally wiped out around the first century CE by invading Sakas, or Scythians, a large tribe of nomadic horsemen who spoke an Iranian language, and who conquered the area for themselves, adopting much of the Greek culture they found, including worship of Zeus, Athena, and Gotama Buddha. (Their invasion of India was part of a huge chain reaction, started when the Chinese and their allies drove some particularly nasty nomadic tribes away from the western Chinese border, which resulted in a domino effect, radiating warlike nomads to the west and south. This culminated a few centuries later with the Huns invading ancient Rome, thus doing their part to put an end to classical culture…But that's a whole different story.) Greeks continued to live in India as Indian Greek subjects for a few centuries longer, until they finally were absorbed into the Indian mainstream and lost their Hellenistic cultural identity.
     The Greek invasion of India after the Mauryan collapse may have been partly due to the fact that the Bactrian Greeks by this time had largely converted to Buddhism, whereas some of the new Indian governments replacing the collapsed empire favored Brahmanism and were unfriendly to Buddhists. So the Greek kings were mostly well-liked by their Buddhist Indian subjects.
     Getting back to Menandros I, he is probably best known as King Milinda of the Buddhist text Milinda-Pañha, which is included as part of the 40-volume Burmese Pali Tipitaka. I won't give a synopsis of the text, but it is considered by Western scholars not to have been originally Theravadin. Other schools of Buddhism had their own Questions of Milinda, and the Theravadin version is said to have extensive additions. The area ruled by Menandros/Milinda was not Theravada Buddhist territory anyway, but was a stronghold of the Sarvastivada school. But that is not conclusive of anything. 
     According to the text itself, Milinda not only converted to Buddhism after his public interview with the monk Nāgasena, but he actually abdicated, renounced the world, was ordained as a bhikkhu, and even eventually became fully enlightened, with his relics being entombed in a number of pagodas after he died. On the other hand, the Greco-Roman biographer Plutarch also mentions this same Menandros in his Precepts of Statecraft (or Praecepta Gerendae Reipublicae), offering him as an example of wise and benevolent rule, and claimed that he died still a king in an army camp, probably while on a military campaign. Nevertheless, both accounts, Eastern and Western, agree that Menandros/Milinda was well loved by his people, and that his relics were divided and entombed in burial monuments with great reverence. He apparently really did convert to Buddhism, even though his coins continued to show Greek deities on the reverse ("tails") side, especially Athena, which design was copied by some of his successors. The Indo-Greeks apparently combined Buddhism with their traditional paganism, which apparently is the way most cultures adopt a new system, including the modern West.
     In a way the existence of Greek Buddhist kingdoms in ancient India is just an interesting but not particularly useful bit of information. Knowing it very probably won't help our meditation; and one can pretty obviously reach high spiritual levels while being utterly clueless on the topic. But it is nice to know, and the Indo-Greeks apparently did have a significant influence on the path of world Dharma. The Milinda-Pañha is an obvious example, but the influence extended much further.
     For example, the Greeks' acceptance of Buddhism opened the way for Dharma to enter Central Asia, and from there China as well. Some of the early Buddhist missionaries were also Greeks; for example a Yona monk named Dhammarakkhita is mentioned as an important missionary in the Sinhalese chronicle Mahāvamsa.
     Perhaps more obviously significant than this is the effect that Greek culture had on Buddhist art and architecture. Some of the very first Buddha statues were made in the Greek fashion. In fact it has been hypothesized that the strange knob on the head of Buddha images began as a topknot of hair, as Greek sculptors modeled the Buddha on the god Apollo, who at the time was usually depicted with his hair in an aristocratic Greek topknot. The meaning of it was lost, and it evolved into a symbolic flame of wisdom, or just a peculiar lump. Some say that the first Buddha images were made in Mathura, not in more Greek-influenced areas to the northwest, but Mathura itself was included in the Greek sphere of influence, and was probably part of the territory of King Menandros at least. So there's a good chance that Greeks caused the first Buddha statues to be made, directly or indirectly. (The earliest Buddhist art deliberately omitted an image of the Buddha, showing only an empty seat, a footprint, or perhaps a Bodhi tree or leaf, to emphasize the fact that the Buddha was no longer of this world. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if the situation had remained that way, but it didn't.)
     There are even some who see Greek influence in the origins of Mahayana Buddhism. For example the scholar Thomas McEvilley claims that Mahayana is "the form of Buddhism which (regardless of how Hinduized its later forms became) seems to have originated in the Greco-Buddhist communities of India, through a conflation of the Greek Democritean-Sophistic-Skeptical tradition with the rudimentary and unformalized empirical and skeptical elements already present in early Buddhism." I think this may be pushing it, but it's an interesting idea, and may be at least partially true.
     But it seems to me that one of the most important lessons to be had from the Indo-Greek Buddhists is that it proves that an essentially European, Western culture can adopt Buddhism. It is proof that seriously adopting a Buddhist philosophy and way of life is not necessarily just an Asian thing, with a few weird Westerners becoming monks, and some more simply adopting some ideas and techniques while ignoring the bulk of the system. We may be more sophisticated than the ancient Ionian Yonas, having left Athena (not to mention slavery and chariots) behind long ago, but still I like to imagine it—a whole country of Western Buddhists! A Western Dharmic nation! At least it happened once.
ancient Indian silver drachma, with King Menandros and Greek letters on the obverse,
and the goddess Athena and Indian Kharosthi letters,
 allegedly expressing the Pali language, on the reverse

