Saturday, March 28, 2015

Technical Matters: Confession (Paṭidesanā)

     In the Pali texts the practice of confessing one's transgressions, or unskillful acts, is declared to be a valuable resource for one endeavoring to live a spiritual life. From a Buddhist perspective one does not make confession in order to absolve oneself of "sin," but rather as an aid to restraint in future. At any rate, this is the ideal; in actuality the making of confession in Theravada Buddhism has become, for the most part, a formal ritual, a kind of esoteric formula recited in order to expiate ecclesiastical offenses, i.e. broken rules. The practice of confession, as far as I know, is most prevalent among the Sangha of monks; although Buddhist laypeople also, at least in Burma, may make a practice of confessing their lapses from morality, especially to a monastic who is their teacher. But usually if a layperson breaks a precept she or he simply takes the precepts all over again, thereby pushing RESET (so to speak). 
     It should be emphasized that making confession in no way absolves one of the karma one has generated through some ethical misstep or other—sacred incantations and other rituals do not erase karma, at least not in an orthodox Buddhist universe. We reap what we sow. So if someone has created some bad karma, the best thing for him or her to do is to dilute it down by adding to it plenty of good karmic actions, and/or to accept the consequences with mindful equanimity. One makes confession to a teacher or fellow traveler primarily for the sake of helping one to restrain oneself in future. Plus, of course, it's good to be honest. Then again, on second thought, open honesty is probably the most important reason for not concealing one's lapses from established virtue. Concealment of the truth may not only require occasional lying or chronic hypocrisy, but it also generates and reinforces deep interpersonal alienation. 
     At some monasteries in Burma the monks make confession every day; and some—especially younger, ultra-careful ones—may waste no time and seek out another monk for confession practically as soon as they are aware of having broken a rule of discipline. On the other hand, the technical minimum for deferring confession for a monk who is not living alone, without even another monk within easy walking distance, is half a lunar month, since it is against the rules for a monk to participate in a full-moon or new-moon uposatha ceremony with unconfessed offenses, if there is someone he can confess to. In the first part of the recitation for Sangha uposatha, before the rules of the Pātimokkha are recited, it is stated explicitly that any monk who listens to the recitation and remains silent when he knows he has unexpiated offenses, is guilty of lying, which is a serious obstacle for one living the Holy Life (not to mention the breaking of another rule). In this case at least, one may technically qualify as a liar without saying a word, by keeping one's mouth shut when the reciter asks repeatedly, "I ask the venerable ones, are you entirely pure?" This becomes somewhat of an quagmire for monks who habitually commit nissaggiya pācittiya offenses ("to be expiated with relinquishment") such as using money or keeping extra (more than three) robes, since the only way to expiate such an offense is to relinquish the forbidden commodities before making confession—which most monks are unwilling to do. So they make confession, which does not absolve them of these offenses, and then they participate in uposatha, thereby committing yet another offense. This may eventually inspire monks to avoid confession and uposatha observances altogether. There are quite a few like that, actually. If any of them are reading this, then shame on you—tsk, tsk (I click my tongue at you). Then again, one is not supposed to make confession if one is not aware of having committed any offense. There are a few monks out there who can go for weeks without breaking any rules (and there are lots of rules, and some are very easy to break); and if any of those are reading this, then congratulations, venerable sir. Please be careful not to despise those who are not as conscientious as you are. 
     The standard Burmese method for making confession is as follows. Two monks, A and B, squat down within arm's reach of each other, barefoot, with right shoulders bared, and with their own palms pressed together before them. Then they say: 

     A: ahaṁ bhante sabbā āpattiyo āvikaromi ("Venerable sir, I make plain all offenses.")
     B: sādhu āvuso sādhu sādhu ("Very good, friend, very good, very good.")
     A: ahaṁ bhante sambahulā nānāvatthukā sabbā āpattiyo āpajjiṁ, tā tumhamūle paṭidesemi ("Venerable sir, I have committed altogether several offenses of various types; at your feet I confess them.")
     B: passasi āvuso tā āpattiyo ("Do you see, friend, those offenses?")
     A: āma bhante passāmi ("Yes, venerable sir, I see.")
     B: āyatiṁ āvuso saṁvareyyāsi ("In future, friend, you should restrain yourself.")
     A: sādhu suṭṭhu bhante samvarissāmi ("Very good, very well, venerable sir, I will restrain myself.")
     B: sādhu sādhu sādhu ("Very good, very good, very good.")

Then they switch roles, with A reciting B's part and vice versa, except that the senior monk is always Bhante and the junior one is always Āvuso, and with a little bit of modified grammar to indicate greater respect of Āvuso for Bhante than the other way round. There are a few minor variations to this procedure, and I'll mention at least one of them before I'm finished.
     I've mentioned elsewhere that most formal acts in Theravadin monasticism, at least in Burma, have become corrupted into virtually pointless formalities, and this one is no exception to the general rule—you may notice that practically nothing is actually confessed, other than the vague assertion that one broke numerous unspecified rules, which is exactly what everyone else confesses. The rote, blah-blah-blah nature of it is so ingrained that often one monk will begin his line before the other has finished his, in order to get it over with more quickly. Also, sometimes two monks will "confess" their offenses to a third monk in unison, since their confessions are invariably exactly the same. 
     A common Thai method, or so I have heard, is to make five separate confessions, one for each general category of offense expiable via confession: namely, thullaccaya ("gross offense"), pācittiya ("to be expiated"), idesanīya ("to be confessed"), dukkaa ("wrongly done"), and dubbhāsita ("wrongly spoken"). I do not have a commentary handy, so I'm not sure whether orthodox tradition endorses this; but the method is more or less in accordance with the formula for confession given in a medieval, non-canonical vinaya handbook called Khuddasikkhā. The Khuddasikkhā, however, does not endorse making confession for un-committed offenses, whereas it is my understanding that the aforementioned Thai tradition makes all five confessions regardless of whether the monk is aware of having broken them, just to be thorough. So it attempts to be stricter, but actually winds up being even more nonsensical than the Burmese "blanket" method, considering that Burmese monks do not necessarily confess offenses they didn't commit. (And it is unlikely that a confessing monk has broken rules in all five categories, since one especially, idesanīya, is very difficult to break nowadays. There are only four of them for monks, with two of them involving interactions with fully ordained nuns which, according to the overwhelming majority of the Theravadin Sangha, have been extinct for centuries; one involving begging from a family determined to be "in training," which is interpreted by tradition to mean that they are designated Ariyas; and one involving a monk living in a dangerous forest who allows lay supporters to endanger themselves by bringing alms to his place. Another category, dubbhāsita, applies to only a single rule, against making a derisive joke at another person's expense.)
     Thus it is fairly obvious that the standard formal procedure for making confession involves the speaking of untruth. Even monks who consider themselves to be Ariyas (a danger sign in itself) do the same, saying "Yes, I see," when they see nothing, and "I will restrain myself," when they know full well they'll break the same rule again. Plus if they're Thai, they may confess categories of offense they've never committed. This kind of talk is not necessarily lying, however, since one is lying only if one is deliberately trying to deceive someone; and most monks are too cynical or too ignorant with regard to Vinaya matters for anyone really to be deceived. They know how it is, kind of. But even if it's not lying it's still wrong speech of a sort, as it is talking nonsense, also known as B.S. And talking B.S., even in formal Pali, or especially in formal Pali, is not so good. Sometimes I've considered that the Catholics have a much better system for going about all this confession business. 
     Very early in my monastic career I adopted a compromise method, intermediate between the Burmese method and common sense, taught to me by my first Vinaya teacher, ven. U Tejaniya (not the famous one). In this method I make a single confession, but divide up the offenses by category, and distinguish between one (eka), two (dvi), and several (sambahulā) offenses per category, and between a single broken rule in one category and more than one "of various types." So, for example, if I killed mosquitoes, used water having doubt whether or not it had living beings in it, looked at a girl's face while she was offering alms, and tried to kill a few mosquitoes but failed, I'd confess one pācittiya and several dukkaas of various types, and nothing else (ahaṁ bhante ekaṁ pācittiyāpattiṁ ca sambahulā nānāvatthukā dukkaṭāpattiyo ca āpajjiṁ, tā tumhamūle paṭidesemi.) In situations where there was another monk around who was game, I have even named which rules I broke (in Burmese or English), not just the categories, before making the Pali confession. Burmese monks have shown no objection to my making confession like this, although sometimes they have remarked that I do it like a Thai monk. Then again, there are some monks who feel uncomfortable around any monk who seems to want to follow Vinaya correctly. It's best to make confession to monks who are more comfortable with that.
     If one becomes used to the traditional way(s) and then reads the original Pali Vinaya, one may be surprised. The formula for confession as given in the Vinaya Mahāvagga Pali itself (section 92 in the Burmese Sixth Council edition, uposathakkandhaka, āpattipaikammavidhi) is simply as follows:

     A: ahaṁ āvuso itthannāmaṁ āpattiṁ āpanno, taṁ paṭidesemi ("Friend, I committed the offense of such and such name. I confess it.")
     B: passasi ("Do you see?")
     A: āma passāmi ("Yes, I see.")
     B: āyatiṁ saṁvareyyāsi ("In future you should restrain yourself.")          

