Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Brief, Incoherent Theory of Psychic Powers

     "The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." —Arthur C. Clarke

     "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." —the same guy

     This article will discuss such phenomena as sorcery, psychic talents and attainments, miracles, and enlightenment, the existence of which, I realize, are positively disbelieved by the scientific materialists of the West, including many who consider themselves to be Buddhists. If you're not willing even to consider the possibility that the so-called Laws of Physics may be broken, then this article is not for you. You're silly. Read the Wall Street Journal, or just go meditate.
     It is a kind of Western intellectual hubris which believes, takes for granted even, that it understands Reality. (It is a universal law of human nature that we all can accept that other cultures, and even our own culture a hundred years ago, are/were ignorant and superstitious...but that WE have finally found The Truth. Almost everyone throughout history has been like this. "Yeah, but this time we really have found the truth!"—Og of the White Sky Clan, 12551BCE) Really what Western wisdom has is a set of plausible and useful explanations for those aspects of Reality which scientists (and common people) are able to perceive; total Reality is infinite, as many scientists, even, are inclined to suppose, and infinitely beyond the scope of human perception or imagination, very probably even in our immediate vicinity. We, and our instruments, may simply be incapable of detecting most of what is all around us, even what is staring us right in the face. We are like people trying to understand an iceberg without seeing so much as the tip of that iceberg; all we can see is waves and ripples bouncing off of it. Intellectuals may come up with truly ingenious methods for determining the size and shape of its cross section where it emerges from the water, etc., but they can't even know that it is made of ice. Or, we are like blind worms, at least so long as we are trying to understand Reality by thinking about it intellectually.
     Before wading any farther, I will point out that what I intend to write about is primarily about psychic phenomena that are conscious. From a Buddhist or Hindu point of view, we are all performing miracles all the time, through the subconscious or semiconscious (or maybe superconscious) workings of karma. Phenomena are mind-made, as the first verse of the Dhammapada declares. Our karma, consisting of volitional mental states, is conditioning our environment all the time, and in ways that scientists do not recognize (except for a few unorthodox cranks on the fringe of respectable science).
     One of the more primitive forms of psychic phenomena is vulgarly known as "magic." My father was a nondenominational warlock (not Wicca) who ran a coven of witches of sorts for a few years, mainly as an exploration of what he called "the occult," so I figure I know enough about the subject to say a few things about it. First, apparently, magic sometimes really works, especially if the people involved believe that it works. It can cure illnesses, for example; and even if the cure is only the placebo effect relieving psychosomatic symptoms, still, it works. Once a woman in my father's group had a troublesome rash on her skin, so the group got together, did their spells, and removed it. Then the rash reappeared in a different place, so they got together and removed it again. After it came back the third or fourth time, they figured that she had some karmic need for it, so they simply moved the rash to a place where it would cause as little inconvenience as possible (to her leg), and there it stayed.
     One reason sorcery, at least in the form of witchcraft, works, even with worldly people whose concentration may not ordinarily be all that strong, is that gimmicks are used to focus the power of one or many minds onto a single object. Group participation in rituals, with group incantations and synchronized rhythmic bodily movements, help to focus ordinarily weak mental energies into something much stronger, somewhat like a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight sufficiently to ignite paper. Also, of course, the people's belief that it is possible very much helps it to be possible. Many witches are notoriously immoral, so the purity of mind which, according to orthodox Buddhism, allows psychic powers to be performed are not much of an issue here—unless maybe, through a kind of temporary dissociation, a talented witch can briefly accentuate what purity she or he has. But enough about witches.
     Psychic powers, such as knowing the minds of others, remembering one's own past lives, or, in more extreme cases, disappearing in one place and instantaneously reappearing somewhere else, which are relatively very rare in the modern West but are allegedly more common in places where modern Westernism does not yet predominate, are, according to texts like the Visuddhimagga, dependent upon great purity of mind and intense concentration (samādhi). This may be one reason, in addition to widespread positive disbelief, why such phenomena are so rare nowadays. 
     A saint who has cultivated his or her mind to the extent that he or she can, say, look into another person's mind and see where they are stuck, or, like Sai Baba was reportedly able to do, even to materialize solid objects, has not really acquired a new power, but has simply cleared away the rubbish which had previously obscured it. The more evolved one is, the fewer mind-made limitations one has. After all, Infinity is flowing through us all the time. An unenlightened saint who still cherishes a sense of self, however, may still exercise some power of will over the exercise of these powers. 
     I may as well add that this issue of intensive mental cultivation and purity may help to explain why Western teachers who claim, or are claimed, to be enlightened, or just very highly advanced, tend to be what in Theravada is called "dry-visioned"—that is, highly advanced without having corresponding psychic powers. I would imagine that strange coincidences ("synchronicity") happen all the time around such people, yet as far as I have heard, people like Eckhart Tolle, Paul Lowe, and Byron Katie do not have a reputation for performing miracles. On the other hand, many Eastern renunciants like Neem Karoli Baba and Sai Baba allegedly had miracles happening around them all the time. Westerners, even those who experience some kind of transcendent breakthrough, tend not to have dedicated nearly so much effort into cultivating deep concentrative states, or into purifying their mind and body sufficiently to cultivate them. Furthermore, they live in a culture which, for the most part, considers such things as psychic powers not to exist anyway. A wall of disbelief is still a very effective wall. The deep need for the miraculous in Western humanity has to manifest itself in a way that Western disbelief can accept, mainly in the form of the miracles of technology. This computer that I am typing on now, to me, is a miracle. But it is a miracle much limited by the limitations of modern belief.
     Another possible reason why saintly people from spiritually-oriented cultures are more likely to have psychic powers, which may, maybe paradoxically, go hand in hand with the former explanation, is that people are more likely to have faith in saintly people. They are more likely to believe that this person is able to perform miracles or psychic feats. Those of you who have read the Bible may recall that after Jesus would heal a sick person, the person would often thank him, whereupon Jesus would reply that it was that person's own faith that had healed him or her. Also, there is the story of Jesus's return to his own home town of Nazareth, where the people didn't see him as an inspired prophet, but just as an uppity carpenter—the result of which being that he was unable to perform many miracles there. He healed a few sick people, cast out a demon or two, and went away, saying, "No prophet is without honor except in his own home town." Nowadays the proverb could be modified to say that no prophet is without honor except in a place that is westernized. In a culture without veneration, nobody is venerable; in a culture without divinity, nothing and nobody is sacred. Our thoughts have incredible power to condition our world, and if someone believes in you, it makes you stronger.  
     When a being evolves (or whatever happens) to the state of being fully enlightened, there would seem to be some fundamental differences from the unenlightened variety of psychic power, since 1) enlightened beings cherish no sense of self, or of any doer of any action; 2) they do not create karma either, and thus presumably perform no volitional actions at all (karma and volition being essentially identical); and 3) they have knocked down all barriers against Infinity, or at least have transcended them, so that the flow of Infinity (if it can be called a "flow") moves through them without obstruction. So it would seem that the "miracles" associated with some enlightened being or other are not actually done by them, but spontaneously happen, effortlessly, in accordance with the karma of those around them. Neem Karoli Baba, who was a constant focus of seemingly impossible occurrences, often denied doing anything, insisting, "sub ishwar hai," or, "It's all God." Following are a couple of examples of his behavior, extracted from Ram Dass's beautiful, graceful, magnificent book Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba.

