Saturday, July 26, 2014


     One of my favorite novels of all time is Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban. The events of the story take place approximately 2000 years after "the 1 Big 1," i.e., a thermonuclear holocaust which resulted in the collapse of modern civilization. At the time of the narrative the people of southeastern England ("Inland") are just in the process of transitioning from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, and the government of the region is led by two men called the "Pry Mincer" and the "Wes Mincer," who travel around the countryside giving puppet shows based on the religion/mythology of the people, the Eusa Story. The book is surreal. It's very strange. Plus it's written in the degenerate English of 2000+ years from now. I figure this last factor alone causes most people who attempt to read the book to give up before getting very far with it.
     I like the book mainly because it's bizarre and imaginitive, and because it's about a world very different from ours in many if not most respects. It doesn't obviously, superficially have much Dharma to it, although Dharma and wisdom may be found literally anywhere, if we are receptive.
     For example, there are some big, obvious reflections on impermanence and dukkha that can be very powerful—not because of moralizing on these subjects, but because of their stark portrayal in the story. There's also another interesting reflection with a clear bearing on Theravada Buddhism; and that is with regard to commentarial traditions. 
     In the story, one of the arcana secretly possessed by the government is a copied description of a painting which depicts the legend of Saint Eustace, originally on a wall in the cathedral of Canterbury ("Cambry"), which is the primary origin of the Eusa story. The religion of the people is centered on Eusa, a great-spirited man who worked for Mr Clevver (or, in more modern terms, a scientist who worked for a morally bankrupt government), tragically split "Addom the littl shyning man" (the atom), and then, after the 1 Big 1 (the nuclear disaster) became a wandering, Cain-like pariah. But the copied legend is as follows: 

The Legend of St. Eustace
The legend of St Eustace dates from the year A.D. 120 and this XVth-century wall painting depicts with fidelity the several episodes in his life. The setting is a wooded landscape with many small hamlets; a variety of wild creatures are to be seen and a river meanders to the open sea. 
1. At the bottom of the painting St Eustace is seen on his knees before his quarry, a stag, between whose antlers appears, on a cross of radiant light, the figure of the crucified Saviour. The succeeding episodes lead up to his martyrdom.
2. The Saint and his family appear before the Bishop of Rome renouncing their worldly possessions and becoming outcasts.
3. His wife is taken off by pirates in a ship; on the right the father and sons stand praying on the shore.
4. St Eustace and his boys reach a river swollen by torrents. Having swum to the opposite side with one of the children, he returns for the other. As he reaches the middle of the stream a wolf runs off with the child he has left. He looks back and beholds a lion in the act of carrying off the other child. We see St Eustace praying in the midst of the river.
5. Fifteen years pass by. St Eustace has recovered his wife and sons and is the victorious general of the Emperor Hadrian, who orders a great sacrifice to the gods in honour of his victories. Eustace and his family refuse to offer incense. We see them being roasted to death in a brazen bull. The Emperor Hadrian stands on the left with a drawn sword in his hand.
6. At the top of the painting two angels hold a sheet containing the four souls; the Spirit of God in the form of a dove descends to receive them into heaven. 
The date of the painting is about 1480; the work is highly skilled in an English tradition and is a magnificent example of wall painting of this date.

     The government, consisting of some grubby semi-barbarians who are much more illiterate than otherwise, try to make sense of this, believing it to be of vital importance in understanding the world's situation, and how to make it right. They see it as a kind of parable or cipher, explaining in mysterious terms the 1 Big 1, and maybe also the 1 Littl 1. The 1 Big 1 was obviously a very bad thing, and nobody wants that again; but a faction in the government is trying feverishly to develop the 1 Little 1, thinking that that might really help civilization to get back on its feet. (The 1 Littl 1, incidentally, is gunpowder—although nobody in the story quite knows what it is or what it does.) Of course they profoundly lack the knowledge necessary to make an accurate interpretation of the Legend. The following account is from a scene in which Abel Goodparley, the Pry Mincer, explains to the narrator and protagonist Riddley his best attempt at an intelligent interpretation.
     Wel soons I begun to read it I had to say, 'I dont even know ½ these words. Whats a Legend? How dyou say a guvner S with a littl t?'
     Goodparley said, 'I can as plain the mos of it to you. Some parts is easyer workit out nor others theres bits of it wewl never know for cern jus what they mean. What this writing is its about some kynd of picter or dyergam which we dont have that picter all we have is the writing. Parbly that picter ben some kynd of a seakert thing becaws this here writing (I dont mean the writing youre holding in your han I mean the writing some time back way back what this is wrote the same as) its cernly seakert. Its blipful it aint jus only what it seams to be its the syn and foller of some thing else. A Legend thats a picter whats depicted which is to say pictert on a wall its done with some kynd of paint callit fidelity. St is short for sent. Meaning this bloak Eustace he dint jus tern up he wer sent. A.D. 120 thats the year count they use to have it gone from Year 1 right the way to Bad Time. A.D. means All Done. 120 years nor they never got it finisht til 1480 is what it says here wel you know there aint no picter cud take 1360 years to do these here year numbers is about some thing else may be wewl never know what.…
     …'XVth century parbly thats old spel for some kynd of senter where they done this thing theyre telling of in this blipful writing. Episodes thats when you do a thing 1 part at a time youve got to get the 1st episode done befor you go on to the nex. Thats how youwl do if youre working chemistery or fizzics. Youwl do your boyl ups and your try outs in episodes, "Wooded landscape with many small hamlets." Wel thats littl pigs innit then theres a variety which thats like a pack or a herd and creatures thats creachers parbly dogs. May be Folleree and Folleroo in that pack who knows. May be them littl pigs is the many cools and party cools weare looking for becaws this here is blipful writing it aint strait. "Meanders to the open sea." Mazy ways to a open see meaning a look see is what I take that to mean. Whatre we follering them mazy ways for? Have a look right here now weare coming on to the nuts and balls of the thing weare coming to the hart of the matter and the Hart of the Wud where them dogs is on the foller of them littl pigs.…
     …'"St Eustace is seen on his knees before his quarry." Which a quarry is a kynd of digging. Whys he on his knees? What brung him down what knockt him off his feet? What come out of that digging? A stag. Wel thats our Hart of the Wud innit we know him wel a nuff. Whats he got be twean his antlers its "a cross of radiant light". Which is the same as radiating lite or radiation which may be youve heard of.'…
     …'Wel we all know from our oan Eusa Story where you fynd the Hart of the Wud youwl fynd a shyning in be twean his horns. Which that shyning is the Littl Shyning Man the Addom. Only in this Legend its callit "the figure of the crucified Saviour". Figure is a word means moren 1 thing and 1 of the things it means is number. Number of the crucified Saviour….
     …'I never thot this Legend ben anything moren a picter story about a bloak with a name near the same as Eusa. Nor I dint know nothing of chemistery nor fizzics then I hadnt payd no tension to it. Any how I wer reading over this here Legend like I use to do some times and I come to "the figure of the crucified Saviour". Number of the crucified Saviour and wunnering how that be come the Littl Shyning Man the Addom. Suddn it jumpt into my mynd "A littl salting and no saver". I dint have no idear what crucified myt be nor up to then I hadnt give Saviour much thot I thot it myt mean some 1 as saves only that dint connect with nothing. Id never put it to gether with saver like in savery. Not sweet. Salty. A salt crucified. I gone to the chemistery working I askit 1 Stoan Phist that wer Belnots dad what crucified myt be nor he wernt cern but he thot itwd be some thing you done in a cruciboal. 1st time Id heard the word. Thats a hard firet boal they use it doing a chemistery try out which you cud call that crucifrying or crucifying. Which that crucified Saviour or crucifryd salt thats our Littl Shyning Man him as got pult in 2 by Eusa. So "the figure of the crucified Saviour" is the number of the salt de vydit in 2 parts in the cruciboal and radiating lite coming acrost on it. The salt and the saver. 1ce youve got that salt youre on your way to the woal chemistery and fizzics of it. Right up to your las try out which is the brazen bull which is to say your brazing boal and the chard coal. But thats all tecker knowledging realy you wunt hardly unner stan it nor I wont wear you out with it. Youve got to do your take off and your run off and your carry off. Which is wrote in the story its the wife took off by pirates and the wolf run off with 1 littl boy and the lion carrit off the other. The wife is the sof and the sweet you see which is took off by the sharp and the salty. Them pirates and wolfs and lions theyre all assits theyre all sharp and biting its all chemistery in there. Them 2 littl boys theyre what they call "catwl twis" which is what you put in to qwicken on your episodes. Right thru that part of it Eusa hes whats lef after the takings hes having his res and due. Finely after the brazing boal you get your four souls which is your 4 salts gethert. Man and wife and littl childer coming back to gether for the las time thats your new clear family it aint the 1 you startit with its the finement of it in to shyning gethert to the 1 Big 1. Mynd you all this what Im saying its jus theary which I mean we aint done nothing with it yet we cudnt cud we we aint had the parper salts and that.'