That's all there is to it. The key phrase here is iṭṭhannāmaṁ āpattiṁ, the offense of such and such name—which certainly entails naming which rule one broke, and not just the general category. Otherwise, this canonical, officially sanctioned method is much simpler than the later variations, and at least relieves one of the burden of quasi-lying about restraining oneself in future. And since one is specifically naming one's offenses, one is much less likely to quasi-lie about "seeing" also.
     There is a difficulty, however, in stating in the Pali language exactly which offense one has committed, and in understanding it when another monk states it. This works, of course, only if both monks involved in the process of confession are sufficiently fluent in Pali, which is relatively rare. So it is presumably quite good enough for two monks to tell each other exactly which rules they broke in their own vernacular language, and then to recite the Pali formula—and they might as well do the one in the Vinaya, and not one of the later versions. For that matter, it might be best if they do the whole thing in their own language. 
     More obvious evidence that monks are expected to say exactly which rules they've broken, and not just the general categories, is the rule forbidding monks with the same unconfessed offense to make confession together. Clearly, the only way they could be sure that they hadn't committed the same offense would be to compare their broken rules. Vinaya states that if all the monks in the same community have broken the same rule, one of them is required to set out on foot to find a monk who is innocent of that offense, to make confession to him, and then to come back so the other monks can make confession to him. Almost needless to say, this particular rule is almost universally flouted in Burma, even at relatively strict monasteries. Rather, the standard method for avoiding this rule in Burma is, when a monk makes confession to another monk who also has not yet made confession, he makes his confession twice—once for his "several offenses of various types" and once for making confession to a monk with the same unexpiated offense. This method entails a fair amount of B.S., especially to the extent that the confessing monk says the standardized "I will restrain myself," while knowing full well that he's certain to break the very same rule the next time he makes confession, and also in the sense that, when he makes confession the second time, he confesses "several offenses of various types" when the only offense to confess is one dukkaa, of one type. If I remember the commentary correctly it declares that the rule against confessing with an equally guilty monk is broken and confessed simultaneously, which is rather convenient. It's still quasi-dishonest though, if one says "I will restrain myself" when one intends to keep breaking the same rule in future, as a matter of tradition. My way of avoiding this particular messiness is simply to wait for two Burmese monks to make confession together, and after they have magically purified themselves of offenses I make confession to one of them. I may as well let them take the hit, since it is their preferred, traditional way of doing it anyway.
     The Vinaya Pali (in the paragraph immediately following the standard formula cited above) also gives a formula for confessing doubt about an offense:

     ahaṁ āvuso itthannāmāya āpattiyā vematiko; yadā nibbematiko bhavissāmi, tadā taṁ āpattiṁ paṭikarissāmi ("Venerable sir, I am in doubt about the offense of such and such name; when I come to be without doubt, then I will rectify that offense.")

I have never actually seen or heard of this sort of confession being made by real live monks, but its existence in Vinaya further reinforces the rather obvious notion that one is not supposed to confess offenses of which one is oblivious, which one doesn't "see"—or even offenses of which one thinks one maybe committed. One should be sure before declaring that one has broken the rule.
     It may be futile to criticize confession like this to traditional Asian monks, and to suggest that they adopt a practice that is a bit more meaningful than just mindlessly following tradition, but in the West there is really no good reason to import Asian corruptions—the West provides enough corruptions as it is.
     Here is a debatable case of possible Western Vinaya corruption: Is it allowable to make confession by telephone? On the one hand, an act like confession should be carried out "face to face" (sammukhāvinayo), and, presumably, with the two monks involved squatting within arm's reach of each other. On the other hand, monks in the West are relatively scarce, and there may not be another monk within a hundred miles, and it may be better to make confession long-distance than not at all. In fact, even when there are other monks nearby, it may still be damned difficult to make confession. For example, once I was staying in an American city in which I was the only resident bhikkhu, and I had some broken rules to confess. It turned out that an American "ajahn" with several years since his ordination, along with a relatively senior Thai monk, came to town for the American one to deliver a Dhamma talk. When I met him I asked if I could make confession with him, whereupon he became clearly, acutely nervous, suggesting again and again that I should make confession to the Thai ajahn. I explained that the Thai monk understood little English, and I wouldn't be able to explain much to him. So finally the American monk admitted that he didn't know how to make confession; at his monastery they simply read the necessary blah-blah-blah off a card. (Can you imagine a Christian monk or priest who doesn't know how to do confession? And what kind of confession is reading something you don't understand off a card?) So, I went to the Thai monk, asked permission to make confession, and started my recitation, taking care to avoid the peculiar Burmese pronunciation of Pali. Before I got very far with it he interrupted me and instructed me to repeat after him; whereupon he proceeded to recite some Pali stuff that I had never heard before. I followed along once, but when he wanted me to repeat it a second time I just stood up in frustration and walked away. (What kind of confession is that, when someone who doesn't know you tells you what to confess?) So, shortly after that, I called a Burmese monk I know in California, squatting on the floor of the house where I was staying, with my hands together, right shoulder bared, and holding the phone to my ear with the other shoulder while reciting the ancient Pali words. 

Burmese monks making confession

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Relativity of Delusion (part 2)