     On one occasion a caravan of army trucks stopped at the gate, and hundreds of soldiers came and stood in line. Maharajji was talking to a farmer sitting beside him. One by one the soldiers and officers came forward, bent over and touched Maharajji's feet, looked at him for another moment, and then turned away. That experience was all most of them seemed to want. But every so often one would come forward who seemed different—perhaps seeming to have a bit more light or perhaps seeming to suffer more. Many times I watched as such a person bent forward. Maharajji would hit him on the head, or give him a flower, or interrupt his conversation to say something to him, such as, "Your mother will be all right," or "You shouldn't fight with your superiors," or "You love God very much." We could see only the tiniest fraction of what Maharajji saw.
     The soldiers wanted pictures of Hanuman (the protecting deity of the Indian army) and of Maharajji, to carry as protection in war. Maharajji said, "The army has good and simple and spiritual men." It was not as if Maharajji were "deciding" to do this or that; rather, the nature of the seeker was eliciting from him, as from a mirror, this or that response.

     A number of us Westerners were meditating together at a Buddhist ashram in Bodh Gaya. After a time, some of us were ready to take a break and go on to Delhi, several hundred miles away, to celebrate Shiva's birthday. One of the women in the group, who had come to India overland by charter bus, reported that the bus driver wanted to hang out with us, too. So thirty-four of us left Bodh Gaya and met the bus in Benares and started to drive to Delhi. 
     One of the men in the group, Danny, had left the courses briefly in the middle to visit Allahabad, in order to experience a Kumbha Mela. He had returned deeply impressed and bringing us each small medallions depicting the monkey, Hanuman, which he had purchased on the mela grounds. 
     When it turned out that the bus route went right by Allahabad, Danny pressed us to visit the mela grounds. I protested that the mela was now over and it would just be an empty piece of river bank. But he pointed out that it was one of the most sacred spots in India. Some of us were tired, for it was only our first day out in the world after such sustained meditation practice, and all we really wanted was to get to the dharmasalla where we planned to stay overnight. The thought of even driving the few miles out of our way to get to the river was not appealing, and yet it was a very holy place. I weighed the merits of the alternatives and finally agreed that we should go to the river for a brief stop to watch the sunset. 
     As we approached and drove down into the mela grounds, which were now quite deserted, the driver asked where he should park. Danny pointed to a place that he said was near a Hanuman temple and also was the spot where he had purchased the small medallions. 
     As the bus was pulling up to that spot, someone yelled, "There's Maharajji!"
     Sure enough, walking right by the bus with Dada, there he was. We all scrambled off the bus and rushed to his feet. I was having an hysterical crying-laughing fit. I remember kissing his feet in bliss and at the same moment my mind being aware that the spot of sand on which he was standing smelled strongly of urine. 
     Dada later told us that as the bus came into view, Maharajji had said, "Well, they've come." 
     Maharajji instructed us to follow them, and the bus followed the bicycle rickshaw to Dada's house on the suburban street of this great university city. Within minutes we were given food, and arrangements were made for us to lodge at a nearby estate with another devotee. I was told that since morning the servants had been preparing food under Maharajji's orders in anticipation of our coming. But if that were so, which of us thought he was making a decision in the bus about whether to visit the mela grounds? Apparently all was not as I "thought" it was.

     Setting aside alleged feats of teleportation, being in multiple places simultaneously, walking on water, defying the law of conservation of matter by multiplying food, etc., there is nothing against the laws of physics for someone to say, for example, "You were thinking about your mother," even if the other person really had been thinking of her, with no ordinary way for the first person to know. It could just be a remarkable coincidence, a "lucky guess." I suspect that this is the way it works. The enlightened being isn't "doing" anything; subjectively at least, there's nobody even there. An enlightened being is nobody, except maybe for a reflection of whomever he or she is interacting with. The sage simply responds spontaneously, not necessarily knowing or not knowing any particular thing, and it just happens, repeatedly, to blow people's minds. Without rigidly narrow-minded beliefs about what is possible and impossible, Infinity flows unhindered.
     For that matter, our everyday behavior and our everyday karma are manifestations of the flow of Infinity, in these latter cases flowing through the channels of our unenlightened limitations, our limiting beliefs and semiconscious habits. Even scientists may agree to this, at least to the manifestation of Infinity aspect of it. Positive disbelief is a huge creator of such channeling limitations. A thought has much greater power than almost anybody realizes. All in all, it is a good policy to be skeptical in the classical sense of the word—that is, neither believing nor disbelieving, but simply suspending judgement. After all, the Universe is absolutely Infinite, and totally beyond a blind worm's mental capacity to comprehend it fully.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Poetry and Precepts

     Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air;
     Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

     The following is in no way intended to denigrate my good and gifted friend Conor, who writes free verse poetry that doesn't rhyme.
     Although I'm not very poetically inclined, being more of the "scientific" temperament than the "artistic," or more philosophical than religious, more idea-oriented than feeling-oriented, still I do write a little poetry. Much of it has been limericks and general fooling around, like this one, decomposed a long time ago:

     This is Sayadaw all worried and worn
     Who despairs of U Khema all scoffing with scorn
     Who laughed at the hpone-gyi addicted to porn
     Who ogled the woman who cooks chewy corn
     Who gave birth to the children who shouldn't be born
     Who threw rocks at the cock who crows in the morn
     Who woke the preacher all shaven and shorn
     Who married the man all tattered and torn
     To the maiden all forlorn
     Who milked the cow with the crumpled horn
     That tossed the dog that worried the cat that chased the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

