Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Burmese Love of People and Noise

     Around the middle of November I left Migadawun Monastery in the hills of east-central Burma to come back to my old home of Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery in the much hotter, arid lowlands farther west. I'm there now, or rather here now, writing this inside Tapoguhā Cave, strangely the one place I've lived longer than anywhere else in my life.
     A group of supporters from this area came to fetch me at Migadawun. I had already been informed that they'd come in the afternoon and that we'd leave for "home" the next day, so when I asked one of the guys when we'd be leaving, he answered, "At whatever time is convenient for you, sir." A little later the driver suggested that 4:00 the next morning would be convenient—which of course hardly even registered in my brain. I'm definitely not a morning person; and for me, four in the morning is still practically the middle of the night. Besides, I had hoped to go for one last alms round there so I could say goodbye and give my blessings to the faithful, generous people who had been feeding me every day for the past 4½ months. But the situation was that we should not miss the sampan in Monywa, which leaves town for the villages at around 12:30 or 1:00pm. The sampan dock was about 150 miles (≈240km) from Migadawun, so it seemed to me that leaving at four in the morning was rather overcautious, assuming that we would be traveling faster than 18 miles per hour. I compromised by saying we'd leave at around six or seven; the driver interpreted that as six, and I interpreted it as seven (I was the passenger of honor and pretty much outranked everyone else with regard to social status, so I could get away with calling the shots). I skipped almsround that day, not saying goodbye to the faithful villagers, and ate by the side of the road later. The one person I missed most after leaving Migadawun, it turned out, was a black and white spotted dog with low self esteem issues named Helen Meyenburg.
     It is a tradition that one of my first jobs upon returning to this cave after a long absence is to climb down into the adjoining gulley and pick up the garbage that Burmese people, including monks, have flung there. The Burmese, bless their hearts, have almost no concept of litter or pollution. Up until relatively recently everything was wrapped in banana leaves anyway, so if they threw garbage on the ground it would quickly biodegrade. Now the gulley becomes strewn with pop cans, plastic bags, and old flashlight batteries. Although Burmese Buddhists have great respect for monasteries, they generally see nothing wrong with tossing garbage on the ground there. Sometimes helpful folks will come to my cave, see my garbage pot full of plastic bags, etc. (which I eventually get around to burning), and pick it up, walk a few paces, and fling the contents into the gulley—as though the only reason I use the garbage receptacle is because I'm too lazy to walk those few paces myself. So if I see what has happened and they are still here, I endeavor to refrain from cussing, restrain my urge to scowl as best I can, and after they have gone I climb back down into the gulley to pick up the garbage again. 
     This indifference to litter is symptomatic of another peculiarity of the Burmese race: a marked deficiency, or incomprehensible aberration, in esthetic taste. There are a few really talented artists and musicians in Burma; but most "artists" here are really a kind of artisan who have learned to crank out a certain kind of uninspired product in accordance with some uninspired techniques they learned from an uninspired teacher—which helps to account for why there are so many grotesque Buddha statues in Burma. Another case in point is that one may visit a family of well-to-do Burmese folks and, if they don't simply imitate Western-style home decor, one may find, for example, an ornately carved teak table in their parlor covered with greasy engine parts, a wall mirror above it with a matching ornately carved teak frame—and right next to it a tattered calendar picture of a famous shrine, hanging crooked, with one torn corner and a big stain, and in a corner of the room a large display case housing awards, knickknacks, an ancient, scribbled-on Barbie doll, two bras, and several rolls of toilet paper. About the only really outstanding Burmese esthetic sense that I have noticed is that the girls know how to look pretty (although the metallic lime-green nail polish that is now in fashion totally eludes me), and that many people have very interesting, abstract-looking signatures. I wonder at their imaginative signatures sometimes. I have been informed by a Western monk that Burmese "classical" music is really very sophisticated, being well beyond, say, Western jazz music; but to me it sounds like pots, pans, glass, and one or two live geese packed into a crate and vigorously shaken. Maybe the ugly Buddha statues have some sophistication I'm just not noticing, too. But I don't get it.
     Another early job for me after arrival here was accommodating the two dogs that moved in on me almost immediately. The little white female dog (made famous in the post "The Elder Sister of All Almsrounds" last cold season) is usually no problem, but her son is another story. I forget his name every year, and so every time I come back I give him a new one. This year he is Dunderhead, alias Caliban (I think last year he was called Doofus). He presented me with a dilemma: On the one hand, he really is a good-natured dog, usually, and he loves me; especially at first, at the slightest demonstrations of affection, like a few pets on the head, he'd go manic, jumping all over the place with joy. On the other hand, in addition to continually trying to snarl his own mother away from her food (not an endearing quality in anyone), it never occurs to him for a single moment that maybe he ought to stay out of trouble. He began following me everywhere, including into the village every morning for alms, upon which I found my almsrounds to be a scene of one protracted dogfight, with me at the epicenter. He just trots right into one hostile dog territory after another, sometimes whimpering a little at the fact that he's completely outnumbered and is bound to get the worst of it, but he keeps on trotting till the fight starts, usually around my legs. 
     One morning before even reaching Wun Bo village two dogs ganged up on him on the road. I yelled at them to stop, but of course they paid no attention whatsoever. So then I started throwing rocks, while still yelling. One dog was hit broadside and backed off, but the other, larger dog had clamped his teeth down on Dunderhead's right ear and obviously did not intend to let go of it. I bounced rock after rock off that dog at point blank range, but he was too berserk to notice, continuing to maul the ear. Finally, still hollering, I tried to kick him away from Dunderhead, who was in a hopeless position. I go barefoot, so at first the frenzied enemy dog ignored the kicks, too, despite my really putting my back into them. (If bhikkhus wore hobnailed jackboots, one kick would probably have been plenty.) Finally, after about ten kicks and almost laming myself, I persuaded the dog to let go of Dunderhead's bloodied ear. I was frazzled, panting, and exhausted before even reaching the village that morning. But now, strangely, I feel committed to Dunderhead, considering that we've now fought together on the same side of a dogfight.
     I've found that it takes a few days after I come here for the hot cave to cool down, and for the place to become comfortable. Keeping the door closed by day and open by night really helps to reduce the heat inside. Also, there seems to be a kind of feel that a place takes on when inhabited, an aliveness. Maybe you've noticed how a house that has been empty for a long time has a very different energy to it than one with people living in it. Anyway, it takes awhile for that alive feeling to come back to the place.
     After a week or so a man that I did not recognize came from town and told me that he wanted to donate a solar panel and an electric fan for inside the cave. I told him that I didn't need a fan (someone had already donated one, long before I had the electricity to use it), but that if he wanted to donate the panel, he was welcome to. What I mainly had in mind was recharging this laptop. He said he'd come back with it in a week or so.
     Before the fellow's return my friend and supporter Aaron came from California for a visit. He had previously requested that I not mention him on this blog (and, incidentally, he's not the only person to have made that request)—possibly because he didn't want me saying things like, "I know this weird guy in California who named his kid after a pump company and—" Oh, I let that slip. Well, try to forget that you read that part about him naming his son after a pump company. Anyway, I warned him that if he was coming to Burma, and we were going to go on an exotic pilgrimage of idolatry together, then I pretty much had to mention him on this blog. I did promise not to psychoanalyze him publicly, though. So he is resigned to being mentioned now. Again, please forget that part about the pump company, even though it's true. 
     At about the same time that Aaron came, the little white dog, who naturally causes so little trouble, cringing and wagging her tail through life, went into heat. So during Aaron's few nights at the cave we were both awakened repeatedly by snarling, barking, fighting dogs—especially with Dunderhead's repeated and futile attempts to defend his mother's honor. At one point Aaron muttered something about if only he had a gun. We Westerners are strange: we don't like noise, especially when we're trying to sleep. The Burmese are different. They seem to like noise, and apparently can sleep through anything less than a volcanic explosion. But more about that later.
     The day after Aaron's arrival we went to check out a medieval Buddhist temple less than a mile from here. It was built in the style of the temples of Bagan (formerly known as Pagan, ancient capital of the first Burmese Empire), so I figure it's probably at least 500 years old, maybe even 700. Strangely, although the temple is in plain sight of Wun Bo village, the locals pretty much ignore it, preferring newer, bell-shaped pagodas. Almost nobody goes inside it. I'd been inside it only once before; and since I had heard there was a stairway going up to an upper platform, I had long had the intention of trying it again. (The first time I had no flashlight and no shoes, and the floor was covered with bat poop, so I chickened out.) So we had a go at it, and this time I brought shoes—but we both failed to bring a flashlight. 
     Passing through the chambers of the abandoned temple, I smelled something more foul than the ubiquitous bat dung. Eventually, near the secret stairway, I found it: a dog that had been dead for maybe two or three weeks. Even before reaching the dog remains I had been feeling something like insects crawling on my feet and ankles. Stepping over the dog and into the light of an entrance, I saw that tiny insects were literally swarming all over my lower legs. Hundreds of them. At first I thought they were ants; but before much longer I realized that they were fleas. We made it as far as the stairway, but the lack of flashlights and the fleas swarming higher and higher up my legs, and Aaron's too, persuaded us to retreat and regroup. I was picking fleas off myself for hours afterwards, and I must have had several hundred bites. I think maybe they were bat fleas that fell from the bat multitude hanging from the ceiling, and which became desperately ravenous down there on the floor. Or maybe stray dogs slept there at night until their friend cashed in his chips there, and then moved elsewhere, causing the flea population to fall upon very hard times. Anyway, Aaron and I discussed coming back with a flashlight and trying again, but one flea plague was enough for me. There's a very good chance I'll never ascend the secret stairway to the upper level of the abandoned temple. It just doesn't matter.
     The next day was a major expedition by car, mainly for me to feed monkeys under the pretext of showing Aaron Po Win Daung, a large complex of medieval cave temples west of the Chindwin River. My friend and supporter Ma Htay-I provided me with four big combs of bananas, plus I had some tangerines, some little two-bite bananas, and a sliced apple left over from my alms food. I dearly love feeding monkeys. (Aaron, on the other hand, had little interest in feeding them and perversely preferred investigating the medieval cave temples, sculptures, wall paintings, etc. It takes all kinds.) 
     I'm not sure why I love monkeys so much. Some of them are remarkably ugly, like little gargoyles, even without the red, swollen genitalia. Sometimes they're not very well behaved either. But usually the ones at Po Win Daung are very polite and gratefully accept what they are given. And usually only the little ones climb on people. It's always a sad feeling when I run out of monkey food. This is another case of loving others even when one is well aware of their many shortcomings. But more about that later.