     As was mentioned previously, deviations from so-called "normal" human psychology appear to be more common within the New Age subculture—or it may be more explanatory to say that New Age embraces these eccentric frames of mind more than does mainstream Western scientific materialism. Whereas a person with, say, certain "schizoid" tendencies might be marginalized and negated by the more extraverted, objective, rationalistic, and narrow-minded cultural mainstream, they may easily find a place in a New Ageish society where they are accepted, even valued, rather than being viewed as a lunatic. A person who may seem delusional by mainstream standards, and thus regarded as a burden on, or menace to, society, may be much more functional among members of such a subjective, even surreal, subculture. For example, I once knew a woman in California who had a classic, textbook case of schizophrenia (tangential thought, hearing voices, believing herself to be a Buddha and insisting that people treat her as such, freezing like a statue when she didn't like what was going on, failing to see any reason why she should actually cooperate with others, etc.), and was very difficult to accept patiently at times; yet she actually had a few followers and devotees, who considered her to have some genuine spiritual attainment, among the local New Age community. It does make good sense that people would gravitate toward an environment in which they "fit in." Sociopaths and other misfits gravitated toward the wild, wild western frontier of America during the 19th century, and, more recently, I gravitated toward Burma.
     It is also interesting, and significant, how the New Age mind compares with the mentality of certain traditional cultures, like those of American Indian tribes. There appear to be obvious similarities, especially with regard to spirits, "sacred geography," and the more animistic orientation to reality in general; and some American Indian shamanistic phenomena, like sweat lodges, vision quests, "medicine" ceremonies, and ritual burning of sage or tobacco for purposes of purification, have been readily incorporated into the New Age spectrum. One of the main guides of the author of the New Age manuscript sent to me was an American Indian—for example, it was he who advised our hero to pray outdoors in his underwear. He also instructed him with regard to spirits and fasting.
     In fact it seems to me that the New Age mentality—the manner if not all of the content—is not "New" at all. It seems actually to be very much older than mainstream scientific materialism, and probably more closely resembles THE predominant human mentality for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years; so it's probably not nearly so crazy as some people would like to think it, regardless of its embracing an orientation that is debatably a few cards shy of a full tarot deck. Consider popular Paganism as it existed in Europe during the Roman Empire (as can be seen, for example, in The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, the earliest extant novel in Western literature): sorcery, fortune telling, omens, prodigies, communications from gods and spirits, prophetic dreams, gods controlling people's thoughts—all commonplace (not to mention orgiastic cults, sex slaves, and the occasional human sacrifice).
     It turns out that there are many versions of reality, and the "true" one almost always happens to be, through some fortunate coincidence, the one of our own culture. A "superstitious" Burmese villager who can see ghosts, a fundamentalist Christian who has felt the touch of God's finger, a fervently devout Hassidic Jew, a devoutly academic biologist who is the world's leading authority on some obscure family of nematode worms, a sociopathic business executive obsessed with money and power, a teenager obsessed with being fashionable, etc., are all living in very different worlds from each other, very different versions of reality. Our world is largely subjective, and each being's version is unique. Thus even a "delusional" world, even if only a single person partakes of it, still has its own sort of validity. We create our own reality, and there is no necessity for us all to create worlds which agree on all points, or even on most points. It's all relative. 
     Considering myself as a case history, there is no doubt that many would regard me as goofy as the proverbial pet coon. I live in a cave, and wear the same brownish toga every day. I have an irrational preference for odd numbers (for example, my alarm clock is set for 6:05, and I prefer to set out on journeys on odd-numbered days, although I did eat four tangerines this morning without difficulty). I am not a materialist; and I seriously favor the idea that, if a phone rings, my own mental states as I answer it help to determine who is at the other end of the line. The same goes for someone knocking at the door—my attitude as I open that door helps to determine who is knocking. For that matter, I sometimes soliloquize when I am alone; and on one memorable occasion I noticed a weed growing near the cave, squatted down before it, and said, "Who's a good little weed, eh? Who's a good weed? Yes, y-o-o-u-u-u! You're a good little weed!" Indulging in playful banter with weeds is not exactly normal. And to top it all off, I don't like money all that much, and turn it down even if it's offered to me. However, my own brand of eccentricity seems not particularly compatible with New Age. I've considered that I might be able to exist in America at some sort of New Ageish "intentional community," as people at such places tend to be openminded, accepting, generous, and sincere. I've considered the idea that I could serve the New Age community by providing it with some reasonable philosophical foundation. But New Age seems to place little value on reason and logic, or else they are unable to identify them precisely, and I might be climbing the walls of such a place within a matter of a few weeks. (A dear friend of mine, knowing of my considerations, showed me the movie Wanderlust as a warning of what I might encounter.) It would be nice, as a monk, to find a viable middle path in the West somehow, a middle path between dogmatic rationalism and complete disdain for reason in general. But maybe that's crazy.
     Well then. What is crazy? What is insanity? Does it simply mean that one's mind is too out of kilter for one to function in one's environment? That may amount to a good functional definition. If so, then the young man described in "A Strange Experience on the Street" (24 Aug 2012) might be just a borderline case: His mind was all fragmented, and he was clearly deeply troubled, "in disarray," as he called it, and he was definitely not "normal," yet still he was somehow functioning in the world, even if he happened to be sleeping under a bridge and eating handouts. If a person sees visions, hears voices, and believes that spirits are influencing his thoughts, so what? So long as he is not incapacitated by this, and still manages to be reasonably happy, then he is still doing okay. If these symptoms are "purified" and exalted, as in seeing the Blessed Virgin, hearing the voices of angels, and feeling one's mind being controlled by the Spirit of God, then one might even be a great saint. Many saints have exhibited such symptoms—people who in certain important respects are the sanest people in their culture.
     The Buddhist conception of delusion is rather more strict. Delusion (moha), and especially derangement or perversion (vipallāsa), is a matter of viewing what is impermanent as permanent, what is painful as pleasant, what is not self as self, and what is foul as beautiful. The reversal of these, viewing what is permanent as impermanent, etc., could also apply as "derangement." Consequently, according to Buddhism, everyone except for a fully enlightened being is deluded, and insane. It is true that Buddhism does distinguish between insanity in a philosophical sense, as explained just now, and the more conventional insanity of being out of one's mind to the point of being no longer responsible for one's actions; there's crazy, and then there's crazy. But overall it is safe to say that the closer to enlightenment one is, the fewer delusions one is laboring under (although this would not rule out mere il-lusions: a sage can see a mirage as easily as the next person, even though he or she is not misled by it), the fewer desires and attachments one has, and the more sane one is—regardless of the content of one's perceptions, or even of visions and voices. Neem Karoli Baba and Ramana Maharshi were practically superhuman beings with regard to wisdom, regardless of their outlandish behavior and the fact that one of them worshipped a mythological monkey, and the other one worshipped a hill. In short, sanity equals wisdom
     While I'm still on the subject, pretty much, of Theravada Buddhist philosophy, I may as well mention in passing that Buddhism speaks of the five faculties, or powers, in which the two faculties/powers of faith (saddhā) and reason (paññā—here not meaning "wisdom" or anything transcendental) should be kept in balance. Too much faith, and you believe whatever people tell you, no matter how ridiculous; too much reason, and nobody can tell you anything you are not already predisposed to hear, no matter how wise. In this dichotomy New Age favors the faith side and Scientism favors the reason side (although Scientism is by no means the only possible reason orientation, just as New Age is not the only possible faith orientation). A middle path between the two, if it could be found, would be most conducive to wisdom. 
     I may as well also mention in passing an idea that occurred to me not long ago which may be applicable to New Age. People with a faith orientation, which is about the same as saying people with a heart orientation, identify more with their feelings than with their thoughts. Thus, to people of this temperament, having a belief system that makes water-tight logical sense is not nearly so important as it would be to a top-heavy intellectual. And identifying more with feelings than with thoughts is, in its own way, just as valid, or invalid, as the reason/head orientation. (Conversely, intellectual types may appear to have infantile, insensitive, shallow, very fragmentary, or otherwise dysfunctional emotional natures, and thus to be divorced from Reality, when regarded by those of the heart orientation.) This may also explain to some degree an observation I've made before, that some heart-oriented people may use certain words as though they are quite familiar with them, yet if they are asked to define those words, they are at a loss. When the meaning of their universe manifests mainly as feelings, the meaning of a word is predominantly affective, with the actual dictionary denotation being only a kind of outward form, the extraneous clothing of the word, so to speak. What they feel when they use or hear the word is really what the word means for them, and they may not be able to communicate that feeling adequately, especially when communicating with a head-oriented person who is asking what they mean. Yet they may, some of them, have a wise, elegant emotional logic, despite the fact that their intellectual logic seems like flagrant rubbish to a logician.
     The cultural mainstream of hardheaded scientific Western materialism is "sane" (in the sense of undeluded) only in a conventional, democratic sense, regardless of how comprehensive and mutually interlocking its beliefs are. Western society still serves as a model for H. G. Wells' story "The Country of the Blind"; and as Wells points out in the story, in the Country of the Blind the one-eyed man is not king—in the Country of the Blind the one-eyed man is commonly judged to be an insane idiot. And some of our blindness may be to some of the "metaphysics" acknowledged, if only semi-coherently, by New Age. (This particular situation reminds me of René Guénon's claims that people of the modern West have locked themselves into a kind of shallow intellectual shell which prevents them from seeing most of Reality. His ghost haunts me sometimes.) Westernized culture is not necessarily even the sanest system available, especially if one considers its tendency toward one-sided objectification and the consequent alienation of its members, not to mention the rather intolerant, exclusive philosophical monoculture. Then again, I am a bit intolerant of "soft-headed" irrationality also. Not enough saddhā, I suppose.
     A potentially useful and non-complicated way of looking at the issue is that sanity is more a matter of happiness than of beliefs. Buddhist philosophy asserts that delusion is the cause of desire and attachment, which in turn are the causes of all suffering; and it simply stands to reason that if we have less delusion we are bound to have less friction in our lives, and consequently less unhappiness. Thus the sanest person is the happiest person. But I'm not implying that a person who laughs maniacally all day, every day (and I'm pretty sure there are people like this in mental hospitals) is deeply happy; in all likelihood such people are not very happy at all, once one gets past the surface. Even someone who is smiling whenever someone else is looking is not necessarily happy. Genuine happiness is more a matter of consciously accepting the way things are, even though "the way things are" is an illusion. The sanest person is the wisest person is the happiest person. Sane is wise is happy. Happiness is closer to Reality than unhappiness.
     Here is another angle for tackling the issue: Dharma teaches that it is not the physical action of a person that really counts from an ethical point of view, but rather the associated volitions; similarly, it is not a person's belief system that is of key importance with regard to their wisdom and happiness, but rather the volitions associated with that system, including their responses and reactions to it. However, just as it is virtually impossible to have positive volitions while performing some physical acts, like axe-murdering somebody, so it is very difficult to have positive volitions while harboring certain beliefs, for example that demons, sorcerers, and/or the CIA are controlling one's thoughts, or that one deserves to be beaten senseless, while tied up naked, by a violent psychopath.
     So, again, a person may believe all sorts of problematic notions (for example, that she can remember a past life as Queen of the Lumanians, or that she can fly in her astral body to the Egyptian pyramids, or that she can communicate with rocks, or that she is a sotapanna, or that the American Indians are a race of degenerate Jews, or that God is one God and Muhammad is His prophet, or that consciousness is nothing more than a side effect of brain chemistry, or…), yet if she is deeply happy, and is not incapacitated by the uniqueness of her beliefs, then she is doing all right. Perceptual beliefs may be almost totally irrelevant with regard to one's approach to Reality. In this respect of happiness also, mainstream Western culture is evidently not the system most conducive to wisdom or highest truth. Even if you have been fortunate enough to have been born into the society that has finally found The Truth, or the next best thing to it with only a few stray gaps to be filled in, if you are not happy, then so what? What good is that so-called Truth doing you? Well? Are you deeply happy? That is really the test question. 
     Every person's perceived world is relatively real, but not ultimately so. Each person's world is relatively valid, regardless of what the majority believes. Thus in the world of the hero of that New Age manuscript people did control his mind, and the slave woman could drive a car more easily with her eyes closed than with them open, and the demonic Gorm did give the immature loudmouth punk boyfriend psychic powers for the purpose of providing him with souls to devour. His world is just as much a "real" world as anyone else's. Whether he could accept his world happily or not, though, is a whole different ball of fish.
     This whole idea that belief systems are irrelevant to enlightenment used to be very difficult for me to accept, damned provoking in fact, and I would guess that some people who read this also find it very difficult, or extremely difficult, to stomach. I used to think that, if an enlightened being can still endorse what appears clearly to be superstitious hogwash, then what good is enlightenment? What good is being free of suffering if one is still delusional? Some relatively wise form of rational philosophy might actually be preferable. But when one starts to realize that Reality is Emptiness, or Void, the trouble is greatly reduced. I used to go with the slogan "Truth before happiness" until it dawned on me that ultimate happiness, Nirvana, sat-cit-ananda, "the peace that passeth all understanding," love, is the only ultimate truth.
     I used to use the word "postmodern" in the vague sense of something like "very modern" or "nowadays" without realizing that it means something specific. I discovered just last year that Postmodernism is an intellectual, artistic, and religious movement which emphasizes the idea that human truth and "rightness" are subjective and culturally conditioned; that, in Samsara at least, there is no highest or absolute truth. So it turns out that I've unwittingly been a Postmodernist for years (with the qualification that there is an Absolute, but that it is indeterminate and cannot be successfully symbolized). But most of Western society isn't Postmodern yet, and is still only Modern, or modern with a little "m." At any rate, it presents all the more reason for empathy and mutual acceptance.
     What it all boils down to is: Be careful of what you believe, because your believing it makes it true for you, and also helps to make it at least a little true for everyone around you, since mental states can be contagious. Believing something that you can't be happy with is hell. If you believe something terrible and can't let it go, then observe it with mindful detachment, like an ichthyologist observes a dead fish. And if you can't manage that, then purify and uplift it, like by seeing it in a more universal context. ("What happened to me was the payment of a great karmic debt." "The Universe is intensively purifying me by giving me just as much as I can possibly handle." "Man's extremity is God's opportunity.") But ultimately it isn't true anyway. 
     In conclusion, I would like to advise the author of the controversial manuscript, if he reads this, either to steer clear of the "novel" form and emphasize the documentary New Age training aspect, or else make the story more fictional, with much more objective, tangible conflict; and in either case, weed out most or all of the unnecessary distractions—like the attractiveness of the waitress at the Greek restaurant, the salmon carcass episode, the reactions to the new chicken coop, etc.—which appear to make up as much as 20% of the book. And try, in so-called "real life," to accept the Way Things Are. The way things are may require decisive, James Bond-like action, but the situation itself is totally, consciously acceptable in the present moment nevertheless, without unnecessary worry, hunched shoulders, choked voice, and blurry vision. Oh, and use more commas, man (not "commas man"). 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Relativity of Delusion (part 1)