Also I have gone to some trouble to improve the meter and rhyme of some of my father's poetry, since he had, at the same time, a preference for meter and rhyme as well as a cavalier attitude toward doing it anywhere near to perfectly. But most of my experience with writing poetry, aside from translating Pali poetry into English prose, is with a lavishly erotic "epic" which I have tinkered with, from time to time, for years. I recently added two new verses to it. Sometimes I think fondly of John Donne, who, although one of the most respected Christian clergymen in his day, and who wrote some really beautiful religious poetry, also wrote some of the steamiest love poetry in the English language.
     Anyway, the writing of poetry, even the erotic stuff, has taught me much about the English language, and about verbal communication in general. Languages are very powerful in their capacity for conveying feelings and information, yet at the same time they are extraordinarily limited. And since we think in languages, and even feel in languages (more basic emotional ones), our own experience of life and understanding of it is very rigidly limited in certain ways. We simply cannot think what the limitations on our thinking prevent us from thinking. This idea may have ben expressed most famously in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, "that the structure of a language determines a native speaker's perception and categorization of experience." 
     In English, for example, there is no exact word, or words, describing or expressing the feeling of having to take a pee. It is a distinct feeling, unlike any other, yet the only way to describe it is to say, "I feel like I gotta take a pee." There are also some Burmese flavors and attitudes which do not translate easily into English. On the other hand, in Burmese, and probably in many other Asian languages, there is a full spectrum of words for what in English is just called "rice." Rice still on the plant has one name, or set of names; rice that is harvested, yet still unhusked, has another; husked, polished, uncooked rice has another; cooked rice has another; and cooked rice offered to monks or to an altar or shrine has yet another—and that is setting aside the various names for different varieties and qualities of rice. Yet the Burmese language has no word for "lizard," or for "owl," despite the obvious fact that lizards and owls are all over the place. Each kind of lizard and owl has its own specific name, yet there are no generic terms for the categories as a whole. Some words in a language have many synonyms, while others may have none: in English, for example, there are several terms for the female bosom, even setting aside the raunchy ones, and each with its own set of implied connotations, yet there is only one word for knee. These kinds of peculiarities clearly affect the way we speak in our own languages, and also how we think in them, so that our ways of understanding the world we live in are conditioned in ways we usually do not notice. 
     With poetry the limitations are much greater—at least they are with regard to the old-fashioned kind, with regular meter and sometimes even rhyme. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to say, but can come up with no way of saying it, say, in three syllables, with the accent on the second syllable. And rhyme reduces one's options drastically. There are lots of important words out there that rhyme with just about nothing. (For example, what rhymes with "nothing"?) Also, sometimes changing just a single word in a verse may start a chain reaction, with other words having to be adjusted to harmonize with the newly added one. A word too strong may require softer words around it to generate the right effect, and vice versa.
     I don't know much about the history of poetry in English literature; as far as I know, Walt Whitman was one of the first who tossed not only rhyme but also meter out the poetical window. I can appreciate that he was trying to create a style of poetry suitable for the exuberant new freedom of young America. And I personally like and respect Leaves of Grass, and have read the whole thing, including…

     When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
     When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
     When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
     When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
     How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
     Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
     In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
     Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars. 

…yet I can't help but feel that Whitman's new style of free verse flung the door wide open to a subsequent deluge of bad poetry, and prose that is just called "poetry" because it is semi-coherent and the lines don't reach all the way to the right-hand margin (although I freely admit that when bad poets attempt meter and rhyme the results are even more horrible). I think Picasso did something similar to painting. Some free verse poetry is good, I freely admit that, and I read it sometimes, and enjoy it…but still, I am old-fashioned in certain ways, and have a deep appreciation for good poetry which, even if it doesn't rhyme, has the classical form of some recognizable meter. It seems to me that good poetry with meter is better than good poetry without it. It is more of an accomplishment, more of an achievement of skill and beauty.
     America, and probably Western society in general, has come to favor amorphous free verse in many of the arts of life, including religion and spirituality. Seemingly arbitrary, restricting rules are resisted with impatience, not so much because of Whitman and Picasso, but more because of a whole nebula of issues, including consumerism and a programmed aversion for inconvenience. Plus, maybe, a desire to be "free," and thus to avoid, whenever it isn't obviously necessary, self-discipline. Yet if we aren't wakeful enough in our freedom we may become enslaved to sloppy habits less beneficial than the restricting rules we dislike.
     Freedom from restricting rules may make things easier, but, in poetry for example, classical forms can be conducive to the creation of extraordinary beauty. Classical forms can also be conducive to extraordinary beauty in religion. And without the structure of such forms one's attempts at elegance and grace may simply collapse into messy chaos, or just so much mushy flabbiness.
     Besides, a skillful poet may learn to create metrical beauty spontaneously, even within the limitations of a formal tradition, much like a skillful dancer or musician may improvise masterfully. My favorite example of this is Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," one of his most famous poems, which he composed, seemingly effortlessly, while more or less unconscious and under the influence of a narcotic drug.

     In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
          A stately pleasure dome decree:
     Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
     Through caverns measureless to man
          Down to a sunless sea…. 

Really, we do essentially the same thing all the time, spontaneously creating beauty and performing miracles within the infinite limitations of our language, our body's feeble capabilities, and our own human mentality.
     I see the monk's life with all its rules, regulations, traditions, and observances, and also a classical Dharmic culture like traditional Burmese Buddhism, to be poetic, in the old-fashioned way—that is, to involve the creation of Beauty within the constraints of a classical formal system. Not all monkish rules are practical, especially outside of ancient India, and some seem to be downright impractical; yet I assume that some of the monks following along with these restricting conditions have become fully enlightened, which is itself a miraculously beautiful thing. 
     The trouble is that one may easily become attached to mere form, and lose sight of the original purpose of that form, the essence that the vessel is supposed to contain. Paul of Tarsus in the Christian Bible was apparently well aware of this potential trouble, and interpreted Christianity such that he rejected the old Jewish rules and insisted that a true Christian would live his or her life in such a way that every act, every thought and feeling, would itself be the container of Spirit, and would be pervaded by it. Krishnamurti saw the danger of rules also—he once said that one could find a twig in one's garden, set it atop the mantelpiece, and offer it a cup of water every day, just for the heck of it…and within a week or two the person would be afraid not to offer the water, for fear of committing an offense against the twig, or the twig "tradition." Early Buddhism also acknowledged this hazard of confusing the teapot with the tea; the following verses are from the Mahāviyūha Sutta of the Sutta-Nipāta:

     Those who think morality is supreme say purity is by self-restraint;
     Having taken upon themselves an observance they are dedicated to it.
     "Let us train ourselves right here and now, and then there would be purity"— 
     Claiming to be adepts, they are brought up to further existence.

     If one is fallen away from his morality and observances
     He is agitated, having failed in his action (kamma).
     He longs for and aspires to pure freedom from wrong (suddhi)
     Like one who has lost his caravan and is far from home.

     But having abandoned all morality and observances,
     And that action which is criticized or uncriticized,
     Not aspiring to "purity" or "non-purity,"
     He would live refraining, not taking hold even of peace.