     Clearly Mr. Goodparley's endeavor is a hopeless case. He gets some of the points right, more or less, like the meanings of depicted and episode, but nobody has any idea of how far, far away they are from understanding the inscription, let alone nuclear physics.
     Yet this kind of ignorant, fanciful interpretation is not found only in fiction. When reading the scene above I was reminded of all the strange interpretations of Genesis and the Book of Revelation that have been published, endorsed, and vehemently believed by all sorts of people, including intelligent, well-educated ones. (I think it would be interesting to see a book anthologizing various interpretations of the Apocalypse of Saint John, or of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis. I assume both books have already been written, and are out there somewhere.) Even movie symbolism, song lyrics—even advertising logos—are interpreted by modern people to suit whatever religious theory, philosophical theory, or conspiracy theory strikes their fancy.
     So it should be no surprise to learn that this kind of well-meaning groping in the dark has crept into even orthodox Theravada Buddhism. The venerable monks who compiled and edited the commentarial literature, thereby laying down the official party line of Theravada, lived several centuries after the time of Gotama Buddha, in a significantly different environment and culture. Most of them were native to Sri Lanka or south India, and were unfamiliar with phenomena peculiar to the Ganges valley many hundreds of years before them. So they were often required to guess when interpreting information in the Pali texts, and their guesses were occasionally blind stabs in the dark, hardly better than Abel Goodparley's. Yet for the most part they were not inclined to specify that they were guessing; the best they would do, occasionally, was to offer more than one possible interpretation. But generally the commentators simply clothed their guesses, or the guesses of those who came before them, as knowledgeable, authoritative explanations.
     I won't fling myself into more controversy than is convenient by giving as an example some arguably cardinal blunder of the commentators, since the more important the tenet that is interpreted (or misinterpreted), the more faithful, conservative traditionalists will be reluctant to acknowledge it. Plus I don't want this to be a manifesto or exposé, only a blog post. So, I'll give as an example a relatively minor case from the Vinaya, or monastic rules of discipline. 
     In the chapter on robes in the Vinaya Mahāvagga, the Buddha allowed six kinds of material for the making of monks' robes: linen, cotton, silk, wool, sāṇaṁ, and bhaṅgaṁ. The venerable commentators, almost a thousand years after the time of the Buddha, declared sāṇaṁ to be ordinary hemp (i.e., cannabis), and bhaṅgaṁ to represent any combination of the preceding five kinds of fiber. However, the interpretation of bhaṅgaṁ to mean a mixture of different fibers would seem to have zero support etymologically or through established precedent; and even sāṇaṁ is hardly likely to mean ordinary hemp.
     Bhaṅgaṁ pretty obviously means hemp, or cannabis; and its interpretation as such in the Pali language is well established. The classical Sanskrit word is also Bhaṅga, and it apparently has a prehistoric Indo-European origin, since in Polish, for example, the word for hemp is pienka. A modern Hindi word for cannabis is bhāṅg, clearly derived from the same ancient term. (Whether the modern English word "bong" is ultimately derived from an ancient Indic language is less certain though—it may come from a Thai word which means "wooden tube.") Incidentally, bhaṅgaṁ is allowed in the rules of discipline for monks to use, as well as a pipe for inhaling fumes—so long as it is used medicinally. Strangely, in the texts there is mention of using bhaṅgaṁ externally for the purpose of inducing sweating. But I digress.
     Sāṇaṁ, on the other hand, is very probably the fiber of sunn hemp, also known as Bengal hemp, a plant which produces rough fiber similar to that of common hemp. The Sanskrit word for the plant is śaṇa. The modern Hindi word for it is san; the English word, derived from the Hindi, is sunn; and even the Burmese name for it is paik san, with the "san" having the exact same etymology as the others. Considering that an alternative name is Bengal hemp, it may be that the plant is native to northern India; and considering that the commentators were living in Sri Lanka and southern India, it seems very plausible that they were quite unfamiliar with the plant. So, like Abel Goodparley, they guessed; and their relative cluelessness on the subject of north Indian botany caused them to guess wrong. But, as often happened, they did not specify that they were only guessing. And so pious traditionalists have taught their students the wisdom of the commentarial tradition without the slightest shadow of a doubt that it is absolutely reliable, and faithfully represents the true meaning of the Pali texts and of the teachings of Gotama Buddha.
     Thus the Pali commentaries may be useful for giving ideas as to the meaning of strange terms that can't be figured out from context—at least they give some idea—and they may be very helpful in untangling knotty word combinations and difficult grammar. Plus they contain some interesting and edifying stories. But they are certainly NOT definitive, as there were apparently some venerable Abel Goodparleys involved in the writing of these texts. So if you are completely stumped with regard to understanding the meaning of a Pali passage, then by all means consult a commentary for a perhaps more educated opinion; but otherwise you may very well be better off trusting your own intuition, common sense, and best guess. Read it as though someone were speaking to you, and understand the meaning that occurs to you naturally and intuitively, and if you don't fully understand, leave it as a riddle and come back to it from time to time. And don't be too sure. That's obviously what the Buddha's original hearers had to do, as they didn't have any commentaries to consult. (But of course the Buddha's ancient disciples were rather more well versed in ancient Indian culture and idiom than we are. Plus they could simply ask the Buddha what he meant.) Not only are significant portions of the Rig Veda now unintelligible even to Brahmin scholars, but there are passages in Shakespeare, who wrote in an early form of modern English, the exact meaning of which modern English scholars are unsure of—and that's not even counting all the contemporary allusions in his plays that we cannot hope to notice, much less understand. So we'll probably never be sure of what all of it originally meant, regardless of commentarial exegesis. Don't trust commentaries any farther than you can throw them. Once you have the parper salts and that, then maybe you will know.