the monkey messiah

     After Po Win Daung we went to Shwe Ba Daung, a sandstone hill nearby that has a kind of temple village carved into the solid rock. After that we went to check out a place I had heard of nearby: Someone had told me that in a village not far from there, hot water gushed up out of the ground. I imagined it could be some kind of geyser, like at Yellowstone, so I was curious; but all it turned out to be was some warmish water smelling slightly of sulphur that came out of a pipe. Not nearly as good as feeding monkeys.
     Next we went back past the notorious copper mines to Shwe Daung Oo, another monastery with a cave, at which the famous Ledi Sayadaw reportedly lived for a short time. The area around here is Ledi country, with most monks endorsing the Ledi method; in fact the village of Ledi is only about twenty miles from here. (Ledi Sayadaw, by the way, was one of the most famous and respected Burmese Buddhist monks of the 20th century; like the better-known Mahasi Sayadaw he was a combination of brilliant scholar and meditation master.) 
     It happened that at Shwe Daung Oo Monastery there was a kind of menagerie, so I checked it out. The main attraction was two obese bears who looked extremely, mindlessly apathetic lying in a large cage. As soon as Aaron saw that the place was a kind of prison or concentration camp for animals he cleared out, not wanting to be depressed by it, but I made the whole tour. The main thing that saddened me was two lorises in a kind of hutch. I was interested to see lorises close up, but they are nocturnal beings, and had no place to hide, and were huddled together in the daylight, trying to sleep. Cheerful, good-natured people were trying to pester them enough to get them to stop huddling and sleeping. When one of them finally lifted its head to show its staring, owl-like face I could see that it had a large open sore on its forehead.
     This is another general feature of the Burmese: they love and respect people, but have little love or respect for nature. Even a Buddhist monastery can have scroungy, miserable, maltreated animals going half insane from an obviously wrong environment, but most people hardly notice, if they notice at all. Henry David Thoreau said that it seems to be a law that one cannot have a deep regard for both man and nature; and the Burmese, in general, have a deep regard for man.
     Anyway, after this we headed back for the Wildlife Refuge, making a brief stop for a view of the volcanic crater lake about two miles from here. This is the site of the crashed Burmese spirulina industry. I've heard at least three different versions of the story, but the essence of it is that the lake, one of the world's relatively few natural sources of spirulina, became inoculated with tilapia fish, the babies of which eat spirulina. Either it was an accident, or someone was trying to control mosquitoes, or else some wiseguy was just trying to make some extra money, and now there's a lake full of tilapia instead of spirulina. Luckily for the Burmese government, they sold out the factory to a German company shortly before the crash.
     The next morning we rode the sampan into the town of Monywa in preparation for the idolatry excursion to Mandalay. (Incidentally, going by boat is by far the best way of traveling in Burma, unless you know of some better way.) Aaron didn't want to stay at a monastery, so while searching for the hotel I made a wrong turn, and we wound up being energetically invited into a beer garden by the staff, one of whom had offered me alms food years previously. Fortunately it was morning, so no drunks were staggering around trying to pick fights, etc. Also fortunately, the folks were so eager to offer something that I came back the next morning for a happily offered free meal. The Monywa Hotel had the first soft bed that I had slept on in a very long time. The next day we took a kind of taxi van to Mandalay.
     On our big day in Mandalay our first stop was the Mahamuni, a large, gold-encrusted image of Buddha supposedly made by Sakka, King of Gods himself. It's the most important Buddhist shrine in Mandalay, sort of the equivalent to Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda. Aaron was not allowed to approach the image because of his inappropriate short pants. Women also are not allowed to come too near it, for reasons I do not know. Maybe they have bodily organs that are inappropriate. The main Dharmic experience for me there was simply observing my own craving as we walked past all the vendors outside the Mahamuni. Some of the Buddha statues especially were really nice (although there were plenty of ugly ones too). Aaron bought a little image made of translucent yellowish jade, or some stone called jade. One of the "jade" images was almost completely clear. I didn't know jade could be like that. Anyway, I resisted my many cravings and didn't ask for anything, which was probably best.
     Next we went to see the Peshawar relics, which are a strangely unknown treasure of Burma. They are, probably, genuine fragments of bone from the cremated body of Gotama Buddha himself. They were found in the very early 20th century in the ruins of a huge stupa near Peshawar, which is now in Pakistan. Since that area was predominantly Islamic, the government of British India offered the relics to the Burmese, which was a very nice gesture—they could just as easily have sent them back to some museum in England. Before gifting the relics to the people of Burma, the British placed them in a golden receptacle with the following inscription: 
     The bones enclosed within this casket are believed to be the relics of Gautama Buddha deposited by the great Kushana Emperor, Kanishka, in a once magnificent and famous stupa near the city of Peshawar. Beneath the ruins of that stupa, they were found enclosed in the crystal reliquary in which they still repose, and within a casket of bronze bearing the Effigy of the Emperor Kanishka. They are entrusted by His Excellency the Earl of Minto, Viceroy and Governor-General of India, to the Buddhists of the Indian Empire to be enshrined by them at the City of Mandalay in Burma. In the tenth year of the reign of His Majesty King Edward VII Emperor of India.
Ironically, although they may be the only really authentic relics of the Buddha in Burma, very few Burmese persons have ever heard of them, and those who have pay them little heed. They have much more interest in so-called relics which have fabulous legends backing them up, like the invisible hairs of the Buddha believed to be enshrined in the Shwedagon. I'm a Westerner though. Although I rarely bow down to statues, and didn't prostrate before the gold-covered Mahamuni, I did bow down to the little pieces of charred bone which may have once been contained in the body of the founder of my professed religion. (If you're interested in seeing the relics, instructions for finding the place, at the U Khanti Monastery near the foot of Mandalay Hill, are in the Lonely Planet Guide for Myanmar. U Khanti, totally by the way, wasn't a monk, but was a kind of Buddhist rishi who wore a hat shaped like a fish.)