(Incidentally, the Sutta was composed in a regular Pali pentameter verse form, and demonstrates one intriguing advantage of verse over prose: This section of the Sutta-Nipāta contains many puns and other plays on words, which are more suited to the evocative nature of poetry than to more precise and pedestrian prose. For example, in the second verse above the word suddhi, usually meaning "purity," is also taken more literally as "well-placement," or security. Thus one may exploit poetic idiosyncrasies by saying two or even three things simultaneously, which very probably wouldn't work out so well in, say, a prose science text or law book. That is a sophistication in early Pali verse that I really like. But coming up with an equivalent pun in English is virtually impossible, which points right back to the limitations of human language.) 
     With regard to becoming attached to form and thereby neglecting essence, with poetry I can fall into this hole pretty easily. When writing a verse and a rhyme is imperfect (or just plain bad), or the meter is irregular, it bugs me. I shouldn't lose any sleep over it, and usually don't, but still, it bugs me. I may stew over it for hours and hours and hours until I finally get it right, or just give it up as a lost cause, blaming the limitations of the language rather than my own lack of imagination. Even the greatest poets have perpetrated irregular meters and imperfect rhymes. Some say that Shakespeare's verse is great because of its irregularities. But a much more dangerous hole to fall into is making the same confused mistake (confusing form with essence, teapot with tea) with regard to morality, observances, and precepts. I'm pretty sure I'm less likely to fall into that one. One teaching of Buddhism that I have really taken to heart is that Regret is always an unskillful mental state—that is, "bad karma." Living one's life is rather more like orally improvising poetry than writing it: One doesn't get to go back and change what one has already done. One may compensate, but what has been done remains done, and there's no point in sitting around regretting it. And as for living in the present moment, being Here Now, being bugged by the way things are Now isn't so good either. (I'm still not always in the present moment though.)
     Anyway, the Burmese (or archetypal Asians) are more likely to cling to the container of Dharma, confusing it with what is to be contained, while Americans (Westerners) appear more likely to reject the container before it has had much of a chance to contain much of anything, thereby being left without a suitable container—maybe nothing but bare hands, maybe just a flimsy plastic bag when something more rigid would be more useful. Ideally, Spirit needs no container; or, rather, every act is suffused with Spirit, as inspired teachers often teach; but it usually doesn't work out that way, especially for beginners, and most Western Buddhists are beginners, regardless of how long they've been practicing. (I can appreciate St. John of the Cross's idea that anyone who hasn't yet mastered contemplation is still a beginner—with Catholic contemplation apparently being the equivalent, in Buddhist practice, of at least 2nd jhāna.) 
     I suspect that the success of the Goenka system in the West is partly because ven. Mr. Goenka succeeded in creating a stripped-down version of Dhamma and vipassana practice that was sufficiently rigid to contain the fundamentals without the whole thing collapsing into fluff, yet was simple and no-nonsense enough to be acceptable to Westerners who are fundamentally non-Buddhist (that is, not conditioned by a Buddhist culture). It is true, though, that the relatively rigid container of the system has resulted in many Goenka meditators adopting an almost Jehovah's Witness attitude toward it; but Goenka seems to have found a workable middle way between Asian Buddhist tradition and Western aversion for same. It does strike me as rather elementary, though; yet orthodox Theravada as found in ancient Indian texts, although able to contain much more, is just too alien to Western culture for it to be widely accepted, thus far, even by people considering themselves to be Buddhist. For ancient Indian Theravada to be accepted by modern Westerners would be somewhat like those same Westerners accepting ancient drama acted entirely in verse, with the actors wearing masks—possibly with a goat sacrificed to Dionysus at the beginning by way of a prelude. 
     I suppose that if Theravada is ever to thrive in the West, a form of it will have to be developed, possibly a brand new form, which has enough backbone to contain enough real Dhamma to inspire, uplift, and even enlighten us, and enough difficulty to challenge us and give us the satisfaction of really attaining something, even if it's just the survival of a strictly austere retreat. We may require a new form of renunciant monasticism also, one that is not ordained Sangha, yet is much more conducive to serious practice than merely adopting Buddhism as a hobby. What America needs may be a new Buddhist lay order, with regulations more harmonious with the modern West. An amorphous, easy, no-rules approach is just too weak and floppy for the majority of Western meditators and Dhamma students to get very far with it. Or so it seems to me.
     Living a spiritual life may be viewed as a game, a dance, a poem, endeavoring to realize something profoundly beautiful within the constraints, and with the support, of a somewhat confining and rigid system of rules. With, of course, the possibility of breaking some of those rules, if it seems appropriate, with no regrets. Yet ultimately, Enlightenment cannot be held inside a container; an enlightened being may be plausibly compared to a jar submerged in water—the same water, or essence, is outside as well as inside it. The container, and any moves it makes, becomes practically superfluous. But it seems that even most enlightened beings, assuming that they exist, do not reject the traditional containers of their spiritual culture; enlightened Buddhists stay Buddhists, Hindus stay Hindus, Christians stay Christians, peyote eaters stay peyote eaters, bad poets stay bad poets, etc. The limitations of the form, as well as the effective support, remain in effect, no doubt for an enlightened reason.

Appendix: Poetry Corner

     The following little bit of poetry was composed in the form of a sonnet, and is a good reflection on the attachments of romantic love. I bet a lot of people can relate to it. It reminds me of a passionate girlfriend I once loved in college, and in the college parking lot.

     Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part;
     Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
     And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart
     That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
     Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
     And, when we meet at any time again,
     Be it not seen in either of our brows
     That we one jot of former love retain.

     Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
     When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
     When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
     And Innocence is closing up his eyes— 
          Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
          From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.     (—Michael Drayton)

I consider this sad, mainly because it was written to a real, live, beautiful young woman…who grew old and died 400 years ago, as did the man who loved her. (Drayton was a contemporary of Shakespeare.) It may be sexist and foolish and all that, but still, to me one of the saddest things in the world is that beautiful young women have to grow old, and get sick, and die. My male protective instincts would like to protect them from that. Anyway.
     This next one is sad too, but in a different way.


     Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
     Over the hill between the town below
     And the forsaken upland hermitage
     That held as much as he should ever know
     On earth again of home, paused warily.
     The road was his with not a native near;
     And Eben, having leisure, said aloud, 
     For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:

     "Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
     Again, and we shall not have many more;
     The bird is on the wing, the poet says, 
     And you and I have said it here before.
     Drink to the bird." He raised up to the light
     The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
     And answered huskily: "Well, Mr. Flood,
     Since you propose it, I believe I will."

     Alone, as if enduring to the end
     A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
     He stood there in the middle of the road
     Like Roland's ghost winding a silent horn.
     Below him, in the town among the trees,
     Where friends of other days had honored him,
     A phantom salutation of the dead
     Rang thinly till old Eben's eyes were dim.

     Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
     Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
     He set the jug down slowly at his feet
     With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
     And only when assured that on firm earth
     It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
     Assuredly did not, he paced away,
     And with his hand extended paused again:

     "Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
     In a long time; and many a change has come
     To both of us, I fear, since last it was
     We had a drop together. Welcome home!"
     Convivially returning with himself,
     Again he raised the jug up to the light;
     And with an acquiescent quaver said:
     "Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might."