Saint Eustace

Sunn Hemp (Crotolaria juncea)

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Riddley Walker (Expanded Edition), by Russell Hoban (Indiana University Press, 1998)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

How Could Anyone Take Refuge in the Buddha?

     For many years I did not understand how anyone could take refuge in the Buddha. Taking refuge in Dhamma I could understand, as I could see Dhamma printed in Pali texts, and could hear it when it was recited, or when taught by a meditation instructor—or could practice it, and see others practicing it. Also, I could understand taking refuge in the Sangha; I might not be sure if this or that person was a member of the Ariya Sangha (the ranks of those who have at least glimpsed enlightenment), but at least I could take refuge in the community of monks, especially the wise ones. But taking refuge in the Buddha made little sense to me.
     For one thing, the man has been dead for approximately 25 centuries. He is presumably not continuing to be reborn in Samsara, and thus is not even in a heaven realm right now. And according to orthodox Theravada, only the present moment is real; the past no longer exists. So taking refuge in the Buddha would be essentially taking refuge in somebody who no longer exists, who just doesn't exist. 
     But let's assume that the Abhidhamma philosophy is mistaken on the issue of time, and that the past, in its own way, is just as real as the present (which is a theory I am inclined to accept anyhow). If so, then the Buddha still exists in a way…but I have never met the man, have never seen him, have never heard his voice, and simply do not know him. I don't even know what he looked like, since there are no uncontroversial photographs of him of course, and the statues and paintings all look different from each other. Even the similarities in the images are not reliable, since I consider it unlikely that, for example, the Buddha had a large knob on the top of his head. Plus he was a monk, and probably shaved his head; plus he was an Indian man, and if he had hair on his head, he very probably had hair on his face too.
     The situation is reminiscent of a Sutta in which the Buddha makes fun of monotheists who adore a god they've never encountered. He compares them to a man madly in love with the most beautiful woman in the world, yet he's never met her and has no idea what she even looks like, much less what her personality is like. Taking refuge in the Buddha struck me as a rather similar case. 
     To complicate matters, the details of his life story, and also what he actually taught, are obscured by centuries of accumulated legends, mythology, and editorial tinkering with the texts by ancient monkly editors. The whole story of his having been a royal prince, for example, is likely to be an unlikelihood, since the historians claim that the city-state of Kapilavatthu was a kind of oligarchic republic, governed by a quasi-democratic council of aristocrats or high-status elders. It is very difficult to know, perhaps impossible to know, what the Buddha was really like, or even precisely what he taught, even if he, and the past in general, actually exist somehow. Taking refuge in the Buddha seemed like taking refuge in a ghost, or in a guess, or in a figment of an unenlightened imagination.
     Some Mahayana Buddhists have an easier time of taking refuge in Buddha, since many of them consider the Buddha to be a kind of God presently living in some kind of high heaven realm, and not only take refuge in him but pray to him also, rather like Christians adoring and praying to Jesus, God the Son, sitting on the Throne of Glory in Heaven, surrounded by hosts of worshiping angels. But for Theravadins the Buddha was a man who attained Nibbana, i.e. complete enlightenment, and so no longer exists in this or any other world. He has blown out, like an extinguished flame.
     It is true that many Theravada Buddhists also not only worship the Buddha, but pray to him also. I once knew a Burmese doctor who prayed to the Buddha frequently. I asked him why he prayed to the Buddha, since the Buddha no longer exists and couldn't hear him, and he replied that Lord Buddha could look into his future (our present) and see the fellow praying. But, technically, even a fully enlightened Buddha cannot see into the future, since technically the future just doesn't exist yet; the best he could do is to predict that the good Burmese doctor would exist, and would pray to him, and also predict what he would most likely pray for. The whole idea of taking refuge in Buddha (let alone praying to him) struck me as a kind of emotional, devotional thing, largely based on religious sloppy thinking.
     One idea that would occasionally, momentarily arise is that we take refuge in the Buddha by honoring and trying to follow what he taught—but of course that's Dhamma, the second refuge, not the first. So that doesn't work. Being a Westerner who thinks too much and doesn't just follow along with what other people are doing, I couldn't make sense of the situation.
     Then, just a few years ago, during my attempted reentry into American society (i.e. after I had been a monk for more than twenty years), it occurred to me that I could take refuge in the Buddha by taking refuge in the very idea that a human being can become enlightened. The Buddha represents the possibility of enlightenment, "in the present way of things," in this very life. 
     I think some Buddhists have done Buddhism a great disservice by practically deifying the Buddha, turning him into a kind of manifestly superhuman being. It is human nature to glorify our objects of respect and magnify them into something as adorable as possible, so this is very understandable; but one of the most important things the Buddha taught (and probably what Jesus taught also) is thereby de-emphasized—he taught, essentially, "I am a human being, and I attained this state, so you as human beings can do it too. You can be like me if you really want to." Even the Theravada Buddhists, though constrained to admit that Gotama Buddha was a specimen of Homo sapiens, have bestowed upon him not only great superhuman psychic accomplishments but also some very strange physical traits that set him very much apart from the rest of the human race, for instance a claimed physical height of seven or eight meters. (On the other hand, although I consider it a mistake to deify the Buddha, I also consider it to be a mistake, very probably a much bigger one, to follow a common Western academic approach and degrade the Buddha into little more than a brilliant, charismatic, and humanistic social reformer, with "enlightenment" being either a relative term or a quaint Indian myth. Using monotheistic mystical jargon, an enlightened being has merged his or her spirit with the Spirit of God, or Reality, even though he or she as an individual being is a person, not a deity.)
     So the Buddha, in addition to being a quasi-historical figure and the founder of my "religion," is for me a shining example of the possibility of enlightenment. What he taught to help others become enlightened also, or at least to get as close to that state as possible, is Dhamma, the second refuge. And all the people (and other beings) who sincerely try to follow his instructions for the sake of this enlightenment (or at least for getting as close to it as possible) are the Sangha. If you have other interpretations that work for you, that's fine. But if you do take refuge in the Three Treasures I suggest that you think carefully about what you are taking refuge in. "Religious sloppy thinking" may help you to feel good, and give you a feeling of satisfaction, but it may keep you at the level of taking refuge in a figment of an unenlightened imagination. And, as I've already mentioned, that never made sense to me. Although, in a sense, this entire world is a figment of our imagination.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reflections on American "Protestant Theravada"