MAD, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that themselves are sane. —Ambrose Bierce (from The Devil's Dictionary)

Puthujjano ummattako. ("The common person is insane.") —Pali proverb

     This post, the first installment of a two-part essay, may seem harsh and cruel, or more so than usual, but I will eventually turn around and come back the other way. Please be patient. Life is like this.
     Around two and a half years ago my old friend Wayne, the New Age surfer dude who maintains that he is not New Age, was writing a novel, or elaborate, metaphorical fairy tale, and—I don't remember whose idea it was—I expressed a willingness to go through it and offer him some editorial feedback. He evidently much appreciated the comments, and eventually advised an acquaintance of his who had just written a novel of sorts himself (and who might, for all I know, also deny being New Age) that I might be willing to edit it for him. So a little later I received an email from this man, who I do not recall ever having met in person, accompanied by a 578-page manuscript, and a request that I edit it.
     I was busy with other things at the time, but I took a look at it, and read the first chapter. It did not look promising. The story begins with the narrator claiming that three people want him dead and may be trying to kill him, that he is surrounded by people who can control his mind, and that he owns a slave woman—in the 21st century, in the United States of America. The part especially about mind control seemed to hint at a possibility of schizophrenia, and I decided not to wade through the whole thing. Editing it would probably be a task I would not enjoy. Besides, it was written by someone I didn't know, and I was expected to do this motivated by nothing but the goodness of my heart and a vague offer of free popcorn. (It is true, though, that monks should not do anything out of any desire for payment, nor should they accept any, especially if it is in the form of money.) So I set the manuscript aside in the digital guts of my computer and left it there for more than two years.
     Then very recently some generous folks offered me a solar panel, so now I can use this computer at my cave, as much as I please; and I happened to notice that manuscript among my files. Books that would be unreadable in America, or at any place with Internet access, become quite readable when one is living alone in a remote forest cave in Burma. So, I read it. I'm still not inclined to edit it, however, as I judge it would probably need a major overhaul to make it decently publishable. In fact, I resist the urge to vent frustration and impatience over the thing. I'll probably wind up venting a little before I'm done, though. Sometimes it's not good to keep things held in.
     On the positive side, I did learn quite a lot about New Age and one or two other current American subcultures. For example, the author describes the services at a New Age church, which is something I've never seen before. (They began with two designated healers offering healing energies to anyone willing to come up and sit by the altar. Later on there was a guided visualization of flying, bird-like, to the Great Pyramid.) I learned something of the extraordinarily wide spectrum of "metaphysicists" in the New Age and related worlds, including, but nowhere near to being limited to, telekinetics, crystallomancers, lunamancers, projecting empaths, and "glamours." I learned that one should always avoid necromancers.
     Since the "novel" is hardly a fictional story at all, but is an extremely thinly-veiled autobiographical account, I also learned that a peculiar kind of slavery is not altogether uncommon in certain circles in modern America. There is even a standardized protocol for slave behavior. For example, whenever they are not in public (unless maybe at a BDSM dungeon) their conversations tend to be conducted formally, with the master sitting on a chair or bed and the slave kneeling before him, naked or wearing only a collar, with her knees apart, her hands behind her back, and her head bowed in submission. New Age, or some New Age at least, tends to be very open sexually, and has considerable overlap with what is euphemistically referred to as "alternative lifestyles," or just "lifestyle," which in the book means BDSM, or Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism. In addition to owned slaves, the manuscript also mentions "masochist submissives" (also mostly female) and "pain sluts"—i.e., women who actually want sadistic sociopaths to beat the living daylights out of them, or worse. Methods of conditioning or breaking in a new slave include, according to the text, repeated rape (genital and anal), choking the person until she loses consciousness, and force-feeding her her own excrement, until she eventually breaks down to the point that she submissively and habitually accepts it. The impression I got was that many of these women reach the point where they believe that they deserve such treatment, or even crave it. As the narrator's slave says at one point, virtually all slaves have been massively traumatized. To be fair to the author/protagonist, he makes no mention of beating his slave, except maybe as some BDSM "love play," or of having bought her, although slave women are not uncommonly bought and sold, and he was not the one who forcibly "conditioned" her. Plus the two appear genuinely to love and respect each other. This sort of thing (i.e. female slavery in the US) appears not to consist of rare, isolated cases, but represents an entire underground subculture. Whether it's a "thriving" subculture or not I don't know. Also, whether it's more a manifestation of modern Western cultural alienation or a universal human perversion, I don't know.
     At which point I would like to make a digression on the issue of slavery in modern America, setting aside for the moment the aforementioned agonizing female variety. It is commonly believed that Abe Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution freed the slaves, but that is only partially true. The text of Section One of the Amendment makes this clear: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction" (my underscoring). It seems fairly obvious to me, although most people don't make the connection, that prisoners working at labor camps or on road crews (Cool Hand Luke comes to mind here), or otherwise working involuntarily, like making license plates or whatever, are legal slaves in the USA. And as the government attempts to stave off bankruptcy and turns the prison system over to capitalist, profit-making corporations, as I've been told is happening nowadays, legal slavery is becoming commercialized. It would be nice if laws are not made more strict in order to increase the slave labor force.
     Other alleged forms of modern legal slavery include military conscription by draft boards, "wage slavery" (alleged mainly by communists), taxation (alleged by some anarchists and libertarians), the domination of domesticated animals (alleged by some animal rights activists), and "psychiatric slavery," that is, the subjugation of patients against their will at psychiatric hospitals (who, as Mr. Bierce pointed out, are declared insane by authorities who are not proved to be entirely sane themselves). This could be taken to a more universal level, with mandatory obedience to laws which a citizen never voted for, or agreed to, being a kind of slavery (Cool Hand Luke comes to mind again). Perhaps to some degree this last is just a necessary form of semi-slavery in the present way of things. I'm getting too damn political lately. 
     Getting back on track though, and back to the strange manuscript….as a Castaneda-esque autobiographical account of New Age beliefs and practices, including some rather "metaphysical" psychic training, and with some "lifestyle" kinks thrown in for a bit of stark intensity, the book could be informative and useful; and I think it probably should be edited (or reworked) in that direction if the author seriously wants it published and read by as many people as possible. But as a novel it is, in my opinion, a lost cause. Some sort of conflict, or at least mystery, and the satisfactory (or deliberately unsatisfactory) resolution of same are a virtual necessity for any self-respecting novel, especially one dealing with the macabre and "occult"; but these are virtually absent in the story—or rather, they exist primarily in hypothetical form in the obsessive, easily terrified, very credulous, and rather paranoiac mind of the protagonist. For instance, of the three people in Chapter 1 who supposedly wanted him dead, the number of actual threats to his life from these people was zero. One of them was a woman in whose house he was living, who expressed angry disapproval of the author's woman, and who subsequently asked him if he had seen her gun cleaning kit. He promptly put two and two together, arrived at a total of seven, and assumed that she intended to murder him and/or his slave. He frantically ordered the slave into hiding and slept at night with a loaded gun by his side and heavy furniture against his bedroom door…and of course his housemate had no intention of murdering anybody. She wanted to show her gun to a friend, and wanted to clean it first. The author honestly admits to all this later on, and includes a scene in which the lady is berating him for his paranoia, but still.
     The central, mainly imaginary conflict involves the hero's remote efforts to separate a young woman, whom he deeply cares for, from her boyfriend. It is true that the boyfriend is a Goth with a rudimentary conscience, morbid fantasies involving world conquest, immortality (possibly involving cannibalism), and destruction of his enemies, and just plain immaturity issues; then again, the young woman apparently has shockingly little perceptiveness with regard to her boyfriend's distorted/perverted values, and seems to have some morbid fantasies herself—for example, a large picture directly over her bed in her bedroom features a black devil devouring a white angel. The hero attributes her lack of common sense to malevolent mind control. His efforts to separate the couple are "remote" because, almost immediately upon hearing of the new boyfriend, he reacted in such an alarmist and frantic manner that within a week the young woman was harassed and exasperated to the point where she didn't want anything to do with him, the hero, anymore. Consequently, his efforts to rescue the damsel in distress were at a respectful distance, and predominantly along "metaphysical" lines. The young couple made no personal appearance at all throughout most of the story, and the protagonist met the Goth boyfriend only once or twice—although the slave woman vehemently insisted that he was of the Abyss, and strenuously warned her master not to touch him, because it would give him greater power to access the hero's mind. There is no final, climactic confrontation whatsoever. I hope I don't wreck the surprise ending for anyone, but the climax takes the form of revealing the identity of "Gorm" (not his real name), a master of the Abyss who allegedly has given the Goth boyfriend powers to control and "condition" the young woman, after which he  (the boyfriend) would destroy her innocent soul, sacrifice her for the sake of his own immortality, and then pass her on to Gorm, who would then allegedly consume her soul-energy to maintain his own demonic existence. It turns out that Gorm, whom the author never meets, is a discarnate demon of the Abyss. The slave makes a deal with him, which she strongly prefers not to explain or discuss, resulting in Gorm agreeing to withdraw his powers in the subjugation of the young woman's soul. It is this which eventually allows her to leave the Goth boyfriend (outwardly appearing to have nothing to do with the hero's or anyone else's psychic efforts), thereby vindicating his continued overreactions and obsessive fears. It is true that the author/protagonist considers the possibilities that his slave is delusional, or just making up the story of meeting Gorm and making a deal with him at Denny's to help allay his single-minded conjuration of worst-case scenarios (plus maybe making herself appear more powerful and useful to her master), but he quickly dismisses these possibilities as unlikely. 