possibly genuine relics of Gotama Buddha

     Next we made the ascent of Mandalay Hill, where I began confusing people by telling them I was from Mars when they'd ask the standard question, in English, "Where are you from?" The term for "planet Mars" is inga-gyo; and one guy paused a moment and said, "inga-land?" thinking maybe I was trying to say "England" instead of "Mars." One of the main attractions of Mandalay Hill is the gibberish T-shirts for sale there, made by Chinese people with zero understanding of the English language. Probably my favorite part of the climb was a temple near the top with a room full of large Buddha images with psychedelic, flashing, multicolored haloes made of electric lights. One tip for anyone climbing the hill: Beware of the Nepali Brahmin fortune tellers. They're predatory.
     After this our driver wanted to take us to a place he knew of with lots of relics of the Buddha, of famous arahants, etc. He also was apparently unimpressed by the verified authentic ones from Peshawar. But Aaron and I resisted the offer, and we went to the city of Amarapura, once briefly the capital of Burma, instead. I took the opportunity to visit Mahagandhayone, the school monastery where I lived more than twenty years ago. My cabin was gone, and I recognized nobody. The almost anatomically correct lion statues were still guarding the mausoleum of the first Sayadaw, though, so I pointed out the purple puckering of their anuses to Aaron, who was suitably impressed.
     Then we walked across U Pein Bridge, which in a previous post I mentioned as an edifice which would be immediately condemned and demolished if it existed in America. I retraced my old alms route in the village on the other side, and I think nobody recognized me. I suppose one reason for that is that, besides the lapse of twenty years, there appear to be more than twenty times as many foreigners, mostly tourists, walking around than there were when I lived there. Lots and lots of tourists nowadays. Even the huge Buddha statue between the monastery and the bridge had been all fixed up; in the old days it was almost abandoned, with pigeon guano all over it. Also, the little temples nearby had been closed off with iron grilles; this may have become necessary with the modernization of Burmese young people—in the old days signs on the walls warning, essentially, "NO MAKING OUT IN THE TEMPLE" were sufficient.
     After this came the most involved project of all: finding a new cell phone top-up card for Aaron. When that mission was finally completed we let the driver take us back to the hotel.
     The following day Aaron was to make an excursion to Pyin Oo Lwin, and after that to Shan State. I didn't want to follow that far, so I returned to Monywa. Aaron was a little worried about my trip back, considering that I don't use money, and we both tried to explain to the hotel staff what taxi vans are. ("You know, a van—a car shaped like a loaf of bread…") Just when we figured they finally understood, one of them would say something that indicated that they didn't. This was strange, considering that I do speak Burmese. Eventually a nice lady who manages travel arrangements at the hotel offered to donate my ticket back to Monywa. The next morning she also wanted to offer my meal, although I had already eaten. So, since she was generously making the offer, I shut up about taxi vans and let her do as she pleased. I made it back to Monywa sure enough, but it wasn't in anything resembling a taxi van.
     I can't say it was the worst bus ride I've ever been on, but I can fairly say it was the worst one I've been on in more than 15 years. Back when I was rigidly strict I would insist upon riding buses that did not show movies, which in those days often required me to ride very cheap buses that also served as cargo transports. I have found myself in scenarios where I'm sitting on a rice bag with someone's foot in my ear; and I can feel my bare foot is soaking in some kind of liquid, but I'm so crammed into my position that I can't quite bend over far enough to see what it's soaking in. I'm hoping it's something harmless, like hydraulic fluid, and not the puke from the carsick little kid two seats behind me who's been barfing continually for the past half hour. I've been on rides like that. This one wasn't that bad. The vehicle was apparently a retired and reconditioned municipal bus, as it had a big door midway down the length of it, in addition to the smaller one up front. It wasn't air conditioned, so most of the windows were open. Someone sitting behind me would occasionally open her/his window to throw something out of the bus, thereby jabbing my right shoulder in the process. Presumably because I'm a monk (the bus ticket said "sayadaw"), I sat in the front row, right behind the driver; and the legroom was so scant that my knees pressed up against a metal bar so that both heels would not touch the floor. 
     Sitting next to me was a rather criminal-looking Burmese monk with a mouth stained red from chewing betel. He obviously was very sleepy, and almost immediately began using the man sitting on the other side of him from me as a pillow. Before long, though, he began leaning in my direction, and his unconscious head was literally bouncing off my left shoulder like a ball. It's really amazing what some Burmese people can sleep through. I started being irritated by this monk sleeping on me, however, so before long I learned a trick: I'd lean forward, causing him to flop over sideways behind me, which would usually wake him up enough for him to sit up straight again. If he didn't, I'd lean back a little, squishing his face between the seat back and my back—although I worried a little that maybe some of the red stuff on his mouth would come off on my robe.
     The driver, bless his heart, was one of those guys who cannot drive more than a few meters without blowing the horn—and the horn was one of those air horns, blasts from which sound like a trumpet blown lustily over a rock concert's speaker system. And since I was sitting right up front, and the window was wide open, it was almost like I was sitting in front of the horn instead of behind it. Sometimes he'd play the horn like a bongo drum. A single bicyclist by the side of the road might elicit eight or even twelve ear-splitting blasts from that horn. If the driver saw anyone near the road before him, he'd use that horn liberally, even if the object were looking right at the oncoming bus and thus had no need of the warning. The driver seemed worried that someone might suddenly fling himself under the bus's wheels if he didn't persuade him not to do so by blasting repeatedly on the horn. (Actually, it seems to me that the horn would be more likely to startle people into accidentally swerving into the bus than to dissuade them from it.) There was one time in particular, when the repeated blasts were well on their way to giving me a real headache, when I was tempted to lean forward and slap the guy upside the back of his head with some friendly admonition like, "Stop blowing the goddam horn!" But again, like dear Dunderhead, he really was a nice guy, and I couldn't doubt it. He wasn't simply using the horn as a kind of sonic force field to clear his path, and he wasn't mad, Caligula-like, with the power of his apocalyptic, ear-splitting noise—he sincerely didn't want to run over anybody. I have to admit, I'm glad I didn't succumb to weakness and slap him upside the head.
     Meanwhile, the driver's assistant (who would collect fares, pay tolls, help fix the bus if it broke down, etc.) was hollering loudly again and again. He didn't do it out of anger, however; he was another very nice guy, and yelled simply to communicate information to people outside my window, causing him to yell almost into my ear, and also to communicate information to people whose hearing was impaired by the goddam horn. I was really getting a headache. 
     At one point a little girl nun, looking about ten years old, wearing the standard pink and orange robes of a Burmese Buddhist nun, got onto the bus. (This bus, by the way, had as many passengers crammed onto it as it could manage, with people sitting in the aisle.) After a few minutes she shyly offered some money to the attendant. He accepted the money, looked at it in his hand for a few moments, and then gave a big smile and handed it all back to her. Gawd I love that! What are the odds that something like that could happen in America? The attendant might be fired for stealing from the company, letting somebody ride for free. So what if she's a little girl, and a nun. In addition to feeding monkeys, I also dearly love seeing clear evidence of genuine human goodness. In spite of the noise and garbage, there's plenty of that to see in this country. To be fair, it's to be found in America, too—in fact it's everywhere, if one has eyes to see it. We humans aren't all that bad. But in Burma it's pretty obvious, often right in your face.
     There were four very quiet, modest, grown up nuns sitting across the aisle from me, headed for the main Ledi monastery in Monywa. When we arrived in town, the bus guys went several blocks out of their way to drop off the nuns at their destination. Then they went several more blocks out of their way to drop me off at the local Mahasi center, where I planned to spend the night. There was one place where the bus was slowly, loudly scraping under low tree branches in the attempt to reach the monastery. The attendant carried my bag into the place and waited with me to meet the Sayadaw.
     The venerable Sayadaw, for the umpteenth time, exhorted me to live at a monastery in America which he had helped to found, near a place called "Poat Wayne." He never, however, gives me more information than this, like the address, or someone I could contact; and he declined to give me this information again this time, even though I ventured to point out this fact to him. I'm not sure why he keeps doing this. Anyway, there's a good chance I wouldn't want to live near Poat Wayne, even if I found the place. He eventually conducted the bus attendant and me to a building serving as a dwelling for visiting monks. Then the bus attendant paid his respects and took off. 
     This building also housed two young scholar monks who had come from Mandalay to practice some meditation. One was soon to return, and the other, having recently earned his Dhammacariya degree, was soon to return to his home town of Homalin, a remote place far to the north. They were both eager to talk with me, and later to have their picture taken standing next to me. At one point the younger of the two informed me when the dawn meal would be served the following day, and I replied that I don't eat the dawn meal, eating only once a day. He then endeavored to explain to me that when the Pali texts say a monk eats only one time per day, the "one time" is morning; so one can eat as many times as he likes between dawn and noon, and it still counts as eating only one time per day. I answered that the venerable commentator Buddhaghosa apparently liked eating more than once per day, whereupon the young monk laughed in a peculiar way I've seen before—after I had told a funny yet very tasteless joke, and the person was laughing helplessly with a look like he's feeling like maybe he shouldn't be laughing. Burmese monks take their commentaries very seriously, and also their two meals per day.
     I don't remember if it was already going on when I got there around 5pm, but by 6:00 a loudspeaker nearby was broadcasting the sound of a group of women chanting the three refuges over and over again. Sometimes they'd diversify by chanting something else, like the twelves links of dependent co-arising, but they always returned to the three refuges. In the early evening this was blended in with other Burmese city noises, including blaring car horns, revving motorcycle engines, barking dogs, cawing crows, and another loudspeaker blasting the famous Chan-Ee-Gan Sayadaw's peculiar, famous, strangely melodious caterwauling. (He died many years ago, murdered by his attendant/driver/nephew for his money, but recordings of his chants and sermons can be heard wherever Burmese Buddhists are to be found.) I figured the ladies would keep it up for an hour or so. But long after Chan-Ee-Gan Sayadaw and the horns, dogs, etc. had finished, the broadcast of the three refuges continued: buddham saranam gacchāmi…dhammam saranam gaccāmi…sangham saranam gaccāmi…, each preceded by an introductory sentence which would remain the same for about 30 repetitions, and then would change slightly. By about 10:30 that evening I was getting a little irritated by it, but I considered it prudent simply to observe the irritation, since by this point there was no telling how long the ladies would continue chanting. It so happened that they chanted all night long, and when I left the neighborhood at around noon the next day they were still going strong. 
     Of course there's simply no way that such a thing could happen in an American city; within the first half hour or so, or at least by 3am, people would be calling the police and angrily complaining about the noise. But, as I've already observed, the Burmese love noise. My tentative theory is that, if people don't think very much, they're more willing to let outside noises fill their mind in place of their own laborious cogitations. There's not much need to hear yourself think if you don't think so much. In other words, they let their cultural tradition do their thinking for them, so they don't need quiet. In other words, they have a kind of peace of mind that we Western barbarians don't have. That still doesn't explain how they can sleep through the racket, though. Or even with their head bouncing like a ball.
     The plan was to wake up very early and use some Internet when nobody else was using it, thereby allowing it to be almost mediocre by Western standards. At around 1:00am I turned on the Internet, saw that it was working, and then turned it back off to go take a pee, as one pays by the minute. But when I came back, it wouldn't come on again. After maybe 15 tries over the course of a few hours, I gave up on Monywa cell-phone wifi and went back to bed. This is a typical situation in Burma. Keeping this blog going nowadays is more of a technical challenge than an intellectual one.
     I fended off a number of offers to ride in a car on the long, bumpy road back to the forest monastery, and rode the sampan. I found the little white dog was almost finished with her mating season, and Dunderhead was apparently out trying to dishonor someone else's mother, so life became relatively quiet again. The feeling of the cave's "aliveness," which was still rather faint at the time I left, had pretty much faded out in my absence, so I set about working it up again. 
     Less than a week after my return the man from town who had offered a solar panel came back, accompanied by a group of about ten people who had contributed to the donation, most of them women, and none of them anyone that I recognized. I had imagined that the solar panel to be donated would be a little one, like the one down at the congregation hall, just enough to run a light and to charge batteries; but the one they offered was BIG, about the size of a sheet of plywood, with a battery as big as a five-gallon aquarium. The setup runs about a thousand watts at 220 volts, I think. In addition to this, they offered an "air cooler," a monstrosity of a Chinese electric fan that roars like a vacuum cleaner. It supposedly cools the air evaporatively by passing it through a moist filter, but I just don't think it's possible. I can accept the possibility that people like Jesus of Nazareth and Neem Karoli Baba could break the so-called "laws of physics," but I just cannot believe that this gadget can do it. It's a matter of the law of Conservation of Energy: heat doesn't just disappear, it has to go somewhere, or else change form; and this thing doesn't have any kind of exhaust pipe leading out of the cave. Maybe in a house it could work, but not in a cave. Overall, due to entropy, it would have to make things warmer. And it's loud. So I'll try to send it back to them, with my blessings.
     While the group was here, one of the ladies came up to me and bowed her head to my feet, then took off her glasses and touched them to my left foot. I assumed she was trying to bless her eyesight and possibly improve her vision; and I hope she got some benefit; but at the same time she was doing it my own glasses were sitting right beside me. (I have found that gazing into a computer screen is even worse for one's eyesight than reading books by candlelight for several years.) Plus I had a cold, and a little flareup of gout, and some kind of mild skin infection. So blessing people's health seemed a little ridiculous at the time. Anyhow, a few minutes later two of the younger women shyly approached and bowed their head to my feet also. I don't know what they were praying for. I remember one of them had extremely soft fingers. Life is strange.
     It eventually dawned on me that this whole solar panel thing was part of a large plot involving many villagers as well as some city people. They're trying to keep me here, always. One of my main supporters told me smilingly as the guys were installing the stuff, "You used to say that it's too hot here; now you can't say that anymore!" When I was at Migadawun a few months ago I was saying to myself, and to at least one other, that I hope I don't come back to Burma anymore after this trip; but I have to admit, there is a certain temptation to stay here now, especially since people love me here, and I've received nothing remotely resembling this kind of welcome and invitation in the West. One of the ladies who came with the group runs an electronics store, and she said she'd also offer a "repeater," some kind of gadget which would allow me to access Internet in front of the cave. If that materialized the temptation would be even greater. I could maintain an almost comfortable forest hermitage burrow with a computer and a tiny carbon footprint, surrounded by people who love and respect me. It is a consideration.
     On the other hand, I still feel that America is more in need of someone like me than Burma is—even though America hasn't figured this out yet. I've received a few semi-invitations in the US, and I'm always more or less welcome at the Burmese monastery in Fremont, California, but so far I'm still looking for someplace to stay in my native country, or in some Western country anyway. 
     One disadvantage of living here is that staying in a forest cave, even though it's electrified now, brings out my latent caveman instincts, and my heart, which I'd like to develop more, becomes rather rough. The plan is to go back to the USA next spring and try to find someplace good for my heart there, presumably with a few relatively liberated females to challenge me. But, a bhikkhu should accept whatever comes his way, and not wish for something different. We'll see how it goes.
     I think we're finally caught up now. 