     In a previous post ("Dilemmas of Spirit," 24 May 2014) I discussed some dilemmas which are practically inevitable to spirituality and spiritual systems, and one of those that I discussed was this: We must choose between wise, spiritually advanced systems that are so advanced that very few people can successfully practice them, resulting in great benefit for only a very few; or on the other hand relatively elementary systems that are so easy to understand and follow that almost anyone can practice them, although with almost none of them coming anywhere near to liberation as a consequence. So either way, benefits are minimal—either big benefits for a tiny minority, or small benefits for the great majority. Furthermore, there is an additional sub-dilemma that, over time, the first type of system tends to degenerate into the second.
     Gotama Buddha, needless to say, was an extremely wise person; and it appears that he set up his system, known to the West as "Buddhism," in such a way as to transcend the aforementioned dilemma, and to avoid the sub-dilemma. What he did was to establish a system with two levels: Those who were willing and able to strive for full Enlightenment in this very life entered the Sangha and renounced home life, renounced worldliness, and became wandering, vagrant, radical ascetic meditators; while those who were not willing and able, yet who were willing to support those who were, and who had the humbler intention of just attaining a better situation in Samsara (like heaven or a good human rebirth), remained in lay life and practiced morality and generosity. Thus Dharma encompassed both horns of the dilemma, allowing its followers to follow a Path to total Liberation or a lesser, yet still wholesome and praiseworthy, Path to Heaven.
     This system, although set up carefully and wisely, has degenerated in Asia somewhat over the centuries, largely because the Sangha became more a kind of secular priesthood than a community of ardent spiritual seekers striving for Enlightenment. On the other hand, in the West, especially in America, this bilevel system has been largely rejected with indifference, or even with contempt. American Theravada seems to be aiming for a "middle way" between unworldly renunciation and just settling for a better rebirth—but it falls between two stools, or perhaps falls far to the left of the lay-life stool, considering that meditation is taken up at an elementary level, but the lay virtues of keeping precepts and practicing generosity, especially generosity to renunciants, are largely abandoned by the majority. The result is mediocrity, sometimes smug mediocrity, with, as before, transcendental or liberating benefit for almost nobody.
     This rejection of the distinction between Sangha and the lay community, for some even a scornful rejection of an ordained Sangha at all, has many contributing causes, not the least of which are humanism (which encourages the idea that we are all equal and equally worthy of respect), materialism (which contributes to lack of faith and general lukewarmness, as well as to the idea that everyone should do some worldly work for a living) and consumerism (which results in addiction to comfort and convenience, and resentment of serious practices like renunciation); but I do not intend to catalog the whole slew of contributing factors. Instead I'd like to emphasize one factor that to most American Buddhists is probably invisible: and that is our Germanic, Protestant Christian cultural conditioning. 
     Our cultural conditioning tends to be invisible to us. When I moved to rural Burma it struck me that Burmese villagers have no idea that their beliefs and behavior are so very obviously culturally conditioned. Then I went back to America, and it struck me that American Buddhist meditators have no idea that their beliefs and behavior are so obviously culturally conditioned. Probably all but a relatively few humans are aware of how culturally conditioned they are—mostly some educated, open-minded cosmopolitans who have been immersed in multiple, very different cultures. But even they tend to be oblivious to most of their human conditioning. It is extremely difficult to see ourselves objectively.
     Even so, English-speaking Americans, and many Europeans also, are practically soaking in Protestant Christian cultural conditioning, regardless of whether they profess Protestant Christianity. For example, the English language shapes how Americans think, and the language itself is shaped significantly by traditional Protestant attitudes and assumptions. It is probably easier to discuss Protestantism than, say, Buddhism in the English language. We tend to think like traditional Protestants regardless of whether we sit in yoga posture and practice mindfulness of breathing. 
     This conditioning is invisible partly because our thinking mind is shaped by it, and we were raised into it; and it is also invisible partly because its roots extend all the way back to ancient Germanic culture. American culture is based mainly on English culture, and English culture (as opposed to Celtic Brittonic) began with Germanic culture. Probably most people do not realize that the English language, linguistically speaking, is Germanic. Old English was a dialect of Old German.
     The warlike nature of German and Germanic peoples has made them prime villains in the history of Western civilization. (For example, they were of great help in collapsing the decayed Roman Empire and ushering in the Dark Ages, and in much later times were instrumental in bringing about the two World Wars.) So it is intriguing that now the German people appear to be one of the most peace-loving of nations. Tiu, the Germanic god of war, must be rolling in his grave. But the Germans, including the ancient, spear-wielding ones, certainly were not all bad. In addition to violence, emphasis on heavily armored cavalry with lances, and the origins of feudalism, they also added to European culture ideas of freedom, equality, and the dignity of the individual that had formerly existed in the republics of Greece and Rome, but which had gradually given way to more Eastern-style despotism. They did much to restore these ideals, although at first mainly among the fighters. 
     These egalitarian principles influenced the Germanic approach to religion—and it is no coincidence that the Germanic nations of Europe (including England and the Scandinavian countries) are where the Protestant sects of the Reformation arose and thrived, while the nations which still spoke languages derived from Latin remained primarily Roman Catholic. 
     Protestantism did not arise simply from Germanic ideals. There were other factors too, including a decline in the prestige of Catholicism due to corruption, schism, and the fact that the Church was not of much help during the plagues of the 14th century. Another factor was the rise of a capitalistic middle class—although this also was largely a Germanic development. Even the great bankers and merchants of medieval Italy were descended from Lombards and Goths, both Germanic tribes who invaded Italy after the collapse of Rome. Even the invention of gunpowder had an indirect effect. Everything is interconnected.
     Much like the newly developing urban business class in India supported Buddhism, so the new businessmen of Europe supported the new Protestant sects, which endorsed ideas and attitudes more compatible with city people engaged in making money. Also of course there were rulers ambitious to reinforce their power by weakening the influence of the Pope; but Protestantism began as a peculiarly middle-class and somewhat materialistic approach to Christianity. So it should be no surprise that in the course of history it became integrated with such other cultural events as the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Capitalism. 