     "Only a very little, Mr. Flood—
     For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do."
     So, for the time, apparently it did,
     And Eben evidently thought so too;
     For soon amid the silver loneliness
     Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
     Secure, with only two moons listening,
     Until the whole harmonious landscape rang— 

     "For auld lang syne." The weary throat gave out,
     The last word wavered; and the song being done,
     He raised again the jug regretfully
     And shook his head, and was again alone. 
     There was not much that was ahead of him,
     And there was nothing in the town below— 
     Where strangers would have shut the many doors
     That many friends had opened long ago.                  (—Edwin Arlington Robinson)

I assume the second moon was his jug? 
     And partly to demonstrate that I do have some appreciation for modern free verse, I include one last one, about a man who is beyond pity.

     When in the soul of the serene disciple,
     With no more fathers to imitate,
     Poverty is a success,
     It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
     He has not even a house.

     Stars, as well as friends,
     Are angry with the noble ruin.
     Saints depart in several directions.

     Be still:
     There is no longer any need of comment.
     It was a lucky wind
     That blew away his halo with his cares,
     A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.        (—ven. Thomas Merton)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Autopilot

     Long ago, before I ever became a Buddhist monk, I used to consider karma to be some kind of mechanical law of the Universe that science hadn't discovered yet, something like a psychic law of conservation of energy, or, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." I had the notion that karma had the effect of some sort of cosmic accounting, with our goodness and badness recorded for future compensation.
     But after studying Dharma a little I realized that, according to Buddhist philosophy, karma equals cetanā, with this cetanā being a purely psychological state, nothing outside of us at all. A famous sutta in the Anguttara Nikāya (sometimes known as A.VI.63) has the Buddha declaring cetanāha bhikkhave kamma vadāmi—"Bhikkhus, it is cetanā that I call karma." And of the five khandhas, or "aggregates," which in relatively non-technical Buddhist philosophy constitute the entirety of a conscious being in this world, the fourth of the five, sakhārakkhandha, or the "aggregate of karma formations," is identified in the suttas with cetanā. 
     The most common rendering of cetanā into the English language is "volition," although this may be somewhat misleading. At the very least it may cause English-speaking students of Dharma to see karma in a very restricted way, which limits their appreciation of the fact that karma is of fundamental importance in conditioning our life in each moment; and an understanding of it is very helpful for gaining an understanding of ourselves. 
     Cetanā as volition should not be confused with mere decision-making, or identified with just making up our mind and intending to do something. It's not so much the shape of the pipes as what's flowing through the pipes, so to speak. It might be more useful to see it more as urge than as mere intention, something more like Schopenhauer's will—although it is not the ultimate Reality upon which everything is based, as Schopenhauer philosophized it to be. Cetanā, and thus karma, is the momentum of our mental energy, the mind's "habit energy." It is the habitual force of our perceiving mind, derived from the past and reinforced by it, which acts as a kind of automatic pilot for running us when we are not entirely awake…which is pretty much all the time, isn't it.
     The more mindful we are, which is to say the more conscious we are, the less we identify with the automatic pilot, and the less it controls us and runs our life for us, based upon the past, which is when it acquired its habits. The more conscious we are, and the more in the present moment, the more possibilities and options we are able to see, and thus we can act accordingly, rather than mechanically following the one option that our habitual reaction has served up. If we eventually manage to wake all the way up, and thus are fully mindful, then the habitual mental energy from the past may still manifest itself, but it no longer has any power to control our lives.
     We really have little if any control over what thoughts and feelings arise in us. We can maximize or minimize the chances of some sort of mental state arising, by various means, but we really don't know what is going to turn up until it turns up. It is the momentum of karma, based upon the past, which determines what arises in the mind. Only after it arises we may observe it and, if conscious enough to manage it, see whether or not it is appropriate to follow along with this thought or desire. So we may not be able to control what karma brings up, but at least we are able not to be enslaved to it. We can still be free from its rigid, limiting control. All this is one way of understanding the idea that an enlightened being creates no new karma, and thus has no "volition," thereby not adding to the habit energy/momentum already there from the past.
     Moha, often translated into English as "delusion," goes hand in hand with karma. Moha is essentially a state of semiconscious stupor which allows our karmic momentum to control us like puppets. In other words, we're not awake enough to take full responsibility, so the automatic pilot, the "ego," does the best it can. So if one is fully mindful, moha as well as enslavement to karma disappears. 
     The idea of enlightenment in terms of Waking Up is easy to disregard; we may see it as just a kind of poetic metaphor, and let the significance of it slide off us like water off the proverbial duck's back. Yet if we really are wise and devoid of moha, then we really are in a state that is comparable to the ordinary state the way a person who is wide awake is compared to a sleepwalker, or someone who rolls over or scratches himself without completely waking up. A conscious person is aware of many things the ordinary person is unaware of—how often do we feel the cloth against our skin, or hear the sound of the refrigerator, or feel the breeze on our arm? How often do we blink or swallow with conscious awareness? How many of us can see that a feeling of desire or fear that arises (maybe strongly arises) is just a kind of habit that isn't us, but is just a kind of robotic program designed to get us through life somehow? Full mindfulness and full wisdom really are a matter of being fully awake.
     Sometimes if I suddenly notice that I'm being unmindful and start being more aware, there is a subtle yet really obvious feeling of being more expanded and more conscious; it really is very similar to snapping out of a dozy, groggy state. Also there is a feeling of loss of limitations, as though invisible walls are falling away. It is a feeling of spaciousness and freedom, with complete freedom being another synonym for Enlightenment. We tend to be much groggier, more limited, and more enslaved than we realize, controlled by semiconscious habits, lurching around like sophisticated robots.
     Theoretically we could just "snap out of it" and Wake Up, just start being really alert and take full responsibility for our every choice and action; there's nothing necessarily stopping us from that; but it tends not to work out that way in "real life." Instead, we practice Dharma, which gradually clarifies what faculties we have, allowing us to make a little more progress (if we are sincere about making progress). Instead of relinquishing the ego once and for all, a Dharma practitioner systematically cleans it up and lightens it by replacing crude karmic habits with finer ones, or at least diluting the cruder ones down. It's difficult to go the whole way when we identify with the autopilot instead of with consciousness itself, though. Spiritual progress is a matter of letting go of what is familiar, of that to which we are "habituated"; it is a matter of becoming free, which is scary—at least the autopilot is scared. Waking Up is like death for the autopilot. So again, we wind up taking hesitant baby steps toward being able to "do" what is ultimately effortless.
     Enlightenment ultimately is not a result of "doing," and is not the gain of anything. Rather, it is the dropping away of unnecessary limitations, including semiconscious stupor, karmic momentum, and identification with the ego, with "me."
     And all this is setting aside the issues of transcendental knowledge, psychic powers, and the notion that karma creates our reality, with some of the habitual momentum of past karma coming from previous lives. That may be true also, but for the present moment it is practically irrelevant; the "law of Karma" applies anyway. 
an example of karma and its fruition
(in this case happening very quickly)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Happiness Kicks Butt