the Mahamuni, in Mandalay

APPENDIX: More on the Peshawar Relics

     Since this narrative is already outrageously long, I may as well make it longer by including this speech by an unnamed British archeologist, circa 1910. It is copied from a document printed in Burma, and thus is laden with typos, so I have taken the liberty of reconstructing the original text as well as I can. 

Your Excellency,
     In order to trace out the history of these sacred relics, I must take you back to the time of the Chinese travellers who came on pilgrimages to India between the fourth and seventh centuries of our era. Three of these travellers—Fa Hien, Sung Yun and Hiuen Thsang—tell us of a pagoda or stupa, which had been built near the city of Peshawar by the Great Emperor Kanishka, and, in which, as Hiuen Thsang explicitly states, part of the body relics of the Lord Buddha had been enshrined. They described this pagoda as one of singular beauty and majesty, adorned with bands of precious substances and unequalled, in point of size or grandeur, by any monument of its kind in India. Its circumference was nearly a quarter of a mile, and its height was variously estimated by them at from four to seven hundred feet. It possessed no less than thirteen stories, the base being of stone, and the whole was crowned with a pinnacle of gilded discs attached to an iron pillar.
     So much we learn about this magnificent structure from the Chinese pilgrims; and we may infer from an inscription of the tenth century that it survived the last of the pilgrims by at least three hundred years. What happened to it after that, history does not relate, but, we may presume that along with many other monuments of Buddhism, it was desecrated and thrown down by the marauding hosts of Mahmud of Ghazni. Whether that was its fate or not, it finds no mention in any later literary records; and with the decay of Buddhism on the Frontier, its very site appears to have been forgotten.
     Fortunately for us, however, some definite indications as to its position were given by the Chinese pilgrims, and these proved sufficient to enable the French savant, M. Foucher, to locate the spot in some mounds a little to the east of the modern Peshawar city. Following his identification, we decided to explore this site, and to discover what remains of the great edifice might still be hidden beneath the soil. The work was begun rather more than two years ago by Dr. Spooner, but for several months it looked as if nothing was to be found except vast and confused heaps of debris. Little by little, however, there emerged from these heaps the stone plinth of a gigantic pagoda, which is undoubtably the largest of its kind known to exist in India, which in other respects also agrees with the description of Kanishka's memorial given by the Chinese pilgrims.
     Indeed that this was the identical building constructed by the monarch, there could not be a shadow of a doubt, and as soon as I myself saw it, I pressed on Dr. Spooner the importance of setting to work at once and searching for the relics of the Buddha, which were said to be deposited within it. Accordingly a shaft was sunk in the centre of the basements, and was carried down with much labour through its heavy stone foundations, until at last, at a depth of some twenty feet below the surface, our expectations were realized by discovering a small stone chamber, and in it the relic casket, where it had been placed nearly two thousand years ago.
     If any evidence had previously been wanting to prove that this pagoda was the one erected by the Emperor Kanishka, it was amply supplied by the finds which now came to light. On the relic casket itself is the figure of a king identical with the effigies of Kanishka, which alone would have been enough to indicate the date of the deposit. 
     Thus Hiuen Thsang's statement that this pagoda was erected by the Emperor Kanishka is proved to be perfectly correct, and there is no reason to doubt his assertion that the relics, in honour of which it was built, were those of the Buddha. The Kushan Empire, it must be remembered, extended over most of Northern India and Afghanistan, and it was quite an easy matter for the Emperor to obtain well authenticated relics of the Buddha from one or other of the celebrated pagodas containing them which existed within the confines of his dominions. Moreover, it is in the highest degree improbable that he would have wished to enrich his new capital at Peshawar by endowing it with relics of less sanctity in a monument of such costly magnificence. 
     For these reasons it seems to us that the testimony of Hiuen Thsang may be accepted without hesitation, and that with him we must regard these relics as those of the Great Teacher, which were first divided into eight portions after the parinirvana and afterwards subdivided by the Emperor Asoka.


