Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Bronze Age Collapse

     I've been reading rather a lot of history lately. The method has been that, since I have only occasional Internet access, before logging off I upload one or two articles to read later on; and lately, out of curiosity, and because technically I'm an American citizen, I've been reading up on early American history. Sometimes it's really interesting. For example, I learned that George Washington (the guy on the $1 bill), contrary to legend, probably didn't really own a set of wooden false teeth—however, he did have a set of dentures made from real teeth pulled out of the mouths of his black slaves. It is said that he did compensate them for their sacrifice, though—probably not by freeing them, but at least with payments of money. Also, I already knew that Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the $10 bill) was shot and killed in a duel with a fellow named Aaron Burr; but I hadn't realized that Mr. Burr was vice president of the United States at the time! The vice president shoots and kills another politician in a duel and doesn't get into any significant trouble for it. Not even a fine, not even a slap on the wrist. Andrew Jackson (the guy on the $20 bill) also shot and killed at least one person while dueling, although it was before he became a famous politician. Times have really changed; nowadays a politician privately shoots somebody in a local forest, and his career is pretty much over. Anyway, enough of early American history. I'm tempted to share a few strange facts about the War of 1812…but I won't.
     One fascinating bit of history I came across a few months ago is that Western civilization essentially collapsed around 1200 BCE; it is known as the Bronze Age Collapse, or the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Some historians declare that it is the greatest calamity in all of ancient history, being much more calamitous than even the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE—and that was one hellaciously calamitous event. I had already heard about some bits of it; for example I had heard of the Dorian invasion of Greece and the so-called Greek Dark Ages, and had read about some Minoans of Crete being driven out by invading Mycenaean Greeks, attempting to conquer northern Egypt, failing, and then eventually settling down south of Israel to become known as the Philistines; but I hadn't realized that practically every urbanized civilization west of the Tigris River essentially crashed—Greece, the Egyptian empire, the Hittite empire, the Assyrian empire, the civilizations on Cyprus and in Canaan, some other little known ones like the kingdom of Ugarit, plus maybe some further west in Europe—all were either destroyed or reduced to a much smaller, more primitive form. And all of this happened around the same time, i.e. 1200 BCE. 

major urban centers destroyed during the Bronze Age Collapse (from Wikipedia)