     The new Christians, with pronounced Germanic tendencies, wanted less stratification of the classes of society, and in particular no spiritual elite who would act as middlemen between the common man and God. They wanted to reconcile spirituality with living a worldly life and making a buck, or a guilder, or whatever. Thus it is no coincidence that one of the first and most basic innovations of Protestantism was to abolish monasticism. Monks and nuns were sneered at as useless parasites on society, or as superstitious bunglers. John Milton, a good Puritan, relegated deceased monks and nuns to a limbo beyond the cometary halo of the solar system in his great religious poem Paradise Lost. At least he didn't consign them all to Pandemonium, in Hell. 
     In addition to little respect for monasticism or renunciation, other characteristics of Protestantism included less faith in saints and miracles, disapproval of elaborate rituals and spectacles, more pragmatic worldliness, and less emphasis on emotional faith. The new sects began as zealous reform movements and involved deep conviction, but gradually over time most of them (but not all) became more reason-oriented and thus, inevitably, more lukewarm.
     One unintended result of the relative loss of stratification within the system is that everyone tended more toward spiritual mediocrity—especially after the aforementioned first glow of zeal wore off. And possibly the logical conclusion of this development was the lack of emphasis on the highest goal. Whereas Catholic monastics in places like Spain were still striving to purify themselves through ascetic practices and meditation, the lukewarm-tending urbanized Protestants figured their membership in the organization and the following of its rules were good enough—plus of course declaring Christ as their savior. The highest goal of "You must make yourselves perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect" fell by the wayside, or got choked by worldly weeds; although there was in some groups still the possibility of "sanctification," or of being Born Again (like George W. Bush was, for instance). This all didn't happen immediately upon Martin Luther nailing his theses on the door of a church in Saxony, but it obviously was well established by the beginning of the twentieth century. Even before the twentieth century some writers had already commented upon the marked difference between Protestant church congregations and Catholic ones: the Protestant ones were much more likely to read their hymns as though reading from a laundry list, and the Catholics much more likely to be weeping tears of profound emotion. This difference in inspiration occasionally resulted in the controversial conversion of a high-profile Protestant, like John Henry Newman, to Catholicism. 
     The resemblance of American "Vipassana" lay Theravada and Protestantism near the bottom of its slide should be fairly obvious. In fact it seems clear that American Theravada more closely resembles American Protestantism than it does Asian Theravada. This is largely because both, American Theravada and Protestantism, conform to the same secular culture, but it's also true that the secular culture itself is conditioned by Protestantism. As pointed out above, American secular culture has roots extending back to ancient Germanic cultures, and Germanic culture and Protestant Christianity are inextricably mixed. It is difficult to say what is Protestant-influenced because it is Western, and what is Western because it is Protestant-influenced.
     American Theravada seems not to have enjoyed the honor of beginning with a zealous, non-down-slid phase. It has, practically right off the bat, resembled Protestantism in its much less pristine forms. There is little danger of decline, since it has begun with an already declined, lukewarm Protestant mindset. Some American Buddhist insight societies, only a few decades after the origination of the system in the West, are hardly any more spiritually inclined than a Presbyterian coffee-and-doughnut club with a weekly movie night. No renunciation. No saints or miracles. No highest goal, other than occasional lip service. Even coming together and hashing out lapses from virtue, or marital problems, or other painful issues among its members, as many Protestant congregations still do, is probably alien to the average American Vipassana community. The main purpose seems to be stress reduction and higher self esteem; and though there's nothing necessarily wrong with stress reduction, true Dharma extends infinitely beyond it.
     Add to all this the American emphasis on individualism, and its resultant "self view," egocentrism, and alienation; the effects of consumerism (its power over our minds strengthened by teams of psychologists working for advertising agencies, striving scientifically to persuade us that we need what we'd really be better off without); the true religion of the West now being scientific materialism, which degrades all spiritual systems to a watered down second-place subsystem at best; and we've got ourselves a spiritual situation that is pretty much comatose. 
     We really shouldn't blame human beings for being human. Is a tiger wrong for killing wild pigs? Is a dung beetle wrong for making its babies eat poop? Why blame Americans for thinking and acting like Americans? We all have our good points too, of course. As a Western humanist might point out as easily as an Eastern mystic, we're all miracles. There's no need for blame. But still…certain characteristics of American culture are resulting in Theravada being practically stillborn upon arrival. Asian Buddhism certainly has its fair share of corruption and laxness, but what is often called "Sangha" in America is generally lower in faith and morality, if not in meditation, than the Dharma of a Burmese lay villager. I've been told that Jack Kornfield sometimes says that when the laypeople of Spirit Rock assemble together, Spirit Rock is "the largest monastery in North America"—if so, the largest monastery in North America has almost totally rejected renunciation, austerity, and the true essence of monasticism, or Sangha.
     There are many exceptions to this rather bleak depiction of decadent-upon-arrival Western Theravada. The Western monasteries, though quite posh by traditional Asian standards, are inhabited by sincere practitioners; and their Western supporters are just as worthy of praise in their own way. Also, some non-monastic meditation groups are much more dedicated and serious than others, with some even requiring the keeping of five precepts in addition to regular meditation and study. Plus there are lone individuals to be found everywhere who decline to follow along with the majority (the majority of Vipassana meditators even, not just the majority of people at large), and whose integrity and innate sanity inspire them to try as energetically as they can, making the cultivation of enlightenment their highest priority in life. These people may be saving the world.
     But for Theravada in the West to thrive while still bearing some resemblance to what the Buddha actually, originally taught, and while still having the same highest goal, i.e. Nirvana in this very life, a radical paradigm shift will be required. Major, fundamental perceptions, culturally conditioned assumptions that we as modern Westerners were practically born with, will have to be outgrown, or at least changed somehow. Either "Protestant" Theravada will have to give way to a more viable form of Dharma, or else it will have to become more puritanical, closer to the early, more zealous and inspired forms of Protestantism, in which the followers of the system were not only willing to be inconvenienced, but even willing to die through refusal to compromise the exalted principles that they revered and followed. As it is now, the West's greatest hope for Dharma is for it to be adopted whole-heartedly (or at least three-fourths-heartedly) by some radical countercultural movement. And at present it looks like that would be most likely to happen in response to a massive, chaotic upheaval in Western society. Most folks need to be beaten over the head with something, preferably Truth, before they become willing to change their ways. Even so, let's get on with it. It's time to Wake Up.