Saturday, December 20, 2014


     This is another current events post, more or less. Much has happened since I wrote the last one—or rather, much that may be worthy of writing about has happened—so this could be a long one. We'll see how it goes.
     In the last installment of the soap opera-esque The Bhikkhu Without a Country, I was spending my 24th rains retreat at a (relatively) quiet forest monastery on the western edge of the Shan plateau, in central Myanmar. For the whole time that I stayed there, about 4½ months, I was in a state of mild depression, or contraction of spirit. My mind is somewhat like the Buddhist cosmos in that it goes through cycles of expansion and contraction, although much more quickly, and with less regularity and predictability than the cosmos at large. Speaking genetically, it runs on both sides of my family; I have a brother and a half-sister who are much more affected by "moods" and bouts of depression than I am. I have heard that what are called mental illnesses tend to be exaggerations of normal, "healthy" mental states; if so, then if my condition were exaggerated I suppose it would be called manic depression, or, as I think it's called nowadays, bipolar disorder. (Why the experts bother to keep changing the names of things like this I don't know. Too much free time on their hands, I guess, or maybe a Western mania for fixing what isn't broken.) When my consciousness is relatively very contracted, I become "hypersamsaric," as I call it: meditation becomes almost impossible, like trying to balance a marble on the tip of a sharpened pencil; reading advanced Dharma books becomes a boring, tedious chore; and I become indifferent (at best) to human companionship, often avoiding eye contact even with people I love, and much preferring to be alone. I'm still open and loving with dogs, though. When I'm very expanded, meditation seems almost effortless, and is often beautiful; overall mindfulness is also spontaneously enhanced, and I may go through brief periods of intense inspiration, even rapture, as though being flooded with Divinity; and my acceptance of members of my own species becomes much greater. Because of these cycles I can sympathize with people, possibly the majority, who live their entire lives in hypersamsaric mode, having no use for Dharma, or even being annoyed by it. And even if they do experience a rare moment of expansion and clarity, like when they are in the middle of a sneeze or are narrowly avoiding a car crash, they have no way of integrating such an anomalous experience into their perceptual Big Picture. This points to one reason why it is so important to practice Dharma even when we don't want to practice it, and to make it a way of life—Dharma practice helps to expand us, and to make contracted mental states less likely. It also provides us with good habits and a fund of experience which are very helpful when contraction eventually hits, and we become less spontaneous and more governed by our habits. Mental expansion is in the direction of YES, and contraction is in the direction of NO. Or, as William Blake's Devil once said, "Damn braces. Bless relaxes." 
     I'm not sure why my mind was contracted at Migadawun Monastery. My mother dying just a few days before I arrived there probably had something to do with it; although it might not explain why the depression began to lift as soon as I left the place. The neurophysiological explanation that it was simply a chemical imbalance in the brain is likewise not entirely satisfactory. My feeling is that there was something in the atmosphere of the place that I found depressing. It may have had something to do with the venerable sayadaw there. He moved into the monastery more than twenty years ago as a relatively junior monk, eventually became the abbot, and is often the sole resident. Some people dislike him because of the roughness of his personality and his own disdain for the human race in general; and also he has a great appreciation for material possessions, especially high-quality ones, and he doesn't hesitate to ask for them. In addition to custodianship of the Sangha property he now owns his own land, buildings, four dogs (in 2010 he had nine), a huge book collection, water heaters and electric pumps, binoculars, compasses, by his own admission six pairs of gloves, more carpenter's tools than most Burmese carpenters own, etc. etc. And on top of all this, he has difficulty digesting alms food and still likes girls. His monk life has gone stale, so to speak. He seems to have lost most of his inspiration and enthusiasm for the Holy Life—he has lost a sense of wonder. He often speaks of the possibility of his dropping out of the monkhood, and I've been told that he sometimes mentions the possibility of suicide. I suppose his best chance for getting himself out of the corner he's painted himself into and resurrecting his monkhood would be to move somewhere else and start afresh—as the saying goes, a rolling stone gathers no moss—but I suspect that maybe it's too late, and that he is too attached to all the moss he has gathered to bear parting with it. It may be that I was depressed by his whole situation there, and the resultant "vibe" in the air, because I can feel a similar potential within myself; I've never had as much attachment for material things as he has, but I can imagine myself losing that sense of wonder, hitting a Dharmic dead end, and just staying asleep. I don't think being an ordained monastic is absolutely necessary (and in the West it doesn't appear to work so well anyway), but that sense of wonder is necessary.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapt in awe, is as good as dead." —Albert Einstein
     Another possibility is that the contraction was caused by a kind of dissonance arising from a subconscious desire to be somewhere else. I don't know where it would be, though. Maybe someplace I've never been before, maybe never even heard of. I don't know. Another, similar one is that, since Migadawun Monastery is the last place at which I spent a rains retreat in Burma, in 2010, before my Great Experiment of flinging myself into the unknown in America in spring of 2011, going back to spend another rains retreat there, after three in the US, may have felt like a kind of failure, or defeat. But, it's good to consider that life is full of roadblocks and detours; it's like the D-Day invasion: no matter how many snafus and fiascos emerge, it's best to accept them and to continue moving forwards as well as one can. The only guaranteed way of failing is to give up. One may need to adjust one's strategy, however. 
"Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." —Winston Churchill
It seems that there is never one single cause for anything; so my guess is that the semi-depression during the monsoon season of 2014 was caused by a vague jumble of all the possibilities mentioned above, plus an infinite number of other ones that I haven't thought of.
     In July I settled down to the idea of spending the rains retreat in solitude; the sayadaw and I would meet maybe once or twice a week, and, aside from full moon and new moon days, we might just exchange a few civil words and then continue on our separate ways of minding our own business. Then, all of a sudden, the Indonesian monk U Vijaya showed up, intending to spend the latter rains retreat (day after the full moon of August to the full moon of November) at Migadawun. Partly, I assume, because he comes from a close, mostly Chinese family, U Vijaya is not particularly reclusive. In fact, pretty much immediately he began coming over to the congregation hall, where I was staying, almost every day, sometimes two or even three times a day. Also, he has a peculiarly communistic approach to material property—for example, he informed me that he would use my bathroom because he didn't want to carry buckets of water all the way to his own bathroom. Once or twice I came into the congregation hall and found him in my bedroom going through my books, looking for something to read. He would cause things to disappear, without comment. One day the best broom at the congregation hall disappeared. Shortly afterwards, the second best broom disappeared, leaving me with the third best and last broom, which was broken. (To be fair, though, he didn't realize that that one was broken, and thought he was leaving me the best one.)
     With regard to his communistic attitude toward property that was not his own, although I was occasionally irritated by it, especially in my contracted state, and although the sayadaw of the monastery was also irritated by it, and would occasionally anathematize it in private conversations with me, when I would think about it reasonably, I couldn't find much fault with it. It seemed to me that he was, after all, following the Christian Golden Rule and doing unto others as he would have them do unto him. I doubt that he would have minded at all if someone started using his bathroom, or walked into his cabin unannounced and borrowed some of his stuff without asking. He was just that way. He did keep forgetting to turn off the light in the bathroom, though.
     The almost daily hanging out was a different issue. Different people have different tolerances for company and for solitude, with some people not liking to be alone for any longer than it takes to take a dump, and others, the true recluses, preferring not to associate with their fellow humans any more than is absolutely necessary. My own case seems to gravitate rather more toward the second group; and venerable U Vijaya's recommended daily allowance (RDA) of human companionship appears to be considerably higher than mine, especially when I'm slightly depressed. So, sometimes when he would come over I would adopt antisocial behaviors, like remaining standing after he had sat down. Sometimes I would pace back and forth, but he would then pace back and forth beside me in order to hang out better. Sometimes I would become almost monosyllabic; and in extreme cases, when he would enter the congregation hall on the pretext of searching the bookcases for something to read, or whatever, I would simply go outside. Apparently, if I became so antisocial that he couldn't help but notice it, he would clear out for a few days…and then I would make some casual, more or less friendly remark to him as we met on a footpath or at the dog feeding station (like, "Seven Bean Charlie offered exactly seven beans today"), and he would consider all to be well, and start coming over almost every day again. 
     I realized that in this situation also, obviously, he was doing unto others as he would have them do unto him. Even so, sometimes it bothered me; and there were many times when I was tempted to explain to him that coming over once a week would be plenty. The thing was, though, that I also realized that I was irritated when I wanted to tell him this, and I didn't want to vent irritation at him. Anything we do or say with positive mental states is positive, and produces positive karmic results, and anything we do or say with negative mental states is negative, and produces negative karmic results, regardless of how "nicely" we go about it at the surface. But then when I wasn't irritated anymore I didn't want to tell him, figuring that I should practice equanimity and be accepting of others.
     This kind of situation is a real dilemma, and it is one of the main causes of disharmony between people, including married couples. Maybe especially married couples. Person A does something that B doesn't like, but B doesn't want to say anything, because it's not that big of a deal, and B doesn't want to be an ass about it. So, naturally, A keeps doing it, with B being silently more and more bothered by it. Finally, A does it more than usual, and/or B happens to be in an unusually bad mood, and B just can't stand it anymore and explodes all over A, to A's surprise, with resultant hurt feelings, and plenty of bad feelings afterwards. It happens all the time. So it may be best in the long run frankly to vent the irritation right off the bat and be an honest ass; or, what may be preferable, to work up the gumption to tell the person about it after one is calm and positive and doesn't consider it to be a big deal anymore. We could even take full responsibility: "I realize it's my own immaturity or lack of wisdom, but when you do that, it bothers me," or words to that effect. Fortunately, in my own case I didn't come anywhere near to the explosion point, although some of my antisocial evasive maneuvers may have been minor versions of it. Candor and honesty are the best policy, even when they fly in the face of cultural conditioning and human nature. As Paul Lowe once said, if everyone suddenly became candid and honest, there would be explosions and chaos everywhere for about two weeks; but after the dust finally settled we'd look around and realize that we were all at a higher level of consciousness. I can't help but feel that living in a spiritual community with strong emphasis on interpersonal candor and total honesty would be an excellent experience for me. But not very many people are willing to try it.
     As I've mentioned before, I tend to avoid eye contact with other people when I'm depressed, or otherwise unhappy. For instance, if I'm in a room with other people and I'm getting bored or disgusted with the situation, I may spend a lot of time staring out the window. With U Vijaya, when I would notice this, I would make a deliberate point of looking him in the eye, whereupon I would find his frank, intent gaze looking right back at me, usually accompanied by a grin. During these moments I couldn't help but feel, intuitively and strongly, that his consciousness was more expanded than mine was at the time, which is practically the same as saying that he was wiser than me, even if he did keep forgetting to turn off the goddam light in the bathroom. That was humbling, although it's good to be humble if we can manage it somehow.
     Wisdom is not a matter of intelligence, or shrewdness, or really of mental states in general. Wisdom in a dharmic sense can be directly correlated with expansion of consciousness; thus when our consciousness expands out to infinity (and thereby ceases to be "our" consciousness), we are Enlightened. And all we have to do to do that is to knock down the walls that hold it back. And one of the main walls to be knocked down is the totality of all the things we think we know, but really don't.
     After all this writing I'm still on the very first topic of contraction of spirt at Migadawun; and since there's much more to go in recounting my adventures and misadventures after leaving the place, and also since all that is of a significantly different tone, I suppose I may as well conclude this episode of the soap opera, and continue the tale next week. But before ending this, I suppose it would be good to mention some things I have found helpful when experiencing depression, a.k.a. contraction of spirit.
     First, sleeping a little extra seems to help. It helps to give the brain a rest. Also, accomplishing something positive every day helps to spare one the feeling that the whole day was wasted, and that one is sinking into stagnation. It doesn't have to be anything very big—just cleaning one's room or doing the laundry can do it. In my case, writing posts for this blog was good "therapy"; it keeps me out of trouble, more or less, and especially after finishing one that I particularly like I feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. It may be that my posts over the past several months have been less expansive than usual, for which I apologize, with more emphasis on death and destruction, but from a dharmic perspective destruction is much more important than construction—construction usually involves the building of walls. Naturally, and maybe this one should have been mentioned first, the steady practice of meditative objectivity, that is, observing mental states without identifying with them, is invaluable. So it's not "I'm depressed"—it's more like "The mind is contracted; this is a depressed thought." Even Scientism can be useful in this respect: "It's not me, it's just an imbalance in brain chemistry." One thing I have done in the past when troubled and gloomy, although I didn't do it this past rainy season, is to read the Second Lamentation in the Bible (book of Lamentations, chapter 2); the person who wrote it had such stupendous, overwhelming troubles that I've never experienced the likes of them, and they make my own troubles seem trivial by comparison. One book I did read just a few days before leaving Migadawun, which appeared to be helpful, was Horace Fletcher's little book Menticulture: or The A-B-C of True Living, almost the sole message of which is that negativity and unhappiness are completely unnecessary and can simply be dismissed, effortlessly, if we really want to be without them. This is a very useful idea to bear in mind, even if only as a hypothesis for consideration. 
     (It may seem that I've written this post in a state of contraction also; but, although I'm not at the opposite extreme and totally manic nowadays, the impression is probably more the result of the subject matter, plus the fact that I wrote it with a massive snotty head cold—you know, the kind where your head feels like a basketball and you have to blow your nose 35 times a day. I'm feeling much better now.)
     Anyway, blessings are upon all of you.