     One aspect of the end of the Bronze Age that is rather counterintuitive is that it wasn't simply caused by the beginning of the Iron Age. In fact, the beginning of the Iron Age appears to have been a kind of incidental side effect. After civilization collapsed, so did international commerce, causing tin, a key ingredient in bronze, most of which had to be imported from elsewhere, to become very scarce. So people of necessity had to start making iron weapons to kill each other with, which in those days, before the invention of steel and other iron-hardening technologies, were actually inferior to good bronze. 
     But strangely, ironically, although this event is allegedly one of the most important convulsions in all of humankind's history, relatively little is known about it—which may be one reason why most modern people have probably never heard of it. Most of the information is hypothetical, with much of it coming from terse Egyptian inscriptions on monuments and temple walls. In fact, the reasons why civilizations collapse in general is not well understood at all. For example I have read that the number of published theories, and variations on theories, attempting to explain why classical Mayan civilization collapsed in around the 9th century CE is more than eighty. The Mayans stopped building cities, and moved out of the ones already built, and it appears that nobody knows exactly why. A "general systems collapse" may be very complex, with key aspects of it being very difficult to isolate and identify. 
     Even so, there are some fairly probable contributing factors to the Bronze Age Collapse. One factor was very probably a several years- or even decades-long drought which settled onto southern Europe and western Asia around that time, resulting in migrations of large groups of people, consequent invasions, and predation on neighboring societies for survival. It also very probably resulted in poor people becoming so desperate that they attacked the wealthy en masse, which probably was not good for political stability.
     Also, the Collapse was very probably influenced dramatically by the so-called "Sea Peoples," a loose assemblage of pirates and raiders who ran amuck across the eastern Mediterranean area. Virtually all of the cities, towns, and villages near a coastline were plundered and destroyed, and there was an exodus of people away from coastal areas. 
     Strangely and ironically again, the experts are not certain exactly who these Sea Peoples were. Probably some were from Anatolia, and may have included the Trojans and the proto-Etruscans before the latter migrated to Italy. Probably some were Greeks—in fact the story of Homer's Iliad describes events around the time of the Collapse, and mentions the Greeks sacking Anatolian coastal towns for supplies and booty. Probably some were Minoans, whose empire had already been wrecked by various causes, including marauding Greeks. Some scholars even hypothesize that one of the Sea Peoples was the Hebrew tribe of Dan.
     One theory attempting to account for the explosion of raiders and pirates in the eastern Mediterranean, which I happened to read long ago, and which seems to make good sense, but which seems not to be favored by the people who write Wikipedia articles, involves the Minoan civilization, i.e., the pre-Greek civilization of the Aegean Sea. According to the Greek historian Thucydides, King Minos of Crete, a Minoan (the Minoans were named after him), was the first national leader to establish a standing navy. King Minos himself, let alone the Minotaur, may be pure mythology, although Thucydides's story may be based on a prehistoric fact. If so, this first navy presumably not only defended the coasts of the Minoan territories, but policed the shipping lanes also, keeping the eastern Mediterranean relatively free of violent marauders. Sometime around the 15th century BCE, the Minoan civilization became much weakened from a number of causes, not the least of which being the volcanic explosion of the Island of Thera about 100 km from Crete. (This great civilization, a superpower in the region, collapsing after the dramatic explosion of a populated island may very well have been the origin of the legend of Atlantis…although that's a different story.) The newly-arrived Greeks took advantage of this weakened state of Crete and invaded, thereby putting an end to classical Minoan civilization—although basing their own classical civilization largely upon it. Anyway, after the Minoan civilization ceased to exist in any politically significant sense, the navy likewise ceased to police the eastern Mediterranean; and so it became very convenient for Greeks and others to get rich quick by raiding and plundering just about everyplace within reach. The long drought, failed crops, and general desperation, of course, would have added to the whole mess.
     There are other ideas about why civilizations crash which are philosophically more interesting, and which are also much more general, not relying upon pirates or volcanic explosions. For example, urban civilization, with its division and specialization of labor, requires much more energy to keep it going than a more primitive, generalized form of society. One city of 100,000 people requires much more energy to maintain it than, say, 100 villages of 1000 people each. Also, agriculture must become much more intensive to sustain cities. Obviously, when farmers constitute most of the population, they needn't work nearly so hard to feed everyone as when they constitute only five or ten per cent. The more urbanized and specialized, the more difficult to keep the system going; and all it takes is some lousy weather or for the advanced system to become too demanding of resources, and keeping the civilization going may fail, or may simply become obviously no longer worth the effort. 
     Also, as was mentioned earlier, a general systems collapse may be very subtle in its workings, although with very obvious, massive results. Consider the human body, which is also, of course, a very advanced, very complicated system. The chemical reactions in our bodies are regulated by many, many enzymes which are calibrated by Nature to operate at the optimum speed and in the proper way at the normal temperature of a healthy person's body, around 37°C. If a person dies of fever or of heat stroke, or so I was taught many years ago, what happens is that as the various enzymes leave the optimum range of temperatures, they begin altering in their functions in a non-uniform way—that is to say, they start operating at different speeds and with different efficiencies, and stop being intricately calibrated to function in unison. Thus the whole system is thrown out of kilter, and eventually breaks down totally. A highly developed urban civilization may undergo a similar process, under certain circumstances; but the process is not well understood by scientists nowadays. They don't have access to enough collapsing civilizations to conduct a good statistical analysis.
     All this discussion of the collapsing Bronze Age, etc., might barely warrant inclusion on an ostensibly Buddhist blog as a reflection on impermanence. It could be seen as a smaller-scale variation on the post "Events of Mass Extinction," except involving mere civilizations and not species, worlds, or galaxies. All civilizations of the past have eventually come to an end, and it is a safe bet that ours will too. In fact, NASA recently produced a notorious study which arrived at the conclusion, or so I've been informed, that our civilization has already very probably reached the stage of "irreversible collapse." But I don't want to talk about that.
     What really fascinates me is a theory contrived by Julian Jaynes and explored in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which incidentally I've never read. According to him, civilization collapsed around 1200 BCE because Western humankind was undergoing a convulsive change in consciousness, a radical shift in mentality. He says that before that time the people of the West had a more traditional, religious, instinctive mindset which, with the increased complexity, specialization, and artificiality of urban culture, had become very ill-suited to everyday life, resulting in a practically necessary change to a way of thinking that was more objective, rational, and flexible. The failure of the old way of thinking to keep pace with the evolution of society, plus the stumbling first steps of the new way, facilitated the Bronze Age Collapse.  
     Jaynes was apparently an optimist who believed in the superiority of the modern mind, as his theory of how people used to think before the collapse is rather peculiar. According to him, pre-Iron-Age people were almost schizophrenic, being almost totally dissociated from their own thought processes, and thus they considered their own thoughts to be implanted into their minds from the outside, by a god, personal daemon, or semi-divine ancestor. Thus people considered themselves to be essentially puppets of the gods or spirits. Some very ancient works of Western literature, like Homer's Iliad, could be presented as evidence in favor of this theory. Also it might help to explain why traditional polytheistic paganism had so little to offer to the later Greeks and Romans. Jaynes called this old, divided way of mentality "the bicameral mind."
     This theory would totally contradict the past-glorifying ideas of, for instance, René Guénon, and traditional Buddhism too, for that matter—Buddhist texts declaring that we humans are in the midst of a long, cyclical process of de-volution rather than e-volution, with the current dispensation of Buddha-Dharma presumably being a period of temporarily reversed degeneration. 
     On the other hand, the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist wrote a book entitled The Master and His Emissary, which also I haven't read, in which he hypothesizes that a major mental shift did occur, but that it was in essentially the opposite direction of the one proposed in Jaynes's theory. According to McGilchrist the radical, convulsive shift in consciousness was from a more unified, more mystical mind to a more divided one, with the more rational and language-oriented left hemisphere of the brain taking over and dominating the right, reducing it to a kind of more or less passive servant. Personally, I feel more inclined to favor McGilchrist's theory, not having nearly so high an opinion of the modern mentality as Jaynes evidently had. In any case, it is fascinating that a transitional upheaval in human consciousness may have resulted in events of very major historical importance, possibly even in a transformational, cathartic crash of Western civilization, followed by a centuries-long Dark Age.
     It may be that this sort of mass shift in consciousness, resulting in a societal collapse, a dark age, and an eventual different stage of civilization, has happened more than once. For instance, it may have been a major factor in the advent of Christianity as a world religion, and in the collapse of the Roman Empire, resulting in several centuries of barbarism and cultural "dark age." 
     Jesus of Nazareth evidently believed himself to be ushering in a radically spiritually-oriented New Age, the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom apparently didn't happen as he expected; yet it may be that the advent of Christianity in the West did initiate a new phase in Western consciousness. While reading literature about ancient times I have sometimes been struck by the cold ruthlessness of ancient people in general. Achilles of Trojan War fame, to give just one example, was considered a very great hero, a demigod even, but if a modern person reads the Iliad he or she sees clearly that the man was a colossal, towering ass, totally ruthless and selfish. If classical pagan philosophers advocated justice and mercy, they did so mainly out of a head-oriented sense of principle. I hypothesize that the conversion of the West to Christianity was the first major stirring of universal compassion in the consciousness of Western civilization, in Yogic terminology, the first activation of the heart chakra. It certainly may not seem like much now, and certainly hasn't come near to full flower even after 2000 years, but it may have been a major enough shift in consciousness to add to the disorientation and instability of the late Empire, and to have hastened its collapse. Edward Gibbon, an 18th century historian who semi-secretly despised Christianity, didn't hesitate to place part of the blame for the collapse of Rome on the heads of the Christians. A century later, blaming Christianity for the collapse of civilization had become politically incorrect and had fallen out of favor among English-speaking academics. I'm not sure how matters stand nowadays, but I wouldn't be surprised if scholarly intellectuals have started blaming early Christianity again, as being one of the contributing causes of the general systems collapse. 
     So, it could happen again. A convulsive shift of consciousness, a lurch into a higher stage of evolution, could come upon us at just about any time. After all—let's face it—we as a race are nowhere near to being fully civilized. We still kill fellow conscious beings, and eat their flesh, and wear their skins (especially on our feet). We still support wars, which are essentially mass murder. We are entertained by watching people kill each other in movies, often close up, in slow motion, with lots of splatter. We still consider our own uncovered bodies to be indecent, if not obscene. We, in America at least, tell our children not to lie, and then feed them a cock and bull story about a 4th century Christian saint from Asia Minor who somehow is still alive, who has moved to the north pole with some supernatural beings from Germanic folklore and some levitating caribou, and who flies around the earth one night per year, climbing down chimneys and depositing plastic toys. We think that we shouldn't share much with others until our greed for "enough" becomes satisfied, yet our greed is insatiable, and we never have enough. We know that our society's manner of existence is wrecking the world's biosphere, yet we refuse to do very much to rectify the situation, out of inertia and a stubborn unwillingness to be inconvenienced. And that's setting aside all the spiritual poverty, even among "religious" people. It may be that a collapse of civilization triggered more by other factors will in turn trigger the appropriate shift in consciousness, rather than the shift triggering the collapse.
     Yet many, especially people who are successful by modern standards, will oppose any major shift in consciousness, for the better or for not. When the Roman emperor Majorian, probably the last really worthy emperor of Rome, strove desperately to prevent the inevitable fall of the nation, his attempts at reform were bitterly hated and vehemently resisted by wealthy and powerful patricians, who resented any decrease in their wealth and privileges. Majorian's efforts were blocked again and again, and he was eventually assassinated. There are plenty of powerful patricians nowadays too, and their desire to maintain the status quo in their favor will probably just hasten and exacerbate the inevitable turmoil. 
     So some sort of major shift in consciousness will very likely happen again, and some major upheaval is pretty much inevitable, and it will probably be accompanied by desperate resistance from the patricians and other worldly-minded conservatives. Yet the calamitous nature of the shift, and even of the upheaval, is really not necessary. For example, the transition from medieval thinking to modern was more or less of a smooth one, admittedly with a calamitous pandemic of bubonic plague to help get it started, plus some persecutions involving the new Protestants, plus plenty of nasty wars. But there have always been plenty of nasty wars.
     Possibly, assuming that McGilchrist was right, and that Jaynes was right about the consciousness shift but wrong about its direction, the next stage in our civilization's spiritual evolution may involve a reunion of the "bicameral mind"—developed rationality and intuitive empathy combined, head and heart, hopefully with some inspired spirituality pervading it. That would be lovely, since the alienation, artificiality, and lukewarmness of modern life are leading us toward a precipice or a wall, which began around the time of the abort of the first attempt at the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe the next attempt will result in something more like what Jesus had in mind. Anyway, a shift is due. Whether it is gradual or sudden, whether it is part of a renaissance or a cataclysm, whether it is voluntary or painfully thrust upon us, is up to us.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Brushu Women and Stone Balls of Power

     I suppose there are people out there who consider me to be pathologically openminded (i.e., a "pudding-head"). Also, there may be some who suspect me to be a borderline New Ager. There is a method to my madness, though; and the credulity and feeling-oriented irrationality of some New Age people, regardless of how good-hearted they are, can cause attempted conversations with them to be very trying experiences for me.
     On the other hand, I am a son of my father, and he was a natural born New Ager—or rather, he was an Ancient Ager, as he looked toward ancient or even prehistoric shamanic times for his spiritual inspiration. Also, he was a rough, tough guy who appreciated a certain amount of violence in life, which seems to be anathema to the modern New Age movement. My youth was infused with his strange stories of bar brawls, astral traveling, big game hunting, past lives, prostitutes, ghosts and witchcraft, and much else besides; and his disdain for the mainstream interpretation of reality was either taught to me as a child or else bequeathed to me genetically at conception (which event, according to him, transpired in a parked car at a place called Hooligan Flats).
     In his later years he wrote a sort of supernatural autobiography, the manuscript of which is one of the few material things I inherited from him after he died. The following is an excerpt from that book, from his account of a trip he took to Mexico and Costa Rica in the spring of 1981. Devout materialists may consider it rubbish, but that's OK. At least it can convey some idea of how being raised with a certain ideology can affect one's whole world.
     I suppose I should add, to reduce possible confusion from the following narrative, that my father claimed the ability to see auras. Mabel was his second wife (not my mother), who was capable of entering trance states so deep that her breath and heart rate would almost stop, and who eventually became a very "talented" channeler and psychic. The "tall Chinese man" is my father's guardian spirit, a dead Buddhist monk with a name like Tai Sing. My father always pronounced the first part like "Tay." I can't vouch for the empirical truth of much of the following account, although I know he really did go to Costa Rica, and I also know that my father considered the events to have really happened—within a context, that is, of the dream world he considered this world to be. 