     The author's/protagonist's decisions and conduct are conditioned by dreams, visions, visualizations, sudden intuitions and strange feelings, wild speculative theories readily accepted as facts, tarot card readings, guidance from various "metaphysicists," some of whose advice is mutually contradictory or proves obviously false, the powers of a mystical amulet, and even fortune cookies. (There is mentioned in the book, however, no astrology that I remember, nothing channeled by mediums in trance, no interpretations of flights of birds, and no inspections of sacrificed animal entrails.) Actual empirical facts seem to be little emphasized once the magic ball starts rolling. Although it is probably completely unnecessary, I'll give two illustrations of his world from the manuscript.
     On one occasion the protagonist experiences a strange feeling early in the morning that the Goth boyfriend will confront and attack him that day. He wakes up his slave from a sound sleep to tell her this, and to request her "backup" while he is at work. Then he calls his brother, who apparently lives at least a two-hour drive away, and asks him also to come and help protect him from this follower of the Dark Side, who at this point is hypothesized to be a possible glamour, skilled at mind control. The slave comes with a sword, the brother comes, and the hero himself brings a loaded pistol and prepares for death, even hurriedly writing down a kind of final testament, which he afterwards places in a plastic bag to protect it from any splattering blood. He warns the slave not to use lethal force with her sword against the enemy until he is clearly attempting to kill the hero, and she agrees. Then, as was not difficult to predict, the Goth boyfriend, probably not giving this fellow a moment's thought all day, fails to show up.
     On another occasion, toward the end of the tale, after the young woman has gotten fed up with the immature boyfriend and has already left him, the hero is still obsessing, fearful that the boyfriend, still of the Abyss, will seek her out and harm her in vengeance, or else will start controlling her mind again to get her back, putting her back on the road to being sacrificed and cannibalized. He feels a sudden, powerful urge to pray for her, which he does, with great emotion. Then he tries to "image" or visualize her and her mother. The mother in the visualization appears blank or mildly stunned, while the young woman appears happy and smiling, with her face bathed in white light. He considers this: the mother stunned, the girl blissful and bathed in light—and suddenly recoils in horror, with an internal exclamation of "Oh my God!" He doesn't make clear why all of a sudden he's fighting to remain coherent through his tears, but it may be that he saw his visualization as indicative of the young woman's death. Upon finally getting a grip on himself he tells the slave about it, and, apparently used to this sort of thing, she remains completely impassive. So after he returns home he does an elaborate tarot spread on the girl, which reassures him somewhat, and then he goes outside to pray again, this time wearing nothing but a swimsuit and rubber boots. 
     So it becomes clear that most of the conflict in the story is created by the hero's own vehement, febrile imagination. Even if the girl were in real danger, which is never more than a suspected possibility, the chronic slumped shoulders, voice choked with sobs, and tear-blurred vision did nothing at all to help resolve the situation. I can sympathize with the man's distress, but I cannot take his interpretation of the facts very seriously, nor his reactions to them, except as a kind of psychological case history—but, this is simply indicative of my own personal bias.
     I have no real quarrel with most of the strange New Ageish metaphysics described in the document. I do consider, though, folks of the New Age orientation to require very little verification, if any, in order to believe something. I also consider New Age in general to be very goal-oriented in its practices, which includes meditation. The author uses meditation more as a springboard for psychic question answering and for intensifying visualizations than simply for clarity and peace of mind in the here and now. Meditative clarity and peace of mind, if attained, seem to be seen as mere means to some occult end. Even a mention of Zen masters in the book apparently implies that Zen masters also use meditation mainly as a kind of tool for answering questions, or for some other more or less mundane ulterior motive. Another reservation I have about New Age, based upon what I have seen of it, is that even relatively advanced practitioners may be very broken and messed up inside. This appears to be very common in fact. The slave woman is a case in point; she is profoundly damaged and hurting, by her own confession, yet she comes up with much of the wisest, most knowledgeable counsel in the whole book. Some, but certainly not all, of what she says strikes me as truly wise. To some degree it may be a matter of "breaking the shell," a life of some viciously hard knocks breaking through some of the limitations in the "normal" point of view and allowing one to see, unobstructed by the "normal" shell, in non-normal directions. Some people may call it insanity, but even so-called crazy people may have real wisdom. But I'll get back to that. 
     My main trouble with the book was with the amazing, occasionally irritating paranoia, obsession, and fear, supported by some rather extreme credulity, which is rather over the top even if measured by a very liberal yardstick. Sometimes I would stop reading the manuscript for a minute or two in order to make profane exclamations of frustration, shake my head, and then cuss a little more. The author freely admits that his conduct, especially the full-time obsessional aspect of it, occasionally annoys the people around him, and it totally alienated the damsel he was trying to save (and the writing of the book itself may have been another symptom of it); but then again, I imagine that he is not all that weird or anomalous of a person by the standards of the society he lives in. Some of his arguably bizarre convictions were handed to him by "metaphysical" friends, and others were endorsed and reinforced by them. Arguably bizarre beliefs and practices, and deviations from "normal" human psychology, appear to be rather commonplace in the New Age world, and in other subcultures deviating from the scientific materialist mainstream. I'll get back to that too.
     I get a subjective feeling that I shouldn't quote the manuscript in question any more than I have with the exclamation "Oh my God!"; and I hope I haven't totally crossed the line by giving away the surprise climax. And if my comments on his attitude seem unfriendly thus far, I do apologize to him. In fact, I would feel like I was blabbing a confidential communication from someone if not for the fact that he obviously wants to make the book public to the world anyway. And at the very least, the part about abused female slaves in 21st-century America should be publicly announced as a kind of red warning flag. So instead of quoting him further I'll quote instead a classic New Age document that a very nice New Age guy lent to me once. This has the further advantage of demonstrating what is widely accepted and even respected in the world of New Age nowadays. It is from a book entitled The Magdalen Manuscript: The Alchemies of Horus & The Sex Magic of Isis, by Tom Kenyon and Judi Sion (ORB Communications, 2002). Mr. Kenyon may, perhaps, deny being New Age, but he is considered to be a kind of oracle in some New Age circles, and I've heard him mentioned with the same quiet awe that some Western Vipassana people affect when they speak of Jack Kornfield. Anyway, Tom Kenyon is, among other things, a channeler; and in the classic book in question he presumably channels Mary Magdalene, a female follower of Jesus of Nazareth (referred to as Yeshua in the text) who had a troop of evil spirits driven out of her and who was present at his crucifixion and afterwards. The Bible says little more about her than what I have just related, and nothing really incriminating, but there are numerous legends floating about that she was the mistress or secret wife of Jesus. (Any of you who have read The Da Vinci Code know all about this, and I will add that that is a much more engagingly-written book than Kenyon's is.) The Magdalen Manuscript goes further than most of these legends, as Mary M. herself asserts that she was an advanced priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis—and if my memory is reliable, that Mary the mother of Jesus also was an extremely advanced Pagan adept. The following is the first paragraph of Chapter 15 of Kenyon's book, in which Mary M. describes some of the sexual tantra that she and Jesus practiced together:
"When Yeshua and I made love, as you call it, we caused our Serpents to rise up our spines, up our Djed. We did this simultaneously, and at the moment of mutual orgasm the charge released from the first seals in the pelvic areas of our bodies was sent upward, into the Throne, which is in the upper part of the head—stimulating the higher brain centers."
     Now, I am probably more openminded than the average guy, but this strikes me as gobsmackingly priceless, like something out of Monty Python's Flying Circus—say, the Fish Slapping Dance. What makes it even more delicious is that Judi Sion, in her part of the book, declares her husband Tom Kenyon to be the skeptical, scientific one. Yet there are people who believe all this as though it were gospel, without a flicker of doubt, nor the slightest raising of an eyebrow, not to mention the tiniest shred of empirical evidence other than Mr. Kenyon's testimony. But then again, there have been, and still are, entire religions based on scriptures only slightly less absurd or less supported by evidence or logic than the above. People, really, can believe anything
     And again, my own personal bias interferes with pure objectivity—if there even is such a thing as pure objectivity. Allow me to step back a little and cool down.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