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tattoos, Wine, Cloth, and Nirvana

     As I've mentioned before, I like symbolism. I enjoy reading symbolic literature, or occasionally watching a symbolic movie, and making out what the symbols represent. And if it's a good story, and a rich allegory too, with almost everything in the story ingeniously representing something else, then so much the better. For example, Golding's Lord of the Flies—the novel that is; forget the movie, which botched the main point of the story—is almost entirely symbolic: It's not really about little boys stranded on an island, it's about humans on planet earth; the boy called Piggy represents Science; his glasses represent Technology; the signal fire on top of the hill represents Religion; adults represent Angels; the epileptic boy who is murdered by the rest because they consider him to be "the monster," despite the fact that he is the one who has figured the monster out, represents Jesus of Nazareth; the conflagration at the end represents the end of the world; and the monster itself, of course, represents the Devil, Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. Movies like The Matrix, Tarkovsky's Stalker, and Synecdoche, New York are also leaning in the direction of not just containing symbolism, but being parables, philosophical allegories.
     One of my favorite works of symbolic fiction is Flannery O'Connor's short story "Parker's Back." It portrays a shiftless bum of a guy named Parker, who, whenever he is restless or depressed, cheers himself up by getting himself a new tattoo. He marries an ugly, foul-tempered, and very religious young woman (who I believe symbolizes his conscience) for no better reason than a strange compulsion that he himself does not understand, combined with the idea that marrying her would be the only way to get into bed with her.
     One day, while desultorily working as a farm hand somewhere, he spaces off and accidentally wrecks the boss's tractor. Figuring that he'll be fired for it, and that he'll catch hell for it from his wife also, he flees the farm and goes into town to avoid the storm and get himself a new tattoo. As he flips through the pages of his favorite tattoo parlor's design books, he finds an image of Jesus taken from a Byzantine mosaic, standing full face and with big, staring eyes, and he suddenly has an inspiration: He can treat himself to a new tattoo and pacify his religious wife at the same time! He tells the artist that he wants the Byzantine Christ. The artist says he'll clean up the image by removing all the little mosaic squares, but Parker wants it just the way it is, little squares and all. The artist tells him it will take a few days, as the tattoo will be an elaborate job. One interesting problem is that Parker has so many tattoos already that there's only one place left on his body that has room for a large tattoo: the middle of his back. He'd never had a tattoo put on his back before, since of course he can't see anything back there.
     So Parker eventually gets his new tattoo, and after it is presentable he takes it down to the local pool hall to show it off to his friends. He walks in, gets their attention, turns his back, lifts his shirt…and they stand in awed silence, staring at Christ's staring Byzantine eyes on Parker's back. Parker considers this to be an excellent sign—if his low-minded, vulgar friends at the pool hall are this impressed, then the tattoo will completely bowl over his excruciatingly religious wife. He finally goes home, in good spirits.
     Parker's wife (and symbolic conscience), his better half, so to speak, greets him with angry glares and accusations, saying she knows all about the tractor fiasco and that she supposes he's been in town all this time with his worthless friends, and that he probably wasted what little money he had on booze and a stupid new tattoo. Parker replies that yes, he got the tattoo, but that she'll like this one. He turns his back, lifts the shirt, and…. His wife is thoroughly unimpressed, and doesn't hesitate to let him know it. Parker, rather taken aback by this, asks her, "Don't you know who that is?" She replies, "Of course not. I've never seen that person before in my life." Then Parker, surprised that he must introduce his fanatically Christian wife to her own Lord and Savior, exclaims, "That's God!" The wife's eyebrows go way, way up; her eyes attain their maximum size; and presently she shouts, "Idolatry!!" She then assaults him with a broom, driving him out of the house with a crashing thunderstorm of blows. The story ends with Parker sitting on the floor of his front porch, crying like a baby.
     In the symbolism of the story, Parker's tattoos, I think, represent his accumulated views, opinions, and attitudes, and the general composition of his life. His final and biggest mistake, from the perspective of someone who is deeply religious, like maybe his own deep-down conscience, is that he attempted merely to add spirituality to the heap, instead of letting it change his life profoundly, and allowing it to take precedence over the rest of his mass of worldly junk. 
     It may seem inappropriate for a monk who is Theravada Buddhist, more or less, to discuss Christianity and Christian symbolism on his (my) blog; but after all, I'm a Western monk, one of the relatively few, and Western literature and culture are much, much more influenced by Christianity than by Buddhism, or by any other religious/spiritual system. Besides, Christianity historically may have assumed the outward form of most Western spirituality, but the essence of the spirituality itself, and the wisdom, is applicable to all systems. It is universal. And also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth, although maybe not fully enlightened (whatever that is supposed to mean), was undoubtedly an extraordinarily evolved and wise person, and much of what he said, especially if it is translated into non Judeo-Christian terminology, may be of value to anyone. 
     So continuing with this idea, I will observe that "Parker's Back" is clearly reminiscent of two of Jesus's parables in the New Testament of the Bible: the ones concerning wine bottles and the patching of old cloth. He said that putting new wine into old bottles (or wineskins) doesn't work, as the old bottles will burst and be ruined; and that mending an old robe by cutting off a piece of a new one to patch it with doesn't work either, as in addition to the old cloth tearing and making a bigger hole, the new robe also gets a hole in it. Like O'Connor's story, these parables also are symbolic references to the attempted addition of spirituality to the already existing heap of one's worldly beliefs and attitudes. Jesus apparently placed a great deal of emphasis on being "born again," and of seeing the world as a child sees it—that is, without the encumbering baggage of acquired worldly prejudices and cultural conditioning. 
     Many people, including Christians who read the Bible, may consider these parables to be more or less inscrutable and simply pass over them, like some of the strange similes concerning the Kingdom of Heaven—for example the ones comparing the Kingdom to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a large bush, and to a small amount of yeast that leavens a large lump of dough. I suspect that Jesus considered himself to be, in addition to the Jewish (not Christian) Messiah, a sort of spiritual "seed crystal," and believed that he was opening the door to a world in which "the faith of a grain of mustard seed" would make God the center of a new world order, and miracles a commonplace. He was apparently mistaken with regard to this, at least in our version of the universe, and the Kingdom turned out to be a "flash in the pan" that was degraded into little more than a more or less worldly and non-miraculous Church. But I digress.
     Anyway, the pouring of new wine into old bottles, or rather the pouring of eternal or timeless wine into established contemporary ones, is alive and well, even if the Kingdom of Heaven is not, in Western Buddhism as well as in Christianity. In fact it's probably more alive and well now in the Far West than it was 2000 years ago in the Near East. Even though Jesus was not a Buddhist, he was a sage, and in this case, at least, he was right.  
     It appears that most Westerners who try to follow and practice Buddhism are trying to patch it onto a context of worldly materialism, adding it to their accumulation of samsaric "stuff" rather as though it were a Byzantine Christ tattoo. Most of us value worldliness and a material orientation too much to let go of it, or to make it secondary in importance to Spirit. The same is true of Christians and almost everyone else; but many in the West, ironically, are attracted to Buddhism in particular because they perceive that it requires almost no faith at all in anything, and thus is not in conflict with their deep faith in modern worldliness, or Samsara. It may even be that some Western Buddhists dislike the mere mention of Christianity, especially by a Buddhist monk, because it smacks too much of the faith and religiousness they're trying to avoid.
     Simply adding Dharma to one's worldly point of view as a way of enhancing its (the point of view's) value may really enhance its value, in a worldly, samsaric sense; but it stops being genuine Dharma in the process, in the sense that it stops being a system or practice specifically leading out of Samsara and into complete liberation or enlightenment. This is especially true if it is added as part of a system that categorically denies the miraculous, since a worldly point of view leading to enlightenment would itself require a miracle. For that matter, enlightenment itself may be called a miracle. It transcends empirical cause and effect, and determinism. Miracles can happen, though.
     Buddhist Dharma was not designed by the Buddha to be a mere hobby; it is a profoundly radical method for maximizing one's chances for full enlightenment. It is a method which is so radical that it lies beyond the reach of most laypeople, because it practically starts with renunciation of a worldly life, and of worldly attitudes. Renouncing the world is practically Step One for a serious practitioner of Buddhism. Christianity used to be similar, with Jesus emphasizing the idea that one should concentrate on Spirit, and have faith that God would provide the necessary support. One must be "born again," not just affected with a new feeling of religious sentimentality. "Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and follow Me."
     The traditional Burmese are born into a Dharmic world view, and accept it without question, at least the villagers do, so they're not just patching it onto a spiritually comatose cultural system ("comatose" because Spirit can't really die out completely in the human heart). Most of them freely admit that they are not ready to seek enlightenment in this life, but they don't reject the emphasis on renunciation, and don't reject the idea of spiritual transcendence, considering it an impractical pipe dream or superstition, either. Largely because of this, they feel inspired to support those who they consider to be really giving liberation a serious shot. (Speaking of Spirit's inability to die, my own experience suggests that most manifestations of genuine lay Dharma in the West are more a natural result of innate human goodness than of a guiding system. Most of my non-Asian supporters in America, almost all of them, seem to have supported me more out of natural generosity and friendliness than out of any desire to live up to Buddhist ideals. About half of them weren't even Buddhists. The Buddhist system itself tends to be too rudimentary and incomplete in the West for it to be of much effect in that regard.)
     Anyway, if you want to realize Dharma, you very probably won't succeed if you insist that it be in accordance with a non-Dharmic way of seeing the world, and of functioning in it. It just doesn't work that way (especially if you don't accept the possibility of miracles, as mentioned above).
     Most human beings simply do not see the luggage of basic assumptions, most of them not only non-Dharmic but also quite irrational, that they have assimilated and accumulated from their surrounding culture. In one of Richard Gombrich's earlier books on Theravada, he makes the statement that, for the sake of unbiased objectivity, he will adopt in his discussion an attitude that is "metaphysically neutral"; then he goes ahead and adopts throughout his discussion a modern scientific, academic, humanist metaphysic, apparently oblivious to the fact that he wasn't being metaphysically neutral at all. He didn't mean any harm by it, and is sympathetic toward Theravada, but still. There really is no metaphysically neutral attitude, except perhaps in theoretical skepticism and practical mysticism—that is, in pure suspension of judgement, one way or the other. Otherwise, any attitude has implicit metaphysical assumptions, whether we realize this or not. We may not examine our beliefs very deeply, and even if we do for a time, like Parker, we wear our perceptual tattoos for so long that we hardly even notice them any more.
     In very early Buddhism, and later on in much of Mahayana philosophy, view, diṭṭhi, is considered to be a major hindrance to liberation; and this applies not only to religious heresy or philosophical "wrong view," but to any adopted belief system. Thus it is certainly not necessary to believe in a flat earth floating on water, in Sakka, King of Gods, in the Buddha's alleged "twin miracle" of levitating into the air and spraying water and fire simultaneously, etc. But of course even believing the silliest fables is not as much of a hindrance to enlightenment as firmly believing that Nirvana is impossible, or, what amounts to essentially the same thing, that Nirvana is an objectively verifiable, and thus samsaric, state. So be careful about what you believe, especially if you follow along with what appears to be obviously true.
     The practice of Dharma, then, requires a certain suspension of judgement with regard to what Reality is and is not. It may also require the humility to acknowledge, if it happens to be true, that we are not willing to do much more than scratch the surface. So many in the West are hardly doing more than that in Dharma, yet nevertheless calling themselves "Sangha" and seeing no point in advocating anything beyond it. (It is true that plenty of monks, Eastern and Western, aren't doing much real Dharma either, but that's a different story.)
     What all this ranting amounts to is that vehemently insisting upon a spiritually comatose world view, even though it may endorse a worldly kind of fairness, equality, nonviolence, etc., is simply not conducive to Awakening, or to real happiness. The Buddha apparently taught this, Jesus apparently taught this, and plain common sense implies it as well. Good luck in your practice.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Word Insanity