     There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. —Richard Layard, in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin, 2005)

     It has occurred to me that most posts that I have written over the past several months have been inspired by something I've read. Living alone at a monastery, especially a forest monastery, is not so conducive to intellectual stimulation otherwise (and emotions are harder to write about, since their native language is not verbal). Anyway, this post is no exception to the general trend.
     I recently finished reading The Idea of Justice (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2009) by Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in Economics, which a nice Bangladeshi lady gave to me a long time ago. His thinking, or at least his writing, is rather dry and plods a bit, using a lot of erudite words to say what he wants to say, but his ideas tend to be worked out very methodically and sensibly, and he appears to be an honest man. Furthermore, he has a broad, though worldly, wisdom. By midway through the book I was of the impression that Dr. Sen should be president—it didn't even matter of which country, just president of somewhere.
     Then, as I was grinding through a rather dull section of the book, laced with lots of economics jargon I was not familiar with, like "utility" and "Pareto," I came upon Chapter 13: "Happiness, Well-being and Capabilities." I shook myself out of the verbiage-induced stupor I was in and perked up, figuring this might be an interesting one. However, the farther I got with it the more frustrated I got; and, to be fair to the author of the New Age manuscript I criticized recently, while reading that 13th chapter I indulged in a little frustrated cussing, and even, at one point, helped to relieve my feelings by drawing a mustache and an absurd, jagged beard on Sen's picture on the back cover. In fact I became a little angry, which is ridiculous, since the chapter is, after all, about happiness. 
     Dr. Sen mentions that a primary emphasis on happiness has been standard practice in economics for over a hundred years, beginning with Jeremy Bentham and English utilitarianism, although that is changing now. He also mentions the "paradox" that more money does not make people happier, referring to this as "a neglected area of research." He mentions his old friend Richard Layard, who is quoted above, and who agrees heartily with the utilitarian notion that happiness is all that really matters, that it is the common denominator to all of human endeavor. As Layard says in the same book as the one quoted above, "If we are asked why happiness matters, we can give no further, external reason. It just obviously does matter." In other words, it is the elemental foundation or bedrock to our motivations. I happen to agree with Richard Layard—and as a Buddhist, I see no paradox at all in the fact that greater wealth does not automatically create greater happiness. In fact it appears, in general, to create greater unhappiness.
     But Sen begs to differ with his old friend Layard. He does not disagree with the idea that happiness is important; he simply disagrees that it is all that really matters. Sen maintains that there are other priorities in life that are not necessarily based on happiness. For example he says,
Happiness, important as it is, can hardly be the only thing that we have reason to value, nor the only metric for measuring other things that we value. But when being happy is not given such an imperialist role, it can, with good reason, be seen as a very important human functioning, among others. 
Furthermore, and possibly more importantly, being an economist by profession, someone who tries to improve the world through outward manipulation, he has immense difficulty in accepting the possibility that poor people, or people who don't enjoy what modern Western political correctness insists upon, can really be happy. He puts forth a two-page-long argument to this effect, including the following:
The utilitarian calculus based on happiness or desire-fulfilment can be deeply unfair to those who are persistently deprived, since our mental make-up and desires tend to adjust to circumstances, particularly to make life bearable in adverse situations. It is through 'coming to terms' with one's hopeless predicament that life is made somewhat bearable….The hopelessly deprived people may lack the courage to desire any radical change and typically tend to adjust their desires and expectations to what little they see as feasible. They train themselves to take pleasure in small mercies….The adaptive phenomenon…tend[s] to downplay the assessment of the hardship of the chronically deprived, because the small breaks in which they try to take pleasure tend to reduce their mental distress without removing — or even substantially reducing — the actual deprivations that characterize their impoverished lives.
Over the course of two pages this argument features words beginning with "depriv-" a total of eleven times. It struck me as biased sophistry based on a very superficial view of the nature of well-being, apparently assuming as axiomatic that advanced healthcare, outward opportunities, and lack of trouble are absolutely necessary for genuine happiness. It was around this point in the book, where Sen is trying to maintain that poor, unwesternized people can't really be happy, or at least shouldn't be (after admitting and then promptly forgetting that rich, westernized people should be happy, but aren't), that I closed it, turned it face down, and started drawing the beard and mustache on his picture on the back.
     On another page he gives a very politically correct example of his take on the invalidity of any happiness a "deprived" person might feel:
What the critics of unreasoning acceptance of persistent deprivation want is more reasoning about what ails the perennial underdogs, with the expectation that, with more scrutiny, the 'well-adapted' deprived would see — and 'feel' — reason enough to grumble. It was noted earlier…that the obedient and unagonized acceptance by women of their subjugation in traditionalist India has been giving way over the decades to some 'creative discontent', demanding social change, and that in this change a large role is played by questioning women's inactive acceptance of a subjugated role without complaint or disquiet.
The implication here seems to be that any woman in a traditional society, or practically any woman who lived before modern times, regardless of how happy and devoted to her family she might seem, is/was "deprived" and merely making the most of a lousy, miserable situation—regardless of the fact that she might be "without complaint or disquiet." I can easily imagine some idiotic, politically correct intellectual approaching such a woman and saying, "Ah, my poor, poor child, why do you look so cheerfully happy? Wipe that foolish smile off your face! You should be grumbling! You are deprived, deprived, I say! If only you were less ignorant you would clearly realize that you shouldn't be so happy! But in a few years, after we have enacted the appropriate social reforms, then, maybe…" In such a case as that woman would be in, ignorance could really be bliss—ignorance of economic theory and Western political correctness, that is.
     Were people in ancient times "deprived" of antibiotics and other forms of modern healthcare, and if so, should anyone at all in ancient times have been happy? What about a modern Christian Scientist or health food purist who doesn't even want any antibiotics? How about a 21st-century hillbilly in some remote 4th-world village somewhere who doesn't want any and doesn't even know what they are? If such a person is deprived, he's doubly deprived, as he doesn't even know he's deprived—he's deprived even of the knowledge that he shouldn't be happy! Furthermore, if Dr. Sen is right, then even if this person does somehow manage to be happy in his pathetic deprivation, that happiness just is not good enough, and he would actually be better off being informed about antibiotics and then unhappily clamoring for them. Also, compared with how things might be in the future, even the most privileged and fortunate people of the higher classes nowadays may be grotesquely "deprived" and "impoverished"; so maybe nobody should really be happy at all. Or does happiness come from outside us to the extent of depending upon our keeping up with the current state of the art with regard to technology and political reform? If so, then a person living in essentially the same manner as her grandmother did, in the same place, with very similar subjective conditions, maybe shouldn't be happy even though her grandmother very much was, and deserved to be. This sort of attitude begins to smack of vulgar consumerism, and could even be used to vindicate it: We're deprived if we don't get the newest pharmaceuticals, the newest genetically modified vegetables, and the newest smartphone. It appears that something is strangely wrong with this picture. 