In Search of Death

     The stats pages for this blog inform me that posts on the subject of Death consistently receive fewer hits than average. Evidently people do not like the subject of Death very much. But I don't care, and am obstinately writing about it again, as is appropriate for a bhikkhu.
     The texts of Pali Buddhism encourage monks (presumed to be the most dedicated and advanced practitioners of Dhamma) to spend time at cemeteries, contemplating corpses. Of the forty meditation methods standardized by Theravadin tradition, a full 25% of them involve the contemplation of dead, decomposing human bodies. Add to that the practice of maraānussati, or recollection of death itself, especially one's own, and the total of standardized meditations emphasizing death becomes 27.5%. On the other hand, the total of meditations emphasizing birth on the list is 0%. Of the thirteen dhutagas, or optional ascetic practices, one of them is the cemetery-dweller's practice, i.e. living in a cemetery. Each dhutaga, according to the Visuddhimagga, has three levels, easy, medium, and hard; and the cemetery-dweller's practice at the hard level involves the monk living in a place where he can easily hear grieving and crying.
     (Perhaps it should be pointed out that cemeteries in ancient India were a far cry from cemeteries in the modern West. American cemeteries more closely resemble parks or golf courses than they do an old-fashioned Asian graveyard. In addition to the standard graves, tombs, and cremation grounds, the ancient Indian version would also include a charnel field—a place where people too poor to afford a decent burial or cremation were simply flung onto the ground to decompose and be eaten by animals. These charnel fields were the places where monks were advised to go and stay. Modern Burmese cemeteries are at an intermediate position between ancient India and modern America: they are often relatively desolate, unkempt areas strewn with tombs, underbrush, and the occasional human bone. Poor people are buried in shallow graves, without a coffin, and either with a wooden marker which is promptly eaten by termites or with no marker at all; when the grave is fresh it is covered by a kind of bamboo lattice, the purpose of which I used to wonder about. Finally I realized that it was to keep dogs and other animals from digging up grandpa. Eventually, after all signs of a grave there have disappeared, another poor person is inadvertently buried there, and the bones of the previous occupant may simply be tossed aside, which accounts for the aforementioned strewing of bones. On the outskirts of the town of Kani in northwestern Burma there is a really deluxe cemetery with a big wooden shelter where monks can stay, and plenty of bones…but I'm getting way ahead of myself.)
     Of course, sitting around looking at rotting corpses is one of the aspects of Theravada that has not been enthusiastically adopted by the American Vipassana movement. Advertisements for meditation centers in the Buddhist media are much, much more likely to stress the scenic beauty of the place than to say things like, "A view of human remains from every cabin!" This is partly because we Westerners are a little bit freaked out about death. We may have some interest in watching it on TV, but we don't like to get too close to it, or to contemplate our own mortality and inevitable demise very often.
     Largely because of this aversion for acknowledging death, and a tendency to keep it decently concealed whenever possible, before coming to Asia I had never seen a human corpse—except in photographs, on TV, in the form of mounted skeletons in biology classrooms (and even most of those are plastic replicas), and as a mummy in a display case, which now I can barely remember. I had never even attended a funeral. 
     So after becoming a bhikkhu at a Burmese monastery in California, and learning about recollection of death and its advantages, I became more inspired to contemplate a corpse. A Burmese monk told me that in Thailand, and possibly in Burma also, monks are allowed to observe autopsies at hospitals. The venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw himself, the founder of the tradition in which I was ordained, is said to have attended a few of these. I also was told that another, slightly famous sayadaw, whose name I won't divulge, accompanied Taungpulu Sayadaw to an autopsy and fainted during the course of it. With the approval of the senior monks at the monastery, I called the Santa Cruz county coroner's office and requested permission for a small party of Buddhist monks to observe an autopsy. The fellow at the other end of the line said, with a voice like lead, "I wouldn't recommend it," and that pretty much ended the attempt in America. It wasn't until coming to Asia that I saw a real dead person. 
     Before coming to Burma the group I was with spent about three weeks in India, mostly for the purpose of making a pilgrimage through the main Buddhist holy places. When we were in Varanasi, alias Benares, I detached myself from the others and deliberately sought ought the burning ghats, where corpses are cremated by the Ganges River. Most of what I knew about the burning ghats, before actually arriving there, was derived from books by Ram Dass. He mentioned that at one time he was in Varanasi and was moved to pity by all the decrepit beggars lying by the road waiting to die. Around each one's neck was a little pouch containing just enough money to pay for the firewood for the cremation. Afterward he was amazed to realize that at the same time that he was pitying these dying people, they were pitying him, because they had made it—some Hindus believe that if you are cremated in Varanasi a deva descends to earth and whispers the highest name of God into your ear as your body burns (I don't remember the exact details), thereby guaranteeing your attainment to Heaven. Ram Dass also mentioned the simile of the corpse burner's stick, which is a metaphor for spiritual practice reminiscent of the Buddhist Simile of the Raft: The corpse burner uses the stick to make sure that the body burns correctly, and when it is all burned up the guy tosses the stick onto the fire and burns that up too. I didn't see the corpse burners actually doing this, though.
     Because I was a monk I was allowed to stand up close and watch. The bodies were wrapped in white shrouds, and by the time the shrouds had burned off the flesh was pretty charred too, so I still didn't see a body looking like an actual human person, but what I saw was considerable. The fires were no bigger than was necessary for completing the cremation, and so the bare feet of the burning bodies would stick out of the fire, toes upwards. When the ligaments of the knee joints had burned through, the corpse burner would use his stick to knock the feet up and over and into the fire. Seeing the legs bending in exactly the wrong direction had a powerful shock value. It just didn't seem right watching people's legs bending forwards at the knee like that. Another shocker was when the head, after burning for awhile, would be smashed by the stick, causing the cooked brains, looking like scrambled eggs, to flop out and sizzle in the flames. 
     I remember, while watching, the corpse burners' children were running among the fires and corpses, playing and laughing. People can get used to anything. One of the kids ran past me and bumped into me, squealing and giggling, which irritated me at the time. A water buffalo, in the brainlessly placid, prehistoric manner of water buffaloes, slowly ambled among the fires eating flowers that had dropped from biers onto the ground. An Indian man offered me some kind of drug-looking stuff, which I refused. Later I was told that it was some kind of chewing tobacco. One strange thing that I remember was the smell of the place. Have you ever smelled something that very strongly reminded you of something else, yet you couldn't quite remember what it reminded you of? That was happening to me at the burning ghats. I knew that I had smelled that smell somewhere before, and was racking my brains trying to figure it out—when suddenly it dawned on me: A wiener roast! It smelled like a wiener roast there. 
     I've been told that seeing dead people lying by the side of the road is pretty common in India, but I didn't see any explicit human death there other than at the burning ghats. I didn't see more, in fact, until about a year and a half later, in Burma, when I was living at a big monastery near Mandalay. There I resumed my efforts to see the closest thing to a charnel field I could find, which I figured would be an autopsy.  
    There was a doctor living right across the road from the monastery in Amarapura, with whom I was on friendly terms, and he occasionally performed autopsies at his clinic, so I asked him if I could watch one someday. He always responded along the lines of, "Oh, certainly. No problem at all"; but he continued responding like this for a year without ever letting me see one. I was not exactly sure at the time what his reasons were, but long before the year had passed it appeared very likely that a trip to the general hospital in Mandalay, or more specifically its morgue, would be more conducive to contemplation of human death. So one day a Burmese monastic friend and I set out for Mandalay.
     The morgue (or "ice building," as the Burmese term would be translated), was a small masonry structure detached from the main hospital building, situated near the back of the compound. My friend and I entered the wide-open door and found a single live person, a custodian, sweeping the floor. He was much too low on the bureaucracy's totem pole to be paranoid of strange foreigners wanting to look at dead people, so he invited us in with a big, friendly smile. (In Burma, especially in those days, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low could afford to be fearless; but those situated near the middle levels of the bureaucratic labyrinth, I gradually learned, were generally scared crapless to do anything conspicuous or unusual, for fear of losing their job, if not their head; and letting a big white foreigner into the morgue was both conspicuous and unusual.)
     Stretched out on tables, all face up, were three young men, all of whom evidently had died of stab wounds to the abdomen, and a very peaceful-looking old lady. I observed one of the young men for several minutes, and observed another phenomenon which inspired me with a feeling of profound wrongness, much like the legs bending the wrong way in Varanasi: a fly was crawling all over his face. (In fact there were plenty of flies here, as the room was not refrigerated and the door was wide open, with, if I remember correctly, no glass in the windows either. Also there were little puddles of red or pinkish liquid scattered here and there on the concrete floor, which I was very mindful of, being barefoot.) That fly bothered me because it seemed that, even though the fellow was dead, he still shouldn't let that fly crawl on him like that. Being dead seemed an insufficient excuse for not brushing the fly away.
     After this we entered the cooler, which actually was refrigerated. There were two large wire racks, several shelves high, up against the near wall, on either side of the entrance to the cooler. Immediately upon entry I was confronted by two dead babies, of different sizes, on a shelf to my left. Beyond them was a young woman, apparently in her late teens or early twenties, lying on a lower shelf. She/it was wearing nothing but a chemise, and naked from the waist down; and as soon as I noticed this I quickly looked away. I've never been inclined toward necrophilia, but her form, which was all that was left of her, was young and pretty, and I am a man, and a primitive urge to stare resulted in an immediate backlash in the opposite direction. So I looked toward the other side of the room and saw, lying on his/its back on the concrete floor, the body of a man who obviously had undergone a complete autopsy. He looked like he had swallowed a hand grenade. His chest was a gaping, empty cavern, and the top of his head was missing, with the place where his brain should be containing just a little puddle of pink goo. On the lowest shelf of the rack right next to him was another young man, whose hand was dipped into a bucket full of dark red glop which I assumed had been taken out of the exploded guy. This inspired more feelings of unnatural wrongness: even though he was dead, at the very least he should pull his hand out of that bucket of glop. Needless to say, although I say it anyway, the experience of visiting that morgue was an intense one for me.