*   *   *

     Limon, Costa Rica, is almost a home town to me. San Jose, the capital, is a tourist trap. Limon is Limon; it has a soul of its own. There's a canal that starts there that leads 164 miles up the coast to the Rio Colorado, on the delta of the San Juan River that separates Costa Rica and Nicaragua. There are only a few small villages in the area, and probably less than four hundred people on that 164 mile stretch, including the Rio Colorado. There's a river barge that lines up and down the canal almost every week. I could usually work out a deal with them to ride up for a few colones, or by helping them load and unload, and getting out in chest-deep water and pushing when it got stuck. I had several days to kill in Limon while waiting for the barge, and that was OK by me. To demonstrate the spirit of Limon, longshoremen were on strike – but not for higher wages or better working conditions. They were striking to compel the city to repair the water mains. It's the only way to get it done. 
     The Atlantic coast of Costa Rica has a lot of blacks. They came to Costa Rica long ago from Jamaica to build a railroad from Limon to the Pacific. They kept a lot of their own culture, and most are not Catholic. They speak English in these parts, although some of the older ones also have learned to speak Spanish. Here I could communicate. Costa Rica had absolutely no racial discrimination, either way, that I ever saw. Not once did I hear Honky, or Whitey, or I'm being discriminated against. Nor did I hear the word Nigger. It was refreshing. They treated me like one of the boys. I treated them the same way. 
     My first day in town I felt that I was being watched – maybe "observed" would be a better word. I felt no hostility. The second day I discovered my observer. He was trailing me from across the street. He was a slender, well-dressed black man. I waved at him, and he knew I knew. He came across and introduced himself. "My name is George, sar." He had a soft Jamaican accent.
     "I am John." We shook hands, and I liked him from the start. "What's your game, George?" I asked. 
     He replied, "I am a hustler. I find people what they want. Some want girls, and some want drugs, and some want to buy land. I can usually tell right off what they're looking for. You're different, sar. I don't know what you want."
     "Then why don't you ask?"
     His answer was short and to the point. "Sometimes the guards of assistance watch me, sar." That's the police in Costa Rica.
     I invited him to dinner at the nicest restaurant in town, and he was at ease. I told him I was going to the jungle. 
     "You have no camera, sar, only light luggage, and not expensive luggage, sar. There's a jungle tour, and they have a very nice motor lodge." 
     I told him, "I take the freight barge."
     He looked puzzled. "You travel alone, you stay at the best hotel, and you have no camera. You eat in this restaurant, and you invite me, a man you do not know, to join you. Then you ride the freight barge. I do not understand."
     I told him, "I like you, George. You're my kind of person. You read people and try to understand them, like I do. You too are a loner."
     His aura was changing; he was beginning to understand me a little. Also, he was relaxing and trusting me more. "I just like the jungle, George. I find deep peace there." 
     He was puzzled again. His aura kept changing; he did not understand. Then he softened. "The jungle makes you feel good inside. Like me and the stone balls."
     The stone balls in Costa Rica are unique. It is the only place in the world where they are found. They are definitely manmade, but by whom? They're made of granite found only in the mountains, yet they lie in the jungle with no apparent rhyme or reason. They're not grouped in any obvious pattern, or as a part of anything. They are all sizes, some only one or two feet in diameter, some huge, up to seven or eight feet. There was just some giant hand that scattered them like a child's marbles some fifty or sixty miles from the stone deposits, crossing canyons and rivers. But who and how? 
     I had seen these stone balls decorating wealthier homes as yard ornaments in the larger towns. I had seen some half-buried, and some on top where the ground had been cleared away. They lay in the banana plantations and orange groves, too big and too much trouble to cart to town. "Who can tell me about the balls, George?" 
     He smiled. "I know someone, sar. Someone like us. I will make the arrangements, sar, maybe for tonight." 
     I assumed a teacher or some learned person who had a day job. Not so – that night I met Madge. George picked me up on his Yamaha motorcycle, a small one. We put-putted through back streets and back alleys, and through poor neighborhoods where all the houses were painted blue (a very popular color there). The poorer houses had no glass in the windows, only screens to help keep out the bugs. Madge lived in such a house. Poor people will steal and be stolen from all the same as rich people, but unlike most houses, there were no bars on the windows of hers. Madge looked like she should be on a box of pancake mix: I imagined Aunt Jemima with lots of bingle bangle costume jewelry. I am at a loss for words to describe Madge, but "quiet dignity" will have to do, though it does not sound adequate for her. She was much, much more. Her aura was the strangest I have ever seen. Here was real power. Her eyes looked through me, probing every nook and cranny of my mind. I waited for her to speak.
     She shook her head, as if to clear cobwebs from her mind, and said, "Your head has been broken, sar. Things are all changed in your mind."
     "Yes, there were three skull fractures."
     She shook her head. "No, there were four times, and not fractures, sar, but busted like an egg. The time you forget, sar, was in the war. You were hit with a rifle butt, sar." 
     I did get a mastoid crushed, but did not consider that a skull fracture.
     "Your right ear is still deaf, sar." 
     I nodded. While a prisoner of the Germans I had gotten mouthy. 
     Madge continued, "You were married to a powerful brushu woman, sar. You are not married now."
     "You will be again."
     "I don't think so."
     "You are older now and smarter, and your mind is not cloudy with rot. Next time you don't look so much for pretty on the outside and more for pretty on the inside. You will make each other very happy." Her eyes were looking through me again. "There are many spirits with you, sar, of people and also spirits of plants and animals and smoke."
     "Smoke?" I asked.
     "Yes sar, smoke." 
     This was getting crazy. At one time I imagined that every campfire I ever built left a little ghost, and that sometimes I could hear them calling, "John, John, come back, we want you, come back, you belong with us. We are one, come back." Sounds weird, but then again I am kind of a weird person. 
     Madge went on. "Now the jungle plants call you. Other times it is the water."
     I had long known. I had more entities – fire, air, water, and earth. In my home I had wooden statues I had carved myself with much emotion. I call them my household goddesses. When people ask what power the goddesses have, I answer, "Whatever power I choose to give them, the same as you and your God."
     Madge continued, "There is a tall Chinese man who is always angry at you. He would give you a message." He did not speak through her lips as he had with Mabel. She felt his thoughts and used her own words. His message was, "Have I taught you nothing? Must I batter down the door? You try to meditate by concentrating on nothing. That makes it a something. The very fact that you can give it a name makes it a something. You do not like the word 'God.' Then use some other word. Call it The Unknown, or whatever. Whatever you choose to call it, prayer is talking to it. Meditation is listening to it. It does no good to ask for advice and then not listen for the answer." 
     It was so simple. I had always had a problem with meditation. But listening – even I could listen. 
     She continued. "You never learn anything when you are talking. You must shut up and listen if you would learn. Experience is the cheapest thing you can get if you are smart enough to get it secondhand and let someone else make the mistakes." Then he/she reminded me of something he had said thirty years before. I had asked, "Can you read my thoughts?" and he had answered, "Can the lake reflect the hill?" My answer then was, "Only if the water is calm." He didn't have much to say, but what he did say was powerful stuff.
     Madge seemed exhausted. The session was over. We drank black, bitter Costa Rican coffee served Costa Rican style: a small pitcher of very strong coffee and another pitcher of hot water so you could dilute it to taste. She and George were old friends; as a small street kid she had fed him. They embraced warmly when we parted. She had accepted a love offering. I was generous. 
     George and I met the next day in the central park off the market. We talked of Madge, who was a powerful brushu, a person who had a powerful spirit to guide her. He looked at me strangely. "Madge says you have brushu.
     This too was puzzling. Madge and Mabel were both brushus, but I somehow felt that there was an important difference between them. I've never been able to find any references to the word, and I am probably now misspelling it. I think it's an old Jamaican word, maybe even African. 
     When we were through hashing Madge over we talked of stone balls. I asked, "Who made them, George?" 
     There were no legends, no stories, no histories, no ruins to tie them to. Maybe it was all lost in antiquity after the Spanish arrived; if so, the Spanish missionaries had done their work well.
     "When the stones are moved they lose their power, I think," said George.
     "Yes sar, power. Much power."
     "Do you know of stones that still have much power?"
     "Oh yes, sar."
     "Will you show them to me?"
     He looked at me, pondering. "Some people steal the stones, sar." 
     "Steal them? From who? Does someone own them?"
     "Not people, sar, they belong to the place they are at."
     "Who," I asked, "decides what stone belongs to what place?"
     "Nobody decides, sar." He looked disappointed in me. "The stones, sar, decide for themselves. They made themselves. They rolled of themselves. They are powerful, sar."
     My mind jumped to the enormous stone images of Easter Island. The old legends say they walked of themselves. "Who told you this, George?"
     "The stones told me, sar."
     "Would you take me to the stones with power, George? I will respect them, and I promise not to move them." 
     "You couldn't, sar. They're too big and too much jungle."
     "Then how do people steal them?"
     "They steal the power, sar. You are like me, sar – you will feel the power. If you buy the gasoline, sar, I will take you." 
     Gasoline in Costa Rica is dear, almost $4.00 a gallon in the early 1980's. It was a drop in the bucket. I went for it. And by his standards, I was a wealthy American tourist. "I will even pay you wages, George."
     "You don't have to do that, sar. You are my friend."
     "You got to earn a living, George."
     The next day, early, we took off with an extra can of gas and a machete. I didn't have to wonder long over what the machete was for. We took a dirt farm road till the road ran out. After that, a trail led to dense jungle. After half a day's hacking, we came to a stone ball about five or six feet in diameter. George put his palms on the stone. Not much power. We went on. 
     We built a lean-to out of palm fronds and spent the night. The stones were near. George could feel their power. I have to admit, I felt nothing. "It's best to visit the stones at sunrise." We had only a few more yards to go. They were beautiful: there were three or four of them near each other. A mound of creepers and vines covered them. We carefully cleared the brush away. They were not very close, but within sight of each other. One had the roots of a strangler fig twined around it; that one I felt had the most power. George chose a slightly larger stone about seven feet high. Near the stone he started stripping off his clothes. 
     "Does that increase the vibes?"
     "No sar, it deletes."
     We had kept a lookout for leeches the day before. Damn I hate those bloodsucking bastards. And we were loaded with them. They would even drop out of the trees on you, and sleeping on the ground you were at their mercy. In jungle humidity wounds fester and get infected quick. George selected a bush or small tree and scraped off a handful of shavings, and put some on each bite. I had always used tobacco, but this was better and stopped the bleeding like right now. The leech uses an anticoagulant that sometimes causes one to bleed for hours. Why, I wondered, doesn't modern medicine check out some of this stuff. 
    Deleeched, I followed George's lead, naked and standing tall, and stretched my arms out wide, placing both palms on the stone and pressing my forehead against it – and got vibes different from anything I had felt before. My body felt light as a feather, almost as though I were flying. There was a soft, rhythmic bell-ringing in my mind. I grew very sleepy, almost as if I were going into a trance, or perhaps I was. I felt as though if I didn't sit down I might fly away; so I sat with my back to the stone. The vibes were strong, and different compared with the Aztec pyramid or the cathedral [in Mexico]. The heat was sweltering, the hottest time of year. I dreamed about big round stones rolling through the jungle by themselves with a cloud of mist around them. I told George about it later.
     He smiled and said, "I told you so." 
     On the way out the trail was already cut, but the rainy season hit with a vengeance. In this part of Central America it can rain about 600 inches a year, and a hundred inches a month during the wet season. I've seen 23 inches in 24 hours at Rio Colorado. Coming out we damn near drowned. Flat jungle was knee deep with water and leeches. 
     The day after I got back to Limon, we headed up the canal on the freight barge. The place was the same, wet and wonderful. It was a wet trip, but at least there was no getting off and pushing. When we reached the Rio Colorado, I couldn't see the water from all the green trees floating by; the rain was ripping the limbs off the trees up in the jungle. 
     I visited my friend Jim at the Rio Colorado Lodge. He was reading a copy of the Miami Herald four days old – just dropped off by the tourist motor lodge. A mountain, Mount Saint Helens in Washington state, had just blown her top….I had to get home and check on my boys. I didn't wait for the freight barge. The skipper would have to find some other Gilligan for the way back down. I took the tourist boat and made it all the way back to Limon in one day. The rain gods were angry. It was a wet trip.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Whatever Happened to Helmut Schmidt?