(My main sources of information and inspiration for this article were:
     Tarn, W. W., The Greeks in Bactria and India, second edition (Ares Press, 1985), which I read many years ago
     Warder, A. K., Indian Buddhism, third revised edition (Motilal Banarsidass, 2004), an encyclopedic source of information on the subject of Indian Buddhism in general
     Wikipedia, "Indo-Greek Kingdom" (
     Last but not least, the fact that I once owned a European-looking Buddha head from ancient Gandhara, which my Aunt Betty, an archeologist, dug up in Afghanistan. Once I told a friend that I owned a Gandhara Buddha head, and a few days later a different person came up to me with a cynical, incredulous look and said, "What's this about you saying you owned a gun the Buddha had?")

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Monkey on Our Back (We Just Can't Shake It)

(Special thanks to Doc Neeson and the Angels of Angel City for, totally inadvertently, giving me the idea for the title of this post.)

"Mortal belief must lose all satisfaction in error and sin in order to part with them….Whether mortals will learn this sooner or later, and how long they will suffer the pangs of destruction, depends upon the tenacity of error." (—Mary Baker Eddy)
Set a beggar on horseback and he'll ride to the Devil. (—old proverb)

     In Ledi Sayadaw's book The Manuals of Buddhism, which is always informative, occasionally fascinating, and occasionally stark surreal, the venerable author mentions that, after periods of many, many gajillions of years, the material universe undergoes an inevitable, cyclical collapse, usually being destroyed by fire. At times like this all the sentient beings in that particular universe (including "spirit beings" like ghosts) necessarily are reborn in a very high heaven realm, which is above the physical plane of existence destroyed by the cosmic cataclysm. There are meditators and yogis in this world, India especially, who spend their lives trying to purify themselves sufficiently to be reborn in this realm, and most of them fail; yet now even fleas, mosquitoes, manta rays, goblins, robbers, prostitutes, sword fighters, and sociopathic politicians are necessarily reborn there—even though under ordinary circumstances they wouldn't come anywhere near to meriting such a rebirth.
     The thing is, though, that even though those swamis very much want to get there and can't, the fleas, mosquitoes, politicians, etc. get there and don't like it there. They don't fit in. It's too peaceful and boring there, or too subtle, or something. So shortly after the world system cyclically, inevitably re-evolves, all these refugee beings abandon that heaven realm and plunge eagerly back into the lower realms of devas, humans, animals, and even denizens of hell and the ghost realm. Strangely, they actually prefer it there. They fit in there.
     For those of you who find such a vast, cosmic scale to be too hard to imagine and therefore too hard to believe…here is a much smaller-scale example, taken from ordinary human events, which exemplifies the same general phenomenon. Long ago I read an article about a woman in America who lived in the streets of a large city and spent her days shouting obscenities at passers-by. A group of good people felt compassion for this woman, and tried to help her: They found her a place to live, got her some presentable clothes, and even found her a job working in an office. I don't remember if they also got for her some psychological treatment; maybe they did that too. I saw a picture of her wearing a kind of business dress and sitting behind a desk in her office…and she did not look happy. Anyway, one fine day she didn't show up for work. She didn't show up the next day either, and simply stopped coming to the office. So somebody went out in search of her, and eventually found her standing in the street shouting obscenities at people. She obviously preferred this lifestyle, despite the fact that it was less physically comfortable, and probably less lucrative besides.
     Or here's another example, which probably all of you have encountered in one form or another. A friend is very upset about something, possibly something purely imaginary, like worrying that something terrible might happen, or still clinging to some misfortune that happened many years previously. So you (or I) try to calm this person by pointing out that their unhappiness is unnecessary. The friend then becomes more vehemently, angrily upset, essentially insisting on his/her right to be miserable. If we are trying to comfort them by merely spouting lame philosophy that we ourselves don't follow, then their heated, contemptuous dismissal of the advice is understandable; but even if we see with crystal clarity that the other person is fretting needlessly, and could easily let it go if he or she chose, she or he often disregards the advice, and often becomes even more passionately unhappy in reaction to it. Thus it is generally better to be very careful when giving advice of this nature; a simple hug usually is conducive to less negative results. This case, which manifests in this world every day, also resembles, on a smaller scale, those hell-dwellers kicked upstairs to heaven while the universe is being renovated, and then abandoning that heaven like rats abandoning a sinking ship as soon as their new hell is ready.