     One of the primary purposes of contemplating death in Buddhist practice, probably the primary purpose, is to inspire a sense of samvega, a feeling of spiritual alarm and an urgent need for spiritual practice, without wasting any time about it. I was feeling plenty of samvega as I left that morgue and reentered the hot, bright sunshine of an ordinary day in Mandalay. Children were running around playing, teenage girls walked hand in hand, happily chattering about nothing in particular, a bikeshaw driver squatted next to his machine, intently working on it, a young man spoke flirtatiously to a smiling young woman, and people simply went about their lives as though they would live forever. But I felt like shouting to them, "Why are you laughing? Don't you know what's in that building right there? We're all going to die!" But I didn't shout it. Instead, my friend and I entered the main hospital building in search of the coroner, to ask permission to watch autopsies. 
     When we found the coroner, he was hardly any more enthusiastic than the one in California had been. He gave the impression of being harassed and sorely overworked, which he probably was, and he was furthermore high enough in the bureaucracy to wish with all his heart to avoid strange foreigners. Not surprisingly, he politely passed the buck, in accordance with good Burmese manners, and didn't say No; instead he said that we would have to get permission from the medical superintendent of the hospital. So we went to his office next. 
     On this trip we didn't even get to see the medical superintendent. Instead, we informed one of his underlings of our mission, and he went into the superintendent's office to relay the information. After a few minutes he came back out and informed us that in order to see an autopsy we would have to receive permission from the governor of Mandalay division. I got the impression that his further passing of the buck onto the governor, who also was a military general in those days, was just a polite Burmese way of saying, "Hell no you can't see a freaking autopsy." With that, we terminated our mission and returned to our monastery in Amarapura.
     But karma works in mysterious ways; and, just a few weeks after our adventure, who came to our monastery but the governor of Mandalay division himself. After hearing of his scheduled arrival I went to "my sayadaw," also technically my teacher (although he delegated authority to others in that regard), who was on friendly terms with the governor and who had, at that time, the ecclesiastical rank of aggamahāganthikapaṇḍita which, in the hierarchy of the Burmese Sangha, is roughly equivalent to a brigadier general. The venerable sayadaw asked if I needed anything, and I requested that he pretty please ask the governor for permission for me to see an autopsy in Mandalay. He appeared a little surprised by the request, but he said he'd take care of it. 
     About two days after the governor's visit, right after I had eaten my daily meal, an official hospital car unexpectedly pulled up outside my cabin, and I was informed that I was to see an autopsy that day—in fact, in about an hour. I wasn't expecting things to move this fast. Also, it was a blazing hot day toward the beginning of the furnace-like upper Burma hot season, and I had just eaten; so I was apprehensive of the discomfort and possible puking that might become a reality soon. But, I wasn't about to back out of the deal, and besides, it was a safe assumption that the concrete floor in that morgue had been exposed to lots worse things than the contents of my stomach, so I got into the car. My friend from the first visit came along too, as did a young anunāyaka sayadaw, the leader of the section of the monastery where I lived. This young sayadaw was rather a tough, macho monk, and seemed really enthusiastic about seeing an autopsy.
     This time we got to meet the elusive medical superintendent, and I swear to gawd he looked almost exactly like Spock's father on the old TV show "Star Trek." The facial features were the same, the hair, the eyebrows—practically the only difference was that the medical superintendent didn't have pointy ears like Spock's dad did…but this is one hell of a pointless digression. The resemblance was really remarkable though.
     We accompanied the coroner, who, like the superintendent, was much more sociable this time, back to the "ice building," where the body to be dissected was already laid out, face up, on the slab. He was a young man who had died in the hospital before a doctor had had the chance to examine him, and it was hospital policy to perform an autopsy on all such cases. On a large table nearby were three dead men in prison inmate uniforms who looked like they had come from a concentration camp—shaved heads, grimacing black teeth, and extreme emaciation. I don't know what the cause of death for those guys was, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was starvation. I suppose I could have asked the coroner, but everybody in the room was pretending like they didn't see them, so I went along with it and didn't say anything. The coroner very obligingly told me that I could pick up and handle any of the organs that were removed. The rubber glove supplied for the purpose was about five sizes too small for my hand, though, and I didn't know what disease the person had died from, so I didn't take him up on the offer. 
     In the Buddhist texts, analyzing the various parts of the body one by one, as opposed to contemplating dead bodies in general, is more associated with asubha kammaṭṭhāna, or the meditation technique of contemplating the foulness of the body. The Vijaya Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta would be a good early example of this. Considering the glop and gooey muck that fills our skin sack is supposed to help cure us of attachment to the human body, including identification with "our own" and lust for that of another person. (As my father once told me, "My son, when you kiss a girl you're sucking on a tube thirty feet long, the bottom two-thirds of which are full of shit.") But I have a degree in biology, and am fascinated by life, especially animal life; and I consider the delicately balanced organic system of the human body to be more of an amazing miracle than anything to be disgusted at—at least, that is, when I'm examining it in a more or less scientific manner. All fear of puking was gone, and I was really interested. So were the other two monks. Go figure. 
     When they started cutting the guy open, one of the first things that really struck me was that subcutaneous fat looks like partially melted Velveeta cheese. Sometimes to this day I still reflect on the notion that the soft, rounded, beautiful curves of a woman's body are filled out with this same slick-looking orangeish cheese. 
     The coroner found significant amounts of fluid in the dead man's lungs, which indicated pneumonia. Also he noted that the spleen was enlarged, which is symptomatic of chronic malaria. So he had enough information to make the diagnosis that the man died of pneumonia as a complication of chronic malaria. Even so, he gave me the full tour and had the top of the man's head removed. The way they did it was interesting: First they cut through the skin around the head and pulled it back to expose the bone, and then an assistant used a hacksaw to cut most of the way through the skull all around, and then they used a hammer and chisel to pop off the top of the skull, as though it were the lid of a paint can. After the brain was removed I took the liberty to poke at it a little with a probe; and it was then that I realized just how soft a human brain is—it's hardly any firmer than pudding. Since I tend to be rather brain-oriented ("My brain? That's my second-favorite organ!" —Woody Allen), that realization also has stayed with me over the years.
     After the autopsy was finished the coroner politely invited me to come again if I wasn't satisfied. I was thinking of maybe one autopsy every two months or so, as part of my practice; so two months later we went back to the hospital for another one. This time was a case of arriving very much at the wrong time—the coroner's office was thronged with police officers and other importunate people, and the coroner evidently was being thoroughly harassed over some relatively important death. When he came out of his office and saw me standing there his Burmese politeness failed to materialize, and he immediately got a look on his face like he had just sucked an extraordinarily bitter lemon. He asked me, "Weren't you here just a few days ago?" I reminded him that it had been two months, and that he had invited me to come back for another autopsy if the first one was not totally sufficient. He acquiesced to this; and since it was almost time for him to perform another autopsy anyway, within a few minutes we adjourned to the morgue. 
     This time the "patient" was a vagrant-looking person who had been found lying dead by the side of the road. He had already been dead for a few days, so that his skin was starting to bubble up with big blisters as gases percolated out of the body. The coroner remarked that recently a Buddhist monk had likewise been found by the side of the road, and that it appeared that he had been killed by another monk—Mandalay monks are notorious. I don't remember what the diagnosis for this one was, although I remember he wasn't murdered; possibly something to do with heavy drinking. After the procedure was finished, the coroner took aside one of the Burmese monks in attendance and earnestly entreated him that I never, ever, ever come back for another autopsy. So that was my last one, and my last trip to the Mandalay general morgue. 
     Without question the first trip to the morgue, before I saw any autopsies, was by far the most conducive to profound samvega. During the second and third trips I didn't inspect the bodies on the other tables, or the racks in the cooler, but only observed the autopsies being performed, accompanied by the coroner. The autopsies turned out to be almost more like anatomy lessons than evocative contemplations of death. Also, naturally, the first time makes the biggest impression, in visiting morgues as well as in other things.
     In later years my search for human remains to contemplate was pretty much limited to bones. A Burmese lady offered me a skeleton, with its bones connected together with wires, which she bought from a medical college for 27,000 kyats, or approximately $25 US. I called it Mr. Death—I knew it used to be a guy because of the shape of the hip bones—and kept it sitting in full lotus posture in front of my cave until 2011, when I gave it away to a forest monk who craved it droolingly, shortly before my return to the West. Also I have owned a few skulls, which are obtainable for free from unmaintained, weed-, ghost-, and monster-infested Burmese cemeteries. You can just go and pick them up. Sometimes, especially with the meditating skeleton, I would do a little maraānussati in the form of regarding it and thinking, "As am I, so was that. As is that, so will I become." But, as was mentioned above, a person can get used to just about anything, including a memento mori staring and grinning at him from a shelf or a bamboo mat. After awhile it just becomes part of the background, like a picture on the wall that you hardly notice anymore. After looking at it about fifty times it stops making much of an impression.
     I did take a skull back to America with me though. I had it in my checked luggage on the plane; and when I was given one of those little customs forms to fill out I was in a bit of a quandary—it asked if I had any animal products to declare. Well, are human remains an "animal product"? From a biological point of view, of course we are animals: we're hominoid primates, a kind of mammal. But most people consider animals to be different from people, probably including customs officials at airports; so I checked "No." Luckily, the customs guy at the SeaTac Airport just waved me through and didn't open any of my bags. The skull is presently in storage at a Burmese monastery in California, very patiently awaiting my return.
     Over the years I have also seen a few more dead people, not sought out but as unplanned visitations, including one dead friend and one dead teacher and benefactor. I even finally encountered one in America—a deceased elderly Chinese man lying in a fancy coffin, all dressed up in a blue suit and tie, apparently wearing makeup, and looking very healthy. Symptomatic of the aforementioned American urge to deny death, except on TV.