Ways of being (dhammā) are preceded by mind; they have mind as chief; they are mind-made. —the first verse of the Dhammapada
     I suppose this post should be written in scholarly fashion, with exact figures, a bibliography, footnotes, and little superscripted numbers all over the place; but at present I'm living in a tropical forest with no access to a research library and with only a few hours of Internet access per month. We do the best we can. Ultimately, it doesn't matter.
     One of the books I mooched from my father's bookcase (with his permission) during one of my past visits to America to visit my family (and to mooch books from my father) was Parapsychology: The Controversial Science by Dr. Richard S. Broughton (Ballantine, New York: 1991). Technically speaking, I still own the book; but it is in storage many thousands of miles from here, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, so I have no physical access to it. The only reason I have included more book information above than the title and the name "Dr. Broughton" is that I found it cited in a file in this computer. So the following information from the book is reproduced from memory. I do have a pretty good memory though.
     Broughton's book, which is well worth reading, contains a wealth of weird information about parapsychological research. The documented accounts of poltergeist phenomena are particularly mind-blowing. But there is one section which describes research which is more philosophically profound, yet superficially much less dramatic than, say, wall mirrors somehow flying through closed doors, then smashing, with the particles of broken glass then flying in formation around the room, and also around a troubled teenage girl who was the chronic focus of such events. (Poltergeist phenomena tend to be generated by emotionally troubled young people—or so say the scientists who investigate these things—but that's a totally different story.)
     The really revolutionary information, potentially revolutionary at least, involves a German/American scientist named Helmut Schmidt. He was director of Boeing laboratories in Seattle, Washington back around the 1950's. There happened to be a lull in research, so Dr. Schmidt requested permission to conduct some investigations on the possibility of consciousness affecting physical systems, and received a green light. So he conducted some experiments which, if the results are valid, could seriously overturn the way most people look at reality.