"Sticks and stones may break my bones…so please, please don't throw sticks and stones." —Gilligan
     I'm the sort of person who reads dictionaries. I don't just look into one when I want to know what some word means, or how to spell it, or whatever; I can sit there for an hour looking around at etymologies, advice on word usage, and biographical and geographic entries. I figure if one is to speak, write, and especially think in the English language, then one should be as proficient in it as possible. I have lived for twenty years in Burma, among Burmese monks and villagers who speak little or no English, and I never stopped thinking in American English.
     Anyhow, recently while reading the dictionary I came upon the warning that to refer to a man from China as a "Chinaman" is offensive. He is from China, and he is a man, but it is bad and wrong to call him a Chinaman. Why would a Chinese man be offended by this? Is it because in 1850, in California, Chinese men were called Chinamen and were despised as sly, devious foreigners who were trying to earn the money that good white Americans ought to have? (Ever see the old TV show "Kung Fu"? In most episodes some hick cowboy or California miner with a gun would say something like, "Chinaman, Ah'm gonna blow yo hayd awf.") I'm not sure about this "Chinaman" thing. 
     For that matter, I've learned that to call a person of East Asian ancestry "Oriental" is also considered to be offensive, in many cases at least. Why? Well, the New Oxford American Dictionary says:
The term Oriental, denoting a person from East Asia, is regarded as offensive by many Asians, especially Asian Americans. It has many associations with European imperialism in Asia. Therefore, it has an out-of-date feel and tends to be associated with a rather offensive stereotype of the people and their customs as inscrutable and exotic.
Well, what's wrong with being inscrutable and exotic? I like being inscrutable and exotic. Oddly, though, the word "oriental" simply and literally means "eastern." Why would a word that means "eastern" be seen as objectionable? Would a person of European ancestry be offended if he were called "occidental"? It might be that most Americans wouldn't know that the word means "western," so some might be offended and respond like, "Heyyy…are you makin' funna me?" Besides, the more fashionable and politically correct term "Asian" is much less descriptive, considering that it includes Indians, Iranians, Arabs, etc., who are not of the Mongoloid race—ah, but "Mongoloid" also is offensive.

(a Chinaman)

     I also learned from the dictionary that the term "Hottentot," referring to a race of aboriginal people of southern Africa, is offensive now, and "should always be avoided." They are more correctly referred to nowadays as "Khoikhoi." "Hottentot," however, doesn't mean anything bad—it doesn't really mean anything at all, apparently, as Dutch settlers called them that in imitation of the sound of their (the Khoikhoi's) vocalizations. Whether the Bushmen, a group related to the Hotten— eh, Khoikhoi, have started being offended by being called "Bushmen" or not I don't know. There is a trend, however, toward preferring the name "San." Possibly if women of the San have been enlightened by feminist missionaries, they may be offended by the term "Bushman," preferring the more egalitarian term "Bushperson."
     One interesting case of this nature is with regard to the Eskimos. The very same dictionary claims that "Eskimo" is now offensive, AND that it is the only really applicable word for these people in Alaska. Political correctness has decreed that the proper name for them is now "Inuit," but only the Eskimos of Greenland and Canada call themselves that. The Eskimos of Alaska and Siberia speak a different language; so unless we want to call them "Yupik" or "Inupiaq," which almost nobody would recognize as referring to anyone in particular, "Eskimo" really is the most applicable term. Yet, at the same time, it is considered to be offensive, largely because one possible etymology of the word means "eater of raw meat," which of course is what Eskimos traditionally are. Hmmm.
     Meanwhile, the American Indians do not consider "Indian" to be offensive, even though they don't really come from India, or the East Indies either. Many of them freely use the term with regard to themselves. To give just one example, the college on the Lummi Indian Reservation near Bellingham, Washington is officially named the Northwest Indian College. It may be that there is some better term they could come up with ("Native American" is inferior because it includes Aleuts and Eskimos, who are not technically American Indians), but I am glad that they are not positively offended by being called "Indians." Maybe if we explain to them that they ought to be offended…. Anyway, for the time being, three cheers for the equanimity of American Indians.
     The king of all offensive racial terms in the English language is very probably "nigger." The term is derived from the Spanish word "negro," which simply means "black." (And "black," of course, is the most acceptable term nowadays.) "Nigger," like "negro" and "colored," was not always considered to be offensive—it used to be just a word that was used, like "Eskimo," "Hottentot," or "Chinaman." I've read quite a lot of "classic" English fiction, and I am struck by the remarkable fact that so much of it contains the word "nigger." Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad (who wrote an entire novel entitled The Nigger of the Narcissus), Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Bret Harte, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, etc., used the word without compunction. These writers were intelligent and (with the possible exception of Hemingway) sensitive people, yet they saw no compelling reason to use some other term, like "black person." In Sherwood Anderson's great story "I'm a Fool," the protagonist brags about the fine nigger that he had for his best friend. A rather thick anthology of short fiction could be compiled (but certainly won't) entitled A Golden Treasury of Classic Nigger Stories. I used to wonder, with political correctness taken as seriously as it is, if Twain's Huckleberry Finn has been censored in the American school system—since, of course, one of the main characters is called Nigger Jim. It is considered to be one of the greatest of American novels, so I wondered. Very recently I discovered that as early as the 1950's, in the state of New York, school boards had debated this very issue, that is, whether or not to censor Huckleberry Finn. At the very least, teachers who have their classes read the book feel powerful urges to explain that Twain didn't mean any harm by it, and maybe didn't know any better. 
     But is the modern term "black" for a person of sub-Saharan African ancestry really any better from a linguistic point of view? The word "black" has plenty of negative connotations (black magic, a black heart, blacklist, black mass, black flag, blackmail, etc., etc.); and all but maybe the darkest Nigerians aren't actually black, but only darkish brown, at the most, like coffee. Many people called "black" are only medium brown, or even light brown. "Colored person" would seem a more positive and accurate term…but I'm pretty sure that has become offensive. 

Are these people really offended to be called Hottentots,
or do politically correct white people volunteer to become offended on their behalf?