Chlodowig becomes a Christian

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Letter from a Monk to His Ex-Girlfriend's Mother

     This letter was written a little less than a year before my return from exile, to the mother of my ex-girlfriend (the main girlfriend I had before I became a monk). She was one of the few friends I still had in America, and aside from my own mother was the only one who stayed in touch. She's not a Buddhist, bless her heart, so the letter touches upon spirituality from rather non-Buddhist angles. 

13 JUNE 10
Dear S______,
     Howdy. The last time I wrote to you was around October of last year, but I received no reply, so I don't know whether or not you got it. (It was the one giving conclusive proof that Ronald McDonald had converted to Islam and was trying to conquer the world.) Actually, I haven't received any foreign mail from anybody in almost a year, and am starting to suspect that all of my mail is being intercepted and confiscated nowadays. The last letter I got from you, last summer, had been slashed open and inspected, and the letter along with the shredded envelope were delivered in a plastic bag. Usually when that happens there is a little note explaining that the letter was "accidentally damaged" in transit. Paranoia will destroia! Many years ago somebody sent me a book in a padded envelope, and before I got it even the padding in the envelope had been ripped open and inspected.
     Last March I moved to a monastery up in the hills near Shan State, mainly to get away from the blazing heat. When I got here the only other monk who lives here told me that at this monastery the electricity works 24 hours a day. I immediately disbelieved him, thinking that in Burma it's just not possible, and was right. Today, for example, the power has been off all day long, with the exception that around 10:30a.m. it came on for about ten seconds and then went back off again. It's pathetic. About a week ago the power apparently stayed on for two days in a row, which was a very memorable occurrence. I felt like I ought to tell somebody about it. Oh! The electricity just came on again. Now it went back off again.
     Another reason why I moved to this monastery is that I figured communications would be better here on account of it's much closer to a town, but I was wrong. The resident monk of this place is so......that almost nobody can live here for very long, and there are very few visitors or supporters coming here any more. (I don't know why he likes me, considering that he has hated better monks than I am, and that people less ornery than him have thoroughly despised me.) So, I have approximately zero connections here. How I'm going to get this letter sent to you I don't know. Back at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery I was the big cheese—the abbot I mean—and one of the most famous and respected people in the area, while here I am nobody in particular, which is better for a monk I suppose, but it takes some getting used to. It may be good practice for when I go back to America. Gawd willing, if I don't die first. 
     I sincerely hope that you're not going to renig (renege) on your wonderful offer to help me get out of Burma. As you may imagine, I've gotten rather tired of living in this country. In the last letter I wrote to you, which maybe you didn't get, I told you about the Big Plan, the latest version of which is as follows. Around next November, give or take a month, I'll try to go to Rangoon, make some inquiries, and call you on the phone so we can discuss details. I don't think it's possible to call collect from Burma, so I'll call you quick, give you a phone number to call me back, and then hang up and let you call me back. (Overseas phone calls are very expensive from Burma, and my supporters can't easily afford it.) It may not be necessary for me to ask you for a (one way) plane ticket though, as I may be able to wangle that at this end somehow. Anyhow, the plan is to fly into Sea-Tac airport around April or May of 2011 with zero money and some heavy luggage, so hopefully someone could meet me there. Then the next part of the plan relies heavily on my old buddy Mucus Man (by day he's Mucus McKane, mild-mannered meatcutter from a major metropolitan meat market). If he's willing and able to put me up at his digs in Bellingham for maybe a month I could investigate the possibility of living as a monk long-term in Bellingham, or thereabouts. I came up with a brilliant idea—put an ad in the paper! Advertising can be very effective. If that doesn't pan out, then the next step is to try that monastery in Canada that I wrote to you about. I finally found out something about it—it's called Birken Forest Monastery, is in a Thai tradition, and is near Knutsford, BC, which is near Kamloops, which is somewhere NE of Vancouver. I've written to the monk(s) there, but I haven't found a way of sending the letter yet. If that place doesn't work out either, then the Big Plan crashes and I don't know what I will do. We'll have to wait and see. As I requested in the last letter which maybe you didn't get, and as maybe you've already done, it would be very good if you would pretty please with sugar on it contact Mucus Man (his real name is insignificant) and find out how he feels about his part in the Big Plan, considering that I may be moving in on him with him being essentially my attendant for a few weeks. He's a good friend, but he never writes. Maybe he has dyslexia or something. He came to see me here in Burma some years ago. His phone number is _______, or at least was five years ago. (Ha, shame on me for trying to get you to humiliate yourself by asking for someone named "Mucus Man" on the telephone. It would serve me right if his phone number has changed and you are unable to ask for directory assistance.)
     When I got to this place, x (←This doesn't mean anything) in the building where I'm staying (I don't live in caves any more) I found a stack of Reader's Digest magazines from the 50's, 60's, and 70's. More than a third of them are older than I am. Anyhow, naturally, I systematically worked my way through the pile. It's kind of interesting to see how the attitudes of the mainstream have changed over the last several decades. The most obvious change was around 1970, when rock 'n' roll, hippies, and the Civil Rights movement finally challenged "The Establishment" enough to change the direction of American society. It's about then that Reader's Digest starts looking really modern. Before then all the guys in the magazine, especially the advertisements, look like Ward Cleaver. There's one story in the January 1970 edition (Hong Kong version) that I really like for some reason. It's called "Now...While There's Still Time" by Edward Bartley.