Dr. Helmut Schmidt

     He started by constructing a random number generator. He did this by combining a small sample of an unstable, radioactive isotope of some element with a geiger counter, and then combining this generator of random clicks with a kind of number counter. He usually restricted the number counter to 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4,… or just to 1, 2, 1, 2,…, with the number on the counter when the geiger counter clicked being the random number generated. So in the simple case of 1's and 2's, the generator produced, essentially, the same as a series of random coin tosses.
     One system he devised was to transform the random 1's and 2's into audio clicks in a pair of stereo headphones. He would tell an experimental subject, "Try to make more clicks sound on the left side," or "Try to make more clicks sound on the right side." The target sides were chosen at random. He found that people in general have an ability to affect the clicks to the extent that the result is about 0.3% more than what would be expected at random; or in other words, if the average person tries to make more clicks happen on the left side of the headphones, he or she can, on average, succeed in causing 50.3% of the clicks to be on the left side (with 49.7% on the right). This small difference may seem insignificant, but since the tests took only a few seconds each, the clicks happening pretty fast, and were rather easy to run, Dr. Schmidt was able to collect a huge sample size, so that a difference of o.3% from random is statistically significant. Broughton points out that a famous experiment back around the 1980's was conducted to determine if one aspirin tablet taken daily was effective in the prevention of heart disease in humans, and the results were similar—about o.3% less heart disease than in the control group. But even so, the experiment was concluded early, because with this statistical significance it was considered unethical to continue depriving the control group of a daily aspirin tablet. Schmidt found that some people are particularly talented at biasing random clicks, succeeding with a difference of around 0.7%. In many of his experiments he preferred to use these "gifted" subjects.
     Thus far his experimentation is interesting enough: if he's not a fraud or bungler, then the human mind can affect a physical process in a presumably nonphysical way. (Incidentally, one reason why the scientists of the Soviet Union were so frustrated in their parapsychological research, of which they did plenty, is that their commitment to Marxist materialism kept them searching in vain for some kind of waves or energy field emanating from the subjects' head.) But what Schmidt did next really fascinates me. He found that the same results are derived from doing the headphone experiments using a prerecorded tape! The condition is that nobody must have listened to it before. So a prerecorded tape of random clicks could still be affected by the human mind. He even went to the extent of sending copies of the tapes to his critics, allowing them to determine in advance which side would be the target, left or right—and the results were the same.
     The main thing about this that fascinates me is not that human consciousness can manipulate matter, but that a macroscopic object, in this case a cassette tape, can still be in a kind of indeterminate state before being closely exposed to a perceiving mind. It is the perceiving mind which "collapses the state vector," to use some classical physics jargon. The situation is reminiscent of the famous case of Schrödinger's Cat, in which the same sort of radioactive random decay may or may not have resulted in the death of a boxed cat; or rather, it isn't dead or alive at all until someone opens the box and looks. And their looking, or perceiving, is what determines it. (Erwin Schrödinger, by the way, founded the study of wave mechanics, and won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and was no moron.)
     So the big question is, to what extent does the human mind condition an apparently physical world? Is everything like the content of those cassette tapes, in a state of quantum indeterminacy until some mind perceives it and stabilizes it, one way or the other? Interestingly, Mahayana Buddhism teaches something along these lines. But let's not get into Mahayana Buddhism.
     Let's consider, first of all, the little number zero (0). Has zero always existed? The ancient Greeks and Romans, despite their equal intelligence to ours and their mathematical and engineering achievements, didn't know of it. For them it didn't exist. The concept of zero is a purely artificial abstraction, based upon some something that isn't there, and would seem to be totally unnecessary for a viable understanding of reality. Something like modern science might even be able to exist without it, somehow, although it would certainly be very different from what we have now.
     How about the speed of light? Has it always been 299,000km per second, even before anyone measured it? The dinosaurs and Fred Flintstone certainly didn't know of it. How could kilometers per second exist without anyone thinking them up? Could it be that the speed of light was uncertain, like the content of one of Schmidt's cassette tapes, until the first scientist measured it precisely, thereby determining and stabilizing it? 
     How about electrons, viruses, and bacteria? It is true that there are allegedly fossils hundreds of millions of years old which indicate that bacteria were here long before we were, but, like those cassette tapes, the "collapse of the state vector" may appear to be retroactive. How long could one of those (macroscopic) tapes sit on a shelf in an indeterminate state before some experimental subject listens to it and causes it to have clicks recorded on it which, for all appearances and to all appeals to common sense, must have been there since the recording was made? Or for that matter, does anything exist at all if nobody is perceiving it?
     There are two possibilities which come to mind here: a relatively conservative one, and a relatively radical one. Even the conservative one may sound like nonsense to a devout materialist, but that's of no great import. The conservative theory is that before a perceiving mind becomes aware of something, that something is indeterminate, that is, it does not exist as a distinct entity, and that the act of perception itself differentiates it from the environment and gives it an individuality, a "self." It would still presumably be, potentially at least, still there somehow, kind of, even if nobody is perceiving it. 
     As mentioned just now, devout materialists may consider even this mild version of the indeterminacy of unperceived objects to be nonsense; but that is largely because these folks are a bit too narrow-minded and much too philosophically naive to realize that their own position is practically impossible. It necessitates human ape psychology to be superimposed upon the so-called "real world" even if there are no human apes around to produce that psychology. It is largely because of this that philosophers like F. H. Bradley have called a materialistic metaphysic "barbarous." It appears, upon examination, impossible. 
     On the other hand, the indeterminacy and voidness of unperceived objects is fairly easy to demonstrate, and that in any number of ways. One of the easiest is to point out that nothing can possibly exist as a distinct entity without relations, of which there are potentially an infinite number, but which conveniently can be lumped into the two general categories of "same as" and "different from." Every pixel of blue in a blue spot, to give a very simple example, is perceived as the same as every other pixel in that spot, in order for it to be perceived as the same blue of the same blue spot. Then again, it must also be perceived as different from everything around that spot. Without these relations, it is not an "it." It is simply Void. But these relations of "same as" and "different from" are merely artifacts of the aforementioned human ape psychology. No scientist analyzing a sample of matter will ever isolate pure "same as" because it simply doesn't exist in the objective universe. It is a figment of our subjective imagination. But without it, the world of multiplicity collapses—it evaporates, poof, and leaves only Void in its place. Simple, yet almost nobody gets it. 
     Anyway, the other, radical theory is that, not only is a perceiving mind necessary to "liberate" objects from an unthinkable Void, but that perception creates all the individual objects of a pluralistic cosmos, and what is created is a matter of individual temperament. Thus this world would be a kind of dream. Schmidt's findings seem to incline in that radical direction. I'm not sure if there really is a difference between these two theories, though. To differentiate them may be meaningless. Void is Void. 
     But I'm getting way ahead of Helmut Schmidt. What he was working on just took a step or two in the direction of demonstrating that our perceiving minds not only condition our surrounding "reality" in non-physical ways, but that they also condition a past that somehow didn't even exist until someone perceived it, even though that past has left clear marks of its past existence.
     As I've already mentioned, I have very little Internet access nowadays, and zero (didn't exist in Classical Europe) research library; so my efforts to find out about Dr. Schmidt and his revolutionary research have been feeble. Pretty much all I found on a brief and casual search was a list of his published scientific articles. I never found any indication that he was eventually exposed as a fraud—although there are some who accuse all parapsychologists of being frauds. 
     So, considering how amazing Schmidt's research seems to be, why is he not famous? Why is he not hailed as some new Copernicus or Galileo? I suspect it has something to do with that narrow-mindedness issue mentioned above. Even scientists are products of their culture, and are human. They are only slightly more open-minded, and are probably less wise, than their premodern ecclesiastical predecessors. (After all, "wisdom" is not a scientific word.) Helmut Schmidt is, essentially, a scientific heretic; and since burning heretics at the stake is no longer fashionable, heretics are simply ignored, with recourse to the subtle censorship of silence; and if that is not enough, then they are occasionally condemned, or just ridiculed. It appears that Western civilization has never fully recovered from the effects of a Christian ideological and philosophical monoculture. 
     Then again, maybe Schmidt was exposed as a fraud or bungler, and I just never heard of it. 

Did microns exist before somebody invented them?
Did bacteria exist before somebody discovered them?
If so, in what way?


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Progressing from Religious Faith to Utter Skepticism

"To find people who believe their religion as a person believes that fire will burn his hand when thrust into it, we must seek them in those Oriental countries where Europeans do not yet predominate, or in the European world when it was still universally Catholic." —J. S. Mill