     Verbal offensiveness is not restricted to race, of course. Some gender-related terms are also offensive now. Using the word "he" for anyone in general is seen as something that "should always be avoided," even when avoiding it results in awkwardness or bad grammar. (On the other hand, referring to a baby as "it" is still OK, possibly because infants are too young to have learned to be offended by it.) In America, some feministically-oriented people consider dividing women into the categories of "Mrs." and "Miss," while men stay lumped together as "Mr." to be discriminative against women, and therefore something to be offended about. On the other hand, in Burma, where women are traditionally considered to be inferior to men, men have three categories for "Mr." while women have only two categories—which might also be viewed as offensive discrimination against women. Whichever way it goes, it may be viewed as discrimination against women, and something not to be tolerated.
     Ironically, this same political correctness mania has begun favoring the use of specifically male terms for women, like "actor," "governor," "poet," "hero" (instead of "actress," "governess," "poetess," "heroine"). So lumping women into a grammatically masculine category is sometimes offensive, and sometimes the opposite. I don't pretend to fully understand this.
     Furthermore, there are a whole slew of more "correct" terms that have arisen over the past few decades. A mailman is now a letter carrier. An office secretary, or so I've been told, is now an executive administrator. A prison guard is no longer a prison guard, but is now a corrections officer; and if you happen to mention a prison guard you may be interrupted and corrected: "No, he's a corrections officer." Airline stewardesses are now flight attendants (except on East Asian airlines, where they are emphatically still stews; and if they stop looking like stews they are pulled from the planes and have to sell tickets at the airport). I don't know what the correct term for meter maids is now, but I bet they're not called "meter maids" anymore, not correctly anyway. And I will simply pass over all the new names for old diseases and mental dysfunctions. Gaffes regarding such terms are less offensive than with racial and more blatantly gender-oriented words. I don't know if any flight attendant would actually be offended to be called a "stewardess"; although she might condescendingly correct the guilty philistine's barbarous choice of language.
     Long ago I read Thorstein Veblen's classic book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It may be the only economics book I've ever read. In it the author gives a fascinating theoretical explanation for why people behave in public the way they do—it even offers explanations for why Western people grow grass in their yards, why butlers dress and act like prime ministers, and why the Pope wears a funny hat. According to Veblen's theory, after human beings developed urban civilization, in which everybody did not know everybody else, or their relative social status, as they used to in small tribes or villages, people began advertising their social status in various ways (and also began faking a higher status than they actually had). Thus in poor, agricultural societies to be pudgy and white-skinned is indicative of relatively high social status, as it implies that the bearer of these characteristics is not a manual laborer, turned thin and brown in the fields, and so in these societies people try to look pudgy and white; yet in industrial societies where poor people are more sedentary and tend to be pudgy and white themselves, to be thin and brown is a status symbol, as it indicates that such an individual has the leisure time to exercise and loll in the sun. Anyone who has looked at Renaissance portraits of nobles and wealthy merchants may have noticed the bizarre, outlandish clothing that they wore in those days: their costumes flaunted their wealth and status not only because poor people could not afford to wear velvet, satin, jewels, and gold, but also because the wearer of such manifestly impractical clothing obviously couldn't do a lick of manual labor while wearing it. These are just a very few examples of the theory in action; its scope is very broad, and includes everything from 19th-century Chinese foot-binding and the regalia of bishops, to dance trends, to the knowledge of, say, what wine goes with what meat, and which fork to use when eating the crab salad. Even basic manners like "please" and "thank you" may be explained in accordance with the theory. People may take such things very seriously without comprehending exactly why they do so—other than wanting very much to follow along with almost everyone else.
     Considering this, it seems to me that the ever-changing "correct" terms for racial groups, females, and diseases (etc.), some of which mutate like a virus (not the diseases, but the terms), and also even being offended if one is called by a name no longer in fashion, can also be explained in accordance with Veblen's theory. It's hardly any different than scrupulously learning the "proper" way of eating a banana in public. "Oh, I'm supposed to be offended if I'm called that? OK…I don't want to seem like a low-class ignoranimus…" 
     The very fact that two people can be sitting right next to each other, and both hear someone refer to a woman as a "broad," "chick," or "snapper," and only one of them becomes offended, is a pretty clear indication that the mere word itself was not the true cause of the offense. Virtually all of it is a matter of personal reaction, or the lack of it—a matter of conditioned attitude.
     A person who uses politically incorrect, potentially offensive language is really at fault in an ethical sense only if his or her intentions are hostile, that is, if he or she is deliberately intending to cause offense and unhappiness. It is true that a person deliberately trying to be offensive is more likely to use words like "nigger" or "dyke," or maybe even "Chinaman," but really, words are just words, having no intrinsic meaning of themselves other than what is imposed upon them. It may even be that if a person knows that certain words will probably result in someone being offended but says them anyway, to the extent that his or her intention is positive or neutral, he or she is still off the ethical hook, at least from a Buddhist perspective. Such people may still be dismissed as uncultured philistines, or insensitive jerks, by society; but sometimes it may be better to be dismissed than accepted by an inherently insane system.
     In conclusion, please remember that if you are offended by anything, it is really your own choice, and your own doing. Don't let social mass delusion spoil your present moment, let alone your day, year, or life.
(found in a Google images search for "oriental")

Appendix: An Excerpt from Tom Sawyer Abroad, by Mark Twain

     In this scene Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Jim, and a crazed balloonist are flying over the eastern United States in a hot air balloon, with the plan of circumnavigating the earth. Tom has just begun to notice that the clocks on church steeples below are running an hour faster than his own pocket watch (his "turnip"). Huckleberry is narrating the story.

     "That's funny! That clock's near about an hour fast."
     So he put up his turnip. Then he see another clock, and took a look, and it was an hour fast too. That puzzled him.
     "That's a mighty curious thing," he says. "I don't understand it." 
     Then he took the glass and hunted up another clock, and sure enough it was an hour fast too. Then his eyes began to spread and his breath to come out kinder gaspy like, and he says:
     "Ger-reat Scott, it's the longitude!"
     I says, considerably scared:
     "Well, what's been and gone and happened now?"
     "Why, the thing that's happened is that this old bladder has slid over Illinois and Indiana and Ohio like nothing, and this is the east end of Pennsylvania or New York, or somewheres around there."
     "Tom Sawyer, you don't mean it!"
     "Yes, I do, and it's dead sure. We've covered about fifteen degrees of longitude since we left St. Louis yesterday afternoon, and them clocks are right. We've come close on to eight hundred miles."
     I didn't believe it, but it made the cold streaks trickle down my back just the same. In my experience I knowed it wouldn't take much short of two weeks to do it down the Mississippi on a raft.
     Jim was working his mind and studying. Pretty soon he says:
     "Mars Tom, did you say dem clocks uz right?"
     "Yes, they're right."
     "Ain't yo' watch right, too?"
     "She's right for St. Louis, but she's an hour wrong for here."
     "Mars Tom, is you tryin' to let on dat de time ain't de same everywheres?"
     "No, it ain't the same everywheres, by a long shot."
     Jim looked distressed, and says:
     "It grieves me to hear you talk like dat, Mars Tom; I's right down ashamed to hear you talk like dat, arter de way you's been raised. Yassir, it'd break yo' Aunt Polly's heart to hear you."
     Tom was astonished. He looked Jim over wondering, and didn't say nothing, and Jim went on:
     "Mars Tom, who put de people out yonder in St. Louis? De Lord done it. Who put de people here whar we is? De Lord done it. Ain' dey bofe his children? 'Cose dey is. Well, den! is he gwine to scriminate 'twixt 'em?"
     "Scriminate! I never heard such ignorance. There ain't no discriminating about it. When he makes you and some more of his children black, and makes the rest of us white, what do you call that?"
     Jim see the p'int. He was stuck. He couldn't answer. Tom says:
     "He does discriminate, you see, when he wants to; but this case here ain't no discrimination of his, it's man's. The Lord made the day, and he made the nights; but he didn't invent the hours, and he didn't distribute them around. Man did that."
     "Mars Tom, is dat so? Man done it?"
     "Who tole him he could?"
     "Nobody. He never asked." 
     Jim studied a minute, and says:
     "Well, dat do beat me. I wouldn't 'a' tuck no sich resk. But some people ain't scared o' nothin'. Dey bangs right ahead; dey don't care what happens. So den dey's allays an hour's diff'unce everywhah, Mars Tom?"
     "An hour? No! It's four minutes difference for every degree of longitude, you know. Fifteen of 'em's an hour, thirty of 'em's two hours, and so on. When it's one o'clock Tuesday morning in England, it's eight o'clock the night before in New York." 
     Jim moved a little way along the locker, and you could see he was insulted. He kept shaking his head and muttering, and so I slid along to him and patted him on the leg, and petted him up, and got him over the worst of his feelings, and then he says:
     "Mars Tom talkin' sich talk as dat! Choosday in one place en Monday in t'other, bofe in the same day! Huck, dis ain't no place to joke—up here whah we is. Two days in one day! How you gwine to get two days inter one day? Can't git two hours inter one hour, kin you? Can't git two niggers inter one nigger skin, kin you? Can't git two gallons of whisky inter a one-gallon jug, kin you? No, sir, 'twould strain de jug. Yes, en even den you couldn't, I don't believe. Why, looky here, Huck, s'posen de Choosday was New Year's—now den! is you gwine to tell me it's dis year in one place en las' year in t'other, bofe in the identical same minute? It's de beatenest rubbage! I can't stan' it—I can't stan' to hear tell 'bout it." Then he begun to shiver and turn gray, and Tom says:
     "Now what's the matter? What's the trouble?"
     Jim could hardly speak, but he says:
     "Mars Tom, you ain't jokin', en it's so?"
     "No, I'm not, and it is so." 
     Jim shivered again, and says:
     "Den dat Monday could be de las' day, en dey wouldn't be no las' day in England, en de dead wouldn't be called. We mustn't go over dah, Mars Tom. Please git him to turn back."