     I just cannot agree with Sen's amazing (mis)understanding of happiness. Happiness may truly be said to be THE ultimate consideration—everything else, such as health, social freedoms, social justice, truth, friendship, wealth, comfort, the latest smartphone, etc., etc., is at best only a perceived means to happiness. We wouldn't want any of it unless we felt it would make us happier somehow. Even compassionately serving others, seemingly disregarding our own welfare in the process, is done because we feel more happy by doing it; especially after reaching a certain stage in spiritual development we realize that we are all connected in spirit, and that hurting another hurts oneself and helping another helps oneself. Thus total self-sacrifice for the sake of others can be a road to happiness. Sen, in his book, gives the example of Mahatma Gandhi's (peaceful) political resistance and repeated fasting as obviously not for his own well-being—but Gandhi had very exalted and very rigid ideals, and if he did not live up to these ideals he could hardly live with himself. He would be more unhappy not following his ideals than he was while fasting or in prison. Another strange example is in a very different book: Dostoevsky's The Idiot. In the story a beautiful woman named Nastasya self-destructively flings herself into the gutter, so to speak, rejecting the love of a good man whom she loves in return; yet she is extremely proud, and was seduced and "ruined" as a teenage girl (the story takes place in the mid 1800's), and in her fierce pride she feels, perversely, that the only right way to feel is that she deserves to be destroyed. The grim satisfaction of flinging herself into the arms of the bestial Rogozhin is her warped attempt at happiness. So the causes of our happiness and unhappiness may run very deep, and may thus be invisible to economists and other social reformers. 
     As I attempted to explain in the article "Dhamma and Irrationality," posted on the website, absolutely nothing that we DO is inherently logical. Mere action itself is not logical. What we do may be guided by logic, for instance when we calculate finances or play chess, but there is no logical necessity in actually DOING any of it. There is no logical necessity in playing that game of chess in the first place. There is no logical necessity in action being better than inaction, pleasure being better than pain, eating being better than starving, life being better than death, or getting up in the morning being better than just lying there all day. These are mere illogical value judgements, based upon animal instinct and fundamental human irrationality. Our behavior, whether attractive, aversive, or just a case of nervous fidgeting, is a deep, irrational reflex toward some perceived ease or satisfaction. 
     It is human nature that we are afflicted with chronic, restless dissatisfaction practically every conscious moment of our lives, and our behavior is an attempt to alleviate that. In the Pali texts the Buddha compares the unenlightened person to a mangy dog: The dog is very itchy and ill at ease, so it changes position; that doesn't work, so it changes position again, which also doesn't work; then it scratches itself, which kind of works, temporarily, but then it starts itching even more; then it figures that if it gets up and moves over there…and so on. In general, our chronic dissatisfaction comes first, and then we cook up some plausible reason for it—"I'm unhappy, and I'm unmarried…so I'm unhappy because I'm unmarried." Or, "I'm unhappy, and I'm married…" Or, "I'm unhappy, and I don't have much money…" Or, "I'm unhappy, and I don't have the right to vote…" Or, "I'm unhappy and I don't have anything to smoke…" Or whatever. (I've noticed that pride often works this way also: The pride comes first, and if the bearer of it isn't beautiful or brilliant or rich or whatever, they might have to feel proud over how many virgins they've seduced, or how many beers they can drink without puking, or how much Hello Kitty paraphernalia they own, or how big their feet are.) So our life is spent seeking happiness, generally in ignorance of what happiness is really about, and so our search is usually in vain, or rather only very partially successful. 
     There are many, many different levels and kinds and degrees of happiness, and the variety we go for is dependent largely upon our level of wisdom. People generally start with animal crudity, that is, mere sensual pleasure. But the wiser we become, the deeper the happiness we gravitate toward: physical pleasure, to emotional pleasure (fun, a good time, a hot romance), to intellectual pleasure (the beauty of Plato's heaven), to meditative bliss or the bliss of deep love, to mystical rapture, to Nirvana. We may not entirely abandon cruder pleasures, but we learn the value of what lies beyond them.
     Sen's conception of Justice relies not so much on utilitarian happiness as on equality of capabilities or freedoms; yet freedom also is not primarily a matter of social institutions, or of anything outward. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance," which implies that if a careless person is not enslaved by a government he or she is bound to be enslaved by his or her own desires, habits, and general ignorance. People in the West think they are free, oblivious to the fact that their conditioned desires are running the show, and furthermore that those desires are socially organized and manipulated by advertising agencies, political parties, and the media, with the help of teams of psychologists and statisticians, to benefit the people at the top of the pyramid. They're just not awake enough to be really free, and the system never tells them this important fact. So we chase after whatever the system tells us we ought to chase after, and feel "deprived" and suffer if we don't get it. We suffer if we get it, too. And we suffer totally unnecessarily. 
     True happiness, and also true freedom, are both ultimately "nirvanacentric" or "theocentric" in the sense that Nirvana, or "God," represents the ultimate victory, the complete end of suffering, total liberation. But of course this lies beyond the scope of Western economics and political theory, and, for the most part, of Western culture in general. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that Dr. Sen, a man born in India, apparently abandoned his Indian spiritual heritage in favor of Oxbridge-style Western extraverted objectivity, apparently preferring spiritual impoverishment and the Scottish "Enlightenment" to spiritual enlightenment. Consequently he seems largely oblivious to the true nature of happiness. He actually cites the Sutta-Nipāta in his book, but only with regard to a passage on the nature of responsibility to others (which is not necessarily an obligation of mutual equality, but may arise also from a position of superiority, that is, from the obligations of power), but he seems to ignore the primary purpose of that book, and of Dharma in general, which is the cessation of suffering, which is also freedom.
     The evident fact that rich people are not necessarily happier than poor people is no "paradox" at all when one considers that suffering is not directly caused by "deprivation," or by perceived social injustice, but by DESIRE, as is pointed out very clearly in the Second Noble Truth; and a poor person, especially if she or he is not starving, or in the midst of a raging plague, or in a torture chamber, or deceived by constant bombardments of consumeristic propaganda, is likely to have less desire than a rich person. (The rich person may have become rich in the first place due to her stronger desires, and her consequentially expanded means for obtaining things tends to increase those desires further.) It is no coincidence at all that both Gotama Buddha and Jesus Christ encouraged their most serious disciples, the ones most likely to attain true happiness and true liberation, to live in physical poverty and austerity, to renounce most of their political freedoms, and to live in deprivation deprivation deprivation. With regard to true happiness and true freedom, the trivialities of physical circumstance are ultimately irrelevant.