     Recently an Asian friend of mine was reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience (which is an excellent book by the way, and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in Religious Experience), and he expressed considerable astonishment over how much faith in Christianity Western people used to have. One of the more extreme examples in the book is the case of Heinrich Suso, a 14th-century Catholic monk and mystic who, largely out of unquestioning medieval faith in his religion, essentially tortured himself half to death over the course of many years. Among other various and gruesome practices, he never touched his own body, except for his hands; and for a while he wore an iron cross studded with needle-sharp points hung across his back under his clothing. When he first had it made he feared the sharp points on the thing and blunted them with a rock; but then, overcome with shame at his own cowardice, he sharpened them up again, so that blood flowed from the open sores on his back whenever anything, including his clothes, pressed on the cross he bore. He had spiked underwear also, with the needles pointing inwards. Furthermore, like the much more famous St. Francis of Assisi, he didn't wash his clothes, so that his clothing, and his bedding, and his body, swarmed with lice. But the Blessed Heinrich was not just some lunatic on the fringe of society: he was a highly respected scholar, and his book The Clock of Wisdom was very popular, possibly only St. Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ being a more widely read religious book, aside from the Bible itself, in medieval Europe. 
     Our conversation inspired me to read a little on medieval Christianity, and I came upon some information on one Marie of Oignies, a person I had never heard of before. She lived in what is now Belgium during the early 13th century, and was a founder of the beguines, a movement of unordained lay sisters in the Catholic Church. She was married, although she persuaded her husband not only to be celibate and to live in voluntary poverty with her, but to nurse lepers with her as well. (She may have led her mate to the gates of Heaven,…but still I can't help but feel kind of sorry for the guy.) She had what might be called an obsession with the passion of Christ, and would often weep uncontrollably for days upon contemplating it. Out of profound faith in Jesus she tried to imitate the sufferings he experienced before and during his crucifixion. She ate no meat—not out of consideration for health or the ethics of killing animals, but out of a felt need to avoid any sensual pleasure—and once when a doctor ordered her to eat some meat when she was very ill, she ate it…but after her recovery, by way of compensation, she cut off an equivalent amount of flesh from her own body. With a knife. She ate a trivial amount of food once a day, and preferred bread so coarse and hard that it caused the inside of her mouth to bleed. She actually liked it when her mouth bled like this, as it reminded her of the blood of Christ. Her father confessor, although technically her spiritual director, nevertheless considered Marie to be his own spiritual teacher, despite the fact that she wasn't even an ordained nun—which reminds me of Ammachi in India, who, although as far as I know is not ordained into any spiritual order, often has Brahmin sadhus sitting at her feet. He considered her to be in a state of constant prayer, day and night, no matter what she was doing. Marie died in a state of extreme emaciation; and although she was never canonized as a saint, she is reported to have been able to perform miracles, and was beatified by the Vatican.
     These are just two little examples of the profound faith-induced fervor of medieval Christianity. There were literally millions of people whose religious practices of self-denial and self-mortification would be considered freakishly morbid or insane by modern standards. They behaved this way largely out of absolute, unquestioning faith in the religion their culture bestowed upon them, i.e., Roman Catholicism; they were taught that this life is our only chance for salvation, and that if we blow it we will roast in torment in Hell forever and ever, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Having no doubts at all, none whatsoever, about such an idea presumably fired people up pretty easily with zeal for spiritual practice. 
     I may as well mention that similar zeal could be found in India during the Buddha's time. Ascetics were torturing themselves, sometimes literally to death, there also. According to tradition, the Buddha himself experimented with this before his Enlightenment. One of the most memorable stories in the Dhammapada commentary involves a fellow who went to the Ajīvakas, one of the most ascetic sects in India at the time, in order to join their sangha. One of the first things they did was to hold the fellow down, put some boards crosswise over him, with some of the heavier Ajīvaka monks sitting on the boards to keep him down, and then rip out his hair and beard with a special comb which gripped the hair—and this excruciating procedure was before he even joined up! It was just to get him ready! As a general rule, people willing to go to such extremes for the sake of salvation or liberation must have stainless steel faith in what they are doing.
     On the other hand, such people probably would not be very much fun to converse with. The medieval Catholics in particular believed their religion with such unquestioning certainty largely because they were products of an ideological monoculture (a "culture monoculture"), and had virtually no exposure to any conflicting point of view, other than perhaps an occasional Jew or witch—who tended not to make edifying examples, since they were prone to being burned at the stake, or otherwise lynched by howling mobs.
     So historically, the people who have had such absolute faith that they were willing to sacrifice their life for the sake of Salvation have tended to be pretty damn narrow-minded. We modern Westerners, with exposure to many different points of view, could hardly manifest such intense religious faith as all that. We can't help it; our culture just isn't set up for that kind of thing, and we are products of it. It's hardly likely that any American Christian nowadays has sufficient faith, like St. Francis, to spontaneously develop the stigmata (that is, the five wounds Jesus received during his crucifixion, on his hands, feet, and side). Many of them, although considering themselves Christians, might consider such a thing to be impossible, and nothing more than a legend. For that matter, they might have a similar opinion about the faith-based miracles of Jesus himself—O yea of little faith.
     On the other hand (I think we're up to three hands now), we modern Westerners, plus westernized Easterners, also have a kind of unquestioning, absolute faith—but it is of a very different kind. It could still fairly be called "religious," though. Our faith is in scientific materialism, which, so long as it is not strictly hypothetical, as science is supposed to be, may be called the religion of Scientism. It is our modern creed, or at least a major part of it. And it may be that, much as Christian faith reportedly can move mountains, or at least a mulberry bush, so our profound Scientistic faith can hold us firmly in a material world devoid of such deviations from intellectual law and order.
     Thus we have faith, maybe even absolute, unquestioning faith, but in a spiritually destitute religion which prevents us from escaping, or transcending, the phenomenal world and its scientist-determined laws. It reinforces the system. It is a religion of Samsara, of Māya—or, using medieval Catholic jargon, of the flesh, the world, and the devil.
     The modern religion of the West isn't even a very good "this-worldly" religion, as it places almost no emphasis even on the fundamentals of virtue, except for a kind of humanism-flavored political correctness. We recycle our bottles and cans and don't say the word "nigger," but truly open-hearted generosity and compassion are usually beyond us. We're too locked into a system that is not oriented toward that kind of thing. We may work on it a little as a hobby, but the main thrust of our faith is in a different direction, sometimes almost the opposite direction. But it is very difficult not to believe in our own ideological monoculture, the monoculture of materialism or Scientism which pervades the educational system, the mass media, the world's governments, the minds of our friends and neighbors, and the world in general.
     The thing is, we just can't decide to have absolute, unquestioning faith in something else, like Dharma. We're stuck being lukewarm and mediocre and politically correct and "nice." We can't be narrow-minded enough whole-heartedly to adopt medieval Christianity, or an ancient Indian tradition either.
     So it may be that our best hope for a way of salvation or liberation is in the opposite direction, away from faith. Instead of profound belief in a traditional system, perhaps we could develop no faith in anything, including the spiritually destitute system that has become the new religious monoculture. If we can't have sufficient faith in virtue, love, mystical union, etc., maybe we can simply relinquish faith in whatever contradicts them, such as scientific materialism and political correctness hysteria.
     This may not be as silly or far-fetched as it sounds, as this renunciation of faith in anything is apparently one of the earliest and most advanced paths in Buddhist Dharma. For example the Aṭṭhakavagga, considered by many scholars (and by me also) to be one of the earliest Buddhist texts in existence, teaches again and again that a monk should have no perception, no idea, no belief about anything—in other words, he should have no specific faith. This was with regard to religious and philosophical systems especially, but it could work even better with regard to worldly scientific materialism and the fashions of political correctness.
     There can still be some kind of faith, however; or perhaps it would be better to call it by some other word that doesn't smack so much of the Christian religion we have rejected; so let's call it "trust," unless we're talking about Christianity in particular. Still we can have some kind of trust, so long as it's not conceptual belief. 
     St. John of the Cross, for instance, spoke of dark faith, with involved no thought. In fact it had a lot of overlap with what a Buddhist would call jhāna. It was, or is, assuming that anyone still experiences it, a direct, nonverbal, non-symbolic experience of Divinity, or Reality. So it isn't really necessary actually to believe in something. And although this state is usually limited to very advanced Dharma practice, everyone has it to some degree. If we didn't have it at all, we would be robots or vampires, dead.
     At a more elementary, practical level we may still trust that Dharma is good for us. Not that philosophical ideas in Dharma books are good for us, but that Waking Up is. There is a restlessness, an urgency, an intuitive feeling of "It's time to wake up," and an intuitive appreciation of anything that helps in that, anything that opens our mind and heart and spirit, anything that causes fewer desires, greater clarity and peace, greater contentment, greater love. We experience, very deeply, that it is good.
     As a teenager I had this kind of experience when I started reading books by Ram Dass. At the time I had rejected the standard social system with a fair amount of contempt, and was experimenting with replacing it with partying, drugs, and general anarchy. Neither was liberating, though, and neither felt really satisfactory. But when I would read something by Ram Dass, who had a kind of contagious enthusiasm like most great teachers have, I could feel, "This feels right. I want this," even though I didn't understand it intellectually very well at all, since it was so different from anything I had been exposed to before, and didn't integrate easily. There was simply a depth, and a welcoming light shining in that direction, that was absent in conformity or in rebellion. I still have that feeling to some degree, thank gawd.
     If adopting Buddhist meditation merely as a way of relieving stress or enhancing one's self esteem takes one at least a step or two towards transcendence, toward the ability to let go of the whole samsaric mess, then that's better than nothing; but so long as we believe in this or any other world, we're still stuck. Belief is Samsara. The old way reduced beliefs to a straight and narrow path which then, in the case of adepts, was transcended through advanced practices like extreme self-denial; but of course almost none of us can do that nowadays, so we'd do well to hold our beliefs in as loose a grip as possible, so that we may easily drop them and leave them behind. 

     And it may be, paradoxically, that zero faith, or belief, comes full circle and equals absolute, infinite Faith. Zero and Infinity are both formless, without beginning or end, and both absolute. In a way they are the same. In which case, there may still be some spiritual hope for us unreligious modern Western(ized) humans. And it's high time to wake up. And it can be done. 