~   ~   ~

     "Missy," I called to my wife, "did you smear Vaseline on the top of my desk?"
     "No, honey. Meghan probably did." Just like that. Calm. As I feared, she had missed the carefully honed, double-edged irony of the question. I knew she hadn't put it there. The question was rhetorical; its only function was to make clear to her that she hadn't done her job: defend my desk against the aggressor.
     I abandoned the conversation. I would deal with Meghan, our 22-month-old daughter, later.
     All that was yesterday. Today I sit here at that same rolltop desk, which I salvaged from a friend's attic two years ago, and stare at the blank sheet inserted in the typewriter. I wait patiently for ideas to come to me, exam questions on Herman Melville for a test I will give my English students tomorrow. My wife is off to a reunion somewhere, but I am not alone. Our two children keep me company. Ten-month-old Edward cooperates to some degree; he spends most of his day poring over a seemingly endless array of cards, tags, assorted pieces of paper, and a Sears, Roebuck catalogue which he tears apart page by page. Occasionally he leans out and flails madly at the piano, which he can just reach.
     But it is Meghan whose plans have been destined from all eternity to clash with mine today.
     She follows a daily routine that is both time-consuming and challenging. It includes certain basic tasks: Watching the "grop." (That would be the fish; I cannot explain the derivation of the word beyond that.) Sweeping the rug in her room and her crib. (Yes, Meghan sweeps her crib.) Sitting for a few minutes on the bottom shelf of the bookcase to determine whether or not she still fits there. (She fit yesterday and the prospects look good for tomorrow.) Checking periodically on Edward—joining him, perhaps, in a brief duet. Climbing in and out of the stroller for practice. Testing the sofa springs.
     Her constant companion through all this is Dumpty, a shapeless rag doll whose best days are far behind him. A year ago he was well-stuffed and bursting with good cheer. His perpetual smile endeared him to Meghan immediately. She provides his transportation; he provides her security. The filthier he grows, the more she seems to rely on his wisdom and homespun philosophy. 
     About a week ago my wife put Dumpty into the washing machine, hoping at least to make him recognizable. We were not ready for the emaciated creature that emerged. Dumpty had been disemboweled during the rinse cycle. My wife spent 20 minutes picking his foam-rubber intestines out of the machine. We thought that Meghan might discard this mere shell of a Dumpty. We were wrong. There was no detectable difference in her relationship with him, except that she found him easier to carry while performing her chores. 
     I can do my own work fairly well during most of these chores, and so I concentrate on Melville. ("Discuss the similarity of the alienation theme in Bartleby the Scrivener and Kafka's Metamorphosis.") I am on my way. Unfortunately, I had not counted on the arrival of the "bib-bibs." ("Bib-bibs" are birds. Again the derivation eludes me.)
     "Bib-bibs, bib-bibs!" shrieks Meghan, her eyes alive with expectation. She insists that I come with her to the window. 
     "In a second. Just let me finish this question. Have you read Kafka's Metamorphosis, Meghan? You haven't? You'd really enjoy it."
     The sarcasm leaves no mark, and she pulls me by the hand (two fingers actually) toward the bedroom window. I see myself as a slow-wit in some Southern novel, being led oaf-like to watch the bib-bibs. And we do watch them. They chatter incessantly and leap abruptly back and forth on the lawn just outside our apartment window. Meghan is absorbed, but as I watch them I wonder whether I parked the car under a tree last night. 
     Suddenly she bolts from the room (she seldom walks) and I hear her naked feet slapping against the wooden floor outside. She returns with Dumpty. She holds him up to the window, stretching him out by his two pathetic, triangular arms and whispering into his non-existent ear, "Bib-bibs, Hindy, bib-bibs!" Dumpty smiles. It's a much wider smile than it used to be.
     I leave them in conversation and return to my desk. Within five minutes she appears before me, wearing her mother's shoes. She reaches up to the typewriter keys and depresses four of them simultaneously. 
     "No, thank you, Meghan. Daddy's seen your work. He'll do it himself."
     She backs off. Out of the corner of my eye I can see her in the kitchen, watching the grop swim around in his circular world. I can see that the water in his bowl needs to be changed. 
     Back to the test. Determined. ("Discuss illusion and reality in Benito Cereno.") 
     "Don't even ask, Meghan. Not today." She stands in front of me with her shoes and socks in her hand. I know the pattern. First the shoes and socks. Then the stroller. And pretty soon we're in the park. She'll want me to pick her a dandelion, or a leaf from that tree the hurricane knocked over but didn't uproot a few years ago. And she'll clutch that leaf or dandelion the way she always does when we walk to the park. Oh, yes, I know the pattern.
     She rests her head on my leg, just as she did when she first learned to walk. She used to bring her plastic comb or her hairbrush (once it was a toothbrush) and rest her head on my leg while I combed her hair. That ritual, however, ended after only a few months—much too soon for me.
     Finally she leaves, and I watch her frustration as she sits on the floor and tries for several minutes to put on one of her socks. The art proves too elusive. In years to come she'll put on stockings or leotards with the ease and grace of a ballerina. But today a tiny pair of socks defeats her. 
     She sees me looking! Back to work. ("What is the significance of the motto carved on the bow of Benito Cereno's ship?")
     She pats the wicker chair, the comfortable one we sit in together to watch TV or to read, and she hastily gathers her books—The Poky Little Puppy, The Magic Bus, The Cat in the Hat, even that ancient copy of National Geographic with the penguin on the cover...Good Lord, she's got them all.
     With her free hand, she tugs at my sleeve.
     "No, Meghan," I snap irritably, "Not now. Go away and leave me alone. And take your library with you."
     That does it; she leaves. She makes no further attempt to bother me. I can finish the test easily now without interference. No one trying to climb onto my lap; no extra fingers helping me type. 
     I see her standing quietly with her back against the sofa, tears running down her cheeks. She has two fingers of her right hand in her mouth. She holds the tragic Dumpty in her left. She watches me type, and slowly brushes the tip of Dumpty's anemic arm across her nose to comfort her.
     At this moment, only for a moment, I see things as God must—in perspective, with all the pieces fitting. I see a little girl cry because I haven't time for her. Imagine ever being that important to another human being! I see the day when it won't mean so much to a tiny soul to have me sit next to her and read a story, one that means little to either of us, realizing somehow that it is the sitting next to each other that means everything. And I see the day when the frail, loyal, and lovable Dumpty will vanish from the life of a little girl who has outgrown him.
     I resent Dumpty for an instant. He's consoling my girl, and that is my concern, not his. She and I have few enough days like this to share. So the paper slips gently into the top drawer, the hood slides over the typewriter. The test will get done somehow. Tests always get done. 
     "Meghan, I feel like taking a walk down to the park. I was wondering if you and Edward would care to join me. I thought maybe you'd like to go on the swings for a while. Bring Dumpty—and your red sweater too. It might be windy down there."
     At the word "park" the fingers leave the mouth. She laughs excitedly and begins the frantic search for her shoes and socks. 
     Melville will have to wait, but he won't mind. He waited most of his life for someone to discover the miracle of Moby Dick—and died 30 years before anyone did. No, he won't mind.
     Besides, he'd understand why I must go right now—while bib-bibs still spark wonder, and before dandelions become weeds, and while a little girl thinks that a leaf from her father is a gift beyond measure.