     Or here is yet another example. A woman was hypnotized by a person I know, and found herself in a kind of hell realm, accompanied by a benevolent guide, rather like Dante being guided by Vergil through the Inferno. She saw people crowded into a jail cell or cage with iron-looking bars, and the people inside were crying and shouting, apparently wanting very much to be out of there. Then the spirit guide waved his hand through the bars, showing them to be ephemeral. Then he took the woman's hand and waved her hand through the bars. The people inside were trapped in a mental prison of their own creation.
     Or here's still another one. A Buddhist or a Christian or a Hindu is told that if they want to attain the highest state, the highest happiness, they should love everybody (for instance the Mettā Sutta says a wise person loves all beings just as a mother loves her only child). But we don't want to do that. 
     Pretty much all of us are like this. If we found ourselves in that high heaven world Ledi Sayadaw mentioned, we also probably wouldn't like it there, and would leave as soon as convenient. There are no coffee shops in extremely high heaven realms. No sex. No action movies. No pasta. No sex. We also would prefer the world we are in now, probably. We fit in better here. This, apparently, is the place for us.
     And essentially this very same principle explains why we are not enlightened right now. We prefer being a flea or screaming obscenities in the street, so to speak. It is a myth that we are not enlightened because we don't try hard enough or practice hard enough to become enlightened; we are not enlightened for the simple reason that, deep down, we just don't want to be enlightened. We don't feel ready for it yet, for whatever reason, or are simply clueless. We are essentially addicted to samsaric existence; and if we want to Wake Up, we want it halfheartedly, or even tenth-heartedly. If we really wanted to Wake Up, totally, then we would practically be there already. Not being able to become enlightened and not being able to want to become enlightened amount to practically the same thing, maybe even precisely the same thing. If we think we want to Wake Up, but still haven't woken up, then we are kidding ourselves. We may want it a little, but we're not completely convinced yet that we want it. We're like the alcoholic with a bad hangover after his wife has had a crying fit and his boss has threatened to fire him if he doesn't sober up—he may feel like he should stop drinking then; but after the hangover has disappeared, and the wife and boss are relatively calm, he wants to get drunk again. He wants to sober up sometimes, kind of, but not always. He wants to sober up mostly, or partly, but not enough actually to stay on the wagon. He's not 100% sure. Again, being able to let go of Samsara and being able to want to let go of Samsara are virtually identical.
     So, assuming that this assessment of the case is accurate, the purpose of Dharma practice is at least as much to help us to want enlightenment as to help us to attain enlightenment. It humors our self-deception. It says, "All right, that's very good; you want to practice, so practice; here's how to do it," and then we halfheartedly, or for short bursts maybe three-fourths-heartedly, practice meditation and other dharmic practices…which clear our muddy mind sufficiently that we see more clearly why we should actually prefer enlightenment to standing in the street shouting at people. We want Dharma a little, so we practice a little; then our vision becomes clearer so that we want it a little more, so we practice a little more intensively…and thus Dharma slowly, gradually lures us out of our hole, like a kid at a campground patiently luring a small animal with a peanut. Even though enlightenment is ultimately effortless, and could be instantaneous, like right NOW.
     Though actually, the peanut analogy is the success story. Many people who practice some Dharma do so in order to maintain the self-deception—they practice superficially, not deeply enough to alter their perceptions significantly, as a way of persuading themselves that they do indeed want to Wake Up. They may stay in the same rut of "Waking Up" for the rest of their lives, with little progress. Or else, especially in the West, they are trying to reduce stress and to feel better about their samsaric autobiographies while calling it Dharma. Or else, especially in the East, they are simply conforming to a cultural tradition, with no intention of deriving any more benefit from it than to avoid hell, and maybe, hopefully, to be reborn in a better body, with a better economic situation. Ultimately though, there's nothing wrong with any of this. We shouldn't be pointing accusatory fingers at each other, because the fact that we're here is pretty strong evidence that none of us really wants to be enlightened, not wholeheartedly enough to manage it anyway. I'm not OK, and you're not OK, and that's OK. We're all in the same boat. 
     So bless you, and don't forget that it really is a good thing to Wake Up. It's ultimately effortless too. And it's the only way to be totally free of suffering—although the trouble is that we like suffering. We pretty much insist upon it.

This is not found in immaterial heaven realms