We Westerners just can't manage this any more

Saturday, January 3, 2015

On the Meanings of the Word "Sangha"

     Way back in ancient times, maybe ten years ago, a Western monk living here in Myanmar sent me some old copies of the Inquiring Mind magazine, a journal of the Western Vipassana community. I remember there was a regular section in the magazine that had me somewhat confused—it was called "Sangha Speaks." The confusing thing about it was that it was never a monk who was speaking, or a nun either. It was always a layperson, and sometimes even a relative beginner in Dhamma. 
     Before I became a monk, and for many years afterwards, I had almost no interaction with Western-style Buddhism. For that matter, I tried to keep at arm's length even Southeast Asian-style Buddhism, pursuing as much as I was able ancient Indian, original-style Buddhism. So it wasn't until after my return to America in 2011 that I learned, and very quickly, that lay meditators in the West refer to themselves as "Sangha." In fact many of them consider themselves to be members of THE Sangha, even to the extent of taking refuge in their own lay community, when and if they take refuge in the Tiratana, or Three Treasures—the "Triple Gem."
     A few months after my return in 2011, while I was still struck by this still (to me) strange and exotic fact, I happened to explain to an American fellow who had volunteered to feed me that day that in Asia, and in the Pali texts, the word "sangha" refers almost exclusively to monks, with its adoption by lay meditators being, as far as I could tell, a modern Western innovation. He harrumphed once or twice while I was explaining this, and immediately after our brief conversation, and as a result of it, he informed a mutual friend of ours that, in his opinion, I was "opinionated."
     But what I had said about "sangha" was not a matter of mere personal bias; really, I was stating a straightforward, empirical, and rather obvious fact. In a Buddhist country like Burma, "sangha" and "monks" are practically synonymous. If a visiting Western lay meditator were to walk through a door, or sit on a platform, with a sign on it saying "SANGHA ONLY," he or she would either be politely requested to go somewhere else, or would be stared at and regarded as an ignorant and/or arrogant barbarian. It is true that if a Burmese Buddhist person were asked, "Does the Sangha include nuns and novices?" they might consider it for awhile and say, "Well, it could…"; but in Buddhist Asia ordinary laypeople, even though they might keep five or eight precepts, meditate every day, and attend retreats regularly, just do not make the cut. Unless maybe they are Goenka meditators who have absorbed Western attitudes about Buddhism.
     So anyway, to make a long story much longer, ever since 2011 I've been curious as to whether there is any precedent in the literature of Pali Buddhism for lay meditators in general being included under the designation of "Sangha." I have heard a rumor, or legend, that there is at least one Sutta which declares lay disciples (upāsakā/upāsikāyo) and/or lay supporters (dāyakā/dāyikāyo) to be members of the Buddhist Sangha. If I've ever read it I don't remember reading it, and I don't know which Sutta it might be. If any of you out there know the reference, please do us all a favor and post it in the Comments section, or send it to me in an email so I can post it, or something.
     I have at hand two Pali-English dictionaries: the Pali Text Society dictionary edited by Rhys Davids and Stede, and the Buddhist Dictionary of venerable Nyanatiloka. These are arguably the two most important Pali-English dictionaries for a Western, English-speaking student of Dhamma to have. The PTS dictionary gives the following three definitions for "Sangha":

     1. multitude, assemblage (some of the references given are to a sangha of birds in the Jātaka literature, the sangha of a person's relatives in the Salla Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta (Sn 584), and a sangha of devas in the Nālaka Sutta, also of the Sutta Nipāta (Sn 680).)
     2. the Order, the priesthood, the clergy, the Buddhist church (Obviously monks and nuns.)
     3. a larger assemblage, a community (This definition is rather obscure, and, judging from the references, appears to refer to a group of people more numerous than just a few (a gaa), and who are not necessarily Buddhist.) 

Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary simply says this:
SANGHA (lit.: congregation), is the name for the Community of Buddhist Monks. As the third of the Three Gems or Jewels (ti-ratana, q.v.) and the Three Refuges (ti-saraa, q.v.), i.e. Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, it applies to the ariya-sagha, the community of the saints, i.e. the 4 Noble Ones (ariya-puggala, q.v.), the Stream-winner, etc. 
So the two dictionaries I have had ready access to are evidently not very complete, and are not quite conclusive in resolving this issue.
     But then this year I spent the rains retreat at a monastery possessing the huge, encyclopedic Tipiaka Pāi-Myanmar Dictionary (တိပိဋက ပါဠိ-မြန်မာ အဘိဓာန်). The compilation and publication of it was begun decades ago and is still not completed, although it is complete up through volume 21, which goes about halfway through the letter "s"; so I looked up "sangha" in it. The entry is three pages long and contains no fewer than 27 definitions, not including several more pages of definitions of compound words beginning with "sangha-," or rather "sagha-." A paraphrase of the various interpretations follows.

     The etymological derivation is as a noun form related to the Pali verb sahanati, meaning to join together, to make complete. (On the other hand, the PTS dictionary relates it to saharati, to bring together, to collect—although in either case the resultant meaning is essentially the same: assembly, congregation.)

     1. in general, for example in Jātaka stories, any group of living beings. (For some reason I do not fathom, following this statement, and before the first numbered subentry, there is the explanation, in parentheses, that "sagha" may be used as a Vinaya technical term referring to four or more fully ordained monks or nuns. One monk or nun alone is a puggala, an "individual"; and two or three constitute a gaa, or "gang." Thus a sangha is, in this technical sense, a congregation of ordained renunciants (all male or all female) numerous enough to conduct formal ecclesiastical acts.)
     1(a). a herd of pigs. (This would be called a sukarasagha. The only reference given is to the Jātaka literature.)
     1(b). a herd of deer or other game animals. 
     1(c). a group of male or female inhabitants of a town. (The single reference given is to a story in the Majjhima Aṭṭhakatha, in which a crowd of townspeople gather at a park.)
     1(d). a group of wealthy brahmins. (The primary reference is to the Cakī Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, in which some brahmin householders, upon hearing that the Buddha has arrived in their vicinity, form "in groups and bands" (saghasaghī gaībhūtā) to go pay their respects to him.)
     1(e). any group of beings receptive to admonishment or spiritual instruction. (Thus in the stock formula describing the virtues of the Buddha, when he is called satthā devamanussāna"teacher of gods and humans"—the gods and humans instructed by him, in this sense, form a sangha.)
     1(f). all beings who have attained to any of the eight classes of ariya-hood, that is, path and fruit of the four stages. (That is, all those who have "experienced" Nibbāna at least for one moment, and who are thus either fully enlightened or else firmly established on "the path of no return," so to speak. There are numerous references throughout the Tipitaka for this sense of the word. This sense is called the ariyasagha, or "Sangha of the Noble Ones.")
     1(g). all fully ordained Buddhist mendicant renunciants, especially Theravada ones. (This group is referred to as the sammutisagha, or "conventional Sangha." There are of course lots of references for this sense too.)
     1(h). all of the paths and fruits of the four stages of ariya-hood, taken in abstraction from the beings who have attained them. (This is called the paramatthasagha, or "ultimate Sangha," and is, as far as I can tell, peculiar to the Abhidhamma literature.)
     1(i). the mendicant renunciant disciples who form the following or entourage of a Buddha. (For example, in the Suttas when it says that the Buddha went to such and such place with a following of 500 bhikkhus, those 500 bhikkhus would constitute the Sangha in this sense. It is referred to as the buddhapamukhasagha, or the "Sangha with Buddha at the front.")
     1(j). If I understand this one correctly, and if the old Burmese monk who explained it to me understands it correctly, then it would be essentially, although in a less technical sense, the same as the next one, i.e., the ordained Sangha taken very generally. (In Burmese this is called the အမှတ် မရှိသော သံဃာ, or "nondescript Sangha." The only references are to the Nidhikaṇḍa Sutta of the Khuddakapātha and the commentary to same, in which Sutta the Sangha is cited simply as an opportunity for merit, and a source of treasure that cannot be lost or stolen.) 
     1(k). the totality of all ordained Buddhist renunciants as a society, organization, or "corporate entity." (For example, if someone makes a donation to "the Sangha" in general, and not to an individual monk, to the resident sangha of a particular monastery, or to some other specified group, then this is the Sangha that it goes to, and all of the members of the Sangha share in the ownership, in communistic fashion. The Sangha in this sense is called the cātuddisasagha, or the "Sangha of the Four Quarters"—east, south, west, and north. This is primarily, but not exclusively, a Vinaya term.)
     1(l). any and all bhikkhus, that is, all fully ordained Buddhist monks. (This is called the bhikkhusagha, and it is probably the most common meaning of the word "sagha" found in the texts, both Vinaya and Suttanta.)
     (Following the foregoing subentry is a paragraph in parentheses giving more technical Vinaya definitions: (i.) a group of (at least) four bhikkhus in good standing, and who are thereby qualified to conduct most formal ecclesiastical acts, such as sangha uposatha. (This sense goes by the designation of catuvagga bhikkhusagha.) (ii.) a group of (at least) five bhikkhus in good standing, and who are thereby qualified to conduct formal acts requiring (at least) five bhikkhus, particularly the sangha invitation ceremony at the end of the rains retreat, and ordination ceremonies outside of the "Middle District" of the Ganges Valley. (This one is called pañcavagga bhikkhusagha.) (iii.) a group of (at least) ten bhikkhus in good standing, considered in the sense of being qualified to conduct ordination ceremonies in the Middle District. (I.e., dasavagga bhikkhusagha.) (iv.) a group of twenty bhikkhus in good standing, who are thereby qualified to conduct a reinstatement ceremony, or abbhāna saghakamma, for a monk who has undergone penance for committing a saghādisesa offence. (Vīsativagga bhikkhusagha.) (v.) a group of more than twenty bhikkhus in good standing, considered in the sense of being qualified to carry out any and all formal acts of the Sangha. (Called atirekavīsativagga bhikkhusagha.))
     1(m). the Community of all fully ordained Buddhist nuns. (I.e., the bhikkhunīsagha.)
     1(n). the Community of all bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs combined (This is called the ubhatosagha, or the "Sangha of Both.")
     1(o). a congregation of fully ordained monks or nuns who live in the same general locality and who perform their formal ecclesiastical acts together. (This is one of the more common meanings of the word, and is presumably the sense implied at the beginning of a recitation of a formal act: suātu me bhante sagho—"Venerable sirs, may the sangha hear me." The Pali term for this sense is samānasavāsaka sagha, or the "sangha living in the same community.") 
     1(p). a congregation of the renunciant disciples of a non-Buddhist philosopher, such as Pūraa Kassapa.
     2. the qualities of the (ariya-)sangha, as found in the stock formula beginning "suppaipanno bhagavato sāvakasagho…," and which is the traditional object for the meditation technique of reflection upon the Sangha (one of the forty traditional standard meditations in Theravada). 
     3. the very name "sangha." (I'm not exactly sure why the venerable authors of the dictionary bothered to include this one, unless maybe it was for the sake of being totally comprehensive. The only reference is to a passage in the Vinaya declaring that monks should not cling to the word/name "sagha." 
     4. Saghā is the name of an elder bhikkhunī whose verses are included in the Pali text Therīgāthā.