~   ~   ~

It's kind of strange that I like that so much, considering that I've never had any children and don't particularly want to have any. It's also kind of strange that it slightly bothers me that Missy Bartley apparently didn't breastfeed her babies. There's a kind of wisdom or spirituality in the story, especially in the last sentence—the implication being that a little girl less than two years old is in some way wiser or more spiritual or "closer to reality" than her father. Adults work out explanations for everything which then interlock and form mental prisons from which we cannot easily escape. Little Meghan hadn't built her prison yet (although, strangely, she's more than 40 years old now and probably is about as imprisoned as everyone else). It reminds me of Wordsworth's poem "Intimations of Immortality" which starts

     There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
          The earth, and every common sight,
                    To me did seem
          Appareled in celestial light,
     The glory and the freshness of a dream.
     It is not now as it hath been of yore;
               Turn whereso'er I may,
                    By night or day,
     The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

               The rainbow comes and goes,
               And lovely is the rose,
               The moon doth with delight
     Look round her when the heavens are bare,
               Waters on a starry night 
               Are beautiful and fair;
          The sunshine is a glorious birth;
          But yet I know, where'er I go,
     That there hath passed away a glory from the earth.

(Even so, I don't like Wordsworth very much. The man could walk through his garden and see a rock lying by the side of the path and sit down and write six pages of blank verse about it. Also, frankly, I don't remember having been an Enlightened Being when I was a little kid.)
     As Krishnamurti says, when people try to make life better they generally just try to make improvements in their prison. One of the main reasons why I am a monk is that I'm trying to be as unimprisoned as possible, although of course there are complications.

               I desire Virtue, though I love her not
                    I have no faith in her when she is got:
               I fear that she will bind and make me slave
                    And send me songless to the sullen grave.

     My latest theory as to the meaning of "Come Together" by the Beatles is that it's about Jesus. That would explain a lot of it, like "He got joo-joo eyeball" and "He say one and one and one is three." "He got walrus gumboot" could mean that he walked on water, and "He got early warning" could mean that he was a prophet. See? I have to admit, though, that "He got monkey finger, he shoot Coca-Cola" doesn't seem to fit the theory very well. Do you know what it means? (Wow, I just realized that I'm like Charlie Manson giving religious interpretations to Beatles songs. Maybe I should go back to America and interpret the White Album for people.)
     Oh, I think my health problems will never end—I recently found out that I've got four floating ribs! As if one weren't enough. Since finding out about it, sometimes when I'm lying on my bed at night I can feel them in there floating. I've got an ingenious idea, though: I'm going to try to eat lots of food that sticks to my ribs in order to hold them in place. Aside from the rib thing my health is good nowadays, as far as I can tell.
     I hope your health is good too. This is partly because, if the Big Plan works, within a year I will be over there being a burden on you. {smiley face} (Good health is important for people as got burdens on them.) I hope everybody else's health is good too, although I realize that in this world that may be an unrealistic hope. I plan on writing to my mother soon, and if I'm feeling really wild maybe even to M_____, and then maybe I'll find out some way of mailing these letters. Until we meet again, be happy, stay out of trouble, and say Hi to everybody in S_____ for me. Plus maybe to Mucus Man.
Very Severely,                    
Paññobsa Bhikkhu

P.S. I really don't have anything else to say, but I don't like leaving all this blank space at the bottom of the page, so I'll include some more from "Intimations of Immortality."

     Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
     The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
          Hath had elsewhere its setting,
               And cometh from afar;
          Not in entire forgetfulness,
          And not in utter nakedness, 
     But trailing clouds of glory do we come
               From God, who is our home.

I think maybe he isn't exactly right, but it still sounds nice. Also, I like the way the long, medium, and short lines balance out.