     One of the most clicked-on posts on this blog is "Burmese Women" (although, according to my stats pages, some of those clicks are from naughty guys searching for Burmese pornography), in which I pointed out the pretty obvious fact that "deprived" Burmese village women, even when they were living under a brutal and incompetent military dictatorship, and who are still living in a materially impoverished society which traditionally regards them to be inferior to men, are and were less unhappy in general than the average American woman living in relative wealth and "freedom." Many right-thinking people in the West might be incapable of seriously considering such an idea for a single second, immediately throwing up barriers of denial, indignation, or hysteria to protect their cherished, politically correct ideals. But even so, based upon what I have seen, I consider it very likely that many, maybe most (though not all)  women would be happier subservient to a good man who protects them, than living in the kind of alienated "freedom" to be found in America, which freedom may even be thrust upon them to their sorrow. It would be too politically incorrect, and thus unlikely to receive funding, but it would be interesting to see the results of an unbiased psychological study comparing, say, Burmese village women and "liberated" American women, with regard to happiness and/or general lack of stress, fear, remorse, trauma, and anxiety. I bet the "deprived" Burmese women would win easily—although not only because they are allegedly deprived, but because they also live in a culture more inclined toward kindness, compassion, respect, generosity, patience, acceptance, etc., etc. The outward political and economic forms are largely irrelevant.
     (Yet, since Burma/Myanmar has opened to the West, there has been an influx of well-meaning people with a one-way attitude of, "You people are poverty-stricken, deprived, and ignorant, and I'm here to help you to be more like us Westerners," when they themselves may be even more poverty-stricken and afflicted in profound ways, and profoundly ignorant of how to be happy and free besides. They could learn much from Burmese villagers if they were wise enough and openminded enough to manage it, but most of them are not.)
     Or consider slavery. Nowadays political correctness forbids us even to consider for one moment that it might have allowed as much happiness as we have nowadays, much like the case of gender discrimination mentioned just now; but wise philosophers have kept slaves and even been slaves. I'm pretty sure I remember reading that most US presidents before Lincoln kept slaves, including Washington and Jefferson, and even Lincoln's vice president (Johnson) kept slaves before they were confiscated by the Confederate government during the Civil War. Looking further back in time, probably even the young Gotama's pretty dancing girls were slaves—and he was very probably an extraordinarily wise and kind person even before he renounced his harem and went into the forest.
     Or consider the matter of injury and ill health: I once read of a psychological study done with quadriplegics—people who had broken their neck, or had had some equivalent misadventure, so that they were completely paralyzed from the neck down—and it was found that, after a few months for such a person to adjust to the new situation, she or he was about as happy as before the accident. Gloomy people were still just as gloomy, and cheerful people were still just as cheerful. It's a matter of subjective attitude, and of wisdom, much, much more than it is of anything else. For that matter, consider even torture. I admit that it would be extremely advanced Dharma practice to be blissful in a torture chamber, even if one were not the one being tortured. But still, it is possible. The following is taken from William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience; it is an account of a French Protestant woman named Blanche Gamond who lived during the reign of Louis XIV, and who was violently persecuted by a group of intolerant Roman Catholic women, apparently led by a priest.
They shut all the doors, and I saw six women, each with a bunch of willow rods as thick as the hand could hold, and a yard long. He gave me the order, 'Undress yourself,' which I did. He said, You are leaving on your shift; you must take it off.' They had so little patience that they took it off themselves, and I was naked from the waist up. They brought a cord with which they tied me to a beam in the kitchen. They drew the cord tight with all their strength and asked me, 'Does it hurt you?' and then they discharged their fury upon me, exclaiming as they struck me, 'Pray now to your God.' It was the Roulette woman who held this language. But at this moment I received the greatest consolation that I can ever receive in my life, since I had the honor of being whipped for the name of Christ, and in addition of being crowned with his mercy and his consolations. Why can I not write down the inconceivable influences, consolations, and peace which I felt interiorly? To understand them one must have passed by the same trial; they were so great that I was ravished, for there where afflictions abound grace is given superabundantly. In vain the women cried, 'We must double our blows; she does not feel them, for she neither speaks nor cries.' And how should I have cried, since I was swooning with happiness within? 
This is pretty obviously not a case of her training herself "to take pleasure in small mercies," as Dr. Sen described the shabby happiness of the "hopelessly deprived" above—the lady is positively exultant. An economist or other worldly wiseman might be constrained to presume that she was just fanatical, hysterical, and deranged; but even if she was deranged, it would seem to be a useful and beneficial sort of derangement that can allow one to be positively joyous while taking a severe beating. Some great saints have been similarly deranged. It really is possible to be happy under any outward circumstances, regardless of how much Western materialists would like to invalidate it.
     I'm not really in favor of slavery, or of enforced subservience of women either, let alone torture or breaking one's neck; the point I'm trying to make here is that people can be happy or miserable regardless of the external setup; and that people like Dr. Sen who try to tell us that we can't, or shouldn't, be happy until a more just social system is manifested, or until we get some kind of better hand dealt to us, are simply deluded with regard to what happiness and the meaning of life are all about. What justice, civil rights, economic development and so on do, is to remove some of the more obvious excuses for our unhappiness—without, however, removing the unhappiness itself. Only wisdom can do that, and not just worldly wisdom either. People can be not only more happy, but also more free if they are beggars, slaves, quadriplegics, or thrown into prison cells. It's a matter of mindful acceptance, not fleshly matter. A mental prison is more confining, and often more hellish, than a physical one.
     Which is better, to be a happy slave, or a miserable master? Which is better, to be peacefully happy in an impoverished dictatorship, or stressed out and messed up in a "free" democracy? But true freedom, again, like true happiness, comes only with wisdom, from within.
     It is possible to be deeply happy regardless of any outward circumstances, regardless of money, health, friendships, family, freedoms, civil rights, external opportunities, fun and games, smartphones, the past, the future, whatever. And if you are happy, then you're really doing all right. And if you are completely happy, then you are enlightened, free, and indescribably blessed, regardless of all else, including any so-called "deprivation." Bless all of you. Be happy, because you can be, right now.

Amartya Sen

He who has sons delights in sons (said Māra the Evil One),
Just so, he who has cattle delights in cattle,
For supports (upadhī) are a man's delight;
Truly, he who has no supports has no delight.

He grieves over sons who has sons (said the Blessed One),
Just so, he who has cattle grieves over cattle,
For supports are a man's grief;
Truly, he who has no supports has no grief.     (—from the Dhaniya Sutta, of the Sutta-Nipāta)