     Oddly, there is a separate entry for "sagha," sagha², with an allegedly different etymological derivation, in that it is considered to be a contraction, or abbreviation, of sagha¹+sannipāta, referring to the act of the coming together, or the convocation, of a sangha. The only reference is to Vinaya commentarial literature.

     It appears that the venerable scholar sayadaws who compiled the dictionary were not aware of any reference in the Pali texts to laypeople being included in a specifically Buddhist Sangha, let alone THE specifically Buddhist Sangha. It appears that they weren't aware even of semi-ordained novices being members of the Sangha, which is more surprising. Definition 1(e) seems to come closest to filling these two voids. Then again, it may be that the Burmese dictionary, huge and comprehensive-seeming as it is, is not really complete; for example, the sanghas of birds, relatives, and devas cited in the PTS dictionary are not explicitly mentioned here, although they would fall under the first general definition of "any group of living beings."
     With regard to lay meditators calling their group a "sangha," I see no problem at all. Obviously, if a herd of deer, a herd of pigs, or an assembly of devas can be called "sangha," then so can a group of people who practice Buddhist meditation. They are, after all, a group of living beings. 
     With regard to lay meditators considering themselves to be members of THE Sangha, as in the trinity of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, an issue does arise however, as it appears to receive no support from the Pali, especially if that aforementioned legendary Sutta doesn't exist. And even if it does exist, the reference in question would appear to be an obscure anomaly in the textual tradition. The concept of Refuge has undergone a modern mutation. 
     As a newcomer to the whole Sangha scene I was taught that, traditionally, laypeople take refuge in the bhikkhu-sangha, i.e., in monks, while monks take refuge in the ariya-sangha, which, maybe ironically, includes laypeople. It is fairly clear to me that when Burmese Buddhists take the third Refuge, what they mainly have in mind is monks; and throughout the Suttas, again and again, when a person converts to Buddhism he or she utters the same stock formula beginning with, "Wonderful, venerable Gotama! Wonderful, venerable Gotama! Just as, venerable Gotama, one might set upright what has been overturned…." and ending with, "I go to the venerable Gotama as a refuge, and to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of bhikkhus." However, if Western lay Buddhists have some personal antipathy for taking refuge exclusively in monks, then there is presumably no major obstacle to their taking refuge in the ariya-sangha as monks are supposed to do, especially since there is support for it within the tradition anyway, going way, way back.
     But for a group of lay meditators living worldly lives to consider monks, radical renunciation, and the so-called Holy Life to be unnecessary and/or irrelevant to Dhamma, and to consider their own group to be representative of THE Sangha, is arguably not just a variation within Theravada Buddhism, but a major deviation from Theravada Buddhism. This is all the more evident when one notices that many members of these lay sanghas do not even consider themselves to be Buddhists, and that many of those who do consider themselves as such nevertheless reject even basic fundamentals of the system, both theoretical and practical. 
     It is good to bear in mind, even if the thought is an unsavory one, that Theravada, and Buddhism in general, was founded by a bhikkhu, mainly for bhikkhus. As G. C. Pande wrote in his monumental Studies in the Origins of Buddhism, "There is little reason to suppose that Buddha addressed himself to Everyman and not to the monk. As a matter of fact, the Buddhists appear to have been from the beginning primarily a community of monks." (p. 401 of the 3rd edition) The Buddha was a renunciant ascetic sage who established Dhamma first and foremost as a system for maximizing one's chances for full Enlightenment in this very life; and that system practically begins with a formal renunciation of worldliness. People who were serious about waking up in this very life would be ordained into the Sangha and strive; those who were not so serious would humbly admit this fact, do the best they could within a worldly context, and support those who they felt were really giving it a serious shot. Thus Buddhism was designed as a kind of professional spectator sport, with laypeople being fans supporting their favorite team—and thereby supporting Enlightenment in this world, even though they themselves do not feel completely ready for it. 
     Yet this approach, designed by an enlightened being (who was probably a genius besides) is vehemently opposed by the current attitude of Western culture in general. It's too radical, demanding, and damned inconvenient at one end, and too humble at the other. So nowadays in America Theravada Buddhism is little more than a tiny fringe movement, with an ordained Western resident Sangha of possibly no more than a hundred people, supported mainly by Asian immigrants, very loosely affiliated with a rather larger, yet still small movement which has mutated so extensively as scarcely to merit the name "Doctrine of the Elders," yet which is disproportionately vocal with regard to what Theravada should and should not be like—and then there's the Goenka people. Among many lay communities, "sangha" has become an English word no longer bearing a Pali meaning. In view of all this, it seems to me that, in order for Theravadin Dhamma with some kind of renunciant Sangha maintaining it to prosper in the West, as something more than just a tiny fringe movement, it will probably have to be endorsed and supported by some relatively radical countercultural movement which, apparently, does not yet exist. On the other hand, Dhamma may survive and prosper, in a way, by mutation into some form of Dharma with an "r" which is very different from the design of Theravada—yet which still requires a radical counterculture of some sort, since any really inspired spiritual system automatically generates that. The mainstream simply does not lead to Enlightenment. 
     There is nothing necessarily wrong with a mutation of Theravada into something very different in the West, a kind of Doctrine of the Newcomers which is no longer Theravada. It is a plain fact that Theravada was designed for ancient India, which was in many ways extremely different from the modern Western world. However, any new form of authentic Dhamma or Dharma will still require a SANGHA dedicated to waking up in this very life, "in the present way of being." Those who give top priority to anything else—money, family, reputation, security, whatever—will still not make the cut.          

the true Sangha (an attempt at humor)