APPENDIX: The Discourse on Victory (Vijaya Sutta, Sutta Nipāta I:11)

Whether going or standing, sitting or lying down,
Contracting or extending, this is the agitation of the body.

Connected with bones and tendons, plastered with hide and flesh,
The body, covered over with epidermis, is not seen as it really is,

Full of intestines, full of the stomach, of the mass of the liver, of the bladder,
Of the heart, of lungs, of kidneys, and of spleen,

Of snot, of saliva, of sweat, and of grease,
Of blood, of lymph, of bile, and of fat.

And from its nine passages impurity always flows:
Eye excretions from the eye, ear excretions from the ear,

And snot from the nose; when there is vomiting from the mouth,
One vomits bile and phlegm; and from the body itself, sweat.

And then there is the head full of holes, filled with brains.
A fool, with ignorance set before him, imagines this to be beautiful.

Yet when it lies dead, swollen up and turned bluish,
Cast away at a cemetery, the relatives have no regard for it;

Dogs eat it, as do jackals, wolves, and worms;
Crows and vultures eat it, along with whatever other creatures there are.

The mendicant, having heard the words of the Buddha, possessing understanding herein— 
He truly understands; he sees it as it really is.

As is this, so is that; as is that, so is this; 
Subjectively and objectively one should detach oneself from desire for a body.

He is detached from desire and lust, this mendicant possessed of understanding herein;
He has attained the deathless, peace, Nibbāna, the unchanging state.

This two-footed, impure, bad-smelling thing is borne about
Filled with various sorts of offal, trickling out from here and there.

With regard to a body such as this, who would think to exalt himself,
Or would despise someone else—what is this other than blindness?